הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּחַיִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן תִּֽחְיֶ֖ה אַתָּ֥ה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.
Choose life—if you and your offspring would live—
“Let the weapons be silenced; let the cry for peace be heard from the poor, from the people, from the children!”
Pope Francis, October 19, 2023
“Cursed be they who cry out: Revenge. We choose life.”
Ayman Odeh, Haifa, Israel, October 19, 2023
In Jewish mysticism, 18 is a sacred number, because it is the numerical equivalent of “chai” (חי) — the word and symbol for life. But today, on this 18th day of war, we are overcome by death and suffering, unbearable tragedy after unbearable tragedy. We are traumatized by the death and kidnapping of innocents. We are anguished, gut-punched and diminished by every atrocity, every bombing, every life that has been extinguished.
Born in Prague, 1889, the Jewish poet Paul Kornfeld died in Lodz concentration camp in 1942. “Everything on this earth follows the age-old rules,” he wrote. “When spring comes, the ice melts… And when someone is enraged he does evil.”
Anticipating far greater carnage, we are full of dread.
Our power to limit or restrain the production of mass death in Israel/Palestine, and the escalation of regional war, is extremely limited. But it is not zero, especially as we are U.S. citizens, so we must try as hard as we can, and not stop.
Why I endorse a cease-fire now
Following the murders, rapes, torture and kidnapping of Israeli civilians by Hamas assailants on October 7, the call for military action against perpetrators of unspeakable atrocities is understandable and legitimate. Israel suffered losses far greater than those suffered by the United States on 9/11, in the proportion of the population who were murdered, in the close proximity between perpetrators and victims, and in the ferocity of hated and desire for extermination that the perpetrators manifest in killing after killing. The obligation to protect one’s citizens from invasion and terror is the highest priority of any state. Understandably under the circumstances, an overwhelming consensus of Israelis appear to have reached the conclusion that Hamas needs be disarmed so that the organization cannot perpetrate such mass atrocities again. If the IDF fails to disarm Hamas, they argue, no one else will do it for them, and the Israeli population will be vulnerable to further attacks and bloodshed. If I lived in Israel, or I had family there, I imagine I would feel the same way.
However, even a just war must be fought in accordance with international law, a fundamental obligation that cannot be waived under any circumstances. Military actions narrowly targeted to Hamas military infrastructure can be pursued in accordance with the law of war, but reprisals and collective punishment against the civilian population cannot. No army has the right to “take their gloves off” and act with disproportionate force, especially when an entire population is subject to siege, deprivation, expulsion and attack. This is not just a matter of law. It reflects a fundamental moral principle that civilians must not be targeted. The fact that Hamas violated this principle in Israel, without equivocation or mercy, does not give license for the IDF to bomb, starve or expel the civilian population of Gaza in response.
Today, the White House made clear its opposition to a ceasefire at this time. According to National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, “A ceasefire right now really only benefits Hamas.” This essay is an attempt to explain why I believe that the White House is wrong, why a facilitated ceasefire is urgently necessary to save the lives of the hostages, to protect two million civilians in Gaza, and ultimately to prevent greater violence against all people of Israel and Palestine who are bound together in a common land.
Frankly, I agreed with Kirby’s analysis on October 8, following the murder of 1,400 Israelis, and the seizure of 200 hostages, before Israel had taken any action in response. Self-defense is a right under the UN Charter, and it is almost impossible to imagine any nation with capacity refraining from military action under like circumstances. Like many Jews and humanitarians of all faiths, I was deeply disturbed by anti-Israel protests that had praised the Hamas attack as a victory for Palestinian resistance. A cease- fire was premature under such conditions, I believed.
But today, on Day 18, everything is different, and the need for a negotiated cease fire has become urgent.
At the initial moment of grief and terror Israel could have waited until after a period of discernment and grief to mourn the dead and process the trauma before determining a comprehensive strategy to isolate Hamas as a global pariah. That strategy could have prioritized collaboration with the US and EU to pressure Qatar and other regional allies to disavow Hamas leaders as a criminals and terrorists, and withdraw all funding for them. It could have mobilized international diplomacy and mediation to rescue the hostages. It could have brought action to initiate prosecution of Hamas leaders for crimes against humanity. And then, after all efforts had been made to bring the hostages home, after vetting plans to ensure strategic clarity and focus, Israel could have initiated a well focussed military action to severely weaken Hamas’s military capacity to the extent that coordinated intelligence would enable, while radically bolstering homeland security protection for all civilians living in southern Israel, and harnessing international good will to further strengthen missile defense across the country.
But Israel chose a different path. The moment of shock at the unfathomable violence perpetrated by Hamas was simultaneously a moment of shame for the Netanyahu government’s unconscionable failure to prevent the October 7 massacres or help the victims in time to save their lives, for which Netanyahu has taken no responsibility. In this moment of truth, Israeli authorities felt compelled for reasons of domestic political urgency to act with undue haste to demonstrate their capacity to assert power and control over Gaza and its people.
On October 9, two days after the Hamas attacks, Israel ordered “a complete siege on the Gaza strip — there will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed.” The Israeli siege violates international law, and likely constitutes a war crime, because it targets the entire population of Gaza — a population of over two million souls, nearly half of whom are children — depriving them of the ability to live, as the mass bombardment destroy homes, lives and families without discriminating between Hamas agents or associates and the vast majority of civilians who have no affiliation with Hamas or Islamic Jihad or their political or military activities.
According to the Hamas-run Gazan health ministry, 5,300 Palestinians have been killed and 18,000 wounded since Israeli reprisals began. These numbers might not be accurate, and it is not possible to verify them. But it is not just a question of numbers. We know without question that killings, destruction, expulsion and extreme human suffering have engulfed Gaza in the past three weeks. Nor is there any doubt that civilians largely bear the consequences of death, displacement, hunger, thirst and exposure.
However understandable the call for vengeance following extreme victimization, and indeed precisely because such calls are understandable psychologically under such terrible circumstances, revenge is an illegitimate and illegal war strategy.
Suicidal as well as homicidal in its consequences, vengeance cannot bring healing; it cannot bring justice; it cannot bring peace; it cannot bring the dead back to life.
Vengeance and retribution bring nothing but more death, the killing of innocents in someone else’s family, community and nation, and another generation of survivors committed to avenging their deaths. This cycle will never end until blood soaks the ground in every kilometer of the Israel/Palestine and throughout the region.
Tomorrow (Wednesday) the inspirational Jewish organization If Not Now is convening what promises to be a large, nonviolent demonstration in Washington D.C. calling for the U.S. Congress to immediately enact the Israel/Palestine ceasefire resolution introduced by Rep. Cori Bush, and currently signed by 17 members of Congress. I strongly support this action and call on everyone to join me in calling for a cease fire now.
This essay is imperfect and disturbing
This essay attempts to share the discernment process in which I have engaged since this war began a little more than two weeks ago. Because the essay is long (over 7,000 words) and intense, I have divided it into sections, with discussion of the October 7 Hamas attacks in southern Israel preceding discussion of the Israeli siege and bombing of Gaza that followed.
Those of us who are based in universities are advised to warn students and readers when we discuss the reality of violence and inhumanity without euphemism. This is understandable given the cycles of trauma that are perpetuated across generations, and the painful mental health struggles so many of us have as a result.
Our of caution, and respect for the raw wounds so many carry, I offer such a warning.
The situation we face is fraught with immense complexity, terrible violence and intense feelings. My ability to address this complexity and violence in a short essay is flawed. Without intention, I omit important things and inadequately characterize others. My perspective and understanding is limited and partial. I fear that inadvertent omissions, inadequate descriptions or partial truths will inflame a reader’s trauma in one way or another. The safer approach would be to speak in generalities, to avoid the most painful truths as I see them. But this is not the time for silence or avoidance, especially as I direct an institute dedicated to nonviolence.
This essay is published in our institute’s “Fierce Urgency” blog, highlighting the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” made at the Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967: “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now,” he said. “Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, ‘Too late.'” For King, the choice between violence or nonviolence obscures the gravity of our situation. “We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.” Dr. King’s words echo across the decades and shake us today, to the core.
We must do everything we can stop this madness and end this bloodshed now, before it is too late.
“A single family dwelling in a common home”
Our brothers and sisters in Israel and Palestine are mourning for the dead. Infants and toddlers, boys and girls, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, cousins and neighbors. We mourn and together with them.
When he came from Montgomery Alabama to honor Dr. Clarence B. Jones at USF last November, Bryan Stevenson told us that our most important obligation as caring people is to “get proximate to people who are suffering.” At this moment we must include in our circle of care and concern all who are in mourning, every person fleeing from their lives, every mother waiting to hear whether their child will be released from captivity, everyone who is traumatized — all those within the broad networks of our tribal community, and especially those who are members of a community different from our own.
We do not have to go far away to be proximate to suffering. There are many families in our immediate community, here in San Francisco Bay Area, Palestinians and Jews, who are mourning relatives or fearing for their lives, including families of hostages taken by Hamas.
My dear friend Hala Hijazi comes from a large extended family in Gaza. Only a few days after Israeli bombs started falling in Gaza City, Hala shared with me that more than forty members of her family were killed by them. Another eighty or so family members, uncles, aunts and cousins, have been killed or displaced — she doesn’t know, because no one in her family has yet received word from them in the past week. I haven’t spoken with Hala in a few days, and I fear that the death toll in her family at this time will be much worse.
Like all Palestinians living in Gaza City, Hala’s family members were ordered by Israeli authorities to evacuate, even as they have no place to go. Israel claims that this is a warning: stay in your home and you will assume the very high risk that you will be killed by massive aerial bombardment, or by IDF forces if Israel proceeds with a ground invasion. Hamas has told residents not to go, and many fear that Israeli is initiating another Nakba, a forced evacuation that will result in another episode of massive ethnic cleansing and permanent dispossession of Palestinian people.
To protect their families, hundreds of thousands have evacuated to Khan Yunis or other cities or villages in the southern area of Gaza, without any assurance that they will be permitted to return ever again. Many of those who followed the Israeli evacuation orders have paid with their lives. With unconscionable cruelty, Israel has continued to bomb Palestinians in Khan Yunis and surrounding areas where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled for safety following Israeli orders.
“To care for the world in which we live means to care for ourselves,” wrote Pope Francis in his 2020 Encyclical Letter Fratelli Tutti. “Yet we need to think of ourselves more and more as a single family dwelling in a common home.” This is not a flowery conceit, or naive idealism. Caring for ourselves obligates us to care for others. Martin Luther King, Jr. demanded the same of us, asking us to imagine that all of us on earth live together in a large house in which “we must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”
If our imagination isn’t big enough to the World House Dr. King asked us to inhabit, if we cannot perceive our connection to every human being on earth in “an inescapable network of mutuality,” that we are tied to each person in our shared planet “in a single garment of destiny,” as King asked of us, then at least we must discipline ourselves to see that the tiny subset of the world’s population living in the very small broken and blood-soaked territory at the shore of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea — Arab and Jew, Palestinian and Bedouin, Christian and Baha’i, Sunni and Shia — live together as a single family dwelling in a common home.
Please reach out to comfort those who are in mourning, Palestinians and Israelis, Muslims and Jews, and to offer them care and solidarity.
In these inhumane times we have an obligation to use our critical intelligence to work through the most painful and difficult problems facing our world. We have an obligation to speak out for peace and justice, as we have an obligation to reject slogans, propaganda and cant that batters us from all sides. Social media, a tool for enhanced human communication, is overcome by toxic, virulent disinformation campaigns framing all violence in zero-sum distortions. We make it worse by posting and reposting the manufactured us-versus-them diatribes inundating our feeds.
Too many of us focus our moral attention on atrocities and suffering experienced by one community or the other. A comprehensive understanding of the situation, enabling an informed and sound moral judgment, requires that we prioritize both, especially as Palestinians, Muslims and Jews are being abandoned, silenced, attacked and threatened everywhere in the world, including in the United States.
Don’t let anyone tell you that one of these nations or faith communities is composed of people who only understand the language of violence, who are less human, who deserve what is coming to them, whose killing somehow serves a glorious future of decolonization or security, justice or peace. When our friends and colleagues and community members say such things, we must must tell them that it is morally wrong to spread vicious, poisonous lies.
Don’t let anyone tell you that your brother is not your brother, your sister is not your sister, your cousin is not your cousin.
I won’t let anyone tell me that Hala is not my sister or that her family is not mine.
Mass atrocities in Southern Israel on October 7, 2023
Already October 7, 2023, seems long ago. So much has happened since, most of it terrible. But October 7, 2023 will never end until the families of hostages get their loved ones back (Kfir Bibas, 9 months old; Ditza Haiman, 84; and approximately 200 others of all ages between). And for those mourning the dead, and the survivors of unspeakable trauma, the present day and night will always be October 7, 2023.
