The anguish of a Jew watching a war from afar

Henry Jay Karp is the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanuel in Davenport, Iowa, which he served from 1985 to 2017. He is the co-founder and co-convener of One Human Family QCA, a social justice organization. In this photo from 2001, he is standing in front of a salt rock in the Negev (southern Israel).

A death toll of over 2,800 and growing. Some 150 Israelis—men, women, children, the elderly—held hostage in Gaza by the terrorist organization Hamas. Entire families massacred. Bodies of dead babies. Israel is in a struggle to the death with its blood enemy, Hamas.

Being a New Yorker born and bred, I must admit that I never felt the need to fly until, as a college graduate, I joined my classmates as we boarded a flight to Israel, bound for our first year of rabbinic study in Jerusalem. It did not take long before I fell in love with the 4,000-year-old homeland of my people. Since then, I have journeyed there several times.  It is my home away from home; second in my heart only to my beloved U.S.A.

As a lover of Israel, I can attest that these days a heavy cloud hangs over the Jewish people, not only in Israel but around the world. It’s a cloud of anguish, violence, fear, death, and profound grief, born of the recent Hamas attacks waged against the Israeli towns and villages on Israel’s southern border, along with the ongoing barrage of missiles fired by Hamas, targeting civilian populations as far away from Gaza as Tel Aviv. The pain of Jews is very real and very raw, as there is hardly a Jewish household, inside and outside of Israel, untouched by a personal loss because of this, the greatest mass murder and hostage taking of Jews since the Holocaust.


Some moments in history are indelibly burned into my memory. On Saturday, October 22. 1962, I sat with my parents in front of our tv as President John F. Kennedy informed the nation of the Cuban Missile Crisis and as we feared a nuclear holocaust was imminent. I was in high school the afternoon of November 22,1963, my birthday, when I first was told of President Kennedy’s assassination. On September 11, 2001, I was watching the Today Show while dressing for work when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center.

So it was on Saturday, October 7, 2023. Since early morning, I had been at a local church, preparing for a summit meeting of social justice advocacy organizations to discuss how we can “Re-Imagine Social Justice Activism” since the strategies of the past have become totally ineffective. Following the summit was an Intersectional Social Justice Resource fair. 

Having left my home so early that I did not have a chance to watch the morning news, I was caught completely by surprise when someone at the resource fair offered me words of comfort concerning the war in Israel. What war in Israel? He showed me reports and videos on his cell phone. I was devastated.

I tried to focus on the resource fair, but my mind was filled with concern for my fellow Jews in Israel. I sat in a corner and checked my phone for news, but I did not sit for long. I had to leave. I had to go to synagogue. I had to be with Jews. I had to pray. It was Shabbat, and I still could catch a good part of the service. 

I sat in the back. I didn’t even have a tallit (prayer shawl), but I did not care. My heart was heavy, and my prayers poured out of me. In the words of the psalmist, “Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem!”


As the day wore on, it struck me. The tactics of Hamas—starting with a mammoth missile barrage and followed by coordinated attacks by land, sea, and air—was not only dramatically different from every other Hamas offensive, but was too complex an operation to be masterminded by those who in the past relied upon the guerilla tactics of terrorism. The planning of this offensive smacked of a strategist with a military mind. Some of the questions that need to be answered include:

Who planned the attack?

What nation provided military advisors to help Hamas with this operation?

How were they able to do it under the radar of Israel and U.S., which operate some of the world’s most effective intelligence agencies?

Was it Iran, the principal sponsor of Hamas?

Was it Russia, seeking to draw U.S. support away from Ukraine?

Was it Saudi Arabia, looking to derail talks with Israel, which the U.S. has brokered?

The rest of last weekend, I was glued to the media news and their round the clock reporting on the war. I was horrified as the death toll continued to climb. I was heartbroken as more and more stories of atrocities were coming to light.

Monday morning, opening Facebook, my heart broke as I scrolled down the home page to see posting after posting of pictures of Israelis who were either captured or killed by Hamas terrorists. An entire family murdered. An 80-year-old grandmother kidnapped, being driven to Gaza on the golf cart of her murdered neighbors. So many beautiful and handsome young Israelis slaughtered at a music festival.

