Why I did not 'rally for Israel'

Operation Cast Lead is not merely misguided militarily; it is misguided morally

By Jonathan Freedland, January 14, 2009

It was a strange weekend. Saturday saw a demonstration against Israel’s military action in Gaza. Of course I was not there. I could never stand with those who oppose not just Operation Cast Lead but Israel itself, those who carry banners linking the Star of David to the swastika.

As a believer in Israel, someone who wants desperately to see that country flourish, that could clearly never be my place.

So would I be at the Sunday solidarity rally, standing in support of Israel? Well, no, I could not stand there either.

I know many went along simply to stand up and be counted as Jews. I know, too, that the official slogan of the demo called for nothing more controversial than “Peace for the people of Israel and Gaza.” Most of the speeches were careful to refer to the needs of Gaza’s people. But demonstrations are a blunt instrument: the message Sunday’s couldn’t help but send was support for the current Israeli mission in Gaza.

Indeed, our key communal organisations presented this as the unified, collective view of British Jewry. The JC’s front page declared: “Anglo-Jewry finds its voice.”

But that was not quite right. On Sunday morning, the Observer carried a letter from leading Jews sharply criticising Operation Cast Lead. The signatories were not the usual suspects; they could not be dismissed as marginal or, heaven forbid, “self-hating” Jews.

They included the leaders of Liberal and Reform Judaism in Britain, along with the pre-eminent British scholar of Jewish history, David Cesarani, and the architect of Holocaust Memorial Day, Michael Mitzman. Baroness Julia Neuberger was there, as was that indefatigable fighter against antisemitism, Shalom Lappin.

They declared themselves to be “profound and passionate supporters of Israel”. But they warned that Cast Lead “could strengthen extremists, destabilise the region and… threaten to undermine international support for Israel”.

Theirs is a welcome intervention. They confirmed that you do not have to stand with either the pro-Israel hawks or the anti-Zionist left. There is a space in between, filled by Jews who wrestle daily with doubt and anxiety. These Jews continue to love Israel, but they fear Cast Lead is at best futile and at worst bound ultimately to hurt Israel much more than it helps Israel.

I stand with them. I cannot nod when people declare that, “we must crush Hamas”. Because I fear that, no matter how repulsive we find Hamas’s charter and its tactics, it is not some alien implant into Gaza. It is rooted in that society.

If Israel kills one Hamas fighter, three more will rise up to take his place. It is less an organisation than an idea. Movements such as that cannot be crushed by force. There is never a military solution.

So I oppose Operation Cast Lead because I think it can never succeed in any way that lasts. Even after three weeks of massive aerial bombardment, the Hamas rockets have not stopped.

But the futility of Cast Lead is not the only reason to oppose it. There is a moral dimension and I fear we are not seeing it. Indeed, to flick through the JC last week was to witness a strange inversion. A visitor from Mars, seeing the ads from various organisations, would have assumed that Israel had come under massive aerial bombardment from the F16s of the Palestinian Air Force — not the other way around. Each ad cast Israel and Israelis as the true victims of Operation Cast Lead; it was “our soldiers” in the IDF who needed care packages to help them through the ordeal.

This is upside down. As I write, more than 900 Palestinians lie dead, nearly a third of them children. Israel has lost 13 lives, ten of them soldiers.

We can keep telling ourselves that the Gazan dead are dead not because Israel killed them, but because Hamas “hide” among civilians, and because Hamas goaded Israel into action. But this is to run from our responsibilities.

We have to own up to what is ours. And that means accepting that those dead children were killed not by Hamas but Israel. Wrapping ourselves in the cosy cloak of victimhood is beneath us — and it denies the reality of what Israel is doing.

Yes, I know the speakers at Sunday’s rally insisted their hearts went out to both Israelis and Gazans. But we should ask ourselves how deep that sentiment runs, or whether it is in fact lip service.

I have heard too many Israelis and British Jews argue that, in effect, the Palestinians brought this on themselves when they voted for Hamas in 2006.

What, even the traffic cop who simply needed a job and now lies dead? Even the children?

