Ethan Eisen
Ethan Eisen

‘Never again!’ vs. #freepalestine

“Never Again!,” the mantra of Jews and their allies, asserts that the horrors of the Holocaust will not, cannot, happen again.  It is the belief that the genocide that resulted from vulnerability of the Jews in Nazi Germany and across Europe, combined with the apathy or outright aggression of governments around the world, taught the world a lesson so powerful that as a global community, we would not allow conditions to develop that would threaten a repetition of among the largest atrocities in human history.

The confidence of this declaration seems to have led to an assumption among Jews that because we say it, others will live by it.  But after seeing the world’s response following Israel’s recent military conflict with Hamas, a lot of people are wondering whether the once-thought impenetrable wall of “Never Again” is beginning to show some cracks.

I think any reasonable person can see that we are not yet living in a modern day version of 1930s Berlin, even if there are rumblings moving in that direction.  The United States, the world’s unequivocal superpower, still shows overwhelming bipartisan support for Israel’s right to exist and duty to defend itself.  Antisemitic attacks within the United States, while on the rise at a dizzying rate, are treated seriously by police and intelligence agencies, even if the public is lagging in their condemnation of these acts.  And, of course, there is a State of Israel committed to ensuring that Jews in Israel and around the world are protected.

But there are reasons to be concerned.  There is no question that the greater passion and energy is among those who form the “#freepalestine” movement.  Rallies around the world have drawn tens, even hundreds of thousands of demonstrators carrying signs and shouting slogans supporting the “liberation of Palestine,” and “from the river to the sea…”  Meanwhile, Jewish communities struggled to hold demonstrations in support of Israel or in opposition to the rush of antisemitic rhetoric and activity throughout the country.  Reports on the ground suggested that in various cities, local Jewish Federations were hesitant to rally their membership because, incredibly, some of the Jewish community youth were not sure which side to support.

Surely, many people who marched with pro-Palestinian demonstrations do not fully understand the meaning of #freepalestine; they may think that they are protesting the blockade of Gaza or the difficult living conditions of Palestinians who dwell in territorial limbo.  But based on social media activity, a lot of the protesters clearly know exactly what #freepalestine means.  #Freepalestine is a movement aimed at the creation of an Arab state along the “1948 borders;” in other words, it is a call for the obliteration of the State of Israel on the grounds that the State of Israel is a cruel, colonial enterprise that deserves the fate of any other colonizing force: resistance, including violent opposition, until the colonial power relents and “goes back home.”  #Freepalestine is also a hashtag used by government officials in Europe, Asia, Africa, and, yes, even the United States.

A two-state solution has been proposed in the past and endorsed by Israel a number of times, only to be rebuffed by the Palestinian negotiators and leadership, largely because of two main issues: Jerusalem as a capital, which Israel refuses to allow; and the Arab right of return, which even a left-wing dove like Amos Oz observed is a euphemism for the liquidation of Jewish Israel.  Even if at one point there was political interest and power among Palestinians and their leadership to try to make a two-state solution work, that perspective is virtually non-existent today in favor of the #freepalestine movement which wants the removal of any Jewish state — and if Jewish history in other Arab countries is any indication, that includes the removal of any significant number of Jews — in this region of the world.  In case anyone doubts that this is what it means, the leader of Hamas, the elected governing entity in Gaza, told us so unequivocally last week in an interview with a British reporter.

We are now faced with a reality that there are at least tens of millions of people around the world who have adopted this narrative that the State of Israel is an entirely immoral venture, and, presumably, anyone who supports the State is in favor of racist oppression of an indigenous population.  It is difficult enough that Jews are vastly outnumbered — as Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll pointed out on these pages, Bella Hadid alone has more than threefold the number of followers on Instagram as there are Jews in the world — but if the reports are correct, many young Jews, even from families who have supported Israel in the past, are starting to consider this narrative as legitimate.

Additionally, antisemitic attacks, which have always been disproportionate to Jewish population levels (despite virtually no media coverage), have become even more frequent and more brazen.  Bricks have been thrown at synagogues and kosher restaurants, Jews have been beaten up and even killed on the streets in broad daylight, Jewish neighborhoods have been vandalized, police have issued warnings for Jews not to come out of their homes, and coverage by news media has been, let’s say, spotty.  And all of this is ignoring the BDS movement that, although to date it has been largely dismissed by governments around the world, continues to press forward with their efforts to bankrupt and isolate the Jewish state.

So while comparisons to the conditions of Nazi Germany are not presently realistic, the intensity and swiftness of the movement that is calling for the destruction of the State of Israel is alarming.  I cannot speak to the politics of everyday Palestinians and what their positions are regarding the various options for solving this longstanding conflict, but I can confidently say that there is no diplomatic, peaceful solution that ends with Jewish Israelis forfeiting their sovereignty and moving away.  The fulfillment of the demands of the #freepalestine movement necessitates the death of thousands upon thousands of Jews, if not more.  As a result, it should not hard to see why many around the world oppose this movement, even if they are very strong advocates for minority rights, including the rights of Palestinians.

The Jewish community and its allies need to refocus efforts to protect Jewish safety and security in the face of international rising antisemitic sentiments through education; building alliances with concerned people of all backgrounds; and through political involvement, especially on the local level.

