A Religious Response to Events in Israel and Gaza

Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt — 4 November 2023

I very rarely wear my kippah when I am off duty – I usually only wear it when I’m praying or teaching or visiting someone in hospital – anything that I am doing as Elliott the rabbi, but rarely do I leave the building without taking it off. This has never been out of fear, but maybe out of a desire not to distinguish myself, to make myself look different when out in public. But on Tuesday 10 October, I for some reason did not take off my kippah when I left Alyth and headed home, quite late in the evening.

As I parked my car and started walking to my front door in Finchley, a woman in a headscarf walked up to me. I doubt she would have done so had I not been still wearing my kippah. As she engaged me, I really did not know what to expect. She said she hoped that everyone I knew was ok and safe, and to say how terrible everything that had happened was on 7 October, a few days earlier.

It was such a fleeting, momentary encounter – I still don’t know my neighbour’s name. I also know that not everyone has had such comforting experiences when encountering others over the last four weeks – whether it has been on the street, on social media, on campus or at school

Two weeks after that, we watched as two hostages, 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz and 79-year-old Nurit Yitzchak, were released by Hamas. At the moment at which she was handed over into the arms of safety, Yocheved Lifshitz reached for the hand of one of her masked captors and said, ‘Shalom.’ One word: peace. Some Israeli commentators called this small action a public relations victory for Hamas. But it seems to be something that was simply natural for Lifshitz if we consider that, before 7 October, she and her husband would regularly ferry sick Gazans backwards and forwards to Israeli hospitals. Her husband, Oded, who is still being held hostage, is a journalist who has campaigned for the rights of Palestinians and Bedouins in Israel.

So, when she said ‘shalom’, doing so was a reflection of her deep commitment to the Jewish value of peace, and the desire to express it not just in theory, but in the most difficult of times, in the bloodiest of conflicts. It is easy for us to sing about it with each other; less so if you have just been released from brutal, tortuous captivity.

Our role as a religious community is not to give political or strategic military advice. Our role is to frame the conversation and to couch it in Jewish values. This is the aim of the Statement of Jewish Values and Core Principles, this week published by a number of rabbis and other communal leaders, and which was signed first by Rabbi Charley Baginsky of Liberal Judaism, and second by our own Rabbi Josh Levy, now full-time CEO of the Movement for Reform Judaism. I would encourage everyone to read the statement, which articulates five key values.

The value that I want to focus on is number 4, which says: ‘This moment requires those of us in the UK not to speak in simple slogans, but to admit complexity. … We must widen our gaze and expand our conversations, entering into dialogue wherever possible. We are all experiencing grief and these encounters may not be easy. It is time – perhaps like no other time in a generation – to act and speak in accordance with these principles.’

One parent of a university student I spoke to recently told me that his fear was that our children will face greater anti-Semitism at university, but more that they will only have Jewish friends. That they will not be able to take advantage of the opportunity presented by their time at university to meet and engage with individuals from all other kinds of backgrounds: Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, radical, conservative.

This is one of the greatest risks during this current crisis. That the Jewish community turns itself inwards and becomes only concerned with itself, losing sight of the needs of others in the world.

And yet we can look to our Jewish textual tradition for help. In this week’s parashah, we read of God with Abraham sharing the intention to destroy the cities of S’dom and Amorah. The Torah leaves us in no doubt that the behaviour of the inhabitants of the city of S’dom and Amorah have rendered the destruction of the cities justified.

Having been told what will happen, Abraham asks God: ‘Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?’ (Genesis 18:23)

This is a question that does not challenge the need to go on the offensive against one’s attackers. It does not undermine God’s dealing of justice to those who deserve it; God’s desire to sweep away those who have caused great destruction and suffering.

The question fundamentally recognises that the innocent beings in S’dom are people too – equally created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

By asking the question, Abraham looks for the complexity and nuance in the story. By asking the question, Abraham attempts to widen the divine perspective from the need to punish the guilty to the simultaneous need to protect the innocent. Abraham enters into dialogue – a very challenging one! – rather than simply accept the slogan.

To bring this into our moment – to do what the communal statement and the Torah are asking of us – is not easy. To reach out across and beyond boundaries of difference requires strength and hard work. To say ‘shalom’ – to work towards a true peace that requires more than simply the laying down of arms – will take real commitment. The fact that we are all so very tired, our resilience so spent, so broken, after the dark days of a ravaging pandemic – makes this even harder.

It is going to be a communal act of courage, of bravery, to be the Abrahams of our day.

Shabbat Shalom