Uncategorized · February 12, 2024 1

Reflections on Gaza, Ceasefire, and Rabbi Heschel

Marty Levine

February 12, 2024

When the Chicago City Council finally passed its Ceasefire Resolution, making Chicago the largest city in the nation to stand on the right side of history I was ecstatic. It was a rare victory, and I savored it.

Getting to that point meant overcoming strong opposition. After it was first proposed back in November, it was hard to get the resolution referred to a committee for the required public hearing. It was hard to get it out of committee and on the City Council’s agenda. Even when it finally was before the City Council, on the last day of January, when it was impossible to not see the toll of Israel’s ongoing assault, opposition remained fierce, and the attacks on those who supported the call for a ceasefire continued even after its passage.

In the days since the Council‘s vote, I have thought about what separated me from those in the Jewish community who so strongly opposed even this symbolic call for the violence to end.  They and I approach the world from very different perspectives. And I wonder if that gap can ever be closed; I fear if it cannot, is there any hope that we can finally come to the end of the decades of violence that have been the way of life in that one small piece of land and for the two peoples who will have to share it.

In my world each human life has value. In my world, as a Jew who feels a historic tie to that place, the violence of October 7 was horrific and indefensible. At the same time, in my world, what happened on that day can only be seen in the context of the 17 years of Israel’s Gaza blockade and the longer context of Israel and Palestine over the last century.

On the other side of this divide are those who saw October 7th as a moment with a different context, a moment where Israel was facing an existential threat from a brutal, inhuman Hamas and there was no connection to anything that had come before.  Israel was given to the Jews by God and when the Jewish state of Israel was formed in 1948 it was just one more step in reclaiming that gift. Palestinians might be able to live there but they have no claim to the land, no right to demand a state there, and no excuse for their protests.

With some time to reflect on these last few difficult months, it is clear that defending Israel’s right to fight is more important to many supporters of Israel than the lives of Gazans and even the lives of Israeli hostages still in the hands of Hamas. Even for a community that knows the horrors of a holocaust  “last month’s decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that there is a plausible risk that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza…” did not cause much introspection or concern for the harm being done in their name.

I was focused on the pain and suffering of this war both on October 7th and over the more than 100 days that this Israeli “response” has played out.  I saw the numbers who were killed, wounded, and displaced as indicators to be followed; indicators that did not make a value distinction between those who were Israelis and those who were Gazans.  From my perspective, one act of wanton violence could not justify another.

But in the political clash that has roiled the American Jewish community and our nation, my approach became more and more controversial.

Right after October 7th, the Chicago City Council, at the request of the staunch pro-Israel Jewish Community passed a resolution that expressed support of Israel and its response to the attack it had just suffered:

WHEREAS, on October 7, 2023, terrorists launched a horrific assault on the State of Israel from Hamas-controlled Gaza, murdering hundreds of unarmed civilians, and kidnapping dozens more, including women, children, and the elderly…the assault came 50 years after the Yorn Kippur War-another heinous attack on Israel-and as Jews in Israel and the Diaspora celebrated the holidays of Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah…WHEREAS, Hamas terrorists crossed the border into Israel and began the wholesale slaughter of unarmed civilians throughout the south of Israel, killing at least 600 innocent people in 24 hours in what was likely the bloodiest day for world Jewry since the Holocaust…WHEREAS, the attack was shocking in its brutality and cruelty, seeing the murder and abduction of innocent babies while parents were gunned down in front of their children in a slaughter the scope of which has hardly been seen since the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001…

WHEREAS, Israel, like any other sovereign nation, has the right and the obligation to protect its citizens against terrorism and attack by hostile foreign powers; now, therefore,

BE IT RESOLVED, that we, the Members of the City Council of the City of Chicago, assembled this thirteenth day of October 2023, condemn this heinous terrorist attack by Hamas, stand in support of Israel, express our deepest sorrow for all innocent civilians, and pray for the safe release of all the hostages taken into Gaza.”

In the debate over this resolution, all attempts to include any larger context or concern about the fate of Gazans were voted down and ignored.

Even at that moment, all lives were not equal.

Over the days and weeks since then, I tracked the increasing toll of Israel’s response. Each life, each story of a family destroyed, every count of the portion of housing that had been destroyed, or the number of Gazans forced to move from one dangerous spot to another resonated painfully with me.

For those who said they stood with Israel, all of the pain we saw in Gaza seemed to be meaningless as long as the Israeli government said that it had not finished its war of destruction.

The attempt to ask the Chicago City Council to add its voice to the growing American chorus of voices saying it was time for the destruction of Gaza and of Gazans to end was met by an opposition that seemed not to care about those lives because they were not Israelis or Jews. The remaining hostages had an overarching value which, to them, justified every death in Gaza, every displacement, or every starving child.

