Archive for the ‘Tikkunthinking’ Category

“Why is the war so beautiful? Why can’t I take my eyes off it? These fireworks! It’s so entralling mama, I’m kneeling, wide awake, at the wide open window, enraptured by the horror! Oh, it’s so hard to keep my eyes closed!”
Nelly in Wajdi Mouawad’s Wedding Day at the Cro-Magnons

Studying war

Yesterday morning, after weeks of violence in Gaza, I attended a Torah study session that included (finally!) discussion about Israel’s war in Gaza.  The biblical narrative was Parshah Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1),  the origin of communal displacement and subjugation of a tribe, since the memory of the leader Joseph – so cherished by Israelites and Egyptians alike – has faded beyond all recall in Egypt.  The business of memory and tribalism set me thinking.

The rabbi offered a two-pronged approach … first, a set of readings addressing “How Palestinians and Jews see each other”:  excerpts from the Hamas Charter (calling for perpetual Jihad against Israel and the Islamification of Palestine) and from the Greater Israel Movement‘s expansionist doctrine, the autobiography of Abba Eban (remarking that Jews in Israel cannot be accepted by Arabs without a transformation of Arab conceptions of mid-east reality), as well as recent reports from Egyptian officials of internal disagreement within the ranks of Hamas, and that the Syria-based leadership has taken a harder line on ceasefire than the Gazan-based leaders (International Herald Tribune, 1.16.09).  And so we were led through a discussion of the challenge of extremism on both sides, the challenge of overcoming Arab world-views, and the challenge of diaspora – of judging the situation from outside it (whether the distant vantagepoint be occupied by Hamas leaders in Syria, or a small bunch of Jews in Philadelphia).

Then, a set of readings on the ethics of war; and discussion … on the ways in which Torah and Talmud address the use of violence:  That Judaism authorizes killing in self-defense (“If he comes to kill you, arise and kill him,” Sanhedrin 72a); that war may thus be waged so long as one offers peace before attack (“When approaching a town to attack it, first offer them peace,” Deuteronomy 20:10), and even so, all violence undertaken will have to be accounted for to God (“Whoever sheds the blood of a human being by a human being shall his blood be shed, for in the divine image did God make humanity,” Genesis 9:6).

And the “discussion”?  Little more than excuses for Israel’s decision to initiate war in Gaza …. rockets fired on Israeli civilians nearby, Israel’s efforts to warn Gazan civilians to leave areas under attack (I’m still dumbfounded that this was uttered in my presence), and lame confirmation that just war is tallied fairly.  A safe, generalized, benign apologetics for war –  rather than confronting the realities of the particular warfare Israel has been waging or an exploration of strategies for achieving peace.

No one was able to explain how Israel’s phosphorus shelling  of congested urban areas is remotely “justified” under the texts in hand.  No one replied to my local analogy – the destruction of an entire city block following the firebombing of a single nuisance home – MOVE house in West Philadelphia.  No one could explain how Israel’s use of white phosphorus  – whether as smokescreens or illumination for targeted assaults  (as claimed) can – in light of the anticipated injuries to all civilians in the vicinity – be compared to anything other than Napalm strafing in Vietnam, and any other chemical warfare abhorrent to civilized men and women.


Chemiluminescence (sometimes “chemoluminescence”) is the emission of light with limited emission of heat (luminescence), as the result of a chemical reaction (source).

So I want to know more about white phosphorus. How is it that even my unschooled imagination is alarmed by even the vaguest descriptions of the stuff, yet most of my fellow congregregants – and the rabbi – remained sanguine.

I’ve googled, read news accounts and UN reports.  What do I know?  Well, it looks harmless enough – like a piece of white fudge, or a bar of oatmeal soap (source; and information about white phosphorus as weapon).  Glows in the dark … (like Moses’ face after receiving The Law?) .

Anyone can read about it’s general chemical properties, but seeing the stuff subjected to simple experiment is a much more effective way to understand UN criticism of Israel’s use of white phosphorus in Gaza.

And when white phosphorus takes to the airspace over Gaza’s congested cities … what does that look like?  Like this – captured in still images, or  in motion.

Looks like billowing smoke, kite tails, Chinese streamers in the air … but when it falls unspent to the ground – or worse, on anyone nearby ...

Illuminating Thinking Cap

So what about those readings the rabbi provided to us for study?  Unfortunately, the issue is not whether Israel is justified in defending itself, but whether the particular means it uses are legitimate.  How it defends itself is the question.

The International Committee of the Red Cross urged Israel to exercise “extreme caution” in using “incendiary agents”) to illuminate targets at night or create a smoke screen for day attacks.  According to the Red Cross, phosphorus devices should be treated as chemical weapons because they cause severe chemical burns.  111 nations, including most NATO allies, have signed a treaty banning the stockpiling and use of white phosphorus devices; neither the US nor Israel agreed to sign the document.  Although cluster bombs and similar devices (like white phosporus munitions) are not explicitly forbidden by the Geneva Law, the rules of war prohibit the use of inherently indiscriminate weapons or weapons that are incapable of being used in a manner that complies with the obligation to distinguish between civilians and combatants. Those who use them in civilian areas (including Israeli Jews) therefore open themselves to charges of war crimes.

