World Jewry awakened today to a glimmer of hope after six weeks of unremitting horror for our people: a partial, tentative step toward an answer to our collective cry to bring the hostages home. Yet Prime Minister Netanyahu’s administration reassures the Israeli public that it will continue the war until Hamas is dismantled, a goal that it assesses may last months or longer. In this pause, however brief, it seems worth reconsidering together just what this war has achieved and what it has cost.
I write as a proponent of a ceasefire with deep roots and sympathies in the centrist Jewish mainstream. My people deserve—and have too seldom received—good-faith acknowledgements of the real fears they face. It’s morally legitimate to care about the safety of our people. Terrified for the hostages, worried for my best friends, teachers and relatives, jittery about my own security as a visibly observant Jew, angered at my peers on the non-Jewish left for their morally obtuse and frankly antisemitic refusal to condemn terror out of hand, I hear my people’s voices echoing every day in my mind: What would you have Israel do? A nation the size of New Jersey that just lost 1,400 citizens to a murderous terrorist attack is supposed to simply sit on its hands? I understand the aversion. Perhaps with the dirt fresh on the graves of mangled Israeli bodies, mainstream Jewish support for a ceasefire is too ambitious a hope. But too much is at stake for us to give up on each other.
With trust that liberal Jewish supporters of the war are genuinely trying to do what’s right, let us build the strongest possible argument. Let us take as a given for the moment, as R. Yuval Cherlow and many others have asked us to on these pages, that Hamas fighters have forfeited their own claims to the standard international protections of human rights. Let us accept at face value the army’s intelligence claims that Hamas has purposely built its tunnels under hospitals and schools.
Let us believe that Israel has the military capability to utterly obliterate Hamas from the face of the earth, accomplishing what the U.S. military, the most powerful in history, failed to over the course of twenty years combating the Taliban. Let us shrug off the rising consensus among Israeli military experts that the stated goal of eliminating Hamas through sheer force is unachievable, and that even a more limited operation could take months or years; and set aside the warning cries from Israeli and Palestinian NGO’s that a military resolution to the conflict does not exist.
Let us imagine that the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, until last month widely protested among Israelis and Americans alike as a threat to liberal democracy, has the best interests of Israelis and Palestinians at heart. Let us interpret as mere metaphors calls from within the current administration to “erase,” “flatten,” “nuke,” and “turn Gaza into Dresden.”
Let us turn a blind eye to accounts of a paramilitary reign of terror against Palestinians in the West Bank, ignore the extensive documentation of shootings and mass expulsions. (I confess I find it too painful to do so even for the sake of argument, having met residents of the emptied villages.)
Let us assume that the blood shed like water in the war seeds a crop of docile Palestinian subjects rather than a generation of traumatized, hardened children, knowing only hate toward the country that killed their relatives and destroyed the only homes they ever knew.
What’s left before us, the last in this formidable heap of assumptions, is the belief, repeated time and again, that the mass deaths and collective punishment of Palestinian civilians, while tragic, is a price we must pay to ensure Israelis’ safety. In this view, the possibility of future harm to innocent Israelis outweighs the present certainty of devastation to innocent Palestinians.
Rashi, no stranger to anti-Jewish pogroms, addresses such a view. He cites the midrash’s gut-wrenching picture of the Ishmaelites inflicting horrors upon on defenseless Jews who fled the ruins of the first Temple; they offered the refugees poisoned bottles of water, which the Jews eagerly quaffed only to die in tortuous pain. Foreseeing this heinous crime, the ministering angels cry out to God to let Ishmael die in the desert as an infant and to spare the innocent Jews of the future: “Master of the Universe, you will raise a well for the one whose seed will kill Your children through thirst?” But God counters with a rhetorical question: “What is [the child] now, righteous or wicked?” “Righteous,” the angels are forced to admit. God responds: “I judge him according to where he is now.” The Mizrachi, a commentator on Rashi, elaborates that the young Ishmael merited water even though, as an idolater, he constituted a rasha gamur, a completely wicked person, in every other way.
