Introductory Note: On Thursday evening, January 18 I spoke to a group of long-term older congregants of Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles about how to speak with the younger generations of liberal and progressive Jews in their families who feel unmoored by the rise in antisemitism in America and the Hamas atrocities on October 7, and who feel alienated from Israel on account of its prosecution of the war against Hamas that has resulted in the death of so many thousands of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. The following were my remarks.
Most of us here tonight appear to be over the age of 60, and so it’s important to begin by acknowledging that we likely think of ourselves in relationship to antisemitism and Israel differently than do our Millennial and Generation Z children and grandchildren.
As a boomer (I was born in 1949), I was raised with an idealized and romanticized vision of Israel as a small struggling new state being born like a phoenix out of the ashes of the Shoah.
My millennial sons’ impressions of Israel have been influenced not only by growing up in our liberal Zionist home, but by the traumas of the past 30 years including the Rabin assassination, the failed Oslo peace process, the 2nd Intifada, the occupation and expanding settlement enterprise, 5 Israel-Hamas wars, and the corrupt leadership of PM Netanyahu and his extremist right-wing government. Though my sons identify proudly as liberal American Jews and liberal Zionists, they are far more cynical about today’s Israeli leadership and its prosecution of this war than I am despite their appreciation of the positives in Israel’s life, culture and history. They express increasingly their sense of hopelessness about Israel’s political and moral direction as it is being led by PM Netanyahu and his government, and they are deeply disturbed by the massive loss of life in Gaza despite their outrage at the atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7.
The dramatic rise in antisemitism in the past few years in America and since October 7 especially has shaken them as well, as has the unprecedented hate and misinformation they and the younger generations of liberal American Jews are encountering on college and university campuses, in the work place and online. Many of their friends and peers, Jews and non-Jews, actively question Israel’s moral character in the prosecution of this war and on account of the policies of the current illiberal Israeli government. Many people they know openly characterize Israel as an oppressor nation, a colonial concoction of western imperialism, and an apartheid and racist state. Some have gone so far as to question Israel’s moral right to exist anywhere between the river and the sea.
I have always favored a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, since October 7 there have emerged many in America’s progressive young left-wing who say openly and shamelessly that they would like to see a return to 1948 and no Jewish state of Israel, an attitude I regard as blatant antisemitism because they deny the Jewish people the right to a nation state of our own in our historic Homeland.
Though this attitude is that of a very small minority in America (according to polls), many of our own liberal and progressive Jewish young people are increasingly critical of and alienated from Israel and are questioning the meaning of Israel and liberal Zionism in their lives. In response, it is important for us to remind them why Zionism emerged in the late 19th century and grew so dramatically in the 20th century.
Zionism was an answer to the “problem of the Jews” (i.e. antisemitism) and the “problem of Judaism” in that it represented the return of the Jewish people to history, the restoration of our people’s pride, dignity and independence in our historic Homeland, a rejuvenation of the Hebraic spirit and culture in the land of the prophets, and a test of our people’s religious and ethical values in the context of attaining sovereignty and power for the first time in two millennia. Ultimately, Zionism was meant to fulfill the prophetic vision for the Jewish people to become a light to the nations; in so many ways the State of Israel has already done so.
Arguing on behalf of Israel, however, in the current environment of war is difficult, to say the least. Add to that difficulty what preceded the war – the coming to power of the most extremist, racist, super-nationalist, Jewish supremacist, and ultra-Orthodox government in Israeli history and the nearly year-long protest movement that brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the streets every Saturday night to protest the government’s radical judicial reform legislation that would have diminished Israel’s democracy. Then came Hamas’ October 7 attack and hostage-taking, Israel’s overwhelming military response to destroy Hamas’ military capacity and ability to rule over Gaza, Israel’s efforts to free the hostages, the consequential death, injury and destruction of Gaza and the killing of so many thousands of Palestinian civilians. All of it is a toxic cocktail that has caused so many of our children and grandchildren to feel unmoored, demoralized, disaffected from Israel, questioning what Israel has become and what their relationship is to the Jewish state.
To pour salt into our people’s open wound, Israel has been charged with the crime of Genocide by the ICJ in The Hague, which strikes Israelis and so many Jews around the world as an utter outrage given Hamas’ actual genocidal intent against Israel and the Jewish people. The charge against the State of Israel is equivalent to blaming the victim of the very crimes of the Hamas aggressor.
