Dear Student Protesters...

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

This week’s Torah portion is Acharei Mot, which describes the process of placing the sins of the community on a goat that gets sent into the wilderness on Yom Kippur. This goat was later known in English as a “scapegoat.” Anyone watching the student protests happening on college campuses around the county (among many other protests outside of campuses) can see that Zionists and the State of Israel are being scapegoated for the entire Middle East conflict and for many other perceived evils in the world.


It seems very appropriate to address this week’s parsha by sharing the following letter, written by colleague and friend, Rabbi Dan Levin of Temple Beth El of Boca Raton. There are many approaches to addressing the student protesters we see on the news. Some are more gentle and less confrontational, and the letter below represents that type of response. In the future, we hope to bring you other types of responses. Let us know what you think…

Dear Student Protesters:


I want you to know that I see you. I hear you.


We raised you to be feeling, caring, compassionate. We raised you to love your neighbor and to love the stranger. We raised you to never be silent while your neighbor bleeds. We raised you never to harden your hearts against the suffering of the oppressed. Your values are my values.


You see the suffering of the Palestinian people, and your heart breaks for their plight. Mine too. You can’t be human if your heart doesn’t ache for the suffering of innocent people.


I understand the allure of the power of protest. I understand the energy a community draws from each other when inspired to act for righteousness. It can be intoxicating.


But I am writing today because when we’re intoxicated we don’t see clearly. We act rashly without thinking, without understand the nuance, the details, without thinking it all the way through.


And you are too bright, too smart, too capable to act in this moment without curiosity. You are too old now to look at the world in childish binaries – assuming there only good guys and bad guys. You are too smart not to question all you are being taught to believe.


Because you are so gifted, with respect, I ask you to think a little harder, because whenever we take a stand, we have to know who we are standing with, and what we are standing for.


You offer a simple chant: “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free!” But where did that chant come from? Have you thought about what it really means?


That chant comes from a radical ideology based on a fundamentalist Islamic ideal articulated by the Muslim Brotherhood – that it is incumbent on all Muslims to wage war to bring the entirety of the Arab world under Muslim rule, governed by Sharia law.


That chant echoes Hamas’ calls for the complete destruction of Israel as an essential condition for the liberation of Palestine. They reject coexistence. “There is no solution for the Palestinian problem except by Jihad.” They are a genocidal organization whose charter declares: “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: ‘O Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.”


When you chant, “From the River to the Sea…” you, yourself, may not be calling for the genocide of the 7.2 million Jews who call the land of Israel their home, but you are aligning yourself and spouting the ideology of a group who very much believes in the legitimacy of mass murder.


When you chant: “By Any Means Necessary” you are endorsing violent attack on civilian populations as a way to achieve Hamas’ aims of eradicating Jews from the land. In a survey conducted last June by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, more than half of Palestinians surveyed in both Gaza and the West Bank believed armed resistance was the best path forward.


When surveyed, and asked: “Concerning armed attacks against Israeli civilians inside Israel, I….” – 70 percent of Gazans said, support or strongly support. Is that what you support?


When you chant for a return to Intifadeh, you are calling for the return of suicide attacks on young people at dance clubs, families at pizza restaurants, and bombing wedding celebrations as the means to achieve Palestinian liberation. Is that what you really believe?


If Palestinians attack Israeli civilians, is it not incumbent on Israel to do everything they can to protect those civilians? Is it not a moral truth that if someone is coming to kill you, you have to protect yourself, even if it means killing your pursuer?


But, you say, Israel is a Zionist colonial settler usurper of Palestinian land, with no legitimate right to exist.


The history of the Middle East is one of conquest and warfare. For thousands of years, armies have battled for this land.


For more than three thousand years, the Jewish people have been rooted in the land of Israel. Over the centuries that followed, that has never, ever changed. Whether the land was controlled by the Jewish people or by invading colonial armies from afar – Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, Arabia, Crusaders, or the Ottoman Turks, it was and remains the homeland of the Jewish people, who have lived in greater or lesser numbers there throughout the millennia.


Forced into exile thousands of years ago, the Jewish people were made to wander the world, ever searching for a land that would welcome them. Throughout the centuries, the Jewish people were never allowed to integrate into the larger cultures who hosted them. We were a nation apart – with different customs, language, religious traditions and beliefs. We suffered discrimination, persecution, pogrom, and expulsion. And as peoples throughout the world in the nineteenth century organized around their national identities, so too did the Jewish people.


Thus was born Zionism. Zionism is the national movement of the Jewish people to restore their original national homeland. It was born from the unending dreams of the Jewish people to return home to the land from which they were largely expelled, in which there has been a constant Jewish presence for more than 3,000 years.


To claim that Zionism is a colonial enterprise is a ridiculous fallacy. In order for a country to express colonial ambition, they must have a homeland from which to extend their reach. Arab colonialism began in Arabia and spread across the Middle East and North Africa. How else did the peoples of North Africa come to speak Arabic as their native language if not for colonial enterprise? French colonialism spread from France; thus you have native French speakers in places as diverse as Vietnam and Haiti.


If Zionism were a colonial, settler enterprise, then there would be an original homeland from which we came. In truth, Zionism is the political movement of an indigenous people seeking their rights to their original homeland.


The fact is that the land of Israel was dominated by the colonial hegemony of the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years. Jews began to purchase enclaves from Ottoman landowners, many of whom lived far from the lands they owned. In the 1880s, the population of Palestine was less than half a million. Ottoman Empire did not refer to that land as Palestine, but divided it between the administrative divisions of Beirut in the north, and the Mutasarrifate of Jerusalem in the south.


The return of Jews to their homeland was met with rejectionism, and yet they persevered. They built farming collectives and small towns, growing new communities in the outskirts of ancient cities – Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Hebron, Haifa. And out of necessity, they learned to defend themselves.


