Two Rabbis & A Senator Cry Out for Peace and Humanity.

Steve Villano
7 min readMar 23, 2024

The night before Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — the highest ranking Jewish elected leader in American history — took to the floor of the U.S. Senate to give an historic speech on US/Israeli relations, a Rabbi in Santa Rosa, California, delivered a similar, searing, and deeply personal message.

Like Schumer, the Rabbi, George Gittleman of Congregation Shomrei Torah, spent many months since October 7, agonizing over, writing, rewriting and crafting his message. The subject was too important — and a lifetime of feelings far too powerful — not to get it exactly correct.

Like Schumer, Gittleman is a life-long supporter of Israel, spending years studying there, and many more years guest lecturing and visiting.

And, like Schumer, our Rabbi walked us through the historical context behind the creation of Israel, the millennia long presence of both Palestinians and Jews in the region, and the facts of the present Israel/Hamas war.

While Schumer, and his love for Judaism were growing in Brooklyn, N.Y, where he was born, Bar Mitzvahed, studied Torah and became a public official, Rabbi Gittleman was studying for the Rabbinate in Jerusalem during the First Intifada, and recoiling in horror as terrorists blew themselves up — and many innocent Israelis — on crowded buses.

Schumer and Gittleman have solid bonafides for their passion for a humane, loving Judaism, and a fundamental commitment to Israel’s existence.

Gittleman, the son of a prominent Rabbi from Louisville, Kentucky, came later in life to his rabbinical studies, and has, since his ordination by the Reform Seminary of Hebrew Union College in 1996, pursued a progressive, humanitarian approach to his faith. He has headed the egalitarian, Reform Congregation Shomrei Torah, Santa Rosa, for the past 28 years.

Schumer, whose ancestors came from Western Ukraine, is also a member of a Reform Synagogue, Congregation Beth Elohim, in Park Slope, Brooklyn, despite his long time support of the increasingly nationalistic AIPAC: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which, in recent years, has spent millions of dollars opposing many of Schumer’s fellow Democrats in Congress, who have been critical of the extreme right-wing Netanyahu government.

In fact, Schumer — who opposed the Obama/Biden Administration’s US/Iran Nuclear Agreement — was one of the leading members of the US Senate who invited Netanyahu to speak before Congress in 2015, and express his opposition to that agreement, making him the first Prime Minister of Israel to thrust himself directly into American politics. Schumer was up for re-election the following year, and New York’s large Jewish constituency was important in any statewide election.

While Senator Schumer’s strong record of support for Israel was both personal and pragmatic, Rabbi Gittleman’s was profoundly personal, without any consideration of politics.

In his decades as a spiritual & community leader in Northern California, one of the most naturally beautiful regions of the US, Gittleman carved out a compassionate career as a leading advocate for the environment, for human and civil rights, and “Tikkun Olam” (repairing the world.) In 2010, he wrote an important article for the Reform Jewish Quarterly about using Maimonides’ teachings as “an environmental ethic for our time,” elevating the protection of our natural world to a moral issue.

It then came as no surprise to many of Gittleman’s congregants, that “Rabbi George,” as he prefers to be called, would feel compelled to speak about the war raging in Gaza, between Israel and Hamas, the slaughter of some 1,200 Israelis at the hands of Hamas and the taking of hostages; the deaths of more than 30,000 non-Hamas Palestinians (mostly women and children), and the catastrophic humanitarian crisis and mass starvation in Gaza. Those of us who admire the man, appreciate his ability to sense what’s causing his “Temple family” great emotional stress, and express it sensitively and without bias.

Speaking less than 24 hours before Schumer on opposite coasts, Gittleman gently discussed “asymmetrical war” (no uniforms, no clear battlefields) and the greater moral burden it placed on individual front-line soldiers to make the “right” decisions. He cited the Code of Ethics for the IDF, formulated by, among others. Dr. Moshe Halbertal, a professor of Law and Ethics, at NYU, and of Jewish Thought and Philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The Code of Ethics, required as part of basic training for IDF soldiers, consists of four essential principles:

· NECESSITY: “to apply force only for the sake of the mission,” (which differentiates soldiers from thugs who rape and randomly destroy);

· DISTINCTION: “aim your fire at those who pose a threat, NOT at combatants indiscriminately (and NOT at non-combatants at all, even if they are standing on the sidelines cheering on your enemy);

· RESPONSIBILITY: “since you know there will be collateral harm of civilians, you have to do whatever you can to MINIMIZE the expected collateral harm.”

· PROPORTIONALITY: “Is the expected collateral harm proportionate to the military achievement?” (To illustrate this principle, Dr. Halbertal uses the example of a lone sniper on the rooftop of a building housing some 30 civilian non-combatants. To destroy the sniper with a missile or bomb that destroys the entire building and the 30 innocent civilians inside, IS NOT PROPORTIONAL, by any measure of ethics or law.)

The “Proportionality” principle of the IDF Code of Ethics was so pertinent to the present situation in Gaza, where tens of thousands of non-combatant women and children have been killed in hospitals, schools and their homes, it took my breath away when the Rabbi spelled it out. It became clear that while the IDF did attempt to minimize “collateral harm” in its battles with Hamas in 2014, there was little attempt to do that today, with 30,000 Palestinians dead.

Particularly, as Dr. Halbertal said to the Jewish Theological Seminary in his presentation, “for every combatant (Hamas fighter) there are 60 non-combatants.” With such a staggering ratio, “proportionality” as a key principle of the IDF Code of Ethics, appears to have been abandoned in this war.

The following morning, on the floor of the United States Senate, Chuck Schumer’s speech headed in the same direction, as Rabbi Gittleman’s:


“ I am anguished that the Israeli war campaign has killed so many innocent Palestinians. I know that my fellow Jewish Americans feel this same anguish when they see the images of dead and starving children and destroyed homes.

Gaza is experiencing a humanitarian catastrophe — entire families wiped out, whole neighborhoods reduced to rubble, mass displacement, children suffering.

We should not let the complexities of this conflict stop us from stating the plain truth: Palestinian civilians do not deserve to suffer for the sins of Hamas, and Israel has a moral obligation to do better. The United States has an obligation to do better.

I believe the United States must provide robust humanitarian aid to Gaza, and pressure the Israelis to let more of it get through to the people who need it”.

Senator Schumer then went on to call Netanyahu an “obstacle to peace,” urging Israelis to demand a new election, and specifically criticized ultra-Far Right Ministers Bezalel Smotrich (Finance) and Ben-Gvir, previously rejected by the Israeli military for his extremist activities, who now, astonishingly, heads Israeli National Security.

Apparently, according to a New York Times story of March 19, 2024, entitled “Part of my Core: How Schumer Decided to Speak Out Against Netanyahu,” Schumer too, was influenced by what his Rabbi was saying.

Rabbi Rachel Timoner, who has spoken eloquently like Rabbi Gittleman, about the excruciating moral questions raised by this war in Gaza, told Schumer that the Far Right Extremists in Netanyahu’s government were : “endangering all of us because their agenda is about dehumanizing Palestinians, and it’s undermining Israel’s democracy and dearest values.”

Timoner told the New York Times, that she and Senator Schumer:

“share the belief that Israel has a right to defend itself against Hamas but talked about the desperate need to bring the hostages home and end the humanitarian crisis in Gaza through an agreement… even if we would only care about Israel’s safety and security, this war was actually harming Israel on the world stage and its relationship with the United States.”

Rabbi Timoner went on to tell The Times, what she thought of Schumer’s speech:

“This was him trying to discern the moral path and trying to step up in a way he knew was risky for him, to do something that he felt deeply was right.”

Rabbis Gittleman and Timoner, from communities as diverse as Brooklyn, N.Y, and Santa Rosa, CA, have given us clear, unencumbered moral and ethical lenses from which to view this War in Gaza.

The next time Netanyahu or a spokesperson for his government, or AIPAC, or a one-sided publication or media outlet, or someone in your own congregation, or family, says that a majority of American Jews support Israel’s War against Hamas, ask them if they know about the IDF’s Code of Ethics, and the principles of Necessity, Distinction, Responsibility and Proportionality.

Ask if they think Israel’s response to the brutal massacre of 1,200 innocent Israelis, violent rapes, and the taking of hostages has been proportionate to the collateral “human” harm done to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian non-combatants, and a population of 1.5 million people, mostly children, on the brink of mass starvation.

Then, continue to work for peace, our common humanity, and to repair a badly damaged world. That is our collective responsibility.