You Can’t Pursue Social Justice When You’re Dead

When I was young—I don’t think I had been bat mitzvah yet—my parents hosted an Israel bond drive. The speaker was a member of the Israel Defense Force. I looked at her and saw everything I ever wanted to be: tall and fit and confident. She had straight blond hair pinned into a French twist with a military cap sitting on top. I don’t know what she saw in my face—admiration, idolization—and she said, “It isn’t the way you think.”

As time and the Israel-Palestine conflict have gone on, I see her words were prophetic. Nothing is the way I think it is.

You will try to call the Israel bond drive meeting a propaganda event. You will try to call the IDF soldier an example of health-and-wellness washing or fitness washing. Don’t.

There’s a line in Psalm 99, which some congregations read during the Kabbalat Shabbat service: “A sovereign, mighty, rules with a love of justice/You alone bring about equity/ordaining justice and compassion/for the people of Jacob.” To me this means the Holy One values justice and compassion equally—one does not exist without the other. Any mighty sovereign might love justice. The Holy One elevates equity, justice, and compassion to a spiritual pursuit. My task, then, is to make equity, justice, and compassion manifest in the world. Compassion I can do; the other two, not so much.

I look at the rubble of Gaza—media shows those photos more often than images of Palestinian violence toward Israel–and I don’t see justice. I look at thousands of Hamas’s rockets arcing from Gaza toward civilian targets in Israel, and I don’t see justice.

And it isn’t just the rockets. It is also Palestinian terrorists—members of Hamas, Fatah, and other organizations—who enter Israel and murder or harm Israeli citizens. The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center reported 54 terrorist actions consisting of shooting, stabbing, vehicular, or IED attacks, 350 incidents of Molotov cocktail throwing, 1700 incidents of rock throwing, and one 11-day war in 2021. In the first quarter of 2022, there have already been 15 terrorist attacks—two of them carried out by members of ISIS—including stabbings, shootings, and ramming people with cars. Members of Hamas celebrate the terrorist attacks by handing out sweets to children (and adults), training another generation to associate murdering Israelis with something good; the Palestinian Authority and Fatah do not condemn the attacks.

You will point out that Israeli settlers commit violent attacks against Palestinians. It’s true. The UN keeps track of extremist settler violence, and it reports, according to the Jerusalem Post, that there were 450 incidents in 2021. I don’t support or understand this violence because it flies in the face of Jewish values. But I won’t look away. I also won’t equate it with Palestinian terror attacks. The settler attacks damage property and injure people. They result in zero deaths.

Israel’s policies regarding Palestinians stretch my capacity to live with competing ideas. Hamas’s and the Palestinian Authority’s policies toward their own people and Israel leaves me feeling sick and at a loss. Why locate military operations, like rocket launchers, in civilian areas? Why imprison people who speak out in opposition to Hamas’s policies? Why deliberately teach your children to celebrate the deaths of others?

I try to hear justice in the voices of Jews from If Not Now, Jewish Voices for Peace, and J Street. But all I hear are one-sided arguments that task Israel with creating peace and hold Palestinians accountable for none of their actions.

The visible cause of bombed-out buildings in Gaza is Israel’s response to Hamas’s rockets. But the underlying cause is Hamas’s choice to make and fire thousands of rockets from civilian locations in the first place.

And isn’t it odd that the media declares a new cycle of violence only when Israel responds to a Hamas attack? Is shooting rockets at Israel not initiating violence? What are terrorist attacks? What do people expect Israel to do, not respond to the attacks? If there is no defensive response from Israel, do people expect Hamas to stop launching rockets, expect the terrorism to stop?

Just don’t. Nothing is the way you think it is.

I long for a homeland, and I’m grateful that Israel exists to fill that longing. Yet, I believe in justice and equity. I struggle not to look away in despair or fall into cynicism. Who cares whether the world has a few million fewer Jews?

I don’t expect all Jews to share my longing for a place to cease wandering. I do, however, expect them to apply critical thinking before they adopt or support positions like boycott, divest, and sanction. The goal of BDS—“From the river to the sea”—is not just some cheery, tweetable slogan. The goal is to remove Israel. Where is the justice in that?

Hillel’s famous admonition begins, “If I am not for myself then who will be for me.” He knew that to move to the next rung on the ladder of justice—if I am for myself only, then what am I—you need to be able to take the next step. If you don’t take care of yourself first, there is no one to take a next step. Self-defense is non-negotiable.

All of it—equity, justice, and self-defense—coexists in an uncomfortable stew. I am human, and Palestinian people are human; and the conflict is tragic.

