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Amid Israeli Deaths in Gaza War, How Do We Accept All the Evil in the World?

Israeli soldiers operate in the Gaza Strip amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in this handout picture released on March 5, 2024. Photo: Israel Defense Forces/Handout via REUTERS

This week, the news of multiple IDF casualties in Gaza came like a gut punch, leaving us breathless with grief. Initially, we were told that there was one casualty and multiple wounded in an attack. Then we learned there were so many wounded soldiers that they had to be medevaced by helicopter to multiple hospitals. Names were sent out for us to pray for, and thousands worldwide recited Tehillim. Eventually, news filtered out that five soldiers had been killed in the tragic incident.

What was particularly difficult for my wife and me is that these young soldiers were all from our son Meir’s unit, Haredim Tzanhanim (“Chetz”), part of Battalion 202 of the Paratroopers Brigade. Their names: Staff Sergeant Betzalel David Shashuah, Sergeant Ilan Cohen, Sergeant Daniel Chemu, Staff Sergeant Gilad Arye Boim, and Captain Roy Beit Yaakov.

Only last week, Meir was asked to switch to Captain Beit Yaakov’s unit as they forged ahead into Gaza, but he opted to stay with his current unit – a decision that may very well have saved his life. This did nothing to soften the blow. The devastating news overwhelmed him. Attending his friends’ funerals was shattering and painfully brought home to him, and us, that war is not a game.

Unlike the youngsters of Western countries, who have the luxury to indulge in idealistic political protests, Israel’s emerging generation faces death and tragedy as they protect their homes, their families, and their country.

But what was particularly devastating about this tragedy is that the source of the artillery was not Hamas terrorists. Rather, it was ‘friendly fire,’ that horrible term meaning the casualties were caused by their own comrades mistakenly targeting them.

This particular incident occurred during a tense confrontation in Jabaliya, where IDF troops were stationed on the first floor of a three-story building. While maintaining their position, an IDF tank spotted a barrel protruding from a window and, despite being outside its designated sector, fired shells in response. Tragically, the incident resulted in the troop casualties.

This tragic event highlights the profound and often painful complexities of understanding and explaining the presence of evil and suffering in the world. Different theological perspectives provide varying interpretations of evil, each attempting to reconcile the existence of a benevolent and omnipotent deity with the reality of human suffering.

The first, mainstream view, is that of the Rambam (Maimonides), who posits that instead of blaming God for the evils of the world, we should be blaming our fellow man. If someone pulls out a gun and shoots a group of people, that’s a bad person committing murder, not God wreaking havoc.

But what about natural disasters, like earthquakes and tornadoes? The Rambam has an explanation for that too. According to him, these are the unfortunate side effects of a world that operates according to the unwavering laws of nature. For example, our world could not exist without the force of gravity. As a result of that force, a coconut can fall off a palm tree and land on someone’s head, killing them. That chance occurrence is the price we pay for a functioning universe.

But then there is the view of the Izhbitzer Rebbe, the iconoclastic nineteenth-century Hasidic master who often challenged mainstream rabbinic interpretations. His view is radically different from the Rambam’s and is based on the first verse of Parshat Emor (Lev 21:1): אֱמֹר אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם לְנֶפֶשׁ לֹא יִטַּמָּא בְּעַמָּיו – “Speak to the priests, sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for a dead person among his people.”

The priest, explains the Izhbitzer, is the paradigm of an individual who refuses to dismiss anything in life as a chance occurrence. It is God and only God who runs everything. You can’t blame the forces of nature, one’s fellow man, or some random happenstance for what goes wrong, because every detail of anything that happens is under God’s control. Human agency and natural laws are all subject to divine providence, and nothing happens without God’s will.

The trouble is that this heightened faith in God’s all-encompassing power can paradoxically lead to a diminishment of faith. The “kohen” must accept incomprehensible evil as being the handiwork of God. That’s a tough expectation because one might come to think of God as the source of inexplicable evil. Therefore, the Torah warns, “none shall defile himself for a dead person among his people.” Don’t allow yourself to be pulled into the “impurity” of challenging God’s actions. Inevitably, there will be questions about the application of God’s attribute of justice – about death, suffering, and pain – but those questions and objections must not lead to a loss of faith.

The root of the Hebrew word for speech used in the pasuk is A-M-R, which the Zohar interprets to mean “a whisper.” “Where is God’s mercy?” “Where is His compassion?” These are legitimate questions, but they should remain whispers and never become the dominant voice. A faint whisper in the background, softly echoing in your ear, is fine – but ultimately, we must never lose faith.

The problem of evil and suffering is not some kind of lofty theological or philosophical issue; it is a deeply personal and existential one. When confronted with tragic events, such as the loss of five wonderful IDF soldiers in a friendly fire incident in Gaza, people naturally seek explanations and meaning.

The Rambam’s approach offers a way to understand these events as part of a broader human context, where suffering results from human actions and the inherent risks of living in a world governed by natural laws. This perspective can be comforting because it suggests that if we improve our decision-making and our understanding of nature, we can mitigate suffering.

But the Izhbitzer’s perspective is much deeper. It calls for profound faith and trust in divine providence. His view challenges individuals to see God’s hand in every event, even those that seem senseless and cruel. It requires a profound acceptance of the mysteries of God’s will and an unwavering belief that everything happens for a reason, even if that reason is beyond human comprehension.

These two perspectives offer different ways to navigate the complexities of faith in the face of suffering. The Rambam’s approach encourages human responsibility and rational understanding, while the Izhbitzer’s view fosters a deep, sometimes challenging, reliance on divine providence. Both perspectives have their strengths and can provide comfort and guidance depending on one’s faith and understanding.

The tragic loss of the five IDF soldiers in Gaza serves as a heartbreaking reminder of the profound and often painful questions surrounding the presence of evil and suffering in the world. Whether one finds solace in the Rambam’s rational approach or the Izhbitzer’s call for deep faith in divine providence, the search for meaning in the face of tragedy is a fundamental aspect of the human experience.

Indeed, it is via this ongoing search that we can meaningfully grapple with the complexities of faith and justice, and the nature of existence itself. Hopefully, in the process, it can give us the comfort we all need.

The author is a rabbi in Beverly Hills, California.

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Netanyahu Heads to DC After Biden Quits 2024 Race, Says Israel Will Remain ‘Strong’ US Ally Whoever Is in White House

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Jerusalem, Feb. 18, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday departed for a highly anticipated trip to Washington, DC, where he will meet with US President Joe and Biden and deliver a speech before Congress this week as America grapples with the aftermath of Biden’s unprecedented decision to end his 2024 reelection campaign.

During his first trip to the US capital in almost four years, Netanyahu plans to visit the White House and also address US lawmakers on Wednesday. Netanyahu was originally expected to meet with Biden on Tuesday; however, several Hebrew media outlets reported that the meeting will likely be delayed due to Biden still being sick with COVID-19.

It is unclear how Biden’s shock decision on Sunday to drop out of the US presidential race will impact Netanyahu’s address to the US Congress. According to Israel’s Channel 13, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, a close confidant of Netanyahu, assured US officials that the speech will not include criticism of or against Biden following repeated requests by US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan for information about what the Israeli premier will say.

Netanyahu issued a statement following Biden’s announcement indicating the Israeli premier will underline the importance of bipartisanship in maintaining a close US-Israel relationship.

“I will seek to anchor the bipartisan support that is so important for Israel. And I will tell my friends on both sides of the aisle [in Congress] that regardless of who the American people choose as their next president, Israel remains America’s indispensable and strong ally in the Middle East,” Netanyahu said while leaving Israel for Washington, DC. “In this time of war and uncertainty it’s important that Israel’s enemies know that America and Israel stand together today, tomorrow, and always.”

The Israeli premier also expressed gratitude to Biden, stating that he will thank the US president for helping the Jewish state as he prepares to exit the White House.

“I plan to see President Biden, whom I’ve known for over 40 years. This will be an opportunity to thank him for the things he did for Israel in the war and during his long and distinguished career in public service, as senator, as vice president, and as president,” Netanyahu said.

Amid declining support for Israel among US liberal Democratic lawmakers, Netanyahu hopes to use his congressional address and White House visit to mend relations with Democrats, who have become increasingly uneasy over Israel’s war effort against the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas in Gaza.

Biden has come under heavy fire from Republicans as well as pro-Israel Democrats for what they’ve described as him turning against Israel amid the ongoing war in Gaza.

The US president expressed strong support for Israel following Hamas’ brutal invasion of southern Israel on Oct. 7, when Hamas-led Palestinian terrorists murdered 1,200 people and kidnapped about 250 hostages during their onslaught. In recent months, however, Biden has paused some weapons shipments to Israel and accused the US ally of “indiscriminate bombing” — a charge rejected by Israeli officials.

