The Dreams and Nightmares of War

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, December 1, 2023 / 18 Kislev 5784

This column is the printed version of Rabbi Kosak’s comments from last Shabbat, which focus on creating a moral hierarchy that can distinguish between different forms of evil and violence. It includes extensive notes and reference material not included in the sermon.

Given how many undocumented claims have been made during the current Israel Gaza war, I have provided sources for many of the points made, as well as highly regarded books that wrestle with the nature of evil. For ease of reading, notes have been placed at the end of this article.

Reading Time: Eighteen minutes

The Dreams and Nightmares of War

In Parshat Vayetzei, we read the dream of Jacob’s ladder, as angels rise and descend in a place called Beth El, the House of God. In normal years, we could all find inspiration and encouragement in the power of our dreams. But this is not a normal year—October 7th made sure of that.

Instead, we find ourselves in a waking nightmare of another war. How are we to live through this, without allowing our spirits to be crushed? How are we to find our moral center when death and bloodshed are occupying our thoughts and clenching at our hearts?

Before I end these remarks, we will return to Jacob’s dream because we can still find sustenance there, as well as a sort of spiritual support that will allow us to weather this time of devastation. Even as Israel defends herself, and we harden and defend our Jewish institutions against the rising tide of antisemitism, we must also ensure that we maintain our humanity, for if we lose that to our rage, we will have lost too much.

Yet it is also true that sometimes the sweetest of dreams only follow our night terrors, so we must temporarily turn away from the demands of our humanity to the darker currents of human violence.

General William Tecumseh Sherman, who led the North against the South in the American Civil War, left us some of the most poignant insights about such large-scale violence. “War is at its best barbarism,” he noted. More famously, he stated that “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”

War is indeed hell, and while the technology of war has changed drastically since Sherman’s day, becoming ever more deadly, its bloody barbarism has not. War remains hell. Perhaps the greatest change since Sherman, however, is that in today’s world, anyone who wants to can now hear the shrieks and groans of the wounded. Sadly, this has proved Sherman wrong, for many of those who have heard the shrieks—at least on their phone or big screen—still cry out for more blood, specifically Jewish blood, but sometimes Palestinian blood as well.

Isn’t that deeply distressing?

Rage, vengeance, and hatred seem to increase the blood lust of a great many people. How can Jacob’s dream of angels survive such ugliness?

For many Jews, the ugliness of war creates an internal moral quandary. Even though we recognize that Hamas unleashed an especially gruesome form of civilization-destroying evil on October 7th, and even though we recognize that Israel must defend herself while working to destroy the source of such fiendish evil, the pictures from Gaza pain us. Women and children are dying. Gaza is gripped in a humanitarian crisis. And the news cycle has shifted from the demonic cause of this war—Hamas’s atrocities—to the hell that all war is.

Yet if we are to maintain our humanity, feeling empathy for the loss of innocent Palestinian life, we need to look more closely at war and violence so that we can distinguish between the many types of horror that are a part of all wars. We need to find a measure of dispassion even as our hearts are troubled, for dispassion provides us sufficient emotional distance so that we can carry out a careful analysis.

That is not easy, precisely because war is hell, even a just war of defense, which the current war Israel is waging against Hamas is. If the images of carnage that war creates don’t sear a place in our conscience, there is something wrong with our hearts. Yet if such images in and of themselves would cause us to refrain from self-defense and from standing up for what is moral and just, then there is also something wrong, not only with our hearts, but also with our minds and our moral courage.

It is not easy to say that. I have dedicated my life to furthering love, dialogue, and mutual tolerance—as have so many American Jews. We have been nurtured on the milk of social justice and tikkun olam. Our Jewish particularism is deeply invested in protecting the downtrodden and endangered minorities. We want to see ourselves as good, loving, caring people. And we are. That’s what makes this protracted war so painful; it is why so many of us feel conflicted, isolated, even silenced. What advice or perspective will help us bear the weight of our moral quandary?

First, it’s worth noting that the squeamish should not be surgeons, but neither should they outlaw surgery because it makes them feel faint. Many of those who seek an end to the current war before all the hostages are released[i] do so without wanting to treat the underlying issues.

This is where we are: we need to dissect the nature of war, violence, and terror as carefully as a surgeon because a misdiagnosis has terrible repercussions. When we do, what do we discover?

There are currently 32 nations in conflict. There are terrorist insurgencies, civil wars, drug wars, ethnic violence, and political unrest. The scale and scope of these conflicts vary, with many of them being far more violent and devastating than what we are witnessing in the Israel-Gaza War. Yet if you asked the average person on the street to name even a quarter of those conflicts, most would be unable to do so.

All eyes are on Israel, all outrage is at Israel, and one could be forgiven for imagining that it is the bloodiest current conflict with the worst humanitarian crisis. The truth is otherwise.

In Sudan, 5.5 million people have been displaced because of war.

The Mexican Drug War claimed more than 10,000 lives last year alone, and more than that number in 2021.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed in Myanmar’s ongoing civil war just in the past few years. If we go back to 1948, when that unending war began, the number would be substantially higher.

It’s difficult to ascertain a precise number of civilians and combatants killed in the Russian-Ukrainian War, but some data suggest that over 100,000 people on both sides have been killed since the war began.

The war in Yemen, meanwhile, has claimed over 377,000 people—and that is only through 2021![ii]

As of May 2023, the Tigray War in Ethiopia has killed an estimated 300,000 people, with other reported estimates reaching numbers as high as 600,000 killed.[iii]

And twelve years into the Syrian Civil War, more than 230,000 civilians have been killed, with total casualty numbers ranging from 700,000 to over 900,000 deaths.

Yet Israel is committing genocide! If I may be spared some dark and bitter humor, our enemies and antisemites really don’t think highly of us, for if Israel is truly intent on genocide, why is the IDF so incompetent compared to Ethiopia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen? Is the IDF really less capable than Mexican drug lords?[iv]

It would all be laughable except that human lives are at stake, and it doesn’t matter if those lives are innocent Palestinians, Israelis, Syrians, or Mexicans.

Let me be clear as well. Many pro-Israel apologists have pointed to far greater abuses of human rights and asked why the world seems fixated on Israel, were it not for antisemitism.[v] That’s not our concern here.[vi]

Rather, what all of these terrible wars remind us of is that because humans can be terribly violent, we need to be able and willing to create a hierarchy of evil. Not all evil is equivalent. Not all violence is avoidable. If we can’t come to accept that, we will equate lesser evils with greater evils and thereby provide a free pass to the most despicable of human actors.

That should concern us, in part because every time Israel and Hamas square off, the court of public opinion inevitably creates false equivalencies between Israeli actions and Hamas’s actions that ultimately guarantee a repeated descent into violence, resulting in more deaths and more suffering for the Palestinians. If one truly cares about Palestinian life more than one cares about cheapening Israeli life, then one must resist such false moral equivalencies.

What is required, in other words, is to understand what one is looking at. If General Sherman is correct that war is at best barbarism, we need to understand that whenever we see the suffering caused by war, we will feel emotionally upset. Our hearts will ache. That doesn’t mean that Israel is acting unethically from within the vague and hard-to-apply rules of war.

There is always a judgement call about actions taken on a fluid battlefield, and those who hate the Jews and Zion will always declare that Israel is acting unethically. It may take months before anyone can make an honest moral assessment about Israel’s attack on the Al Shifa Hospital; despite the recent videos released by the IDF, some Jews and non-Jews have rushed to condemn Israel of committing war crimes.

War is hell and barbarism at best; this doesn’t mean that Israel’s actions are war crimes. If you recall the Hamas war of 2008-2009, you know that the UN initially accused both Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes in what came to be known as the Goldstone Report. Yet by the time all of the facts came to light, the author of the report, the South African jurist, Richard Goldstone, recanted. Yes, Hamas committed war crimes, but the charges against the Israeli army were basically dropped. Tzahal, the Israeli Army, lived up to its own values of taharat neshek, of purity of arms, and even investigated 400 questionable incidents to determine if, when, and how they occurred. Hamas, meanwhile, did not investigate a single allegation of its own war crimes!

This does not mean that Israel is incapable of committing war crimes, but it does indicate that it historically has been unwilling to do so; Hamas’s record is the very opposite.[vii][viii] It doesn’t mean that Israel’s policies are always kind or productive toward the Palestinians. Sadly, however, so long as Hamas remains committed to annihilating Israel, as it continues to maintain its goal, more wars between the two peoples are inevitable. Sadly, so long as the world is quick to condemn Israel while overlooking Hamas’s demonic barbarism, it emboldens the acts of October 7th and invites more wars and more Palestinian suffering.

In a world in which terrible violence is the rule, and in which a half dozen conflicts are far bloodier, devastating, and cruel than what is occurring in Gaza, we must never relinquish the importance of developing a hierarchy of evil; part of that analysis must include the stated goals and visions of the societies in question.

This past week, I reread both of Hamas’s charters—the one from 2017, and that from 1988—and it is clear from both of these charters as well as explicit recent statements from its leadership, that for Hamas, there will be no end to these wars until Israel ceases to exist.[ix]

The vision and dreams of Israel are different. In our ancestor Jacob’s dream of angels and ladders, the ask is far simpler: God should protect us and return us to the land of Israel.

The contours of that dream are further expanded in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, where we read:

“This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.” History has shown that to be the case. The Abraham Accords are just one recent example. Peace with Egypt and Jordan is another.

We are all grateful for the hostages released so far. We also know that we can’t rest while some remain in captivity. Simultaneously, I know how difficult it is to watch the destruction of Gaza. I know how it weighs on us, causing moral turmoil. Yet when I evaluate and create my own hierarchy of moral evil, and consider that, like Jacob, what the Israelis most want is to live safely in our ancient ancestral homeland, I see no other compelling answer.

Sadly, the state of the world is always punctuated by moments of pure evil, such as occurred on October 7th. One of most difficult challenges at these times is how can we perform our duty to eliminate the virus of seething hatred without becoming the thing we despise? How do we remain firm and resolute, while preserving a settled mind, all while being willing to prevent the spread of evil unapologetically? I think that is what is called for from each of us.

For me, knowing that not all evil is the same matters and helps me. It allows me to be resolute, even while the images of Gaza pain me. I want what is best for the Palestinians of Gaza, just as I want what is best for Israel. The destruction of Hamas is a necessary part of that, but more importantly, we need a shared dream envisioned by these two peoples in which the angels of coexistence rise together on a ladder of hope. The long years of conflict have taken their toll on the Israeli psyche, causing us at moments to drift from the best of that vision. But that vision remains, awaiting a propitious moment.

Instead, the Palestinians have settled for a recurrent nightmare that they repeatedly bring upon themselves. They deserve better. We deserve better. May they find their Jacob so that both peoples can indeed understand that the God we share in common indeed wants “oseh shalom bimromaiv, hu ya’asheh shalom aleinu,” a heavenly peace established here among us.

As a people, however, the Palestinians of Gaza have not yet dared to dream this at all.[x]

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

Suggestions for Developing a Personal Hierarchy of Evil:

Because the world is continually beset with forms of violence, labeling all violence as equally bad paralyzes us, or opens us to forms of implicit bias in which we condemn some forms of lesser violence because of who the perpetrators or victims are. The following is a list of authors who have probed the nature of evil and violence. Their conclusions can deepen both our understanding of evil and violence, as well as how we assess the violence reported in the media.

The concept of evil and its various classifications have been explored by numerous scholars across different disciplines. Here’s a look at some key figures who have contributed significantly to the development of schemata of evil:

Hannah Arendt was a political theorist who investigated the nature of evil and totalitarianism. She introduced the world to the concept of the “banality of evil” to help us understand how ordinary people become perpetrators of evil through thoughtless routine.

Christopher Browning is the historian who wrote Ordinary Men, which explored how ordinary German police officers were enlisted in the execution of Jewish civilians during World War II.

Susan Neiman, a philosopher, wrote Evil in Modern Thought. Neiman delves into the philosophical underpinnings of evil, discussing how different thinkers have approached the problem of evil in the context of moral philosophy.

