Gaza: Collateral Tears

Scroll down to see my previous posts on the Gaza War, beginning January 14.

The phrase “collateral damage,” meaning civilian casualties, arose in the Vietnam War and became a standard of military vocabulary. It is, at least in theory, unintended and ancillary to attacks on military targets. There has been a lot of it in Gaza, and what it really means is blood, pain, disability, loss, grief, anguish, screams, sobs, and tears. According to the Hamas Health Ministry, as of February 21st, 29,313 people have been killed, including at least 8,400 women and 12,300 children; the wounded number 69,333, including at least 6,327 women and 8,663 children. Children have been dismembered by shrapnel, burned, blinded, and crushed under rubble, among other horrible fates. Some have probably died of fright.

So “collateral tears” must include the tears of countless millions of us who read these numbers and see photos of dead or suffering children and their bereaved parents. Someone said that the mark of a civilized person is the ability to look at a page of numbers and weep. If you can’t weep at these numbers, look in the mirror.

However, this is war. I hate war, and I assume you do too. But if you agree with me that war will not be eliminated soon, the question changes. Is Israel’s war in Gaza outside the range for wars since World War II, as measured by the ratio of civilian to military deaths? No, and it is far lower than the civilian casualties caused by the US and UK in Japan and Germany in that war.

Another measure is the civilian casualties per airstrike, using only airstrikes that caused at least one casualty. Reuters fairly criticized a graph that gave a misleadingly low figure for the Gaza War, and corrected the number to 10.1. For comparison, they offer the following numbers from recent wars: the Battle of Raqqa (2017), 9.8; the Battle of Mosul (2016), 12.0; and the Aleppo Offensive (2017), 21.2. So by this measure as well, Israel’s Gaza offensive is within the range for recent wars.

Nevertheless, our tears must lead us to ask Israel to do better. Since early in the war, international pressure has grown to force it to reduce civilian casualties, or even stop the war. Is Israel responding? My makeshift graph below suggests an answer. Continue reading

Gaza, Israel, and the United Notions

I was born in August 1946; the first UN meetings were held in London in January that year. So the UN and I are the same age—you might say, nonidentical twins. I have followed it from an early age, and I am glad to report that—despite the small scale and limitations of my lifetime efforts—I have done better with my challenges than my twin has in its equal lifetime.

Per the UN itself, the genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s proved “in the worst possible way” that the UN repeatedly failed to prevent this horror, despite being able to do so. It failed to stop and even to recognize earlier genocides in Indonesia (1960s) and Cambodia (1970s) and much more recent ones in Darfur, Iraq and Syria (against the Yazidis), and Myanmar (the Rohingya). The UN rights council refused to discuss China’s ongoing genocide of Uighur Muslims.

The UN’s failure to prevent small wars—more than 200 in its lifetime and mine—speaks for itself; advocates argue that it has prevented World War III, but that is conjectural. Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning its Ukraine invasion, although the General Assembly passed it overwhelmingly. The UN has done good work against hunger and slavery and promoting sustainable development, but has consistently fallen short of its own stated goals. More than 780 million people (and rising) face hunger, and there are more slaves in the world today than ever before in human history.

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Gaza Plus

From the moment it moved its first aircraft carrier into the eastern Mediterranean, the US has adamantly said and said again that it wants to avoid a regional war. Despite that reluctance, regional war is here.

In a sense it has been from the start, since Iran (a non-Arab, often anti-Arab country) is on the east of the region, but its empire of vassals and proxies control Lebanon, Gaza, and Yemen as well as infiltrating Iraq and Syria with its own soldiers (the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, IRGC) and arming Hamas in the occupied West Bank.

After the US accepted more than 160 attacks on its limited forces and facilities in Iraq and Syria, three US soldiers (two women and a man) were killed about two weeks ago, and the US vowed retaliation. Heavy strikes directed at key targets in Syria and Iraq occurred last Friday night, with more to come.

The Houthis, the terrorist group controlling Yemen, has for months attacked merchant ships in the Red Sea, impeding twenty percent of world commerce and decimating Suez Canal traffic. The group also attacks US naval vessels. Continue reading

Gaza: Hamas Declares War

Last Tuesday I was privileged—or voluntarily burdened, by invitation of the Israel Consul—with the chance to view one of the restricted IDF videos documenting the atrocities of October 7th. This is a compilation of video recordings from bodycams, phone, and dashboard cameras belonging to attackers, victims, and rescuers as well as CCTV from the locations attacked.

