October 27, 2023

SCHWARZ | Further Thoughts on the Hamas-Israel Conflict

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I received a great number of positive responses to my recent Cornell Daily Sun piece, but subsequent events have evoked further thoughts on the intractable situation in Israel and Gaza.

The response of so many people thanking me for “the courage to speak up,” as if I were risking my professional standing or my stature at Cornell or even my personal safety, for my opinions on the significance of Oct. 7 tells us something about the current fraught environment. It is as if, without realizing it, I had become the proxy or surrogate for a great number of Jewish students, alums and even Jews beyond Cornell. I find this a bit frightening because it suggests some Jews and other supporters of Israel’s right to exist have been cowed into silence not only about Israel but also several other issues.

Many of the letter writers expressed outrage at President’s Pollack’s first letter and more than a few threatened to withdraw financial support from Cornell. Her second letter changed the minds of some but far from all those who wrote me. As Dan Okrent, the first Public Editor of the New York Times, proposed in what is now known as Okrent’s Law, “The Pursuit of Balance Can Lead to Imbalance.” That is, sometimes the quest for evenhandedness, when a strong statement on the side of the wronged party is required, can itself be a major mistake in terms of truth and morality. Several people, including myself, thought the eloquent first paragraph of President Pollack’s third letter recognizing fully what had occurred on Oct. 7 was all that was needed and should have been sent immediately after the atrocities committed by Hamas were known.

The Oct. 15, 2023, video of Cornell Professor Russell Rickford asserting that he was “exhilarated” by the Hamas attack was the subject of many letters I received that were critical of Cornell University. I recognize that no matter how wrong-headed his views, they are not a sufficient reason to fire a tenured professor.

In another well-publicized statement supporting Hamas’s terrorist attack even before Israel’s retaliation, a Johnson Business School Diversity Officer — who one expects to value all lives, including Jewish ones in Israel — certainly called into question whether he should be in that sensitive position.

Why, I have been asked by non-Jews, has virtually every Jewish family — including those who identify themselves as “left” or “progressives”— reacted so strongly to the outrageous Hamas attacks which included killing and kidnapping babies and the elderly? 

The answer is that we Jewish people feel vulnerable. Our views are shaped to an extent by grandparents and others who remember the Holocaust even if they did not experience it personally. Lives are shaped in part by what Marianne Hirsch has called “postmemory” in which our memories are informed not only by our own experience but also by experiences about which we have heard from family members, teachers and friends.

Even families like mine that have lived here since the 1860s or 1870s never feel completely comfortable. We are not only aware of how assimilated Jews were in Germany before the Nazis came to power, but we all have heard stories of exclusion, rudeness, stereotyping, insensitive language (“Jewing” has been a synonym — and still is in some circles — for negotiating a lower price) and heard and overheard anti-Semitic comments. In recent weeks all Jews in the entire world who attended religious services on the Jewish High Holy days found their synagogues guarded by hired security staff.   

Jews my age live with a sense of the precariousness of their place. I have taught at Cornell since 1968 and can point to instances of blatant anti-Semitism that I have experienced, mostly in my early years but also again in recent years when a senior colleague lumped me with “old white men” — a homogenizing term that people often used.

Trump’s equivocation about the Aug. 11-12, 2017, white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, cut deeply for most Jews whom I know, including our students. Calling some of those who spewed “Jews will not replace us” and wore Nazi paraphernalia, “good people” became a verbal quivering arrow that we cannot forget. Most Jews are aware that some of Trump’s support, including those involved in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, comes from white nationalists who are blatant anti-Semites.

I ask myself whether apologists for Hamas hate Jews, as some of the rallies and statements indicate, or are they morally dense due to an educational failure that prevents them from recognizing the difference between war and inhumane atrocities visited upon innocent civilians. Perhaps these apologists don’t know that Israel had been the land of the Jews since over 1000 years BCE. The 1948 founding of Israel was in large part a result of the Holocaust necessitating the creation of homeland for dispossessed Jewish people. But well before that, Jews made up at least a third of the population of the area known as the Palestine Mandate. Xenophobic hostility to Jews was the catalyst for murderous attacks on Jews before 1948. What happened Oct. 7 underlines how these attacks have intermittently continued to this day.

I feel empathy for the loss of life of innocent people anywhere including Gaza, and take no joy in reading about Israel’s bombings in Gaza. Indeed, I find pictures and videos of the effects of this and all warfare excruciatingly disturbing. Having had wonderful evenings with Palestinians whom I have met on my travels, I fully recognize that we are all human with lives that matter.

In response to the largest loss of Jewish lives due to violence on one day since the Holocaust, Israel has no choice but to retaliate. Yet reading about Israeli air strikes, even knowing the propensity of Gaza authorities to blame Israel for everything — including a hospital bombing that resulted from a misfired weapon by Gaza terrorists — is painful to me.

 I worry about an Israeli ground invasion that will not only harm innocent Palestinian people — notably children — but also Israeli reservists some of whom while well-trained are more like our fellow students than battle experienced soldiers and are not prepared for the kind of block-by-block urban warfare that cleaned out ISIS in Fallujah or Mosul, Iraq. We don’t know how many fighters Hamas has, but estimates are as high as 40,000, which means almost everyone in Gaza knows those who will be confronting an Israeli land invasion.

My view is that Israel’s first concern needs to be the return of hostages, no matter what the cost in prisoner exchange, including releasing those who in the past were guilty of terrorist actions against Israel. Nor do I believe Israel should withhold food and water from Gaza.

Let us hope after this current terrible turmoil that we return to a focus on a two-state solution. This is possible only if Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel and is bent on its destruction, is substantially reduced. Perhaps the management of Gaza would be replaced by the Palestine Authority which runs the West Bank. I assume that Netanyahu’s days as Prime Minister and his right-wing government are numbered and that Israel will return to a centrist and moderate government which will accept the parameters of a Palestinian state. The alternative to a two-state  solution is the continuation of a chaotic situation threatening to involve other countries, including Iran and the United States, and the needless loss of lives.

Daniel R. Schwarz is the Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English Literature and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow in the College of Arts & Sciences. He is The Cornell Daily Sun’s 2023 visiting columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].

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