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THE ISRAEL-HAMAS WAR PRESENTATION & DISCUSSION

Rabbi Neils presentation on Israel-Hamas War
On Tuesday, March 5th, Rabbi Neil shared his thoughts on the origins of the current conflict and his hopes for peace in the future. Members then asked questions and facilitated in group dialogues. 

The Richard Eeds Show

March 5, 2024

Rabbi Neil Amswych of Temple Beth Shalom talks about Intolerance, Israel, Zionism, Hamas, Gaza and the need to find solutions in Israel and Palestine and here in Santa Fe.

The Richard Eeds Show March 5, 2024 ​ Rabbi Neil Amswych of Temple Beth Shalom talks about Intolerance, Israel, Zionism, Hamas, Gaza and the need to find solutions in Israel and Palestine and here in Santa Fe.

Rabbi Neil Answers Questions on the Israel-Hamas War

 

How can we possibly belong to the same religion as the ultra-Orthodox settlers whose aggression and violence against the Palestinians make me feel dirty in my Judaism?

I understand why they behave the way that they do based on our ancient sources and, as a Reform Jew, I also abhor much of their behavior and the way that they use those sources to justify their violence. As I mentioned in my presentation, this is very similar to chapter 9 of Megillat Esther, where the Jews defend themselves by killing thousands of people in a pre-emptive strike to ensure that they will never be attacked again. There are certainly enough sources in our ancient tradition that can be used to justify violence against non-Jews, especially in terms of possession of the land. We in the Reform Movement say, “That was then and this is now,” or, perhaps, “That’s how they heard the voice of God but we hear it differently.”

There is no question that many settlers have used the October 7th terror attack as a justification for their own violence against innocent Palestinians, and I believe that we have a moral duty to call that out. Just because somebody is family doesn’t mean that we should not speak out when they behave inappropriately – indeed, I would suggest that being family specifically gives us the right to rebuke them as the Torah says, hocheach tochiach et amitecha – you shall surely rebuke your neighbor (Lev. 19:17).  They would not listen to our rebuke, of course, but I am reminded of the story of Lot at the gates of Sodom who every day called out the behavior of the people of the city. One day, somebody asked why he did this day after day knowing that nobody was listening to him. Lot replied, “At first I did it to try to change them but now I do it to make sure that they do not change me.” To me, then, the violent attacks by so many ultra-Orthodox settlers must be called out not despite us being Reform Jews but specifically because we are Reform Jews. 

 

What will be the effect of replacing Netanyahu – who might take his place?

We can’t possibly know, unfortunately, because of the proportional representation electoral system in Israel. In my presentation, amongst other things, I said that “Netanyahu has openly encouraged settlement building on Palestinian land, tried to gut the Supreme Court, has created a far less tolerant Israeli society and has done everything in his power to stop the creation of a Palestinian state, including tolerating and sometimes assisting Hamas.” I stand by that statement. My only hope is that replacing him is a first step toward true peace in the Middle East, although as I said in my presentation, there are many other steps that are essential as well, including the destruction or total surrender of Hamas.

 

Why does the “work” of Netanyahu sound like that of Trump?

Because both are right-wing populists who deliberately stir up hatred against the “other” and who try to subvert the rule of law to secure their own political power. 

 

What can be done now to get food and aid to the citizens of Gaza?

I understand why Israel has chosen to limit aid – because Hamas routinely steals it. The United Nations and the Palestinian Authority have regularly called that out. In Israel’s mind, the less aid means Hamas terrorists are more likely to surrender (and very many have as a result), which results in the war coming to an end quicker. That, ultimately, saves Israeli lives, which the Israeli government is responsible to protect. The problem is that because of Hamas keeping Gazans locked in poverty for so many years, the restriction of aid is leading to a literal famine. Israel says that it is not responsible, and Hamas is, which is an understandable position but in the eyes of the world that’s not enough. I applaud the Biden administration for air-dropping food into Gaza and circumventing the need for food convoys. I appreciate that doing so may extend this war by feeding Hamas terrorists, and may even cause the loss of more Israeli soldiers, but siege warfare should remain a thing of the past.

 

In the future, will the state of Israel still be so central to American Jewish identity?

It has been clear for the past few decades that there has been a slow shift in the role of Israel in American Jewish identity, and this war has dramatically accelerated that. Religion plays less of an important role in the lives of American Jews today so the repeated liturgical insertions about the centrality of Israel in Jewish life is often missed. As fewer American Jews face Jerusalem in prayer, Israel itself becomes less central to their existence.

