January 1, 2009 - Yesterday Brit Tzedek v'Shalom held a "Town Hall Conference Call" on "The Crisis in Gaza: An On-Ground Report from Jerusalem." The featured speaker was Rabbi Mark Gopin, an expert on conflict resolution. I will summarize the views he expressed from notes I took during the conference. My analysis will follow.
Gopin observed that the current Israeli action in Gaza was much better planned than the 2006 Lebanon war, and the intelligence Israel had is astounding. Much of it probably came from Fatah members who want to see Hamas defeated.
Gopin is squarely against the Israeli action in Gaza. He wants President-Elect Obama not to wait but to act immediately and possibly send John Kerry as an envoy to the Middle East.
Gopin says that using force as "a way to bring the Palestinians to the table" is futile. To eliminate the rocket fire from Gaza against the cities of southern Israel it would be better to have "a series of ceasefires of a long term nature." Gopin puts much hope in Obama's engagement with Syria and is looking forward to Obama's presidency.
He also advocates "serious negotiation" to eliminate the tunnels and the smuggling of missiles so as to prevent another Lebanon on Israel's southern border.
In response to a question about whether some amount of force might be necessary since Hamas has stated that its goal is Israel's destruction, Gopin stated: (what follows is a very close paraphrase)
There are different factions within the opposition, and even Hamas and Syria have right and left wings. People there are arguing about the future, trust vs. distrust, military vs. non-military solutions. It's just not as open, you can't follow it as well as with Israel. But there is a split within Hamas and we should test it. Test them by inviting them to come to the table. That will reveal the split within Hamas, and that can't be bad for Israel.
We made a mistake in Oslo when while moving to the left we dismissed the right's concerns about incitement and textbooks. We must now say these things are non-negotiable and tell Hamas: we cannot have a ceasefire while you are bringing in missiles from Iran. Insisting on our "right to exist" is an unrealistic demand - if the USSR had demanded our recognition of their right to exist, we would have had to accept their occupation of half of Europe.
After 10 years of ceasefire, the Palestinians will want peace and not want to go back to suicide bombing.
Gopin concluded with the following points:
There are elements within Hamas that want peace with Israel. Hamas has actually been sending signals that, within its own religious framework, it wants peace - a "ten-to-twenty-year" ceasefire is effectively a peace treaty as far as Hamas is concerned.
Israelis see the qassam rockets as the beginning of history, but the qassams must not be decoupled from the blockade that has made Gazans' lives miserable and must be understood within the context of Palestinian suffering.
One side of the Jewish community acutely feels the effects of centuries of humiliation and believes that Jews must strongly assert themselves and exact "two eyes for one eye." Another side - Gopin's side - realizes that Jews now have power and must learn to use it with restraint.
Finally, we need to model for Congress a new relationship between Arabs and Jews. This will be difficult because AIPAC has Congress so intimidated that it can't hear any criticism of Israel. We need to become a counter-influence, a force balancing AIPAC's unquestioning support for whatever Israel does.
I have tried to summarize Gopin's position fairly. Here are the problems that I see with it:
1. Gopin's most serious flaw is that like most of the Jewish left, he misreads Hamas and the Palestinian extremists and projects his own values onto them. He actually came close to saying - in fact what he said really does amount to this - that Hamas really wants peace, it just has its own different way of letting people know it. Yes, Hamas does want peace, conditioned on an end to Israel's existence. Religious principles cannot be subject to negotiation. For Hamas, eliminating Israel is a religious principle.
2. Gopin thinks the answer is agreeing to a series of limited ceasefires with Hamas. That has already been tried. He seems unable to appreciate what "hudna" (ceasefire) has meant to jihad fighters since the time of Muhammad - a tactical move to allow them to build their forces for the next attack. Once again, this is a projection of his own values onto people who do not share them. It is the left's version of ethnocentrism.
3. George Santayana said that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Gopin proposes "serious negotiations" with Hamas to eliminate missiles from Gaza. That was tried before in Lebanon with Hezbollah. A United Nations resolution was even passed. It made no difference. Hezbollah not only rearmed; it is twice as strong now as it was two years ago.
