When will it ever end


I want to start today with the wonderful news that Nathan Thrall received a Pulitzer Prize for his book A Day in the Life of Abed Salama.  I wrote about the book in a blog I posted not long after the start of the Gaza War. To refresh your memory, Thrall examines the many ways, small and large, in which the lives of Palestinians living in Israel are constrained, demeaned and oppressed by the laws and regulations that the Israeli government has woven around them. We see all of this through the lens of a school bus accident in which Abed Salama’s young son dies. The accident itself and its tragic aftermath reflect the challenges faced by Palestinians in Israel as they seek to live in dignity and safety.

What’s particularly gratifying about the recognition by the Pulitzer Prize Committee is that the timing of its publication and of Thrall’s US book tour coincided with the start of the Gaza War resulted in the cancelation of some of the scheduled stops on the tour.  In addition, many people to whom we recommended the book said that the events of October 7th made a sympathetic treatment of the plight of the Palestinians difficult to confront just then. Perhaps the combination of the Pulitzer imprimatur and the growing sympathy for the catastrophe of the countless deaths of innocent Palestinians in Gaza will give the book a second life among previously reluctant readers. I hope there’s a paperback edition in the offing to attract the large number of readers for whom it should be a must.

I didn’t know that this is what I was going to be writing about today, but Nathan’s book, as well as a triangulation — maybe even a quadrangulation, if there is such a word — has brought me back to the all-consuming issue of the war, so let me enumerate.

1. A friend forwarded a letter from her son about the war. I’m part of a team of people who participated in his baby naming ceremonyand bar mitzvah, but he’s now old enough to be living on his own in NYC, attending college. After participating in a birthright trip to Israel a year or so ago, he spent some time in Berlin, confronting the ordeal of his Holocaust-surviving grandmother.

Just as he was deepening his understanding of his Jewish identity, here came the war. Like so many of his age mates, he is horrified by the monstrous loss of life in Gaza, in reaction to the atrocities of October 7th. In Trumpian caps, used for a far more noble purpose he proclaims, “IN WHAT FUCKING WORLD IS THIS STILL SELF-DEFENSE?” and, repeatedly, “A HUMAN LIFE IS A HUMAN LIFE.”  He joins people of his generation who do not want to be on the wrong side of history. In that way, I can identify with his reactions through my own Holocaust-driven decision to go to Mississippi and not be a bystander in the face of oppression.

2. Then there’s the rise — and fall — of the many pro-Palestinian college encampments. Whenwe visited the one on the University of Chicago campus last week, we saw a scruffy, but vibrant pop-up village, manned and womaned by idealistic young people who feel, justifiably, that they too are acting on the right side of history.  We didn’t see evidence of antisemitism, unless you see any attack on Israel as driven by antisemitism. The participants may not have a full understanding of the complexity of the situation they are protesting or sufficient compassion for the Israeli victims of terror, but they have found the cause of their generation which they can pursue with youthful idealism.

And then the walls came tumbling down. The University, under cover of 4AM darkness, dispatched the University police to dismantle the encampment on the flimsy grounds that it presented a threat to the safety of the community and a disruption to the business of the University, thereby justifying overriding its much-praised commitment to free speech. Chalk up another generational betrayal.

3. Some friends whom we love and respect made a contribution in our name to a group called The Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA) and invited us to a Zoom session with the organization’s director, Halie Soifer, which we attended last night. JDCA’s mission is to turn out the Jewish vote, particularly in battleground states, knowing that the vast majority of them will vote Democratic. Evidence from previous elections indicate that their efforts have helped determine the outcome of a number of close elections. There is much in what they stand for that we support whole-heartedly. We believe that President Biden deserves reelection for his many progressive policies – on abortion, the cancelation of many sources of college debt, his positions on climate change and, above all, standing against the existential threat to democracy that is posed by Donald Trump’s return to office.

However, our positions on Israel are not fully aligned. The organization’s support of Biden’s position on aid to Israel does not speak with sufficient force in opposition to the atrocities Israel is perpetrating against the innocent victims of Gaza that has made Israel a pariah state and alienated large segments of U.S. voters, thereby threatening Biden’s own reelection efforts. President Biden’s perilous position bears striking resemblances to that of President Lyndon Johnson, whose strong domestic policies crashed on the rocks of his support for the Vietnam War. He was quoted as saying, “The poverty program was my bride, but that bitch Viet Nam stole her from me.”

We used to see bumper stickers which offered this wise counsel: “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” So far, Biden’s words of admonition have not been backed by concrete consequences, rendering them toothless. Support for Israel does not have to be synonymous with support for the actions of the current fascist-leaning coalition, led by a prime minister devoted to preserving his power regardless of cost to friends and adversaries alike.

4. Finally, related to the previous point, there is Rafah, where a limited invasion has begun. It may be a bluff to enhance Israel’s bargaining position in the cease fire negotiations, but it risks a huge increase in the deaths of innocents. Where is that proverbial red line beyond which Biden and the U.S. must not follow the current Israeli government and its leader? Biden’s actions will surely evoke a strong negative reaction from groups that demand unqualified support for Israel, right or wrong, but it can be a first step toward winning back international respect, regaining some support from voting groups that have abandoned the president and, most important, saving the lives of thousands of innocent men, women and children.

The situation changes daily and there’s no telling how outdated these words will be by the time they reach you but one thing is certain: there have to be bolder, more courageous steps toward peace than we’ve seen so far. Where will they come from?

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Marv Hoffman

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