Discover more from The Lewsletter
Not in My Name
On Jewish identity and the destruction of Gaza
My vision of Judaism is epitomized by the ritual commemoration of the Ten Plagues.
Partway through the Passover Seder, between the spiritual strains of “Let My People Go” and the joyful call-and-response of “Dayenu,” the celebrants acknowledge the Egyptians who suffered and perished during the events of the Exodus. We scoop a drop of wine from our glasses at the recitation of each miraculous tragedy, building up to the ultimate punishment, the slaying of every Egyptian family’s first-born son.
The Hagaddah my family uses was published in 1965. The specter of the Holocaust and the rhetorical posturing of the Cold War echo through it, sketching a rigid and merciless moral framework through which to reflect on the Exodus. Yet even this fire-and-brimstone Hagaddah finds sympathy for not just the Egyptian civilians but the oppressors themselves. “Judaism teaches that all human beings are children of God, even our enemies who would seek to destroy us,” it has the Seder leader declare. “These plagues came upon the Egyptians because of their evil; yet we do not rejoice over their downfall and defeat,” the company responds. “We cannot be glad when any person needlessly suffers.” Sacrificing a drop from our goblets for each of the tragedies visited upon Egypt is the least we can do.
To be a Jew today is to be expected to drink your entire cup of wine.
As of this writing, more than 2,800 people have been killed in Gaza over the last several days; by the time you read this sentence, that number will surely be higher. The death toll has already nearly doubled that of the horrific and brutal Hamas attacks on Israel earlier this month, and almost equaled that of 9/11. Roughly one in 700 people in Gaza has been killed in under two weeks. At least one out of every four has fled their home, to say nothing of those whose houses have been destroyed by airstrikes. A larger proportion of the Gazan population has already been lost in this bombardment than died of COVID-19 in the United States in all of 2020. This in a place where half the residents, and thus over a thousand of the dead, are children.
The issue at hand is not the appalling senselessness of Hamas’ violence, nor the extricability of the Israel-Palestine conflict, nor what some British statesman scribbled on a piece of paper a century ago. It is whether there could ever be just cause for subjecting millions of people to such collective punishment.
Even if you believe some kind of military response against Hamas were warranted, there is no humane justification for the devastation Israel’s counterattack has wrought in Gaza. Each day brings new firsthand accounts of the escalating horrors. The self-described “siege” has cut the enclave off from food, water, and fuel. Hospitals bereft of supplies must also contend with massive overcrowding and medical providers being killed. Israel’s use of white phosphorous weapons is a flagrant violation of international law. As if the order for a million people to evacuate their homes in 24 hours were not enough — of course, Israel’s blockade meant that the only place to go was the other corner of one of the most-densely populated places in the world — the IDF appears to have bombed a civilian convoy following the prescribed evacuation route. The operation has earned the condemnation of the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and one of the leading Israeli scholars of the Holocaust.
The common retort to this is that Hamas has also committed atrocities, which of course is true. Yet in the words of Human Rights Watch’s Sari Bashi, “You do not get to target civilians because somebody else has targeted civilians.” International law is “not a deal between fighters. It’s a deal with humanity.” It is not remotely condoning Hamas’ actions to observe that, right now, one side is perpetrating the vast majority of the violence; that one side enjoys the support of my government and military aid from my tax dollars; and that only Israel claims to be acting in my name.
In the first days after the violence ratcheted up, I made a point not to talk much about it. I resented the ubiquitous assumption that Jews had the answers. That, as we processed the horrors of the deadliest day for Jewish people in most of our lifetimes, we were expected to model the proper nuance and respect for the gravity of the situation for the gentiles around us. In the words of Zack Budryk that rang true to me, it is “at least antisemitism-adjacent” to expect expertise and clarity from any given Jew around you.
But I have increasingly come to realize the alternative to this tokenization is even worse: allowing Benjamin Netanyahu to claim that he is destroying Gaza on my behalf.
I know many Jews who feel differently, that any amount of force is appropriate when our people are threatened. I have been repeatedly shocked over the last several days by social media posts from friends and relatives describing Palestinians as subhuman, using words like “animals” and “eradicate.” (Again, remember that half the population of Gaza are children.) In other contexts, most Jews would recognize the monstrousness of this language, as it has so many times been directed towards us. Such dangerous rhetoric in the U.S. has already led to predictable tragedy.
To me, being Jewish means opposing injustice wherever it manifests. It means always acknowledging when there is more work to do to better the world. It means knowing our cups can never be full when others suffer, even those we call our enemies. So I add my voice to the increasingly loud chorus of Jews who reject the aimless destruction of Gaza as representative of our culture:
Not in my name.
Thanks for reading The Lewsletter! If you enjoy my writing, Liking and sharing this post and signing up for a free subscription are the best ways to support my work.