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I have one question for the Right and the Left when it comes to Israel and Palestine.
As the Israel/Hamas war unfolds, there have been very simple demands made by the Left and the Right. Ceasefire now, says the Left. Support Israel and destroy Hamas, says the Right.
I have a similarly simple question to ask in response: What then? What comes after the guns are laid down, or Hamas is defeated?
As we’ll see, it’s very hard for the Left and the Right to credibly answer this question in a way that avoids even greater pain for Israelis and Palestinians. Let’s look at the Left first, and the Right second, and end, if you can believe this, with a delicate, quivering note of optimism.
1. What would happen after a ceasefire?
It is beyond doubt that the human cost of Israel’s war in Gaza is awful. As a rabbi, I cannot convey the agony I feel knowing that the Jewish state is killing thousands of innocent people, making refugees of perhaps a million. But I also am not going to turn a blind eye to this horror. I am listening to Palestinian voices, and seeing images from all sides of the conflict. I am not going to minimize the catastrophe.
But suppose a ceasefire were declared. Not a temporary one, or, as is now apparently unfolding, a delay in Israel’s planned invasion and siege — but a real cessation of Israeli military operations. What then?
First, Hamas will have “won” this round. That is simplistic and reductive, but it is also true. Hamas will have butchered, raped, kidnapped, and terrorized thousands of Israeli civilians, and gotten away with it. Yes, thousands of Palestinians also died, but Hamas’s leaders remained alive and lived to see another day. And they would soon rebuild their terrorist infrastructure, which seeks not only a free Palestine but the eradication of Israel as well.
This would be a profound moral failure: Hamas killed innocent civilians, Israel killed innocent civilians, but the actual guilty parties – the orchestrators of this terrorism – got off scot free. But it would also be a security failure. Hamas’ victory would encourage every terrorist and rejectionist group in the region, leading to the certainty of more terrorism and more violence. It would undermine everyone working for coexistence: peace workers on both sides, politicians in the Palestinian Authority who have sought coexistence, the Israeli Left, everyone. It would be a disaster.
Is there any other process that would bring Hamas to justice? No. They will never surrender, never agree to any international legal process. And no one in the West has the appetite for sending peacekeepers to the region. If Israel doesn’t destroy Hamas, no one and nothing else will.
And what of Gaza? Since no one has the appetite to send in peacekeepers, it would revert to Hamas control and we would be exactly where we were a month ago: a dangerous, malevolent, terrorist entity a few miles from Israel, holding two million Gazans hostage and using them as human shields so they can attack Israel and hide behind the innocent. This is not a free Palestine but a Palestine held hostage by a militant, genocidal band of religious fanatics.
But could a ceasefire offer a chance for peace, or at least negotiations? No. There is no plausible “peace process” with Hamas. Again, as clearly shown in their charter and in their actions, Hamas seeks, and pursues, the total annihilation of Israel, which would entail the mass murder of millions of Jews and an ethnic cleansing unlike any the world has ever seen. That is their stated goal, and they have demonstrated ample fealty to it in the last two weeks.
2. The Left’s Endgame
That’s the problem with the far Left’s calls for ceasefire, and why they ring false to many Jews: much of endgame is similar. Ultimately, the anti-Zionist left shares the goal of eradicating the State of Israel, though presumably by other means than Hamas’, and its replacement by some utopian dream of “one state for all its citizens,” which Hamas calls “Palestine from the river to the sea.”
But what, exactly, is to be the process of the dismantling of the State of Israel, since a large majority of its citizens do not want it? How are its seven million Jews meant to under the rule of Palestinians (around 5.5 million in the West Bank and Gaza and two million in current Israel) who justifiably carry a century of resentment toward them and have a different language, religion, culture, and history? Since most Israelis will never agree to their own national suicide, Israel would have to be forced at gunpoint to accept it. The one-state utopia is either fantasy or genocide.
It is also antisemitic in principle to say that Jews should be the one people in the world that have no state or even regional authority to defend themselves. Perhaps all nationalism is bad and all such nations should be eradicated, I have heard some on the Left say. Okay, but if so, let’s deconstruct stronger nations first. Return America to its indigenous peoples, decolonize Tibet and Catalonia, and then we can turn to the small nation that has been persecuted for 2,000 years and is surrounded by neighbors who loathe it.