Yes, Jews have the right to defend themselves. But there is something else at stake here, too: it is a community, perhaps even a people, in danger of losing its moral compass.

Last updated: 4:19pm, January 14 2009


Lenny K

Fri, 01/16/2009 - 09:30

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It should surprise no one that Jonathan Freedland parrots the poisonous piety that his paymasters at the Guardian pen. Where was their moral compass when some years ago they questioned the legitimacy of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state? And where was Freedland’s moral compass at the time? Did anyone hear him howling?

Whilst ululating the moral superiority of some illustrious (largely liberal) British Jews who are “profound and passionate supporters of Israel”, may I quickly remind him that a Ha’aretz-Dialog poll yesterday, shows overwhelming public support in Israel for the Gaza war. 82 percent there believes that Israel has not "gone too far" with the military force it is exercising against Hamas. Less than 10 percent see the operation as a "failure." (http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1055564.html ) Does this tell us something?

The reason for these astonishing statistics (contrary to what Freedland would have us believe) is that Israelis do possess a moral clarity in this war. They know why they are fighting for their lives. They know that Hamas specifically places launch pads in and around the homes of its own people. They know that the IDF abandons the element of surprise, by warning enemy noncombatants before they advance or attack. They know that Hamas hopes wayward Israeli bombs will kill large numbers of Palestinians (for which Freeland, et al, blame Israel). They know that the IDF is dedicated to saving as many lives (on both sides) as possible. They know that Hamas is dedicated to causing as much civilian suffering (on both sides) as possible.

Freedland is long on moralizing but conspicuously short on solutions, other than opining that Israel cannot win this war - not about occupation mind you, nor settlers, nor military control - but about its very existence.

He did not stand shoulder to shoulder with the Jews in Trafalgar Square last Sunday. He may have been reading the Observer for all I know. Someone should tell him that he wasn’t missed. At all.


Fri, 01/16/2009 - 13:15

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I draw you attention to A. B. Yehoshua in Haaretz, writing to the paper's "liberal conscience", Gideon Levy.

"The doleful thought sometimes crosses my mind that it is not the children of Gaza or of Israel that you are pining for, but only for your own private conscience. Because if you are truly concerned about the death of our children and theirs, you would understand the present war - not in order to uproot Hamas from Gaza but to induce its followers to understand, and regrettably in the only way they understand in the meantime, that they must stop the firing unilaterally, stop hoarding missiles for a bitter and hopeless war to destroy Israel, and above all for the sake of their children in the future, so they will not die in another pointless adventure. "


Fri, 01/16/2009 - 16:38

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Thankyou for your bravery, humanity, sanity and honesty.

To other Jews who read the JC, I ask you to consider what the exercise of civilisation and humanity is before you hit out.

I have received death threats, been silenced, hit, barred from public meetings called by Jewish organisations, spat at, screamed at, by fellow Jews for speaking the same thoughts as these, in the same reasonable manner.

It should not require bravery for a Jew to speak freely among Jews, but it is a prerequisite to listen to ones conscience and to act out of humanity.


Fri, 01/16/2009 - 17:33

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I believe that “with great power comes great responsibility” and you have the power of the pen – of being a published opinion setter. You
are reaching a wide audience in the Jewish community through the JC and the wider English community through the Guardian. To be honest I
think you are the one who should consider the validity of your support of the Israeli state. Perhaps you really would like this nuisance to stop existing so that you would feel more at ease with your 'moral' Guardian friends.

Of course it is much easier to condemn Israel for the killing of innocence children – you feel much better with yourself. But while you are worried about the morality of Israeli society – did you ever stop and think about why there is so little disagreement with operation Cast Lead? Is it really so much easier to believe that there are no more caring Israelis than to realise that there was no other option? We only wish there was an alternative. Let me lift a quote from Golda Meir used by Jeremy Leigh "we can forgive the Arabs
for killing our children but we cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they'll love their children more than they hate us". This is not a
lip service sentiment. It is shared by all Israelis.