As hard as this was to watch, it did not go as far as I expected based on reports by people who saw even worse video, surviving witnesses, and the unfortunately limited postmortem evidence. I will return to some of those. But first I want to describe this video. If you are squeamish, read no further than the next paragraph; even if you are not, you will probably be disturbed.

This is the paragraph anyone can read. What made the greatest impression on me in the video was the joy on the faces of the Hamas attackers as and after they did their atrocities. Because of the way the human brain is wired, the difference between video and verbal description is not as great for atrocities as it is for facial expressions. I had heard many descriptions of atrocities, and seeing them was important, but those facial expressions are seared into my mind—when these young men turned back toward their colleagues’ phones with faces bursting with smiles. Nothing diabolical here. The smiles were big, warm, and bright, conveying the  most spontaneous joy—pride, satisfaction, and triumph, yes—but most vividly, joy.

The video is chronological, beginning with victims becoming aware of the attack, moving to examples of what is done to them and how they react, to some of the dead being mutilated by Hamas, and ending with large numbers of the dead as they were found by rescuers. Here are a few examples.

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Gaza War: Some Numbers

Please see below (“Concerning the War in Gaza”, January 14) for my overview of the war, and the disclaimer introducing it, also applicable here. So is this: Every death is a terrible loss, and every civilian death more so.


In 1944, General Curtis Lemay was appointed to command the Army Air Corps (later the Air Force) in the Pacific Theater, his predecessor having been fired for a reluctance to bomb civilians. Lemay soon ordered the fire-bombing of Tokyo with napalm, killing as many as 100,000 people in six hours. He repeated this in other Japanese cities, with the estimated total deaths ranging from 241,000 to 900,000. This was before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed another 129,000 to 226,000. These mass bombings were not directed at military targets (few were involved) but were carpet bombings of civilians. To many, Lemay is a hero.

Similar incendiary bombings, also creating firestorms, were carried out by the British and Americans in the German cities of Hamburg and Dresden, killing at least scores of thousands. Civilian populations being what they are, most of the victims in all these cases were women and children. Causing terror was their explicit goal, in the service of ending the war. Some considered these war crimes, but they were never tried or punished as such. German mass murder of civilians, using different methods, was of much greater magnitude, and was punished.

In part in reaction to the destructiveness of that war, the 1949 Geneva Conventions greatly strengthened the laws defining and prohibiting war crimes and crimes against humanity, including genocide, a term coined to describe what the Germans did to the Jews, but subsequently applied—in a few cases I think legitimately—to other mass killings. It has more often been misapplied.

Be that as it may, the number of civilian deaths caused by democracies at war has gradually declined since World War II. The US/UN bombing of North Korea (1950-53) flattened the country and killed over a million people, mostly civilians. Conservative estimates of the civilian deaths in the US bombing of North Vietnam range from 30,000-65,000, with another 30,000 in Cambodia; other estimates are much higher.  In Iraq, between 2003 and 2013, US and Coalition forces killed an estimated 130,000 civilians. Between 8,000 and 13,000 civilian deaths were directly due to direct US and Coalition strikes in the war to eradicate ISIS (2015-2020), with other estimates ranging much higher. In all, more than 400,000 “civilians have died violent deaths as a direct result of the U.S. post-9/11 wars.”

If we accept Hamas estimates as reported (most observers do), the number of deaths in Gaza as a result of the current war is around 25,000 as of January 21st, including 16,350 civilians (9,600 children and 6,750 women). About 20,000 of these were killed between October 7 and December 20, for an average of about 274 deaths per day; the death rate has averaged around 161 per day since. The New York Times of January 22, using the same sources, states that “the number of people dying each day has fallen almost in half since early December and almost two-thirds since the peak in late October.”

An unknown, but probably small, proportion of civilian deaths have been caused by stray rockets fired by Hamas, although it attributes all deaths to Israel. Also, everyone under 18 is considered a child; this would include 16- and 17-year-olds fighting for Hamas.

Ratios between civilian and military deaths in war are very difficult to calculate, but a widely accepted average is now around 1:1, or 50 percent, over many wars. The ratio in Gaza has been between 60 and 67 percent. This if accurate is notably higher and worth investigating, although it is within the range of recent wars.

