Frustration, Anger, Compassion, and Action in A Time of Polarization

by Rabbi David J. Cooper

    A Note Before My Article: I wrote an initial draft of the following article and circulated it to some folks a few days ago. I received a lot of feedback, but what struck me was that some people perceived that I was taking some sort of in-between position that was not a moral stand per se. I don’t agree, but if I am interpreted that way, then I don’t want to play hide the ball. So here first I’ll let you know where I stand, whether you share my personal position or not.

     While I am deeply concerned about the safety of the people of Israel, I am also against the violence of the attack by the Israeli forces on Gaza. If Israel has an Iron Dome defense, then I believe it cannot justify bombing a location with civilians because of a suspicion that Hamas has missiles nearby. I also believe that this present conflict could have been avoided by negotiations after the ceasefire of 2008 and/or a recognition of and negotiation with the Palestinian unity government. I suspect that what motivates Netanyahu in this is punishment and breaking the will of the Palestinian people. I am especially distraught at what I believe are the unnecessary deaths of hundreds and hundreds of Palestinian civilians, each and every one of them someone’s beloved.

      But beyond and before this current conflagration, the resolution of the general conflict between Israel and Palestine has been largely in Israel’s hands, which could have been moving all along toward the most obvious, if imperfect, resolution of the issue: two sovereign states, based on the pre-1967 borders, with Palestinians coming to have control over their border, their defense and their economy, with the security of both secured by means that do not diminish either state’s ultimate sovereignty. Israel has been militarily superior during all the time of this conflict, and regardless of whether a military occupation of the West Bank has ever helped Israel’s security, building settlements and moving Israeli civilians into the area that would be the Palestinian state contributes nothing toward peace and reconciliation, and has led people around the world to doubt the sincerity of Israeli leaders when they attest to supporting a two-state solution. I am definitely no fan of Hamas, either. I feel they play too fast and loose with civilian lives, and their antipathy to Israel exceeds their antipathy to what they see as settler colonialism, and crosses into hatred of Jews per se. But alas, peace is negotiated with one’s enemies.

  It’s no secret where I personally stand.

  Now on to what I need to say in this moment. 


The Article 

     I talk to people, and they are frustrated. I read my email and I read the articles to which links are supplied by the emails. More frustration, more anger and blame. I am beseeched to stand with Israel; I am beseeched to stand with Gaza.

     I am told by some that I must mobilize Kehilla people to take an action that reflects the Kehilla position on this, by which some mean standing with Gaza, and others mean standing for both Israel and Gaza together. And some mean standing for Israel. Even the Kehilla community is diverse. I know Kehilla people are attending different actions and that’s a good thing, I am glad that there are public gatherings serving as avenues for people to express their views.

     The evening of Compassionate Listening on July 31st went very well, and it was important to enable people to speak and be heard. Pursuant to its design, it was not its purpose to organize people to take action about what they believe needs to happen next in Israel/Palestine.

     Meanwhile, I am dealing with voices around me, some imagined, but all of them real:

     “You say you have compassion for Gaza? You’re supporting Gaza, which means you’re supporting Hamas and Hamas is seeking the death of the Jews. Thus, you are being duped into being a traitor of Israel and an ally of Jew-killers.” OR “You say you have compassion for the fears of the Israelis and their sense of supposed vulnerability when they have one of the strongest militaries in the world? Such ‘compassion’ supports the killing of innocent children and the annihilation of the Palestinian people.”

     Both these voices say: “How dare you say one sentence about Israel and then one sentence about Palestine! You imply that each side’s vulnerabilities are the same and that their wrongs and rights are morally equivalent!”

     I am struggling with the outer boundaries of these kinds of feelings, where they cross over into full-blown anti-Arab racism (there are daily racist attacks directed at Palestinians in Jerusalem and there have been some rabbis justifying the killing of Arabs for being Arab). And the line is crossed in the other direction, where anti-Israel animus is emerging specifically as anti-Jewish, with attacks on synagogues and Jewish institutions, especially in Europe.

