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Karma Ben JohananJanuary 18, 2024
Israeli soldiers operate in the Gaza Strip amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, as seen in this handout picture released Jan. 16, 2024.  (OSV News photo/Israel Defense Forces handout via Reuters)

[Editor’s note: America is committed to publishing diverse views on the pressing issues of our time. For additional perspectives on the war in Gaza, read “‘We can live together’: A Palestinian doctor and political activist on Gaza, a ceasefire and the future of Israel-Palestine” and Gerard O’Connell’s interview with David Neuhaus, S.J. ]

I am an Israeli Jew who has studied Jewish-Catholic relations for many years. Through this work, I have had the opportunity to engage with many thoughtful Christians, including David Neuhaus, S.J., whom I consider a personal and even close friend. But reading a recent interview with Father Neuhaus published by America was a tormenting experience. I found Father Neuhaus’s approach to the situation in Israel-Palestine as well as toward Jewish-Christian dialogue to be problematic, to say the least.

The unease I felt while reading the interview had nothing to do with the legitimacy of criticizing Israel, a right that Father Neuhaus justly exercises. I share much of Father Neuhaus’s critical stance toward the Israeli government. Like most Israelis, especially after Oct. 7, I feel that the current Israeli government does not represent me, and I feel a responsibility to limit its authority both domestically and on the battlefield. This aim is shared by many institutions in Israel, from the Supreme Court to the police to the heads of the Israeli army.

The faith of the Israeli public in the government is so diminished that they successfully pressured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to include members of the opposition in his war cabinet. Right-wing extremists are not directing the war in Gaza. They spew vile rhetoric and still have too much destructive power, but the war is not in their hands.

Furthermore, I agree with Father Neuhaus that it is vital not to equate criticism of Israel with antisemitism. We should be very careful not to see antisemitism where it does not exist. However, I found Father Neuhaus’s critique of Israeli society extremely unfair, misleading and, I would even say, demonizing.

Reasons for military action

In response to America’s Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell, who asked Father Neuhaus about “Israel’s war of retaliation against Hamas for the Oct. 7 attack” (the answer seems to be embedded in the wording of the question), Father Neuhaus depicts Israeli society as motivated by a combination of “sorrow, rage and a desire for revenge.” He later adds to this boiling emotional soup a reenactment of “Jewish fears,” “historic traumas,” “mourning, loss and…trauma” and again “Jewish fears.” Blinded by their pain, Father Neuhaus’s Israeli Jews simply cannot see the other side: “There is no place left in the Israeli narrative for what might be happening in Gaza.” Israelis only bathe in their own victimhood and self-righteousness, giving themselves carte blanche to sow endless destruction in Gaza.

I found Father Neuhaus’s critique of Israeli society extremely unfair, misleading and, I would even say, demonizing.

But is that the case? Is this war all about intergenerational trauma and revenge, about some sort of a psychological breakdown in the Jewish-Israeli psyche—and nothing more?

Was Father Neuhaus unable to find or give voice to one rational reason that drove Israel to send her sons and daughters to kill and be killed, en masse, in a seemingly endless war? I am happy to provide a partial list of serious reasons for such actions, which do not seem to derive from the depths of our collective and agonizing soul but rather, from objective threats to Israeli lives.

What place is left for Iran, the Houthis, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah—armed actors bent on the destruction of Israel—in Father Neuhaus’s narrative? Where are the hundreds of missiles that have been launched from Gaza and Lebanon into the cities of Israel daily since Oct. 7, sending millions of Israelis to shelters several times a day? Where are more than 100,000 Israelis who were uprooted from their homes in both the south and the north, filling the country with internally displaced people who cannot return to their homes before the immediate threat is taken away?

Where, in the interview, is there mention of the web of terror tunnels underneath Gaza, tunnels that cannot be destroyed without causing grave damage to the upper city? Why is there no reference to the fact that Hamas seizes aid trucks entering Gaza? And most importantly, why is Hamas’s strategy of storing its weapons beneath hospitals and schools, of hiding within the civilian population, making it impossible for Israelis to differentiate between soldiers and civilians, presented by Father Neuhaus as merely empty rhetoric?