Since 1967, when Israel first became involved with the Gaza Strip, its population has grown from about 300,000 to 2.1 million in 2023, a 700 percent increase. A little over one percent of the 2023 population has been killed in the present war, the great majority of them in the first half of the war. This percentage is higher than that in some modern wars, but lower than that in others. All estimates are disputed, as the ones for the current Gaza War surely will be.

I thank Lawrence Siskind for his helpful article; all the above numbers are separately sourced.

Concerning the War in Gaza

After focusing on the Gaza war since 7:30 am on October 7th, I’ve finally decided to begin writing about it. People ask for my opinion and I will now refer them here. If you read on, that is what you will get. I will not keep saying, “In my opinion” again and again, so please assume it. Today I will give my overview, which may be followed by other, future entries.

*****

Israel is at war with the empire of Iran, which includes the failed state of Lebanon, the territory of Gaza, and the faltering state of Yemen. Iran rules these entities through the terror groups Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis respectively. Like Iran, they are sworn to eliminate Israel. Through these and other proxies, Iran also controls parts of Syria and Iraq and has significantly infiltrated the West Bank. Since Iran is not an Arab country, this is larger than the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The question of whether Iran gives directives to these proxies on a day to day basis is irrelevant. It nurtures, trains, arms, consults, and plans with them and has done so for many years. They don’t do anything without Iran’s approval before and after the fact. Meanwhile Iran progresses steadily toward a nuclear arsenal (which Israel already has).

Gazan civilians, including children and women, have paid a very high price for Iran’s imperial ambitions, inflicted on them mostly by Israel’s defense forces (the IDF). Every death is one too many, but all of these deaths are in the military category called collateral damage, which tragically occurs in every war. Whether the collateral damage in this war has been excessive will be discussed for a long time, but a growing consensus says it has. Fortunately the number of civilian casualties has declined markedly in the past few weeks as Israel has shifted its tactics from conventional war to targeted raids. Whether before or after this shift, Israel—unlike the Iranian proxies it is fighting—does not target civilians. A fortiori, despite stupid and dangerous comments by its leaders, it is not guilty of genocide.

Overwhelming evidence has shown that Gazan hospitals, schools, mosques, and homes, among other civilian institutions, were or are also Hamas fortresses and weapons depots (above and below ground), and that this was accomplished with the tolerance and often the collaboration of the people leading these institutions, including UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) personnel. Accordingly Israel could not defeat its enemy without taking over these institutions. This was done with much effort to protect civilians, including advance warnings, urging evacuation, and other means. It is estimated that 23,000 Gazans have been killed and 65,000 residential buildings have been destroyed or made uninhabitable. These two numbers strongly suggest that most of the buildings were empty.

On October 7th—both the Sabbath and an important Jewish holy day—the Gazan Iranian proxy Hamas conducted the most brilliant and the most vicious attack on Israel in its history. Call it a huge infiltration or a small invasion, it was astonishingly successful. Over 1200 civilians were killed and hundreds more kidnapped, not from the air as collateral damage but deliberately and face-to-face. Each was a premeditated murder. (To get the number of Americans required for proportionate effect, multiply by 35.) The numerous atrocities included but were not limited to: burning alive, beheading, dismemberment of babies, cutting off feet and breasts of children and women before killing them, and shooting in the vagina as part of rape. Each happened multiple times, many documented on video by the terrorists themselves and confirmed by major news organizations.

As colossal as Hamas’s success on that day was Israel’s failure. All experts are baffled by it, but it is known to have had a sexist component, since the soldiers assigned to monitor Hamas and who thoroughly warned their superiors to no avail, were women. Israelis are almost as enraged at their leadership as at Hamas, and when the war is over we will see the consequences.

This war will only be successful—that is, a true victory for Israel— if it results in: 1) a new government in Israel almost immediately; 2) an effective Palestinian government in Gaza within months, not years; 3) a reconfiguration of the Middle East, including Israel, which Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries are ready for, provided that 4) there is real progress toward a two-state reality, which should be achieved in years, not decades. Absent these four changes, there will be permanent war with Iran, whether directly or through its proxies, and in time there will be no Israel.

Wrestling God to a Draw

This is a d’var Torah (a brief interpretation, literally a word on the Torah) I gave at Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta on December 13th, 2019. As the relevant Torah portion is coming up again this week, I’m posting it now.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Eugene Delacroix, 1861

We read: Vay’taver Yaakov l’vado—and Jacob was left alone; vaya’avek ish imo, and a man wrestled with him, ad alot hashachar—until the dawn.

The ish grappled with him, grabbing the hollow of his thigh—which the Midrash says means his descendants. The Midrash also calls the ish a sar, a protecting angel sent by God. The Angel begs release, but Ya’akov says, Lo ashalaychachah, ki im berachtani—I will not let you go unless you bless me. What blessing?—a name change: Ya’akov will now be called Yisra-el—ki sarita im Elokim v’im anashim, vatuchal—because you struggled with God and with men, and you prevailed.

His grandfather had a verbal wrestling match with God. What if there are 50 good people in Sodom and Gomorah? What if there are 45, surely you won’t destroy them for a difference of 5? And so on from 45 down and down to 10, Avraham apologizing but insisting every step of the way.

Now, God knows how this will turn out, right? So it’s not for God’s edification; it must be a lesson for Avraham: Yes, you can question God; you should question God.

When God says to Noach, I think I’ll destroy the world by flood, go ­­­build an ark. Noach by his silence says, How big?

For Avraham, the first Jew, it’s, You want to destroy two whole towns? That’s not like You!

A tradition begins. His grandson Ya’akov wrestles an angel to a draw, and pays a price, but gets a blessing.

Moses at first comes back from Pharoah and tells God, You have only made things worse, You have done nothing for this people! And God replies, Now you will see what I will do to Pharoah!

It’s almost as if God was waiting for Moses to get angry.

Jeremiah says: You will prevail, O Lord, if I bring charges against you. yet I will speak judgments. Why does the way of the wicked prosper?

Psalm 44 asks, Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awaken, do not reject us forever!

And Lamentations laments, You have not forgiven. You have clothed Yourself in anger and pursued us, You have slain without pity. You have screened yourself off with a cloud, that no prayer may pass through.

Christianity does not encourage questioning God. Yet on the cross, Jesus asks, Eli Eli lamah sabachthani?—the only thing he says in his mother-tongue: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Even Jesus, knowing all he knows, has a Jewish side that questions God.

A medieval Hebrew poem, “The Poet’s Commandments to God” has 22 lines, & every one begins like commandments 6 to 10: Lo Tirtzakh, Lo Tinaf, & so on:

Thou shalt not despise the wretch who begs for mercy.

Thou shalt not scorn the lowly poor before Thee…

Thou shalt not rage at thy people for generations.

Thou shalt not forsake them, for their suffering is great…

Thou shalt not recoil from me, my Rock, my God, my refuge…

It goes on and on, and you can feel the love in the complaints.

One last story. Chasidic master Rav Levi Yitzhak asked Yankel the Tailor to speak to God from the bima on Yom Kippur. Yankel spoke: “I am a poor tailor who has not been too honest. I have occasionally kept leftover scraps of cloth, and I have missed Mincha. But You, O Lord, have taken away babies from their mothers, and mothers from their babies. On this Day of Days, let’s be quits. If you forgive me, I will forgive you.” The rebbe sighed, “Oh Yankel, Yankel! Why did you let God off so lightly?”

Even in accusations, the love of God persists; Jews cannot seem to let God go.

Yaakov after all was in a wrestling match, and it ended in a grip that was also an embrace. He would not let the Angel go without being blessed.

And so with anyone who is Jewish, by birth or by choice: Jews are destined to strive with God in an embrace, because Jews are the people who were blessed with the name Yisra-El.

Chanukah Miracles

We had come to New York partly to celebrate the holidays, but mainly try to help with a new grandchild, due officially on December 24th—the second day or third night of Chanukah, as well as Christmas Eve and our son Adam’s birthday—but expected any time. We came up on Sunday the 15th, and a week later, with twelve hours to spare before the first candle, my stepdaughter Logan and daughter-in-law Leah were blessed with their new son Rivers—naharot in Hebrew—at 5:36am, 7lb. 6oz., healthy and strong with a lusty cry.