     This is a difficult period in which to retain compassion for Israeli fears. The deaths of civilians in Gaza are in the four figures, including hundreds of children. Arguing whether this was a necessary outcome of Hamas’ rocketry from Gaza neglects that for six years (or more) there has been an opportunity to sit down and negotiate over the very issues that fuel the current confrontation. It neglects how Netanyahu has squelched Palestinian moderate and non-violent approaches for years. Instead of proving to the world that Israel is willing to work with non-violent moderates to create a reasonable division of land and power to enable Palestinian aspirations to become realized, Netanyahu has used every excuse to marginalize these efforts and strengthen the claims of those who say “Israel only understands force.” So yes, I am angry at the Netanyahu government for causing the situation to come to this. And I am distraught each time I hear of more civilian deaths in Gaza, as I know that each death is a human being whose death is cause for the abject grief of their loved ones, for decades to come.

     This is a difficult period in which to retain compassion when Hamas calls for the destruction of Israel, and Hamas’ rhetoric at times crosses from anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism. It is difficult, if indeed Hamas is purposefully placing its rocket launchers near civilian centers.

     It’s a difficult period to keep one’s eyes open to something beyond this specific violent confrontation. I cannot blame Israel for wanting to defend itself, but there have been opportunities to have prevented this belligerence from having come to this point. Why not have pursued the Arab League peace initiative, recognizing a two-state solution and pan-Arab recognition of Israel? Why not have embraced the Palestinian Authority when it created a unity government that could now actually negotiate on behalf of a wide-spectrum of the Palestinian electorate? Why not freeze settlements so as to create the space for a Palestinian state and for an atmosphere of trust during negotiations? Why has Gaza been under a continuous siege (exceeding a blockade of weaponry) while Israeli PR keeps affirming that it withdrew from Gaza, as if Gaza were a now free and independent country? Why after Oslo did Israel keep building and expanding settlements? It certainly has not contributed anything toward a peace settlement, and it has only made Israelis more vulnerable. Why declare, as Netanyahu has, that he supports two states, but emphasizes that effectively there will be no sovereignty for Palestine?

     Well, there isn’t going to be a Kehilla demonstration on any of this. Each of you will need to work out what you need to do and with whom you need to do it. Through Kehilla you can come to our services that emphasize our common values of peace with justice. Through Kehilla you can come to evenings we organize for Compassionate Listening. In Kehilla you can come to our High Holyday services, where we can pray as an expression of our diverse hopes about Israel and Palestine. And through Kehilla and its Middle East Peace Committee you can help frame a Kehilla statement – that respects the congregation’s diversity – about what we need to do as a community and as individuals about the ongoing conflict and Israel’s continuation and expansion of the occupation settlements.

     And soon you can donate through Kehilla to the Red Crescent and to the Israeli Red Star of David (proportionate to the civilian need each has in regard to the conflict). [This is not set up currently as I write this. Check the DONATE section of the website to see if we have arranged this yet.]

      I say go to all the demonstrations that move you. Are you supportive of Gaza? Fine. You will hear fiery speeches about the how the Zionists are killing children. And yes, that is reality. I say your spiritual challenge is to hear that anger and where it comes from and to nevertheless feel your compassion for the fears of the Israeli people and their vulnerability. Sounds tough? Compassion isn’t easy.

     Are you supportive of Israel? Fine. You will hear fiery speeches about how Hamas is seeking the destruction of Israel and how they do not care about causing civilian deaths. Also true. I say your spiritual challenge is to recognize Israel’s responsibility and our Jewish-American responsibility in allowing the occupation to expand unabated for decades. It is our responsibility to know our power and not just our vulnerability. It is also necessary that we stay attuned to our anti-Arab racism which can become manifest unless we consciously face up to it.

     Go to the demonstrations and actions you need to go to. Just work very hard to retain your compassion as far as you possibly can and beyond.

      And then the hardest thing of all in this regard: through your openness to the anger, to the frustration, to the compassion, find your way to hope no matter how many times it is challenged by reality. Without hope we lose the vision that things can be different, and “Without a vision the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18)



1 Comment

  1. Jalaja Bonheim
    September 17, 2014

    Dear Rabbi David,
    Thank you so much for this wonderful article. You echo so many of my thoughts and feelings. I usually am careful not to take sides, especially since I lead circles for Jewish and Palestinian women in both Israel and the West Bank. Yet I am also a Jew raised in post-war Germany who lost family members in the Holocaust, and as such, I finally got to the point where I had to speak out, which I did on my Facebook page, I’ll copy the post below. It got lots of angry comments, but also lots of positive ones and 2500 likes. Blessings on you and your work!
    Jalaja Bonheim

    An Open Letter to the People of Israel

    Dearest brothers and sisters,
    I am a German woman who resides in the United States, and a Jew whose father fled Nazi Germany in 1938. I believe that as Jews, we carry a heavy burden of responsibility. Each one of us must do what we can to ensure that what happened in Nazi Germany does not happen again.

