Like many people, I have been horrified by the death and destruction caused by the war between Hamas and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). The attack by Hamas on October 7, which killed 1200 innocent people, the vast majority of whom were Jewish, and the capture and hostage-taking of hundreds of others, reeks of a depraved evil beyond description. And the seemingly in discriminate IDF bombing and destruction of buildings leading at last count to over 13,000 Palestinian deaths is equally depraved. In their effort to destroy Hamas as a lethal enemy, they have been indiscriminate in their killing of men, women, and children whose only “crime” is being the way. One can also condemn Hamas for using their own people as unwilling human shields. Any attempt to justify the actions of either the IDF or Hamas is fraught with the stark reality that more innocent citizens – both Jewish and Palestinian – have died than the soldiers supposedly fighting this battle.
Equally troubling are the demonstrations here in the U.S. that have pitted those supporting the Israeli attacks on Gaza against those critical of Israel’s overall treatment of the Palestinians, not only in Gaza but also in the territory near and on the West Bank. In some cases, these demonstrations have edged toward violence against Jews on college campuses such as Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania and in at least one sad case the shooting of three Palestinian students in Vermont. As I wrote in my previous posting “Hamas and the Israeli government only seem to know the language of violence” and it appears that expressions of hatred and threat seem to be the preferred approach by many here in the United States.
Complicating an already polarizing situation even more, the House of Representatives held a hearing with some university presidents questioning their policies regarding antisemitism. At issue was whether the universities in question considered a person saying they believed in the destruction of the state of Israel as hate speech. Two of those presidents answered that it depended on the context, i.e. whether the person saying those words had the means to go through with their claim. Sadly, the Republican representative leading the inquiry, New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, did not ask a corresponding question about Islamophobia. At issue is whether saying such a thing, which is clearly antisemitic, is that anti-Zionism or are antisemitism and anti-Zionism two words meaning the same thing?
To bring it to a personal level, if I say I oppose the policies and actions regarding their treatment of the Palestinian people both in Gaza and the West Bank, am I anti-Zionist or antisemitic or both? And my Jewish colleagues who are concerned for their loved ones living in Israel, but opposed to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, are they antisemitic or anti-Zionist or both?
New York Times columnist Jonathan Weisman captured this dilemma in a recent article entitled “Is Anti-Zionism Always Antisemitic? A Fraught Question for the Moment.” Weisman puts the question to people on all sides of the issue from Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley to Doug Emhoff (husband of VP Kamala Harris) to the head of the Anti-Defamation League to a Palestinian activist to the Republican leaders questioning the college presidents. Weisman concludes that MOST anti-Zionism — the kind that calls for Israel’s destruction, denying its right to exist – is antisemitic,” but the reverse is not always true. What has happened in many of the demonstrations and certainly in the Congressional hearings is that too often criticizing the Israeli government is linked to being against the Jewish people themselves. In a sense it is like if I am opposed to the United States’ failure to support the U.N.’s call for a ceasefire that makes me unpatriotic; i.e. if I don’t support the actions of my government on this issue (which I don’t) makes me unpatriotic.
In seeking to make the point speakers on both sides of the issue have oversimplified what is a deeply complicated issue. Not mentioned in this debate is the unconditional United States support for supplying arms and other kinds of support for the actions of the IDF. Not mentioned is how the Palestinian people are victims of not only the IDF but also the leadership of Hamas and its role in making its own people victims of genocide. Not mentioned is how the IDF in its brutal slaughter of innocent Palestinian people is creating the conditions and motivations for the young Palestinians everywhere to become the next crop of militants. Not mentioned is how the tools of terrorism and genocide do nothing to secure a just and lasting peace. Not mentioned is the fact that I can oppose the actions of the Israeli government and still care about my Jewish friends and colleagues who do.
Like the U.N., I support the call for peace. I support the halt to any more American military support to the IDF. Unlikely as those two things are, they are the only steps that can bring this conflict to a close. While I appreciate President Biden’s warning to the leaders of Israel of their lagging international support, I am disappointed that he has not withdrawn U.S. support for the ongoing slaughter of the Palestinian people. Moreover, I detest Republican leaders like Elise Stefanik, who just recently found a deep commitment to antisemitism when it became politically advantageous.
Peace between Israel and the Palestinian people is a long way off. Stopping the current slaughter with the help of the international community is the first step in a long journey. Rather than oversimplifying the conflict to just “us” and “them” the deep and complex work that must be done with leaders on both sides of the conflict.