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Powering Down

Zechariah, the flotilla, and reflections on might and morality

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I can’t write a column this week. I tried. I took long walks by the river. I typed out 10 different drafts. I turned to bourbon in search of inspiration. But all I could think about was the “Freedom Flotilla.”

Just a few days before the disastrous flotilla affair, I’d written a column about the prophet Zechariah and his command that redemption should be pursued “not by military force and not by physical strength” but by the spirit of the Lord. For the most part, readers who commented on the piece took umbrage. Military force, they pointed out, was often necessary, especially for a persecuted minority. They demanded an elaboration, and as I thought about the flotilla, I realized an elaboration was in order. Rather than write a column this week, then, I want to expand on last week’s column, and try to explain the true meaning of Zechariah’s prophecy.

Here’s what it means.

It means, to borrow the wise words of my friend and coauthor Todd Gitlin, that we may not always know what to do, but we must always know what not to do. Amid the sound and fury following the attack on the flotilla, the voyage’s original purpose was often obscured: The men and women aboard the Mavi Marmara tried to deliver necessary supplies to one and a half million Palestinians, under siege for more than three years. And placing a million and a half people under siege is immoral. Hamas represents a concrete threat, and as such calls for concrete responses, both on the battlefield and in the international arena. But not starvation. Not deprivation. Not collective punishment. We must remind ourselves time and again that there are lines we must never cross, not even in the shadow of missiles, not even facing the direst of circumstances. Condemning a vast civilian population to grave suffering is such a line, and such a line it must remain.

It means that we should never exchange our inherent moral compass for the flimsy fluctuations of political brinksmanship. In his first public appearance after the flotilla affair, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, accused the world of hypocrisy and “a biased rush to judgment.” His followers were not far behind in offering a quiverful of litanies, noting, for example, that the world decried Israel’s blockade but said not a word about Egypt’s continuing refusal to allow any traffic between it and the besieged Gaza Strip. These accusations are not entirely false. It is doubtful that anyone who is both decent and intellectually honest could convincingly argue that Israel is not frequently singled out for calumny with an intensity that is spared other, far more benighted regimes. But Judaism, I firmly believe, is predicated—both historically and theologically—on the notion that God had designated one nation to be unto Him a holy nation and a kingdom of priests. If Israel is just one more nation among others, why bother having a Jewish State at all? If we want to preserve that exalted status, we must understand it as what it truly is: a terrible responsibility, a divine burden, a never-ending call to justice. To that end, if we truly believe the tenets of our faith, we must worry not about others but about ourselves, and we must do what is right no matter how dear the cost. We have an awesome and ancient guide to righteousness, the foundation for our morality, the source of our survival; if we exchange it for the piffles of politics, we will surely perish.

It means that we should not shy away from the use of force, but that we should remember that power demands prudence. Writing in The New York Times a few days after the fiasco, Amos Oz put it nicely. “I do not discount the importance of force,” he wrote. But, he soon added, “every attempt to use force not as a preventive measure, not in self-defense, but instead as a means of smashing problems and squashing ideas, will lead to more disasters.”

It means that there could be no path more disastrous than ignoring the immensity of the problem. The “Freedom Flotilla” should serve as unequivocal proof that Israel has lost its way, and it should spur those of us who care deeply for the Jewish State to take immediate action. Even if we accept the most ardent arguments out of Jerusalem, we cannot deny that Israel’s recent actions, both large (provoking the U.S. administration with a miserably timed construction project in East Jerusalem) and small (denying entry to a host of vocal critics of Israel for no reason other than being critical of Israel) suggest that rather than viewing power as a means to an end, Israel now perceives its might as an end in and of itself, gleefully and frequently flexing its considerable muscles at enemies both real and imagined. That is not the way for any nation to act. No matter where on the nexus between rigid theocracy and liberal democracy it may choose to plant itself, Israel needs to recommit itself to a firm and clear vision and make sure its actions are in accordance. If the images of Israeli commandos—previously considered the fiercest in the world—being thrown overboard teach us anything, it is that nothing fades faster than power applied for its own sake.

And it means that we are running out of time. If we care, let us speak out now, and let us speak out loudly. Anything else is disgraceful.

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Shachar Pinsker says:

“The ‘Freedom Flotilla’ should serve as unequivocal proof that Israel has lost its way, and it should spur those of us who care deeply for the Jewish State to take immediate action.”

“If we care, let us speak out now, and let us speak out loudly. Anything else is disgraceful.”

…and let us say: Amen.

BTW – Do I sense a sea of change in Tablet magazine?

shani says:

Thank you , thank you and once again thank you.

