Will Nobody Weep For All the Innocents?

Every day seems to bring forth another newspaper ad expressing solidarity with Israel. On May 7, as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon began talks with President George W. Bush in Washington, two full-page ads appeared in The New York Times. In one, CAMERA (the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) chided the media for not understanding the true root of Palestinian terror: “hate education.”

“Where are the media’s questions about the Palestinian abuse of children and teenagers in teaching them to seek death and killing instead of life?” the ad asked. “Where are the media’s questions about the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority for the incendiary rhetoric that has fueled the bloodshed?”

In the other ad, Elie Wiesel, in an open letter to President Bush, contrasted Israel’s love of peace with the Palestinians’ embrace of terrorism. “When you see Mr. Sharon,” Mr. Wiesel wrote, “please remember that a majority of Israelis favor a Palestinian State alongside Israel if the terror is stopped, whereas a majority of Palestinians including Yasir Arafat support suicide killing operations against Israel.” Mr. Wiesel asked the President to remember Danielle Shefi, a 5-year-old girl who, when the murderers came, hid under her bed. “Palestinian gunmen found and killed her anyway,” he wrote. “Think of all the other victims of terror in the Holy Land. With rare exceptions, the targets were young people, children and families.”

Scanning these notices, I looked for an acknowledgment of the many Palestinian civilians who have died over the last 19 months. I looked in vain. And so it goes. In the many recent declarations of support for Israel and of outrage at the attacks on it, I have yet to find one that contains any recognition that innocent Palestinians, too, have suffered. In their anguish over the loss of life among their Israeli brethren, many of my fellow American Jews have been blind to the no less acute anguish experienced by the Palestinian people.

Well, it’s said, the Palestinians have brought it upon themselves. It is they who began the uprising, they who spurred Israel on with their barbaric attacks. Yet even if one regards Israel’s military strikes as justifiable self-defense, it’s undeniable that many civilians have died in the course of them. According to B’Tselem, an Israeli human-rights group that keeps what is generally regarded as the most reliable numbers, nearly 1,000 of the 1,240 Palestinians who have been killed since the current uprising began in late September of 2000 were civilians; 210 of them were minors under the age of 18. That civilian total may be overstated some, since it includes non-security-force members who may have been involved in, or planning attacks on, Israel. Even so, it’s clear that a high proportion of the Palestinians who have died were civilians. (Of the approximately 450 Israelis who have died, close to 300 were civilians.)

One can debate how much blame Israel deserves for these civilian deaths, but even if they are seen as the inevitable byproduct of the fight against terrorism, isn’t it appropriate to express what Jews call rachmones , or compassion, about them? In a comparable case, even many Americans who supported the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan feel deep regret at the innocent Afghans who died in it.

One person who attempted to call attention to the Palestinian casualties is Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary. Speaking at the large pro-Israel rally held on Capitol Hill on April 15, Mr. Wolfowitz, in the course of noting his unwavering support for Israel, observed that “innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying in great numbers as well. It is critical that we recognize and acknowledge that fact.” The remark was greeted with boos.

Defenders of Israel might point to the lack of sympathy that Palestinians have shown for Israeli casualties. And they would be right. Few Palestinians, in official positions or on the street, have expressed regret over the many innocent Jews who have perished in the relentless suicide bombings. These attacks are reprehensible, and it is depressing to see so few people in the Arab world stand up and speak out against them.

That’s no reason, however, for American Jews to refrain from expressing their own sympathy. Israel’s current trials have driven many of them into a narrow self-identification that runs counter to the universalist humanitarianism that has been so defining a trait of Judaism since the adoption of the Ten Commandments.

Declarations of support for Israel would not be diminished if they took note of the suffering of the Palestinians. In fact, they would only be enhanced. As the great Jewish thinker, Abraham Joshua Heschel, once observed, a religious man is someone who, at all times, “suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion …. ”

(Terry Golway will return to this space in two weeks.)

Michael Massing is a New York journalist who frequently writes about foreign affairs. Will Nobody Weep For All the Innocents?