Tablet Magazine

To Be on Everyone’s Side Is to Be on No One’s

Thousands of people attend the March for Israel on the National Mall November 14, 2023, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Thousands of people attend the March for Israel on the National Mall November 14, 2023, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Recently, I was asked to moderate a panel with a battery of Jewish luminaries. A member of the audience asked a question, confessing that she was confused about her own feelings. She was distressed by the deaths of so many Israelis, of course, but she was also feeling sorry for the innocent Palestinians affected by the fighting in Gaza. How, she asked the panel, was she to resolve this tension?

Immediately, one panelist rose to the challenge, citing an open letter by Rabbi Jill Jacobs, CEO of the left-wing organization Truah. In it, Jacobs blamed the growth of Hamas on … Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. She also made it clear where she fell in the conflict that has been raging since Oct. 7. “Some have demanded we choose sides,” the letter states. “We choose the side of humanity.”

Talking to friends in the aftermath of the attacks, especially liberal ones, I hear some version of the following argument: We wish for the IDF to strike against the terrorists, but we also urge that no action be taken without careful consideration for Palestinian civilian casualties. We feel the pain all around. In other words: “We choose the side of humanity.”

Not me. I choose the side of the Jews.

I don’t mean it as a mere bit of bravado, a chest-thumping line you bellow out for a quick round of applause. I mean it as a crucial moral distinction. It’s actually one that is central to the Haggadah, because it’s about liberation, which, if nothing else, is the freedom to realize that your personal destiny is intricately intertwined with the larger one, the collective fate of the Jewish people.

First, “humanity” is a meaningless concept, too ephemeral to represent genuine belonging and too flat to honor the dignity of the differences that set us apart. Humanity lives on in pop song lyrics and ad campaigns, not in any serious work of moral instruction. Leaf through the Torah, say, and you’ll see that God, confronted with the people of Babel who come together and speak one language and build a tower as tall as the heavens, immediately disperses them and mixes up their tongues. He does so to teach us the foundational lesson of Judaism—and, perhaps, of all of mankind: that true universalism is possible only if and when it is rooted in particularism. It’s precisely my ability to feel the particular pain of my own kin, the unique and specific grieving not for all who suffer but for those who are my brothers and cousins and loved ones that makes me able to then lift up my eyes and see others who are suffering, too. To be on everyone’s side is to be on no one’s, a platitude that is empty and easy to manipulate.

Which leads me to the second problem. As those of us who had actually fought in wars know all too well, no normal human being would ever call for war to last longer than it should or be deadlier than it must. But shirking from doing what must be done to protect and defend Jewish security isn’t mercy, compassion, or civility; it’s merely an invitation for more carnage.

Don’t take my word for it. Instead, consider the two following stats: According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, the death toll in global conflicts is constantly rising, and, in 2022, hit a centurylong high, with 238,000 people killed all over the world. Meanwhile, the global expenditure on peacekeeping operations has shot up during the very same time frame: In 1989, the year the Cold War ended, the United Nations spent a mere $635 million on keeping the peace. Last year, the number was $6.45 billion. Put bluntly, the more money we spent on peacekeeping, the more furiously war raged on.

It’s not hard to figure out the reason for this paradox. Peacekeeping operations are neither designed to nor capable of snuffing out conflict completely; instead, they keep hostilities simmering, often prolonging conflicts that could’ve been ended with swift and decisive military operations. To support a measured response against Hamas, then, isn’t to spare the people of Gaza; it’s merely to condemn them to decades more of suffering inflicted largely by the same monsters who repeatedly send women and children into the line of fire to serve as human shields.

To be clear, I don’t intend this last point to be read as simple calculus, balancing out two columns of numbers and opting for the one that leaves us with fewer dead. I mean it, rather, as a reminder that human faculties alone are incapable of crafting a mighty moral engine, which is why, from time immemorial, we’ve put our faith in a higher power. That is why Soren Kierkegaard, writing about the maddening and inexplicable story of the binding of Isaac, determined that religion transcended mere ethics because life, death, love, mercy, and hope all emanate from God, not from our best intentions. “When a rich man goes driving at night with lights on his carriage,” the great Dane wrote, “he sees a small area better than the poor man who drives in the dark but he does not see the stars. The lights prevent that. It is the same with all intellectual understanding. It sees well close at hand but takes away the infinite outlook.”

Yet even if you don’t much care for infinite outlooks or, for that matter, for God, there’s still one more moral objection to consider. If you, like me, treat Palestinians with dignity and respect, if you see them as moral agents capable of discerning between right and wrong, you ought to expect that they do precisely what you’re doing right now and care for you as you care for them. And yet, reading Arabic and scouring the web for any expression of solidarity from the people of Gaza, I found few if any. Gazans aren’t taking to the streets, the way their sisters and brothers in Cairo and Tunis and Damascus had, to topple their murderous regime. They aren’t taking to social media to exchange messages with Israelis and share their outrage that babies were beheaded and women raped in their name. They aren’t pleading with their leaders to try different, peaceful measures.

Instead, Palestinian support of Hamas has been both strong and consistent. In June 2021, a poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research based in Ramallah found that 53% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza chose Hamas to be their preferred leaders; the same question, posed in July 2023 by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, revealed that “57% of Gazans express at least a somewhat positive opinion of Hamas.” And when the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion asked, in 2014, whether or not they support terror attacks against Israelis, nine out of 10 Palestinians answered in the affirmative.

These numbers haven’t changed since. In March 2024, more than five months after Oct. 7, the same Palestinian research center released a survey of Palestinians living in both Gaza and the West Bank, and it showed Hamas with 52% support from ordinary people in Gaza and 64% in the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority (PA) trails Hamas in popular opinion by 31% in Gaza and by 46% among Palestinians overall. The plan for a “reformed and revitalized” PA backed by a U.S.-Arab coalition was opposed by 73% of Palestinians, while the leader with the highest popularity in both Gaza and the West Bank is Marwan Barghouti—the leader of the Second Intifada.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t opt, whenever possible, for military options that minimize civilian casualties. And none of it is to argue that we must remain iron-hearted when we come across images of suffering Gazans roaming amid the rubble of their towns. But there’s nothing noble in binding our suffering to theirs. There are more than 130 civilians still caged in Gaza by Hamas, some of them children. There’s nothing complex or intricate, noble or commendable or even particularly difficult about caring for anything or anyone else until these innocents return home.

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