To be sure, there is a great deal of space between the current Israel and a one-state utopia. The Israeli Left has justly opposed right-wing Israeli policies for twenty five years, from discriminatory housing policies to the proposed judicial ‘reforms,’ anti-Arab racism to inequalities in infrastructure, education, and economic opportunity. Like millions of Israelis, I want significant, even radical, changes in the state of Israel. But that’s quite different from its eradication.
Until the Left comes up with a credible, non-genocidal endgame, its seemingly inoffensive calls for a ceasefire ring hollow. Because what happens next?
3. What happens after the war?
The Israeli Right has no more plausible path forward.
Suppose everyone stands with Israel, the siege of Gaza City takes place, and it is as successful as the siege of Mosul was six years ago. Hamas’s leaders are all dead, its organization is crippled.
More of the same. Revisionist Zionist and religious Zionist ideologues cannot tolerate a Palestinian state, which is why Netanyahu and his ilk have spent twenty years making its establishment impossible. (Yes, Palestine has declared itself an independent state, but it lacks many of the core capacities of a state, and is still subjugated by Israel.) So what then?
All the Right can offer is continued occupation and violence. And sometimes, they say this out loud. Benjamin Netanyahu’s late father Benzion Netanyahu wrote decades ago that the Arabs are a violent people that must be broken by Israeli might. They must see, the elder Netanyahu wrote, that there is no better alternative to living under our domination. Only then will there be peace: when they give in.
This is the dark, indeed genocidal philosophy underscoring revisionist Zionism in theory, and the settler enterprise in practice. It is a worldview of domination, at once morally evil and politically impossible. There can be no Palestinian state, the hard right insists, because they will always hate us. Therefore all possibilities of coexistence must be crushed.
That, I would submit, is as immoral a position as the anti-Zionist Left’s.
But it is also as untenable. Which is why, ironically, I have more hope for Israel at this dark hour than at any time in the last twenty years. Because the Israeli public now knows, deeply and painfully, the cost of such a policy.
Benjamin Netanyahu promised strength, safety, and security – and he failed to deliver it. This failure lies not only in short-term intelligence breakdowns that allowed Hamas’s attack to take place, but in the entire right-wing Zionist worldview that strength alone, not coexistence, is the path to security, that Israel can occupy and dominate its way to survival. That has failed as well.
And what remains? The same boring yet unavoidable solution that used to be the overwhelming consensus of diplomats and scholars alike: two states for two peoples. Coexistence. A just peace.
Such a peace felt close in 1993 when Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn. It was only a signature away in December 2000, before Arafat walked away from the negotiation table. But that was over twenty years ago – years dominated by Netanyahu and the Right, and coexistence may seem farther away now than ever before.
But when this horrible war is over, there may be a new readiness for it. Israelis have tried Bibi’s way for twenty years. Now they see how it ends in blood. Domination cannot bring security. The Right is wrong militarily as well as morally.
There is, as always, only one path forward for Palestine and Israel: coexistence in two independent states. After Bibi is out of office and after Hamas is destroyed, there could be a new Israeli consensus for coexistence. There could be a return to negotiations and a commitment to a free state of Palestine. Israel could reverse course and support every Palestinian who seeks coexistence, from businessmen in Ramallah to peace-loving clergy in East Jerusalem. It could curtail the enrichment and incitement of Israeli rejectionists, who even this week are murdering innocent Palestinians in the West Bank. Israel’s center and left must run on the platform of peace again, because peace is the only way to security.
This is the only sustainable endgame. The true defeat of Hamas will only come when their worst nightmare comes true – when Jews and Palestinians live side by side in peace.
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I have been busy writing about Israel/Palestine. Here’s what I’ve been working on:
In the Forward, I wrote about why Israel’s war does not meet the legal criteria for “genocide” and why misusing that term is harmful to the cause of human rights. I also wrote about the Jewish law of war, which is ambivalent and problematic.
Your Muslim and Jewish friends are hurting right now. There have been hate crimes against both communities in America, we’re on edge, and we hate that our extended families are at war with one another. Thanks to everyone who has reached out to me, and I encourage you to check in with the people in your lives who may be taking all this harder than you know. - Jay