    But what does that mean? The conclusion I’ve come to is that it’s not enough to remember the holocaust and the gas chambers. Above all, we need to understand the mindset that allowed the German people to act the way they did. This mindset was after all not uniquely German. Rather, the seeds of evil lie within all of us, no matter who we are or where we live.

    Countless examples prove that human beings can all too easily be manipulated and led astray, and that we are all capable of abusive, violent behavior. Of course, the details vary from case to case, as does the scale of the atrocities. But whether the victims number six million or six thousand, the underlying pattern remains the same: First, one group categorizes another as an enemy. Then, people buy into an ideology that dehumanizes the enemy, and that ultimately serves to justify acts of unspeakable violence. This happened in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Vietnam, and countless other places.

    Today, I believe it’s happening in Israel. I’ve visited Israel many times. I love the country and its people. But as a Jew who feels called to prevent cruelty and violence in the world, I must speak honestly. Israel is, in my opinion, a nation that has lost its way. Quite a few Israelis have told me in private that while they recognize the insanity of what their government is doing, they are afraid to speak out for fear of being attacked. This is, in itself, an alarming symptom, for in a healthy society, citizens are not afraid to speak their truth, as long as they do so respectfully.

    I need not remind you of how many children in Gaza have been killed by Israeli bombs, how many innocent grandmothers have been rendered homeless and destitute, how many lives have been wrecked in ways that will never be mended. And for what? Surely it’s obvious that if you sow violence, you will reap hatred, which in turn will spawn further acts of violence. And so, the bitter cycle continues.

    The people of Israel long for security and peace, but the actions of their government are achieving the opposite. Instead of creating safety for its children, Israel is putting them at ever greater risk. Instead of waging peace, it keeps waging war after war after war.

    Who, dear friends, is going to break the cycle? Who is going to have the courage to stand up and say, “No! No more! Not in my name!” Thankfully, many Israelis are doing just that, and with tremendous courage and dedication. They are a minority, no doubt, but an important one, for as I see it, they embody the best and noblest side of Israeli culture. They love their country, and grieve to see the direction in which it has developed.

    I am especially concerned about the way Israelis are ignoring critical voices. I think, for example, of the Israeli peace activist Miko Peled, who speaks around the world but finds few Israelis willing to listen. I think, also, of the Oscar nominated film The Gatekeepers, which revolves around the critical voices of six former chiefs of Israel’s security service, Shin Bet. As Ami Ayalon, one of the six, says, “Most Israelis are not listening. When it is too tough, the easiest way to deal with it is to close our eyes and to close our ears.”

    What would I do, if I were a citizen of Israel? I don’t know. Perhaps I too would close my eyes and ears. I am not a particularly courageous person. But since I live in the USA, I want to take this opportunity to tell you what I see, when I look at the state of Israel:

    *I see people who have embraced numerous comfortable lies about their history, their enemies and their own behavior towards those enemies.
    *I see a country that is needlessly subjecting its soldiers to tremendous trauma and damaging them in ways that will haunt their entire lives.
    *I see a nation in which many members of the government, military and police have lost their integrity.
    *I see an epidemic of dangerous fanaticism.
    *I see tremendous pain which, instead of being addressed and healed, is turning to violence.
    *I see people who have become accustomed to living in a state of numbness.
    *I see a people traumatized by the darkness of others, yet unwilling to take an honest, unflinching look at their own.

    Though I say this with the utmost respect, I realize some may take offense. I am choosing to say it nonetheless in hopes that my words might inspire and encourage the peacemakers in Israel.

    May the people of Israel find a path that is practical, wise and compassionate. May their suffering be relieved, and may they be guided by the spirit of divine wisdom, Shekinah, who has been with them since ancient times.

    Jalaja Bonheim, Ph.D.

    Jalaja Bonheim is an internationally renowned speaker and workshop leader, as well as the author of five books, including Evolving Toward Peace: Awakening the Global Heart. For more information, please visit and

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