Thou Shalt Not Destroy Humanitarian Aid

Writings Writings and Lectures

Published: Times of Israel

Last month, groups of right-wing, nationalist religious activists blocked trucks transporting aid to Gaza, burning food and medical supplies. A video shows young men in kippot and women in skirts throwing boxes of food off trucks, cutting open the packages, and setting fire to the goods. The previous week another group attacked a truck driver, injuring him and setting his truck on fire because they mistakenly thought he was delivering aid to Gaza.

Unfortunately, these are not standalone events by lone perpetrators. A far right-wing group, called Lo Nishkach (“we shall not forget”) is reported to be responsible for the most recent assaults and vandalism. Another organization called “Tzav 9” has been attempting to block aid to Gaza for months with some success, believing that the aid is strengthening Hamas. Their views are extreme and racist. “You are messengers of holiness,” a woman posted in their internal messaging group chat. Another member wrote, “With God’s help, children will die in Gaza by our actions.”

These acts are disturbing on many levels, but I am most deeply upset by the identity of the perpetrators; religious youth who could be the children of my Israeli childhood friends. They claim to share my faith and values while trying to promote the death of starving children in Gaza. Where they see holiness, I see desecration of God.

In the face of these inhumane acts, the silence of the Orthodox rabbis and the Orthodox community is deafening. Where are the clear voices condemning these acts of blocking humanitarian aid and the ideology that disregards the lives of non-Jewish civilians?

The Jewish concept of Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name, means that we as Jews are obligated to increase holiness in the world. Maimonides reads Leviticus 22:32, “And I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel,” as a positive commandment and the end of that same verse, “and they shall not desecrate My holy name,” as its mirror image negative commandment. In my religious upbringing, we were taught that our actions affect God’s presence in the world. If we are immoral, if we don’t give up our seat on the bus to an elderly person, for example, it is a “Chillul Hashem,” a desecration of God’s name. If God’s presence in the world can be diminished by a child’s act of selfishness, what are the consequences of burning food intended for starving people?

I knew that I did not share many of the views of the right-wing “hilltop youth” and other settlers, especially on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the settlement project. But I thought that we still shared the fundamental Jewish belief that every human life has infinite value. What is shocking about the food-burners is that they are supported by rabbis and leaders in their own community, who no longer share these values.

The chief rabbi of Safed, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, composed a special prayer to be said when blocking aid, expressing the view that this is not only a political act but a religious mitzvah. He gave permission to his followers to break the rule of the Sabbath in order to block the aid to Gaza and in so doing, revealed a moral system that shares little with my Jewish faith. In his view, the Western values of liberal democracies are in conflict with a more authentic Jewish worldview that centers Jewish supremacy.

On a recent podcast, former government minister Tzipi Livni said that the Zionist project, as described in the Declaration of Independence, was to create a Jewish and democratic Israel. She warned that the extreme left, which calls for a democratic state even if it is no longer Jewish, and the far right, which calls for a Jewish state even if it is no longer committed to the values of a liberal democracy, will destroy the Zionist project.

But I would challenge her suggestion that the actions of the extreme religious right reflect an authentic Jewish worldview. These actions are not only a rejection of Zionist democratic values. They are, in fact, a corruption and a departure from the main body of Jewish religious philosophy as it has developed over 2,000 years. It seems that these people no longer share the view that every person was created in God’s image or the commandment to “not stand idly by while your fellow’s blood [is shed,]” or the overarching view that “just as God is compassionate, so, too, should you be compassionate.”

The American Jewish community has often been deferential towards its Israeli counterpart, perhaps because the burden of sacrifice that Israelis bear makes it hard for diaspora Jews to question their actions. Or maybe it is the machismo of the gun-carrying man in tzitzit that appeals to non-Israelis. Yet I see nothing romantic about preventing mothers from being able to feed their children, or denying access to medical supplies, or forcing people to undergo surgery without anesthesia. In these actions, I see pain, suffering and the tarnishing of godliness in the world.

In response to the actions of so-called religious people, it is time for a clear and confident religious voice condemning cruelty in the name of God. We must restore the Torah’s care for the stranger, the widow and the orphan, along with secular values such as upholding the rule of law.

Seeing the Chillul Hashem – the desecration – I described, done in the name of God, I call on the Orthodox community that shares my values to state clearly that these actions are not done in the name of our God. I want to hear from individuals who believe we are commanded to express compassion for all humans harmed by the conflict. I am listening for the communities that feel obligated to fight so that every noncombatant in Gaza has food, water and medical supplies. I’m waiting for rabbinic leadership to issue a p’sak, a religious ruling, stating that both Israelis and Palestinians have the right to equality, freedom and safety.

Together, we must increase the sanctification of God’s name in the world, and fight actions and ideas that desecrate God’s name, especially those done in the name of God.

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