Letter to My Community: How I'm Pro-Israel


I don’t cry.

It didn’t used to be this way – I was a somewhat sensitive kid growing up, and often wore my emotions openly, crying naturally when the world demanded tears. I’m now 40, and haven’t cried in 12 years. Maybe more. I admit that, during the past month, I’ve written the words “I weep” for the loss of life in Gaza and the loss of life in Israel. But such words have just been a metaphor for what, in reality, can no longer be conjured.

Credit: Creative Commons

Why am I starting out by telling you this? Because in writing this letter, I can feel the faint hint of tears, can feel the sensation of what it feels like to cry. It’s a familiar feeling, but one which will spill out into words. Words of sadness. Words of love. And possibly, words of hope.

Many of you know me as an active member of the community. You are my friends and my colleagues. You are Jewish community leaders and community activists. You are Americans and Israelis. You are people I care about, and during this difficult time, some of our relationships are being strained. Which is why I’m writing and sharing some thoughts, hoping that in doing so, the distance created between myself and some of you might be bridged during this difficult time.

Like all of you, I wake each morning afraid to see names of Israeli soldiers who have died, and like some of you, that fear is amplified by knowing some of those currently serving whose lives are at risk.

Like all of you, I feel pain for mothers and fathers who must explain to their young children why they are playing cards in bomb shelters, and like some of you, I’m in touch with friends living in Israel who must do so daily.

Like all of you, I love the promise of Israel, wanting it to thrive as a democratic country, despite the inherent challenges, and like some of you, I still desire a two-state solution, however elusive or impossible such a reality has become.

Like all of you, I’m deeply invested in Israel.

However, for some during this time of conflict, to be ‘pro-Israel’ means to be binary. One either stands unequivocally by Israel’s actions, or stands in opposition to Israel. There is no in-between. And it is in that liminal space is where I and many others stand, a space that stands separated from the community.

And that saddens me.

I absolutely support Israel’s right to defend itself, but I cannot defend all of the circumstances which led up to, nor all of the actions which have been taken to execute, the current war in Gaza.

Like the thousands of Israelis who crowded Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on Saturday evening, and like many of you, I mourn not just the over 50 Israelis who have been killed, but the over 1,000 Palestinians who have died. And like those Israelis who gathered after Shabbat to light candles for this conflict’s victims, I support a U.S.-led embracing of Palestinian unity efforts and a political end to the violence. I support those efforts out of a fear that this war, as history has shown, will not achieve Israel’s goal of permanent quiet along the border.

And like those Israelis who gathered, my investment in the country compels me to critique its geopolitical policies – the occupation and settlements – which are harming Israel’s long-term viability and the realization of its democratic promise, policies which have harmed Palestinians and denied them basic rights for too long.

These views are informed by a melding of my progressive politics and Jewish values extracted from years of textual learning. There is a foundational text that has always stayed with me from Chapter Four, Mishna Five in מסכת סנהדרין (Tractate Sanhedrin):

ללמד שכל המאבד נפש אחת, מעלים עליו כאילו איבד עולם מלא

Anyone who destroys a soul, it’s as though he’s destroyed an entire world.

Too many souls have been destroyed, too many worlds never to be seen again, both Jewish and Muslim. Too many parents are bereaved, too many families ripped apart by grief. When I stand in opposition to this military action, it is not to stand against Israel. It is to stand against more lives being lost due to military actions which I believe will not bring peace.

Some of you in my community are upset with me for these positions, intimating that at this current moment – during a conflict – having such views is anti-Israel. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

I responded to this idea in an article I wrote on Friday, “Empathizing with Gaza does NOT make me anti-Semitic, nor pro-Hamas or anti-Israel. It makes me human.” The article has resonated widely, and since its publication, I have been overwhelmed by the responses which have flooded my inbox, most coming from committed, young Jews who crave communal spaces where they feel free to both support Israel and ask difficult questions. They don’t want to see things in binary terms. They don’t want play a zero-sum game where loving Israel precludes heartfelt critiques and vice versa.

As I wrote in that article, there is a ‘third way.’ A way to be invested in and care about Israel while viewing the conflict as one in which both sides can win.

Or lose.

My hope is that, in the end, it will be the former. And I sense that most of you feel the same.


What Do You Buy For the Children
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, published recently by Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.

