By Rabbi John Franken
We are experiencing a Jewish national emergency, and we are in shock.
Other emotions may subsume us too — grief and sadness, anger and disbelief, resolve and even pride in the outpouring of generosity — but presently the feeling is mostly one of shock that Israel’s borders could be breached so brazenly, that so many were murdered so wantonly, that hundreds have been taken into captivity, and that for some 12 hours there was effectively no state protecting its citizens from a pogrom that calls to mind the time of our great-grandparents in Czarist Russia.
Yet even as we process an array of emotions, it behooves us all to make sense of this madness as dispassionately as possible in order to respond appropriately. Many of us feel almost a primal urge to hit back, mercilessly even, in order to settle scores and exact revenge. That is an understandable, but visceral response. A more sophisticated and ethical one would take into consideration how to most effectively destroy the enemy, spare the innocent, extract the hostages and sow so much fear and awe on the other side that even the thought of any more attacks would be unimaginable.
Ours is a tradition that loves peace but understands that war is sometimes, tragically, necessary. Maimonides explains that some wars are commanded, such as when your country has been invaded and violence must be used to protect your citizens. Now is such a time. We hate the fact that this war was inflicted on us. However, to protect our people and prevent further aggression, we must respond forcefully.
We would do well to understand this attack in historical context as well. The philosopher Micha Goodman put it this way: Israel has been attacked not just by Hamas; it has been attacked by the Persian Empire, by the Islamic Republic of Iran. To me, this conflict evokes more the era of the biblical Judges, when the tribes of ancient Israel were mercilessly attacked by the Philistines of Gaza (and Ekron, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Gat). Either way, history is rhyming again.
Either way also, just as the ancient Israelites prevailed against their enemies, so will the Jewish people of today. Just as the unity of our ancestors was the secret of their eventual success, so too will the unity of the Jewish people (k’lal Israel) cause us to prevail today. To give but a couple of examples, in the first week of this conflict, one New York synagogue alone raised $15 million to help our Israeli brothers and sisters. One man at JFK Airport was observed purchasing hundreds of thousands of dollars in tickets so that young Israelis could return home to fight. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Israelis have opened their homes to refugees from the north and south of the country.
As Americans too, this war is deeply consequential. When President Joe Biden denounced what happened on Oct. 7 as an “act of sheer evil” and called out Hamas for its stated purpose to kill Jews, he added, importantly: “This is not about party or politics. This is about the security of our world, the security of the United States of America.”
Indeed it is. The alignment of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran — and also Russia, North Korea and possibly China (which refuses to condemn Hamas) — is one side in a struggle between good and evil, peace and war, democracy and totalitarianism. Whether America will retreat into isolationism or act as our brother’s keepers in Israel — and also Ukraine, Poland, the Baltics, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and elsewhere — will have consequences for the entirety of Western civilization. America and, yes, Israel, must be prepared to defend freedom and human dignity not just in our own backyards but wherever and whenever it is under assault.
Each of us has a role to play in this struggle. We need to educate our fellow citizens about the stakes. We need to teach them about the consequences of appeasement and call out the cowardly statements that decry violence but refuse to name Hamas as the perpetrator and Jews as the victims. Teachers, administrators and religious leaders forfeit their moral authority when they cannot name terrorists and condemn their brutality. They surrender their stature when they slide into whataboutism and embrace the calumny that somehow this is a struggle against imperialism and colonialism. Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people, full stop. Gaza has been ruled by Hamas since 2007, during which it has brought ever more suffering and destruction to its people.
Rashi teaches that sometimes through destruction there can be the greatest repair and reconstruction. I pray that all of us will respond in ways that sanctify the names of God and the Jewish people, that help us maintain our moral clarity of purpose, and that inspire us to moral action. May our doing so give strength to our people. And with the help of the Holy One, may it bless us all with peace.
John Franken is president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis.