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Shawn Zelig Aster

‘Ceasefire Now’ – Now and Then

Protest organized by Jewish Voices for Peace and If Not Now at Grand Central Station, New York, October 27, 2023 (Kena Betancur/AFP)
Protest organized by Jewish Voices for Peace and If Not Now at Grand Central Station, New York, October 27, 2023. (Kena Betancur/AFP)

“Ceasefire!” and “End the War” are admirable sentiments – sometimes. The hundreds who blocked Grand Central Station on Friday demanding “Ceasefire Now” need to reflect back on similar calls echoing through recent history, especially the anti-war calls of the 1930’s. History has a nasty tendency to repeat itself. Do they want to look back and find themselves on the wrong side of history in a few months?

The case for an immediate ceasefire is compelling: Gazans are dying. Even if Hamas’ claims that 7,000 deaths have died are exaggerated, and even though only uninvolved civilians may be only a small portion of the dead, we know that some civilians are dying. Gazans should be able to leave the northern part of the Gaza Strip, but they are prevented from leaving by Hamas. And those who stay may suffer and die.

Suffering and death motivate Jewish Voices for Peace and If Not Now protestors to call for a ceasefire. But they should listen to Voices for Peace from the past, from well-meaning Christians and Jews.

Motivated by the horrors of the First World War, millions of British citizens issued similar anti-war calls. In 1935, with the horrors of the trenches fresh in their minds, nearly 12 million British citizens participated in a five question “Peace Ballot.” This was two years after Hitler took control of Germany and established Dachau as a concentration camp for political prisoners. Among those participating in the Peace Ballot were Christian leaders such as the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, and Britain’s Chief Rabbi.

The questions on the 1935 “Peace Ballot” were easy. Leaflets told voters: “You are asked to vote only for peace or war.” Who would vote for war? On question 3, “Are you in favour of the abolition of military and naval aircraft,” voters overwhelmingly voted “yes.” They did similarly on question 4, which asked whether the manufacture and sale of armaments should be prohibited. The last question asked “If a nation insists on attacking another, should other nations compel it to stop by military means?” Motivated by the horrors of the First World War, over 2.3 million British voters voted “no” on this last question.

The “Peace Ballot” was only one of thousands of well-intentioned expressions of British pacifism in the years of Hitler’s ascent to power. An even stronger parallel to “Ceasefire Now” demonstrators can be found among the members of the Oxford Union, who voted for the now infamous “Joad Resolution” in February 1933. Nine days after Hitler came to power, the Oxford students declared that they would “under no circumstances fight for King and country.” The resolution made international headlines, much as the Grand Central Station protest did. According to Churchill, the Joad resolution influenced decisions made by Hitler. The understanding that the elite of British youth would not fight Germany emboldened Nazis: the horrors of the past war, firmly imprinted in the consciousness of British youth, would prevent Britain from fighting again.

The chants of “ceasefire now” echoing through Grand Central Station are music to the ears of the Hamas leaders in Gaza. Hamas wants a ceasefire to stop its military assets from being pulverized by the Israeli Air Force. But as beautiful as the thought of ceasefire is, that way lies destruction. A ceasefire will maintain Hamas in power. A ceasefire will ensure that the baby-killers and rapists of October 7 become emboldened and perpetrate even greater atrocities in the future. A ceasefire will prolong the agony of the hundreds of thousands of internally-displaced people in Gaza and in Israel. A ceasefire will ensure that Hamas emerges victorious, that its regime will continue to exploit those innocents of Gaza that the protestors claim to want to protect. When conflict resumes, Hamas missiles will continue to terrorize and kill Arabs and Jews in Israel and its many misfired missiles will continue to kill Arabs in Gaza.

What would the ghosts of the 1935 “Peace Ballot” supporters say to the protestors in Grand Central Station of 2023? What chants would they demand those concerned with the horrors of war proclaim? “Hamas out now” is one. “Free Gaza of Hamas” is another. And a more practical sentiment: “Hamas! Surrender Now!”

Evil must be fought and beaten into submission. It cannot be cajoled. Many supporters of the Joad Resolution and some of the 2.3 million British voters who opposed war to repel attackers paid the ultimate price in the Second World War, a war that killed nearly half a million British soldiers and civilians. Their ghosts no doubt hovered in the air over Grand Central Station last Friday. The well-meaning protestors need to take the time to listen to them.

About the Author
Shawn Zelig Aster is associate professor of biblical history and geography in the Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University.
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