The Biden administration also discouraged Israel from launching a military offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah to target some of the last remaining Hamas battalions, arguing such an operation would put too many civilians at risk. Experts told The Algemeiner at the time that Israeli forces needed to operate in Rafah in order to dismantle Hamas’ military capabilities.

More broadly, the relationship between the Democratic Party and Israel has deteriorated in the months following Oct. 7. Several high-profile Democrats, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), have suggested that Israel’s military operations in Gaza are tantamount to a “genocide.” Democratic lawmakers have also called on Biden to halt arms transfers to Israel, citing concern over mounting civilian casualties in Gaza.

While Israeli officials have expressed frustration about the Biden administration pressuring them to halt their military campaign, Netanyahu is expected to use his visit as a way to repair some of the damage. The trip could also serve as a way to make Israel’s case directly to the American public, which overall remains pro-Israel despite declining support among younger demographics.

The percentage of Americans that express “little or no confidence” in Netanyahu has increased by 11 points since 2023, according to an April poll by Pew Research Center. Among Democrats, a staggering 71 percent express “little or no confidence” in the Israeli leader. 

Anti-Israel groups have also organized protests in advance of Netanyahu’s congressional address. Far-left organizations such as Party for Socialism and Liberation and Palestinian Youth Movement are urging their supporters to “surround the Capitol” during Netanyahu’s address. Leaders of these groups have branded Netanyahu as a “war criminal” and have called for his arrest. 

The people charge Benjamin Netanyahu with genocide. When war criminal Netanyahu comes to Washington DC,” Palestinian Youth Movement wrote on Instagram, “the people of the world stand with Palestine and against the genocide committed by Israel with full support of the United States and impunity.”

In addition to meeting with Biden, Netanyahu may also speak with Republican presidential nominee and former US President Donald Trump. Netanyahu has requested an in-person meeting with Trump while in the US this week, according to Politico.

The Algemeiner could not immediately verify the report.

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Pro-Hamas Demonstrators Avoid Punishment Following Wave of Dropped Charges, Reports Say

Law enforcement officers detain a demonstrator, as they clear out a pro-Hamas protest encampment at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Los Angeles, California, US, May 2, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/David Swanson

The State Attorney’s Office of Cook County, Illinois has dropped criminal charges filed against three Northwestern University faculty and one graduate student who allegedly obstructed law enforcement’s efforts to clear an unlawful demonstration at the Deering Meadow section of campus.

According to a local National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate, the office said its decision is based on its “policy not to prosecute peaceful protesters.”

Charges against the four individuals were pursued by the Northwestern University Police Department, which said that they allegedly engaged in “obstructing a police officer during the protests,” a crime for which they could, if convicted, spend a year in jail and pay a $2,500 fine, The Daily Northwestern reported last week. They had already appeared before a judge and were scheduled to do so again in August.

The university had defended the recommendation of its police department and rejected the notion that the individuals acted peaceably, saying in a statement issued earlier this month that it “does not permit activity that disrupts university operations, violates the law, or includes the intimidation or harassment of members of the community.”

Many more protesters have similarly avoided punishment for the actions they took during a burst of pro-Hamas demonstrations at the end of the 2023-2024 academic year, according to a new report by The New York Times. Prosecutors in Travis County, Texas, for example, have dropped over 100 charges of criminal trespassing filed against University of Texas at Austin protesters, the paper said, and 60 other Northwestern University protesters saw their charges dismissed, with prosecutors calling them “constitutionally dubious.” The Times added, however, that some charges will stick, including those filed against someone who bit a police officer, and many students are still awaiting the outcome of disciplinary proceedings.

Per the report, “At the University of Virginia on May 4, as students were preparing for final exams, administrators called in police to break up an encampment. Police officers in riot gear used chemical irritants to get protesters to disperse and eventually arrested 27 people. The local prosecutor dropped the charges facing seven people after he determined there wasn’t enough evidence. He offered the rest an agreement: their charges would be dismissed in August if they didn’t have any outstanding criminal charges at the time.”

Prosecutors in other states have not been as forbearing. According to Fresh Take Florida, prosecutors in Alachua County, Florida charged seven University of Florida students, as well as two non-students, with trespassing and resisting arrest. The defendants have resolved to take their chances at trial, the news service added, noting that all nine have rejected “deferred prosecution,” an agreement that would require them to plead guilty, or no contest, in exchange for the state’s expunging the convictions from their records in the future so long as they abstain from committing more criminal acts.

One of the nine, computer science student Parker Stanley Hovis, 26, — who was suspended for three years — proclaimed earlier this month that they will contest the state’s cases.

