The Long View of Palestine, Israel and War

Photograph Source: Alisdare Hickson – CC BY-SA 2.0

Mr. Herman arrived just before sunset on the first evening of the High Holy Days in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Jewish tradition considered him a learned man and his role was to assist the rabbi in prayer. Mr. Herman’s sad eyes made an impression on me as I got to know him. I was a ten-year-old kid in a small, tight-knit Jewish community in Rhode Island. He looked to be somewhere in his 40s, but in those years he had seen much. That sadness may have been connected to the Holocaust. He lived in Brooklyn, New York, and I only knew him for that briefest moment during that era.

One year in my relationship with Mr. Herman stands out. He told me that he had a gift for me and he would offer it at the end of the days of religious observance and that year was full of the kind of anticipation that only innocence can bring. The temple’s officers met hours after the formal end of the New Year and many members came and made contributions to pay for the services of the rabbi and Mr. Herman. Mr. Herman’s gift of a package of Life Savers surprised me because my paper route allowed me to indulge in all manner of sugared items to the glee of my dentist. I accepted the package of candy in the simplicity and generosity in which it was offered. It would be years later that I saw Mr. Herman’s gift as a true measure of generosity from a person who had few resources. All of these decades later, it was Mr. Herman’s kindness that remained in memory and his sadness. For readers who wish to place themselves in a real environment, the first stained-glass window where the bench Mr. Herman sat on was located at front right side of my photograph of our temple that appears on the cover of my mother Sylvia’s stories of the community in which I grew up (Tales of an American Shtetl, Sylvia Lisnoff, 2011).

Zionism existed decades before the founding of Israel in 1948. Zionism was tied to the Balfour Declaration (1917) that called for the establishment of a Jewish homeland far before the Nazi Holocaust. Zionism did not take on its most vicious cast until the end of World War II when the movement became much more than a resettlement program for Holocaust survivors. At the very heart of Zionism is the racist belief that Jews occupied a position of superiority that saw other peoples as subservient to the needs of a state that became increasingly militarized and less tolerant. There were few who differed from the assessment of Israel being ground zero in the Middle East, seen as a bulwark against the former Soviet Union and a part of the projection of US power. Oil was in the mix, but it wasn’t oil that made the husband of a cousin say: “The only good Arab is a dead one.” What had happened to the humanism that I had learned was part of Judaism even in its most secular iteration?

During and following the 1948 Palestine war about 700,000 Palestinians were driven off of their land. Over 500 Palestinian villages were destroyed by Zionist militias and then the Israeli army. The various occupations, embargoes, and wars placed exclamation points in Israel’s racist domination of the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009), and Operation Protective Edge (2014), were but the latest examples of Israeli brutality against the Palestinian people euphemistically called in Israel “mowing the lawn.”

The first premise of casting an enemy as a lesser human being is to dehumanize them. An example of how effective that strategy has been can be viewed in the YouTube video by journalist Abby Martin as she interviews the so-called man/woman on the street in Israel. “Empire Files: Israelis Speak Candidly to Abby Martin About Palestinians,”  (2017).

Several decades ago, I published an article in Rhode Island’s Jewish Herald Voice about Israel/Palestine. It seems as if the editor could not contain himself, as my commentary appeared beside a scathing critique of my points of view calling me, true to an ad hominem attack, “an angry man.” The point here, as with the West’s mass media treatment of the current war in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and in Israel, is that voices, except those on the streets protesting this hideously stilted war against the Palestinian people, must be silenced. The silencing of protest, now ineffective, was reflective of the silencing of dissent in the mass media of the US-backed war in Ukraine.

A few months ago I called a nearby synagogue to request a meeting with one of that temple’s rabbis about recurring antisemitic incidents in the town where I live in western Massachusetts. The rabbi never returned my call, but the person who answered my call said that I would have been interested in a recently completed lecture series by one of that temple’s rabbis about anti-Zionism. The current spate of attacks against so-called anti-Zionism cast critics of Zionism as antisemites.

The most important question now is whether or not the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank will have a homeland, equal rights in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, or will they have endless war? The West Bank is probably lost through its occupation by Israeli settlers and ongoing military operations there. Can what is left of the Palestinian presence in the West Bank be salvaged and linked to the Gaza Strip? The history of the last 75 years is not promising.

The headline in the Times of Israel (October 8, 2023) is telling: “For years, Netanyahu propped up Hamas. Now it’s blown up in our faces.” What about the 75 years of the removal, torment, and murder of the Palestinian people, including against defenseless women and children and the elderly? It’s as if there is no history before October 7, 2023, when Hamas launched its preemptive attack against Israel. Preemptive war is illegal. It’s as if thousands of years of what constitutes a just cause in war and a just war were never written. The Geneva Conventions include significant articles dealing with civilian populations in war and what constitutes collective punishment against an entire population, in this case the people of Palestine. The concept of proportionality in warfare was lost in Israel’s repeated attacks against the people living in Gaza. Targeting hospitals is forbidden and Israel doesn’t comprehend that violation of the laws of war. The freedom of an entire people was predicated on, and eliminated, because of the false needs of a security state. There are terrorists and inhumane acts that are the result of war, but diplomacy and justice demand that we as a species mitigate those outcomes as much as possible.

These are great days for weapons manufacturers and the Pentagon war planners!

If a Jew raises these issues in the contemporary setting of the war, then the libel and slander of antisemite and self-hating Jew will closely follow. The dogs and masters of war have even turned against the Jewish ideas of repairing the world and not doing to others what a person does not want done to them. It’s not antiwar Jews who need a huge mirror held above our collective selves, but the Zionists and warmongers who need that mirror handed over to them. Their ugliness and hate in that reflection and on the ground are apparent and blinding.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).