Within a few hours he was enjoying the bounty of life (I want to say chalav u’d’vash, milk and honey) Continue reading

The New Moon

Friday night we arrived for Shabbat dinner at the home of our daughter, son-in-law (who makes the best matzo-ball soup ever, although not on the day after Thanksgiving), and their kids. Both grandchildren came to the door along with the noisy dogs: Ethan, seven (“and three quarters”), sleek in his Star Wars pj’s and done with cancer, and Hannah, four, in a dress embroidered with her name, for once announcing neither of the sisters from Frozen but, proudly, herself.

“You didn’t miss anything!” Ethan yelled, as they both fell into a close chat with Nana.

I waited for a pause in the conversation and said, “But you two missed something!” It was a warm evening, so I urged them out on the front lawn even though they were barefoot, pointing at the bright crescent dangling in the western sky.

Hannah’s exuberance took her too close to the street, so I shouted her back, as Ethan asked, “Is it December?”

“Not yet,” I said, “but it’s Kislev. That’s the moon of Kislev, the moon of Chanukah.”

Ethan said, “Hannah, it’s not December but it’s Kislev, the moon of Chanukah.” He began to sing, and Hannah chimed in,

                               O Chanukah O Chanukah

                               Come light the menorah,

                               Let’s have a party,

                               We’ll all dance  the hora…

I figured I would have too much of that soon enough, so I herded them inside, and after an hour of chaos we were sitting down to delicious leftovers. Our son Adam and his partner were also there, so it was pretty much a repeat performance of the Thanksgiving dinner the evening before.

Thursday night we had gone around the table saying what we were thankful for. When my turn eventually came I said, “I’m thankful for the family of my dreams, which happens to be sitting around this table.” I did mention those who were absent, either just from the table or from the earth. I did not mention how grateful I was that Ethan was no longer in the hospital.

Last night, Saturday, we sat with two dear, long-standing friends at a trendy new Israeli restaurant. Like us, they are in the grandparent stage of life, quite delicious if everyone is healthy and normal—whatever that is.

There is an old Yiddish riddle, What’s the difference between nakhes and a mekhaya? You have to know that nakhes means joy, especially the kind of joy you take in children, and that a mekhaya is the ultimate relaxation—what the old men in my childhood Brooklyn neighborhood used to say when they came back from the Turkish steam baths: Oy, it’s such a mekhaya.

            So the answer to the riddle: Nakhes is when the grandchildren come to visit; a mekhaya is when they leave. That lofty, happy, ultimately not-responsible-for-the-bedtimes condition of life is what we mostly talked about. They have two more grandchildren on the way, we have one, all in all a sense of increase.

The Jewish population of the world today is the same as it was in 1939, while the world population as a whole has doubled twice.

I asked the young server if the octopus was kosher, and she said yes, but a bit uncertainly, before I gave her a fist bump and explained why it couldn’t be. The food was very good, high-end Israeli cuisine, the conversation was better, the drinks did their job. At our stage of life, you can easily spend a couple of hours on family without noticing the time.

Our friends have three grown and settled daughters—I held their youngest in my arms at age eight days and saw her happily wed last New Year’s Eve. Their eldest and her family have lived in Israel for seven years, and one of the new grandkids will be her third. So the conversation turned to politics.

All of us are New Israel Fund kinds of people—love the idea of Israel, hate the trends of recent decades, contribute dollars to combat right-wing and theocratic injustice. Come January, Israelis will vote in their third national elections in a year. Twice the electorate was evenly divided, and both times neither the right nor the center-left could form a government.

The divisions are very bitter. Our friend’s daughter was riding her bike along the Mediterranean when she heard the first election result. She felt as if she had just been told she was going to go through a divorce. The prospects are painfully uncertain, but one thing is sure: it’s not my grandfather’s Israel.

 

 

Balak and Balaam in India

This week’s Torah portion, Balak, has new meaning for me since our recent trip to India. We visited two synagogues in Kochi (Cochin) that are not currently active and two in Mumbai (Bombay) that still are, and these visits were deeply moving. But it was a museum visit in Kochi that made me see this week’s parshah in a different way.

We followed a guide through the Hill Palace, the royal seat of the kings of Kochi for centuries. The Palace crowns a hill with a long wide terraced flight of steps through exquisite gardens. The museum within has scores of valuable artifacts, but my attention was arrested in a semi-darkened room by what turned out to be a six century old Torah scroll.

The parchment too was darkened, and there were only four columns visible, Continue reading