“The men and women aboard the Mavi Marmara tried to deliver necessary supplies to one and a half million Palestinians”
Not true. If that is all they wanted to do, they would have delivered the goods to Ashdod, as requested, and the goods would have been delivered to Gaza. They didn’t want to deliver necessary goods, they wanted to force a confrontation.
“But not starvation”
Israel isn’t starving the people of the Gaza strip. Food and medical supplies are being transferred into the Gaza strip through Israel on a regular basis.
Let’s at least stick to the facts.

Liel, the effect of the flotilla affair will be peace on longer term. The abnormal situation is the way Israel has to maintain security with Palestinian state neighbors. A trip from Ramallah to Nablus, or from Ramallah to Natania, that normally are about 20 minutes drive, can take 4 hours, 8 hours or not crossing at all. Maybe 40 years from now, the travel times from Ramallah to Natanya and Nablus and Jerusalem will be normal. Maybe by then there will a prosperous common market between Palestinians and Israel. If that happens, it is not only because this flotilla as a factor. There is a new book – Crossing Qualandiya, written by a Palestinian, Shireen Anabtawi and an Israeli, Daniela Norris. Both are exchanging letters, not emails that take up to 1 week to arrive across the 30 miles or so distance. It show there is dialogue started. I would make this book widely available in Arabic and Hebrew, as ironically, the book is in print in English only.

Jeroen Reuven Bours says:

Not so fast. There is still the quiet respect we Jews get when we show our muscles. We just have to flash them the right way. I totally agree that we should set the bar high ourselves because of our biblical responsibilities. At the same time we should squash those who threaten us. There’s one thing the Arab mentality fully understands, excepts and ultimately respects; and that is the stronger opponent. All we have to learn is to stay the stronger opponent on the battle field and in the media. The latter being our weakness.

Norm Cone says:

Turkish Islamist mercenaries, with hate in their eyes, weapons in their hands
and $10,000 each in their pockets, provoked a melee on the ship, not the IDF. The Mavi Marmara didn’t “try to deliver necessary supplies to one and a half million Palestinians, under siege for more than three years”, she tried to brake the legal and necessary blockade, to turn Gaza in a Iranian port for deliveries of deadly weapons against Israel. I’m sorry ,Liel Leibovitz,but you have no idea what you are talking about and therefore it would be wise to shut the hell up !

Eric says:

Curious use of the phrase “collective punishment.” Are the security measures in airports “collective punishment” as well?

The de facto government of Gaza is at war with Israel. International law permits naval blockades to stop hault the flow of military supplies. I lived in Israel before the intefada. The source of terrorism was not the West Bank or Gaza. Few of the restrictions on the Palestinians that are so cumbersome existed. 300,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza traveled daily to Israel to work. Actions have consequences. Governments of Israel protect civilians from harm. If the violence by the Arabs stops, so do the security measures.

” If the Arabs put down their weapons today there would be no more violence. If the Jews put down there weapons there would be no more Israel.”

rivka says:

You sound great, very poetic from that high horse. But let me get this straight: Are you saying that Israel should relinquish its right to inspect every ship that comes into Hamas-ruled Gaza? If the blockade were lifted, what’s to keep them from importing weapons? The Marmara “peace activists” declined the suggestion to be detoured into the port of Ashdod. And now Hamas declined to receive the supplies from the cargo.

The Jewish people cannot *be* an exalted nation unless they *be*.

Incidentally, this week’s parasha, Shelach, talks about the spies’ mission to scope out the Land. Ten of the men felt intimidated by what they saw. For some imponderable reason, Hashem made it so that the Jews would enter and conquer the Holy land, but always in bloodshed, from the very beginning. Talk about a divine burden.

tzip says:

JUst thought I’d add a little ‘biblical’ to the mix here … while Israel is ordained, so to speak, as “the notion that God had designated one nation to be unto Him a holy nation and a kingdom of priests” .. then let’s look at the fact that a huge percentage of Israel is now ‘secular’ and remember this ‘biblical’ passage from Exodus:

“See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him. If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I WILL BE AN ENEMY TO YOUR ENEMIES AND WILL OPPOSE THOSE WHO OPPOSE YOU. My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out. Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces.”

Maybe if more of the “people of the Book” went back to the book, that angel would come back and lead the way ….

I’m vary sad to say that, while I agree with the spirit of this essay, I find it very hard to see how this can be done. Breaching the wall around Gaza will mean more Jewish deaths. It’s remarkably easy to preach from a pulpit across the Atlantic (or Mediterranean for that matter) that Israel needs to “do the right thing.” This demand is anchored in the ethos of the colonial power withdrawing back to its homeland from a faraway continent. Alas, it’s not that simple.

Israel has no good options, only a choice between bad ones. Same goes for Palestine. It’s lose-lose for Israel and Palestine, win-win for Iran and Europe.

