Grief, Horror, Commitment to Act: Responding to Israeli Navy killings of civilians in ships on the high seas

This morning (Monday, Memorial Day, May 31, 2010), I awoke to news reports that the Israeli Navy had boarded and fired on ten small ships, bearing civilians from many countries, in international waters approaching the coast of Gaza, carrying humanitarian supplies for Palestinians who have been suffering an Israeli blockade of many (not all) civilian goods. [Tuesday, June 1: Please be sure to read the Follow-up Letter that we sent out this morning. It is posted in the "Comments" section at the end of this letter, reached by clicking on the "Read more"note.]

Some of the civilians aboard had been killed.

The Flotilla refused demands they dock at an Israeli port, because their journey was in part humanitarian in the narrow sense, and in part demanded that the blockade be ended and the Palestinians treated as a People worthy of respect and direct relationship, not mere mendicants hungry for a handout. That respect is what the Israeli government refused — and has refused for years.

This killing of international civilians in ships on the high seas must become a lightning flash illuminating the deepest dangers of leaving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unresolved. As much a lightning flash of world danger arising in the Middle East as the Oil Disaster in the Gulf has become a lightning-flash illuminating the world-wide need to control the power and greed of Big Oil.

Only we can make this lightning flash in the Mediterranean into growing illumination and enlightenment, not just a passing glare.

So we must make it that.

Close to the end of this letter, you will see (in several bold blue paragraphs) an action I urge you to take in memory of these dead and in determination to prevent more deaths. Please take the ten minutes to do this. Whatever else you are doing for Memorial Day, please see this time as devoted to its deepest meaning: remembering the dead of war and striving to prevent more deaths.

Present reports indicate that between nine and fifteen people aboard these ships seem to have been killed, and dozens wounded. The people aboard included citizens of fifty different nations -- Ireland, the US, Britain, Turkey, France, many others. Some were members of their country's parliament; others, physicians, nurses, political activists. One Nobel Peace laureate.

The Israeli navy claims that as they boarded the ships to force them to turn toward Ashdod, an Israeli port, some of the civilians aboard lifted sticks or grabbed at Israeli weapons to stop them -- and they fired in response. Maybe. Maybe not. In any case, the crisis goes far deeper than what happened in those last moments .

We at The Shalom Center have been trying to focus on the deadly danger that the Climate Crisis and the top-down, pyramidal, unresponsive, irresponsible power of Big Oil and Big Coal are thrusting upon our children and grandchildren, upon America (N.B. the Gulf Disaster), upon our planet. As Jews, we know from Pharaohs and the Plagues they bring upon us - and these are modern Pharaohs.

BUT even as the Gulf disaster worsened, -- last weekend I watched with dread the approach of a Mediterranean disaster. I watched the Israeli government's rigid response to the approach of the flotilla. The Netanyahu government has increasingly seen only violence as an adequate tool for security -- evicting Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, breaking up demonstrations by Israelis and others to defend those homes, preventing Noam Chomsky from speaking at a university in the West Bank. Even inciting "mere" violent words by obsessive supporters of Israeli government policy like Alan Dershowitz which themselves incited events like the attack on Rabbi Michael Lerner's home.

Out of my dread of a disaster --- and out of my fear that the Israeli government was bringing and would bring utter shame upon the Jewish people, was poisoning the bloodstream of Torah that every rabbi has a sacred obligation to defend -- I felt we need to act as the ships approached Gaza.

So I asked all our readers to write Israeli embassies and consulates in the US and Secretary of State Clinton to implore Israel to lift the blockade and let the ships land in Gaza.

Some of our readers and members did, and also wrote to thank me. Many are on much-needed restful long-weekend Memorial Day vacations and may never have even seen my letter. Some wrote berating me that since I don't live in Israel, I could not understand how Israelis feel and can't understand even that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. But as I wrote yesterday, the Haaretz newspaper - which does live in Israel -- wrote in an editorial that --

"Moreover, the suffering that Israel is causing 1.5 million people for this purpose is not only inhuman, but extremely detrimental to Israel's status around the world."

"… Israel argues that there is no hunger in Gaza and that vital products enter the Strip regularly. Israel even said it was prepared to deliver the boats' contents to the Gaza Strip, but via Ashdod Port and using the Israel Defense Forces, not the boats directly.

