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Jacob, Esau and Our Task at This Hour as Rabbis For Human Rights

11/28/2012 02:55 pm ET | Updated Jan 28, 2013

Just a few hours before Israel began its operation in Gaza, a Rabbis For Human Rights delegation visited Kibbutz Revivim and Bir Hadaj, an Israeli Bedouin village. That week police fired tear gas into the village's elementary school, sending some 29 children to the hospital. Bir Hadaj has recently suffered many home demolitions. Although it is a recognized village, its master building plan was frozen. It became impossible to get a permit to build legally. The previous month police were injured when forces came to demolish homes built without permits. The latest confrontation started because authorities distributed new demolition orders.

RHR had been following with concern the wave of Bedouin home demolitions throughout the Negev. Almost by accident we discovered that the same day there had been an arson attack on the adjacent kibbutz. If we really believed that every human being is created in God's Image, we couldn't make a solidarity visit to Bir Hadaj without visiting Kibbutz Revivim.

I wouldn't want to repeat what children in Bir Hadaj were associating with the word "Jew." Thankfully, residents and volunteers were trying to deal with the trauma and break down stereotypes.

On Kibbutz Revivim bales of hay were still smoldering. The kibbutz sustained more than a million shekels worth of damage, and kibbutzniks thought that the people they saw throwing firebombs came from Bir Hadaj. The general secretary indicated that most members felt they too were victims of government policy discriminating against their neighbors. However, we heard anger because some sensed that many people were concerned solely about Bir Hadaj. Only a settler website covered the arson.

What does this have to do with Gaza? Most of us have biases burned into our hard drives. Either we see Zionist aggression, charred Palestinian babies and draconian strictures on Gazan exports and movement, or we speak of terrified Israeli children with 15 second warnings to run to bomb shelters, our Israeli dead and thousands of rockets since Israel withdrew from Gaza. For all too many of us, our sympathies are all encompassing and exclusive.

There is a price to this spiritual blindness. When some Israelis rage against our government without a word about their fellow Israelis under fire, most Israelis see them as out of touch at best. When others go on and on about Sederot without a word about the death and destruction our overwhelmingly superior power wreaks in Gaza, it confirms for many that we are jingoistic purveyors of exclusive Jewish privilege.

Moreover, those Palestinians who can't see the Israeli child huddling in a shelter mistakenly think that Israel only attacked out of brutality. When Israelis don't see the connection between the restrictions Israel imposes and misery in Gaza, we take no responsibility for the rockets. Immersed in our victimhood, it doesn't help matters when we each believe that the world is ignoring the crimes being perpetrated against us.

Those who can't see the wider reality will find it much more difficult to change that reality for the better. For example, Israel's reluctance to ease up on the blockade strengthens support for terror.

In contrast, the words of Revivim's secretary general reminded me of the wisdom of our sages, "The sword comes into the world because of the suppression of justice and the perversion of justice, and those who misinterpret the Torah" (Pirke Avot 5:11, in other versions 5:8). Our rabbis were not justifying violence. They expected human beings to resist the impulse to do evil, but understood that the Bedouin who see their homes demolished and schoolchildren tear gassed will often lash out. Gazans who can't afford the goods on the shelves may well support terror against their oppressors. Israelis will likely justify whatever they think will stop the rockets, even killing civilians.

Our fellow Israelis must know that we human rights activists know that they too are created in God's Image. As rabbis, we must hold both Israelis and Gazans to a basic principle in international law and in the Jewish tradition: We have a right and responsibility to defend ourselves, but must not kill civilians in the name of self defense. The Talmudic Tractate Sanhedrin 72-74 teaches both this principle and that of minimum necessary force. Somebody who kills a pursuer to prevent him/her from murdering, when s/he could have stopped him/her by other means, is him/herself a murderer.

However, we Israelis must remember that our greater power entails greater responsibility. When we hear "There would be no attacks on Gaza if their would be no rockets on the Western Negev," we must remind our fellow Israelis that this may be true, but we can best help ourselves if we stop using our overwhelming power to make life miserable for Gazans.

My subjective observation is that, at least for the first few days, Israel did a better job this time of not harming civilians. But "better" isn't good enough. "One who destroys a single life, it as if one as destroyed an entire world" (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5). It is hard to argue that we used minimum necessary force when a calm seemed to have been going into effect before the operation, and we have been told that progress was being made toward a long-term ceasefire. We certainly hadn't taken the steps we could have taken to stop oppressing Gazans. And I can't help recalling that the rocket fire resumed soon after the previous operation. I sadly identify with the desire of most of my fellow Israelis (and of Palestinians) for peace and security, and repeat again, "The sword comes into the world because of the suppression of justice and the perversion of justice, and those who misinterpret Torah."

In the Torah portion Jews read two weeks ago, Esau is driven into a murderous rage after Jacob cheats him yet again. Jacob flees for his life, and will live in exile for twenty years. Both feel themselves to be the victims. This week we read that two older and wiser brothers find God in each other.

Kein Yihi Ratzon, May this be God's Will.