Scott Peck penned People of the Lie, an exploration of the psychology of human evil. Peck, a psychiatrist, discusses the characteristics of what he terms “evil personalities,” including narcissism and self-deception.

Philip Zimbardo was the psychologist involved in the Stanford prison experiment. The Lucifer Effect examines how context and situation can lead to evil behavior.

[i] Let alone before Hamas is dismantled.

[ii] 150,000 in military actions, with the remaining 220,000 people dying from indirect causes of the war, such as famine and lack of clean drinking water.

[iii] That doesn’t even mention the previous 17-year civil war in Ethiopia, which claimed the lives of 1.4 million people.

[iv] Because we live in a time of reactivity, let me make clear that the use of irony here in no way denigrates Mexicans or any of the groups here listed. Rather, it is a simple fact that the Israeli military is far more powerful than any of these other countries. If these far less robust militaries, militias, and gangs can kill far greater numbers of people with impunity, it is absolutely absurd to accuse Israel of genocide and is a cheapening of language that adds to the conflict.

[v] While they have a valid point, that is not the point here. That difference of condemnation is a question that Israel’s critics need to ask of themselves—to determine when their moral condemnation springs from hidden antisemitism or the less visible forms of structural antisemitism.

[vi] Nor is our concern the way in which social activism would have greater impact if it focused on both the largest problems and those with the most realistic solutions. The hyperactive focus on Israel and Palestine removes energy from issues where more lives are at stake.

[vii] “The final report by the U.N. committee of independent experts — chaired by former New York judge Mary McGowan Davis — that followed up on the recommendations of the Goldstone Report has found that ‘Israel has dedicated significant resources to investigate over 400 allegations of operational misconduct in Gaza’ while ‘the de facto authorities (i.e., Hamas) have not conducted any investigations into the launching of rocket and mortar attacks against Israel.’”– Accessed 11/24/2023.

[viii] The Arab world has largely given Hamas a free pass, ignoring its atrocities and crimes against humanity in this latest war: Accessed 11/26/2023

[ix] These charters are readily available online. See also Bruce Hoffman (10 October 2023). “Understanding Hamas’s Genocidal Ideology,” The Atlantic. Archived from the original on 11 October 2023. Accessed 11/20/2023.

See also note 10, below.

[x] Only 24% of Palestinians support a two-state solution: Accessed 11/27/2023

As far back as 2014, 60 percent of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (55% and 68%, respectively) said that the five-year goal “should be to work toward reclaiming all of historic Palestine, from the river to the sea,” according to the poll, a position meaning the elimination of Israel.

Palestinian refusal to accept a two-state solution goes back to 1948, although it was nominally accepted by Palestinian leadership in 1982: Tessler, Mark A. (1994). A History of the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana State University, p. 718. However, since 1982, the Palestinian leadership has rejected eight different two-state solutions. Here is a reasonably full list of rejected opportunities:

1919: Arabs of Palestine refused to nominate representatives to the Paris Peace Conference.
1920: San Remo conference decisions, rejected.
1922: League of Nations decisions, rejected.
1937: Peel Commission Partition Proposal, rejected.
1938: Woodhead Partition Proposal, rejected
1947: UN General Assembly Partition Proposal (UNGAR 181), rejected.
1949: Israel’s outstretched hand for peace (UNGAR 194), rejected.
1967: Israel’s outstretched hand for peace (UNSCR 242), rejected.
1978: Begin/Sa’adat peace proposal, rejected (except for Egypt).
1994: Rabin/Hussein peace agreement, rejected by the rest of the Arab League (except for Egypt).
1995: Rabin’s Contour-for-Peace, rejected.
2000: Barak/Clinton peace offer, rejected.
2001: Barak’s offer at Taba, rejected.
2005: Sharon’s peace gesture, withdrawal from Gaza, rejected.
2008: Olmert/Bush peace offer, rejected.
2009 to present: Netanyahu’s repeated invitations to peace talks, rejected.
2014: Kerry’s Contour-for-Peace, rejected.

This continued Palestinian intransigence has resulted in the average Israeli also no longer believing in a two-state solution, although the above history demonstrates how often Israel placed serious proposals on the table.

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