Recently we have seen an escalation in Middle East hostilities. In what appears to be a never-ending cycle of violence, Israel has reacted to force with force. There is no question that Israel has the right and obligation to protect its citizens. This does not change the reality that each human life is sacred and the loss of human life is ultimately a disgrace to the Creator. I do not know any Israeli who is happy with the unfortunate reality of this military response. But Israelis don’t see any alternative in the face of missile and mortar fire on civilian targets.
Did Israel overreact to missile fire and mortar fire on civilian targets? Would any American ask this question if our government reacted to missiles and mortar fire on Manhattan or Paramus? In war, terms like “acceptable levels of civilian casualties” start to appear. On a theological level, acceptable levels of civilian casualties is any number less than one. God does not check passports at the gates of Heaven. Human life, Palestinian and Israeli, is sacred. Each individual, regardless of nationality, is created Btzelem Elokim, in God’s divine image. I believe that God sheds a tear for every casualty on each side of the border.
Does this mean that I condemn the Israeli response? The answer is an emphatic no. The Israeli response was restrained and measured. Israel honored the ceasefire even as missiles and mortars continued to attack Israeli citizens. It was only after the Hamas government canceled the ceasefire that Israel reacted. CNN reports that Israel dropped 400,000 warning leaflets over the target area. The leaflets read, “Due to the terrorist actions undertaken by the terrorist elements from the region of your residences against the State of Israel, the Israeli Defense Forces are compelled to respond immediately in the region of your residences. For your safety, you are ordered to leave the area immediately.” Fifteen minutes before the missile attacks, the Shin Bet security service telephoned the residents of targeted buildings and their surrounding areas, warning them that they must vacate. These are the actions of a military force interested in reducing the level of civilian casualties because of the value placed on every human life.
The recent military actions have left me conflicted. I have friends and family in Ashdod, Ashkelon, Pardes Chana, Jerusalem, and many other areas across the State of Israel. It is my friends and family whom the Israeli Defense Forces are protecting with this military action. On the other hand, I have many friends affiliated with the Islamic Center of Passaic County. Some of these people are my close friends, and I would place myself in harm’s way to protect them. I know that my friends would place themselves in harm’s way to protect me. Many of my Muslim friends have family in Gaza. It is quite possible that their friends and family are among the hundreds of reported casualties of this military action.
Military action can restore the perception of peace. It will never achieve actual peace. In the words of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, “The world would really like to have peace, but they don’t know what it is, and they don’t know how to get it. Imagine you go into a hardware store to buy ice cream. They won’t have it, right? People would like to have peace, but they are always going to the wrong store.”
What is the source of peace and what is the definition of peace? The answer, Reb Shlomo explains, is in the Sim Shalom prayer: “Place peace in the world.” Whom are we asking to place peace in the world? We are asking God, the ultimate source of peace. Reb Shlomo continues his reading of the prayer as a definition of peace and a methodology of obtaining peace. Goodness, blessing, grace, kindness, and compassion are the characteristics of peace. Peace is not simply the absence of war. The mechanism is also found in the prayer, “Bless us, our Creator, all as one with your light. You have given us that light, a life-giving Torah, love of charity, blessing, compassion, life, and peace.”
Many wars have been fought in the name of religion. I believe the antidote to war is also found in religion. If we can see the manifestation of God in one another, if we can see the reality of shared values outweighing conflicting values, peace will prevail. If every Palestinian knew an Israeli as a person and a close friend and was willing to place him or herself in harm’s way for that individual, if every Israeli felt the same way about some Palestinian, armies would not be reacting to terrorist attacks because the terrorists would not be able to exist. During the time that I lived on the west bank in Israel, I came to know Israelis and Arabs on a very personal level. Not one of them wanted war; they simply wanted to get on with their lives.
As people of faith, our mission is to replace sinat chinam, baseless hatred, with ahavat chinam, baseless love. I will quote the prophet Isaiah: “We pray for the day when swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor will they learn war anymore.” May we see peace manifest in our day through goodness, blessing, grace, kindness, and compassion. May our Creator bless all of humanity as one, with a love of charity, blessing, compassion, life, and peace.