Just as every budget passed by a government is always in some sense a moral document, so what we say and do in response to a war also has moral dimensions.
I'm glad that Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, whom I met some years ago and whose work I admire, has decided to raise precisely that issue in this column written for Religion News Service. The piece, of course, deals with the Hamas-Israel war.
"What’s at stake for me, and all of us," he writes, "is how to make sure our thinking about the war is both compassionate and moral, and this question is before each and every one of us, regardless of politics, geography, faith or nationality. It means asking: How will we guard against sacrificing our compassion in the name of defending morality? How will we guard against allowing dangerous moral relativism to fuel our well-intentioned compassion?"
A moral response to war, of course, begins with a decision to speak what we believe to be the truth. In this particular case, that requires an acknowledgment that Hamas' surprise attack on Israel earlier this month was terrorism and must be condemned as evil -- without equivocation. And Hirschfield does just that: "This war began with the purposeful, wholesale slaughter of people simply because they were Jewish, or simply because they were in Israel, even if they were not Jewish."
That doesn't mean, of course, that the Israeli government can't be criticized for some of its policies and actions over the 75-plus-year history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- and criticized without that critique being judged as one more example of antisemitism.
Speaking the truth about the sufferings of the Palestinian people is also a moral requirement. Hirschfield puts it this way:
"I’m not suggesting anyone should give up advocating for Palestinians. But those who support or justify the attack that initiated the current conflict need to overcome dangerous moral relativism that is at the foundation of their views. The two sides’ actions are simply not morally equal."
By "current conflict," he obviously means the early October attack by Hamas and Israel's response. But the attack and response did not come out of nowhere. And we need to recognize that reality even if, in the end, we have to admit that we simply cannot untie the Gordian knot that is -- and has been since at least 1948 -- the Arab/Israeli conflict.
Adding his voice to the discussion of how to have a moral response to this war, my friend Tom Roberts has written this piece for The National Catholic Reporter. In it, he argues that Christians should be on the side of both the Jews and the Palestinians as followers of Christ recall their own botched history of relations with both Jews and Muslims.
"Christians," he writes, "and particularly Catholics, should approach the question of moral compass amid the horrific violence with a hefty dose of humility, if not justifiable guilt, following centuries of religious antisemitism that was a major ingredient in the state antisemitism that resulted in the Shoah. This is the history that Jews under siege in Israel and elsewhere want us to remember. Catholics might also approach this fraught moment with a hope born of our own experience — a transformation of our difficult relationship with Jews in the modern era.
"Nor were we very good at understanding or tolerating the Islamic faith and its various cultures. Perhaps it is that ancient history and certainly more recent events that contemporary Muslims wish we would recall."
All that said, what we simply don't know at this point is whether the Middle East can get from here to some kind of just and peaceful existence for all people. But such an existence would be a morally justifiable result.
P.S.: In this recent blog post, I quoted the advice of a Kansas City rabbi to people who want to know how to help in the current Middle East war: "Find the peacemakers." Since then I've heard from readers making recommendations about some possible peacemakers and I've done a bit of looking around myself. So here's a start:
This obviously is not an exhaustive list, but maybe you'll find a group in that list that you want to help.
* * *
THE WAR IS DIVIDING JEWS, TOO
The Hamas-Israeli war has revealed more clearly -- and perhaps exacerbated -- an existing split among American Jews, this RNS story reports. The war, it says, has "ignited anew a long-simmering battle between those Jews who stand unequivocally with Israel and those Jews who are critical of Israeli government policy and support Palestinians." But this should not be a surprise. When have all the members of any group with roots in religion agreed on everything?
For instance, the other evening at the annual interfaith friendship and dialogue dinner sponsored by the Dialogue Institute of Kansas City, the keynote speaker, Ori Soltes (pictured here), who teaches at Georgetown University, asked members of the audience if we knew how many Protestant denominations there are in the U.S. His answer: About 300. Though I knew better, I publicly guessed many more than that because I am convinced some days that there are 300 different denominations represented within my own Presbyterian congregation of 400 to 500 members.
Similarly, I sometimes disagree with my friend-from-childhood, Markandey Katju, a former justice on India's Supreme Court, though we're in agreement about a fair amount. But we see the Hamas-Israeli war differently. Still, I think it's right to give you a chance to read his ideas about the war and its sources, so I'm linking you to this column that he's penned. Feel free to disagree with both of us. You can email me at [email protected] and you can email Markandey at [email protected].