By: Rabbi Professor Ari Zivotofsky  | 

Letter to The Editor: Dialogue Requires Being Factual

Professor Jeffrey Freedman wrote an impassioned Commentator article, one that is not up to academic or historical standards. His first paragraph makes a valid point — it is legitimate to question policies of the Israeli government, and Judaism encourages asking questions, even difficult and painful ones. But after that, the article loses credibility.

Freedman starts by stating that “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.” It should be clear to anyone, certainly following Hamas’ egregious lie early in the war regarding the incident at the al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City, that Hamas is inherently unreliable; their numbers are fabricated and exaggerated. Even the notoriously anti-Israel UN has recently halved the supposed civilian casualties and a recent AP study shows that despite the Hamas health ministry’s persistent claims, the ratio and rate of deaths of Arab women and children continues to decline. It should be noted that Israel is not carpet-bombing Gaza, but rather is engaged in door-to-door fighting (with air support), risking their own soldiers to minimize civilian casualties, resulting in one of the lowest civilian-to-combatant ratios seen in recent conflicts, and unfortunately, in far too many Israeli casualties. 

Furthermore, while civilian casualties are unfortunate, Hamas and not Israel bears full responsibility for any civilian casualties in this war. It is a war that was thrust upon Israel when Hamas broke previously standing ceasefires, entered Israeli sovereign territory and murdered, raped, abused and kidnapped over a thousand Israelis. Hamas has promised repeat massacres if not stopped. Civilian casualties occur despite herculean Israeli efforts to move and protect civilians and because Hamas uses civilian shields, not because Israel aimed for them — as opposed to Hamas and Hezbollah who specifically target Israeli civilians. Yes, terrorists who kidnap, rape,and mutilate bodies might also lie. And this is only the beginning; Freedman continues his gratuitous attacks on Israel based on false statements.

In the article, Freedman claims that "more than a million people are hovering on the brink of starvation and infants are dying of malnutrition" and that "the entire infrastructure, including hospitals ….. have been obliterated." Really? In reality, humanitarian aid (and weapons) are flowing into Gaza and the Gazans — including the Hamas terrorists who, in front of the world's nose, control the aid — are receiving more than enough supplies. And the fact that the media has been warning us about the impending famine for months demonstrates that the famine has not yet arrived. A June 2024 analysis by two Columbia University professors has confirmed that sufficient supplies are entering Gaza and that a “famine that never was" is being used to malign Israel. There are functioning hospitals in Gaza, and Israel has even supplied them with new equipment. Is the situation there pleasant? Likely not. But war is hell. Nonetheless, Freedman’s accusations are false. 

Israel is helping avert a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, while simultaneously dealing with a potential humanitarian crisis at home due to its own civilian displacement of over 250,000 Israelis and war-related damage and trauma. This civilian evacuation is the largest in Israel’s history, is now in its eighth month and there is no end in sight. Freedman neglects to mention this. In Israel we do not celebrate the Arab civilian injuries and deaths, as opposed to the many Gazans who cheered the horrific events of Oct. 7 while watching Israeli civilians brutally dragged through the streets of Gaza and who distribute candy to celebrate terrorist attacks (a phenomenon that unfortunately exists in Arab towns in Judea and Samaria as well).

Freedman ends the second paragraph asking "whether the elimination of Hamas, assuming such a goal to be achievable, justifies any amount of human suffering that might ensue." Perhaps it is difficult to discern from Manhattan, but we here in Israel are facing an existential threat from barbaric terrorists. And if it boils down to us versus them, then yes, we must protect ourselves first, despite potential civilian casualties on the other side. In Talmudic language, chayecha kodmin — your life takes precedence. In my mind, that jives with both Jewish and Western values.

Freedman expresses concern about Israel’s reputation in the world because of the “humanitarian crisis.” Was Ireland, for example, a big supporter of Israel before the Simchat Torah massacre? Why was Israel condemned on Oct. 8, well before the ground invasion? And the global condemnation of Israel was equally true during the Bennett government, so Freedman’s apparent loathing of Netanyahu is irrelevant. Freedman is correct that Israel is becoming isolated in the international community. World Jewry, in particular history professors, actually have a very important and real role to play in fighting antisemitism and supporting Israel and that is by teaching the accurate, truthful history of Israel and of the Middle East conflict and thereby presenting the justice of the Israeli position. 

Freedman goes on a diatribe against Jews in Israel, a veritable blood libel that is based on false information. He may be naively repeating these claims, but it is simply false that “settlers” are expelling Palestinians from their homes, stealing their flocks and driving them from their olive groves. He writes that “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.” This is the equivalent of quoting from the fictional Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a historical work. There is simply no systematic emptying of Arab villages of their population. It is a malicious lie. This blood libel, being spread by anti-Israel organizations, is not of mere academic interest. It has resulted in real harm to individual Israelis and is placing whole communities at risk due to threatened weapons embargos based on this falsehood. What little “settler violence” exists has actually dropped significantly since the start of the war.

The reality is the exact opposite of what Freedman claims in the article. Since Oct. 7, there have been numerous terror attacks in Judea and Samaria by Arabs against Israelis, and the area is figuratively and literally burning. It is likely that there is more Arab terror in one week than Jewish terror in decades, but counting the dead and ignoring the rock-throwing and unsuccessful attempts have become so numerous, so routine, as to be not newsworthy and even “acceptable” and are thus often not mentioned in the discussion.

Freedman is of course correct that the current intense flare-up in this 160-year conflict will leave many Gazans hating Israel. But it seems the Israeli unilateral withdrawal 19 years ago, giving the people in Gaza space, autonomy and opportunities for economic prosperity, did not create a generation of Gazans who love Israel, and it is likely that a further pull-out and a “two state” solution would also not create Arabs who love Israel. And no, we did not make it an open-air prison, yet they elected a Hamas government. It is crucial to stop pretending the world is as we wish it was, and deal with it as it is. Israelis would prefer a peaceful solution, but in the real world, Israel has no choice but to eliminate Hamas in a military solution.

Questions and discussions, even heated, about opinions and policies are legitimate and could be constructive. Lies, blood libels and fantasies, especially when they pose an existential threat to the State of Israel and when they endanger my life, the lives of my soldier sons, the citizens of Israel and Jews around the world, are offensive and beyond the pale.

In response to Professor Freedman's opening question "can we talk about Israel?" the answer is yes, but only if we agree to keep it factual and not based on Hamas and other anti-Israel propaganda.

Rabbi Professor Ari Zivotofsky is an alumnus of YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. He directed the Bar-Ilan University - Yeshiva University summer research program for 3 years and is a professor of neuroscience and chairman of the neuroscience program at Bar-Ilan University. 


Photo Credit: Israel Defense Forces / Wikimedia Commons

Photo Caption: An Israeli soldier stands guard in Shechem (Nablus)