Seeking Understanding Amidst the Horror in Israel/Palestine
When I heard the initial reports of Hamas’ attacks on Israel this past Saturday, I will be completely honest – my first reaction was “good for them.” Israel had been collectively punishing Palestinians in Gaza for years with a crushing blockade with little to no care from the rest of the world. Now, amazingly, Palestinians had broken free from this seemingly impenetrable open-air prison. With power and ingenuity, they were resisting their oppression, reminding Israel – and the world at large – that they were still here. That they would not submit.
Inevitably, as the news of the attacks trickled in during the course of the day, my emotions turned to shock and grief. Along with the rest of the world, I learned about the sheer scale of violence committed by Hamas militants against Israeli civilians: the largest single day massacre in Israeli history. At last count, at least 1,200 Israelis have been killed and it is estimated that 150 have been abducted and taken hostage into Gaza. Everyone in Israel and many Jews throughout the world, know people – or know of people – who were killed, injured or taken hostage. Like so many in the Jewish community, my social media feed has been filled with heartbreaking pictures and stories of Israelis who have been slain or are still unaccounted for.
Amidst all the grief, however, I was also deeply troubled by the ominous, growing cries for vengeance voiced by the Israeli government and media, and felt a creeping dread over the shattering military response that would almost certainly rain down on the people of Gaza. And now that day has come. Israel has shut off all electricity and water for over two million Palestinians as the military wreaks complete and total devastation on across that tiny strip, attacking hospitals, schools, mosques, marketplaces, and apartment buildings. As of this writing, the death toll has risen to more than 1,200, with 5,600 wounded. More than 250,000 people have been rendered homeless – and these numbers will almost certainly rise significantly in the coming days and weeks.
In a letter to my congregation a few days ago, I wrote that “so many of us are feeling layers upon layers of intense emotion, in often confusing and contradictory ways. For Jews who stand in solidarity with Palestinians, I know these confusing contradictions are particularly keen.” Even so, I wrote, we simply must lift up the underlying context of this horrible violence. I continue to hold tightly to this conviction. While the sheer scope of our grief may feel incomprehensible, we simply must find the wherewithal to say out loud that the facts of these events have not only been comprehensible, but in fact inevitable.
Indeed, Palestinians and their allies have long been sounding the alarm that Israel was subjecting Palestinians to a brutally violent apartheid regime against Palestinians with impunity – and there would be terrible consequences if the international community failed to intervene. Over and over, we’ve been warned about the cataclysmic violence that would inevitably ensue if Israel was not held to account. As Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi put it recently, “an entire people (has been) living under this kind of incredible oppression, in a pressure cooker. It had to explode.”
As we attempt to understand the context of this recent violence, I believe it’s utterly critical to know where to plot the starting point – and to my mind, this is precisely where most of the media analyses of the past several days have sadly gone astray. To judge by any number of pundits, this current outbreak of violence began alternatively with the US – Saudi deal or the policies of the far-right Netanyahu administration. While it might be said that any of these causes may have provided the most recent spark, I’ve been deeply disappointed, if not surprised, that precious few of these analyses have even mentioned the Nakba in relation to this latest outbreak of violence.
To be sure, the Nakba was an act of violence and harm that has been reverberating through the land between the river and the sea from 1948 until this very day. To put it simply, for the past 75 years, Israel has been violently dispossessing Palestinians in order to make way for a majority Jewish state. And for just as long, the Palestinian people have been resisting their dispossession – yes, often violently.
It is not by chance that this most recent violence has occurred in and around Gaza. As many commentators have observed, Gaza has in many ways been the epicenter of the Nakba – and of the Palestinian people’s resistance to it. To grasp this fully, it is important to understand the history of this region. Gaza’s narrative did not begin with Israel’s blockade or the political ascension of Hamas. What we call today the “Gaza Strip” was artificially created in 1949, when it became a repository for a flood of ethnically cleansed Palestinian refugees from cities and villages in the coastal plain and lower Galilee. Before the Nakba, the population of this small region numbered 60 to 80,000 residents. By the end of the hostilities, at least 200,000 refugees were crowded into this 140 square mile strip of land.
At the time, most of the refugees fully expected to return home – some could even see their towns and villages through the fences. Those who crossed the border to gather their possessions or harvest their crops were considered “infiltrators” by Israel and shot on sight. Eventually, it became all too clear there would be no return. Over the years the tents turned into concrete buildings that grew ever higher along that narrow corridor. The numbers of that once sparse territory have grown to a population today of over 2,000,000 people – at least 70% of whom are refugees.