Hamas has, like the ancient Ishmaelites, committed an act of unfathomable mass murder. And Palestinians, like any human beings, are no angels. They shouldn’t have to be in order to deserve a life, food, water, a roof over their heads. Some (apparently a minority, though it is difficult to know) went so far as to passively support the attacks of October 7th. But by any account, the vast majority of Palestinians, and certainly the thousands of children who have died in Israeli airstrikes, are innocent of the sin of murder, as was the young Ishmael. And they are perishing through thirst: the World Health Organization estimates that Gazans are receiving a mere 4 percent of subsistence per capita water quotas.
Israel’s government, backed by valid concerns for Israelis’ safety, has nonetheless arrogated onto itself the role that God in the midrash refused to play. In stopping food, water and electricity, and communication for two million Gazans, by effectively shutting down Gaza’s hospital system and straining what remains far its breaking point, by pushing its people to the brink of starvation, we have chosen to judge Gazans not “where they are now,” but as an embodiment of Hamas. By the IDF’s own lights, this is an act of collective punishment. On-the-ground accounts from Gazan residents cast doubt, to put it mildly, that military command has consistently placed the well-being of innocent civilians at top priority.
The standard objection here is to call for Hamas’ unconditional surrender rather than a ceasefire. By all means, Hamas should disarm and disband: The world would be a far better place for it. But we do not live in such a world. The only real alternative to ceasefire is the deaths of thousands of dead Gazan civilians along with Israelis in a grinding war of attrition with no clear political strategy.
I do not presume to offer a policy solution to Israel’s real fears of attack. And it is no use denying the possibility that a ceasefire could make the position of Israeli soldiers and civilians, my friends and teachers among them, temporarily less secure. Contemplating the prospect makes me sick to my stomach– I just want my people safe. On the other hand, no one can promise me that Hamas’ destruction, even were it achievable, would ensure my friends’ and family’s safety. If history offers any guidance, ideologies cannot be simply bombed out of existence; like weeds, their root causes have a habit of coming back stronger when left unaddressed. The fifteen-year blockade preceding the Hamas attack pushed more than half of Gazans into unemployed subsistence and killed thousands of others, only to dramatically fail to keep Israelis safe leading up to October 7th.
The Babylonian sage Rabba, asked to rule on the permissibility of killing an innocent bystander to ensure one’s own safety, famously responded: “Who says your blood is redder than his? Maybe his blood is redder than yours.”
That is the question we face: whether we Jews, in our moment of unfathomable pain, stand willing to destroy, over and over again, the lives of two million Palestinians as a sort of preemptive insurance policy. If we see that trade-off as worth making, we take upon ourselves responsibility for the “collateral damage” of every Gazan baby and cancer patient who dies for lack of medical equipment or drugs in the region’s collapsed hospital system, the “collateral damage” of every mother who starves while food trucks idle at the border, the “collateral damage” of my friends’ journalist colleague Khalil Abu Yahya and his entire family, killed an in Israeli airstrike; the “collateral damage” every one of the 1.6 million dislocated Palestinians. Made explicit, the logic of “collateral damage” leads terribly but inexorably to the conclusion that Jews’ blood matters more than that of Palestinians. Ben-Gvir and his ilk, for all their faults, are at least honest on this point. Shall we join them?
My friends, my teachers–we don’t have to keep doing this. Are we not sleeping poorly enough, that we would willingly populate our awful dreams with yet more dessicated corpses of Gazan children? Are we not bloodied enough from the bodies of our murdered dead that we would place on our foreheads the mark of Cain? Extend the ceasefire so that we can bring back all our hostages and negotiate for a lasting peace over a never-ending nightmare with no endgame. God protect my people and the people of Gaza. God help us all.
The views expressed here are exclusively my own.