Well, I’ve devised another kippah for The Minyan, to be used as a thinking cap during reflection.  A beautiful kippah, covered with billowing white and silver bursts of white phosphorus.

Try it on and see how it feels.  It won’t hurt; it’s not Hercules’ cloak.  It’s luminous.  Would that it illuminated the difference between right and wrong.  Without contrived apologetics for Israel’s outrageous abuse of its right of self-defense, and without contrived excuses for our inexcusable denial of the humanity of those Gazans, who – scorched beyond recognition by munitions launched by Israeli Jews – also reflect my idea of the image of the divine.

1.22.09 Update:

It’s always  a challenge to know where to find reliable information, in order to judge the conflicting claims (Israel denies using white phosphorus innappropriately in Gaza) and reports.  Additional information about evidence of Israel’s use of white phosphorus in Gaza can be found at Res ipsa loquitur (”The thing itself speaks”) legal blog, here, here and here.


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When I think politically these days, its usually informed by something The Magnes Zionist has had to say. His latest needs to be shared verbatim.

Meron Benveniste’s Doom and Gloom

Posted: 21 Aug 2008 09:41 AM CDT

My favorite Israeli Cassandra, Meron Benveniste, wrote a sobering op-ed in Haaretz today that sums up, more or less, how I feel. The two-state solution is dead; the one-state solution is not going anywhere; the status quo will continue unabated, with periods of violence alternating with periods of relative calm. The world, except for some leftists and Muslims, won’t care. There will be some further erosion of Israel’s “moral stature” but not enough for any real change. No boycotts, no sanctions, nothing with teeth. And 3 ½ million Palestinians within Palestine, not to mention the multitudes outside in refugee camps and with stateless status, will continue to have a quality of life far lower than their Israeli counterparts.

And what Benveniste says, in effect, is that no matter what happens, there will be a fundamental economic inequality that ensures that the Israelis will have the upper hand. How long can the status quo continue? Indefinitely.

This explosive status quo survives due to the combination of several factors: fragmentation of the Palestinian community and incitement of the remaining fragments against each other; enlistment of the Jewish community into support for the occupation regime, which is perceived as protecting its very existence; funding of the status quo by the donor nations, which cause corruption among the Palestinian leadership; persuasion of the neighboring states to give priority to bilateral and global interests over Arab ethnic solidarity; success of the propaganda campaign known as negotiations with the Palestinians, which convinces many that the status quo is temporary and thus they can continue to amuse themselves with theoretical alternatives to the final-status arrangement; the silencing of all criticism as an expression of hatred and anti-Semitism; and psychological repugnance toward the conclusion that the status quo is durable and will not be easily changed.

Of course, Beneveniste, as is his wont, holds out a slim chance for change:

Its not nice to admit, and it is a sad forecast, but without accepting this conclusion and learning our lesson from it, change will not be possible.I think he feels that change is possible, if one eliminates some of the above factors.

My view is as follows: there is no solution, there is no possibility of justice or peace, there is no way to make a seismic shift. In situations like this, the task of any decent man and woman is to do what they can to alleviate the suffering – to support the activists and the NGOs, to publicize the human rights violations, to talk to our family and friends and let them know what is going on. This will not end the occupation, since the occupation cannot end. But fifty or hundred years from now, our children will be able to say to their children, “Your grandparents were not silent. They tried and failed, but at least they tried.”

One thing that we can talk against immediately: the so-called peace process. One of the strongest reasons for the ongoing occupation is “the success of the propaganda campaign known as negotiations with the Palestinians, which convinces many that the status quo is temporary and thus they can continue to amuse themselves with theoretical alternatives to the final-status arrangement”. More Israelis, and more supporters, must be taught the lesson – there is no possible agreed upon solution, not now, not in fifty years, not in a century. Israelis and supporters must understand that their war is a permanent one, and that the injustices they commit in the name of their security are permanent. Then, and only then, can one ask the question whether the price of a Jewish state is too high. The Jews survived for two thousand years without a state. And while being a minority is not a picnic, they can be proud of what they achieved. Can’t they get together and start thinking about alternatives to what a few Russian Jews came up with in 1948? “The Jewish head doesn’t stop inventing things,” Uri Zohar used to sing. Well, can’t we start thinking outside the 1948 political Zionist box?

Here’s the article from Haaretz.

What bears repeating?  “The Jews survived for two thousand years without a state. And while being a minority is not a picnic, they can be proud of what they achieved. Can’t they get together and start thinking about alternatives to what a few Russian Jews came up with in 1948?”  Why? Because my young adult, American-Jewish sons and their friends need a viable alternative if they are to be able to build independent and robust relationships to Judaism.

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