It’s taken me a lot of time to build up to writing this. And if I had to give a single reason, it’s because I was taught to think a certain way. That Israel is a shining democracy among (Arab, Muslim, nonwhite) dictatorships. That Israel makes every effort to minimize civilian casualties while “the other side” targets civilians. Not incidentally, I never met people from “the other side,” except maybe in passing. In that context, you can see how being “pro-Israel” and “pro-Zionist” is the path of least resistance.
The Casual Callousness and Racism of too Many Pro-Israel Arguments
But that very path of least resistance, and not any strength of conviction, is why most people circle wagons on an issue like this. It’s why I did. It’s easier, when you’re with a bunch of Jewish people, to say something Jewish-people-friendly. Picture this: you’re sitting with your friends/family at Shabbat lunch. Someone mentions the “conflict.” It’ll usually be something fairly innocuous like: “I just feel so bad for what’s happening in Israel. I hope they make them pay for what they did to our people.” What could happen at that point is: everyone nods and moves on from the fish course to the chicken course.
But let’s take a moment to interrogate what was just said. Whom or what did this uncle or family friend just quietly profess solidarity with? The Netanyahu government? The bombing campaign that has, as of this writing, been going on for some three weeks and resulted in over seven thousand Gazan deaths, most of them civilian? The pronouncements by Israeli ministers that the solution to the current conflict involves relocating (i.e. ethnically cleansing) the population of Gaza?
Social Situations and the Imbalance of Rudeness
It’s not a bad idea, when you make a statement, to make clear that you are not advocating ethnic cleansing. Not least if you know that ethnic cleansing is one of the options that’s on the table. And it shouldn’t be considered rude, when someone has said something that could be interpreted as an endorsement of a massive crime against humanity, to ask them to clarify. It also should not be considered rude to say, as one journalist did: “But war crimes by one party don’t justify war crimes by the other.”
But that is the situation I have been in, at a conservative estimate, about a thousand times: where I’m aware that badmouthing one side of a conflict is fine but badmouthing the other would be rude. What happens when you commit that unforgivable sin?
“You can’t both-sides this issue!”
“They’re terrorists! Are you saying you support terrorists?”
“They won’t be happy until we’re all dead.”
“We have a right to be [in Israel]. Palestine isn’t even a real country.”
“Why would you say that? —’s son is in the Israeli army right now.”
“They should just get rid of that.” The gentleman in question was pointing to a newspaper with a photo of the Temple Mount, on which stand the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa. He answered my look of shock with: “You know I’m right.”
That Age-Old Question: What is to be Done?
The rest of the meal devolves into shouting, arguing, finger-pointing. The hosts forget to invite you back. Which would be fine if things were always like that. But we all know it’s not always like that. The person you’re arguing with about politics today is the person you babysat for last week, and the person who will pick you up from the auto repair place next month when your car breaks down and you have to get it towed. They are the person your family and their family went with for burgers every weekend for a year when you were both seven. Or they are the person who taught you how to write the number “8” when you were little and all you could manage was a squiggle.
Or they know someone who could get you a job but you’re “that nephew who posts Anti-Semitic dreck online.” As a result… no job.
So sometimes it’s just easier to put a piece of food in your mouth and wait until Aunt Rochelle stops advocating for war crimes. But that impulse–that “sometimes it’s easier”– is contagious. And on a big enough scale it’s how you get these conflicts in the first place; or how you get them to persist from generation to generation.
Israel, Germany, …
And you can’t rest assured that you’re always on the right side. If I, as a Jewish person, assume that Germans are basically like me, that means I have to acknowledge that in the years from 1930 to 1945, even as my ancestors were literally fleeing from their own homes, situations analogous to the lunch-scene I tried to illustrate above played out across thousands of dining- and sitting-rooms, and not just the once.
Which means someone’s Tante Bertha must have finished chewing, swallowed and said: “You know. I’m not a big fan of these Ignatzes running the government, but you must admit they’ve made things better.”
What to do? Point out that Onkel Hermann’s new job came at the expense of a Jew who’d been the foreman of that factory for 15 years? And had served the Kaiser in the trenches before that? Or that Größmutter Bertha’s new apartment had belonged to a Romany family who are now gone, presumed dead? Why bother? It’s happening “over there.” Or it’s happening “to them.” Or “it’ll blow over.” It’s not worth alienating Tante Bertha.
What we Owe Our Fellows
I wish more of them had spoken up. Speaking up is the insurance we owe each other, even across familial, cultural, and national lines. So now I will do so as well:
What Israel is doing to Gaza is genocide, a word that is clearly defined by the UN and Geneva conventions to include: collective punishment, depriving a group of of the ability to feed, clothe, and hydrate themselves, and to treat their sick and wounded. If that were not enough, there is talk from Israeli ministers—ministers, mind you, not just people on the street—about claiming land from Gaza, kicking its people out, and colonizing some or all of the strip with a new wave of colonization.
What does “Never Again” Mean? Never WHAT Again?
Jews–in Israel and elsewhere alike–are at a crossroads. We have to decide if “Never Again” means “Never again will a genocide be perpetrated on us; never again will they catch us unawares; thus we will always defend ourselves brutally against any enemy or perceived enemy.” Or does it mean: “Never again will this happen to anyone. Not even if we ourselves would benefit in some way.” I know it means the first in practice. I’d like to think it means the latter in theory. But even if that’s true, it’s still a job of work to get us from the one to the other.
Now. A lot of people are going to read the foregoing arguments and immediately an objection is going to pop into their heads beginning with the words: “But they–.”
“But they are attacking us!”
“But they killed civilians!”
“But they don’t even respect life”
Or “How can…”:
“How can we make peace with an enemy that hates us?”
“How can you talk about your own people like that?”
“How can such a thing happen and Israel not respond?”
Or the simple:
“Israel has a right to defend itself.”
The Beginnings of a Greater Alliance Based on Conscience, not Culture
I share the outrage against Hamas (an organization that has had a stranglehold on Gazan politics for longer than most Gazans have been alive). In any case, Gaza has a population of millions. If Hamas numbers in as many as the tens of thousands (current estimates range from 30-40K) then it is still not acceptable to target those civilians to get to them.
Which reminds me of another likely objection: that, in writing this article: I’m throwing in with Hamas. But I suspect Hamas doesn’t recruit new members by telling them: “As we speak there are Jews talking about how Palestinians have the right to food, water, and medicine.”
I think the opposite more likely: hearing Israeli citizens and Jews around the world criticize Israel–deep structural criticism–will empower Palestinians to do the same. Most of us won’t be able to hear them, though, with their electricity and internet cut off.
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