Author’s Note: An earlier version of this appeared yesterday, which I took down in order to revise and expand.

11 thoughts on “Letter to My Community: How I'm Pro-Israel

  1. I am a son Irish Catholic immigrants who settled in New York City. Until reading Victor Frankl’s book on “Man’s Search for Meaning”, I didn’t think there was an alternative to violence by a self righteous enemy. A space has to be created to listen to the voices that see the endless, violent victimization as a failure that can never lead to long term success on any level. Frankl kept alive memories of his family and work to withstand daily cruelty and death in a Nazi death camp. We need to communicate this alternative way. We have to communicate the words of people likeyourself and examples like Tich Nhat Hanh, who refused to take sides in the Vietnam Nam, conflict. We need discussions, training and examples of this bravery. Namaste edmigons@gmail.com

  2. David, you made a mistake quoting Tractate Sanhedrin. In the English translation of the Talmud (Shottenstein) it says “Anyone who destroys a JEWISH (my emphasis) soul, it’s as though he destroyed an entire world. ” Go to any Orthodox shul library and look it up.

    • .
      I have two responses, since it doesn’t seem you know Hebrew:
      1) The word נפש means “soul,” and could refer either to a Jewish or non-Jewish soul.
      2) More importantly, though, are you suggesting that only Jewish souls are worth saving, and thus living? It certainly seems that such is your position. You might want to clarify, before people think you believe in Jewish exceptionalism.

      • David, I know Hebrew far better than you. Please don’t put words in my mouth. Did you ever study in a yeshivah? All I’m saying is that in Orthodox Judaism, especially ultra-Orthodoxy, the saying refers only to a Jewish soul or person. I don’t hold that position. Again, please look in the English translation of the Talmud, published by Shottenstein, which is found in Orthodox shuls.
        Jacob Mendlovic

          • David and Jacob,
            The issue about which you are arguing is neither and issue of translation, nor of orthodox dogma. The issue is one of textual variants. Some versions of this text appear as David has quoted it:
            לפיכך נ

          • The comment system seems to have not liked my use of hebrew, and cut of my somewhat lengthier (and wittier) explanation, but the some versions of the text are as David quotes, but other versions include the phrase “from Israel” so that it reads “saves a life from Israel,” supporting Jacob’s translation. Scholars (including the RaMBaM himself) have been arguing which version is more authentic for a thousand years or more. More information is available here:

  3. You are correct that being pro-Israel is not a zero sum game. There is plenty of room for criticism in the pro-I tent. But claims of being supportive of Israel ring hollow if you relentlessly bash Israel and refuse to express that you appreciate how awful it is to live under tbe constant threat of Hamas rockets and the horrible tunnels. Your constant comdemnation of Israel is always unequivocal, but any critique of Hamas always is accompanied by a “But . . .” and a quick pivot back to Israel bashing. And that is very revealing.

  4. David —- first, I read your book – thx for writing about something which never really stuck in my mind, the attack at Hebrew Univeristy at Mt. Scopus. I was in Israel a few weeks ago – our guide was at the school at the time of the bomb ——- very sad. I hope you and your family have healed from the trauma.
    AND……..I read your letter to my community – and I don’t see any answer to Hamas’ rockets and tunnels – how should Israel respond? A government’s first responsibility is the safety of it’s citizens. That said, after this war concludes, it would be nice to see Netanyahu sit down with Abbas and work on a just future, and——-for a government without Lieberman and Bennet.

  5. There are many ways of being pro-Israel, including being lovingly critical of its policies.
    And one can also attempt to Jew-wash their animosity toward Israel.

  6. I am an American Jew in my 70’s. I am more than deeply shamed by the loss of life of Palestinian civilians, particularly children, in this most recent invasion of Gaza. This killing is a stain on the souls of those who can justify this kind of inhumanity after suffering the unimaginable inhumanity of the holocaust. If Hamas is the culprit, then Israel must provide the enlightened leadership to find a way to peace without this massive loss of life, these sweet children who have barely begun their lives. My personal pain is deep, but absolutely nothing compared to the anguish of each mother, father, sister, brother, grand parent and friend who must endure living with the endless grief of that loss. I don’t sleep well at night. Even the happiest moments of each day are not immune. My heart and mind are pierced regularly by the the brutal realities lived by the innocent children of Gaza while I sit by in my safe and protected life

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