March 8, 2024 – כ״ח אַדָר א׳ תשפ”ד

A friend asked me a provocative and sincere question last week, as we walked toward Hostage Square in Tel Aviv.  “I don’t mean to sound indifferent or callous, but why should I care about the Palestinians right now?” It was just two days after the humanitarian aid truck disaster in Gaza in which over 100 Gazans lost their lives desperate for nourishment, and we were (and still are) trying to make sense of it all. His comment left me with a deep sense of unease and the need for my own moral clarification.

I understand his anger, trauma, vulnerability, and emotional exhaustion after months of war and worry over our Israeli soldiers fighting in Gaza and the hostages. I share it. The horrific murders, rapes, and destruction left by Hamas on Simchat Torah have scarred us. As the renowned Israeli author David Grossman put it in a New York Times op-ed:

“We cannot put aside our thoughts of the young girls and women, and the men, too it seems, who were gang raped by attacking terrorists from Gaza, murderers who filmed their own crimes and broadcast them proudly and viciously live to the victims’ families; and of the babies killed; and of the families burned alive.”

It will take significant time for our anger to subside. then, there is there is a second-tier fury and sense of betrayal toward those who have morally condemned Israel in its pursuit of what we believe is a just war of self-defense. But, still, we must ask ourselves if we can be blinded to the suffering of the Palestinian civilians in Gaza who have been caught up in this awful war.

Grossman writes with a painful insight:

“The profound despair felt by most Israelis after the massacre might be the result of the Jewish condition into which we have once again been thrown. It is the condition of a persecuted, unprotected nation. A nation that, despite its enormous accomplishments in so many realms, is still, deep down inside, a nation of refugees, permeated with the prospect of being uprooted even after almost 76 years of sovereignty. Today it is clearer than ever that we will always have to stand guard over this penetrable, fragile home. What has also been clarified is how deeply rooted the hatred of this nation is.

Another thought follows, about these two tortured peoples: The trauma of becoming refugees is fundamental and primal for both Israelis and Palestinians, and yet neither side is capable of viewing the other’s tragedy with a shred of understanding — not to mention compassion.”

Is there room in our hearts to care for the Gaza civilians?

Are we afraid?

Are we afraid that if we exhibit empathy and understanding for Palestinian suffering it will somehow take away from our suffering?  Will our expanded empathy for the Palestinians compromise energies in the pursuit of freeing Israeli hostages? Have we become calloused to the suffering experienced by the Palestinians even though we believe that Israel had no choice except to respond with all the power necessary to dismantle the Hamas infrastructure?

These are all legitimate concerns.

What should our response be?

The wrong response is to deny the suffering and existence of the Palestinians. We have been taught all of our lives to care for the Other. It will be difficult, if not impossible to achieve any resolution after the war without an acknowledgement of the humanity among both peoples.

The organized Jewish community has invested tremendous resources first to enable our survivors to tell their stories such as the URJ’s “Talk for A Change” Program (more on this to come), Resetting the Table, Project Shema, and Makom Israel’s “Worlds of Meaning” (more on this to come) and have developed strategies to teach Jews and everyone else how to hear the “other” with empathy.

The call for empathy does not make us weak. Empathy challenges us to hold our pain and at the same time to utilize our deep wells of inner strength and courage to hold the pain of others in our hearts.

As Rabbi Shai Held teaches:

“The Torah could have responded quite differently to the experience of oppression in Egypt. It could have said, since you were tyrannized and exploited and no one did anything to help you, you don’t owe anything to anyone; how dare anyone ask anything of you? But it chooses the opposite path: Since you were exploited and oppressed, you must never be among the exploiters and degraders. You must remember what it feels like to be a stranger. Empathy must animate and intensify your commitment to the dignity and well-being of the weak and vulnerable. And God holds you accountable to this obligation.”[1]

Judging someone favorably (Pirkei Avot 1:6) or exhibiting empathy does not mean whitewashing wrong actions. When we are attacked, we do not have to feel empathy for our attacker, but can and should feel for those caught in the middle who are suffering tremendously. However, at the end of the day, those millions of Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank are not going anywhere. So, it will behoove us to care about their lives and dignity and at the very least to empathize with their losses and pain.

All this said, our priorities have to be clear. We have to:

  1. Do everything in our power to prioritize the release of every hostage and help Israelis heal. This includes supporting the thousands of injured soldiers and civilians, holding the many bereaved families close to our hearts, and internalizing the far-reaching effects that this war has had and will have on Israeli society;
  2. Make all reasonable efforts to ensure that Hamas cannot continue to rule Gaza. This means reducing their military and terrorist infrastructure and ensuring that they are not part of a future coalition of Palestinian leadership in Gaza;
  3. Work together with an international coalition to rebuild Gaza, provide humanitarian aid to those with no homes, families, food, or medicine, and show them that, without an evil regime, life can be better.
  4. Work together to put a viable plan for the ‘day after’ in place.

President Biden made this abundantly clear in last night’s State of the Union speech in which he held multiple truths. Biden recognized the American families of hostages in attendance, saying “I pledge to all the families that we will not rest until we bring their loved ones home.”

He also recognized that Israel has a right to go after Hamas, which could end the war today by “releasing the hostages, laying down arms, and surrendering those responsible for October 7th.”

The President described the toll the war has taken on the Palestinian people as “heartbreaking,” explaining that it has “taken a greater toll on innocent civilians than all previous wars in Gaza combined. More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed. Most of whom are not Hamas. Thousands and thousands are innocent women and children. Girls and boys also orphaned. Nearly 2 million more Palestinians under bombardment or displaced. Homes destroyed, neighborhoods in rubble, cities in ruin. Families without food, water, medicine.”

Even if we don’t make room in our hearts for the Palestinians (regardless of how they see us), we do need to recognize that the fate of Israel and the Jewish people is inextricably tied to theirs and that consideration for their basic humanity for them is not only a sign of empathy and humanity, it is a sign of who we are as a people, and will be the measure by which we are defined for generations to come.


Shabbat Shalom.