"If so, this indicates that Israel is not opposed to the aid itself, but to the demonstration of support for Gaza's people. However, this show of support could have been prevented from the outset had Israel lifted the pointless blockade and allowed Gazans to live normal lives."

(Let us be clear: The insistence of the flotilla on landing in Gaza, not Ashdod, shows that they were intent not only on bringing medical supplies and desperately needed home-building materials to persons in Gaza, but on making direct contact with the People of Gaza -- seeing them as a People entitled to dignity and recognition. That is what Jewish and universal ethics call for, and that is what the Israeli government refuses to allow.)

Bottom line of the Haaretz editorial:
"The government has to decide right away to resume indirect talks with Hamas, to be more flexible about releasing prisoners and to lift the siege on Gaza."

As the very existence of that editorial itself shows, there is much that is valuable and decent and sensible in Israeli society. But its present government, which tries to drape itself in Jewish history and Jewish religion, is a disgrace to the Jewish people, an abomination to human ethics, and a danger to the peace of the whole world -- including the United States.

That government will not change on its own. Although Hamas has in the last year shown some readiness to change, after the events of this weekend it will be much harder for Hamas to change on its own.

Only the United States government has the power and the potential for commitment both to Israel's safety and to Palestine's freedom to bring about the crucial changes.

As General David Petraeus warned even before this horrifying incident, the close alliance between the US and the Israeli government sparks anger throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds not only against Israel but also against the US. In the wake of the killings of this past weekend, this rage will almost certainly increase - perhaps explosively.

So the US government's obligation to keep the American people safe from explosive violence throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds should lead it to insist on a regional peace settlement that affirms the legitimacy of Israel; frees the Palestinians of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem to create their own state living peacefully alongside Israel; and achieves peace and full recognition for and among Israel, Palestine, and all Arab states.

What does the word "insist" mean? It means that the US must use its power, not just jawbone. In a proposal I wrote two months ago, I sketched out how US power could be used with commitment, caring, and compassion. To see it, and if you choose sign it and endorse it, click here.

And meanwhile, what should American Jews be doing? We should denounce in the clearest terms this violent attack by the Israeli government on ships at sea and human beings of fifty different nations. We should grieve the dead killed by this attack just as we grieve Israeli dead killed by terrorists. We should quote Haaretz. We should call for US action, not just speeches.

I have taken the liberty - the chutzpah -- to draft a letter that I invite you to modify in your own words and send several crucial leaders of the American Jewish community. I am listing those leaders and their emails for you to send them something like this letter. (You can simply clip and paste it into your own email, modify it as you like, and send to their addresses.)

(Please note that in the follow-up letter shown in the comments below, I suggest also writing Members of Congress, Senators, and President Obama with the same message: To see the "draft model text" we have supplied, please click here. )

I hope you will add to our “draft model text” your own words and thoughts.

What follows now is the version we suggest you send the five Jewish leaders named below.

Dear [insert title and name],

I am writing in great urgency to ask you to take the following steps in the wake of the Israeli government's horrifying attack upon the flotilla of ships bearing humanitarian supplies to Gaza:

1. Call for all Jewish and other communities to mourn the deaths aboard these ships, as we grieve the deaths of Israeli civilians killed by others' violence.

2. Denounce the violation of Jewish values and worldwide human ethics involved in these killings on the high seas.

3. Publicly affirm the call of Haaretz, in its editorial of May 28, 2010: "The government has to decide right away to resume indirect talks with Hamas, to be more flexible about releasing prisoners and to lift the siege on Gaza"

4. Call for immediately ending the Israeli blockade of all civilian items from entering Gaza, while continuing inspections to prevent weapons themselves from entering.

5. Call for the US government to use all its diplomatic influence and economic power to bring about a regional peace conference in which the governments of Israel and all Arab states, and a Palestinian government of national unity, achieve a regional peace settlement that protects Israel, frees a peaceful Palestine, and calms the region while ending the rage now felt by many Arabs against the US.

With blessings of shalom, [your name and if you like, title & organization],

Here are the Jewish addresses we recommend and urge you to write.
You can of course add others whom you know.

Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, at:

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, at:

Dr. Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, at:

Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, at:

Debra DeLee, executive director of Americans for Peace Now, at:

These letters will matter to those who receive them. Please take the time -- about two minutes each - to send them. Whatever else you are doing for Memorial Day, please see this time as devoted to its deepest meaning: remembering the dead of war and striving to prevent more deaths.

With blessings of shalom, salaam - Peace!