Samuel Heilman
Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus CUNY

Caring for the innocent civilians in this war: Separate, but not equal

The list of the hostages and their ages, photo by S. Heilman

In synagogues throughout Israel and many if not most throughout the world, prayers are being recited not only as always for the welfare of the State of Israel and its armed forces but also now for the 241 (as of last count) hostages, both Jews and others, abducted by Hamas on what in Israel is now called the “Black Sabbath” of October 7th.  In the more than a month since that day, Israelis have learned many of the stories of the 241 being held in Gaza. They are part of the all-day newscasts on the three major television stations and often heard on talk radio or make up the feature stories in the newspapers and they are all over social media. These innocent civilians – from 85-year-old Aryeh Zalmanovich and hostages in their eighties, seventies, and sixties all the way to youngsters under 10 years of age as well as the 2, 3, and 4-year-olds Raz, Aviv, Yahel, even infants, many without parents with them – have justifiably become the focus of tremendous concern here and even in many parts of the world outside Israel. 

Inexplicably, these same kidnapped non-combatants, in an unbelievably short time for rising numbers of critics of Israel or pro-Palestinian advocates, have been transformed into symbols of a state that is being demonized. These critics have singled out Israel for having the temerity to defend itself against the brutality of those who either kidnapped, or killed, and even mutilated over 1400 people in Israel during the surprise attack by Hamas whose ultimate goal appears to be to destroy the only Jewish state on the planet. Created as a refuge born in the aftermath of the Holocaust and in reaction to generations of Jewish persecution and prejudice, this state is a place to which survivors of genocide in Europe as well as the 850,000 Jews expelled from many countries in the Middle East and North Africa could, since 1948, come to resurrect their ancient homeland and live in peace and security.  But it has had neither peace nor security and is now confronting an existential threat.  For the deniers of its legitimacy as a home for Jews, the fact that Jewish ancestors – as demonstrated by Hebrew inscriptions, Jewish religious artifacts and graves unearthed on this land by archeology – once made this place their home is irrelevant.  The fact that generations of Jews in exile prayed towards and hoped to return to it for millennia is of no significance. 

Although the faces of the hostages in Gaza are on posters that have been put up not only throughout Israel but in many major cities of the world for everyone to see, and videos and photographs that have documented the cruel circumstances of their abduction are legion, the hopes that the world will demand their freedom are sadly fading as many outside of Israel have begun to downplay or even excuse the slaughter and abductions as a legitimate protest against the occupation. To make sure the world ignores those held hostage by Hamas, many are going so far as pulling down or defacing posters of those abducted.  They no longer want to know about Jewish suffering and have tried to deny it ever happened, in spite of the overwhelming evidence. They want to remind the world of the “occupation” and the suffering in Gaza.

Of course, those killed and abducted were not murdered on occupied land but in a part of Israel held since its independence.  But that fact turns out to be beside the point for many of the critics. Many, like those at the November 4th pro-Palestinian demonstration in London and similar gatherings elsewhere repeat the slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” These people are not talking about ending the post-1967 occupation but about wiping all of Israel off the map.  They would leave no place for a Jewish homeland.

Under the guise of an interest in peace, many call for an immediate ceasefire, ignoring the nature of Israel’s implacable enemies. They are not bothered by the threats of future massacres of innocents in Israel, like the one announced by Ghazi Hamad, a member of Hamas’s political bureau, who promised “a second, a third, a fourth” operation like the one on Black Sabbath. They would ignore the unprovoked attacks and shooting in the North by Hezbollah and Hamas, or the missiles launched by the Houthis in Yemen or the threats of annihilation from the government of Iran and its nuclear ambitions.

But can Israel allow a ceasefire that, like all previous ceasefires, will enable a Hamas reorganization and rearmament to continue these efforts to destroy and expunge Israel? Would any country allow such a ceasefire putting its citizens in danger?  Would any pause in the fighting be acceptable without the immediate and complete return of the hostages? What kind ceasefire makes sense without dismantling Hamas?

The world has demanded humanitarian aid for the citizens of Gaza, and Israel has agreed to allow 100 trucks of such humanitarian aid.  Yet in return, absolutely no humanitarian aid including vital medicines for the hostages from Israel has been permitted by Hamas officials?  None.  Not even via the Red Cross?  Israelis ask and the family members of the hostages want to know why the same concern for innocent civilians in Gaza by the world community is not being expressed for the sake of those kidnapped.  Israel has opened corridors for Gazan civilians to move to the safer south, but where has Hamas shown concern for humanitarian aid for the Israeli prisoners being held?  This imbalance cannot help but make the people of Israel look with suspicion at those who claim a concern for human life and the welfare of the innocents.

