Burning children

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This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg
Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Last night, amidst the murderous Israeli assault on Gaza, I heard from a friend who recalled a passage I wrote in 1987:

As risky and problematic as it is, we are called today to the wilderness; but the call is a promise of liberation. Chastened by history, we can no longer see liberation as the omnipotent preserve of God hovering over us by day and leading us by night, or simply as the search for the empowerment of our own people in America and Israel. We can ill afford such innocence in the presence of burning children, whether they be in Poland or in Palestine.

Though hardly a neophyte to Israel’s transgressions, my friend seemed shaken by the death toll in Gaza, the targeting of civilians, children being blown to bits. He was also reflecting on a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed by Thane Rosenbaum that views Israel’s civilian massacres almost as a rite of passage. Jews and others should wake up to the violence, not of Israel, but of Hamas. Targeting civilians isn’t as bad as it initially sounds. In fact, civilian deaths are inevitable. Get over it.

Thane Rosenbaum
Thane Rosenbaum

This is how Thane Rosenbaum parses it:

The asymmetry is complicated even further by the status of these civilians. Under such maddening circumstances, are the adults, in a legal and moral sense, actual civilians? To qualify as a civilian one has to do more than simply look the part. How you came to find yourself in such a vulnerable state matters. After all, when everyone is wearing casual street clothing, civilian status is shared widely.
The people of Gaza overwhelmingly elected Hamas, a terrorist outfit dedicated to the destruction of Israel, as their designated representatives. Almost instantly Hamas began stockpiling weapons and using them against a more powerful foe with a solid track record of retaliation.
What did Gazans think was going to happen? Surely they must have understood on election night that their lives would now be suspended in a state of utter chaos. Life expectancy would be miserably low; children would be without a future. Staying alive would be a challenge, if staying alive even mattered anymore.

Thus, the government in power – anywhere – defines the people’s – including children’s right to life? Does this same reasoning apply for Palestinians in relation to Israel and the Israeli children? Does electing and reelecting Netanyahu mean forfeiting their right to life?
Rosenbaum’s logic is twisted. If enablers have their place at The Hague, such incitement will surely have its day in court.


The passage I wrote about burning children reflected the language of Rabbi Irving Greenberg, a prominent Holocaust theologian. It came to mind most vividly several weeks ago when Mohamed Abu Khdeir was burned alive after being kidnapped by several Israelis. The inversion of Jewish history was glaring. But I wondered if invoking the Holocaust made sense here. Would it be seen as dwelling in the past?

It was in a 1974 essay that Rabbi Greenberg first wrote about the burning children of the Holocaust as a challenge for the Jewish future. I have quoted this passage often:

After the Holocaust, no statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that is not credible in the presence of the burning children.

Rabbi Greenberg’s invocation of burning children came to life in a different way for me when I visited Palestinian hospitals during the first Palestinian Uprising in 1988 and 1989. There I saw Palestinians of all ages but mostly teenagers who had been shot by Israel’s “rubber” bullets. Some were struggling for life. Others were already brain dead. I visited with the parents and siblings of the injured. Above the beds were martyr photos of the children framed by kefiyas.

After I left the hospitals, I wrote a poem about my experience. I used Rabbi Greenberg’s haunting word about burning children to express my experience in the hospitals. In the poem I asked if these Palestinian children weren’t, like the children of the Holocaust, burning too. I felt the Palestinian children I saw were in many ways “our” children. We share a common humanity as starters but for Jews I knew that their “burning” was our responsibility.

Though unintended by Rabbi Greenberg, his Holocaust statement has broadened to include Palestinians who are “burning,” this time at the hands of Jews. What theological statement can we make about God that makes sense to the burning children of the Holocaust – and Palestine?

Speak about God – if it makes sense to the burning children of the Holocaust and Palestine. Taken seriously, the seminaries of every faith would have to close. As would the synagogues, churches and mosques. God-talk cannot make sense to a burning child.

Yet the most intriguing and difficult part of Rabbi Greenberg’s words may be his clause – “or otherwise.” Otherwise would include political, economic, ecological and military statements – and the policies that go with them. Propose and implement these policies without question – if they make sense to the burning children.

Does Israel’s invasion of Gaza pass this Holocaust test?

Does Israel’s occupation of Palestine pass this Holocaust test?

Perhaps no war can pass Rabbi Greenberg’s haunting thoughts. Should we then disband every army and shut down the arms producer worldwide, including in Israel?

As the news reports show and Palestinians know by experience, burning children has become a way of life for Israel. It makes sense to Israel’s government and Jews around the world that supports the invasion of Gaza and even Op-Ed writers in the Wall Street Journal. The burning children of Gaza are collateral damage to a larger more important story.

Like Jewish children were considered not so long ago?

The children of Palestine tell another story – for themselves, for Jews and for history.

Chastened by history, indeed, Jews are – by the Holocaust and now by Palestine.

For in Gaza right now children are burning everywhere.

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View all comments “Israel’s ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has reportedly said that the Israeli army should be given the Nobel Peace Prize for its “unimaginable restraint” in Gaza. Dermer was addressing the Christians United for Israel Summit in Washington and, despite some heckling, his speech was “warmly received”, according to the Times of Israel. It quotes him as saying: Some are shamelessly accusing Israel of genocide and would put us in the dock for war… Read more »

“Some are shamelessly accusing Israel of genocide and would put us in the dock for war crimes. But the truth is that the Israeli Defence Forces should be given the Nobel Peace Prize… a Nobel Peace Prize for fighting with unimaginable restraint.“ Herr Dermer

Which begs the question, what could they possibly be holding back?

any of us can create a shift in our pages of history
it would take alot of us to incite an actual improvement
if this be His Will a prayer to those who have allowed the seed
of evil to grow in their ‘hearts’ may love overshadow and wither
the evil this i pray in His Name Amen
G-d Bless

Along with Marc Regev Thane Rosenbaum has a face that just begs to be punched.

Speak about God – if it makes sense to the burning children of the Holocaust and Palestine. Taken seriously, the seminaries of every faith would have to close. As would the synagogues, churches and mosques. God-talk cannot make sense to a burning child.

I sympathize- this is a really big problem in the world.