Israel, Justice, Politics

Quiet – They’re Shooting: The Trouble with “Jewish Unity”

Nathaniel Berman
Brown University

Should American Jewish critics of the Israeli government’s conduct of the war
publicly express their views? This issue is now tearing apart the American Jewish
community. Senator Charles Schumer’s unprecedented criticism of the Israeli
government, including its willingness “to tolerate the civilian toll in Gaza,” has
served as a lightining-rod for this controversy. The Conference of Presidents of
Major American Jewish Organizations condemned Schumer, declaring that now
is not the “time for public criticisms …. when unity is so desperately needed.”
While this statement may sound appealing, it is morally wrong. Wartime is
precisely when public criticism of governments is essential, as we have learned
time and again.

On the first day of the 1982 Lebanon invasion, the Israeli journalist Amiram Nir
called for national unity in wartime. In an op-ed entitled, “Quiet – They’re
Shooting,” Nir proclaimed: “Now there is no Opposition, no Likud and no (Labor-
led) Ma’arakh, no religious and no secular, rich and poor, vuzvuzim and
chakhchakhim (derogatory terms for, respectively, Ashkenazim and Sefardim).
Now we are one nation, in uniform, now they are shooting. Quiet.” The 1982
invasion turned into a catastrophe. It began under the false pretense of a limited
operation and ended with the cataclysmic collapse of Ariel Sharon’s
megalomaniacal plan to create a Christian-led, Israel-allied Lebanon. Most
horrifyingly, the invasion caused approximately 19,000 civilian deaths, including
those massacred at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Israel-allied
Christian militias. Approximately 400,000 Israelis protested in Tel-Aviv against the
massacres. Israeli troops remained in Lebanon for another 18 years, at a terrible
cost in Israeli, Lebanese, and Palestinian lives. When Israelis now quote Nir’s
slogan – “Quiet – They’re Shooting” – they do so with mockery.


One cannot equate the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, begun on a flimsy pretext, to
Israel’s right to self-defense after Hamas’s October 7 th mass murders, rapes, and
abductions. Nonetheless, the fate of Nir’s slogan highlights the dangers posed by
mainstream Jewish leaders, both in Israel and worldwide, when they call for Jews
to refrain from public criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war. Such attempts to
silence dissent during wartime arise during every war all over the world. Those in
power often use wartime to ostracize dissenters as traitors. Wars also bring
stigmatization of any who detract from nationalist fantasies of national
homogeneity. The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II is a
symbol of pervasive wartime assaults on civil liberties, even in a constitutional
democracy like the United States.

For American Jews, the silencing of dissent during World War II left a legacy of
horror and guilt. The rescue of the Jews from the Nazis was never an Allied war
aim. Roosevelt was even reluctant to significantly increase the number of Jewish
refugees entering the US. Even more gravely, the Allies refused to take military
action to stop the Nazi extermination machine, such as bombing the rail lines into
Auschwitz. Some American Jewish leaders felt that only private pressure could
be used to advocate such measures, not public dissent. They feared that public
pressure would arouse antisemitism or weaken national unity in wartime.

No one would equate the horrors of the Holocaust to either the October 7 th
massacres or the vast civilian death tolls in Gaza. Nonetheless, the historical
precedents teach us the dangers of the suppression of dissent in the name of
unity. Wartime is the moment when moral and legal scrutiny of government action
is most urgently needed. The unleashing of the destructive powers of modern
states, even in the most justified war, must be subject to the most exacting
examination. It was this imperative that led to the creation of the 1949 Four
Geneva Conventions in the immediate aftermath of World War II.


The civilian death tolls in Gaza now approximate the horrifying levels of the 1982
Lebanon invasion. It is morally unimaginable that these civilian deaths should not
be subject to public scrutiny. How can any moral person simply defer to the
Israeli government’s assertions that its actions conform to the laws of war? Few
rational observers put much faith in any pronouncements by the current Israeli
government, a coalition of kleptocrats and extremists. Only strict public scrutiny
can determine whether their claims about the war are plausible.

One should also refuse to accept the assertion that the government has been
doing all in its power to free the hostages. Powerful forces in the government
oppose giving priority to the hostages. Bezalel Smotrich, who is both Finance
Minister and a “Minister in the Defense Ministry,” has repeatedly stated that
freeing the hostages is “not the most important thing.” While no one would
equate the current war to World War II, the latter’s lessons must be heeded. How
can one conduct a war against a brutal organization, while subordinating the
rescue of those subject to that organization’s atrocities? Is there reason to think
that Israel’s military actions and diplomatic negotiations have centered the
hostages’ interests? Again, only public scrutiny can answer this question.

Meanwhile, the attempt to silence dissent in Israel and worldwide continues. In
the US, it takes the form of denunciations; in Israel, it includes stronger
measures, such as police brutality against demonstrators and repressive
measures against Palestinian citizens. The horrors of the 1982 Lebanon invasion
long ago made the phrase, “Quiet – They’re Shooting,” into an object of derision
in Israel. Those who resurrect it today, in the face of the horrors of the present
war, do so at the risk of a terrible indifference to human lives and morality.

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