Fred says:

If the purpose of the so-called Freedom Flotilla was to deliver humanitarian supplies to Israel, why did Hamas refuse to accept the supplies that Israel took off the boats of the flotilla and wanted to send into the Gaza Strip. Hamas was sp sated and stuffed with the propaganda victory that it forewent the real for the Palestinian population in Gaza. Spare me Liel Leibowtiz’ poppycock.

JCarpenter says:

“Weapons” of the Freedom Flotilla—metal rods—v. Israeli military’s automatic weapons. Sounds like desperate self-defense, in both cases.
Thank you for the article.
A holy nation indeed—“Jerusalem” of the mind, heart, soul, community, wherever the location; I’m losing the connection between Judaism and the modern state of Israel.

The author seems to be confusing the term “holy” with “nice.”

I hate to break the news, but despite the author’s tunnel vision toward Arab suffering, Jewish lives are also holy and need to be protected. The author makes no suggestion as to how to prevent the smuggling of the SCUDS, Kassams, and more dangerous anti-civilian weaponry Hamas deploys against Israeli Jews, just preaches how horrible Israelis are for posessing a survival instinct.

The author is a living specimen of the Talmudic expression, “He who is kind to the cruel will eventually become cruel to the kind.” But then I doubt the author has ever actually opened a Gemarah.

Jan says:

“The author is a living specimen of the Talmudic expression, “He who is kind to the cruel will eventually become cruel to the kind.” But then I doubt the author has ever actually opened a Gemarah.”

As for the Gemarah issue, you’re wrong about the author.
As for the bigger issue, you can’t reduce this to simply being kind to the cruel. It’s a matter of being kind to all Gaza residents, many of whom are children or simply under the thumb of their lousy fanatical leadership.

robyn says:

This article is a disgrace. You are ignoring the thugs that started the problem and blaming the jews. Nothing new here – but disturbing nonetheless.
I am seriously considering canceling my subscription.
Yes – let us speak out loudly…. IN SUPPORT OF ISRAEL!

Robin Margolis says:

Dear Liel Leibovitz:

An excellent and well-reasoned essay. And right on the dot theologically as well. I look forward to your next article.

Robin Margolis

JazzDad says:

As someone has already said, Israel’s choices with respect to Hamas are all bad, from a military and ethical perspective. What was Israel supposed to do with those ships? Just say “excuse us for getting in the way”, step aside and give up the blockade because of biblical exhortations? Nothing in Torah or anywhere else says Israel has to be part of national assisted suicide. If the people in Gaza are suffering so much because of their leaders, maybe they would be better off throwing Hamas out of power. But they can’t, because they are without the nerve, will and guns to do so. If the choice is between Israel’s survival and a course of suicidal pacifism, I’ll take Israel. Warts and all. Liberal Zionism doesn’t mean easy moral or political choices. It means making tough ones that are sometimes not pretty or easy in the face of a hostile world. If it’s us or them, I choose us.

Thank you Liel, thank you Tablet and all who make your work possible. Your voice gives me hope that as a Jew, a lover of Israel and a person who believes that difference can connect as well as separate human beings, I am not alone.

Yale Gancherov says:

Unfortunately, Gazan women and children have long since lost their innocence, for the most part.


1. Is this Liel Leibovit an actual person or is “her” piece a satire by Robert Benchley or someone like him, on the empty headedness of these liberals?

2. If she really exists, has she ever been hit from behind by a schoolyard bully and beaten up as a result?

3. Has she or her friend Gittlin every been respnsible for protecting the lives of others against an enemy?

4. What would she and her ilk have done about blockading Germany and Japan during the War?

5. Has she not read of the rabbis during the Holocaust who told their people that it was better to die than to live in the woods like wild animals. How do she and Gittlin distinguish themselves from her?



Jonathan says:


What about the civilian populations on both sides during WW2.. they still got the “collective punishment” as you say? Why are you making an exception for an existential enemy of Israel? Basically it’s a double standard your applying just to the Jewish state.

The truth is the nature of this naval mission is very difficult because the amount of time from rappelling down to the deck makes one very vulnerable. And there were people sleeping on the deck so there was no way to do it without anyone noticing. It has nothing to do with power being wrongly applied, the nature of these missions are very difficult, and if anything there was not enough power applied, for fear of these double standard criticisms that ironically Israel got lambasted with anyway.

There really is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza because Israel because so much aid goes in as well as medical treatment in Israeli hospitals. You know billions of dollars have been spent on the arabs who wish to make another arab state in historically and legally jewish land.

This was a ruse by Turkey to try to become a player in the Middle East. If they are so interested in aiding and abetting the creation of a 23rd Arab state someone should ask them to create Kurdistan first.

Liel, your articles lately are leaning to the left.

Honest Broker says:

There are two religions in conflict, one whose credo is
Hear Oh Israel , God is our God, God alone.
Hear oh Israel, The State of Israel is our God, Israel alone

This schism is a most serious one which may rend the Jewish people in two.

