Candles at a vigil for victims of the Hamas attacks at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, Oct. 8. (Photo/Emma Steinberg)
Candles at a vigil for victims of the Hamas attacks at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, Oct. 8. (Photo/Emma Steinberg)

In war with Hamas, what is the moral use of Jewish power?

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, in a speech in 2000, conveyed the idea that Jewish power should be exercised morally and that there is no morality in Jewish powerlessness. That duality has stayed with me as I struggle with the inevitable human toll in Gaza from Israel’s necessary and expanding military response to Hamas’ unconscionable mass butchering of human life.

I mention this because I am acutely aware of how rapidly sympathy for Israel can turn, particularly in more progressive communities. While there are numerous reasons why the switch quickly flips the perception of Israel as a David into a Goliath, one reason that stands out for me is the lack of comfort, shared by a number of Jews, with the idea of Jewish power.

I care deeply about the moral use of power, whether it is by Israel or any other nation-state — and some within its current government fall far short. At the same time, Israel has always represented for me, flaws and all, the end of Jewish powerlessness after nearly 2,000 years of Jews bearing brutal treatment, from ghettoization to pogroms to the Holocaust. And in moments of agony, moral challenge or pride, I feel privileged to live at a time that has seen the rebirth of a Jewish state.

With that backdrop, I want to share the points that I believe are critical to make at this time:

The Oct. 7 massacre and kidnapping of Jewish men, women and children in Israel by Hamas must be unequivocally condemned regardless of one’s attitude toward Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinians. That condemnation needs to be not only unambiguous but ideally should include non-Jewish friends reaching out to our community to see how we are doing in the face of this unspeakable horror, an acknowledgement that many in our community feel alone and shaken.

Israel has not only the right but the duty to defend its citizens. That includes seeking to eliminate the Hamas military threat through military action that inevitably leads to the loss of innocent lives due to Hamas’ well-known strategy of hiding its terrorists and arms in civilian quarters.

The loss of innocent lives, whether Israeli or Palestinian, should be mourned. Israel has distinguished itself by issuing warnings in advance of a bombing, sometimes at the risk of less impact. Indeed, the Israel Defense Forces has well-established protocols to minimize civilian casualties. Still, we know the tragic messiness of war under any circumstances — and these are incredibly difficult circumstances — will lead to deaths of innocent people. The fact that Israel could probably do more, such as expediting urgently needed humanitarian aid into Gaza, while recognizing the cynical cowardice of Hamas literally hiding behind civilians does not lessen the importance of the first two points.

The rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia are real concerns both here and in other countries. That threat needs to be taken seriously and addressed swiftly and forcefully at all levels of society.

Not right now, but hopefully in the not-too-distant future, there needs to be a serious renewed effort to achieve a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians based on a two-state solution. The current painful, awful war serves as a powerful reminder that there is no status quo that will substitute for the painful sacrifices both sides will need to make for the sake of lasting peace.

We are all still in shock over the magnitude of the Hamas massacre and the level of brutality. Forty-seven years ago my wife, Ellen, and I led a NFTY/Camp Swig group of teenagers on a summer program to Israel based at Kibbutz Nir Oz near the Gaza border. At least 25% of the 400 kibbutz members there were slaughtered or kidnapped by Hamas on Oct. 7.

As painful as it is, please continue to read stories about the young people at a music festival, the Holocaust survivors, the parents and the children who were murdered, wounded or kidnapped. At the same time, look for the stories about the heroes who kept Hamas at bay that day.

No individual or nation should endure the type of cruelty that Hamas inflicted on Oct. 7. I pray that Israel will exercise Jewish power morally as I remain resolute that history has taught conclusively that there is no morality in Jewish powerlessness. That is a message that should resonate across the political spectrum, including among progressive friends.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of J.

Doug Kahn
Rabbi Doug Kahn

Rabbi Doug Kahn is executive director emeritus of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. The views expressed are his own.