Of Empathy, Might, and Right

By David Cohen

A continuing theme in our community is the question of why so many around the globe seem so certain that what is happening in Gaza can be blamed squarely and solely on Israel – and by extension – the global Jewish community.  Of course, the corollary to that question is what we, the organized Jewish community, can do about it – and by extension – what any individual can do about it.

These are two very different questions – related, but with very different answers. 

One of the reasons I feel a responsibility to keep writing about the Gaza war in these pages is because it does actually touch everything we do right now.  If people didn’t already know, even in less controversial times, activists opposed to Israel regularly have Jewish communal activities, Holocaust events, and Holocaust memorials in their sights.  Even in calmer times, Jewish communities in large cities across America face consternation as repeated attempts to smear our connection to Israel is acted upon in City Council meetings, newspapers, across the street from Yom HaShoah commemorations, or even something as mundane as an annual meeting for a Jewish Federation.  But when the news is more extreme and frequent – these efforts become even more prominent in places like Harrisburg.  We have all borne witness to this by reading the letters to the editor that target Israel, by seeing what happened on Front St. over New Years weekend, by seeing billboards, rallies, and even seeing words scrawled into street signs and lampposts. 

We should feel rage and urgency.  Among our own community members, we should rail and ask all the questions we like about what should be done.  We should demand action of ourselves - both short-term and long-term action.

However, we also must be thoughtful, strategic, and smart.  That is if we want the action we take to have the intended results.  Change. 

Combating antisemitism and changing attitudes about Israel is a marathon - not a sprint.  It does not happen with one program or one speaker.  It does not happen with one statement or with angry accusations of the people most positioned to help us and be our allies.  I have written in these pages, there are lines leaders can cross and ineptitude that does deserve our ire and possibly calling for someone to lose their jobs.  But I have found over the years, especially in communities like Harrisburg, that we have many more friends and allies than we think.  So, if you want to yell and scream at someone in Harrisburg because of an email you got or a post you saw on X or Instagram about a national organization or an event that took place in New York, Boston, Chicago, Miami, or Philadelphia – think twice.   There are by far fewer people in our community who hold those same views or believe any of the demonization about Israel or our community.  That is just a fact.

So how should we respond?  Well, over the coming months, Federation, along with our JCRC (Jewish Community Relations Council) will be helping leaders in our community to implement a plan for both short-term and long-term action (some public-facing and some strategically behind the scenes).  These will include things like an increased focus on interfaith and intergroup relations, an effort to speak with editorial boards about what is published in our local papers, and support for not just a speaker, but the return of speaker series focusing on how to speak about Israel and the blight of terrorism in that region.   We will continue our outreach to political leaders to create new relationships and build on ones that are already strong.  These are activities that Federations and JCRCs do all over the country and these are initiatives that our Federation, along with our Foundation’s support, will be embarking upon in the coming months and years.

But what is it that we are trying to say?  Well, while there is no single frame – I often rely on a pedagogy that a relatively new organization called Project Shema (ProjectShema.org) is working to promote widely.  And that is an approach of storytelling.  Rather than facts, how you feel and how you are connected to Israel is what has proven to be far more impactful in this arena.

For example, when I am speaking with non-Jewish leaders in the community, I tell them the story of Gilad Shalit, who was taken hostage in 2006 and held for over five years.  I tell them that this was ONE person.  A soldier, who was taken hostage, and we could not bear that.  We had events all over the world; in our synagogues, in our community centers, in our schools – for the release of Gilad.  Not a negotiated release, but a release, period.  It was ever-present in our community for those five years, because that is how much one Jew being held by Hamas terrorists meant to us.  And now, we are talking about 120 hostages still being held.  On top of the 1,200 murdered on October 7th and the inhumanity inflicted on that day.

And before I continue, I speak of the empathy we have to have for the loss of life in Gaza.  How can we not speak of empathy in the moment?  If we do not, does that not make us monsters?  We can and must talk of that empathy and sorrow – but contrast that to the activists marching in the streets of America and on our campuses who show no empathy for the 1,200, the 240, or the 120.  Activists who are laying the entire blame for the ongoing conflict on Israel, when in actuality it is more of a perpetual stalemate. 

I simply ask any reasonable person to think back to 1940.  And if there was a “Jewish” Army somewhere that discovered what the Germans were doing to their Jews, what would have been the appropriate response?  Would it have been something like what we are seeing now?  Would anyone in the world have blamed us?  I then ask, what if Americans experienced the obscene murder of 1,200 of its people, 240 taken hostage, and it was then discovered that many of the victims were desecrated?  What would YOU ask your government to do?  Would it be similar?  I then remind them that Gilad Shalit was an IDF officer and male.  Remind yourself now that many of those murdered, taken, and abused, were women, children, and grandmothers.  Is your blood boiling yet?  Well, ours is, and this is exactly how we feel.

So, are these words you have not seen before?  I am not sure.  But I do know that talking about past claims and history at this time is a no-win scenario.  Something profoundly inhumane just happened to people in our homeland, people we love, people we know, and people we feel a deep connection to.  This is something that every American can relate to.  And while it does not mean what is happening in Gaza is any less regrettable – it does say clearly that there is a difference between what happened on October 7th, what Israel is doing in response, and the predicament we find ourselves in that will not be solved by a rally in the street, the demonizing of a democratic state, or the ignoring of the inhumanity of the actions of our enemy.   This is what people who are listening will understand.