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A Letter to American Jews: Support for Humanitarian Aid and Calls for a Ceasefire in Gaza are Jewish Values.

It has been almost two weeks since Hamas’ devastating attack on Israeli civilians and Israel’s subsequent aggressive military response in Gaza. The bombing and killing of thousands of civilians in Gaza along with Israel’s blockade of aid into Gaza are just the beginning of a horrific humanitarian crisis. Like many other American Jews, I watched the coverage of the October 7th Hamas attack with a pit in my stomach and pain in my heart. I never imagined in my lifetime that I would witness the largest killing of Jews in a single day since the Holocaust.

However, I have also felt immense mourning for Palestinians in Gaza who have been killed, injured, and displaced by Israel’s brutal retaliation. American Jews must hold space in our hearts for mourning the killing of Israelis and Palestinians. We should be advocating for humanitarian aid in Gaza and against the collective punishment of Palestinians. Just as Israelis are not the same as their government, we must understand that Palestinians are not the same as Hamas.

We should show support for our Palestinian siblings both in Gaza and here in the United States. There are many Jewish religious and legal reasons for advocating against Israel’s collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza. The Jewish concept of pikuach nefesh commands us to save lives that are in jeopardy. All life is precious, Jewish or not; a person must do everything in their power to save another’s life. Therefore, we are obligated to care deeply for human life and encourage “compassion, loving-kindness, and peace in the world,” (Mishneh Torah, 2:3). Living by pikuach nefesh means supporting a ceasefire of Israeli attacks in Gaza. Israel’s bombing of Gaza has already resulted in more than 3,500 civilian deaths and the displacement of over 1 million people.

President Biden has continued to show unconditional support for Israel with no critique of its continuous bombing of Gaza. The overwhelming majority of deaths in Gaza from Israeli airstrikes have been civilians not connected to the militant group Hamas. Although Biden touts his support for humanitarian aid in Gaza, he has strategically deflected blame from Israel, writing that the U.S. is in support of “eas[ing] the humanitarian consequences of Hamas’s attack.” In order to guarantee robust humanitarian relief in Gaza, it is imperative for the U.S. to hold Israel accountable for its violations of the laws of international armed conflict. American Jews can play a vital role in encouraging Biden and other U.S. officials to uphold international standards and ensure accountability from Israel. Recent protests in DC led by anti-occupation Jewish organizations are a clear example of the organizing power that American Jews have to vehemently oppose Israeli airstrikes in Gaza and the subsequent humanitarian crisis.

Palestinians search for survivors in Rafah, south of the Gaza Strip, on October 23, 2023
Palestinians search for survivors in Rafah, south of the Gaza Strip, on October 23, 2023. (Anas-Mohammed)

Yes, we can and should mourn the loss of Jewish life from Hamas’ attacks in Israel. But we cannot let our pain for the Jewish community turn into vengeance against the innocent. Palestinians in Gaza are suffering under constant airstrikes and a devastating blockade of water and other resources. Roughly half of Gaza’s population are children, many of whom have only known occupation and blockade. We must do everything in our power to protect the lives and prosperity of Palestinians. The Jerusalem Talmud says “Anybody who destroys a single life, it is counted as if they destroyed an entire world…nobody could say to another, my ancestor was greater than your ancestor,” (Sanhedrin, 4:9). There is a deeply ingrained value of equality in Judaism around which we should center our lives and activism.

We must envision a world of peace, justice, safety, and equality for all Palestinians and Israelis. American Jews must embody tikkun olam, repairing the world for all people, by vocally opposing U.S. support of Israeli military action against civilians in Gaza. American weapons and funding are involved in Israeli missile strikes in Gaza. We must use our voices and organizing power to pressure our representatives to oppose any increase in weapons sales and acknowledge U.S. culpability in the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. There have already been widespread demonstrations by American Jews calling for a ceasefire and criticizing Biden’s handling of the crisis in Israel and Gaza. I encourage fellow Jewish Americans to call their representatives in support of the House resolution calling for an immediate de-escalation and ceasefire in Israel and occupied Palestine.

Israel has imposed a total blockade on Gaza, cutting off vital resources for survival such as food, water, and electricity. Israel’s airstrikes and blockade have also crippled Gaza’s healthcare system, making humanitarian recovery efforts even more difficult. The Jewish practice of tzedakah, meaning “righteous behavior” and often paired with “justice,” is a religious obligation to generously give back to the world. Tzedakah includes putting aside money as mutual aid for communities both near and far. Humanitarian aid is a vital component of protecting Palestinian lives. As Jews, we must support all efforts of humanitarian assistance in Gaza in order to ensure a just treatment of Palestinian civilians. Not only should we be calling on our representatives and President Biden to support comprehensive humanitarian aid in Gaza, but we should also be donating our own money to international and Palestinian humanitarian aid organizations such as the International Red Cross and Palestine Children’s Relief Fund. Before and after this Shabbat, I encourage you to carry out tzedakah by putting aside money to donate to humanitarian efforts in Gaza.

Finally, we must look inward to our own local communities. We have already seen a rise in both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia across the U.S. in reaction to what is happening in the Middle East. Building community trust between American Jews and Palestinians is vital for mutual understanding and compassion. Respect and care for our Palestinian and Muslim neighbors can lay the groundwork for long-lasting community solidarity with mutual understanding. In order to truly save lives, repair the world, and give back to the world, we must begin with community-level commitment.

Working toward a just world includes valuing Palestinian lives, it includes opposing military action on civilians, it includes giving humanitarian aid. Today, let us say a Mourner’s Kaddish for the Palestinians and Israelis killed knowing that tomorrow we will fervently fight against collective punishment of Palestinians and for equitable humanitarian aid in Gaza.