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This war is just even though it’s brutal. Jewish leaders need to be ready to defend it

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JERUSALEM — I’ve been in Israel for only 24 hours, and I’ve quickly discovered that even after a week of weeping and worrying back home, I was not prepared to feel what it feels like here.

There is a cloud over this country, its people’s visages visibly darkened by grief for what has already happened, and with fear for what is yet to come. I have lived in Israel during many difficult and dangerous periods — through intifadas, wars, and the assassination of a prime minister — but there is nothing quite like the horror and the sorrow that grips the country right now.

It is also hard to shake the sense that things are about to get a lot worse.

Being here for a short time during this crisis helps me feel connected to the Israeli people and is pushing me to consider what responsibilities we bear right now from far away. The vast majority of North American Jews understood the magnitude of Hamas’ massacre and leaped to attention. We rallied with tears for our losses, and showed up with significant philanthropy to supply Israeli soldiers with their vast wartime needs and to support Israelis in the south whose lives and homes were destroyed in the rampage.

In this respect, we mirrored the unique ability that Israeli Jews have and are displaying right now to set aside political differences, even in a time of extreme polarization, to stand in solidarity with our people.

I fear, however, that what is coming will be substantially harder for our community and especially for our leaders, and I fear that we will misunderstand our responsibility. If North American Jews cannot figure out how to stand with Israelis right now — to determine the right balance between solidarity and criticism amid a dangerous and polarizing war — I fear that we will pave the way for the deterioration of the long-term relationship between North American Jews and Israel to a point beyond repair.

The challenge we face is that the dominant moral instincts and biases that define liberal North American Jewry, including an abiding commitment to kindness, compassion, and peace, make it difficult to confront the sad and painful truth that Israel is fighting a just war based on a just cause, and that solidarity with both our fellow Jews and with our values means supporting this war against Hamas, as awful as it will be.

To argue for the moral necessity of war right now is not a betrayal of our core commitments. Instead, it makes our commitments coherent in an imperfect world.

It is precisely the commitment to compassion that helps us understand the villainy that Hamas is committing against both Israel and against the Palestinian people — and that strengthens our resolve to defeat it. Our commitment to compassion should not become an obstacle to seeing that eradicating Hamas is essential to the world we want to help create: a world in which the safety and security of both Jews and Palestinians between the river and the sea is intertwined and guaranteed for both.

I fear that we are already failing this test of Jewish solidarity. Rabbinic statements and sermons are emerging that demand an immediate ceasefire. These calls mistake arguments about values for arguments about tactics, conflating the important work of praying for peace with the political act of demanding it, and they reduce the appeal to Jewish values to specific (and pacifist) policy positions.

And even as policy positions, they fail to provide an alternative vision through which Israel can destroy Hamas. Such statements and sermons marshal our moral instincts in implying that the absence of war is always morally superior to war.

But “just wars” are not just because they are easy or victimless. Just wars are just because they are morally necessary, because pacifism in the face of an unfettered evil is an untenable moral position.

No sovereign nation can tolerate an invasion like Israel experienced last week; no sovereign nation should be expected to rely on prayers and hopes that it won’t happen again. Israel should no longer be expected, by her friends from afar, to tolerate Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure or its continued aggression as a proxy of Iran’s genocidal aims.  

The fact that this is a just war based on a just cause is no guarantee that it will be conducted justly. Even if it is, it will still likely be terrible and tragic, with many civilian casualties. Israel faces two interdependent challenges right now: It must win this war against Hamas, dismantling its capacity to indiscriminately murder Israelis and its death-grip on the Gaza population; and it must fight in adherence to the ethics of war.

Ethics of war is more than a phrase. It is a doctrine with clear criteria for military policy that guides decision-making and hampers the capacity of an army to act indiscriminately. It has its own vocabulary, which solidarity with Israelis demands that we learn and use responsibly.

The principle of proportionality, for instance, is often bandied about to describe the tactical advantage of Israel’s weapons and defenses over the homemade rockets Hamas sprays into Israel. But the term, in its proper context, describes a commitment to restrain military action in proportion to military aims.

We are not nearly conversant enough in this vocabulary, and that confusion leads compassionate people to mistake difficult choices in war with moral failures of warcraft. We are also at risk, in trying to draw this distinction, of misinformation and disinformation distorting the evidence before our eyes, and of the prevalence of an entirely different set of assumptions on parts of the left that have predetermined the illegality and immorality of any Israeli military action.

But if we fail at this distinction, we will irredeemably condemn the cause of Israel in our eyes and the eyes of our children.

 So if Israel then faces two challenges — to wage an ethical war, and to win it — then we, its supporters, have two responsibilities: to support Israel’s fighting of this war, and to use our voices responsibly in insisting that it fight it ethically.

Diaspora Jewish leaders must understand that moral credibility in criticism of this war will lie only with those who seek to hold Israel accountable based on the belief that the war is legitimate, necessary and just. There is room to dissent on strategy and tactics about whether Israel is fighting this necessary war the right way — and an obligation to criticize when there is demonstrated failure to abide by the ethics of war Israel itself has long agreed to.

And there will be plenty to dissent about, and much to criticize. In Israel now, as the country mobilizes, Israelis are simultaneously signing up for reserve military duty at record rates and expressing immense frustration with their politicians for the clear intelligence and strategic failures that led to this moment.

That dance is a powerful model for those of us who wish to identify with the struggle that Israel must wage against Hamas, and the necessity to hold the politicians and the generals accountable to being the best they are meant to be.

I also carry a commitment to some amount of bearing witness to the character of Israel’s soldiers when I confront the possibility of ethical failings in the military. I don’t trust elected officials, but I have family and friends who help constitute Israel’s civilian army. They are a powerful counterweight to systematic and structural critiques of Israeli military leadership and policy today.

 To be in Israel right now is to feel that you are walking in the valley of the shadow of death. All this death — the victims of Hamas’ wickedness, the impending deaths of the Hamas perpetrators and the inevitable killing of innocent civilians caught in their grip — will continue to haunt us. But we also must tell the story right now that is right and just, as painful as it will be to hear it and adhere to it.

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