Regina Sandler-Phillips
Renewing ways of peace in a world on fire

Let’s Save Lives — Not Semantics

Gaza aid rescued by the Humanitarian Guard of Standing Together. The signs in Hebrew and Arabic read: “Do Not Starve Others.” Photo Credit: Standing Together
Gaza aid rescued by the Humanitarian Guard of Standing Together. The signs in Hebrew and Arabic read: “Do Not Starve Others.” Photo Credit: Standing Together

Hostages and civilians are dying while we argue over terminology.

“I am heartbroken by the humanitarian situation in Gaza,” wrote Israeli Justice Aharon Barak at the end of March for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) hearings on charges of Israeli genocide.

“In January, I voted in favor of the measure concerning humanitarian aid,” Barak continued. “In my separate opinion I wrote: I have been personally and deeply affected by the death and destruction in Gaza….In the role that has been entrusted to me as a judge ad hoc, but also as a human being, it is important for me to express my most sincere and heartfelt regret for the loss of innocent lives in this conflict.’ I stand by every word.”

Justice Barak also voted in favor of the humanitarian aid measure in the March ICJ order. But he voted against most of the remaining ICJ measures in both January and March. He argues that the Genocide Convention is the wrong framework for addressing the Gaza charges brought to the ICJ, and that they should be considered instead within the broader framework of international humanitarian law.

Most heartbreaking is how theories and terminologies overshadow the actual saving of lives. Justice Barak did acknowledge the practical obstacles to humanitarian aid, yet he preferred to attribute primary culpability to Hamas and desperate Palestinian civilians.

What Justice Barak declined to acknowledge is that Israeli extremists have been actively blocking Gaza aid since the time of the January ICJ order — with the tacit complicity of high-level government leaders known to the ICJ for their incitement. These anti-humanitarian campaigns have become increasingly violent in recent weeks, with aid trucks on the supply route from Jordan through the West Bank vandalized, attacked and burned.

Neither the Israeli aid vandals nor their ideological supporters are desperate for food. They claim that withholding humanitarian aid from hungry Palestinian civilians will help ensure “total victory” over Hamas. Yet Israeli military intelligence advisors increasingly concede what international security experts have long predicted: this “total victory” is an illusion. With each passing day, more lives of Israeli hostages are sacrificed alongside the lives of Palestinian civilians for an impossible military goal.

Across the ideological divide, those who see the violence of Israeli extremists as evidence of genocide believe that this accusation will galvanize lifesaving support. But accusations of genocide rarely move the needle in any significant way. The Holocaust is routinely invoked — by Holocaust survivors like Justice Barak, as well as by survivor descendants — on all sides of the controversy. Genocide scholar Mike Brand (grandson of a survivor) has noted that semantic arguments tend to foster “analysis paralysis.” Silos and echo chambers are fortified, while those most vulnerable to attack and starvation remain abstracted, statistical, faceless and nameless.

“When it comes to the multigenerational Israeli-Palestinian conflict, trauma is the background scream in the echo chamber,” wrote journalist Khaled Diab six weeks after the 10/7 attacks, in a sensitive and perceptive overview of how trauma drives the politics on both sides. Regarding Israeli reactions, Diab observed that “Despite possessing the most powerful army in the region and controlling almost every aspect of Palestinian life, many Israelis do genuinely believe that they are the weaker or more vulnerable party in the conflict.”

This is why genocide arguments are generally not trauma-informed — and thus not strategic for saving lives. Typical pushback is expressed in a November 2023 assertion that “The rising death toll in Gaza is tragic. But Holocaust scholars should know: It is not genocide.” Six months later, the rising death toll has tripled — yet the same pushback has characterized the legal proceedings leading up to the most recent ICJ order to halt military operations in Rafah: “There is a tragic war going on, but there is no genocide.”

The cumulative visceral horrors endured by tens of thousands of children and adults continue to be brushed aside with “But it’s not genocide.” And while proceedings of the ICJ and the International Criminal Court may capture public attention, their rulings are often unenforceable in practice. Again and again, our theoretical arguments deflect the truth that — genocide or not — the devastation is intolerable and needs to be stopped.