Added to that, a growing number of Jews no longer see themselves in galut (exile) but, rather, see themselves proudly as Diaspora Jews, being or lagoyim – a light unto the nations – and seeing that as their sacred task. With that mindset, Israel no longer occupies a central role in Jewish life.

Moreover, the Rabbinic idea of Israel being the literal center of the universe made sense in an androcentric universe with a flat earth. Today’s Jews are far better informed about cosmology, though, and understand that clearly is not the case. 

All of this underpins a dramatic shift away from understanding Israel as the focal point for Jewish existence, and that’s before we even consider the politics of the state and how challenging it is for Western Jews to reconcile some of the actions of the contemporary state. In all, then, it’s clear that Israel will become less of a focal point for American Jews, and I think that’s a challenge because I believe that Jews often need a dual-pull, to be part of two societies, in order not to become complacent or easily convinced by the society in which they find themselves.

Of course, all of this is predicated on Israel not being needed as a safe haven for Jews. If America continues to become an unsafe place for Jews, then many more may find themselves moving there – certainly since the war the number of Jews visiting or considering moving to Israel seems to have increased. Israel is the only country in the world that guarantees safety for all Jews, and that is absolutely essential.

 

Why has TBS refused to allow peacemakers like American Friends of Combatants for Peace to speak at Temple Beth Shalom?

Combatants for Peace did speak at Temple Beth Shalom and events of theirs have been promoted through the e-Digest. In 2021, Combatants for Peace sent out an email which was extremely one-sided and did not provide the balance that we would like. We believe that peacemaking involves seeing shared pain and not just pointing fingers at one side. Members of the Israel Committee started to become concerned about whether the group was as balanced as they claimed.

After the October 7th attack, the Israel Committee decided that in the future it would only invite groups to TBS that condemned that terror attack. Unfortunately, Combatants for Peace did not do so. However, many other groups did, and they are the groups that we continue to work with and invite to our community – indeed, an event is being planned with representatives from three different peacemaking groups. 

At a time when our community members hold widely differing views on what is happening in Israel, it’s important that the peacemaking groups that we do invite in the future are those which most members agree are, indeed, balanced peacemaking groups. Instead of trying to push one specific group, we hope that instead members support and uplift these other peacemaking groups. Indeed, a member very recently suggested another left-leaning peacemaking group to the Israel Committee, and that request is being taken forward. While some members obviously support Combatants for Peace personally, as a community we need to balance all needs and uplift the groups who are not controversial, and that is what the Israel Committee is doing so well. Let’s focus now on who we do invite and support their work. 

 

How do those of us in the peace community come to terms with the awareness that many non-Hamas Gazans were complicit in the October 7th massacre?

This is perhaps the hardest question because in private conversations with Israelis, I have seen this question asked again and again. This is why support for a two-state solution is now down to 35% in Israel – the lowest that it’s ever been. That in and of itself is a huge victory for Hamas and I refuse to let them have any victory. 

Perhaps the concept of tinok shenishba is helpful here. It’s a halakhic term that means “stolen baby” which essentially says that a Jew who is not religious is not held liable for their sin as a result of not having been raised with sufficient knowledge to avoid it. It has often been a term used by Orthodox Jews about Reform Jews – “essentially, they’re not liable because they don’t know any better.” As patronizing as that may be, we are indeed all born into our culture. Gaza is a prison created by Hamas. Anyone who speaks out against Hamas is killed. In such a violent police state, getting into the good favor of Hamas may be the only thing that keeps their violent eyes away from one’s family. Does that mean that the people who assisted in the terror attacks are morally excused? Of course not. They participated in mass murder, as did so many Germans during World War II. They are absolutely liable for their actions and yet we might at least understand why they did it in terms of the constant brainwashing of Gazans over the last few decades.

Maybe one way to respond to this is to do everything we can to ensure a democratic Gaza where people don’t live in fear, and an educated Gaza where the path to peace is taught instead of the path to killing Israelis. That may be one way not to justify what happened but at least to make sure that it never happens again.

 

The Temple has always welcomed Tomorrow’s Women. Would you have given this talk with the Palestinian girls present?

Yes, absolutely. In fact, the new Director of Tomorrow’s Women came to the last presentation I gave and shared very positive feedback. I would afterwards do the same thing as I always do – invite comments, research them, and then adapt the presentation if need be. My presentation was in no way critical of everyday Palestinians, but there is no question in my mind that the Palestinian leadership from the PLO to Fatah to Hamas has totally failed their people. My presentation says that the Palestinians are victims but not just of Israel. Everything in that presentation is very well researched and if there are facts that are missing, I will always try to add them.