October 7 and the Hamas-Israel war are among the most difficult moral, ethical and emotional challenges for Jews who care deeply about Israel and the health, safety and well-being of our Israeli brothers and sisters, and who are also concerned about the suffering of Palestinian civilians who have been placed cynically in harm’s way by Hamas’ situating itself inside and near private homes, apartment building, community centers, mosques, schools, and hospitals and under a massive sophisticated maze of tunnels totaling between 350 and 450 miles (NYT – January 18).
The largest question for us in the older generations of American liberal Jews is how we should respond to the next generations about this war and Israel in this unprecedented era of Jewish history?
First, I think that all of us have to be able to live with the tension between our American liberal Jewish values that emphasize justice, peace, diplomacy, pluralism, and compromise, along with the necessity of Israel fighting Hamas militarily as a radical extremist Islamic movement that does not value justice as we westerners understand justice, does not believe in compromise or peace with Israel on any land between the river and the sea, and is intent on murdering Jews and destroying the State of Israel.
Second, I want to be able to trust that the IDF is behaving according to international laws of war, the “principle of distinction” (i.e. choosing only military targets), the “principle of proportionality” (i.e. using only the amount of force necessary to neutralize the threat while assessing expected civilian harm), the “principle of precaution” (i.e. taking into account all matters necessary to mitigate civilian suffering), and the “principle of humanitarian obligation” (i.e. being certain that food, water, medicine, and fuel reach the Palestinian civilian population).
That said – we have to acknowledge that Israel likely has made mistakes when it dropped thousands of 2000-pound “dumb” bombs on populated areas seeking to destroy the underground Hamas tunnel system. We cannot turn a blind eye to the death and injury these bombs have caused. According to top American military experts who have experience fighting in dense urban settings such as Gaza, the Biden administration has recommended strongly to Israel that the massive bombings have to give way now to targeting specific Hamas command sites using smaller precision missiles and special op forces.
We American Jews have to accept as well the truth that we do not really know what the IDF and the Israeli intelligence services know. Israeli intelligence insists that it is prosecuting the war by the book – but many of us suspect that at times Israel has crossed a red line in a brutal and inhumane way and not adequately taken into account the damage it is doing to Palestinian civilian life while targeting Hamas.
Dr. Tal Becker, an intelligence expert, ethicist and advisor to the IDF, argued a few weeks ago that Israel cannot in real time share its intelligence during the prosecution of the war, and that it is a mistake for us to rush to judgment about what Israel has done. There will come a day of reckoning, he said, not just concerning the failure of the government, intelligence services and the IDF to protect Israelis in the south on October 7, but also how the IDF conducted and prosecuted this war in light of the international rules of war.
We American liberal Jews have to hope that as the strongest military power in the Middle East, IDF commanders are checking constantly to assure that Israel’s use of power is as an instrument in achieving absolutely necessary and defined ends and not as an ideology in and of itself. We have to hope that Israel is fighting this just war justly in an impossible urban environment.
The humanitarian disaster caused by this war has placed the burden of responsibility on Israel, though Israel says that “it has facilitated the delivery of over 130,000 tons of humanitarian aid, that Israel has excess capacity to inspect and process trucks, and that here’s no backlog and no limitation on Israeli’s end. But UN aid agencies counter Israel’s claims that Israel is hampering the delivery of lifesaving assistance to Gazans.” (Washington Post, January 18). Which is right – Israel or UN aid agencies?
Third, we have to keep in mind that there is no pathway to peace between Israel and the Palestinians except in a two states for two peoples resolution of their conflict (though presently a two-state solution is not being discussed in Israel), and that Hamas must be defeated and have no role at all in what comes after the war. Half-measures won’t be adequate and calling for a ceasefire prematurely, even if doing so will result in the release of all the hostages and the killing and injury of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians will stop, will leave Hamas in Gaza to repeat October 7 over and over again, as Hamas leadership has promised publicly to do.
October 7 has challenged the Zionist ethos that Israelis could rely upon the IDF and their government to protect them against terrorism and attack. But October 7 also has shown the importance of the Zionist cause, that the Jewish people has the right and the need for a national home.
One more question to consider with our American young liberal and progressive Jews – Can the Jewish people survive over the long-term without a Jewish state? It is my conviction that except for intensive orthodox communities and perhaps small pockets of secular-liberal Jews, within a few generations – should Israel cease to exist – the majority of the world’s Jews will assimilate and disappear. Consequently, October 7 has to be understood as an existential attack on the Jewish people, Judaism, the Jewish historical experience and memory, Jewish values and religion, and everything we believe and stand for as Jews.