Is it possible that fair observers believe that the Israeli thirst for blood is so unquenchable that we would choose to wage war in such circumstances simply for revenge? Certainly, “friends can disagree,” as Father Neuhaus says. Yet are we supposed to embrace such views of ourselves as “disagreements” among friends of goodwill?

Honestly, I find it difficult to judge the morality of this war. The painful truth is that I don’t know all that is happening. This is not because of the “exploitation of [my] emotional state by the media,” as Father Neuhaus suggests, since I believe that the channels Father Neuhaus watches are not lacking in distortion and ideology themselves. Neither I nor Father Neuhaus has enough information to seriously evaluate the current threat that Hamas and its allies pose to Israel, nor to understand the way this threat is intricately linked with the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Perpetrators or victims?

My stomach turns when thinking about the scope of the hunger experienced by Gazan civilians. It keeps me up at night. It is truly hard to breathe. Indeed, my own “Jewish fears” and “historic traumas” worsen this stomachache—I feel that my Jewish and human integrity is at stake in the conduct and implications of this war. But I also realize for the first time the gravity of the threat posed to Israel. As Father Neuhaus noted, what we learned on Oct. 7 is that Israel cannot guarantee the safety of its citizens, and that it is fragile, certainly more fragile than it has been for decades.

At the moment, Israel is in a monstrous moral trap, caught between the rock of being a victim and the hard place of being a perpetrator.

At the moment, Israel is in a monstrous moral trap, caught between the rock of being a victim and the hard place of being a perpetrator. Hamas not only threatens it militarily but also poses a horrific moral threat by forcing Israel to fight amid the civilian population of Gaza. Does Israel rise to the moral challenge? I honestly don’t know. I hope so. I know that preventing civilian death is always a major consideration for the Israel Defense Forces. Is this enough? I am not sure. When we are speaking about human lives, it is simply never enough.

Many of my friends, Jews and non-Jews alike, in Israel and abroad, from the right and from the left, are, however, much more certain than I am about how all this should be handled. As for me, I am eaten by doubts, trying to reason my way out of this impasse. What I do believe is that some moral and intellectual modesty will not hurt any of us, including my friend, Father Neuhaus, in evaluating the complexity of the situation.

Jewish lives and the fate of Israel

Before concluding, I would like to say something about two distinctions that Father Neuhaus makes in his interview. First, there is the distinction between antisemitism and the critique of Israel. No state should be immune to critique, just like no human is immune to sin. We Israelis must do everything we can to learn from our critics, and retreating to the word “antisemitism” rarely helps us in doing so. Yet viewing Israel’s population, motivations and history in such a one-sided manner, as I believe Father Neuhaus is doing, is outright unfair, regardless of the question of whether this is antisemitic or not. Unfortunately, this one-sidedness can be—and often is—abused to justify antisemitism. Someone who is sincerely bothered by antisemitism cannot simply dismiss this fact as irrelevant.

Second, though I agree that “a distinction must be made between the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” as Father Neuhaus says, it is also important to remember that Israel is the only Jewish state in the world and that half of the Jewish people live there. At this point, the state of Israel is not a voluntary exercise that we Jews can simply set aside and move on to another political organization.

The Jewish fate today is tied to the fate of Israel. Israel’s destiny affects each and every one of us, regardless of our political inclinations. It would be misleading, even dangerous, to disregard these facts. A decent critique would therefore acknowledge not only the differences between Israel and the Jewish people but also be nuanced enough to acknowledge the existential bond between the two. Yes, these facts make things messier for everyone and complicate our ability to make clear-cut moral judgments. This does not make them less true.

Israelis, like all peoples, are both fragile and sinful, both victims and perpetrators, both reasonable and emotional. Like the citizens of other nations, they make terrible mistakes and are capable of horrible things, and they need their friends to tell them so and to help them get back on the right track. But these friends will usually try to see them as complex and intelligent people who can think for themselves and whose motives are multi-dimensional, not flat. They will usually understand the existential complexity in the situation of their counterparts and then offer advice, even critical advice, rather than paternalistically explain away their friends’ actions as driven by paranoid tantrums of wounded animals or brainwashed masses. This sort of advice is what we are still hoping to receive from our Catholic friends.

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