Following the founding of the state of Israel, many of the original settlements and kibbutzim founded on the border with Gaza were military outposts, most of which were built on top of or near demolished Palestinian villages. In fact, the sites that suffered the brunt of last Saturday’s massacres (including Kibbutz Kfar Aza, Re’im and Sderot) were settlements that were originally established in these locations for reasons of Israeli “national security.”
One such site was Kibbutz Nahal Oz, which was flooded by dozens of Hamas militants, and where, according to witnesses, at least two entire families were killed, and two more kidnapped and taken to Gaza as hostages. When I heard about the massacre at Nahal Oz, I couldn’t help but recall that this was not the first time this community had experienced Palestinian armed resistance. Back in 1956, a group of Palestinian militants entered Nahal Oz and killed a kibbutznik named Roi Rotenberg. At the time, this tragedy was keenly felt throughout the nascent state of Israel. At Roi’s funeral, the famed Israeli general Moshe Dayan offered a eulogy, expressing himself with brutal and unexpected honesty:
Do not today besmirch the murderers with accusations. Who are we that we should bewail their mighty hatred of us? For eight years they sit in refugee camps in Gaza, and opposite their gaze we appropriate for ourselves as our own portion the land and the villages in which they and their fathers dwelled…This we know: that in order that the hope to destroy us should die we have to be armed and ready, morning and night. We are a generation of settlement, and without a steel helmet and the barrel of a cannon we cannot plant a tree and build a house. Our children will not live if we do not build shelters, and without a barbed wire fence and a machine gun we cannot pave a road and channel water. The millions of Jews that were destroyed because they did not have a land look at us from the ashes of Israelite history and command us to take possession of and establish a land for our nation.
Dayan’s words resonate today with terrible prescience. Decades later, the descendants of this original Gazan generation still remain in refugee camps in Gaza, “gazing though the barrier fences as Israel appropriates as its own portion the land and the villages in which their ancestors dwelled.” Dayan’s eulogy also powerfully described a hypervigilant Israeli mindset that has only deepened throughout the decades. Since the Nakba could not and did not result in the complete ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homes, Israel has attempted to control them with a “steel helmet and the barrel of a cannon” for the past 75 years. During this time, Israel has widened its regime of violence in order to contain Palestinians in the occupied territories, subjecting them to a daily context of systemic, unceasing state violence every moment of their lives.
It is also telling that Dayan invoked the trauma of the Holocaust in his eulogy – and today, so many decades later, we can clearly see that this trauma was not limited to his generation alone. If anything, it has been handed down to subsequent generations in way that are all too real and all too palpable. Indeed, we can clearly see this generational trauma at work in Jewish responses to this latest violence, which is being openly characterized as “the worst mass murder of Jews since the Holocaust.” It is painfully poignant to consider that these massacres occurred in a state that was founded in the wake of the Holocaust in order to safeguard Jewish lives once and for all.
At the same time, however, this Holocaust rhetoric is deeply troubling given the vengeful fury currently being whipped up by a far-right Israeli government that is demonizing Palestinians with unabashedly genocidal language. Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant recently stated “Israel is fighting human animals” and should “act accordingly.” Netanyahu has promised that Israel’s military offensive on Gaza will “reverberate for generations.” One prominent Israeli general has promised to “open the gates of hell.” And perhaps most chillingly, a member of Israeli Parliament has called for a “second Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of 1948.”
As I write these words, the Israeli military is mercilessly bombarding the Gaza Strip with a ferocity that is truly terrifying to behold. For the past few days, I’ve been combing social media for their postings from friends in Gaza, as I helplessly watch footage of whole neighborhoods and communities completely destroyed along with their inhabitants. One of the last messages I read came from a friend and former colleague at American Friends Service Committee: “Nothing left to say. More than 80 hours without electricity, water, or internet connection. Communication is very limited with everyone inside or outside Gaza. Carnage everywhere, hard to recognize streets, we are all waiting for the time to die.”
