TIME foreign affairs

The Bizarre Moral Criticism Against Israel

ISRAEL-GAZA-BORDER-OPERATION PROTECTIVE EDGE
Israeli soldiers rest beside shells for a 155mm M109 Dores self-propelled howitzer at a position in Southern Israel near the border with Gaza, on the seventh day of Operation Protective Edge, on July 14, 2014. Li Rui—Xinhua/Sipa

What does it mean to say that casualties are “disproportionate”?

On “NBC Nightly News” on July 12, David Gregory spoke of growing pressure from the United Nations for a ceasefire in Gaza. He noted that the United States and many other nations believed that Israel had a right to self-defense. Nonetheless, Gregory reported, these countries were likely to be sympathetic to calls for a ceasefire because of the “disproportionate” number of casualties between the two sides. Among the residents of Gaza, the death toll then exceeded 100, while Israel had suffered dozens of injuries but no casualties.

Mr. Gregory was simply reporting the news, but I found his comments disturbing, nonetheless. What does it mean to say that the casualties are “disproportionate”? And is that really the moral issue that we need to be concerned about?

The implication of the “disproportionality” claim is that, given their losses, the people of Gaza are the real victims. But morally and politically, this is an intolerable and distorted interpretation of the realities in the region.

The reason that Hamas has not killed more Israelis is not because they haven’t tried. In the seven years during which it has controlled Gaza, Hamas and its proxies have fired more than 5000 rockets into Israel; almost 800 have been launched just this past week. Each one has been aimed at civilians and intended to murder and maim. The reason that more Israelis have not died is that the weapons are mostly crude and inaccurate and that, over time, Israel has prepared herself with shelters, warning sirens and an anti-missile system. In addition, Israelis have been just plain lucky.

But that luck could change at any moment. If a single rocket were to hit a school or a mall, the number of dead could balance out in a flash. Then, to be sure, you would have “proportionality,” but there is no moral calculus by which additional dead civilians is a preferable outcome.

For Israel, the fundamental issue is the responsibility of its government to protect its citizens. As missiles have fallen on her cities over the years, the government has not succeeded in providing that protection. The reasons are many, including sensitivity to American wishes and a concern for world opinion; but the desire not to hurt the innocent is the most important. Now, however, as children in the south continue to live in terror and civilians throughout Israel flee to shelters several times daily, Israel’s leaders have concluded that they must act.

There is something bizarre, in fact, about the idea of “proportionality” being used as a moral criticism against Israel. A proportional response by Israel to the attacks of the last seven years would mean that every time a rocket is fired by Hamas at an Israeli civilian center, Israel would respond by firing a rocket at a civilian center in Gaza. Israel, of course, rejected that, then and now. Still, when Hamas violated the ceasefire yet again and got its hands on longer-range rockets, something had to be done.

The best way to evaluate Israel’s action is to imagine how we as Americans would respond to similar provocations. Assume the following: a terrorist group embedded in Mexico that the Mexican government refused to disarm is firing missiles into Houston night after night, endangering American lives. Our government would not wait a week or a month; indeed, it would not wait a single day before taking action to assure the well-being of her citizens. In fact, we need only remember how American forces flew half way around the world to engage in a war in Afghanistan against terrorists who carried out an attack on American soil. The talk then was not of proportionality, but of providing security for our country and stopping those who wished to do us harm.

Of course, let us not think for a moment, God forbid, that we can be indifferent to the death of innocents. The death of any child, Israeli or Arab, Muslim or Jew, is an unspeakable tragedy that rends the heart. Israel must do everything humanly possible to avoid the civilian casualties; already she issues warnings and calls for evacuation of areas about to be attacked, and must do more. Still, for any country, morality begins with a reasonable measure of security for her own citizens, and it is not right to say that Israel must protect Palestinian civilians at the cost of abandoning her own.

The issue was never “proportionality”; it is the suffering and dying of too many Arabs and Jews. And while there is much that is complicated about the Middle East, ending the violence in Gaza is not complicated. Hamas needs to halt the missile attacks and provide credible assurances to Israel and the world that they will not be resumed. If the rockets stop, quiet can come tomorrow. And tomorrow is not soon enough.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. His writings are collected at ericyoffie.com.

TIME Religion

Why I’m Thankful for America’s Immigrants and Religion this Fourth of July

Two reasons I love America: her immigrants and religiosity.

The Fourth of July is nearly upon us. As always, we Americans will barbeque in our backyards, watch fireworks, and celebrate America. And there is much to celebrate.

We love this country, and with good reason.

Americans are informal and down-to-earth. We introduce ourselves by our first names to practically everyone. We say “hi” on elevators to people that we have never laid eyes on. We don’t like folks who put on airs. We are unfailingly helpful and friendly. And if you think everyone is like that, spend a few weeks in Europe.

We talk a lot about freedom in America, and we mostly mean it. Rich, poor, or in between, we are assertive about our rights and stubborn about our liberty.

We are also a patriotic bunch, and reasonably united, despite our diversity. In a world where tribal loyalties are reasserting themselves, we have no ties of blood to bind us together. But we have the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and the essential idealism and optimism of the American people.

