Some thoughts on the Israel-Hamas War



I usually only write on Buddhist topics for this blog, trying my best to avoid political statements of one kind or another.  But I’ve been thinking about the Israel-Hamas war for seven months now and watching the campus protests that have sprung up in its wake.  I’ve struggled back and forth between sharing my thoughts and keeping this blog a conflict-free zone. Part of my reticence is due to knowing how many of my Buddhist colleagues disagree strongly with my opinions — and I don’t  want to alienate friends unnecessarily. But I just finished filming a course for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review on the relationship between the virtues and the well-lived life, and one of those virtues is courage. So I have decided to be courageous—to throw caution to the winds and let the chips fall where they may.  An on-line Buddhist friend who knows my thoughts on this issue suggested I needed to decide whether I was Buddhist or Jewish.  I am clearly both and have no intentions of relinquishing an important part of myself in order to be approved of or appear politically correct. I feel sorry for those Jewish students who feel the need to submerge or deny aspects of their heritage and identity in order to fit in with their peer group. I guess old age is a blessing—I’m too old to worry about whether I fit in anywhere.

If this is not a topic that interests you, please feel free to stop reading right  now— I’m just getting something off my chest and have no intention of writing about it again.

If you asked me to make a list of Israeli political, religious and social policies I disapprove of or Israeli politicians I don’t like, it would make for a fairly long list.  But I suspect it would be just as long as my list of American social, political, and economic policies and politicians I disapprove of, or of Chinese political, social, and economic policies I disagree with. The main thing is, none of these disagreements leads me to think that Israel, the United States, or China doesn’t have a right to exist or defend itself and its interests. The idea that Israel alone has lost its right to exist because it is a “settler colonialist project” can only be taken at face value if we also agree that other “settler colonialist” projects like the United States, Canada, every South American country, Australia, and New Zealand have also lost the right to exist for similar reasons. And also Russia, China, and all the other empires that have grown over the centuries as they absorbed and resettled adjacent territories—they too were once—and in many ways remain—settler-colonialist projects.

One can sympathize with the plight of the Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from Israel during the 1948 war.  We must remember, though, that an equal number of Mizrahi Jews were expelled from Islamic countries during that war. Israel absorbed the 850,000-1,000,000 Jews expelled from middle eastern countries and made them Israeli citizens. Most Israelis are descendants of Jews who lived for centuries in the middle east and have no historic connection to Europe. The surrounding Arab counties—Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan—did not allow the Palestinian refugees to become citizens of their countries and kept them in refugee camps around the Israeli border.  They promised the Palestinian refugees would return to their homes once they defeated Israel on the battlefield—something they couldn’t accomplish.

This situation is not so very different from that caused by the terribly violent partition of India and Pakistan after Indian independence in 1947.  Millions of Muslims fled or were expelled from India and moved to Pakistan, while similar numbers of Hindus fled Pakistan for India.  It’s estimated that 14.5 million people were displaced in that conflict. None of those refugees and their descendants are demanding a right to return. Wars have their consequences. This idea of restoring historic borders after history has moved on has a name—irridentism. Hitler’s assertion that the Sudetenland and Austria were part of the Third Reich, or Putin’s assertion that the Ukraine is part of Russia are examples of irridentist policies. The Palestinian claim to Israel is no different.

The original U.N. mandate that created Israel divided the British held territory of Transjordan into two states—one quarter of the territory was to become the Jewish state of Israel, and the other three quarters were to become Palestine.  It wasn’t Israel that prevented the Palestinian state from forming—the Arab world was never willing to accept any partition that allowed Israel to exist, and the rest of the partition became modern day Jordan. Attempts to create a two-state solution—like the attempts at Oslo and Camp David—ended in failure largely because the Palestinian Liberation Organization could not give up its maximalist demands to accept a brokered agreement, including giving up the Palestinian so-called “right to return.”

Over the years, the Israeli experience with the two West Bank intifadas that targeted Israeli civilians and repeated attacks from Iranian proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah have driven Israeli public opinion increasingly rightward, so that public opinion no longer supports the only possible solution down the road, which is a two-state solution. The October 7th attack has solidified this Israeli position, with the unfortunate consequence of probably delaying eventual Palestinian statehood for at least another decade or two. Netanyahu is a corrupt, cynical and self-serving politician, but you cannot blame current Israeli public opinion regarding a two-state solution on him. My major gripe (among many) with Netanyahu was the failure of his administration to protect the Israeli border with Gaza on October 7th. Had the IDF been properly positioned and been able to respond appropriately, it could have effectively repelled the Hamas incursion without the terrible Israeli losses that ensued. Then the Israeli response to October 7th could have been more limited and muted—just tit for tat— without the need for the full scale invasion that has killed and displaced so many.

Once Hamas, the Iranian sponsored Islamist terrorist organization—an organization which like the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS aspires to a world-wide caliphate—and in Hamas’s case, the elimination, expulsion, subjugation, or conversion of Jews everywhere—attacked Israel on October 7th in an unprovoked attack that killed over 1,200 Israelis, targeted 8,000 missiles at Israel, and kidnapped hundreds of Israeli citizens—it became a legitimate target of the Israeli military. Israel has every right to dismantle and disarm the only organization in the region with true genocidal intent.  Can you imagine how the U.S. would have responded to a similar attack on American soil?

