By: Jeffrey Freedman  | 

Can We Talk about Israel?

It’s not easy at the moment for students at Yeshiva University to speak openly and candidly about Israeli politics. So many members of our community remain traumatized by the horrors of October 7; the hostages and their suffering are on everyone’s mind. Grief, fear and rage are the dominant emotions. In such an environment, the impulse to rally around the flag and suppress any doubts or criticisms is bound to be strong. But while it is natural for our community to support Israel in its time of need, I don’t believe that unquestioning acceptance of the current government’s policies serves the country’s interests in the long term. Too much is at stake in this critical juncture to leave the entire field of discussion to Israel’s self-declared enemies. Precisely because we care about Israel, we should be able to ask questions, even difficult and painful ones.

The first and most immediate matter of concern is of course the military campaign in Gaza. In its quest to root out and destroy Hamas, the Israeli military has inflicted catastrophic suffering on the population of the strip. Tens of thousands have died, the majority of them women and children. More than a million people are hovering on the brink of starvation and infants are dying of malnutrition. The entire infrastructure, including hospitals, universities, electricity grids and sewage systems, has been obliterated. And all this has occurred before Israel’s planned assault on Rafah, where roughly a million people have sought refuge after fleeing their now-destroyed homes in other parts of the enclave. It’s clear that Hamas fighters have hidden themselves among the civilian population, a strategy that makes it impossible for the Israeli army to pursue Hamas without inflicting civilian casualties. That a guerilla army would employ such a tactic, however, can hardly have come as a surprise to Israel’s generals. Blending into the civilian population is what guerilla armies do. The question is whether the elimination of Hamas, assuming such a goal to be achievable, justifies any amount of human suffering that might ensue.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the moral considerations, I think there are at least two practical reasons why friends of Israel should hesitate before adopting the logic of military victory at any cost. The first involves the harm that such a policy is doing to Israel’s reputation in the world. As a result of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, support for Israel has eroded all around the globe. Human rights and humanitarian organizations have been nearly unanimous in their condemnations of Israel’s assault on Gaza as well as its policing of the West Bank. The spreading famine has prompted expressions of outrage from Western governments — including the government of Ireland, where a history of famine sits deep in the collective national memory. And there are now credible reports that the International Court of Justice is preparing arrest warrants against Israeli officials for obstructing the delivery of humanitarian aid. In the US, campus protests in support of Palestinian rights are spreading rapidly, many of them involving Jewish students who have become alienated from Zionism in the age of Netanyahu. In Congress, even such stalwart allies of Israel as Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi have criticized the Israeli government over its conduct of the war. There’s a real danger that by pursuing its current policies, Israel will condemn itself to ever-deepening isolation.

A second reason for rejecting the military-victory-at-any-cost position is that such a position rests on a dubious premise: it presupposes that a solution to the conflict is achievable by military means. It may be that the Israeli military can identify, hunt down and kill every Hamas fighter in Gaza today. But the kind of suffering that is being visited on the civilian population — a trauma that will reverberate across generations — is certain to produce tens of thousands of young men with an abiding and inexpiable hatred of Israel who will replace the Hamas fighters killed by the IDF. The cycle of violence will go on and on.

According to the Biden administration, the only long-term solution to the conflict is a compromise based on the coexistence of two states. Prime Minister Netanyahu, however, has categorically rejected the US position and defiantly thrown his support behind Itamar Ben-Gvir, the minister of national security, who has funneled arms to vigilante settlers in the Jordan Valley and the South Hebron Hills. Since October 7, while the world’s attention has been focused on Gaza, the Israeli government has allowed Ben-Gvir’s heavily armed supporters to expel Palestinians from their homes, steal their flocks and drive them from their olive groves. As of December 2023, some twenty villages in the central West Bank had been either partially or completely emptied of their inhabitants in the previous months. Such actions, which, according to many reports, are occurring with the complicity of the IDF, signal a determination not only to maintain but to expand the occupation. The possibility of a territorial compromise that would allow for a two-state solution becomes more and more remote with every expulsion of a Palestinian family. And since the Palestinians will never willingly accept their own dispossession, it becomes increasingly likely that the IDF will have to police a hostile, subject population forever and ever. Friends of Israel might legitimately ask whether this state of affairs is good for the country—indeed, whether it’s good for the country’s soul.

Thirty years ago, when I began teaching at Yeshiva University, we were able to address such contentious questions with a freedom that is hard to imagine today. Norman Adler, the dean of Yeshiva College at the time, worried openly about what he saw as the rise of a violent right-wing Jewish extremism, expressed most ominously in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. In response, he created the Book Project, an ambitious program that aimed to stimulate reflection on such core ethical values as tolerance and respect for members of different communities. The idea was to assign as summer reading for all incoming freshmen one or two texts that posed difficult moral questions and then discuss those texts in small groups led by faculty members during fall orientation. I have a vivid memory of one freshman orientation in which the text selected for discussion was Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The students in my group engaged in a lively debate about the possibilities as well as the limits of non-violent resistance to racial oppression and about the role of state-sponsored violence in supporting the system of segregation in the Jim Crow South.

Is it possible to replicate Dean Adler’s courageous example in today’s changed environment? Honestly, I don’t know. Opinions in the US are so polarized and political passions so volatile that the 1990s look like an Eden of civility in comparison. But even if we cannot go back to that Age of Innocence in the US, we can at least try to revive traditions of debate within our own communities. Zionism, after all, has never had a single fixed meaning. Debates about goals and tactics have been part of the movement from the beginning. What is at stake today is not just the survival of Israel but the kind of Israel that survives.

Jeffrey Freedman is chair of The Robert M. Beren Department of History. He has taught at Yeshiva University since the fall of 1992.


Photo Credit: Israeli Defense Forces

Photo Caption: An Israeli self-propelled artillery piece fires into the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas.