As conversations about Israel get heated, let mutual respect prevail

Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D., is President and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

By Andrew Rehfeld

The recent organized protests of Israel by Palestinians in Gaza have caused many of us a great deal of concern.  I am writing to provide some context and urge respectful engagement with one another as these events unfold over the course of the next few weeks, so that we may join in solidarity rather than division around the 70th anniversary of Israel’s birth.  

The protests were originally organized as non-violent civilian protests against Israel timed to culminate on May 14, Israel’s 70th anniversary—a date that to Palestinians represents the dislocation of over 700,000 of their people during Israel’s War of Independence from 1947-49.  

Whatever the original intent of the protests, it is clear that militants have used them to act in violent ways against Israel’s security and legitimacy.  Hamas, the elected government in Gaza, supported the protest. This is the same group that deployed missiles against civilian populations in Israel and created an extensive tunnel network to infiltrate Israel’s security and threaten civilians.  Even if most of the protesters were peaceful and had peaceful intent, the presence and activism of militants must be acknowledged.  It must also be acknowledged that these militants used violent force to breech the border fence while enjoying the protection of civilians.   

Many have been unsettled by the images we are seeing of Israeli sharpshooters using lethal force—in some cases against civilians—to respond to the violent incursion.  Israel has often prided itself as adhering to high standards of ethical training and moral conduct of its troops.  Yet what we are seeing does not seem to many community members to meet those expectations.  To others, the use of targeted force to stop violent insurgents hiding among civilians seems to be the very definition of restraint.  

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Since the protests are scheduled to go on through mid-May, we should brace ourselves for more. 

In times of crisis and conflict it is understandable that many want simply to disengage from discussions about Israel.  I believe the opposite: our history as a Jewish people demands that we remain engaged.  Israel is the location of the single largest concentration of our people on the planet.   We must recognize from history that what happens to our people in one place has profound consequences to Jews around the world.  Whether we support or oppose the government’s actions, at some level we as a Jewish community are in this together.  

But with engagement comes disagreement and discord.  It is equally important that as we engage we recognize the divergent views within our community.  We are a community that loves and supports Israel as a democratic Jewish State.  But because love of any nation should never mean blind support for its government, leadership or policies (we know this as Americans), our community also has divergent ideas of the paths that would lead to securing its future.  Thus we face our communal challenge—lovers of Israel in deep disagreement. 

I’d like to suggest a few ways to help manage this conflict and strengthen the ties that bind us without undermining that which divides us.  

If your view is that Israel is again facing an enemy set on destroying them, then recognize how important standing with Israel is.  

If your view is that Israel is acting with unjust and undue military force in the ongoing management of the conflict, then recognize that many Jews in America and Israel share your concerns. They need your solidarity and support to see that as Jews you recognize that they do not stand alone against injustice.  

How do we stand together without necessarily agreeing on which course of action is the right one? 

First, stay informed.   I have found these two articles to be particularly helpful:

• “Some Uncomfortable Gaza Truths” provides an overview about what did and did not happen in recent days, in a manner that is (appropriately) critical of a simplistic “left/right” view (online at http://bit.ly/Gaza-article1).   

•  “Is Israel Justified in Shooting Protestors At Its Border?” provides an analysis of the legal situation facing Israel in terms of its response (online at http://bit.ly/Gaza-article1).

Other outlets like the Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel and Haaretz are good sources for continued in-depth information.  

Second, at the level of our local community, I would urge you not to personalize disagreements about Israel, and recognize that the passion individuals may have comes from their commitment to human rights, justice and the Jewish People no matter which side they are on.  Accordingly, do your best to treat one another with a reasonable level of charity, and hold one another accountable if they violate norms of reasonable discourse.  

These two points might be helpful:  

• If you are upset by the Israeli government’s actions, recognize that some in our community have children on the line in the Israel Defense Forces while others have family living there now.   They are acting from the understandable view that a violent enemy is seeking the destruction of the Jewish State.  And they are acting from a long history of watching Israel face a double standard that no other nation in the world has faced, particularly on the international stage (at the U.N. and elsewhere).  

• If, on the other hand, you are upset by those who are critical of Israel’s actions, recognize that they do so precisely because they feel so passionate and personally connected to Israel.  The actions of the Jewish State resonate to them in a more direct way than actions of other nations precisely because they are connected as Jews (or fellow travelers).  Members of our local community who seek to hold Israel to standards of international law consistently applied, are doing so out of a deep commitment to Israel’s long-term safety and security, not out of a desire to see it destroyed.  

These two guidelines will not resolve these conflicts but hopefully keep them from dividing us further as a community even when we deeply disagree. 

Finally, our community is gathering at 11:30 a.m. April 22 at Temple Israel to walk in solidarity to Congregation Shaare Emeth to celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary (see related story on Page One).  Supported by the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and organized by the Jewish Community Center, an afternoon of celebration of the miracle of the modern state of Israel will follow the walk.  This is a day to celebrate the promise and hope of what Israel can and must be:  a safeguard to the Jewish people, a place for our people to flourish, and a state that will continue to aspire to the highest ideals of justice and human rights.  

Those aims are not always easy to achieve. I hope you will join me April 22 as we stand in solidarity to express our aspirations for a just, peaceful and democratic Jewish State of Israel for many decades to come. 

Andrew Rehfeld is President and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis.