It’s understandable that, given the amount of media coverage and awareness we have of the horrors of war, our hearts are broken for the raw human suffering. Children are children, no matter from where, and we all wish they would never know violence. This is clearly true in the Israel-Hamas conflict, and in the many other current conflicts in which our hearts also break: Ukraine, Somalia, Yemen, China’s Uyghurs… not to mention from the scourge of drugs, famine, slavery, poverty and natural disasters across the world.
No one with a human heart, and especially no one living in the relative safety, comfort and prosperity of most Jews in America, could walk away from the images of intense suffering unscathed. So it’s understandable that good-hearted, values driven, “tikkun olam”-aware Jews would want to telegraph their horror at the destruction in Gaza even if they support Israel’s need to defend itself. Doesn’t expressing our pain for Gaza make us more human, more compassionate, more “Jewish” even? Won’t failing to talk about it make us seem morally bereft? Callous? War mongers and colonialists?
In the middle of this justified and necessary war against Gazan-based Hamas, talking about Gazan suffering publicly will significantly damage Israel and their ability to topple Hamas and prevent October 7th from happening again (and again, and again, to quote Hamas leader Sinwar). It is inappropriate – dangerous even – for American Jews to lament their feelings on the suffering of the Gazans in the public sphere.
Why? Because what we say and do as American Jews with regard to Israel matters. Our voices are heard loud and clear by Israelis themselves, by other Americans, by our government, and by the world. If our goal is to help rather than harm Israel and Israelis, we need to watch carefully what we say in public for the following five reasons:
1. It is demoralizing and dangerous to Israeli troops.
Our Israeli sisters, brothers, friends and parents are putting their lives on the line, and dying, every day. Like all soldiers in war, they need our support for the terrible things they are being called to do – not out of their desire or choice, but out of duty and responsibility. The IDF soldiers have enough terror to face each day, and every night in their nightmares, with the horror of what they are experiencing and yes, causing. Do we want them hesitating in the moment of battle, second-guessing their actions because of the tragic reality of the suffering their actions may cause on innocent people put in harm’s way by our enemy? It is demoralizing and even dangerous. Shame on us if we sit here, backseat quarterbacking from our couches, while they fight and die, throwing the horror of war in their faces. They will have enough PTSD when the war is over without the knowledge that their own people demonstrated in the streets against them.
2. It gives credibility to the blatant lie that this is ‘Israel’s genocidal war on the Palestinian people.’
A brilliant propaganda machine 50 years in the making is succeeding in convincing a largely ignorant world that this is a war by Israel against the Palestinian people. This puts the focus on the civilians of Gaza, with the terrible and increasing number of deaths proof of the claim. But that is a lie. This is a war initiated by Islamic fundamentalists, sponsored by Iran, to disrupt any possibility of peace between Israel and the Sunni Arab world, with the ultimate goal of destroying Israel and the Jewish people. By decrying the death count in Gaza, Jews give credence to this lie and keep the focus on the plight of the Gazans and not on the justified fight to defeat Hamas. To the non-Jewish, uninformed world, “if even the Jews themselves are saying it, then it must be true.”
3. It supports the double-standard that Israel, and only Israel, is not allowed to defend itself.
By demanding that Israel consider the Gazan people in its strategy to defeat Hamas with notions like “proportionate force” and “strategic discernment,” Israel’s ability to do what is needed to win is seriously compromised. No other nation is subject to this constraint and pressure. Did the Americans consider “proportionality” when invading Germany or in choosing targets against the Japanese for our not one, but two, atomic bombs? Was the flattening of Mosul and the death of tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians in the quest to uproot ISIS decried by congresspeople on both sides of the aisle, and in street demonstrations around the world?
Was Syria’s war, with the crucial help of another Iranian proxy, Hezbollah, killing 500,000 and displacing millions of its own citizens — proportional? Were targets properly “discerned” to minimize casualties in the Saudi campaign in Yemen to defeat the Houthi rebels — yet another Iranian proxy — that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and caused the largest mass famine of our time? Of course not. Nor were there protests in our universities demanding cease fire.
War, as they say, is hell — always. Demanding only Israel wage bloodless war is denying only Israel, and Jews, the right to defend ourselves. This double standard has a name: antisemitism. By playing into this narrative, Jews ourselves are supporting this classic antisemitic trope.
4. It is abhorrent to Israeli families.
The Israeli people and all Jews who consider themselves part of “Am Yisrael” have just experienced the greatest horror to befall Jews since the Holocaust. In our pain over what just happened, we are united in horror, grief and mourning. Our hearts, energies, and resources are desperately needed for our own healing. It is not reasonable, not fair, not appropriate to throw the suffering of others — and there are so many others around the world worthy of our sympathy, including Gazans — in the faces of our own family at this moment. At a shiva, you respect the pain of the bereaved family. It is not the time to bring up the pain, however real and present, of others. There will come a time when we can, and should, mourn for those on all sides of the conflict and help in any way we can. Just not now.
5. It will increase pressure on the American government to reduce essential support for Israel.
Pressure to end the war — as in calls for “immediate ceasefire” — may have a real effect on our elected officials. Significant parts of the democratic base are fraying on their support of Israel when the existential threat should be binding American Jews together. Will American Jews, ironically, be the ones to cast the deciding votes that will sway or elect politicians who move to deny Israel the right, or the time, to defeat Hamas, or withdraw military funding?
Don’t Let Them Use Our Hearts Against Us
Feeling empathy with innocents impacted by the violence of war makes one human. When it comes to this war, however, saying so in the public arena is devastating to our own cause, gives material support to our enemies, and lacks moral clarity. Let’s not let our enemies use our good hearts and Jewish values against us.