Matters of Existential Necessity

By Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel

I am as sad as I have ever been in my life. While driving to Micah this morning, I started crying. As I pulled to the side of the road, I found myself flashing through Jewish history, our tragedies and our triumphs. I considered the Khmelnitsky massacre of Jews in the 17th century, the Kishinev Pogrom of 1903, and other dark times. I also thought of the moments of great courage: Daniel in the lion’s den (always a personal favorite); the biblical David and his slingshot. I am also angrier than I have been in a very long time, as I struggle with how to make sense of the ignorance and prejudice that has surfaced — or, perhaps, resurfaced — since the Hamas massacre in Israel on October 7.

Zionism was meant to solve the “Jewish problem” of Europe. This was Herzl’s great vision. Amos Oz captured this painfully in his short book, In the Land of Israel, published in 1983: “I would be more than happy to live in a world composed of dozens of civilizations, each developing in accordance with its own internal rhythm, all crosspollinating one another, without any one emerging as a nation-state: no flag, no emblem, no passport, no anthem. No nothing. Only spiritual civilizations tied somehow to their lands, without the tools of statehood and without the instruments of war.

“But the Jewish people has already staged a long running one-man show of that sort. The international audience sometimes applauded, sometimes threw stones, and occasionally slaughtered the actor. No one joined us; no one copied the model the Jews were forced to sustain for two thousand years, the model of a civilization without the ‘tools of statehood.’ For me this drama ended with the murder of Europe’s Jews by Hitler.

“I am forced to take it upon myself to play the ‘game of nations,’ with all the tools of statehood, even though it causes me to feel (as George Steiner put it) like an old man in a kindergarten. To play the game with an emblem, and a flag and a passport and an army, and even war, provided that such war is an absolute existential necessity. I accept those rules of the game because existence without the tools of statehood is a matter of mortal danger, but I accept them only up to this point.”

We, the Jewish people, must have a country in order to survive, but its very existence has led to more tragedy. We went home, but the Palestinian family that had moved in was not interested in sharing the house. And then, some in the newly created Jewish nation, most notably the settler project on the West Bank, decided that the Palestinian family needed to move out. We know the history, the wars, the deaths.

Like many of you, I am distraught about what is happening in Gaza. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s order to shut off water, fuel, and electricity was ghastly and forbidden by Jewish law. But, as I have said before, Netanyahu himself is ghastly and should be forbidden by any moral law.

The situation in Gaza is horribly painful for all of us. It defies our Jewish sensibilities. However, I cannot support an imposed ceasefire. I do believe that Israel has a right to defend itself. Oz allowed for war as an “existential necessity.” Israelis who live near the Gaza border have, for years, faced a regular barrage of rocket attacks that force them into shelters and safe rooms. Would Americans stand for occasional missile barrage from terrorist thugs in Canada? We all know the answer to that, even though such an attack would not threaten this country’s very existence. Still, I fear an Israeli ground invasion because I think it will result in massive death on both sides. That decision is one that Israel has to make itself.

My anger extends from Hamas to the larger Arab world. Why will neither Egypt nor Jordan take any refugees from Gaza? Why was Egypt so reluctant to allow humanitarian supplies to enter Gaza, doing so only under international pressure?

At home and around the world, I see antisemitism spreading.

In the U.S., many on the political left — people with whom Jews have locked arms on a plethora of other issues — have lost their moral bearings. They have forgotten that it is possible to simultaneously condemn both the barbarism of Hamas and of Israel’s right-wing government, to call for the destruction of Hamas and the reversal of Israel’s unforgivable tactics on the West Bank, including the destruction of Palestinian farmers’ crops, expropriation of Palestinian land, and other forms of regular harassment.

Some of you have asked me about whether Temple Micah is sending money to provide humanitarian relief to Gaza. At this point, the temple’s leaders have decided not to create such a fund. We are concerned the money would end up with Hamas. Billions of dollars have gone to Gaza over many years. Hamas’ leaders have not used that money to build an economy to benefit the Palestinians in Gaza. Instead, they have stuffed their own pockets and built a war machine. After the war ends, we will reconsider.

There is more on this particular question —a Jewish more. Emotionally, it is too soon for me as a Jew. I remain in a period of onenut and am not yet in avelut. Onenut is the mourning period before burial. There is no real translation for it. The death has just occurred, and the loved ones are preoccupied with getting ready for the funeral. Avelut is the traditional mourning period that begins after burial and continues for a year. During this time, the loved ones adjust to their new reality. Avelut unfolds over time. Onenut is simply getting over the immediate shock. I am not ready to tend to Gazans. I remain in shock, with my own people to tend to.

I continue my prayers for peace and understand my need to double down like never before on the Enlightenment values that I cherish — a bold commitment to the possibility of human moral progress, to equality for all, and to open, tolerant education for all. I believe that it is only by advocating passionately for these values that we can achieve the world we want.

In the meantime, as Oz wrote, we fight back hard as we continue to search for a constructive path to a durable peace. The final image that came to mind as I sat crying by the side of the road was of Joseph Trumpeldor, a hero of Jewish pioneers who was killed by Arab terrorists in Palestine in 1920. It is said that as he lay dying, Trumpeldor uttered these final words: “Never mind, it is good to die for one’s country.”

Decades later, Yitzhak Rabin famously responded: “It is good to have a country to die for.”


This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of the Vine.

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