Dear Religious Zionist:
Your most recent email to me – in which you ask me to “take a long look in the mirror” because my truth-telling about Israeli atrocities doesn’t square with the warmongering propaganda you’ve chosen to swallow – is both perplexing and revealing.
Of course I know what prompted your message. As we’re all aware, the inmates of the concentration camp called Gaza, after years under an illegal, inhuman siege interspersed with murderous Israeli assaults (which, in previous letters to me, you actually tried to defend) finally rebelled the day before you wrote me your indignant note – attacking Israeli military positions, killing a large number of Israelis and taking many civilian hostages back to Gaza.
Although you have long taken the mass murder of Palestinians in stride, their desperate act of resistance seems to have shocked you.
And apparently you hope it will have shocked me, too.
But if I’m shocked by anything, it’s the moral blindness your letter exposes: the hypocrisy, the victim-blaming, the casual cruelty.
And because you describe yourself as a religious Jew – like me – I’m perplexed as much as I’m appalled.
I’m perplexed, first of all, because it is obvious from your email that you have never read a word of the existing scholarship on the history of Palestine under the Zionist boot. When you wrote me months ago, astonished because one of my recent articles referred to Israel’s wholesale slaughter of Gaza civilians in 2014 as a “massacre,” I was at pains to direct you to books that would have put to rest any doubts about the accuracy of my comment. You clearly haven’t even looked at those books. Yet on the strength of a typical spurt of Israeli propaganda, you feel yourself justified in condemning me.
I’m perplexed because, by your own admission, you’ve lived in Israel for fewer than ten years. All you really know of Israel’s occupation of Palestine is what its apologists tell you about it; as for Gaza, you’ve never even spoken to one of its two million imprisoned inhabitants (half of whom are children). Yet you insist that the Israeli army never targets civilians – notwithstanding mountains of evidence to the contrary – and that the belated armed resistance of the tormented Gazans represents “the epitome of all that is evil in this world.” Are you a fool or a deliberate liar?
I’m perplexed, finally, because you call yourself a religious Jew – and yet you don’t so much as mention the bloodthirsty fulminations pouring out of Israel’s Orthodox Jewish establishment at this very moment. Have you seen the video distributed last week by Hakhel, a Brooklyn-based distributor of rabbinic teaching, in which a grinning soldier in an IDF uniform proudly declares his army’s intention not only to “kill the enemy” but to “annihilate him with all force”? (If you haven’t, I have.)
Are you in any doubt about the meaning of that threat, as Israeli bombs flatten residential high-rise buildings throughout Gaza? It isn’t enough that Orthodox Jews have ignored – or celebrated – every cruelty inflicted on Gazans for decades, cruelties ranging from the denial of electricity and drinkable water to the periodic massacres that have already killed thousands of civilians. Now Orthodox rabbis are actively promoting genocide. And yet you see “evil” in Palestinians – and only in Palestinians?
Your ability to reason is evidently as flawed as your (negligible) moral sense. Not one of your letters to me has ever complained about the criminal practices that are routine for the Israeli military: collective punishment of Palestinian families, extrajudicial executions, wanton destruction of homes, targeting hospitals, ambulances and medical teams, torturing children (to name just a few). In your latest letter, you insist that these crimes are no more than inadvertent “failures.” But you also claim that when Palestinians allegedly imitate a few (and by no means all) of the tactics of their oppressors, this amounts to “outright evil butchery” and cannot possibly be excused. Do you really expect me to take you seriously?
It is revealing that you borrow that particular double standard from the repertoire of shopworn Zionist apologetics. As you ought to know, it is rendered especially hypocritical by the additional claim – Zionists are never without it – that Israel’s ethnic cleansing of 1948, together with the explicitly racist legislation that has been the bedrock of Israeli politics ever since, cannot be criticized because those actions followed on the heels of the Nazi genocide.
As Golda Meir reportedly told another Israeli politician, “After the Holocaust, Jews are allowed to do anything.” If that is true for Jews, why don’t Palestinians get the benefit of the same reasoning after 75 years of Israeli brutality?