Because so much of what happened on that day has evoked chilling echoes of the Holocaust, it is impossible not to also think about the hostages against that background. They are people taken away from their homes by force and held against their will by those brutally murdered by these same people holding them prisoners. Feeling helpless, they know not whether their fate is to live or die. As was the case during the Holocaust, the International Red Cross has not been able to contact the captives or confirm the true conditions of their captivity. The scenarios and the goals of both Hamas and the Nazis are ultimately the same – to rid the lands where they rule of Jews.  The fact that increasingly the opponents of Israel do not want to know and object to Jews fighting back, belies the crocodile tears so many have shed over the Holocaust. 

We now see that just as the world demonstrated sympathy for the Holocaust’s victims, but now increasingly seeks to forget and in some cases even deny the enormity of the evil – or consign it to a metaphor that downplays the hatred of Jews that was at its core, so too with Black Sabbath.  As the Holocaust was understood by the world as a crime against humanity, the Hamas generated war must also be understood as threatening all that is human and humane. The world whose sympathy for the Jewish suffering on October 7th lasted a few days is as always turning its anger – not only on Israel — but at Jews in general.  Attacks on Israel are morphing at lightning speed to attacks on Jews, even on some of the most august campuses in America. Hostility that began with statements from pro-Palestinian student organizations justifying terrorism has now rapidly spiraled into death threats and physical attacks, leaving Jewish students alarmed and vulnerable.  Hostile threats and in some cases actual violence against Jews have broken out far from the borders of Israel. Vows of “never again” are being tested when it comes to Jews.  If an unyielding defense of Israel and Jews is no longer acceptable, if Jewish blood is negligible, whether from the political left or the right, what have we learned? 

In justifying their disinterest in the Israeli hostages and their repatriation and freedom the argument is that innocents are being killed in Gaza in this war.   But is Israel solely to blame for those innocent Gazans who are held hostage as human shields by Hamas, an organization fighting not only against Israel but also against its own citizens, shooting at those who have tried to evacuate to the safer south, stealing precious oil and treasure from Gazan citizens, placing its rockets and headquarters under hospitals, placing weapons inside mosques, and commandeering ambulances to secret their fighters out of harm’s way rather than to serve the innocent wounded. An organization that imposes its extremist agenda on its citizens cannot be the object of support by those who claim they value human life.  We have seen they inflate the numbers of victims and deny their responsibility for their suffering. 

As for Gazan civilians, the question remains what is their role in this war?  Trying to dismiss his organization’s culpability after the initial worldwide outcry on October 7 and 8, a Hamas official claimed that much of the brutality against Israelis was not the work of his fighters but the result of Gazan civilians who followed his fighters through the breach in the border. Does that include the young man whose retrieved phone was found to contain a now infamous audio clip of him calling his parents in Gaza after murdering people in Kibbutz Mefalsim? “Look at my WhatsApp to see how many I killed!” he exults in Arabic, according to the English subtitles on the screen. “I killed her and her husband! I killed 10 with my bare hands!” His mother on the other end of the line exults.   If these are Gazan civilians, are they all as innocent as many have claimed?  Nevertheless, while this war goes on and civilian casualties grow, the result will only be greater enmity between Israelis and Palestinians — and that will shred hopes for mutual peace and security.  

Of course, Jews who have so often been a pariah people must seek an answer that will allow hope for Palestinians and not turn them into eternal enemies.  But that cannot come as long as their leaders and those who support the Palestinian cause want to wipe Israel off the map, or single out all Jews as enemies.   You cannot negotiate with someone who wants you gone.  As I have said before, the current leaders on both sides who brought this war upon our peoples must be replaced, and Israelis and Palestinians must learn to live together, or we shall continue dying together. 

About the Author
Until his retirement in August 2020, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY, Samuel Heilman held the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center. He is author of 15 books some of which have been translated into Spanish and Hebrew, and is the winner of three National Jewish Book Awards, as well as a number of other prestigious book prizes, and was awarded the Marshall Sklare Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, as well as four Distinguished Faculty Awards at the City University of New York.He has been a Fulbright Fellow and Senior Specialist in Australia, China, and Poland, and lectured in many universities throughout the United States and the world. He was for many years Editor of Contemporary Jewry and is a frequent columnist at Ha'Aretz and was one at the New York Jewish Week. Since his retirement, he and his family have resided in Jerusalem.
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