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Op-ed: We must move beyond zero-sum thinking in Israel-Palestine

By David Myers

Oct. 15, 2023 9:54 p.m.

This post was updated Oct. 16 at 1:50 p.m.

Our campus has been riven by sharply opposing perspectives on the unfolding disaster in Israel-Palestine. Recent gatherings by supporters of Israel and supporters of Palestinian liberation point to a chasm that will only widen and become ever more combustible.

Sadly, the current moment is not one in which the two sides can productively sit down and talk through their differences; emotions are too raw. At the same time, it is possible, in my view, to achieve a position of moral clarity that resists the zero-sum thinking all too common in debates over Israel-Palestine.

This stance of clarity rests on two propositions. First, the massacre of 1,300 Israelis by Hamas on Oct. 7 must be condemned by all people of conscience. One cannot equivocate about or explain away the staggering brutality of the murderers as they butchered infants and the elderly, women and men for hours on end.

Hamas’ killing frenzy calls to mind the unforgettable images offered by the great Hebrew poet, Hayyim Nahman Bialik, who wrote in the wake of the horrific – albeit far smaller – pogrom against Jews in the Russian city of Kishinev in 1903.

“Behold on tree, on stone, on fence, on mural clay / The spattered blood and dried brains of the dead,” wrote Bialik in his poem titled “The City of Slaughter.”

It taps into the darkest traumas of the Jews, especially during the Holocaust. If this kind of liberatory violence be a necessary ingredient in the project of decolonization – as argued by theorist Frantz Fanon – then that project lacks all moral validity.

Full stop. There can be no justification whatsoever for what took place last week – not decolonization, not Israel’s dehumanizing occupation, and not previous acts of violence by Israel toward Palestinians. Failure to condemn is a total abdication of ethical responsibility.

The second proposition is that it is incumbent on all people of conscience to insist that Israel prevent the already massive humanitarian disaster unfolding in Gaza from expanding further. It is neither reasonable nor legal to demand, as Israel has, that 1.1 million Palestinians leave their homes in northern Gaza immediately.

The Israeli human rights lawyer, Michael Sfard, has clearly stated that no amount of rage or righteous indignation over the massacre of Israelis can justify violations of international law by Israeli forces, beginning with the blockade of food, water and gas into Gaza last week.

Israel has the right and obligation to seek out those responsible for the massacre of its citizens. But it does not have the right to inflict widespread and disproportionate damage on Palestinian civilians in Gaza, especially children, who bear no connection to the murderers, nor to undertake a mass population displacement that invokes traumatic memories of the Nakba of 1948. To do so is knowingly to ignore international law and the very norms of decency that it claims to uphold.

We must demand of Israeli leaders and our own American government that Israel adhere to international legal principles for the protection of innocent civilians.

It is hard to avoid the tendency to assert one’s moral virtue versus another’s. But what happens if there is moral virtue on both sides, or conversely, if there is a grave moral failing in both episodes? To argue this does not require equating the scope or intent underlying the two events.

The massacre last Saturday was motivated by a bloodthirsty hatred that knew no bounds; and the scale of damage from Israel’s assault will affect millions of people, many more than those lost in the massacre.

Each of the two events will continue to drive impassioned activism on our campus, and understandably so. But now we need to find a place in campus debate for the position that acknowledges both the massacre and the humanitarian disaster in Gaza.

All too often, we insist on condemning the moral failing of the other but not ourselves. We desperately need an alternative. Might we dare to imagine the possibility of coming together as a community, mourning together, insisting on the dignity of all human life together and demanding peace together?

Such a convening, perhaps in the form of a vigil for peace, would not bring an end to the violence in Israel-Palestine. But it would allow us to affirm the fundamental teaching, found in both Jewish and Muslim sources, that to save one life is to save the world, and to destroy one life is to destroy the world. Even in the midst of our mourning, let us strive to find the better angels within us to see the humanity and suffering of the other.

David N. Myers is a Distinguished Professor of History and holds the Kahn Chair in Jewish History. He directs the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy and the UCLA Initiative to Study Hate.

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