4. Gopin tends to make bad analogies. Whether or not is it wise for Israel to insist on recognition of its right to exist, it is not the same as the situation with the USSR. No one ever denied the right of the USSR to exist as a country, or tried to wipe it off the map. Recognizing Israel's right to exist is not the same as accepting the occupation. On his blog Gopin also compares Israeli/Palestinian conflict to the conflict in Northern Ireland, and points out that even Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley eventually made peace. But the religious factors at play in Northern Ireland were in no way similar to those operating now in Gaza. Once again Gopin, in spite of his quest for a "nuanced" approach, fails to grasp the intricacies of the Israeli/Palestinian situation.
5. If Hamas or even a significant faction within Hamas really wants peaceful coexistence with Israel, it's news to me. Gopin bases his belief on inside information from "people that he knows." This is a problem I have with many on the Jewish left: on the basis of a few individuals whom they claim to know, they ask me to disregard what I read in the news and to believe that Palestinians as a whole and even possibly the extremists themselves really want peaceful coexistence with Israel. The evidence to the contrary is overwhelming, yet they keep finding ways to rationalize it away.
6. Gopin is right that the qassam rockets and the blockade must not be decoupled, but his interpretation is wrong. He puts the cart before the horse. With no aggression from Gaza there would be no blockade. It is not Israelis who start history with the qassams, it is Palestinians who start history with the blockade. They criticize even Israel's nonviolent attempts to defend itself as if either the qassams did not exist or Palestinians have a God-given right to fire them.
7. Gopin exaggerates the power of AIPAC, bringing back echoes of the supposedly formidable "Jewish lobby" that Israel-haters claim controls America's agenda. Concerning the Jewish left becoming a counterforce to AIPAC, if it happens on Gopin's terms this is what will follow: There will be increased American pressure for Israel to abort its operation prematurely, and the result will be another Lebanon. All Hamas has to do is survive and preserve its military capacity - just as Hezbollah did in 2006. Gopin's way will make sure that this happens. And it will be worse than the status quo ante: Hamas will emerge claiming a victory and will rebuild to double strength, becoming the Hezbollah of the south. This is not good for Israel, nor is it good for the Palestinians: for however bloody this conflict has become, allowing Hamas to emerge claiming victory will only set up an even bloodier future conflict. Gopin puts his faith in ceasefires, but we have seen how good Hamas is at keeping its "hudnas" and how it uses them to become even stronger.
8. How long are the residents of southern Israel supposed to wait until Gopin's pie-in-the-sky becomes reality? Their lives are already intolerable. Gopin expects Obama to make things all better, but every American president before him has failed and Obama is not Superman, nor is he the Messiah. Gopin's glasses are rose-colored because he does not respect Hamas enough to take what it says seriously; instead he projects his own liberal values onto Hamas (as in: Hamas really wants peace, they just have a funny way of showing it.) We will not get anywhere until we accept Hamas for what it is and realize that their Charter is not just toilet paper but that they actually mean every word of it.
9. Gopin says that Jews are now the ones with the power. This is shortsighted. Israel may have better weapons than Gaza, but Israel is in mortal danger and the elimination of Israel is far more likely than the elimination of Gaza. The missile stranglehold of Hamas in the south and Hezbollah in the north will soon have all of Israel within range as their weapons become more sophisticated. Hamas is not just Hamas; it is a proxy of Iran and Syria. Iran's supply of weapons and training to Hamas is well documented. The missiles that can already reach Ashdod and Beersheba are smuggled from Iran and China. These are not "home-made rockets" but battle-grade weapons trained on civilians. Just in the past couple of days there were direct hits on a high school and kindergarten in Beersheba, and children's lives were spared only because classes had been canceled. Iran is not sending Hamas increasingly sophisticated missiles just to have them lie dormant during some "hudna." Those missiles are intended to be used, and it is certain that Hamas will find a pretext to use them regardless of what kind of ceasefire is negotiated.
10. The question of ceasefires must be understood strategically. In game theory, this is a classic "Prisoner's Dilemma." The two sides have the best mutual outcome if they cooperate - but as soon as they do, the more aggressive side realizes it can gain an advantage if it attacks. And so it will, until forced once again to come to the table and strike a "hudna." After that the cycle only repeats: the side that wants it all will once again try to get it all, and bye-bye hudna. Hamas wants it all. Not just Gaza and the West Bank but Haifa and Tel Aviv. They say so themselves. Repeatedly. Gopin, as a Jewish leader, is acting with extreme irresponsibility in refusing to believe them and is undermining Israel's security.
Israel had to act, not just for Sderot but for its future. The advance of the Hamas war machine had to be stopped, and should have been stopped years earlier, before it could grow to its present level.