Once warfare begins against an enemy which has built 400-500 miles of tunnels beneath civilian infrastructure and uses schools, mosques, hospitals, and UNWRA facilities as safe havens for its 30,000 fighters, there is no way to avoid a fairly high number of civilian casualties. This is the nature of modern urban warfare. While I will not defend every Israeli tactical and strategic decision, let me remind readers that the allied forces in World War II probably caused as many as 1,500,000 civilian casualties as they bombed German and Japanese cities to bring the war to an end. While 34,000 casualties seems like a lot and is cause for genuine grief and regret—the number is small compared to the number of casualties in other recent middle-eastern wars: over 500,000 in the Syrian civil war, 377,000 in the Yemini civil war, 90,000 in the Lebanese civil war, 500,000 in the Iran-Iraq war. This is not “genocide” but the expectable outcome of urban warfare. This is not to  deny there may be IDF units and individuals that committed war crimes or that some Israeli policies may have violated modern rules of war — nor is it to say that the Israeli war policy is strategically correct.  General Petraeus and others have made thoughtful criticisms of Israeli strategy.  But every side in every war has sometimes committed war crimes, brutalities, and made tactical and strategic errors.  Israel is no more culpable than other countries—including the U.S.— in this regard. Remember Dresden, Hiroshima, My Lai, and Abu Ghraib.

And now for a word about American students protesting against this war.  I protested against the American Vietnam and Iraqi wars—I organized the very first antiwar protest at my college in 1965. I can appreciate that students are upset by the footage of displaced, injured, and killed Palestinians and the widespread destruction of Gazan infrastructure.  If all they were saying was “give peace a chance” and expressing a hope for a two-state solution, I would be better able to sympathize with them. But when they demand that American universities divest from the only democracy in the middle east, or that Israel has no right to exist as the ancient Jewish homeland and the refuge for persecuted Jews everywhere, or that the U.S. stop supporting an ally surrounded by Iranian proxies aimed at its destruction—then they lose any sympathy I might otherwise have for them.  When I demonstrated against the Vietnam and Iraqi wars, I didn’t demonstrate on behalf of a Viet Cong victory or Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government.  The student celebration of October 7th as a victory for the oppressed reminds me of Michael Foucault’s celebration of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s ascendence to power in Iran as a great humanist victory—a deeply mistaken view of what constitutes civilizational improvement or the true voice of the Iranian people.

And it is also a mistake to think one can be anti-Zionist without being antisemitic. Religious Jews turn towards Jerusalem and pray in that direction three time daily and have done so for thousands of years. The book of Genesis is a book fundamentally about the relationship of Jews to the land of Israel—for example, how Abraham bought the cave of Machpelah to bury Sara—how much he paid for it and who witnessed the purchase. Every Passover seder concludes with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem!” The idea that one can separate Judaism from its historic ties to the land of Israel is a travesty. We Jews will never be displaced from our historic homeland again as long as it is within our power to resist. Any political movement that thinks we would be willing to be displaced again had no understanding of Jewish history and determination.  And anyone who believes Jews would be willing to live in a non-Jewish state with a Palestinian majority is living a fairy tale. That will never happen—and holding on to that fantasy is the main impediment to the formation of a Palestinian state.

I am not a religious Jew—I’m a practicing Buddhist priest.  But I am an ethnic Jew with strong ties to my people and heritage. I know enough Jewish history to know that Jews have been discriminated against and expelled from every European or middle-eastern country where they’ve lived. There have been periods of relative golden ages in Spain, Italy, and elsewhere, but they have never lasted forever. They eventually come to an end. Now is a current golden age for Jewry here in America, but antisemitism on the left and right has persisted like a low-grade fever and is resurgent again.  It’s important to me that Israel remain a place of potential refuge for American Jews should things here eventually turn sour. Maintaining our historic homeland is crucial for insuring the continued Jewish existence as a people.

None of this is to deny empathy for Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied territories.  I hope their lives and conditions improve and wish them peace in their own independent country. May it come to pass sooner rather than later.  Some of this will require a political sea change in Israel.  Some of it will require Palestinians to accept they will have to live side-by-side with a Jewish state of Israel. If there can be 23 countries in the world that are either “Islamic Republics” or have Islam as their constitutionally enshrined state religion, surely there can be room for one Jewish state.

6 Replies to “Some thoughts on the Israel-Hamas War”

  1. Seth, it was interesting to read your thoughts on this issue. I don’t know much about Middle East politics, so I consider myself to be in perpetual inquiry/information-gathering mode and not in a position to advocate. I like reading sources that give multiple perspectives with an orientation toward promoting mutual understanding and peace, like Palestine–Israel Journal (

    “Religious Jews turn towards Jerusalem and pray in that direction three time daily and have done so for thousands of years.” After reading this sentence, my thought was: many religious people (in various traditions) have long memories but not long enough. Thousands of years are just a quick blip in the larger context of billions of years of Big History that science has come to know in the past couple of centuries. When we contemplate such Big History, we discover a universal kinship that didn’t begin in Jerusalem or any other particular location on the planet. This is not to suggest that the various traditions that consider a particular location to be holy should completely give up their focus on that location, but I would suggest that more contemplation of science-informed Big History would transform that focus in constructive ways.