There are two things about which I feel special pride.

The first is the way that America continually remakes herself. Great countries require periodic injections of new thinking and energy, and America is now rearranging herself before our very eyes, like a scrambled kaleidoscope.

The arrival of new immigrants is primarily responsible. Most come out of desperation, but they learn our ways with startling speed, and then, like others before them, they reshape America.

Last year a pipe burst in my home on a weekend and the shut-off valve did not work. With water pouring onto the kitchen floor, I called the two plumbers that I have used for 30 years; both informed me that they no longer provide emergency service. I grabbed the phone book and started calling plumbers; on the third try, I reached someone who said they would be there in 10 minutes. Two Hispanic men with heavy accents arrived, stopped the flow of water, did the repair, cleaned up the area, and charged a reasonable fee for their service. These immigrants saved my home.

And then there is the family of Asian immigrants that runs a fruit and vegetable store in my neighborhood. The produce is better quality than in the supermarket, the prices are lower, and the store is open every day, from early morning to late at night. And of course there are the immigrant nannies that care for so many children in my area.

It distresses me when I hear the strident sounds of ugly nativism from our politicians, directed against both legal and illegal immigrants, children and adults. Yes, the issues are complicated, but much of what they are saying is simply old-fashioned mean-spiritedness. And in trying to reserve America only for those already here, they will only strangle her spirit. Most Americans, I am convinced, want a more inclusive America. They know that there is room here for immigrants; and they know too that the invitation extended on the Statue of Liberty to all those “who yearn to breathe free” is an expression of who we really are.

The second thing of which I am especially proud is America’s exuberant religiosity. The talk of religious decline is mostly nonsense. American religion is constantly reinventing itself, but our country remains a place of deep spiritual energy. Four out of five Americans identify with a religious denomination; and of the 20% who don’t, more than half believe in God. In the industrialized West, no other country comes close to this level of religious engagement.

Religion thrives for many reasons. The Founding Fathers knew that separating church from state would promote religious commitment. And Americans are wise enough not to banish religion entirely from the public sphere; America pays for military chaplains, gives tax exemptions to places of worship, and allows occasional ceremonial prayer. Most important, Americans understand that religion provides an anchor of stability in uncertain times, and that when a people lose faith in God, it often means they have lost faith in their country and in themselves.

Sure, there is plenty to worry about. Our infrastructure is falling apart, and inequality is much greater than it was. And in dealing with all of this, our politics seem both petty and paralyzed.

But it would be a mistake to romanticize earlier eras. Those was no time in America’s past when harmony reigned. And the reason is that our raucous democracy invites contentiousness. Our task, then, is to accept controversy and do what Americans have always done: Battle for our values, and fight to fill the moral void in our land. But, at the same time, reach out to our fellow citizens, strive for mutual respect, and try to articulate political concerns that will draw us together as Americans at least some of the time.

Happy July 4th.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. His writings are collected at ericyoffie.com.

TIME Religion

No, Eric Cantor Did Not Lose Because He’s Jewish

Despite what sensational headlines have suggested, anti-semitism isn't to blame for Eric Cantor's stunning primary defeat

Eric Cantor’s primary defeat by David Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, sent the pundits scurrying. Shocked and bewildered, they searched around for theories to makes sense of what they had not anticipated happening. Hundreds of articles were written and dozens of explanations were offered.

One of the more fascinating threads that emerged from the cacophony of ideas put forward in the days following the primary was the effort to find a Jewish dimension to the story. Cantor, the House Majority Leader, was the highest ranking Jewish lawmaker in American history, with aspirations to be Speaker of the House. When one adds to that the fact that Brat is a religious Christian who speaks frequently of his faith, the temptation to uncover a Jewish angle became irresistible. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the leading Jewish weekly the Forward, and a variety of other publications duly turned out articles examining, from every perspective, the Jewish and religious sides of the election.

The problem was that there was no Jewish angle, at least not one of any consequence.

David Wasserman, a normally sensible political analyst, got things going with a much-quoted statement to the Times suggesting that anti-Semitism was at play in Cantor’s defeat. Cantor was culturally out of step with his redrawn district, according to Wasserman, “and part of this plays into his religion. You can’t ignore the elephant in the room.” Sensationalist headlines soon followed. The Week, a news magazine, ran a story entitled “Did Eric Cantor lose because he’s Jewish?” And the Forward ran an opinion column with the headline “Did Eric Cantor Lose Because He’s Jewish? You Betcha.”

But there was no elephant in the room. There wasn’t even a mosquito in the room. Nobody could turn up a single statement or piece of literature coming from the Brat campaign or anyone else that was even remotely anti-Semitic. And sensationalism aside, the ultimate consensus of virtually everyone was that anti-Semitism was not a factor of any kind in Cantor’s loss.

Conservatives, including Jewish conservatives, cried foul, charging that the point of the coverage was a deliberate attempt by liberals to smear Republican voters as bigots. Perhaps, although my own view is that it reflected media sloppiness and obsessiveness more than political conspiracy.

