Israel Defense Forces soldiers operate in Gaza, Nov. 2, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
Israel Defense Forces soldiers operate in Gaza, Nov. 2, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

We must continue to support Israel’s war — and honestly grapple with tough questions from critics

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

At the outset of the war in Gaza — a war that Israel did not seek, a war triggered by a heinous attack by Hamas — I argued in the Forward that our responsibility as Jews was to define the war as a “just war” and to commit to support Israel’s fight.

I understood myself then to be an “Amos Oz Zionist,” following the model of the late Israeli author who broadly identified with the politics of the left and was an outspoken critic of the Israeli occupation, but who consistently supported the moral and political necessity of Israel’s military response to Hamas’ history of brazen violent incursions.

Oz responded:

“Unlike European pacifists I never believed the ultimate evil in the world is war. In my view the ultimate evil in the world is aggression, and the only way to repel aggression is unfortunately by force. That is where the difference lies between a European pacifist and an Israeli peacenik like myself.”

The challenge for liberals in this just war moment is to support the fight and hope it is fought justly and speedily. I find affirmation in the philosopher Michael Walzer’s words: “Now I pray for a smart war and a smart politics afterward.”

But it is also true that as the war drags on, it is getting harder to hold onto this view. The costs of the war are profound: thousands of Palestinian deaths, incalculable destruction in Gaza, and a constant stream of the news of deaths of Israeli soldiers from whom I often have but one degree of personal separation.

It is our responsibility to reckon with the arguments of those who challenge the morality of continuing this war, as difficult as doing so may be.

Should we limit our support?

Is there a limit to the blood sacrifice we must demand or endure in support of even a just war? With the passage of time, some of the initial broad-consensus American and American Jewish support for the legitimacy of the war is starting to fade. 

Public opinion is still on the side of Israel against Hamas, and when those are the two choices, thank God for that moral clarity. But various liberal Zionist organizations have gradually shifted their stances about the war, from opposing the calls for a cease-fire in the early days to tentatively embracing them. I do not agree with those decisions, but I do not fault them.

The visible failings of many in the global left over the past 114 days have done little to assuage my own anxiety about where I stand on this war. The rape denialism among progressive groups, the slanderous overreach in characterizing Israel’s behavior as genocide, the quick leap to calls for ceasefire instantly after Oct. 7 — denying Israel the legitimacy of self-defense — and the regular omission of calls to release the hostages as part of the ceasefire conversation are all colossal moral failures, and they have helped me understand my own political positionality. Israel has just cause in its victimhood, and just cause to fight back.

However, just because the most extreme articulation of an anti-war position caricatures itself in this way does not mean that there is no room for legitimate skepticism about the war. No war should be able to demand indefinite loyalty. I see three critiques of the war that we must seriously wrestle with if we are to, as I still do today, continue to support Israel in fighting it.

A rising death toll in Gaza

The first critique of the war is the death toll. Surely there must be a limit to supporting a war as the number of Gazan civilian deaths continues to climb. 

But here is the thing: Since every death in war is a tragedy, there is simply no objective way to determine what quantity of deaths should be considered “acceptable” and when we cross an imaginary threshold to say that there are “too many.”

There is no doubt that some amount of the death and destruction inflicted by Israel in Gaza could have been prevented while achieving the strategic objectives of the war, as the IDF periodically admits, and it is encouraging to see that the strategy is changing and the daily death toll declining.

This is both an argument for ethics and an argument for better strategy. But the bulk of the blame is at least shared if not owned by Hamas, who routinely position themselves amidst a civilian population and does not always wear uniforms that help differentiate between civilians and combatants. The IDF is forced to make impossible decisions as they fight an urban war against an enemy entrenched amidst its civilians that stalwartly refuses to obey the rules of war and refuses to engage the military ethics to which Israel holds itself accountable.

I cannot say personally whether the Palestinian death toll demands an end to this war. I cannot say with certainty, and neither can anyone, what percentage of the death toll has been civilians and what has been combatants. But because leaving Hamas in place creates a permanent and imminent threat to Israeli lives, there is no obvious stopping point.

I feel that I can only pray for there to be fewer deaths going forward, and to rely cautiously on the knowledge that international law does not evaluate the morality of a war on the number of casualties, but rather on the justification of the war, its intent, and the way that it is prosecuted. 

The fate of the hostages

The second critique of the war revolves around the fate of the hostages. Some argue that we must prioritize their safe release over the other stated military objectives of the war. Many of the hostages’ families are demanding that Israel do whatever it needs to do to “bring them home,” no matter the cost, and we are right to be chagrined in the presence of their public suffering.