In fact, Palestinians – Gazans in particular – have a better rationale for the use of violence than Israelis could possibly have. Like other Israeli apologists, you write as though Palestinian resistance began on October 7.
Have you forgotten the overwhelmingly nonviolent First Intifada that began in December 1987 and which Israel crushed with sadistic force? (“Break their bones!” was the notorious order of Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s Defense Minister at the time.) Have you forgotten the many nonviolent Land Day protests that have led, year after year, to deadly shootings by Israeli soldiers? Do you remember the murders of Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall (among others) for trying to protect Gazan civilians from Israeli attacks?
And what about Gaza’s nonviolent Great March of Return in the spring of 2018? That protest unleashed a prolonged orgy of Israeli violence in which hundreds of unarmed Palestinian protesters were murdered, nearly 60 of them on a single day – a day when Jews like you celebrated Donald Trump’s announcement that henceforth the US would (illegally) recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. After so much proof that Israel meets unarmed protest with murder, what exactly did you expect the desperate people of Gaza to do? Simply lie down and die?
You complain that there is “zero moral equivalency” between Israel and its Palestinian victims. And I agree with you. But you have turned reality on its head by insisting that the moral discrepancy here favors the oppressor rather than the oppressed. You are asserting that the guards of a concentration camp should be judged more favorably than the inmates they torture – even inmates who have spent their entire lives in that prison, enduring that torture. Only a Nazi could agree with you. I certainly cannot.
Holocaust survivor Leo Baeck once wrote that piety “is characterized not only by what it does but…by what it permits,” and that “it is difficult to say what has been more pernicious in the course of time: the intolerance that committed the wrongs or the indifference that beheld them unperturbed.”
Since you have chosen to challenge my moral bona fides – and have even dared to compare Gaza’s Palestinians to Nazis – I demand of you, in return, how you can justify your indifference to decades of Israeli crimes against Palestine? How can someone who calls himself a Jew defend keeping a million children penned up in a concentration camp for 17 years, as you have done? How can you watch, “unperturbed,” as millions of people face a slow death at the hands of the terrorist militia (the “Israel Defense Forces”) for which you have nothing but praise, and then condemn the inmates for fighting back?
And please do not fall back on that oldest and lamest excuse of Nazi collaborators: that you didn’t know what was happening. It has been nearly four years since Harvard University’s Sara Roy publicly documented that a million children in Gaza are being poisoned every day because Israel does not even allow its prisoners to operate a sewage treatment plant. Less than three years ago, Israel was once again leveling apartment buildings and wiping out whole Palestinian families in Gaza, while its forces waged an accelerating ethnic cleansing campaign in East Jerusalem – one that continues to this day. Israel’s sinister twin policies of land theft and apartheid are matters of record beyond any possible refutation.
And the record of your Israeli coreligionists during the same period is as blatant as it is appalling. In 2021 – seven years after you decided to emigrate from the U.S. to Israel for what you say were religious reasons – you could hear, via the web site of the Jewish Press, supposedly the world’s most widely read English-language Orthodox Jewish news source, another American-Orthodox-Jew-turned-Israeli named Malkah Fleisher kvelling over a fire she thought was roasting Muslim worshipers alive at the Al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem. After Israeli “police” assaulted trapped Palestinians with a barrage of stun grenades, and the worshipers tried to confuse their attackers by tossing firecrackers in their direction, an excited Malkah witnessed “a big fire flying out of the top” of the mosque and thought (mistakenly, it turned out) that the Palestinians inside were being incinerated. And she was okay with that:
[I]t was shocking – but it was also not horrifying. It was not horrifying. Because…we just felt like, as you say in Hebrew, magia lahem, like, they deserve this, they deserve to have a fire up on the Temple Mount because of what they’re trying to do to us, and we know if that those police weren’t standing there, they’d be shooting those firecrackers directly in our faces… And [so] the [Jewish] crowd was not horrified to see this fire.
