The debate, already ongoing as the Palestinian civilian death count rose in Gaza, was amped up by Leon Wieseltier — to many, the Jewish community’s “public intellectual” — in his Aug. 6 New Republic article, “Israel and Gaza: A Just and Unjust War.” Wieseltier, in his declaration of surprise “by the magnitude of the indifference in the Jewish world to the human costs of Israel’s defense against the missiles and the tunnels,” raised questions among some analysts about “armchair moralism.” How, for instance, does Wieseltier measure “magnitude?”
It appears that his views may be based not on data but on anecdotes. “Some of the e-mails I have received have been lunatic in their lack of compassion.” That’s it?
Supportive, at least in part, of Wieseltier’s stance, is a public-affairs analyst (who asked not to be indentified) who expressed distress about those who, pandering to the Jewish “street,” “talked at length about Jewish mothers’ suffering. I have waited in vain for comments about the suffering of many more Palestinian mothers,” the analyst said, adding: “I would not equate the two, and would blame Hamas for their suffering. But at least acknowledge it. Where is the decency?”
The other side of the “compassion” coin is expressed well by the American Jewish Committee’s director of contemporary Jewish life, Steven Bayme, who notes, “Leon Wieseltier’s criticisms are overstated; he misses the sense of ambivalence. Jews do support Israel’s actions in Gaza but are deeply pained by their impact upon Palestinians living there.” Bayme’s reading of the American Jewish pulse is that “American Jews and Israelis are at one in decrying the bloodshed of innocent civilians. But the plain fact is that Israel is doing what is necessary to combat Hamas terrorism and defend Israeli citizens. There is no glee over loss of life. There is anger over Hamas’ use of human shields for weaponry, its rocket attacks, and, more broadly, its continued rejection of Israel’s right to exist.”
And from Israel, the sober voice of writer and Israel-affairs analyst Hillel Halkin, who makes the distinction between compassion and guilt: “I don’t know to what extent Israelis have been ‘indifferent’ to the devastation in Gaza. Some have, some haven’t. But some amount of ‘indifference’ here is surely necessary. You can’t really fight and cry for the enemy at one and the same time. This is something that armchair moralists have no conception of.
“I personally feel sad,” continues Halkin, “that Palestinian civilians are being killed as a result, but I — and I think I am speaking for nearly all Israelis here — feel no guilt over it. We did not ask for this war; we are doing our best to fight it fairly and humanely, if humaneness is anything you can expect from warfare. The world, to the best of my knowledge, has not been commenting on it, but Israel has been trucking in daily, daily, hundreds of tons of foodstuffs into the Gaza Strip to prevent the local population from suffering hunger. Has there ever been anything like this in the history of warfare? Can you imagine England or America sending shiploads of food to Germany in 1944? They would have had to be insane to do so — and sometimes I wonder if we have not lost our sanity, too.”
The serious implications of the compassion-and-morality issue are in attitudes — in this case the attitudes of Americans, especially younger Americans: recent data from surveys tell us that support for Israel is weaker among younger Americans than among Americans generally. A Gallup poll conducted in late July — two weeks after the launch of the conflict — found that among those Americans of age 30-49, 36 percent said that Israel’s actions were justified; amongst 18-29-year-olds, just 25 percent. And in a Pew poll conducted at the same time, 29 percent of adults aged 18-29 held Israel more responsible for the conflict, and only 21 percent blamed Hamas.
Armchair analysts of American Jewish views on morality, take note.
So where are we? I am yet in Tisha b’Av.
The Book of Lamentations — Megillat Eichah — read by Jews around the world last week, is a bitter dirge describing and accounting for the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. It speaks of a people dehumanized to the unimaginable point where “tenderhearted” mothers cook their own children. As religion analyst Mark Silk reminds us, “Eichah teaches that particular responsibility may lie with those charged with leadership, and that their moral failures are more serious for calling down upon their people the obloquy of the world at large.
“There is no pretense in Lamentations that the destroyers of Jerusalem are good,” notes Silk. But whatever the evils of Hamas — the Hamas Charter, one of the most antisemitic documents of the 20th century, is nothing less than genocidal — Hamas does not bear sole responsibility, as many of our co-religionists would believe. Indeed, Eichah has something to say to the present moment. Listen to verse 4:13: “It was for the sins of her prophets, who had shed in her midst the blood of the just.”
Lamentations is worth listening to, on all sides, because it undermines the ability of leaders to profit from the victimization of their people.
Jerome Chanes is the author of four books on American Jewish public affairs and history. He is a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies of the CUNY Graduate Center.