Palestinians and our American Jewish feelings

During the first awful weeks of the Gaza War, my concern was fully with my friends and family in Israel. Like many American Jews, I texted, phoned, listened, comforted, and shared as much sorrow as they and I could bare. Two extraordinarily sharp circumstances fueled my urgent phone calls – circumstances shared by most Jewish San Diegans roughly my age. One, the old friends I contacted, many of them childhood friends, had kids in the army or the reserves, some of them serving in Gaza, some of them already wounded. Some of them had already attended two or three or four funerals, or more. Loving empathy leaped from my heart as I considered these young soldiers, remembering when they were children, and thinking of my owns sons, both of fighting age. Two, like many San Diego Jewish professionals and lay leaders, I’d developed acquaintances and friends in Sha’ar Hanegev, our sister city on the Gaza border. These newer friends were in the direct line of fire. Dozens of people I knew personally lost their homes. A few lost their lives. I’d met the mayor, Ofer Libstein, who was shot to death in the first hours of the attack. I’d developed a kind of friendship with Livnat Kutz who was slaughtered along with her entire family. The normal familial relationship I feel with Israel and Israelis was cruelly amplified by these two circumstances.

I didn’t think of it at the time, but my particular Gaza story exemplifies the immense existential difference between diaspora and Israeli Jews. Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg calls it “skin in the game.” Simply put, I’m not at risk at losing one of my sons to a Hamas bullet. In fact, I’m not at risk at all. Physically, I live nearly as far from the conflict as Earth’s geography allows, thousands of miles away, and if I’m lucky, twenty hours in the air. None of my own skin is in the game. That’s not something I’ve discussed with old friends and family in Israel, and I’ve never felt censored or judged. But it is a flagrantly obvious fact, a basic, fundamental consequence of decisions we all made a long time ago.

For me at least, that difference meant that by the second month I found myself thinking more and more about Palestinian victims. The first prick to my conscience was the news that Palestinian children had begun drinking from their toilets. Then came word of the general, abysmal carnage – 15,000 dead, 20,000, 25,000 – many of them, thousands, are children. Numbers and situations that I – and of course many others – found impossible to disregard. To be clear, I’m not claiming that Israelis ignore Palestinian suffering. Or that the losses are Israel’s fault. But empathy rarely flourishes when you’re under the gun, mourning your own immense losses, afraid for your children. We in the diaspora see and therefore feel things differently than our Israeli friends and family. We can’t help it.

This is a larger and rarely discussed issue. How should committed, active American Jews feel about the countless Palestinian victims of Israel’s invasion? Some Israelis I know argue that, given their own grief and fear, they don’t have the bandwidth for those concerns, and fair enough. But, honestly, we in America, safe and sound, can’t make that claim. And in any case, our American media focuses more on Palestinian suffering, especially as the war drags on. Nowadays, unlike most Israeli newspapers, almost every New York Times’ front page includes photos of hungry Palestinian children, or piles of rubble where Gazan neighborhoods used to be. The pictures are in our face each morning. Furthermore, most American Jews like myself have steadily cultivated an ethos of liberal empathy. But you can’t turn on and off the empathy for suffering children depending on their ancestry, even as our hearts break for our Israeli cousins, and we tremble in fear for their children. Precisely because we are not under the gun, the ache of conscience asserts itself, inevitably, and cries for a response.

But what response? Can our Liberal Jewish traditions provide wisdom? One obvious text is Hillel’s famous dictum, “If I am not for myself, who am I, but if I am only for myself, what am I?” As a rabbinic colleague pointed out to me, this means that we worry about our Israeli children first and only afterwards with the enemy. It’s the ethic of self-defense, of a healthy nationalism, similar to “What is hateful to you don’t do to the other,” meaning you have to cultivate self-love in order to love your neighbor. A deeper text is the Midrash which, for American Jews, has become a famous Passover story, where the angels rejoice at the drowning of the Egyptian army, and God rebukes them with the words “My children are drowning, and you rejoice?!” Few American Jews, of course, rejoice at the suffering of Palestinian children (though some do), but there’s a common gloss on this story that illuminates our situation. Many commentaries point out that the angels shouldn’t celebrate because they didn’t suffer slavery at the hands of the Egyptians. The Israelites, we might say, “didn’t have the bandwidth” to withhold their glee over Egyptian suffering. But the angels, with no skin in the game, and precisely because of their safety and freedom, could see and feel something that only the most sensitive of the Israelites would feel – empathy for the Egyptian enemy. The angels of course, in this analysis, are American Jews. Our affective sense of the war is different than those on the ground, in Israel and Gaza. We see and feel things differently.

So what? What, if any, commitments should arise from our distinct feelings. Frankly, I’m not sure. I’m retired now, so I have no operational responsibilities, no significant decisions to make. But, speaking strictly for myself, it seems to me that America Jews do have a responsibility to communicate our feelings to our Israeli counterparts. I don’t believe it’s condescending or inappropriate to point out that we notice things that Israeli Jews may not. Israelis are often more astute than us in their observations of our assimilation or our intermarriage rates – the demographic threats that we sometimes acknowledge, then mostly ignore. Similarly, we diaspora Jews see the Palestinians differently, and the occupation. Our relatively privileged position forces us not to look away, not to delude ourselves that ruling over another people can be managed or ignored or even shrunk. Until October 7th, it was widely acknowledged that the Palestinian issue had lost its force in Israeli politics. But it was there all along. Someone needed to see it.

The notion of “seeing” the Palestinians leads me to another Jewish teaching, this time from the great French Jewish ethicist Emmanuel Levinas. Building on his teacher Martin Buber, Levinas insists that “seeing” the Other’s “face” entangles the Jew in a web of not only empathy, but of divine commitments. In other words, if we “see” Palestinian suffering more clearly than our Israeli family, at minimum we need to say something. I’m aware how this could be perceived as paternalistic or patronizing. But it’s equally condescending and dishonest not to acknowledge the enormous existential difference between our communities, and how, as a consequence, we develop different emotional priorities.

Since October 7, experts and pundits have often pointed to the unprecedented immensity of the moment. More Israelis were killed in this one-day attack than any other terrorist outrage. Israel lost more civilians in one day than in any previous war. It was the worst pogrom since the Nazis. But there’s another equally harrowing uniqueness to the Gaza War. Israel’s army has never inflicted this many casualties. And most are civilians. Surely that’s worth discussing, as Jews, with other Jews. After all, if we are only for ourselves, who are we?

About the Author
Rabbi Philip Graubart is the author of RABBIS AND GANGSTERS, SILWAN, WOMEN AND GOD, and several other novels. His new mystery HERE THERE IS NO WHY will be published this summer. He served as senior rabbi at Congregation Beth El in La Jolla for fifteen years and before that as senior rabbi at Congregation Bnai Israel in Northampton, Massachusetts. He also worked in leadership positions at the National Yiddish Book Center, the Shalom Hartman Institute, and the San Diego Jewish Academy. He's taught widely on Israel and Zionism, to teenagers, college students and adults.
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