Since 1948, we Jews thought that the enemies of the Jewish people could no longer undermine our confidence as a people. We thought that a Jewish state would be the solution to Jew-hatred, that pogroms and antisemitism were part of a distant past in Jewish history.
October 7 reminds us that barbarians still are at the gate, and they will break into our dwellings, rip babies form their parents’ arms, and commit the most brutal crimes against humanity that we have not fathomed or talked about publicly since the Holocaust. The mass hoopla by too many Gazans who shamed our hostages and abused Jewish corpses was a barbarous assault on our dignity as a people and on common decency.
Based upon forensic evidence discovered in southern Israel after that infamous day in October, we now know that Hamas intended to stay in Israel a month or longer and slaughter far more Israelis that it did. In many respects, despite Israel’s military successes so far in Gaza, Hamas has already has won aspects of this war. There are still 136 hostages being held (though informed Israeli sources suggest that between 10 and 20 hostages have been murdered); 180,000 Israelis have been displaced as refugees in their own country; Israel is isolated in the international community except for the US, the UK, Germany and perhaps a few other nations; and Israel has been brought before the ICJ of the Hague to stand trial for the crime of Genocide.
Rabbi Ammi Hirsch of the Stephen S. Wise Free Synagogue in New York asked these important questions on his podcast In These Times:
“Why has Hamas become popular with so many young Americans? Hamas doesn’t permit free speech, freedom of the press, or freedom of religion, political pluralism or opposition parties, or anything that defines a liberal society. In Hamas’ world abortion is illegal and LGBTQ is illegal. Corruption is rampant with Hamas leaders living in luxury.
What explains the support that western liberals give to fundamentalist, misogynistic antisemites such as Hamas and Hezbollah? Why do those who see racism everywhere in daily life fail to recognize the systemic antisemitism of Hamas? Why do those who are so acutely sensitive to the assignment of moral accountability to both individuals and institutions fail to assign moral agency to the Palestinians? Why do progressives treat Palestinians as passive victims bearing no political or moral responsibility for their actions? What business do progressives have supporting those who oppress gays, women, minorities, and Christians? What business do free speech advocates have ignoring the suppression of free speech? Why do progressives give aid and comfort to the enemies of progress? By what measure of decency do they abandon liberal Muslims who challenge extremists in their own midst? Why do those who so believe in diversity condemn Israel, one of the most diverse countries in the world?
This is not liberalism; it’s a betrayal of liberalism. It isn’t progressivism; it’s a back-sliding of progress. How could a vast number of people in the west confuse an Isis-like philosophy for a liberation movement and ignore, explain, deny, and justify blood-thirsty brutalities?”
In conclusion, I want to offer a few things to consider, in addition to what I have said thus far, when talking with our liberal and progressive American Jewish young people who may feel morally and emotionally alienated from Israel.
First, that we Jews are one family and that we have to listen to each other’s concerns and perspectives. We older liberal Jews especially have to listen to our younger liberal and progressive Jewish family members and their friends without necessarily having to respond to every statement they make that may rankle us.
Second, that we American Jews live here and Israelis live there. Virtually every Israeli Jew and some Arab-Israelis too has lost someone or knows someone who has been a victim of Hamas. October 7 is a shared national catastrophe the likes of which has not occurred since the 1973 War or the 1948 War of Independence. We American liberal and progressive Jews have to be able to empathize with Israelis’ grief and fear as well as their joys.
Third, for sanity’s sake, we need to be selective about what legitimate sources of information, news and commentary we read and watch, and steer clear of most social media that tends to distort and shock. My recommendations are as follows:
The Times of Israel Daily Briefing Podcast and the online Times of Israel news site;
The Haaretz Podcast and Haaretz’s English language daily online newspaper
The For Heaven’s Sake weekly podcast with Rabbi Donniel Hartman and Yossi Klein Halevi
The Promised Podcast weekly out of Tel Aviv
The Forward on-line magazine
The Israel Policy Forum with Michael Kaplow
The J Street Daily Roundup of News, Commentary and Opinion
The In These Times Podcast hosted by Rabbi Ammi Hirsch
My book Why Israel (and its future) Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to the Next Generation (reissued, November 2023) with an Introduction written after October 7 and an Afterword by my millennial sons Daniel and David Rosove.
Finally, I recommend highly that you listen to Dr. Tal Becker’s 32-minute opening statement before the International Court of Judgment at The Hague in defense of the State of Israel to the charge of Genocide. You can find it on You Tube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQaDIcdgLRc