Phil Weiss alerts me to a disturbing column written by Rabbi Eric Yoffie in the Forward attacking J Street for its insufficient sympathy for Israel’s assault on Gaza. His piece is shameful not because it expresses sympathy for the Israeli suffering from Palestinian rocket attacks. This is certainly legitimate. It is shameful because he demeans J Street for expressing too much sympathy for the Gazans.
I have written several times glowing posts about speeches and statements Rabbi Yoffie has made about Christian Zionists or Muslim-Jewish understanding. And I have never criticized him before because I have never read anything that I felt was so far off the mark. But this piece requires a strong denunciation since it lacks any sense of moral calculus or compass regarding the horror of this event.
He goes off the rails in his argument almost from the beginning:
I suspect that most American Jews feel the same discomfort that I feel. They support the military offensive too…
Democratic voters overwhelmingly oppose the Israeli offensive — by a 24-point margin (31-55%).
Since 80-85% of Jews consider themselves Democrats that would mean that even IF a majority of Jews supported the Operation Solid Lead, that the split would be close to right down the middle (I’m conceding that the 20% of Jewish Republicans would strongly favor the assault). This is Yoffie’s first questionable assumption. Here is more questionable thinking:
…They [American Jews] expect Israel to be both politically wise and morally sensitive in how it fights. It is especially important to us that Israel do everything humanly possible to avoid the death of innocents and to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. There is much evidence that Israel has worked hard to limit the carnage, and the credibility of Israel’s leaders in providing assurances on these points is an important factor in assuring the continued support of American Jews — and, indeed, of all Americans — for the Gaza campaign.
This passage too is full of dubious assumptions. Israel has killed 400 civilians in Gaza and undertaken an 18 month siege which has reduced the enclave to penury. Eric Yoffie is an intelligent person and learned rabbi. How can he possibly believe what he is writing? It simply flies in the face of reality as the rest of the world (outside Israel’s most ardent backers) knows it.
Yoffie’s insinuation that the majority of Americans support the operation is also questionable. Rasmussen finds that Americans support it by a slim plurality (44-41%). The longer the operation continues surely the more opposition will mount among Americans.
Here Yoffie takes on J Street’s courageous position attacking the Gaza incursion:
…Not a few Jewish doves have demonstrated an utter lack of empathy for Israel’s predicament. J Street, a new Washington lobbying group and a major voice of the dovish pro-Israel community, has spoken out sharply against Israel’s actions in Gaza. While it claims to represent the moderate American Jewish majority, in this case it has misread the issues and misjudged the views of American Jews.
It is interesting to note that Yoffie’s presumption is that American Jews owe Israel the benefit of the doubt in issues like this military offensive. The majority of our empathy must go to Israel’s “predicament” rather than to the Gazans who presumably deserve less because they simply are not Jews. This is a stale notion that lost favor years ago even among American Jews. The day when we got out the flag and waved it no matter what Israel did (and especially when it did anything morally questionable) are long gone. Israel no longer gets a blank moral check from most American Jews. And that’s as it should be. We state what we think is in Israel’s long-term interests, but owe no special obligation to support Israel when it strays from our view of what those interests should be (as they have done in Operation Solid Lead). I’m simply shocked to read that the leader of the most liberal American religious denomination is still spouting such virtual inanities.
Consider the moral calculus of this statement and ask yourself what is missing:
A second J Street statement was worse by far. It could find no moral difference between the actions of Hamas and other Palestinian militants, who have launched more than 5,000 rockets and mortar shells at Israeli civilians in the past three years, and the long-delayed response of Israel, which finally lost patience and responded to the pleas of its battered citizens in the south.
Notice that Israel has suffered 5,000 rockets fired at it while the Palestinians have suffered…hmmm, I seem to have missed that portion of Yoffie’s statement. The Palestinians haven’t suffered anything, have they? Well then, in that case you can see how easy it is for Yoffie to get into high moral dudgeon over J Street’s purported embrace of a “pro-Palestinian” position.
Here is more ignorance masquerading as sympathy for Israel:
These words [of J Street’s criticizing both Israeli and Palestinian violence] are deeply distressing because they are morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naïve. A cease-fire instituted by Hamas would be welcome, and Israel would be quick to respond. A cease-fire imposed on Israel would allow Hamas to escape the consequences of its actions yet again and would lead in short order to the renewal of its campaign of terror. Hamas, it should be noted, is not a government; it is a terrorist gang.