It is not an understatement to suggest that the Jewish community is now faced with a profound moral challenge. Even as we mourn our dead in Israel, we must acknowledge and protest the genocide Israel is currently perpetrating in their memory in no uncertain terms. I cannot say this forcefully enough: those of us who ignore this reality – who mourn the Jewish dead exclusively without even a mention of the massive crimes Israel is actively committing against the Palestinian people – will be quite frankly, complicit in this horrific bloodshed.
Over the past several days, I’ve found myself returning to a famous narrative from this week’s Torah portion: the story of Cain and Abel. In the wake of the first act of violence in human history, God says to Cain, “What have you done? The blood of your brother is crying out to me from the ground! Cursed by the ground that opened its mouth to receive the blood of your brother.” From this we learn, among other things, that bloodshed actually has the power to pollute the earth. Later on in the Torah, we will learn that nothing can ever be the same – or considered normal again – when blood is spilled. it must be expiated, or atoned for through a set of very complex and explicit sacrificial rituals. In our day, we can understand these to be acts of reparation, restoration and repatriation. We will only truly make atonement for this bloodshed with very real measures that will restore justice and balance for those who dwell in the land.
As I read this story, I can’t help but think of the blood originally shed in the terrible days of the Nakba, and how it continues to cry out to us all from the ground. I can’t help but think of the immense of blood that has been shed since, whose collective cry must certainly be a searing roar, if only we would allow ourselves to heed it. But we will never hear the cry as along as we remain hardened into sides, into “us and them,” no people’s blood is any redder or more precious than any others. In fact, in this week’s Torah portion, there are no “sides” to speak of. There are no nations, no Israelites, no Canaanites, no Amalekites, no Moabites. There is only one common humanity, struggling how to live together in a too often harsh and unyielding world.
Those it may seem more painfully difficult than ever, let us hearken to this voices that have so long been crying out from the ground. Let us respond with understanding, compassion and action. Even amidst the terrible grief, let us shine an unflinching light on the true roots of this violence – and on the vision of a future based on justice and equality for all who live in the land.
With this in mind, I will conclude now with the prayerful words of my dear friend and colleague Rabbi Alissa Wise:
May the One Who Remembers allow us to hold in one hand 75 years of occupation,
dispossession and violence and in the other a future of peace, justice and freedom;
May the One Who is Slow to Anger soften our hearts and our fists helping us to put down the sword even at the height of the arc of our rage;
May the One of Possibility remind us that a future of peace with justice is possible;
May the One Who Awakens Us to Life hold us in our pain and vindictiveness until we set those down for the sake of life;
May the One Who Endures allow us to act for the sake of the coming generations;
May the One Who is Without Limit expand our senses of what is possible as we reach for justice, freedom and peace for us all.
[Rabbi Brandt Rosen is the founding rabbi of I’m the rabbi of Tzedek Chicago. He is a native of Los Angeles, Rabbi Brant was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1992 and served congregations in Los Angeles and Denver before coming to the Chicago area in 1998 to serve as rabbi of Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC).
During the course of his rabbinate, Rabbi Brant became an increasingly vocal activist for justice and human rights, particularly in Israel/Palestine. After publicly wrestling with his relationship to Israel and openly questioning his lifelong Zionism, he eventually became a prominent Jewish presence in the Palestine solidarity movement, co-founding the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council and Ta'anit Tzedek - Jewish Fast for Gaza.
In 2014, he left JRC to become the Midwest Regional Director of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Shortly after, Rabbi Brant and several other kindred spirits founded Tzedek Chicago. Through his leadership, our congregation quickly grew to the point that by 2019, he became our full-time rabbi.
Rabbi Brant's writings have appeared in many journals and publications, including Newsweek, the Chicago Tribune, the Jewish Forward, Tikkun and Truthout. He is also the author of the popular Jewish social justice blog, Shalom Rav; his curated collection of blog posts and reader comments, Wrestling in the Daylight: A Rabbi’s Path to Palestinian Solidarity was published by Just World Books in 2012 (updated in 2017).
Rabbi Brant has contributed essays to a number of anthologies including "Zionism and the Quest for Peace in the Holy Land," "On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice," and "Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism: Stories of Personal Transformation." He is also a prolific poet and liturgist whose prayers and poems can be found on his blog Yedid Nefesh. In 2018, Tzedek Chicago published his chapbook of prayers, "Songs After the Revolution: New Jewish Liturgy." In 2020, he was named as a Topol Fellow in Conflict and Peace in the Religion, Conflict and Public Life Institute at Harvard Divinity School.]