The dilemma that Israel faces in balancing between the objectives of trying to defeat Hamas and trying to redeem our hostages is excruciating and laced with moral complexity. Hamas has successfully exploited the compassionate love that we Jews have for our fellow Jews, and their ruthlessness in seizing the vulnerable together with the healthy demonstrates that they know that the price we will pay is staggering. But now — is it too high?

The first negotiated temporary ceasefire resulted in a hostage-prisoner exchange with the most favorable terms Israel ever received, and it is reasonable to speculate that the force of the military effort helped coerce Hamas into such an agreement. Meanwhile other Israelis — who speak more quietly, out of fear of being perceived as being heartless — worry that the cost of the proposed future exchange of many terrorists with blood on their hands, and others who will incur blood on their hands, is simply too dangerous.

Is the price too high? I simply do not know. I do not know whether there are other levers to bringing home the hostages, beyond Israel ceasing its military objectives and leaving Hamas in power. I make no claim as to which of Israel’s horrifying choices is the right one. But I know that neither argument on this issue has a monopoly on moral certainty.

Can Israel win this war?

And the third important criticism against continuing the war is the claim that Israel’s objectives have not been met so far; or worse, that they cannot succeed. It is hard to tell if Israel is “winning,” with the Hamas leadership still in place. And the critique of how Israel is prosecuting the war is increasingly tied to speculation that an indefinite, purposeless war is a strategy that Prime Minister Netanyahu is employing to advance his own political aspirations.

I do not know whether it would take mere months or many years to weaken Hamas to the point of Israel being able to declare victory. But those that approach Israel’s military struggles convinced that the lack of certain victory after three and a half months means that the whole war plan was wrong, or that it was always an unwinnable fight, or entirely a political ploy, are, I believe, displaying a dangerous hubris that should be interrogated.

Is it possible that amidst the fog of war, some aspects of the Israeli invasion have succeeded more than we think? And most of all: if you have decided that you know enough to establish that this war is unwinnable by this strategy, what military strategy do you offer us instead?

These three arguments opposing continuing the war raise serious issues, questions and doubts. But they are not dispositive enough to create a moral imperative that we oppose this war. Unlike the first weeks of this war, when supporting the war felt essential to ensure the legitimacy of Israel’s right to self-defense, I feel secure in my views but recognize the moral legitimacy of various opinions. I hope that others who take an opposing view feel the same. 

The complex path forward

We have two easy choices before us as a Jewish community now, or an alternative path forward. The easy choices are the choices rooted in certainty: unapologetic support for the war that refuses to countenance these criticisms, whether they come from the outside or from our own evolving moral instincts; or unapologetic opposition to the war, broadcasting our opinions in endless open letters and petitions that likely alienate us more from most Israelis in the process. Both positions fall short; and their entrenchment against one another also threaten to rupture a Jewish community that needs to try to stay whole as best it can right now.

A third path forward, the one I choose, is that even as I support Israel in fighting this war, I am also  leaning into the pain of the war without looking away. I am leaning into the many questions that I pose above, and I think this may be a moment for essential epistemological humility in the face of what we don’t know, especially those of us whose lives are not literally on the line; and an opportunity to try to inhabit a place of solidarity with Israelis as they negotiate their impossible choices, regardless of what we believe about the war itself.

There are many ways to show solidarity, and to fight for what is just, besides affirming the decisions made by an army or a government or publicly dissenting from them. We can express solidarity by investing in personal relationships, finding ways to support Israeli civil society and its many needs amidst a war, continuing to try to proliferate a Jewish voice that affirms humanity amidst so much death, and planning now for the Israel of tomorrow.

A commitment to solidarity while being circumspect about the war might also empower Diaspora Jews to help Israelis see better what we see, the carnage not fully covered in the Israeli press, and the consequence of Israel’s isolation on the rest of world Jewry. The decisions we make now could literally reshape the future of Jewish peoplehood.

And a commitment to fight for what is just right now, which also need not be limited to calling for an end to the war, should include the obligation incumbent on us to fight against the spillover effects of discrimination and violence against Palestinian citizens of Israel, vigilante violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, and the dangerous threats from extremists to “resettle” Gaza after the war.

And most of all, we can pray for peace. We pray for it, without demanding it.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of J. or the Forward, where this piece was originally published.

Yehuda Kurtzer
Yehuda Kurtzer

Yehuda Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.