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Lessons For Living: Seven Things We are Learning From The Hamas-Israel War

There are so many lessons we are learning from this awful war. Here are seven:

1) Never underestimate the evil of which human beings are capable.
The cliché that we are all basically good is as dangerous as its untruthful. Rabbi J B Soloveitchik in a penetrating essay on Jewish survival asserted that our faith in human goodness and its Divine spark should never blind us to the latent evil dimension of human beings. We can all so easily slide into become Satanic, capable of monstrous behaviour. The world changed for us on October 7 and there has been a tectonic shift in Jewish identity and consciousness, a renewed and anguished recognition of the virulence of hatred and violence towards us Jews. The terrible knowledge that we will always be the target of malevolent people. As the Haggadah reminds us: ‘In every generation they stand up to destroy us’.

2) Never underestimate the utter foolishness of humanity.
Einstein put it best when he said, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” This is most evident in the denial of the barbarity and violent evil of Hamas by so many woke liberals particularly in politics — think the Greens — the media and on progressive university campuses across the Western world and especially the USA. They can’t or won’t make a distinction between the radical perverted extremism of Hamas and the moral teachings of Islam. A lack of moral clarity and courage, is as chilling as it is ludicrous. The Psalmist got it so right when he said, they have eyes, but they can’t see, ears but they can’t hear. They epitomise the words of John Milton in that they are simply ‘eyeless in Gaza’.

One aspect of this foolishness, is the capacity of humanity to be taken in by the lies, which are the fabric of evil cultures. Hitler’s propaganda genius, Goebbels notoriously asserted that if you tell a big enough lie and keep repeating it people will eventually come to believe it. It’s a diabolical lesson that Hamas and its company and sadly the Palestinian lobby have perfected and is reflected in just one of their blatantly untrue statements that the Jews are recent colonialists. This is probably best rebutted by the humorous text: billions of people around the world recently celebrated the birthday of a Jewish man, born in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago, but don’t think Jews lived there before 1948! Another egregious example is the appropriation of our language as in the claim of genocide in Gaza. As Jews, we painfully know what real genocide is about. The terrible suffering in Gaza may be a tragedy but it is not genocide.

A final, very recent example is the report of two Al Jazeera journalists being killed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza on Sunday. Al Jazeera claimed that this was “without doubt the Israeli…determination to attack journalists…  violating the principles of freedom of the press... and the right to life’’. Of course, they failed to tell the real story that the two so-called journalists were travelling in a car together with a Hamas terrorist who was operating a drone on Israeli forces in the area with the aim of them being targeted by Hamas fighters.

3) The young and naive are vulnerable to illusory idealism.
Innocence unchecked and unchallenged is a very dangerous thing. The psychological concept of idealistic distortion describes the tendency for individuals to see the facts of a situation through idealised lenses, a tendency that is very evident in the inclination to characterise Palestinians as innocent victims, ignoring the violence of Hamas. The danger of idealistic distortion is brilliantly explored in Graham Greene’s iconic novel ‘The Quiet American’, set during the end of French colonialism and the beginning of American involvement in Vietnam. In a telling passage that resonates with the attitudes of our impassioned illiberal university students (and certainly the Melbourne school kids out protesting), Greene writes: “He was young and ignorant and silly, and he got involved… He never saw anything he hadn’t heard in a lecture hall, and his writers, and his lecturers made a fool of him. When he saw a dead body, he couldn’t even see the wounds…”.

4) Don’t fall for the shallow assertion that you may defeat Hamas on the battlefield but you can’t destroy the idea they represent.
From its very inception Judaism has challenged deadly and dangerous ideas. From Amalek to Achashverosh, Pharaoh to Hitler, we have confronted genocidal and power-addled autocrats. We have always understood that we are as strong as our ideas and we have always been passionately committed to the justice and energy of moral principles. Our intellectual tradition is the armoury against Hamas and its ideologies. We need to pour considerable intellectual as well as, financial resources into fighting Hamas, Hezbollah and their toxic Islamic extremism.

We also need to demand of Australian Muslims that they are not teaching their children to hate Jews or Israel. Exactly what do they say about us in their homes, mosques and schools? This of course works both ways. We need to be sure we unequivocally reject our Jewish extremists here and in Israel and their hatred of Palestinians and Islam. We need to teach our children well that unlike our enemies, we believe in the value of life and the worth of human beings.

As an education nation we need to journey with, encourage and support the West in this war for the survival of Western civilisation and its liberal democratic ideas. As Jewish Australians, we need to pivot our passion into educating our neighbours, through our schools and institutions like the Jewish and Holocaust Museums, ECAJ, AIJAC and Zionism Australia and through social media - and naturally in our interfaith and intercultural relationships. We need to call on the Australian government to reassess their support of UNRWA who have played a key role in disseminating Hamas ideology.

5) Never let go of your humanity and compassion.
I struggle with my outrage at Hamas and my anger at the refusal of the world to understand Israel’s suffering. Israel is a country traumatised, with more than 250,000 citizens displaced and rockets still being regularly (almost daily) aimed at its civilians. I am full of rage at the blatant lies and antisemitism unleashed across the world and in our own Australia. But, I will not surrender my compassion for the suffering of the countless innocents of my people and of the innocents of Gaza who did not choose this war and do not support Hamas. 

I have no pity for Hamas fighters and followers who have given up their humanity, but I weep for the children of Gaza they have endangered and abandoned as they hide like cowardly weasels in their tunnels and plant their weapons in schools, hospitals and mosques. I mourn for Israel’s brave young fallen soldiers, most reserve citizens. I grieve for the families disrupted and dislocated both in Israel and Gaza. First World War poet Wilfred Owen wrote about the terrible cost and pity of war and its inescapable suffering. I ask myself what choice did Israel have when attacked by an enemy that wants to eradicate it? But I will not support the rancid call to nuke Gaza; it smacks to me of the call to annihilate Israel. I am with our poets and rabbis who sang out that we may feel abandoned but we are the children of Abraham and Sarah who championed love in a cynical and hostile society.

6) Turn to history for strength, resilience and inspiration.
In Jewish history you will find countless examples of how we stood against dangerous enemies’ intent on our destruction but we are still around and we are here to stay. Back in ancient Egypt, Pharaoh Merneptah declared on his boastful granite monument ‘Israel is laid waste, her seed is no more’. But today it is his palaces that are ruins and his pyramids that commemorate a dead culture while we celebrate our schools and living civilisation. I draw so much power from the wisdom of our sages, those timeless pages of the Talmud and from our refreshing daily prayers especially those psalms of King David. Prayer is an act of hope when all doors seem to be closed; prayer opens the gates of compassion and confidence. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it: “Prayer sustains hope and hope defeats tragedy. ’The prayers of our many friends of different faiths strengthen and sustain my hope!

7) Don’t let go of your hope and your belief in the future.
This war may have unleashed a tsunami of hatred, but it has also unleashed a torrent of love and generosity. The prodigious acts of goodness, kindness and ingenuity are breathtaking. One tiny recent example is the poignant letter that released 85 year old hostage, Yaffa Adar, received from her idol Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli whose songs had sustained her during her incarceration: “From the other side of the ocean, I send you my warmest regards, full of gratitude, admiration and affection’’. He has arranged a personal concert just for her! 

Jewish people are instructed by God to be messengers of the future, of justice and righteousness. They are called on to join hands with all who believe in bettering our battered planet. So, let’s hold on to hope and the Psalmist’s words echoed in Israel’s national anthem: Our hope won’t be lost. We are here to stay. 

May our prayers for peace and blessing carry us into 2024.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Ralph