Again and again, our theoretical arguments deflect the truth that — genocide or not — the devastation is intolerable and needs to be stopped.

“It’s not effective for us to say things that will unnecessarily alienate the people that support us,” warns HIAS chief executive Mark Hetfield, as the world’s oldest refugee agency struggles with internal conflicts over Gaza aid“We are focused on calling for stopping civilian deaths, stopping deaths of journalists, stopping deaths of humanitarian workers, ending the famine.” But even the terminology of stopping — pause, truce, cessation, ceasefire — has been fiercely debated, as more innocents die on all sides.

In this verbal arms race, most see nothing amiss in a determination to “combat” violence or “fight” for ceasefire. We speak of words that “trigger” and “weaponize.” Just like physical armaments, words can proliferate in ways that threaten rather than protect life — even when we believe our intentions are peaceful. In this regard, ancient Jewish wisdom offers a moral corrective:

The theory is not primary, but rather the practice; and all who proliferate words miss the mark [literally, ‘bring sin’]. — R. Shimon ben Gamaliel (~200 CE)

As a rabbi of 25 years, I am a confessed word proliferator. Shimon ben Gamaliel’s moral challenge is not popular among my peers, and understandably so. Our stockpiling of words in speeches, statements, sermons, protests, petitions and punditry reflects our earnest desire to do something. It can be painful to acknowledge how much our word proliferation may “miss the mark” where saving lives is concerned.

And yet I am adding my own proliferation here. Even Shimon ben Gamaliel needed words to get his message across: a call to action grounded in the power of silence (more on that in a subsequent proliferation). Both silence and speech must serve the practice of saving lives.

Consider these words: Centering the most directly impacted, the Almadhoun family has been sharing meals with starving neighbors through a soup kitchen and food distribution network in north, central and south Gaza over the past four months. Bolstered by the crowdfunding and publicity initiatives of a brother living in the US, their grassroots mutual aid efforts are sustaining thousands of Palestinians under siege — while highlighting the human faces beyond the statistics. “P.S. Our family eats from the same pots as everyone,” wrote Virginia-based Hani Almadhoun in one of his recent daily updates.

Standing Together is a joint movement of Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel committed to saving the lives of Israeli hostages as well as of Palestinian civilians. In early March, Standing Together activists tried to bring humanitarian aid to the Gaza border. Turned back by Israeli security forces, the blocked aid was later distributed in the West Bank with the cooperation of additional Jewish and Palestinian human rights groups.

Standing Together has now organized a nonviolent Humanitarian Guard to accompany and protect Gaza aid trucks while monitoring police accountability. In its first week-plus of operation, dozens of Israeli volunteers have mobilized to provide a consistent daily presence at a critical West Bank junction where aid trucks pass from Jordan. Hundreds of aid trucks have since been able to pass through safely, and hundreds of additional volunteers have signed up to join the Guard. Thousands of supporters, inside Israel as well as abroad, have provided funds for equipment, transport, and legal assistance.

It’s not enough — and it is no less essential. If we do not oppose humanitarian aid, which practical lifesaving actions are we willing to support? How willing are we to share our own resources in solidarity with those who remain at daily risk — to save more lives? And how willing are we to release our attachments or aversions to particular words — for the sake of preventing more deaths?

How willing are we to release our attachments or aversions to particular words — for the sake of preventing more deaths?

It takes great courage and compassion to disarm from word proliferation. We may sense how our own wounds are being touched, and begin to face our own traumas. We may even experience the disorientation of the zealous biblical prophet Elijah — who discovered that ultimate truth is not found in the hurricanes, earthquakes, and firestorms of conflict, but rather in a still, small voice that can only be heard when we stop adding to the noise around us.

“The theory is not primary, but rather the practice.” Let’s recommit to the practice of saving lives. It’s worth more than a thousand theories.

About the Author
Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips offers "How to Mourn AND Organize" programs through Ways of Peace Community Resources in Brooklyn, NY. She lived in Israel from 1989-1994, served in NYC leadership roles in the post-9/11 disaster relief, and coordinates an ongoing remote vigil for those lost to pandemics and wars. She sings in several languages.
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