Videos of Hamas terrorists paragliding into that festival in a scene strikingly reminiscent of the classic film “Red Dawn.” Another of a lovely young couple who were murdered while defending their home, but not before they had hidden their two young twins in a safe room. The boys were rescued hours later and now must face the rest of their lives as orphans.

Then there was the young Israeli boy held hostage, surrounded by Palestinian children who were abusing him. There were so many other images that were posted, I cannot list them all: heartbreaking images of young and old, civilians and soldiers, whose lives have been snuffed out or who, as hostages, now face an uncertain and dangerous future.


For those who seek to twist this narrative, claiming that the Israelis are to blame, let me remind you of some facts.

Ever since the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel soundly defeated the invading armies of several Arab nations and expanded their borders, Israel has sought peace with the Arab world. No sooner did that war end than Israel offered to exchange land for peace. Eventually, after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Egypt, under Anwar Sadat, took them up on that offer. Egypt was able to have the Sinai and its oil fields returned, thanks to a treaty brokered by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. For his efforts to bring peace to the region, Sadat paid with his life.

Israel willingly sat down to negotiate in peace processes arranged by every U.S. president from Jimmy Carter to Donald Trump: Presidents Bill Clinton (Oslo in 1993 and Camp David in 2000), George W. Bush (the Roadmap to Peace in 2002), Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry (Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks in 2013), and Donald Trump (the Abraham Accords in 2020). All efforts to reach a deal between Israel and the Palestinians failed, but some talks led to peace with several of Israel’s neighbors. 

Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005, under the most unlikely of all Israeli leaders, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Placing Gaza under the administration of the Palestinian Authority, they pulled out every soldier and every Israeli settler, leaving intact every Israeli settlement with their valuable industrial and agricultural operations so the Gazans could build their own economy.

However, soon after that disengagement, Hamas overthrew the Palestinian Authority administration and took control of Gaza. They dismantled the lucrative businesses of the former Israeli settlements in order to strip their machinery for parts to be used in the building of weapons. They transformed Gaza into the staging area for terrorist attacks, the worst of which we are witnessing today.

Through it all, Hamas refused to join in peace negotiations with because they clung to their desire to see the total elimination of Israel and the annihilation of its Jewish citizenry. Israelis and Jews around the world take that threat seriously, especially in the wake of the Holocaust.

Let the words of the 1988 Hamas Charter speak for itself. Here are just a few examples of eliminationist rhetoric (the charter contains many more).

  • “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.”
  • “Our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious. It needs all sincere efforts. It is a step that inevitably should be followed by other steps. The Movement is but one squadron that should be supported by more and more squadrons from this vast Arab and Islamic world, until the enemy is vanquished, and Allah’s victory is realized.”
  • “In all that, they fear Allah and raise the banner of Jihad in the face of the oppressors, so that they would rid the land and the people of their uncleanliness, vileness and evils.”
  • “The Islamic Resistance Movement is a distinguished Palestinian movement… It strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.”
  • “The Islamic Resistance Movement aspires to the realization of Allah’s promise, no matter how long that should take. The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said (in the Koran): ‘The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him. Only the Gharkad tree, (evidently a certain kind of tree) would not do that because it is one of the trees of the Jews.'”
  • “The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgement Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered: it, or any part of it, should not be given up.”
  • “Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement. Abusing any part of Palestine is abuse directed against part of religion. Nationalism of the Islamic Resistance Movement is part of its religion. Its members have been fed on that. For the sake of hoisting the banner of Allah over their homeland they fight.”
  • “Palestine is an Islamic land which has the first of the two kiblahs (direction to which Moslems turn in praying), the third of the holy (Islamic) sanctuaries, and the point of departure for Mohamed’s midnight journey to the seven heavens (i.e. Jerusalem) … Since this is the case, liberation of Palestine is then an individual duty for every Moslem wherever he may be.”
  • “For a long time, the enemies have been planning, skillfully and with precision, for the achievement of what they have attained. They took into consideration the causes affecting the current of events. They strived to amass great and substantive material wealth which they devoted to the realization of their dream. With their money, they took control of the world media, news agencies, the press, publishing houses, broadcasting stations, and others. With their money they stirred revolutions in various parts of the world with the purpose of achieving their interests and reaping the fruit therein. […] You may speak as much as you want about regional and world wars. They were behind World War I, when they were able to destroy the Islamic Caliphate, making financial gains and controlling resources. They obtained the Balfour Declaration, formed the League of Nations through which they could rule the world. They were behind World War II, through which they made huge financial gains by trading in armaments and paved the way for the establishment of their state. It was they who instigated the replacement of the League of Nations with the United Nations and the Security Council to enable them to rule the world through them. There is no war going on anywhere, without having their finger in it.”

Terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah have no desire to negotiate peace and no interest whatsoever in a two-state solution. They do not wish to live in a Palestinian state, side-by-side with Israel, and will only accept a Palestinian state that replaces Israel. As is chanted at every pro-Hamas protest rally around the world, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine must be free!” The “river” is the Jordan, and the “sea” is the Mediterranean. That encompasses the entire area, leaving no room for Israel.

Obviously, Israel will never agree to its own extinction. President Kennedy once said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” Israel has sought, time and again, to find a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict but has been thwarted by the intransigence of Hamas.

It should not be surprising that for many Israelis, the dream of a two-state solution has faded to almost non-existence. The loss of that dream put hardliners like Benjamin Netanyahu and other members of his cabinet in power. The horrors of this latest attack have pushed them to embrace the policy of responding to this violence with a violence of their own like no other Israeli response to date.

In the past, when Hamas has run out of missiles, they have agreed to a ceasefire, but never to peace. Under international pressure, Israel also agreed. I expect that will not be the case this time. Netanyahu will not be satisfied, nor will he be bullied into a ceasefire by international opinion and influence. He will not stop until Hamas is dismantled, either through its surrender or destruction.

The war he envisions will be long and difficult with a profound loss of life on both sides which could only be considered a humanitarian tragedy. But in the end, when the smoke clears, the dream of a two-state solution, with Palestinians and Israelis living peacefully, may be reborn.


As I conclude this text, on Facebook I came upon a post that brought me to tears. It contained the photo of a murdered 8-year-old Israeli girl, Emily, whose life was cut far too short. Her grieving father Thomas shared powerful words explaining why he considered her death a blessing over being kidnapped and held hostage by Hamas.

What greater tragedy can there be than the death of children on both sides? In order to save more Israeli children from suffering Emily’s fate—in order to put an end to Hamas barbarism once and for all—Israel has chosen a path in which children in Gaza will die as collateral casualties. Although Israel’s government warned Gazan civilians in advance to flee to safety, nowhere in Gaza is truly safe. Those Palestinian children are as much the victims of Hamas as was beautiful Emily.

Already we see the narrative shifting in the news media, away from the outrage at Hamas atrocities and toward condemnation of Israel for incurring civilian casualties as it seeks to destroy Hamas. If only those so quick to criticize Israel would be equally adamant to partner with Israel in developing and putting into place the means by which they could move the innocents of Gaza out of harm’s way. They could create a place of safety where people can be fed, sheltered, and cared for until Hamas is destroyed. Then they could move back to their homes in Gaza, where international assistance would still be available as they strive to rebuild their lives into better lives.

In the words of Israel’s fourth Prime Minister Golda Meir, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.”

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  • Powerful

    Yesterday evening we began watching the 2022 PBS Holocaust film produced by Ken Burns and others. I won’t mention details as too hard. Sufficient to say the USA was not the “land of the free and home of the brave” in the years leading up to our entry into WWII. Thank you Rabbi.

  • . Maybe not the time for lay analyses

    always impossible to work out from afar when there is willful ignorance at work versus unconscious biases but these sorts of brutal simplifiers of such complex and heterogeneous matters just feed the fires, the mind boggles (and the soul recoils) at statements like “Then they could move back to their homes in Gaza” being raised as serious offerings in the context of the history of this tragic conflict.

    • some context

      “Expulsionist sentiment is common in Israeli society and politics. To ignore the warning signs is to abdicate responsibility.” -Peter Beinart