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Jews are Soul-Searching About Madoff -- What About Gaza?

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There has been an unusual amount of introspection in the Jewish community this holiday season. Hanukkah was almost overshadowed by the Madoff scandal and the accompanying uproar about his impact on the Jewish community. The frenzy of handwringing and accusation culminated with the call for Madoff's excommunication from Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Connecticut, who stated in a passionate a letter to Malcolm Hoenlein that "never before has one man done such damage to individual Jews, Jewish organizations and Judaism itself." Hammerman was motivated by fears for the future of Judaism: "Our own children are watching us."

The future of Judaism and the moral standing of the US Jewish community are being threatened, but ironically, and tragically, it is happening far from the country clubs of Palm Beach and the mansions of Long Island. It is happening in Gaza. And unfortunately there is far too little handwringing about it in the Jewish leadership.

On the seventh day of Hanukkah, Israel unleashed an aerial assault on the Gaza Strip. This attack was ostensibly in retaliation for Qassam missiles shot from Gaza, but as was also seen in the 2006 war in Lebanon, the barrage was overwhelming and disproportional. At the end of the first three days of fighting over 350 Gazans had been killed and 1,600 injured. These deaths included children coming home from school, women shopping in open-air markets, and people waiting for buses. The indiscriminate nature of the attack combined with the ongoing siege of Gaza, which continues to cut the civilian population off from food, medicine, water, fuel and electricity, constitutes a horrific form of collective punishment.

I hoped that the Jewish community would stand against such an atrocity, but instead our communal leaders led the charge. Among others, the AJC "expressed strong support for Israel today in its military operation" and David Harris regurgitated Israeli foreign ministry talking points as children died in Gaza's barren hospitals. Eric Yoffe, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, lamented "We note, with sadness, the predictable chorus of those in the international community who call for Israeli 'restraint,'" and placed the Palestinian destruction at their own feet, "We hope that the Palestinian leadership will demand an end to missile fire and a return to the path of peace and the negotiations begun in Annapolis. And we pray that the Palestinian people will strengthen the hand of all who are prepared to make peace a reality."

I could not celebrate Hanukkah this year. Even before the Israeli attacks began, the images from the human-made disaster of the Gaza siege made celebration impossible. The Israeli peace activist Nurit Peled-Elhanan, who helped start the Bereaved Families Forum after her 13-year-old daughter Smadar was killed by a suicide bomber, summed up my feelings in a letter to other recipients of the prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought:

I call upon all of us, who have won a privilege as well as duty by receiving the Sakharov prize, to arise and go to Gaza and any other city of oppression and slaughter; to defy all blockades and high walls and not to give up until all barriers are broken.

When Jewish poet Bialik wrote after the Pogrom against the Jews in Kishiniev, "Satan has not yet created Vengeance for the blood of a small child," It did not occur to him that the child would be a Palestinian child from Gaza and his slaughterers would be Jewish soldiers.

I could not celebrate while Gaza was dying - while cities were cut off from electricity, from water, from food. I could not join my community who, if not actively celebrating and promoting this barbaric behavior, were sitting idly by while others are forced to starve and be killed in our name.

I was reminded of Prof. Marc Ellis's writings on Jewish theology where he often quotes Rabbi Irving Greenberg. Ellis frequently references Greenberg's belief that: "no statement theological or otherwise should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children" referring to those lost in the Holocaust. Ellis has amended Greenberg by taking his theology from the particular to the universal. In Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation, he writes:

As risky and problematic as it is, we are called today to the wilderness; but the call is a promise of liberation. Chastened by history, we can no longer see liberation as the omnipotent preserve of God hovering over us by day and leading us by night, or simply as the search for the empowerment of our own people in America and Israel. We can ill afford such innocence in the presence of burning children, whether they be in Poland or in Palestine.

I carry these words with me. No statement about Israel/Palestine, about the destruction of Gaza, about our Jewish tradition of justice, or about (yet another) Jewish holiday that commemorates overcoming oppression should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the people of Gaza.

I do not share Rabbi Hammerman's desire to ex-communicate anyone from the Jewish people, but I do share the Rabbi's concern for the future - for the future of Judaism and the messages we are sending the next generations. The siege and destruction of Gaza is the political, humanitarian, and moral crisis of our time. Where is the moral standing of a community whose leaders promote the slaughter of innocents? And when will we agonize over scandals where lives are lost at Jewish hands, and not just fortunes?

This article has been cross posted at JVoices.com.