 

Is it not true that the Israeli government needed the Mizrachi Jews who were expelled mostly after the creation of the State of Israel because American Jews did not emigrate?

I don’t know – I would have to check the numbers. Regardless, the ethnic cleansing of Jews from most Arab countries after 1948 remains a challenge to all those who cry out against ethnic cleansing today but who said nothing back then.

 

I feel hopeless sometimes about world opinion about Israel. People like you, who are articulate and knowledgeable, represent us well, but so many of us – myself included – don’t feel competent to correct, teach, and advocate for Israel. What do you suggest?

Thank you for the praise. Facts matter, but only to some. I would say that in every dialogue it’s important to ascertain what drives the other person. Are they pained at the loss of life in war? We all should be, but does that mean that war isn’t appropriate? I believe I answered that in my presentation. Are they only interested in blaming one country because it makes them feel good about themselves? If that’s the case, facts won’t matter. Are they genuinely struggling with what’s happening in the world? In that case, facts do matter. 

In writing the presentation, I read a lot of books and articles. That has to be the starting point on correcting, teaching and advocating. I believe that the TBS Library has a wonderful collection of books on Israel and Israel/Palestine and would recommend taking some of them out.  

I think moving beyond the “trauma porn” of media is important. Let’s take the Israeli retaliation against Hamas. Framing it in terms of moral dilemma is important – how else is Israel to protect its people from future attack? Given that tens of thousands of rockets have been fired from Gaza since 2005, what would that person do to stop those attacks? Or, given that so many hostages were taken, included very, very young children, what should Israel do to get them back? For those who don’t know facts, framing dialogue about this conflict as ethical dilemmas helps to move away from pointing fingers and into wrestling with nuance.

 

Do you condemn the murder of Palestinian children by the IDF? Or journalists? Or the destruction of infrastructure?

Let’s start with terms. Murder is the deliberate, intentional killing of another person. The IDF absolutely does not murder. If any IDF soldier is found to have committed murder, that not only must be condemned but must be tried appropriately. However, as I shared in my presentation, “Israel dropped millions of leaflets to people to warn them to leave the military targets that they would bomb. Those who didn’t leave received actual phone calls in Arabic telling them what time a bomb would be dropped and where. No other armed force in the world tells people where and when they are going to bomb. Israel has dropped over 520,000 pamphlets, and broadcast over radio and through social media messages to provide instruction for civilians to leave combat areas. Israel has so far made over 20,000 real phone calls to civilians warning them when and where exactly Israel will strike, and has sent over 65,000 texts messages and 6 million pre-recorded calls to provide instructions on evacuations. This is unprecedented in human warfare. Another historical first in war measures to prevent civilian causalities was Israel's distribution of IDF military maps and urban warfare graphics to assist civilians with day to day evacuations and alerting them to where the IDF will be operating. No military in history has ever done this. No military in modern history has faced over 30,000 urban defenders in more than seven cities using human shields and hiding in hundreds of miles of underground networks purposely built under civilian sites, while holding hundreds of hostages. Despite the unique challenges Israel faces in its war against Hamas, it has implemented more measures to prevent civilian casualties than any other military in history.” That is clearly not murder. 

Is it terrible that civilians are dying in such large numbers in this war? Of course it is. But who is to blame for that? Again, as I said in the presentation, Hamas openly wants dead Gazans because it believes that they are martyred to delegitimize Israel. It sees the death of Palestinians as a good thing whereas Israel does not.

As I also said in the presentation, “All war is evil, some war is necessary.” War will always include civilian casualties and it is the moral responsibility of every military force to reduce the risk of civilian casualties. I absolutely believe that Israel does this. 

In terms of infrastructure, international law is fairly clear on this. When a military force occupies a building, they turn it into a military target. If that military force embeds themselves in schools and hospitals, they turn them into a military target. That is a terrible thing to do, but it is the tactic of Hamas. Israel therefore warns people to get out of the way before attacking that infrastructure. 

So, I would disagree with the premise of the question. Israel is not murdering people. It does have a humanitarian responsibility to reduce civilian casualties, and I believe that it does so in its military operations.

 

Is killing civilians terrorism? 

It totally depends on the intent. Intent is crucial in matters of law (and ethics in general). That is why we the law recognizes different ways of killing people, from first-degree murder to second-degree murder to voluntary manslaughter to involuntary manslaughter, and more depending on the location.

