March 22nd, 2024

(For the SoundCloud audio, scroll down)

This week, a group of American rabbis, cantors, and student clergy, under the banner of an organization called T’ruah, wrote a letter to President Joe Biden expressing their distress over the ongoing conflict enveloping Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Citing the verse from scripture, “God is close to the brokenhearted; those crushed in spirit, God delivers” (Psalms 34:19), the group called for an immediate ceasefire and urged the American administration to leverage its global leadership to halt the hostilities.

According to them, “A ceasefire is the only reliable, proven means for securing the release of the remaining hostages and ensuring the provision of desperately needed humanitarian relief to Gaza. Lives hang in the balance.”

At face value, T’ruah’s appeal seems to indicate a deep yearning for peace and the alleviation of suffering. But on closer scrutiny, the letter reveals a profound disconnect from the complex realities on the ground and the intricacies of truly achieving lasting peace and security for everyone involved.

The letter from T’ruah fails to acknowledge the necessity of confronting aggression with strength – specifically so that there can be a peaceful future for Israel and the Palestinians. War, with all its ugliness and tragedy, was never Israel’s desire, nor is it welcomed by Israel’s supporters across the globe. But the premature cessation of hostilities, particularly if it is driven by external pressures that are devoid of any kind of nuanced understanding of the security dynamics, just risks emboldening Hamas and sowing the seeds of future turmoil, in which death and destruction will inevitably exceed the current horror.

Truthfully, I wish that was it. I wish this was just a letter written by a bunch of naïve peace-seekers trying to shift the needle against Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. Wouldn’t it be great if the letter was merely a misguided but heartfelt attempt by T’ruah to be true to their humanitarian ideals? The problem is that it isn’t. Instead, the authors reveal that their stance – despite it being couched in religious language and the platitudes of religious piety – is nothing less than an attack on Israel, on its people, and on its right to defend itself against an existential threat.

How can they claim that their “hearts are broken by the deaths of over 30,000 Palestinians in Gaza — the majority of whom are women and children who bear no responsibility for Hamas’s crimes”? Really? As they well know, the Gaza casualty numbers are provided by the Hamas-run “health ministry” – which, to be clear, is not a reliable source by any stretch of the imagination. And by simply trotting out the mindless mantra that “the majority” of those who have died in Gaza are women and children T’ruah has demonstrated that it has become nothing more than a propaganda tool for Hamas.

In any event, how many of the “30,000” dead are Hamas combatants – including, tragically, women and young teenagers bearing arms for this evil terrorist outfit? And how many women and children have died because Hamas has cynically used them as human shields? Of course, T’ruah makes no mention of this.

And how is it that T’ruah has not called for President Biden’s administration to use “the full force of America’s leverage and global leadership” to get Hamas to lay down its arms, so that the people of Gaza can begin charting a path towards normalcy and rebuilding? The cause of Gaza’s devastation is not Israel – it is Hamas, which has cynically engineered this crisis so that international sympathy is focused on Gaza, which has been shattered and destroyed as a direct consequence of the October 7th Hamas massacre in Israel.

But it gets even worse. The concluding segment of T’ruah’s letter targets the actions and policies of the Israeli government, and criticizes settlers in the West Bank, accusing them of deliberately escalating violence and of attempting to ethnically cleanse Palestinians. Inexplicably, the letter goes on to call for actions against Israel’s government, and against organizations and individuals that T’ruah accuses of promoting violence.

These calls are ludicrous and one-sided, and they stand out in a letter in which is there no call for the true sources of the conflict, namely Hamas, Iran, and Qatar, to be sanctioned – or even called out – for their endless bloodlust. With this omission, T’ruah has revealed its hand; the signatories to the letter, notwithstanding their attempt to occupy the high moral ground, are no more than political and ideological allies of diehard antisemites and those who wish to see Israel perish.

In stark contrast to the positions outlined in T’ruah’s letter stands the wisdom of the Shem Mishmuel, who offers a timeless perspective on the essence of a genuine rhetorical contribution. In the Shem Mishmuel’s commentary to Parshat Vayikra, he delves into the spiritual significance of contributions to the Mishkan, and Moses’ unique role in this process.

The Midrash Tanhuma on Vayikra tells us that Moses never had the chance to donate anything material to the Mishkan, and that this upset him very much. The Midrash opens with a conversation between God and Moses, in which God tells Moses that because his spoken words are uncontaminated by material desires or concerns, they are considered the ultimate gift towards the Mishkan’s construction. Moses instructing the workers to build the Mishkan was the greatest contribution of all – greater than all the gold and silver, and all precious jewels donated by everyone else.

The Shem Mishmuel finds this idea that the purity of words used by a leader represents the pinnacle of leadership to be exceptionally significant. Moses was above material distractions, so he wasn’t required to contribute physical objects – his words were the purest gift he could give. But had Moses’ words contained even a smidgen of personal interest, they would have been totally devalued.

Which leads us to the question: where does the line between genuine advocacy for peace and the purity of intention stand in the context of T’ruah’s letter? Simply put: had T’ruah’s letter been entirely focused on humanitarian concerns for Israelis and Palestinians, one might have concluded that the signatories had nothing but the purest motives.

But by engaging in political attacks and unfounded mudslinging, the letter betrays a nasty streak that disqualifies its authors from saying anything. Only a physical contribution can count. Unless they are in the field, fighting alongside the IDF, or volunteering their time and resources for the welfare of those in Israel they claim to represent, their words have no value whatsoever.

In applying the Shem Mishmuel’s insights to the present conflict, it becomes evident that any call for peace by those who wish to lead must be grounded in a realistic appraisal of the situation, and the avoidance of personal agenda-driven meanspirited attacks on ideological adversaries.

As we navigate these turbulent and troubling times, the leadership style we need is that of Moses. We certainly don’t need the vacuous clichés and empty words of those who seek to make a name for themselves as contributors to the cause, but whose contribution is destructive and unhelpful.

Instead of betraying their faith and their people, I would urge the T’ruah activists to strive for a lasting resolution – grounded in a realistic set of proposals untarnished by political vendettas and virtue signaling, and which will ensure the well-being of all those who are suffering from the effects of the current war.

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