First, progress comes through education, both within the Jewish community and beyond.  Programs that highlight Jewish history and our connection to the Land of Israel should be modernized and tailored for Jewish youth of all denominations, as well as for people of other faith tradition.  The right of Jews to exist and practice their religion in peace and security should be regarded as a fundamental human right anywhere Jews find themselves.  Support of the Jewish state should be regarded as a desirable and moral choice, both because of its intrinsic morality and because 2000 years of persecution of Jews has demonstrated that Jews require and deserve a state that provides unwavering protection.  Standing with Jews and Jewish communities in Israel and the diaspora is to stand in defense of the civil rights of historically marginalized and oppressed people.  The relatively recent success of Jews in Israel and beyond should be celebrated as an example of the potential freedom and liberty has to offer, and should be a model to extend to other marginalized populations; it should not be demonized through the fabrication of a narrative that the success of the Jews in Israel was due to pillaging of a native people.

Education is especially crucial on college campuses, where much of the anti-Zionist and/or antisemitic “idealism” tends to fester.  I believe that the narrative of Jewish colonizers is a deliberate distortion of history propagated with the intent to delegitimize any Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, but it is also the nearly exclusive message that college students hear from both social and traditional media, as well as from peers and professors on campus.  There are organizations that aim to address the challenge on campuses, but there need to be more resources and consistent presence dedicated to providing an alternate, and I believe more correct, perspective.  Without understanding this history, the Jews of today — both in Israel, and those in the diaspora who support Jewish sovereignty in Israel — will be regarded as no different than the British colonizers of the previous century.

This historical education needs to include a reckoning with the negative elements of our community’s actions over the years, and the various shameful and criminal acts performed in the name of the Jewish community or Jewish God should be unequivocally condemned. It is also important to recognize that education about and seeking atonement for the darker parts of our history does not negate our right to exist or our claim to sovereignty in the Land of Israel.  Jewish presence in Israel is not on the shoulders of the bad actors in our past; we can condemn and reject those acts and ideologies, and remain committed to Jewish survival and growth. We can also vigorously support the actions of the IDF which stands between those who wish to destroy the Jewish state and the diverse citizens of the Israel who wish to live in peace.  The existence of a Jewish state with a Jewish majority should not, cannot, and largely does not come at the expense of the human rights of Palestinians in the region, and Arab Israeli citizens within the borders.

Second, we need to do a better job of building coalitions outside the Jewish world, and demonstrating to them why supporting Jews in Israel and in the diaspora should be a primary concern.  There are tens or hundreds of millions of Christians, Muslims, secular, and unaffiliated people around the globe who either do or would recognize both the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel, as well as the human rights catastrophe that is being advocated by the #freepalestine movement.  Rabbis and community leaders should be actively engaging with pastors, imams, and local political leadership to highlight the issue, and press them to address it in their congregations or among their constituents.  Jewish communal leaders should not shy away from communities who are passionate about the cause of Palestinians.  Jewish sovereignty and Jewish security can be recognized, supported, and advanced at the same time concerns about Palestinian self-determination is addressed.  Advocating for Jewish and Israeli values is harmonious with passionately promoting increased dignity for Palestinians living both within and beyond Israel’s borders; but we should be able to make the case that the #freepalestine movement, which explicitly and implicitly threatens the lives of Jews, is not the way to get there.

Third, we need to make the issue of addressing antisemitism a top priority for Jewish and allied voters in any election campaign in the United States and any other country with free elections, and ensure that the candidates treat it as a top priority.  As antisemitic attacks remain at the top of any hate-crime list, Jewish leaders of all stripes should demand that local leadership in areas with any sort of Jewish community discuss what they will do to ensure the safety of Jews in their constituency.  Going into the 2022 USA elections, if candidates with Jewish constituencies cannot muster more than “I condemn hatred of any kind,” they should not receive Jewish support.  Candidates should be able to provide specific plans for how local and state governments will protect Jews and their property both during times when there is conflict in Israel, as well as in times when there is not.  If Jewish safety is not prioritized by Jews, we cannot expect non-Jews to regard it more important than we do.

Ultimately, the question is whether “Never Again” is seen as a call to action against antisemitism, or is instead regarded as an aspirational marketing slogan, like “Just Do It,” “Yes We Can,” or “MAGA.”  Our advocacy cannot wait until we are being blamed for war crimes and atrocities, unjustifiable and absurd as those accusations may be.  We must commit ourselves to educating our community and the public of all ages regarding the Jewish people’s right to existence and self-determination, and of the horrific bloodshed being called for by those pushing the #freepalestine movement.  Our right to exist and duty to defend ourselves is nothing to be ashamed of, and we need to act that way if we want the billions of peace-loving people of all creeds around the world to join us.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Ethan Eisen is a licensed clinical psychologist who practices in Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh. He writes and lectures on topics of psychology, mental health, and halacha, and is the author of the upcoming book "Talmud on the Mind: Exploring Chazal and Practical Psychology to Lead a Better Life." He also co-hosts the Mental Health News Roundup, a weekly online program focusing on contemporary news related to mental health issues.
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