I am not a member of the Jewish right and I have the battle scars to prove it. But the actions of the Jewish left are dangerous and must be confronted. I understand they are looking for an approach to the conflict that is consistent with moral and spiritual principles. I am too. However, no such approach can be found by shortchanging the complexities we all face.
It is easy to be spiritual if we define reality in such a way that our cherished theories work. It is easy to create a false world in which appeal to the other's better nature always wins, while those whom we judge for not following our vision are left to pick up the pieces in the real world. We want to believe that all human beings desire the same things and that at the bottom of its heart Hamas, being human, really does want peace with Israel. We want to believe that if we are just nice enough, using no force, imposing no sanctions, then the other side will respect us and commit to an indefinite ceasefire under which all will prosper. Unfortunately, both the words and deeds of Hamas soundly contradict any such notion. What we see as being humane and compassionate, Hamas sees as an occasion for contempt and a weakness to exploit.
It is ironic that the Jewish left maintains it is seeking a "nuanced" approach to the conflict, as opposed to the black-and-white picture it accuses its adversaries on the right of perpetuating. One cannot find nuance by oversimplifying reality. A true nuanced approach must recognize the historical and factual complexities that thwart even the best spiritual plans. It may be praiseworthy to love, or at least not hate, your enemy. But it is foolish to assume that your enemy necessarily thinks the way you think or values what you value. The enemy recognizes our difference in values and says so: "We desire death like you desire life." We need to recognize it too.
No one with an ounce of compassion would want to inflict even a single civilian casualty, even in self-defense. But sometimes the only choice we get is a Sophie's choice. How do you preserve your spirituality when confronted with the choice either to kill or be killed, or worse, have your family killed? Answer: you fight for that spirituality. But what you do not do is abandon your family to destruction. Nor do you cherish illusions about your enemy that make it OK to do exactly that. No, you fight to protect yourself with as much respect for the humanity of the other that you can maintain without destroying yourself.
The difference in values could hardly be clearer. Israel waited patiently for years while its people were under fire, while Hamas used every "ceasefire" to rearm with deadlier weapons. Israel warns civilians to evacuate; Hamas fires without warning. Israel tries to spare civilians whenever possible; Hamas wants human trophies and designs its weapons not only to kill but to maim and disfigure the human body. Even Israel's targeting of tunnels has been selective, bombing weapons tunnels while sparing commercial ones. Unfortunately civilian casualties are inevitable when unlike you, your enemy does not protect its civilians but as part of its war strategy exposes them to danger. Israeli towns build shelters to protect their citizens when the rockets come, while the world complains that the rockets didn't kill enough Israelis to justify a response. Meanwhile Hamas fires at Israel from residential areas, and gathers people on rooftops of buildings it thinks Israel wants to hit. Why? Because Hamas knows Israel does not share its values and does not want to kill civilians, and it uses that fact as a battle tactic. Whatever mistakes Israel may have made, it does not murder innocent people intentionally. The same cannot be said of a culture that values death and martyrdom over life and peace.
Undoubtedly there are Palestinians who truly do want to coexist peacefully with a Jewish state. Unfortunately there are not enough of them. It is not Palestinians as people who are the enemy. The real enemy is an ideology of darkness that has too many people in its grip. The real spiritual approach must begin with recognizing the darkness as darkness. No side is free of darkness. But if we really want to be "nuanced," we must recognize varying degrees of darkness. Claiming the right to fire increasingly powerful missiles in an intentional effort to murder civilians is beyond the pale of civilized society. So is filling those rockets with ball bearings and with large quantities of ammonia to inflict maximum human damage. And so is using one's own civilians as shields for those weapons.
Yes, it is indeed a challenge to respond to this level of depravity without losing one's own humanity. But we serve no spiritual purpose by shying from that responsibility and taking refuge in theories and assumptions that make life simpler but do not correspond with reality. These are tough questions, and we must wrestle with them. True spirituality begins with struggle. It always has.
Erlanger, Steven. "An Egyptian Border Town’s Commerce, Conducted via Tunnels, Comes to a Halt." New York Times, Jamuary 1, 2009.
Katz, Yakov. "Latest Rockets Manufactured in China." Jerusalem Post, January 1, 2009.
Kershner, Isabel and Ethan Bronner. "Israel Pursues Diplomacy but Presses Attacks." New York Times, Jamuary 1, 2009.
Selig, Abe. "School Closure Saves Lives of Pupils." Jerusalem Post, December 31, 2008.
Peace with Realism