If someone deliberately attacks civilians with the intent to kill them, with the specifically stated aim of killing them, then that is absolutely terrorism. That is what Hamas did on October 7th. If a military force warns civilians to get out of the way of military action but nonetheless some are killed, as Israel does, that is obviously not terrorism.

 

How can we criticize the Israeli government without being labeled anti-Semitic?

It depends on the form of the criticism. Criticism of policy is obviously not anti-Semitic. Criticizing Israel by denying its right to exist is anti-Semitic. If one criticizes Netanyahu for his policies that have promoted expansion of settlements, that’s not anti-Semitic. If one criticizes Netanyahu for being like Hitler trying to wipe out all Palestinians, that is anti-Semitic.

 

Will the Temple ask another speaker to provide a different perspective from the one presented as “the road to peace here is through war”?

It might - the Israel Committee is working on bringing in speakers. I appreciate that that was a very challenging line for some people. Judaism is not a pacifistic religion although it does yearn for a time when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, never again shall they train for war.” (Isaha 2:4, Micah 4:3) For two thousand years, Jews have not really engaged in armed struggle, except in isolated examples such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It is challenging for many modern Jews to consider war to be justified from a Jewish perspective, and I truly appreciate that. The wars of law are complex in Judaism – we studied them recently in Torah Study and may bring them again to the community. To be clear, I hate war. War is evil, but sometimes it is necessary because we are not yet at the Messianic Age. The bigger challenge is how this war should be fought, which I addressed in my presentation.

 

What is your source that the destruction of greenhouses was deliberately done to hshow suffering by Gazans in the Western media?

I must admit that I was not being academic when I did not embed the sources of each statement in my presentation. That would have used up many, many more pages. I cannot currently find that source, and I’m sorry – it was a long time ago when I found sources on that. I will keep looking, though. What I can share from a cursory look online is that the Palestinian Authority wanted the greenhouses, but the armed militants did not (such as https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna9331863). We know that many were destroyed and we know that Hamas considers the public suffering of Palestinians to be an important tool in the media war against Israel. That said, as I look now, I see that others such as Peter Beinhart claim that some of the greenhouses remained intact but it was the Israeli restriction on Gazan exports that rendered the greenhouses useless, leading to losses of around $120,000 a day, effectively destroying them economically even if some remained intact physically. I will do more research on this.

 

Why does Iran want Israel eliminated?

I thoroughly recommend https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran%E2%80%93Israel_relations as well as https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-real-reason-iran-hates-israel-anti-semitism-gaza-4f7ad96e amongst other online sources. 

 

For how long can us Jews put up with rising antisemitism?

I mean, we’ve put up with it for two thousand years, so…. a while longer, I reckon.

I don’t mean to be glib – I think the rise in antisemitism on the left in America, which academics have been warning about for years, is a source of serious concern. I think we have to challenge it wherever we see it, particularly when it comes cloaked in other forms, like REDI language as happened with Matisyahu’s gig last month. We have to challenge institutions to prepare themselves better for incidents of antisemitism and call them out when they fail to respond to it appropriately. It’s yet another new task for American Jews.

 

How do we respond to all the ignorance and misinformation in the world?

By making sure that we are extremely well informed. I thoroughly recommend the books in the TBS Library on Israel and Israel/Palestine. We have to move beyond easy soundbites and look at facts, which can be very difficult. Historian Benny Morris wrote a wonderful book on this, called The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem (which is available in the TBS Library), which explains that both the Israeli account and the Palestinian account of the foundation of the State of Israel both contain historically true things and also fiction. That’s not to say that personal narratives that are unhistorical don’t have value – people define themselves by their stories, after all, whether they’re true or not. The question is what to do with those stories, or histories, to move forward to make peace. 

This task is huge. A lie will have gone round the world before the truth has even got its boots on. We need to research and be sure that the sources we are using are reliable and as unbiased as possible. That’s very difficult.

 

What could Israel do now to garner more support? They seem tone-deaf to world media.

I think it’s a very fair criticism of Israel in terms of media until very recently. I remember a few years ago when Hamas representatives were being interviewed in English in suits while Israeli representatives were being interviewed in Hebrew in military uniform. PR matters, and Israel is learning that.