Instead of criticising Israel perhaps you should start pointing your finger to Hamas and put some pressure on them to start realising that Israel is not going to go anywhere, and start behaving like
responsible leaders – which you claim they are. To start thinking of the future of their children and concentrate on building a nation instead of busying themselves with destroying one (I believe your memory is long enough to remember how they butchered Fatah supporters in Gaza just a short while ago because they where willing to start negotiating). I can’t remember the world media putting any pressure on them then.


Fri, 01/16/2009 - 19:01

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I have heard that Hamas has a list of world prominent Jews that they are targeting. I would imagine that you are on that list as you appear on the top 100 UK Jews as published in the JC.
I think that your column is a plea to Hamas not to target you as you are not like other Jews and do not stand with by Israel in its time of trouble.

Jonathan, let me tell you this type of appeasement did not work on the Nazis during the Shoah nor will it work on Hamas.

If you so feel so strongly that Israel is morally bankrupt then why do you continue to send your children to a Zionist school.

As a citizen of Israel I am going to write to my government and ask that they amend the law of return and exclude you and other Israel bashing Jews from this right.

jose (not verified)

Fri, 01/16/2009 - 20:59

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Unfortunately Mr Freedland, there has never been any moral compass in war. I would like nevertheless my fellow Jews to be morally better than others, even in wars. That is not always easy.

At this time, Israel has the only Army that warn the other side of when and where they will strike, to avoid casualties. IDF has published videos showing how pilots deactivate an already-sent rocket or divert it to a place free of civilians so as to avoid unwanted casualties.
Maybe NATO will want to try that in Afghanistan for a change?

Now, death toll in Gaza is very high. In fact destroying totally a square of 100 yards in this city would kill more than 1,000 people (based on average density inside the city). Some will say they can do better. But they never tried.

Mike Malkovitch

Fri, 01/16/2009 - 23:36

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LennyK gets it right when he skights you for not standing shoulder to shoulder with the Jews in their time of need. Just because you disagree with the the overwhelming majority of your people worldwide, does this mean you cannot stand up and be counted?

Promulgate your ideas and your differences yes, but you shame yourself and your people when you hide behind empty rhetoric and offer no practical solutions about how to eradicate a force that is bent on eradicating you Mr Freedman. let me remind you of what (presumably) one of your icons Amoz Oz, said at the outbreak of the war. I quote:

"The systematic bombing of the citizens in Israel's towns and cities is a war crime and a crime against humanity. The State of Israel must defend its citizens. It is obvious to everyone that the Israeli government does not wish to enter Gaza; the government would rather continue the ceasefire that Hamas violated and finally revoked. But the suffering of the citizens surrounding Gaza cannot go on".

Clearly he is morally bankrupt!


Fri, 01/16/2009 - 23:54

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Exactly who made you the moral authority? Please preface your opinion with "..in my humble opinion" when you state baldy "misguided morally".
And, in any case, history proves you wrong. Ideas can be changed by might. That's why we have a Judaeo-Christian world in the West and a Muslim world in the Middle East.
I concur with all contributors here that point out your immaturity regarding things real. But then, you work for the Guardian!
And, I apologise if my comment isn't intellectually as cutting as many others here with which I agree..I'm just a simple realist and I say simply that in my opinion (not so humble) you are dead wrong mate!


Sat, 01/17/2009 - 12:24

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Perhaps Mr Freedland's articles could be replaced with a rubber stamp proclaiming "Why oh why can't we all just get along?", since his naive, platitudinous and Utopian views distill to little more than that.

Jonathan Hoffman

Mon, 01/19/2009 - 10:28

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"our key communal organisations presented this as the unified, collective view of British Jewry"

What nonsense - they did no such thing.

Reminder: Jonathan Freedland supported Ken Livingstone for re-election for Mayor of London. The Ken Livingstone who told me three times that Israel should not have been created. The Ken Livingstone who knowingly lied that the previous Chief Rabbi (Lord Jakobovits of Blessed Memory) also said that Israel should not have been created.


What does Jonathan Freedland find objectionable about the message "Peace to the People of Israel and Gaza: No to Hamas terror?"

And while we are at it, perhaps Jonathan Freedland could tell us what he is doing about the antisemitism in Guardian: "Comment Is Free"?