Forty years ago, just after I graduated from law school, I lived in San Francisco in an apartment on the fourth floor of a small building in the Cow Hollow neighborhood. There were four apartments in the flat, one on each floor. One night I returned home to find police cars with flashing lights in front of my building, with yellow tape blocking the entrance. In 1984-1985 the people of our city and state were terrorized by a serial killer known as “the Night Stalker” (later identified as Richard Ramirez) who entered into peoples homes and stabbed them to death, often after torturing and raping them. Earlier that evening, when I went out to dinner with a friend, Ramirez had walked up the back staircase of our building and entered into the apartment on the third floor, and murdered a young couple in their bed. I don’t know if the woman who lived below me was raped before she was killed. I did not see the apartment but it is my understanding that there was blood on the walls, everywhere. Over the years I have tried to avoid thinking about what took place that evening in the bedroom just below mine.
On Simchat Torah, Jews congregate to express joy and gratitude for the gift of Torah. On that holiday this year, hundreds of Hamas assailants went house to house in southern Israel and committed unspeakable atrocities. They used guns, knives, and machetes, and they burned families alive; some wore bodycams, some posted video footage of killings, torture and decapitation to social media, including videos verified by Human Rights Watch. I haven’t watched these videos because I am not able to do so.
Like the murders committed by Richard Ramirez in my apartment building, each atrocity was proximate, at close range. Of course the context is entirely different: historically, sociologically, psychologically. It is impossible to understand the Hamas killings apart from the political and military context. Legally, there is also an important difference: the Hamas killings and kidnappings were crimes under international law: crimes of war and crimes against humanity.
Morally, however, the Hamas and Ramirez atrocities are the same.
Some activists and academics have asserted that the horrific crimes committed by Hamas against Israeli citizens should be regarded as legitimate acts of armed struggle in the context of Palestinian resistance against “settler colonialism.” This argument is morally and legally wrong. Under international law, ordinary men, women and children in Israel are civilians just as ordinary men, women and children in Gaza are civilians and and must not be subjected to armed attacks or violence of any kind. Even soldiers and militia members when captured cannot be subjected to torture, kidnapping, rape or murder. There are no ideological exceptions to these legal and moral imperatives.
Honoring the Hamas assailants by calling them “resistance fighters” desecrates the Palestinian national liberation movement because it violates the sacred calling of human liberation and human dignity upon which all true anti-occupation and anti-apartheid movements are based; it desecrates Islam, a religion and a community of believers that affirm the fundamental sanctity of life, human rights, fellowship and peace as bedrock principles of faith, just as calling the Israeli siege of Gaza and bombing of Palestinian civilians “legitimate self defense” desecrates the principle of self-defense under international law, which prohibits all such military actions against civilians.
If the left stands for anything it must be for human liberation and security, and the protection of all civilians against crimes against humanity and crimes of war. Witnessing good people defend or justify such atrocities makes me weep. If any left campaign or protest abandons or desecrates our core commitment to human rights for all persons, I would be ashamed to be part of it.
Human slaughter, especially by such intimate, proximate means, shakes us to the bone. It is beyond understanding how men can choose to inflict the most gruesome and hideous violations on other human beings, especially women and children and families, especially at close range. These kind of atrocities are literally sickening. They make it difficult to hold on to core beliefs about about the progress of humanity from barbarism, and the aspiration that goodness will triumph over evil.
I couldn’t watch the videos. However, I did listen to a chilling audiotape of a young man, he sounded like a boy, calling his parents in Gaza from the cellphone of a person he had murdered (I cannot verify the accuracy of the translation, from the Jerusalem Post), speaking very fast, with great excitement: “Hi Dad, I am speaking to you from Mefalsim [an Israeli kibbutz]. Open your WhatsApp and look at at how many I killed with my own hands, your son killed Jews! Dad, I am speaking to you from a Jew’s phone, I killed her and her husband, I killed ten. Ten! Ten with my own bare hands. Their blood is on my hands, let me talk to Mom. Mother, your son is a hero…”
What kind of poison could lead men to become so dissociated from their own humanity that they could act with such extreme barbarism and human debasement, and feel flushed by adrenalin, exhilaration and pride?
I cannot fathom this. My life experience, my mind, is too limited.
But I know from studying the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, and the Rwanda genocide that dehumanization is a process of education and immersion that leads to mass killing. When adversaries are seen as mortal enemies, the source of one’s community’s persecution and oppression, people are vulnerable to manipulation. Blind hatred can be cultivated and channeled to acts of retribution on behalf of one’s group. Dehumanization is a process of repetition, especially by trusted authorities, that one’s liberation and very existence depends on the other’s elimination, that one’s enemies are part of a race or ethnicity or religion or group that is less than fully human, that they are animals that to be eliminated without mercy. Participating in “cleansing” the land of animals or evildoers, one can become a hero or martyr for the salvation of one’s people.