At the same time, there is a vast section of Israeli society that doesn’t care what the world thinks. The world sat by and allowed millions of Jews to be slaughtered during the war, despite knowing what was happening. The allies refused to bomb Auschwitz claiming that they didn’t have the bombs but bombed cotton factories only a few miles away. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, a representative of the global community, has allowed its offices to be used by Hamas terrorists. I can understand why so many in Israel just don’t care what the rest of the world thinks.

For those who do care, Israel needs more Jews speaking up online at the very least.

 

How to deal with intra-Israeli division? 

I think a crucial vote is coming to Israel in terms of Haredim serving in the military. If Haredim are forced to serve – as I believe they should – then Netanyahu’s government collapses due to the ultra-Orthodox leaving his coalition. If they are not, public anger at Netanyahu will once again boil over, because non-Haredi Jews will not tolerate their children dying while Haredim sit comfortably in yeshiva.  

Perhaps one answer is to promote Reform Judaism in Israel. When a society considers Judaism to be expressed as either ultra-Orthodox or secular, it is always going to be a divided society. Having another way of being Jewish promoted could help to reduce division by teaching compromise and helping people to move away from binary opposites.

 

If Israel had not responded so vigorously but instead had sealed its border and continued to pursue normalization with Saudi Arabia, would things have been different?

Yes, because the families of the hostages would have been even more furious with Netanyahu than they are now. They probably would have brought down his government instantly. World opinion would have also been totally different, at least at the governmental level. But I totally understand the military response – when 3000 terrorists pour across a country’s border and murder so many civilians, what country wouldn’t do anything in its military power to ensure that never happens again?

 

Did you hear that women soldiers near the border who reported increased activity were ignored by male higher-ups and threatened if they didn’t stop reporting?

Yes, I did hear that. I don’t yet know how accurate it is. What we do know is this was a shocking intelligence and military systems failure. Apparently as the October 7th attack started, phone calls were made that went to voicemail and were not picked up for hours. 

 

What’s to keep the next group such as Islamic Jihad from having the same kind of greedy leadership lining their pockets?

There have been suggestions of shared leadership between differing groups in Gaza. That might help keep corruption in check. 

 

How can we learn more about the connections of Hamas to Iran and Russia, and how much of Hamas’ PR serves or is supported by those outside forces.

There are some in the intelligence community who say that the third world war already started and is being fought on differing fronts – first in Ukraine, then in Israel and next in Taiwan. There are a number of online sources, including https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russia%E2%80%93Hamas_relations which start to address this.

 

Why has the world chosen Hamas to be the “good guys” and Israel the “bad guy”?

There has been a rapid growth in academia in recent years in courses that frame world history in terms of oppressors and oppressed. Sometimes this is appropriate but there are other times, such as this conflict, where it is not. As I said in my presentation, I believe that a large part of this oversimplistic description of this conflict helps “white American liberals living on land stolen from non-white people” to “assuage their guilt not by helping Native Americans reclaim their land but by falsely reframing the Jewish return to their ancestral homeland as white colonialism that needed to be opposed.”

 

Why does the Palestinian Authority keep refusing Israel’s peace and land deals?

The Right of Return remains a key negotiating position of theirs. They insist that not only the Palestinians who left the land in 1948 (some by choice, some by force) should be allowed to return, but also all of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Millions and millions of Palestinians who would then be in the majority in the formerly Jewish state. That is obviously unacceptable for Israel. At its core, the Right of Return is not a two-state solution – it’s a one-state solution. The PLO and the Palestinian Authority have only ever wanted a one-state solution, even when they signed the Oslo Accords working toward a two-state solution. What is extremely painful to many on the left today are the accounts that many who were involved in those negotiations are now sharing that essentially all say the same thing – they thought the Palestinian negotiators were playing hardball when they said they would never accept a two-state solution, but in fact they were pointing out their intentions very clearly.

 

Do you believe that saving one life saves the world applies to all and that to save a child anywhere is worthy?

Yes, I absolutely do. As I mentioned in my presentation, the original Talmudic source for that only focuses on saving Jewish life, but as a Reform Jew I believe it must apply universally. The question, though, is how? Is destroying Hamas the saving of innocent life by ensuring fewer terror attacks in the future? What if doing so kills innocent Gazans? Inaction causes some children to die while action causes other children to die. It’s a no-win situation. I believe that Israel absolutely has the right under international law to continue the war that Hamas started, but the moral question is how that war is waged. All we can hope is that at the end of this war, enough people across the region realize that this must never be allowed to happen again and that they all work together for peace.  

Please email us at info@sftbs.org if you would like to schedule Rabbi Neil to come do a presentation 
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