According to this “religious” Jew, Palestinians who used a handful of firecrackers to resist attack deserved to be burned to ashes. As for you and your fellow religious Zionists – if you disagreed with her, I never heard you say so, not even after I reported her comments in print.
But now you claim to be horrified that some desperate Palestinians in Gaza have retaliated against their Israeli tormentors, who have done infinitely more damage than throwing a few firecrackers. Frankly, I find “hypocrisy” almost too mild a word for this.
If you still can’t make out my reaction to the Palestinian resistance of October 7, allow me to articulate it even more explicitly. I have no patience for anyone who wants to use this moment to condemn the people of Gaza or to emote in favor of their oppressors. Least of all do I have any patience for Jews who take that line.
I mean Jews like you who, for years if not decades, have ignored or even celebrated every Israeli atrocity, every brutal Israeli pogrom, every Israeli crime against humanity, every Israeli massacre, who for years saw nothing wrong with imprisoning two million people, half of them children, to die slowly of toxic water, malnutrition, poverty and hopelessness – and who are now wailing with horror because the inmates of that hellish prison have finally taken a desperate revenge.
Let us not pretend that we don’t know who is responsible for this. After all, who built the prison? Who guarded it, sadistically, all these years? Who cheered every time some of the prisoners were murdered or crippled or tortured or rendered homeless by Israeli violence? Who boasted of sending money to the criminals? Or even of putting on the uniform of the terrorist militia that kept the prisoners inside? Who insisted that the U.S. pay for Israel’s weapons? Who accused anyone who told the truth about Israel’s crimes of being an anti-Semite?
Today you say you have tears in your eyes. Spare me the tears and try growing a conscience. Either you accept responsibility for the resistance you’ve provoked and begin to atone for your past sins – the first acts of which should be ending the illegal blockade and tearing down the walls of the infernal concentration camp the Israelis have made of Gaza – or shut up and take what’s coming to you. You have no right to any other reaction.
Finally, since you continue to present yourself as a religious Jew, I ask you to contemplate this familiar passage from the first chapter of Isaiah – and to read it specifically in the context of the resistance that engulfed the Israeli-Jewish oppressors on the very day after the close of Judaism’s annual judgment season:
Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to Me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of assemblies –
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moon and your appointed feasts My soul hates;
they have become a burden to Me, I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread forth your hands, I hide My eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I no longer listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before My eyes;
cease to do evil; learn to do good;
seek justice; correct oppression.
Thus spoke the God you claim to worship. Consider that, and ask yourself how many Jews took the opportunity of the Day of Atonement and its surrounding holidays this year to cleanse themselves of their violent sins against helpless Palestinians. Are you proud of the obvious answer?
Ask yourself how Jews who claim to believe that God sees all can profess to be shocked by the inevitable retribution for years of cruelty and callous indifference. And since so many casualties of the resistance seem to have occurred at an all-night “rave party” near the Gaza prison wall, ask yourself: What sort of Jewish society is characterized by hundreds of stoned Jewish kids boogying it up in the shadow of a concentration camp the very night after the close of the year’s Days of Awe and season of judgment? Are you proud of that too?
I am no prophet, and I can neither read God’s mind nor predict the future. But I can assess human behavior as well as the next fellow, and I can see that your childish show of indignation is really an attempt to ignore the facts that should be calling you to repentance. On October 6, the day traditionally known as Hoshanah Rabbah, you and your fellow religious Zionists were praying loudly for a good year. The events of the next day suggested what the Almighty thought of your prayers. I can assure you that I, at any rate, am the least of your worries.
But I cannot free you from responsibility for your sins. Only you (and God) can do that. And you had better do it promptly – before you accumulate even more blood on your hands.
Michael Lesher is an author, poet and lawyer whose legal work is mostly dedicated to issues connected with domestic abuse and child sexual abuse. His latest nonfiction book is Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland & Co., 2014); his first collection of poetry, Surfaces, was published by The High Window in 2019. A memoir of his discovery of Orthodox Judaism as an adult – Turning Back: The Personal Journey of a “Born-Again” Jew – was published in September 2020 by Lincoln Square Books.
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