Sunday's Rally in New York Is Just About Israeli Hostages—that's Not OK

“I cannot call for the release of the hostages without an explicit demand for an immediate cease-fire and an end to the Israeli assault on Gaza.”

Ellen Lippmann

Palestinian children in Gaza holding banners on February 27, 2024 to protest the lack of food and water as the Israeli assault on Gaza continues and starvation and dehydration is widespread. Photo by Abed Zagout/Anadolu via Getty Images

A large swath of New York’s Jewish community is planning to gather in Midtown Manhattan on Sunday to urge that the Israelis held hostage for six months in Gaza finally be brought home. 

But as much as I want those hostages released, I will not be standing with those in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza. 

The hostages need to be brought home, to be reunited with loved ones, to get the care they need. But I cannot call for the release of the hostages without an explicit demand for an immediate cease-fire and an end to the Israeli assault on Gaza.

But as much as I want those hostages released, I will not be standing with those in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza. ... I cannot call for the release of the hostages without an explicit demand for an immediate cease-fire and an end to the Israeli assault on Gaza.

And I cannot call for the hostages to be brought home without underscoring that in retaliating for Hamas’ atrocities, the Israeli military has killed more than 33,000 Palestinians, injured more than 75,000 others, displaced more than 80% of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents, and starved hundreds of thousands, including so many babies and children.

The Flour Massacre” in late February and the killing earlier this week of aid workers with World Central Kitchen have only added to the ongoing horrors of death and starvation.

The members of my Brooklyn congregation have found many ways to respond. Some protest in the streets. Others call elected officials, pleading for a change in policy; some joined the Uncommitted national movement and took action at the ballot box in New York’s Democratic primary by leaving their vote for president blank. Some have given to Israeli peace organizations, others have sent donations to aid organizations trying to help starving Palestinians. And yes, some may be going to the April 7 rally.

Every fiber of my being cries out against deliberate starvation as an act of war.

For me, confronting starvation and the humanitarian disaster is paramount. I spent much of my career helping feed people, first as founder of the soup kitchen at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (the Reform Jewish seminary in New York) then as East Coast Director of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger (which raises funds and then gives grants to service and advocacy organizations focused on hunger), and later as a volunteer with Interfaith Voices Against Hunger.

Every fiber of my being cries out against deliberate starvation as an act of war.

Palestinians reaching out for flour in Gaza on November 13, 2023. Photo by Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images

I got notice early last week of Sunday’s gathering to call for the release of the hostages. But the notice was only about that. 

There are many rabbis I admire whose shuls (synagogues) and organizations are signed onto the event. But what they have signed onto is woefully insufficient, and makes no mention of what would actually bring hostages home — a full and permanent cease-fire. And these shuls and organizations have placed their logos alongside organizations that offer every justification for Israel’s most violent actions.

I can only stand with Jews who also see the pain of Palestinians, the mourning for so many dead, the horror of starvation, the killing of those offering or reaching for food.

And when I stand with Palestinians and other supporters of Gaza, I can only do so with those who also see the pain of Israelis while the hostages are still held captive, while the mourning for their dead continues, while released hostages go through the long slow process of healing. 

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It is why I am so glad to be part of Rabbis4Ceasefire, why I am a proud board member of Jews For Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ). Both groups have managed to walk this fine line in an excruciatingly painful time, refusing to condemn people for the actions of their leaders, refusing to see human beings as less than human. 

This diminishing of humanity may be the greatest danger of engaging in violent enmity beyond the loss of life itself. 

Humans are likened to insects, to vermin, to animals of all kinds, for only then can those who kill convince themselves that the killing is deserved or necessary. I refuse to allow myself to see any human being as less than human, so I insist that we must recognize the grief of all those in mourning.

I can only stand with Jews who also see the pain of Palestinians, the mourning for so many dead, the horror of starvation, the killing of those offering or reaching for food. And when I stand with Palestinians and other supporters of Gaza, I can only do so with those who also see the pain of Israelis while the hostages are still held captive, while the mourning for their dead continues, while released hostages go through the long slow process of healing.

Like many others, I now find myself standing outside the Jewish community,” fearing that there are few Jews I can be shoulder-to-shoulder with in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza if they can call only for the release of hostages without a word for the many, many, many Palestinians killed by bombs and dying of starvation.

How can anyone imagine that hostages can be released without a full cease-fire in place? How dare they even suggest a brief cease-fire only to release the hostages, followed by resumption of bombing? A full cease-fire must begin as soon as it possibly can, so that not only will those hostages who are still alive come home, and the bombings end, but also so some wise and imaginative minds can begin to think about what follows.

Because the event will take place in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza, I looked for some wisdom in Hammarskjöld’s own words (he was the former, second Secretary-General of the United Nations). In 1953, he wrote:

On my father’s side I inherited a belief that no life was more satisfactory than one of selfless service to your country — or humanity. This service required a sacrifice of all personal interests, but likewise the courage to stand up unflinchingly for your convictions. … On my mother’s side, I inherited a belief that … all men were equals as children of God.

Palestinians waiting in long lines for bread in Gaza on January 30, 2024. Photo by Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images

Service to humanity requires sacrifice and courage. All people are equal as children of God and should be treated so. Wisdom indeed. Yet where in Israel-Palestine, in Gaza, can we see this courage, this equality? Where in our New York Jewish community can we find the courage to speak truly about the needed return of the hostages and also the need for an immediate full cease-fire and freedom and equality for Palestinians and Jews?

I have been a student of Israeli scholar and scientist, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, often shunned for his truth-telling about the dangers of the decades-long Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. In 1994, Joel Greenberg wrote in his obituary of Leibowitz in the New York Times that shortly after the 1967 war, Leibowitz began warning that the occupation of the territories would turn Israel into an agent of repression” and that Israel had to liberate itself from this curse of dominating another people.”

Yes, bring the hostages home. And yes, a full and immediate cease-fire. And yes, stop starvation as a tool of war; safe entry of aid organizations to Gaza and safe access to food and aid for Palestinians.

It is deeply saddening to see the ways Leibovwtz’s prediction has proven true. If Leibowitz, a Zionist and Orthodox Jew, could see so clearly what Israel had and might yet become, can New York’s Jewish community not be as clear-eyed?

I ask my colleagues who will gather on Sunday to hear the voice of Hammarskjöld as they come together, and to listen to Leibowitz, who was so often seen as outside the community. I ask them, too, to listen to the voices that urge them to see the violence and destruction taking place in our names, and to expand their call:

Yes, bring the hostages home. And yes, a full and immediate cease-fire. And yes, stop starvation as a tool of war; safe entry of aid organizations to Gaza and safe access to food and aid for Palestinians.

As we say in prayer, kein yehi ratzon—may it be God’s will. May it also be ours.

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Rabbi Ellen Lippmann is the founder and Rabbi Emerita of Kolot Chayeinu/​Voices of Our Lives, where she worked for 25 years with many others to build a progressive Jewish community in Brooklyn.

Rabbi Lippmann was co-chair and served on the board of T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights for 18 years. She served as the first social justice chair for the Women’s Rabbinic Network. She serves on the boards of JFREJ: Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

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