Palestinian News & Information Agency (Wafa) in contract with APAimages, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

A “Moral War” in Gaza Has Always Been a Fantasy

Photo by Naaman Omar, Palestinian News & Information Agency (Wafa) in contract with APAimages, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

by Aron Wander

In the first weeks of Israel’s retaliation in Gaza against Hamas’ brutal massacre on October 7th, as the death toll in Gaza quickly mounted, many American Jews found themselves caught between conflicting impulses: the desire for the safety of Israeli citizens, particularly those in the areas Hamas had attacked, and concern for Palestinian civilians living in Gaza suffering from Israeli bombardment. A number of American Jewish rabbis, organization heads, and intellectuals were quick to offer a solution to this Gordian knot: supporting an “ethical” Israeli campaign. As one op-ed put it, “[Israel’s] supporters have two responsibilities: to support Israel’s fighting of this war, and to use our voices responsibly in insisting that it fight it ethically.” 

Even at the time, the idea was willfully naïve at best. Israel had already shut off food, electricity, and water to the Strip and had initiated a massive bombing campaign, described by an IDF spokesperson as focused on “damage and not on accuracy” and characterized by B’Tselem, Israel’s leading human rights organization, as a war crime

Those arguing for a “moral war” weren’t just in denial about the present; they were also in denial about the past. Another op-ed insisted, “The best we can hope is that the Jewish state will prosecute this war as it has prosecuted others, and make the best imperfect decisions based on the information it has.” But Israel’s past actions should have provided little hope that it would conduct this campaign morally. B’Tselem and other Israeli human rights organizations have meticulously documented Israel’s disregard for Palestinian civilians in its previous operations in Gaza, and Israel has maintained a punishing blockade of the Strip for nearly two decades. And in the West Bank, Israel has entrenched a system of domination classified by B’Tselem as apartheid

On top of that, Israel is, of course, being led by Netanyahu, who has done everything he can to undermine the possibility of a two-state solution and deepen the occupation (including empowering Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority), and a coalition of far-right ideologues. Why would anyone imagine that now of all times, in the wake of the deadliest attack against Israeli civilians ever, a far-right Israel would suddenly begin conducting itself morally in Gaza?

None of these facts justify Hamas’ horrific murder of 1,200 Israelis (as well as Palestinians and foreign nationals); its kidnapping, wounding, torture, and rape of many more; or its rocket attacks against civilians. Those who excuse or – shockingly – endorse such actions have lost their own moral compass. But neither do Hamas’ crimes, nor even its own apparent disregard for Gazans, justify Israel’s ruthless destruction of Gaza. 

Now, four months into Israel’s operations, any illusions about the morality of Israel’s conduct in this war should have been shattered. The IDF has dramatically relaxed its rules of aerial engagement, and as of the end of January had killed nearly 28,000 Palestinians in Gaza (the majority of whom have been women and children). It has dropped bombs and killed civilians at a rate nearly unseen in the 21st century, destroyed at least half of the buildings in Gaza, and displaced nearly two million people. Gaza is in a state of full humanitarian collapse, with starvation and disease running rampant. And in the West Bank, settlers, often supported or ignored by the IDF, are forcibly evicting Palestinian communities. 

A range of ministers are openly advocating for transferring Palestinians out of Gaza, inciting violence, and advocating for reestablishing settlements in Gaza, and the most “liberal” proposal being floated is indefinitely reoccupying the strip. Netanyahu, for his part, has reiterated his opposition to any future two-state solution. Why would anyone seriously believe that a government that expressly intends to either indefinitely dominate or permanently displace Palestinians would act morally towards them in the midst of war? 

Unfortunately, support for violence against Palestinians and ethnic cleansing is not limited to politicians or to the far-right. One recent poll showed that the vast majority of Israeli Jews – even among those who vote for the largest opposition parties – support “encouraging voluntary emigration” (a striking euphemism given that those leaving their homes are being “encouraged” by the threat of bombardment); another indicated that roughly half support reestablishing settlements. One of the most popular songs in Israel right now is an ode to revenge and bloodlust. Individual Israelis who have spoken out against the war have been threatened by violent mobs, and soldiers across the IDF have been documented advocating violence and for reestablishing settlements in Gaza. 

But in spite of Israel’s indiscriminate destruction of Gaza and its increasing calls for “voluntary emigration,” few of those American Jews who called for a “moral war” have voiced much moral concern. In fact, a number of them have doubled down on their support for the war. But if the degree of destruction in Gaza and Israel’s open discussion of full-blown ethnic cleansing do not demand serous critique, what are the limits beyond which these leaders will weigh in? 

Ultimately, calls to support a theoretical “moral war” without acknowledging the immorality with which that war is actually being fought – by a far-right government, with the willful disregard of tremendous civilian casualties, with growing calls for ethnic cleansing, and while settlers freely rampage through the West Bank – simply serve to whitewash war crimes. 

I would like to believe that those calling for a “moral war” do, in fact, care about the lives of Palestinian civilians, but their refusal to admit that Israel is fighting unethically undermine that commitment. This failure is not only hypocritical but also dangerous. Many American Jews take their cues from communal leaders, and the silence of those leaders is lulling those Jews into believing that Israel’s actions have not crossed any significant moral thresholds. Without a lucid and honest appraisal of Israel’s actions by those leaders, individual American Jews will accordingly remain silent. 

American policy on Israel/Palestine is decided by a range of factors, of which American Jewish communal political efforts is only one. But it would be foolish to pretend that the American Jewish community’s voice does not carry significant weight in setting American policy on Israel. Though some progressive and liberal Jewish groups have called for a ceasefire and for US pressure on Israel to protect Palestinian civilians, significant numbers of American Jews continue to oppose concluding the war. But if their leaders were more honest with them about the horrific costs of the campaign, perhaps they might reconsider their positions. 

While Palestinians will continue to bear the brunt of those costs, Israelis, too, will suffer from a protracted, brutal campaign. More than 200 Israeli soldiers, from teenagers to older reservists with families, have died in Gaza. Dozens, if not hundreds, more will die, as the war continues, as will the remaining hostages languishing in Hamas’ hands. Though Israel continues to insist on its goal of eliminating Hamas, the devastation in Gaza will only sow the seeds of future violence and vengeance. Only a ceasefire, release of the hostages, and long-term efforts towards a framework in which both Palestinians and Israelis have freedom and dignity will ensure either people’s safety. 

So, I ask those so-called American Jewish leaders: will you finally uphold the ethical standards you prescribed? Now that Israel is clearly waging a blatantly unethical campaign, will you loudly and clearly demand that it stop? Will you vociferously oppose Israel’s proposed population transfer of Palestinians before it happens, or will you merely bemoan it once it is already a fait accompli? Will you continue to lull American Jews into a false belief that Israel’s destruction of Gaza is somehow legitimate, or will you finally take the moral responsibility that your positions demand? 

Aron Wander is an activist, writer, and rabbinical student living in Jerusalem. His writing can be found at 

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