World / October 13, 2023

Jewish Grief Must Not Be Used as a Weapon of War

We are in mourning this week—but we cannot sit back while Israel uses our trauma as a reason to destroy Gaza.

Stefanie Fox
Palestinians carrying their belongings flee following the Israeli army's warning to leave their homes and move south before an expected ground offensive, in Gaza City on October 13, 2023.

Palestinians carrying their belongings flee following the Israeli army’s warning to leave their homes and move south before an expected ground offensive, in Gaza City on October 13, 2023.

(Mahmud Hams / AFP via Getty Images)

I am writing to you, members of my Jewish American community, with more urgency and fear than I have ever felt. I do not say this lightly. I say it knowing everything it means to our community and to the world: Right now, the Israeli government is building toward a genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.

This week so many of us are grieving in the wake of the massacres, the displacement, the kidnappings, and injuries, including so many Palestinian and Israeli children and civilians. Life is infinitely precious. Our bodies simply cannot cope with so much loss. Many of my loved ones are mourning friends and family. I ache with the anguish of so many families in the face of atrocious violence, massacre, unthinkable loss, and ongoing uncertainty.

It is in our tradition to sit shiva for seven days—to pause to reflect and to mourn. But I cannot sit back while Jewish grief and trauma is weaponized by the Israeli government to destroy Gaza. As I write this, Israel just announced that the 1.1 million Palestinians in northern Gaza—half of them children—will have 24 hours to flee, which the UN has already deemed impossible. The US government is beating the drums of war, rushing to send more weapons to the Israeli military to wreak utter devastation.

We do not need to choose between grieving and acting. As our forebears taught us, we must mourn the dead by fighting like hell for the living.

Make no mistake: The Israeli government is using genocidal rhetoric against Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu asserted: “What we will do to our enemies will reverberate for generations.” The Israeli minister of defense announced the complete and total closure of Gaza, saying, “No electricity, no food, no water, no fuel. Everything is closed. We are fighting human animals, and we act accordingly.” The Israeli president is refusing to distinguish between Palestinian civilians and Hamas fighters.

We as Jews know all too well how dangerous this rhetoric is, the way in which the unthinkable becomes acceptable when we deny people their humanity.

The United States government has coalesced to back the Israeli war machine. President Biden has already begun sending weapons and has promised more in the days to come. Members of Congress are rushing to declare their ironclad support for the Israeli government and cheering on Israel’s criminal declaration of war against a civilian population. The only Palestinian American member of Congress, Rashida Tlaib, is facing vitriol and hatred from her colleagues and the media.

Our only option is to move into action like millions of lives depend on it, because they do. Pick up your phone with me; call your representatives, and call them again an hour later. Organize protests. March. If they hear from us enough, our elected officials can be pushed to de-escalate the situation, not fuel violence by sending the Israeli military more weapons.

We have to act now because the war on Palestinians in Gaza is already underway. My dear friends are trying desperately to find generators to charge their phones so that they can say goodbye to their families, worried that they won’t make it through another night of the constant missiles leveling buildings, streets, and whole neighborhoods. Hospitals have stopped functioning. My friends are thirsty as they cradle their babies against the deafening shake of bombs, the drinking water is almost gone.

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One-third of the dead in Gaza are children. According to Human Rights Watch, Israel is using white phosphorus in Gaza and Lebanon. The chemical burns on contact, thermally and chemically, and down to the bone, as it is highly soluble in fat and therefore in human flesh. Its use in densely populated areas is a war crime.

A sitting member of the Knesset just said: “Right now, one goal: Nakba! A Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of 48.” Israeli leaders are promising an even greater catastrophe than at the founding of the state when Zionist militias violently expelled 750,000 Palestinians from their homes—tens of thousands of whom ended up displaced into Gaza, and their children and grandchildren are now running, again, from Israeli bombs.

We must remain committed to truth-telling as mainstream journalists opt to tell a singular story. Reality is shaped by when you start the clock. Palestinians have been living under the daily violence of Israeli occupation for the last 75 years. For the last 16 years, the Israeli government has suffocated Palestinians in Gaza under an air, sea, and land military blockade. Every night, the Israeli army raids Palestinian cities and villages, invading families’ homes and arresting their children.

Israeli apartheid—the systematic valuing of Jewish Israeli lives over Palestinians—is not only the root of this violence but also shapes the very way we are conditioned to understand it. Just consider the shortage of Palestinian voices in mainstream media as their homes are bombarded. At this moment, when so many Jews feel our worlds torn apart by violent death, consider how much pain and grief Palestinians are afforded as they hold their murdered infants. Our tradition teaches us b’tzelem elohim–we were all made in the image of the divine.

To point out Palestinian oppression is not, as so many commentators have alleged, to justify the unjustifiable killing of Israeli civilians by Hamas. It is simply another way of asking that we treat Palestinians with the empathy and decency that we ourselves long for, and to actually take the steps necessary to ensure the only real and lasting peace—the kind that will come with Palestinian freedom, justice, and equality.

It’s never been more important to do the hard work of talking with our people, with our parents, our siblings, our friends from synagogues, our rabbis. In the midst of our grief and pain, let’s remind each other who we are. We are people committed to tikkun olam, the repairing of the world. The Israeli government and US government are justifying massive atrocities, tearing this world further apart, and doing so in the names of us and our beloved families. When we say never again, it includes Palestinians, and it means right now.

Stefanie Fox

Stefanie Fox is executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace.

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