“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
Just as the US was founded on the ideas of equality and democracy, with diverse people united by that common ideal, the original Jewish people were also a diverse group united by the belief in a moral universe. Their bedrock ethical principle that one should not do to another what is hateful to oneself has become an urgent imperative in a world increasingly beset by threats of all kinds.
The brutal October 7 attack by Hamas on several towns in southern Israel and young Israelis attending a music festival, and the Israeli military response demonstrated how far everyone is from our shared ideal of humane behavior. Soon after the horrific Hamas attack, media coverage of the conflict turned to document the Israeli retaliation that has killed thousands of innocent Gazan civilians, leading to Israel’s condemnation by the international community and growing numbers of Americans and Jewish-American groups.
The outbreak of the war also brought a global rise in antisemitic behavior and rhetoric, much of which is never reported, across the political spectrum. (1)
This included harassment of and attacks on Jewish individuals and defacement of Jewish sites. A mob of thousands of local residents in the Russian Republic of Dagestan stormed an airport in the city trying to attack any Jews and Israelis arriving on a flight from Tel Aviv. European countries all reported significant increases in antisemitic incidents. A Berlin synagogue was firebombed. Chinese social media included posts suggesting the Nazi genocide was justified. (2)
There is a difference between antisemitism and anti-Israeli policy, just as there is a difference between anti-Muslim sentiment and abhorrence of the Hamas massacre.
Closer to home, Jewish students on college campuses reported feeling unsafe amidst a sharp rise in anti-Jewish vandalism and violent threats. Some pro-Palestine students on campus have been blacklisted for their part in protests. (3)
The turmoil on campuses is indicative of a lack of knowledge and understanding of the long and complex history of this region. For example, the 2020 survey U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey, the first 50-state survey on Holocaust knowledge among millennials and Gen Z, found that 63% of respondents did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and over half of those thought the death toll was under 2 million. Shockingly, 11% of respondents believe Jews caused the Holocaust, and in New York, the state with the largest Jewish population, that increased to 19%. (4)
Hamas’ 2017 constitution states “Hamas rejects any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea.” At the same time, Israel’s right-wing Likud party states in its founding charter, “Between the sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.” (5) Can we refrain from the use of emotionally charged, hurtful and divisive language and instead amplify our common yearnings for peace and dignity?
Jewish communities have had a continuous presence in the Middle East, surviving 2500 years of conquering armies and empires that have occupied the land. It is a sad fact that in the 20th century, the Jews of Europe, desperate and traumatized by the Nazi genocide that claimed 2/3 of their population, escaped the fires of World War II to land on the backs of Palestinians, 700,000 of whom who were displaced by the establishment of Israel.
When the State of Israel was created in 1948, every Arab state in the region declared war or supported the war to destroy it. This resulted in the uprooting of more than 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries, Turkey and Iran. (6) Today, approximately 50% of Israel’s current population are Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries, 30% are Jews from Europe and Russia, and 20% are Arab.
The atrocities committed in the October 7 attack evoked memories of millennia of antisemitic hatred and violence, including the Nazi genocide. Both Israelis and Palestinians have been traumatized by a history of exclusion and persecution. How can they come to feel safe in a hostile world where neighbors are regarded as enemies? How does a person, especially a child, come to forgive those who took their land and loved ones? These kinds of pain become a lifelong burden. How can we find another way, without blaming, to affirm our common humanity?
“Israel” comes from the words Yashra (straight) and El (the Creator). Anyone who is directed “straight to the Creator” – to love for one’s neighbor – is “Israel,” regardless of race, religion or ethnicity.
The continual conflicts in the region are heartbreaking because we see how far we are from that ideal, and they will never be solved with the same mindset that created and stokes division among people. No one has the answer how things can be resolved.
We have not and will not be able to resolve these intractable centuries-long conflicts or any of the other problems now confronting humanity without a change of heart. The mounting suffering in the world is pushing us to a time when the only choice will be for all people to work for the common good and we all become “Israel” in the true sense of the word.
Esther Kronenberg is a frequent contributor to WIP