And it can happen anywhere, especially when one’s identity group has suffered trauma inflicted by another.
On August 9, 1945, Samuel McCrea Cavert, General Secretary of the Federal Council of The Churches of Christ in America, sent a telegram to President Harry Truman expressing his concern about U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima five days before (Cavert had no idea that a second atomic bomb would be dropped on Nagasaki that very day). “Many Christians deeply disturbed over use of atomic bombs against Japanese cities because of their necessarily indiscriminate destructive efforts and because their use sets extremely dangerous precedent for future of mankind, Cavert wrote. “Respectfully urge that ample opportunity be given Japan to reconsider ultimatum before any further devastation by atomic bomb is visited upon her people.” This is the full text of President Truman’s response to Cavert:
“Nobody is more disturbed over the use of atomic bombs than I am but I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war. The only language they seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable but nevertheless true.”
The Hamas founding charter (1998) opens with the following declaration: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it…” As in other blood feuds, we see the dehumanizing language of Hamas mirrored by the dehumanizing language of of Israeli leaders. “The era of reasoning with these savages is over,” Israel’s UN Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan told reporters on October 8. “Now is the time to obliterate Hamas terror infrastructure, to completely erase it, so that such horrors are never committed again.”
Obliterate, annihilate, eliminate, completely destroy, wipe out from existence.
Officials in the current Israeli government, the most right-wing government in the nation’s history, have long used such eliminationist language to dehumanize Palestinians. Itamar Ben-Gvir, appointed by Prime Minister Netanyahu as Israel’s Minister of National Security, is an extremist settler whose political career was forged in alliance with the racist Kach party of Rabbi Meir Kahane; Kahane and Kach had publicly called for the transfer of the remaining Arab population from Israel, a second Nakba. In 1994, after the Kach-affiliated assassin Dr. Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians praying at the Ibrahimi Mosque near the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the Israeli government abolished Kach as an illegal terrorist organization. For many years, Ben-Gvir infamously displayed a picture of Goldstein on his living room wall, taking it down only in 2020 as a ploy for his own political ploy for his own party (Otzma Yehudit) to be included in a right-wing governing alliance. Earlier this year, Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a far right settler leader, called for the Palestinian town of Huwara in the West Bank to be “erased” after a Jewish mob rampaged it following the killing of two Jewish settlers (see CNN, “Israel’s military called the settler attack on this Palestinian town a ‘pogrom.’ Videos show soldiers did little to stop it.“).
On October 9, two days after the Hamas attacks, Israeli Defense Minister Gallant announced “the complete siege on the Gaza Strip” in similar terms: “We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.” Gallant did not specify whether the term “human animals” referred to the perpetrators of the crimes committed on Simchat Torah, or more broadly to the Palestinians in Gaza. Others are more clear. But the blurred lines between Hamas and Gaza are highlighted by siege itself, which deprives all Palestinians in Gaza of the necessities of life. “We will wipe out this thing called Hamas,” Gallant said on October 12. “Hamas — the Islamic State of Gaza — will be wiped from the face of the earth.”
The following day, in a televised speech to the nation, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu echoed and extended Gallant’s pledge. “We will obliterate Hamas,” Netanyahu said. “We are striking our enemies with unprecedented might. I emphasize that this is only the beginning… What we will do to our enemies in the coming days will reverberate with them for generations….”
With immense sadness and foreboding, I believe him. I fear that Palestinian children — and their children, and perhaps their children’s children — will grow up with bitter hatred of Israel for what is happening in Gaza now and what will happen over the coming weeks and months, and that many of these children will become adults dedicated to the conviction that redemption will come only through the obliteration of Israel. I fear that Israel’s ruthless prosecution of this war will threaten the safety and security of Israelis as well as Palestinians, and Jews as well as Muslims throughout the world, destabilize the region, and gravely undermine the possibilities of peaceful coexistence in Israel/Palestine for generations.
Mass atrocities in Gaza since October 7
The Israeli siege of Gaza deprives ordinary Palestinian men, women and children of food, clean water, shelter or safety necessary for human survival. It is illegal and morally wrong to impose collective punishment on all Palestinians in Gaza for the crimes committed by Hamas against Israeli citizens, no matter how heinous and evil those crimes. It is illegal and morally wrong to bomb populated areas without regard for the human suffering and death such bombing it has already brought, and will continue to bring, to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who live there, and who have nowhere safe to go.
As summarized by Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International in an official statement published on October 13:
“In their stated intent to use all means to destroy Hamas, Israeli forces have shown a shocking disregard for civilian lives. They have pulverized street after street of residential buildings killing civilians on a mass scale and destroying essential infrastructure, while new restrictions mean Gaza is fast running out of water, medicine, fuel and electricity. Testimonies from eyewitness and survivors highlighted, again and again, how Israeli attacks decimated Palestinian families, causing such destruction that surviving relatives have little but rubble to remember their loved ones by.”
Supporting the siege and indiscriminate bombing of Gaza, forcing families to choose between expulsion from their homes or death in them, evoking the threat of another Nakba, depriving people of life support — these actions violate the sacredness of human life, the obligation of state decision-makers as defined in the Nuremberg Judgment of 1946, and the core principles of the Judaism, Christianity, Islam and all major faith traditions.
As Israeli bombing strikes have relentlessly pounded residential neighborhoods and refugee camps in Gaza, and Israeli soldiers amass near the Gaza border, many of us fear that Israeli decision-makers will do exactly what Hamas wants them to do: launch a ground invasion of Gaza that will radically expand the killings, enflaming the largest and bloodiest war in a generation, with escalating violence beyond Gaza already including clashes with Hezbollah in Northern Israel and Lebanon, and cross-border attacks involving Syrian militia, escalating communal violence and death in the West Bank to a degree that surpasses any similar period in the past 15 years — and the potential to trigger a broader war involving Iran and the United States.
“Please let everything possible be done to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.” This is the plea of Pope Francis, from October 19. “The possible widening of the conflict is disturbing,” he warned. “Let the weapons be silenced; let the cry for peace be heard from the poor, from the people, from the children!”
Israel and Palestine, Ukraine and Russia
Several nights ago, on October 20, President Biden spoke from the Oval Office. “We’re facing an inflection point in history,” he said, “one of those moments where the decisions we make today are going to determine the future for decades to come.” I believe that this is true. But I feel the chill of Yeat’s question at the end of his 1919 poem The Second Coming: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
In describing Hamas, Biden explained that “its stated purpose for existing is the destruction of the State of Israel and the murder of Jewish people.” This is a true summary of Hamas ideology. “Hamas and Putin represent different threats, but they share this in common: They both want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy — completely annihilate it.” I believe that this is also true. Biden is correct that the Russia-Ukraine analogy pertains to the Israel/Gaza crisis. Yes, Hamas is analogous to Russia and Israel analogous to Ukraine in Hamas’s illegal targeting of civilians and ruthless destruction of human lives in Israel.
At the same time, from a Palestinian perspective, Israel’s relentless destruction of human lives in Gaza City, Khan Younis and throughout the Gaza Strip makes Israel analogous to Russia, and Gaza analogous to Ukraine. And just as Russian military aggression in Ukraine has united the Ukrainian people (and their allies throughout the world) in their hatred of Russia and their determination never to succumb to Russian domination, Israeli military aggression in Gaza has united the Palestinian people and their allies throughout the world in their hatred of Israel and their determination never to succumb to Israeli domination.
Imagine that Ukraine’s military forces fought back against Russian aggression by imposing a siege on Russian territory with a large civilian population, shutting down food, water, electricity and medical supplies for more than two million civilians, while simultaneously bombing densely populated areas, as well as places of temporary shelter in which internally displaced persons gathered for safety. I would not support military assistance to Ukraine to support such a campaign. I would actively oppose such assistance, and I believe that the vast majority of American taxpayers would agree. If this analysis is correct, what is the difference in the case of Israel and Gaza? Of course there are differences in circumstances, history and context — but I do not see any moral or legal difference that would suggest a different conclusion. (See Nicholas Kristof, “We Must Not Kill Gazan Children to Try to Protect Israel’s Children,” New York Times, October 21, 2023.)
President Biden has presented to Congress a comprehensive foreign assistance package totaling $106 billion, which includes military assistance to Israel ($14.3 billion, which includes support for missile defense systems as well as precision-guided munitions), as well as military and economic support to Ukraine ($61.4 billion), and humanitarian assistance to Palestinian, Israeli and Ukrainian civilians ($9.15 billion). Representatives and Senators apparently will vote on an up or down basis on the package, which will go before Congress (once the GOP selects a Speaker of the House). Not surprisingly, most Democrats support the Biden proposal. What is striking is that Jamie Raskin, Gerald Nadler and other Congresspersons who have a strong record on human rights for Palestinians endorse Biden’s package, following a letter to the president signed by 128 other Democrats insisting that “we act immediately to prevent further loss of innocent lives” in Gaza. Biden’s measure is opposed by some progressive Democrats and perhaps all “America First” Republicans.
