As a Jew, I want to defend Israel. But I can’t justify the destruction in Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more of a threat than a leader. His angry rhetoric and pummeling of Gaza only increase hatred of Israel and make all Jews unsafe all over the world.

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Palestinians displaced from Gaza City to the southern Gaza Strip by the Israel-Hamas war are shown heading south on Nov. 10. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Israel must do “much more” to protect civilians in Gaza.

Palestinians displaced from Gaza City to the southern Gaza Strip by the Israel-Hamas war are shown heading south on Nov. 10. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Israel must do “much more” to protect civilians in Gaza.

Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty

My anguish over the war in Israel feels very personal, and I’m struggling to figure out why. Culturally Jewish, I follow the traditions I grew up with but rarely attend religious services. When I do, it’s to the humanistic congregation focused on values rather than belief in a higher being.

And I don’t talk much about my Jewish heritage. It just never seems like a good idea because to be Jewish, for me, is to always feel a bit apart and more than a bit on alert.

I learned at a young age not to be overt about my heritage. Ours was one of only three Jewish families in a small Michigan community dominated by Catholics. The racist John Birch Society was featured at a (mandatory) high school assembly.

My first and only antisemitic hate crime came as the 1973 Yom Kippur War raged. My freshman college dorm at Michigan was targeted for having a high percentage of Jewish students. I hadn’t even been aware of this, but someone had taken note. Every night for a week, we evacuated because of bomb threats. Frightened at first, we soon laughed it off because we hadn’t yet experienced anyone following through on such radical hate crime threats.

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There’s nothing to laugh about now, as hate crimes against Jews and Muslims have become epidemic on college campuses here and around the globe.

The horrific Hamas attack on Israeli civilians on Oct. 7 prompts me to think more deeply than ever about my Jewish heritage. I remember Yiddish patter between parents and elders. When my mother’s friend showed me the number tattooed on his arm at Auschwitz, he said “Never forget.” I promised I never would. Aunts and uncles argued over dinner about ways to ensure Israel’s stability.

And I remember the traditional Passover seder lines from Exodus that personalize the ancient Jewish experience. “It’s because of what the Lord did for me when I was freed from Egypt.” This connects each of us to the experience of moving from slavery to freedom. And although my family’s current Passover Haggadah is adapted from more progressive writings, I did internalize this lesson of Exodus.

Jewish history is engraved on me, as it is on so many other secular Jews, and I feel more connected to the Jewish diaspora than I could ever have predicted.

Netanyahu’s actions increase hatred of Israel

So, as the horrors of war are multiplying daily, I instinctively want to defend Israel, but can’t justify the unimaginable destruction in Gaza. On Oct. 7, Hamas’ unthinkable brutality violated international humanitarian law, and they must be held accountable. Benjamin Netanyahu’s relentless counter-attack must face the same consequences.

Netanyahu is more of a threat than a leader. His angry rhetoric and pummeling of Gaza only increase hatred of Israel. It has made all Jews unsafe around the world. He has made all of us unsafe.

My Jewish friends will recognize this feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Until Oct. 7, I could comfortably say I support Israel, but didn’t support Netanyahu. Now, I can only hope Israelis quickly unite behind a leader better suited to the moment. Netanyahu’s response is again making me want to closet my Jewish heritage. But I’m speaking out because I feel this is our collective responsibility not only as Jews but as humans.

Leading with values rather than religion, I want the civilian deaths of both Palestinians and Israelis to stop. News that Israel agreed to allow a four-hour daily “humanitarian pause” is encouraging but doesn’t seem near enough. A true ceasefire providing for more extensive humanitarian aid could provide a long enough window to negotiate the release of Israeli hostages, as well as those from other nations, and open a potential diplomatic path to a two-state solution.

If I were the praying type, I’d be begging for a ceasefire as the next step toward finding the elusive but so necessary lasting peace.

Marj Halperin is a communications consultant to nonprofits and government agencies. Her political commentary has been featured on WGN TV, CTV Canada and WCPT radio.

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