Gaza War: Academic Fairy Tales

(Scroll down to see earlier posts in this series, beginning January 14th.)

Fair Harvard, thy sons to thy jubilee throng,

And in faith with thy glorious past,

By these odious rites now surrender thee o’er

To the murders and rapes of Hamas.*

This rewrite of the first stanza of Harvard’s alma mater—find the original wording and the history here—is impolite but not unfair, given the recent outpouring of hatred of Israel and, to a lesser extent, of Jews, on this nearly 400-year-old American campus. Most pointedly, Harvard’s students and faculty have supported a terror group whose grotesque atrocities against Jews and others in Israel are unprecedented in modern times. Can Harvard students and faculty be useful idiots, shills for Hamas mass murderers?

Don’t get me wrong. I have no desire to limit the free speech of deluded or even malicious faculty and students. Only a few have gone so far as to merit a legal crackdown against them. I’m not saying it’s fine to spew hatred of Israel, Zionism, and Jews, merely that I have to weigh these wrongs against the wrong of muzzling them, and given the first amendment’s protections, letting them puke up their lies is the lesser of two evils. But that doesn’t mean there are no remedies.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wisely said that the remedy for noxious speech is more speech, and Jewish students on these campuses can avail themselves of that opportunity—although at a risk of harm if they do or even if they let it be known that they are Jewish. They of course cannot have anything like the kind of college experience they signed up and paid for, just to stay in their rooms and go warily to class in groups and in daylight hours. That is the price they must pay for the first amendment protections of others, and ultimately their own, if they go to those schools.

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Gaza: What is Victory?

Scroll down to see earlier posts in this series, beginning January 14th.

On November 11, 1918, the last day of World War I, there were higher than usual casualties, because General John J. Pershing—“Black Jack Pershing” as his men often called him—resented the Armistice. He insisted on hurting the Germans further, at high cost to his own troops, and continuing, to the last minute—the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month—to inflict German losses. He reportedly said: “They never knew they were beaten in Berlin. It will have to be done all over again.” *

A myth arose. The German generals spread the word that their army was “undefeated in the field” but was “stabbed in the back” by politicians bent on surrender. Actually, their defeat in the field was staggering. After four years of what was mostly standoff, a million Americans arrived and, with their reinvigorated allies, swept across German-occupied France and Belgium in three months. The allies occupied a small part of western Germany for a while before they went home. But in Berlin, they never knew they were beaten. Pershing, alas, had to observe in his later years the rearming of Germany and the second world war he had predicted, with all its dreadful costs. His warnings, like Churchill’s in Britain, were ignored.

After that second war, they knew they were beaten in Berlin, and they knew they were beaten in Tokyo too, because the US and its allies took the war into those capitals and insisted on unconditional surrender. Although greatly complicated by the division of Germany and the Soviet role, the US (along with the UK and France) transitioned from military control, including denazification, dissolution of the German army, and occupiers’ rule of law, through municipal elections, to the buildup of a democratic state, officially declared four years after the war. The US State Department explicitly decreed that this governance “does not effect the annexation of Germany.” West Germany regained “near-sovereignty” in 1955, but it remained nominally occupied until 1991, after re-unification. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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.

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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). Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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