In 1947 the United Nations voted to partition the land into two states. Despite the geographic challenges the plan presented, the plan was met with rejoicing by Jewish communities all over the world, and was summarily rejected by the bordering Arab nations. Almost immediately, the Arab states began armed conflict, erupting into full-scale war by the middle of May 1948, when the State of Israel declared its independence.


Like all wars, this one was catastrophic. The newly created State of Israel lost one percent of its entire population. So many who had somehow survived the Holocaust perished within days of arriving in the newly created Jewish homeland. The epicenter of Jewish spiritual life, the Old City of Jerusalem, was walled off from the Jews of Jerusalem. In addition, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs who fled or were forced from their homes found themselves as refugees. It is tragic that so much suffering came from Arab rejectionism, but waging war has consequences, and those who wage war must then be willing to accept the consequences when they attack and fail.


The ensuing years saw unrelenting war and terrorism visited on the Jewish state. Out of necessity, Israel developed not simply an advanced economy with remarkable advances in culture, innovation, medicine, and the arts, but also a formidable defensive capability to protect its citizens from ongoing threat and attack.


Fifty years ago, Israel held its breath when Egypt, Syria and Jordan attacked again. Thousands were killed in the fury of the battle, but Israel was able to repel the attack.


And then, the Egyptians did something extraordinary. They decided to build a different future. They set down their weapons of war and extended their hand in peace. Years later the Jordanians followed. And over the years, efforts to create a just and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians have tragically failed to take root.


I believe you sincerely want a just and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. I know that millions of Israelis dream of the same. The question is: how should that happen?


Let’s imagine there were a ceasefire today. Would Hamas release the hostages it has held for more than 200 days? Would you build your home a few kilometers from the border with Gaza, knowing there was still a fighting force who had promised to rebuild its capacity to attack you again? Would the world invest the billions of dollars necessary to build a future in Gaza, knowing that Hamas would siphon off money and materials to rebuild its colossal maze of tunnels?


Let’s imagine America cut off aid to Israel’s military. Would there be any deterrence against Iran and its proxies, who are devoted to wiping Israel off the map? Would Hizbullah stop its rocket attacks on Israel’s northern communities, from which hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced? Would it be more just if Israel could no longer protect its citizens from the thousands of rockets and missiles fired on its cities and towns from Gaza and Lebanon? Would Iran be less likely to develop its nuclear weapons program, less likely to arm its proxies in Syria, in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Yemen?


Let’s imagine the barrier separating Gaza from Israel came down, and that Israel ceased its naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. Would Iran and other Islamist regimes stop sending advanced weaponry to Hamas with which to attack Israel? Would Hamas not immediately attack Israel’s cities and towns and farming communities? Would they not murder innocent men, women, and children? Would they not kidnap as many people as they could find and hold them for ransom in tunnels of Gaza?


Let’s imagine that you were the Prime Minister of Israel and Hamas attacked you as they did on October 7. What would you do in response to an attack of thousands of missiles directed at civilian targets, of more than a thousand murders of people sheltering in their homes or dancing at a music festival, where women were slaughtered after enduring rape, whose genitals and bodies were mutilated? What should the Prime Minister of Israel do when an enemy who is sworn to your destruction carries off more than 250 people, including infants and small children, elderly men and women, and hundreds of other innocent people?


When Hamas declared war on Israel on October 7, what was Israel supposed to do?


There is no question that every effort must be made to protect innocent civilians in wartime. It is incumbent on the IDF to do everything it can to minimize civilian casualties. Every civilian death is a horrible tragedy. But if Hamas embeds itself in densely populated civilian cities, situates its headquarters underneath hospitals, uses schools and civilian homes to store its weapons, ferries its fighters inside ambulances, and fires its rockets from community centers and mosques, what is Israel to do?


Israel’s universities are remarkable institutions dedicated to co-existence and the higher ideals and principles we both hold dear. Of what use is calling on your university to boycott the institutions in Israel most aligned with our values? How can you call for a boycott of Israeli universities and not call for a boycott of Chinese universities, or schools in other countries where thousands of people are oppressed?


We both believe that the LGBTQ+ community should be empowered to live in freedom and dignity. Why would we want to boycott and divest from a country that offers more freedom for the LGBTQ+ community than any country, not simply in the Middle East, but frankly in the free world?


We both believe that women should never suffer discrimination and that women should know only equity and equality. Why would we want to boycott and divest from the only country in the Middle East that actually believes in women’s equality and equity in nearly every facet of its society?


In wearing a kaffiyeh, and screaming the slogans of Hamas, you are endorsing an ideology that is diametrically opposed to what you and I both believe.


There is nothing I want more than for there to be a just and lasting agreement that will create the conditions in which both Jews and Palestinians can live together in prosperity and peace.


So let’s talk about a protest that I would join.


Call for Hamas to surrender – to lay down its weapons and disarm, and return all the hostages to their homes.


Call for Iran to renounce its pursuit of nuclear weapons and to cease exporting war and terrorism to its proxies throughout the region.


Call for Israelis and Palestinians to turn to the future, rather than litigate the past.


Millions of Palestinians and millions of Israelis call this same land home. It is time for new leaders to rise to lead us forward– to embrace our shared humanity, to respect our religious and cultural differences, to relinquish bigotry, hatred, and violence, and use our collective creativity and ingenuity to fashion a future where we dwell together in peace.


That is a vision that is complicated, nuanced, and complex. It will require serious study, serious compromise, and serious work. It will require the best and brightest among us to imagine it and make it real. I hope that you will pack up your tent, finish your exams, and make that your life’s mission.


“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem…”

Shabbat Shalom