Regardless of how Representatives and Senators vote on Biden’s comprehensive bill, Congress should immediately enact the urgently required ceasefire resolution introduced by Rep. Cori Bush, and currently signed by 17 members of Congress. You can read Rep Bush’s press release here, and the text of the resolution here.
Voices from Israel/Palestine
In the October 16 episode (“Voices from Gaza“) of the New York Times audio podcast “The Daily,” journalist Sabrina Tavernise interviewed two Palestinians: Abdallah Hasaneen, a 23-year old Palestinian who lives in southern Gaza, and Wafa Elsaka, a Palestinian American art teacher from Tallahassee, Florida who had come to Gaza City before the war to help care for her elderly mother-in-law. The interviews are harrowing, as you can hear the bombs raining down on residential neighborhoods where Hasaneen and Elsaka were struggling to stay alive and keep their family alive. You can have a glimpse of the terror they must endure in their struggle to protect their loved ones. Sick family members with no access to medication, too old and infirm to evacuate. Children’s bodies wrapped in dresses from an abandoned wedding store.
Sabrina Tavernise: What are you going to be doing tonight? What’s the next couple of hours look like for you?
Abdallah Hasaneen: We have my aunt and my cousins coming to our home. Because they are evacuating as well. So I will be spending the night with them. Actually, during escalations, this is something that most of people in Gaza do. They all gather in one room, and they stay together all the night, or they sleep together, in case that other building is the bomb, that they will die together.
Sabrina Tavernise: So that they’d die together.
Abdallah Hasaneen: Yeah.
“Before, I used to say Gaza is an open prison,” said Elsaka. “Now, I say Gaza is an open grave… You think people are alive? They are zombies. They are not alive. They are not alive. Not just because they’re walking, talking, that means they are alive. No, they are not. They’re all traumatized… My heart is broken to the bones.”
In the October 20 episode of the The Daily (“Hamas Took Her Son“), Sabrina Tavernise interviewed Rachel Goldberg in Jerusalem. Goldberg’s son Hersh was taken hostage by Hamas on October 7, seized at the music festival in Southern Israel. Goldberg received two text messages from him at 8:11am that morning: the first said “I love you,” the second “I’m sorry.” That was the last they heard from him. But she was able to piece together the narrative of Hersh’s final moments prior to being captured. He had fled the concert and ran into a bomb shelter with others who sought safety there. Hamas assailants found them and threw hand grenades into the shelter. Some people were killed and others were captured. One young woman managed to escape, and a few days later she spoke with Goldberg about what had happened.
This is Rachel Goldberg’s voice:
“And she told us something that we hadn’t known, which was that when everyone was running into this bomb shelter, that there was also a Bedouin man who, I guess — we think he was a guard for the fields across the road, at the kibbutz across the road. This Bedouin man ran in with them.
And as Hamas was coming closer and they could hear them screaming and shouting, he said to the kids inside, stay in here. Don’t make any noise. And he went outside. And in Arabic, he said to them, like, hello, how are you? or something. And he said, oh, don’t worry. We’re all Muslim here. It’s just my family. We’re hiding from the rockets, but we’re all Muslim.
He was trying to save them. And they beat him. They may have killed him. She didn’t know. You know, she just knew she could hear them beating him…
He could have come out and said, I’m a Muslim. There are Jews in there. Right? But he didn’t.
I mean, I hope he’s alive. But just the fact that, like, this man tried to save them and may have paid with his life. We don’t know. It just gave me hope that maybe there’s still a shred of hope in the world that people will do the right thing, even when it’s scary.”
And here is the voice of Hadash party, and a member of the Knesset, from an essay (“What It Takes to Choose Life Over Revenge”) published in the New York Times on October 19:Arab Palestinian citizen of Israel, leader of the
“This week, I called Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a physician from Gaza who now lives in Canada, to check in on him. During Israel’s 2008-9 war on Gaza, three of his daughters were killed when an Israeli tank struck their home. This time, I had to offer my condolences again, when he told me about the recent deaths of more than 25 members of his extended family in Gaza. Among them, he said, were five babies.
“In his declaration of war on Gaza on Oct. 7, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel quoted a line from a poem by the Jewish writer Chaim Nachman Bialik. “Revenge for the blood of a little child has yet been devised by Satan,” Mr. Netanyahu posted on social media.