Here’s the language of that Ceasefire Resolution, the resolution that was, as I discussed a few days ago, so difficult to get a vote on and so divisive in the debate before its final passage:

WHEREAS, the impacts of violence are particularly felt by our Palestinian and Jewish communities as the Chicagoland area is home to the largest Palestinian population in all of the United States and the 5th largest Jewish population in the world;


BE IT RESOLVED, that we, the members of the Chicago City Council, support the United Nations implementation of “Uniting for Peace,” which called an emergency session of the General Assembly which voted in favor of “immediate humanitarian cease fire” in Gaza; and

BE IT RESOLVED, that we, the Chicago City Council, do hereby call for a permanent ceasefire to end the ongoing violence in Gaza; call for humanitarian assistance including medicine, food, and water, to be sent into the impacted region; and the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages; and

BE IT RESOLVED, that we, the members of the Chicago City Council, call for the creation of plans to protect civilian populations in the region, in particular to support the needs of women, children, persons with disabilities, and the elderly…

In the days that followed, this resolution has been vilified because it does not support the Israeli government’s demands for victory. Mayor Brandon Johnson has been attacked by the Jewish Federation and its allies, including in a full-page ad in the Chicago Tribune.

No matter how many testimonies we see about how devastating the situation is in Gaza, like these seemed to have an impact.

Calling for a ceasefire, for Israel’s supporters, was a threat to their worldview.

Alderwoman Debra Silverstein, Chicago City Council’s only Jewish Alderperson, almost before the Mayor cast that deciding vote was ready to tell the world how wrong this action was as she explained on her Facebook page:

“We all want an end to the bloodshed, and we all want the protection of innocent civilians on both sides; however, the resolution that passed refused to condemn Hamas for the terrorist attack that saw 1,200 innocent Israelis murdered, 2,400 injured, and more than 240 kidnapped. It also failed to call on the international community to force Hamas to disarm and stop planning additional attacks. The resolution fundamentally contradicts U.S. policy on the conflict and threatens our nation’s efforts to broker a true and lasting peace.

I worked with the Jewish United Fund (JUF), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and a broad and diverse coalition of City Council members to recommend common sense changes to the resolution. Unfortunately, our efforts fell on deaf ears, and the resolution sponsors refused to compromise or collaborate.”

I don’t know how to transcend this divide.

These voices that claim they speak to defend the Jewish Community seem unwilling or unable to stand up for humanity when it clashes with the position of the state of Israel. They negate the value of the Palestinian lives lost because Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu does not care about those lives and will not support even a limited ceasefire, as seen from his comments last week as he rejected a deal for a ceasefire:

 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday that total victory in Gaza was within reach, rejecting the latest offer from Hamas for a ceasefire to ensure the return of hostages still held in the besieged enclave. Netanyahu renewed a pledge to destroy the Palestinian Islamist movement, saying there was no alternative for Israel but bringing about the collapse of Hamas. “The day after is the day after Hamas. All of Hamas,” he told a press conference, insisting that total victory against Hamas was the only solution to the Gaza war.

So, support of Israel’s government for many of my fellow Jews trumps all other human values. Even those who on October 6th were railing against that government’s attack on Israel’s court system, seem comfortable supporting it while it continues to devastate Gaza.

Just days ago I was in a Conservative Synagogue for a joyous service, filled with music and a delightfully engaged congregation. They focused on the lessons of our obligation to treat strangers well because we had once been slaves and the command to not treat one’s enemies in a war brutally. And then they proceeded to pray for the Israeli soldiers and the return of the hostages without even a small mention of the more than 10,000 children who had been killed, or those now homeless and starving.

I am stymied as to what will change my people’s hearts and minds, but I cannot join with those who refuse to see the Palestinians as human beings, just as they wish others to see themselves.

As I learned this morning from PeterBeinart, perhaps it is not my words but those of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a rabbi revered because he marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr in the fight for freedom in our country, that will sway these otherwise progressive voices. Rabbi Heschel saw the horrors taking place in Vietnam and could not remain silent, even though that was thousands of miles away being done for our benefit as Americans.

Here’s how his daughter described the impact of the horrors of Vietnam on her father:

“A journalist once asked my father why he had come to a demonstration against the war in Vietnam. “I am here because I cannot pray,” my father told him. Confused and a bit annoyed, the journalist asked him, “What do you mean, you can’t pray so you come to a demonstration against the war?” And my father replied, “Whenever I open the prayerbook, I see before me images of children burning from napalm.” Indeed, we forfeit the right to pray, my father said, if we are silent about the cruelties committed in our name by our government. In a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible. How dare we come before God with our prayers when we commit atrocities against the one image we have of the divine: human beings.”

Rabbi Heschel said that “no victory is worth the price of terror, which all parties commit in Vietnam, North and South. Remember the blood of the innocent cries forever. Should that blood stop to cry, humanity would cease to be.”

May those who have turned their heads and hearts away from Gaza stand silently behind Israel’s continued punishment of the 2.4 million people living there because Israel must crush Hamas think deeply. Perhaps that will make a difference.