“We did not resist arrest, and we are prepared to fight our charges,” Hovis said in a statement. “We’re standing in solidarity with each other, and collectively demanding that the state drop the charges against us.”

Jewish civil rights group have described the anti-Israel protesters across the US as posing an imminent threat to Jewish students and faculty while noting that many avert being identified by concealing their faces with masks and keffiyehs, a traditional headscarf worn by Palestinians which has become known as a symbol of solidarity with the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel. Images and footage of the practice have been widely circulated online, and it has rendered identifying the protesters — many of whom have chanted antisemitic slogans, vandalized school property, and threatened to harm Jewish students and faculty during a weeks-long demonstration between April and May — virtually impossible.

On Thursday, one such civil rights group, StandWithUs (SWU), implored the US Department of Justice to crack down on masked protests at Columbia University by enforcing legal statues which are widely referred to as the “KKK Laws,” citing numerous antisemitic incidents of harassment and assault on its campus and the difficulty of punishing the perpetrators.

Dating back to the administration of former US President Ulysses S. Grant, the so-called “KKK Laws” empower the federal government to prosecute those who engage in activities which violate the civil rights of protected groups, as the Ku Klux Klan did across the US South during Reconstruction to prevent African Americans from voting and living as free citizens. StandWithUs alleges that five anti-Zionist groups — most notably Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) — currently operating on Columbia University’s campus have perpetrated similar abuses in violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which guarantees all students, regardless of race or ethnic background, has the right to a safe learning environment.

“We hope the Department of Justice will take this opportunity to restore justice on Columbia University’s campuses and hold bad actors responsible for violating federal laws,” Yael Lerman, director of the SWU Saidoff Legal Department, said in a statement.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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France Says Israeli Athletes ‘Welcome’ at Olympics Amid Mounting Threats, Added Security Measures

The Olympic Village prepared for the 2024 Paris Olympics. Photo: Paris 2024 / Raphael Vriet

French leaders said on Monday that the Israeli delegation to the 2024 Paris Olympics is welcome in France, despite what critics described as “antisemitic” comments to the contrary made by a French politician two days earlier

At an anti-Israel rally on Saturday, far-left French lawmaker Thomas Portes said, “I am here to say that, no, the Israeli delegation is not welcome in Paris. Israeli athletes are not welcome at the Olympic Games in Paris.”

Portes called for Israelis to be excluded from the Paris Olympics because of Israel’s ongoing war against Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip who perpetrated the Oct. 7 massacre in Israel.

Portes later also told the newspaper Le Parisien that “France’s diplomats should pressure the International Olympic Committee to bar the Israeli flag and anthem, as is done for Russia” due to its invasion of Ukraine.

French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said Portes’ comments had “obvious antisemitic overtones” and “placed a target on the backs of the Israeli athletes.” He added, “I want to express my disgust at that. I want to assure the Israeli athletes of our full protection, like all athletes, but particularly them, also welcoming them.”

Darmanin also announced that Israel’s Olympic delegation, which includes 88 athletes representing the Jewish state, will have increased security and will receive 24-hour security from French police. He said the decision was made after taking into consideration the 1972 Munich Olympics — where 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were murdered by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September — and how Israeli athletes are a target for attacks, especially since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.

France has experienced a record surge in antisemitic incidents since Oct. 7, when Hamas launched the war with its massacre across southern Israel.

French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné reiterated that the Israeli delegation “is welcome in France” for the Paris Olympics during his visit to Brussels on Monday, the French-language newspaper Le Monde reported. He called Portes’ remarks “irresponsible and dangerous,” and added that France “will ensure the security of the [Israeli] delegation.”

Paris Police Chief Laurent Nuñez said 30,000 to 45,000 police personnel will be working daily to ensure safety at Olympic sites and fan zones in Paris.

It was previously reported that Israel doubled its security budget for this year’s Games, which will be Israel’s 18th appearance in the Olympics. Israeli Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar told The Telegraph that the Israeli Olympic delegation this year, which is the second-largest Israeli delegation in Olympics history, has received threats but he did not go into detail. He added that delegation members will receive security details from Israel’s Shin Bet security agency but not everyone will have their own bodyguards.

“We try our best to make sure the athletes feel free but also safe and not afraid. We don’t want them to notice the security guards too much. We want them to feel confident so they can do their job,” he explained to the publication.

There have been calls to ban Israel from the Paris Olympics because of the Israel-Hamas war, but Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said in March there is no doubt that Israel will participate in the Paris Olympics.

The 2024 Olympic Games will take place from July 26-Aug. 11.

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