Turkey is a friend of IRAN, the most criminal government in the world.
A government that tortures large numbers of their own people for protesting.

Turkey’s creditability fails due to its embracing the corrupt IRANIAN government.

I completely disagree with your conclusions. And I cannot help but wonder whether somewhere there is a Muslim writing an interpretation of the Quran that questions the actions of the so-called “activists” and concluding that they have lost their way. I seriously doubt it

Honest Broker says:

Of course Muslims writing an interpretation of the Quran that questions the actions of the so-called “activists” and concluding that they have lost their way.There was a fatwa against terrorist action issued by Imams. But you reveal your attitude toward Muslims is the same as anti-Semites attitudes toward Jews. In the words of Pogo “We have found the enemy and he is us”

It’s a sad day when even Jews are being conned by the Palestinians and main stream media.

Honest Broker – maybe and hopefully you are right – but please show me where Muslim self-criticism and self-examination gets any play whatsoever in the press, whereas Jews criticizing Jews (legitimately or otherwise) is reported everywhere and I suggest, eagerly reported on to show dissent in the Jewish world.

There is no problem identifying Jews who dissent from the so-called party line – for example, today’s jerusalem Post reported on a rally against the blockade in Tel Aviv attended by thousands of protesters. Where are the Muslims who are doing the same thing? (and I am not suggesting that every Muslim is a terrorist). We always hear about the vast numbers of so-called moderate Muslims, but rarely seem to see them in action.

Louis says:

When the Muslim world displays the moral agony over its actions as the Jewish world has this week, then progress will be made. We never hear them debating whether showering Israel with rockets or kidnapping Israeli soldiers are “moral” decisions. We don’t hear whether Iran’s threats to annihilate Israel are “good for Iran” for those who “care deeply” for Iran. Only the Jews beat their heads against the wall when they are just trying to protect themselves from those who mean them harm.

Sharon says:

Thank you, Liel, for your courage to think out loud, to question. Amos Oz and peace groups in Israel (not a small number by any means) and the United States share your point of view…I do as well.

Honest Broker says:

The vast number of moderate or simply don’t care Muslims are as afraid as we are of the violent jihadists. They do not live in a democracy. If Israel were to pass many of it’s anti-civil liberties laws now proposed by its violent right I’m sure one wouldn’t see big demonstrations in Tel Aviv against the governments blunders.

Moshe Ofer says:

“If Israel is just one more nation among others, why bother having a Jewish State at all?”
Answer: To protect Jews from another Holocaust. Simple and clear. For an example the absorption of starving and near extinction Ethiopian Jews .

Esther says:

Liel…. you have drinking too much bourbon lately!!!
If we don’t know what to do… but must know what not to do, does not sound prophetic at all, it doesn’t even stand the test of logic. Take it easy girl, there will always be those who wish to stand with the spirit of the Lord and those who just want to survive. Take longer walks by the river and leave the bourbon aside!

Old Rockin' Dave says:

JCarpenter says: “Weapons” of the Freedom Flotilla—metal rods—v. Israeli military’s automatic weapons. Sounds like desperate self-defense, in both cases.”
Try swinging a crowbar at your friendly neighborhood patrolman, constable, deputy or whatever your town has (or against anybody carrying a firearm). If you survive the experience, tell him and the court how unfair it was that he shot you when you “only” had a crowbar against his gun.
There is no evidence that the Israeli commandos used automatic weapons. They had pistols, which they were meant to resort to only if less lethal methods failed. Had they come intending to kill, the number of dead would have been much higher. As it is, the world is forgetting that two of the wounded were Israelis who were shot with the guns taken off of them by “peace activists”.

joshua5770 says:

The role of Hebrew prophets is to remind the Jewish people of our shortcomings in meeting our responsibilities to God’s law, as we strive to make it in this tough world.

Congratulations to Liel for the clarion sound of his shofar, gently reminding us that not just might makes right.

That said, the Jews may be destined to be a holy nation for the world, but the people of Israel today are now the third generation there who have grown up knowing nothing but war; their knee-jerk military response to conflict should be expected by now.

The real truth here is that, as Jews, we need to establish the high road to travel, determine how we want to end this battle and make the changes in our civilization to achieve peace in our land.

We need to be creative to get to peace.


eric j says:

Israel was baited into a light action; It appears the seamen aboard the Mavi Marmara were ritually sacrificed by agents of a fouler evil, there to torpedo trade meetings between the states of Turkey and Israel. And, Israel took the bait. This is not about readings of Eziekiel. It’s about keeping one’s cool and having to bend when the situation warrants. Boarding the boat peacefully and arranging an deployment out of harm’s way are not diplomatic abstractions, they are asserting a sovereign stat’s belief in the sanctity of life and to prevent at all costs what did happen.

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Powering Down

Zechariah, the flotilla, and reflections on might and morality

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