  2. Nathan, we can always imagine larger and larger contexts that help us at least provisionally and partially transcend our neccessarily narrow historically embedded consciousnesses, and this is indeed a good thing. But we live our lives as particular human beings shaped by particular historical forces, and we lose something important if we only see things from an absolute perspective. From an absolute perspective nothing really matters—whether we live or die, whether the human race survives, whether the sun goes supernova and incinerates the earth—it’s all just nature doing what nature does. Things matter to us because of our embodied particularity and historically condtioned sensibilties—and so what happens to our families and our tribes and the groups, places and things we identify with and care about are not matters of indifference to us. They aren’t and shouldn’t be the only things we care about—we owe a duty to care to all human beings, and perhaps to all sentient beigns as well—but we need to find ways to harmonize both our particularistic and universalistic aspirations, and not sacrifice one for the other.

  3. Seth, thanks for your response. It’s interesting how you interpreted what I said using the Buddhist two truths framework (if I’m interpreting you correctly) of absolute and relative. In my second paragraph I was thinking of the “religion and science” relationship, or how new knowledge can transform religious traditions. “Science” is not an absolute perspective. We don’t even know what an absolute perspective would be like, so we can’t even say that “from an absolute perspective nothing really matters”. (Guy Kahane concluded the opposite in his article “Our cosmic insignificance” (Noûs 48(4), 2014): “From a cosmic point of view, the problem wouldn’t be that we suffer from an inflated sense of importance. It is that that we don’t take our existence seriously enough.”) I was thinking that it is a question of achieving a coherent integration of the broadest possible scope of knowledge. Something is always missing, but much more is missing from an orthodox religious view that resists evidence-based belief-updating and rejects serious consideration of the implications of new knowledge for a bigger view of life.

    1. Nathan—sorry for the confusion. I wasn’t using absolute in the Buddhist sense and comparing it with the relative, which is a nautral thing to assume. I was thinking of any transhuman perspective, including that offered by science (through the lens of cosmic and organic evolution) and how the things we really care about and that give our lives meaning are particularisitic and specific —— and often get stripped out when seeing things sub specie aeternatatis. I’m also not sure how an evidence-based empirical approach would affect, alter, or change an historical-emotional attachment to one’s homeland. I’m sorry if I conflated your idea of Big History with a transhuman perspective, and I can appreciate the differences between the two, but there are probably a nearly infinite number of lessons to be drawn from evolutionary and human deep history, and I’m not sure which one’s you’re thinking of at this moment. I agree with you that relgious orthodoxy prevents evidence-based belief updating, but since I am neither an orthodox Jew or even an orthodox Buddhist, I’m again not sure which specific beliefs need updating. Perhaps the Jews, like those fictional Jews in Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union should consider settling not in Israel but in Sitka, Alaska. Or perhaps like the character Moishe Pipik suggests in Phillip Roth’s Operation Shylock, they should go back to Poland and Russia (at least the Ashkenazim).But Psalm 137 says,”If I forget you, Jerusalem, May my right hand forget its skill, May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, If I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.” My point is that the Jewish religious imagination and attachment to the land of Israel are so deeply intertwined that the belief they can be separated and that, if they were, Judaism would still be Judaism, is absurd.

  4. Seth, thanks for the explanation. I see your point. To answer your question, the lesson that I draw from evolutionary and human deep history is that my roots go deeper than current ethnic and religious divisions (or divisions that originated within a few thousand years or any other time span), so those divisions are not most fundamental to my identity. This is what you called a “historically embedded consciousnesses” but it’s embedded in Big History, not in Bible history. I recommend such a science-based big perspective to all people, not as a replacement for any particular small history but as an expansion of it. I have heard that Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari has written popular books of Big History, although I haven’t read them and so can’t comment on them in particular. I don’t see any negative implications of such a view for the state of Israel; surely there are many good reasons for the state of Israel that don’t require a narrowly Biblical worldview. A big reason is one that you mentioned: “Jews have been discriminated against and expelled from every European or middle-eastern country where they’ve lived.”

  5. After our discussion above, I went looking for recent writings by Yuval Noah Harari, and I found an interesting article by him in the Washington Post, published a week ago for Israel’s Independence Day. It’s an interesting discussion of Zionism and his view of it as an Israeli who is basically a liberal humanist. He emphasizes another obvious good reason for the state of Israel:

    It is also noteworthy that in recent years, one important strain of Zionism has loosened its connection with Judaism and moored itself instead in Israeli identity. This type of Zionism is better understood as Israeli nationalism rather than Jewish nationalism. All nations are the product of time. Before 1948, there could be no Israeli nation, because Israelis didn’t exist. But 76 years of history are enough to create a new nation.

    The whole article may be worth a read: Yuval Noah Harari, “Will Zionism survive the war?”, The Washington Post, 05/14/2024.

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