Another claim was that even in the absence of explicit anti-Semitism, the Brat victory represented a victory for evangelicalism and Christian politics and therefore a long-term threat to Jews and all non-Christian minorities. Vigilance about church-state separation is always appropriate, of course, but it is hard to see the threat here. Brat is often described as aligned with the Tea Party, which is a motley collection of organizations and activists; it has ill-defined religious positions not at all identical with those of evangelical groups, which are diverse themselves. Most important, there is much evidence that Americans are becoming less religious and not more so, and, as the gay marriage issue demonstrates, more tolerant in their religious outlooks.

Mr. Brat, of course, likes to talk publicly of his belief in God, and that is distressing to some people, both Jews and Christians. But God talk is acceptable in America, and people with liberal religious outlooks, President Obama included, also make reference to their religious beliefs from time to time. The key for politicians is to be sure that they ground their statements in a language of morality that is accessible to everyone; Americans need a common political discourse not dominated by exclusivist theology. As long as Brat—and others—stay on the right side of that political line, there is no reason to see this election as a religious watershed for Jews or anyone else, or a victory for religious coercion.

A third claim is that the Cantor defeat represents a disastrous decline of Jewish political fortunes. In this view, Cantor’s defeat is seen as part of a broader pattern: There are 33 Jews in the current Congress, both the House and the Senate, as compared with 39 in the previous one. But here again, this seems like an altogether arbitrary and unfounded assumption. Jews are well represented in all areas of America’s educational, business, and political life, and that is not changed in any way by the defeat of a Jewish Majority Leader in the House of Representatives.

Eric Cantor’s fall from political power is interesting and in some ways important. For decades to come, politicians and professors will study it as an example of what happens when a serious but self-referential politician loses touch with the things that ordinary Americans care about and gets caught up in the big-dollar culture of Washington. But they will say very little about the Jewish dimension of this affair—and that is for the simple reason that it doesn’t exist.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. His writings are collected at ericyoffie.com.

TIME Religion

Anti-Semitism: Not a Threat to American Jews

There are plenty of things for American Jews to worry about, but anti-Semitism is not one of them.

Anti-Semitism is not a threat to the security and well-being of the Jews of America.

This is not to deny the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe or the explosion of Jew hatred—often disguised as anti-Zionism—in much of the Muslim world. The reappearance of these murderous lunacies in certain regions of the world is a solemn reminder that anti-Semitism never disappears from the human heart.

Nonetheless, a little perspective is in order. The just-released study by the Anti-Defamation League on global anti-Semitism, which suggests that one-quarter of the world’s population is anti-Semitic, argues that 21 million Americans can reasonably be classified anti-Semites. This has caused much dismay among some American Jews. Twenty-one million may be fewer than 10% of all Americans, but it is still a very large number.

Nonetheless, I am counted among those who see no cause for alarm. It is important to remember that the ADL survey is an attempt to measure anti-Semitic attitudes, which are notoriously difficult to gauge; and it does so using methodologies that are much in dispute. What it does not do is measure anti-Semitic behaviors, which are a reasonably objective matter and the means by which Jews traditionally determine their progress in gaining full acceptance in America.

And by behavioral standards, it is difficult to see anti-Semitism as a factor of any consequence in American life. Jews in America are able to live in neighborhoods where they want to live, work in businesses where they want to work, and gain acceptance to any universities that they are qualified to attend. This was not always the case in this country; even in the post-World War II period, discrimination against Jews in all these realms was commonplace. But no more. For half a century, practical prejudice of this sort has essentially disappeared.

Of course, anti-Semitic remarks can still be heard in America today; and yes, there are occasional acts of vandalism against Jewish cemeteries and even, from time to time, a violent attack against a Jewish institution. But these are not the things that make anti-Semitism a real danger; it becomes truly ominous only when those in authority sanction anti-Semitism or choose to remain silent and look the other way. And that does not happen in America. Government officials and political leaders can be counted on to raise their voices in protest and activate the machinery of government to combat the forces of hate.

Why then do some American Jews obsess about anti-Semitism in the U.S. and exaggerate the vulnerability of their community? An important reason is that we live in the shadow of the Holocaust, which has colored our thinking in indelible ways, thereby enhancing the chronic insecurity characteristic of earlier generations. Another is our longstanding concern for Israel, still struggling for survival in an increasingly dangerous neighborhood. And yet another is the long list of trouble spots for Jews around the world: the grim situation of Jews in France, the emergence of anti-Semitic parties in Hungary and Greece, and the growing anti-Semitism of an Arab world that appears to hate Jews and Israel with equal fervor. Feeling both appalled by the goings-on abroad and unsure of how best to respond to them, American Jews are not always able to distinguish clearly between their condition here and Jewish realities in other places.

Yet there can be no excuse for seeing our situation as different from what it really is. And our reality, as American Jews, is that we are not a community under siege. Let us say it plainly: the anti-Semitism that is festering elsewhere poses no danger to us.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. His writings are collected at ericyoffie.com.

 

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