“Perhaps the prime minister forgot what Bialik wrote just one line before that: “And cursed be he who cries out: Revenge.” Or the next lines: “Let the blood fill the abyss!/let it pierce the blackest depths.”
“These days I find myself asking what the poet meant by this. Bialik wrote it after learning of the horrors of the 1903 Kishinev pogrom.
“But in his words I see the many little ones from the various communities in Israel and Gaza whose names appear in news reports as having been killed in the past 11 days — 10 months old; 1 week old; 2, 4, 5 years old. On and on. The blood of our very young has pierced the blackest depths and we have been brought down along with it.
“A nation is defined as a group of people with a common language, a common past and common dreams. By this definition, any parent will tell you that all the world’s babies are children of a single nation. They have a common language, a common past, common dreams. They speak the same, get angry and cry at the same things, laugh the same way. When my three children were young, I marveled at how they communicated effortlessly with other babies, no matter the language of the lullabies their parents sang them at night.
“The whole of this nation of infants — Jewish, Arab, Palestinian, Israeli — wants just one thing: to grow up to a good life. It’s a simple dream. Our role as leaders is simple too: to make that possible.
“As adults, we all become expatriates of that nation, and we take the dream of a good life with us: To put food on the table for our families. To know we are free to go where we want. To speak, pray and celebrate as we like. To come home safely at the end of the day. To know our loved ones will too.
“There is nothing in this world — not even the cruel occupation — that can justify harming innocent people. Nothing. I have always categorically opposed harming civilians, and I will continue opposing it with every fiber of my being. It is a violation of our collective humanity.
“I have friends who were killed and who lost children in Hamas’s murderous attack on Oct. 7. I have friends who were injured and killed in Gaza in the days that followed. My heart has broken, along with the people of this country and people around the world, for each and every family searching for loved ones, grieving them or trying to bring them home.
“Yet despite all this, I have also witnessed glimmers of the future we could have, made real by ordinary people — Jewish and Arab, Palestinian and Israeli — who have stepped up in the face of unspeakable tragedy. In Israel, much of the military had been apparently stationed in the West Bank to protect settlers. As terrified families in the south hid from armed Hamas attackers and prayed for rescue, Arab Palestinian and Jewish doctors, nurses, paramedics, ambulance drivers and emergency medical workers stood side by side and worked together to treat everyone in need of care, no matter who they were. In Gaza, doctors and health care workers have been trying to treat patients under near-constant bombardment with nowhere safe to go — not even to the hospitals themselves — and with no water, electricity or food, not to mention medical supplies.
“These are ordinary people acting from the core of their humanity, despite inhumane circumstances. In this life-or-death moment, they choose life. By contrast, Mr. Netanyahu has used every day in the prime minister’s office and every ounce of his power to try to convince the world that safety for Israelis must come at the expense of safety for Palestinians and to block all pathways to peace. He has sold a fairy tale about the unbeatable might of the Israeli military and his own ability to manage a violent system in which Palestinians have gone to sleep under occupation and siege and Israelis have woken up with an uncertain future. Now he is adding to the civilian death toll.
“Those of us who are Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel are uniquely positioned to see through his bluster and warmongering to the failure he really is — truths that the past several days have laid bare. We see the extent to which he is willing to burn our shared homeland to the ground rather than bring about long-term solutions that will deliver safety and a good life to all of us, Palestinians and Israelis alike.
“And we are also the ones who know, deep in our bones, which are made of the soil of this land, that the answer is peace. The only way we can fulfill our responsibility to the nation of our youngest ones — and to ourselves — is to recognize the nation of Palestine and the nation of Israel and to establish a State of Palestine alongside the State of Israel.
“It is time for the international community to take its lead from us, step up in the face of unspeakable tragedy and choose life. This means taking immediate steps, including calling for a cease-fire to stop all civilian deaths and preventing Mr. Netanyahu’s government from any attempt at pursuing the long-term forced displacement of Palestinians; a humanitarian exchange of prisoners to bring home all civilians held hostage, especially infants, children and older adults; and restoring the flow of basic human necessities to all the people of Gaza.
“Next, it means carrying out long-term solutions for people of the whole region, Palestinian and Israeli, including ending international support and approval for the Israeli military occupation and siege of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
“I asked Dr. Abuelaish, after all the deaths and horrors he has endured, whether he is still a man of peace.
“’The only real revenge for murder,” he said, “is achieving peace’.”
Jonathan D. Greenberg, October 24, 2023
American Jews and allies gathered in Washington, D.C. this week blocked several entrances to the White House. (Twitter/IfNotNow)