Most people in the world feel, at best, deeply divided over this conflict; and at worst they feel Israel is almost entirely in the wrong. Yet somehow Yoffie transforms this reality into one in which J Street is “morally deficient” for seeing precisely what most other people are seeing: an aggressive Israel attacking disproportionately a virtually defenseless (except for crude handmade rockets which cause far more fear than actual mayhem) Gaza.
Not a whiff from the good rabbi in the above passage of Israel’s draconian siege on Gaza and the effects this is having on 1.5 million civilians who have done nothing to warrant such punishment. And regarding the Hamas line he espouses, it is once again wrong. Hamas IS a government whenever Israel isn’t intervening (like now) against its control of Gaza by preventing it from being one. Hamas was elected by Palestinians democratically. It was the U.S. and Israel which refused to accept the democratic results of this election and determined to topple Hamas by force. Not a word about that, Rabbi Yoffie. Why not? Or is it possible that Middle Eastern democracy is only considered legitimate when it’s flying an Israeli flag?
In order to justify Yoffie’s rejection of Hamas as a legitimate representative of the Palestinians, he trots out this definitive “wisdom:”
To be a dove of influence, you must be a realist, firm in your principles but shorn of all illusions…
Being a “realist” as far as Yoffie is concerned means accepting that Hamas are nothing but a bunch of thugs incapable of being legitimate partners of Israel or of governing Palestine. The only problem is that many Israelis, among them respected generals and intelligence analysts, don’t agree. So Rabbi, are they unprincipled and illusion-filled or are you perhaps getting a bit ahead of yourself in making such definitive and ill-considered statements about the nature of Hamas?
As a reality check for my views, I did what I normally do in these circumstances: I checked with my closest Israeli friends, who are all left of center, haters of war and ferocious opponents of the West Bank settlement movement. In virtually every case, they saw the action in Gaza as tragic but necessary and were astounded by the opposition of American doves.
You’ll note that Yoffie’s “closest Israeli friends” are the moral arbiters of what a correct American Jewish position should be on this issue. Could it be that his Israeli friends represent as narrow a spectrum of opinion as his own views expressed here? Can Yoffie deny that the pages of the Israeli press are filled with reports that question Israeli motives for this attack, which denounce it as a failure practically before it began, which portray the immense suffering of Gazan civilians? I guess the many critical journalists I’ve been reading in Haaretz and Ynet must not be among Yoffie’s circle of “closest friends.” I’d like to introduce him to Akiva Eldar, Amira Hass, Gideon Levy, Yossi Sarid, B. Michael, David Grossman, Uri Avnery, and many others. They might teach him a thing or two about what those Israelis believe who aren’t among his intimate circle.
…Why, we ask, should Israel’s center-left government, after long periods of restraint and desperate efforts to renew the cease-fire, be expected to refrain from fighting terrorists that are regularly attacking from right across the border?
Because the operation won’t work. Because the only way to end the violence is to negotiate. Because Hamas legitimately demands something in return for the end of its attacks–that is, an end to the horrifying siege that has starved its children and brought death to its critically ill who lack medicine or care.
American Jews see Israel’s Gaza offensive as a tragic necessity, unwelcome but inevitable, carried out by a reluctant Israeli government doing what it must to end rocket attacks against its citizenry. In short, American Jews are, as usual, sensible and centrist, and supporting Israel in her hour of need.
Again, not so fast. While Rabbi Yoffie speaks for a large religious denomination, I don’t believe his views are those of the majority of American Jews. And even if I concede that they are the views of the majority, there is by no means the consensus he posits. American Jews, like the rest of Americans, are deeply divided about this. To claim otherwise, is simply like whistling in a graveyard. You’re hoping you’re right, but haven’t a clue or a means to prove it.
Rabbi Yoffie’s piece in the Forward proves to me that while he may have liberal instincts on many issues, when it comes to Israel he is little better than the mainline Israel lobby organizations. We cannot expect wisdom from them or him on these issues. It grieves me to say this because he has often been eloquent and profound about some subjects as I’ve noted above. But not this one. Not by a long shot.
J Street–you’ve done something honorable. Don’t even think of backing down or being intimidated by this flackery. You are in the right. Time and history will confirm it. It is Rabbi Yoffie who will be eating his words in six months time when he sees that this military project has failed just as all previous ones seeking to do the same thing have failed before it. Unfortunately, Rabbi Yoffie would do well to consider these profound words from Zechariah: Ki lo b’choach, v’lo b’hayil, ki im b’ruchi, amar Adonai tzevaot. “Not by strength and not by might, but rather by my spirit says the Lord of Hosts.” “Spirit” is words, negotiations leading to peace. Those are the only things that will work here. Remember that little bit of Jewish wisdom, Rabbi.