How do we make justice and equity manifest when injustice permeates the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians and between the Palestinian leadership and people?

Justice is a tricky thing. It doesn’t exist in the world unless we create it. It is a communal act. Just as injustice occurs between people, justice becomes manifest when people work with each other to bring it into existence.

The argument I most often see is that Israel perpetrates injustice against Palestinian people so it must act to restore justice. It’s not hard to see that many—not all, but many—Palestinians live in circumstances that look unjust.

But is Israel solely responsible for the situation confronting Palestinians? No. Israel does not act in a vacuum. Discussions among progressives usually omit the provocations of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. The Gaza we most often see is rubble because Hamas uses that area to shoot rockets at civilian Israeli targets. Terrorism persists because the Palestinian Authority relabels it as “popular resistance.”

Why does the world, including Jewish allies of Palestinians, choose to overlook the provocation? Why does the narrative unfold by requiring Jewish non-violence in the face of violence and existential threats?

If someone throws a punch at you and you don’t step out of the way, you will get punched. If someone shoots enough rockets at you, some are bound to get through and kill people. Individuals intent on terror attacks will find a way to infiltrate even the tightest security.

What are we Jews supposed to do? Lay down our arms and die? Do Israelis and Jews the world over have any less right to live than any other people? Is that what you think?

In this narrative that Palestinian spokespeople and anti-Zionists around the world who support them construct, only Israel is responsible for the conflict. Standard relationships, whether between people or nations, say that both parties are responsible.

From the relative peace of a cease fire between Israel and Hamas and the relative safety of Jews in the Diaspora, we talk among ourselves about what justice for Palestinians looks like. It’s a one-sided conversation.

Segments of Palestinian leadership advocate boycott, divest, and sanction—the BDS movement that appeals to progressive liberals, Jewish and otherwise—as paving the way toward justice. But the goal of BDS is to eliminate Israel as a nation and replace it with Palestine. Palestinians and their allies around the world produce educational materials that depict a Middle East landscape that lacks Israel. The position is that peace will come and justice will be served when Israel does not exist.

Anti-Zionist Jews and other progressive liberals who support BDS miss the fact that the movement is saying that the only way to bring about peace is for Israel to disappear itself. Or perhaps I just think they miss the fact.

When you ask Palestinian advocates of BDS where they envision Israelis living once BDS achieves its goal, their response is that they don’t. It isn’t clear whether they don’t envision Israelis living or whether they think almost 10 million Israelis will return to life in Diaspora. Where is the justice in either position?

Can justice be one-sided? No. Justice must exist for all parties in relationship not just one.

In Psalm 99, the Holy One ordains compassion. Compassion sometimes requires living with the discomfort of incompatible ideas.

I care about Israel and support Jewish people’s right to self-determination and self-defense. I care about justice and human rights and support both for Palestinians. At the same time, I’m aware that Palestinian spokespeople, leadership, and supporters seek to undo the reality of Israel and mask their desire in progressive language. They unmask that desire when they celebrate the deaths of Israelis.

The cycles of violence and death and the distortion of reality continues. It seems like only a matter of time until the next barrage of Hamas’s rockets and the next Israeli response. The next wave of terrorist attacks is already here.

The longer people are in hostile conflict with each other the more opportunities exist for acting badly. And when you have acted badly once—or observed a friend or colleague do so—doing it again becomes easier. Brutality leads to brutality.

It’s easy to sit at my desk and write that justice requires that the Palestinian people have human rights equal to those of other people and assert that Israel has a right to exist and defend itself. It’s easy for me to believe that you cannot achieve Palestinian or Israeli human rights at the expense of the other group’s human rights. Who is responsible for establishing the Palestinians’ human rights? Who is responsible for securing Israel’s safety?

I have no answers.

I turn to Psalm 99 for a path forward: “They zealously strove to obey the divine law, even when [The Holy One’s] decrees were beyond their grasp.” Finding a path toward compassion, equity, and justice for Israel and the Palestinian people seems well beyond the grasp of mere humans.

The status quo is violent and wasteful. Compassion tells me that Palestinians merit the same human rights, including self-determination, as anyone else. Rules of engagement that promote justice, equity, and peace are preferable to fantasies of Greater Israel or Greater Palestine. BDS and periodic attacks by Hamas forces and Palestinian terrorists serve no one’s interests, promote a false sense of progress, and export the violence to other countries.

Whether you are Jewish or Palestinian, you cannot pursue social justice when you’re dead.

Photo by levarTravel on Unsplash

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