“On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die after a long life and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning.” — Unetanneh Tokef (ונתנה תקף)
Every year during the High Holy Days, I join fellow Jews around the world in reciting the Unetanneh Tokef. This piyyut — a Jewish liturgical poem — is an homage to the awesome power of G-d to judge humans and determine the outcomes of our lives. While I do not believe in a supernatural G-d, as a reconstructionist Jew, I find the concept to be a useful framework to think with: that which is greater than ourselves, with wisdom beyond our reach.
For the last two weeks the phrase “who will live and who will die” has been on a loop in my brain and seemingly on my Twitter account too. Because the Untanneh Tokef proclaims that only G-d determines who will live and who will die. This is a decision that is above the pay grade of any humans. And for me that is the context of how to think about what has happened not just over the last few weeks but also the last 75 years, since the State of Israel formed through the Nakba (النكبة), the Palestinian experience of catastrophic dispossession.
I will make no attempt to summarize the specific events that are the apparent catalyst of the last two weeks except to say that I have looked at +972 Magazine journalist Oren Ziv’s photos of dead Israelis on the lawns of kibbutzim that were built on top of former Palestinian villages which were ethnically cleansed during the Nakba. I have read the stories of the kidnappings at the music festival. I have seen the bloodied walls, and the pleas from families of the kidnapped who feel their government is not supporting the effort to bring the hostages home alive. I have also read about the Thai farmworkers who were killed, kidnapped, or displaced by the violence, and who are largely invisible among the evolving narratives about who was impacted by the incursions. These deeply painful images and stories have been unfamiliar to me and the rest of the world because this kind of incident on Israeli soil is so unfamiliar.
But what is familiar: Israel’s response to the Sukkot killings, which has been to engage in collective punishment, a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions.
In the days since, I have watched far more familiar images come in: Palestinians running for their lives after 1.1 million people were told by Israel to evacuate northern Gaza “or else.” I have seen the since-deleted tweet from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that (maybe coincidentally, but in either case notably) recalls Nazi S.S. language but this time referring to Palestinians instead of Jews. I have seen dead babies pulled from rubble and families attempting to pull up people who are hanging off the ledge of a building half-destroyed by Israeli rockets. Then there are the stories about the facilities that get bombed, places that provide shelter for refugees and offer sustenance to whole communities: a UN school; a charitable bakery that feeds thousands; a Christian church and the dead people inside are articulated as collateral damage. Two of the those dead Palestinian Christians are members of a former U.S. Republican lawmaker’s family. Yet this does not seem to give the U.S. President pause, even as he asks for over $10 billion in military aid for Israel, while only offering $100 million in humanitarian aid for Gaza. It took two weeks for any humanitarian aid to be allowed into Gaza by Israel, and it is only 20 trucks for over 2 million people who are running out of fuel, water, and food. As of this writing, the UN is reporting that up to 42% of housing in Gaza has been damaged or completely destroyed.
These scenes feel familiar because Gaza is the world’s largest open air prison, and as Human Rights Watch has reported, the State of Israel is committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution against the Palestinians, not just in Gaza but also within Israel’s internationally recognized borders as well as the West Bank. And those of us who have been paying attention have seen the bombs, the dead babies, the people starving, the blockade that makes a 2023 population dependent on donkeys for transport while just kilometers away on the other side of a wall, people readily access cars.
I have been watching Israel do some version of this for my entire life. I have read story after story after story after story of hospital bombings. There was that time in 2018 when IDF shot and killed a medic and also shot a Canadian doctor and professor of medicine who was volunteering his services. In context of this history, it is almost but not really funny that a point of political tension over the last week has been whether Israel is responsible for the 17 October bombing of the al-Ahli Arab Hospital, where up to 600 people may have died, just three days after the imaging departments had already been damaged by shelling. Israel and Islamic Jihad have both pointed the finger at each other. Debates rage on social media about whether the damaged buildings look like they were caused by Israeli munitions or not.
And I think, so they want us to believe that it is outrageous to think they would bomb a hospital when they have done so many times before, when they admit to the school, the bakery, the church, and all of the apartment buildings. “But we didn’t do the hospital!” doesn’t make me feel better about the situation. The New York Times published a graphic which shows that usually Palestinians die in large numbers during these so-called “conflicts” and very few Israelis do. We are not witnessing a fight between equals. What is happening is a settler colonial state engaging in genocidal violence against a minority population that it finds to be inconvenient.
I have no special insider knowledge of which bombs destroyed the hospital; I do know the hospital was warned by Israel to evacuate, and that this kind of control is a normative feature of Palestinian life. I know also that forcing a hospital to evacuate without providing the resources to safely do so is inevitably a death sentence for patients whose lives are totally dependent on the hospital's resources. While I was putting the finishing touches on this newsletter, I saw reports that last night an Israeli airstrike had hit a refugee camp in the West Bank, killing two Palestinian medics (Al Jazeera is providing live updates).
As this has been unfolding, I joined a too small number of scientists who were the initial co-signers of a statement written by a group called Scientists for Palestine (S4P), which I am not an active member of. The statement, which was written with feedback from Palestinian scientists, is primarily a call for a ceasefire and an end to the illegal, violent collective punishment being meted out to Palestinians. To situate this call in context, the statement contains the following paragraph:
At the time of writing this letter, well over 3,000 Palestinians (including at least 1,000 children ) have been killed by indiscriminate Israeli bombing, and over 10,000 have been injured . Water, food, medical supplies, and energy (electricity and fuel) have been cut off, threatening a complete shutdown of all medical facilities in Gaza, including e.g. children’s incubators and dialysis machines . The number of internally displaced Palestinians without access to proper shelter or safety has just surpassed one million . The reach of Israeli airstrikes has demonstrated a repeated breach of international law, resulting in the indiscriminate bombing of schools  as well as of two of the seven universities in the Gaza Strip, including the Islamic University of Gaza [11,12], the largest in the region. On October 17th, the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, operated by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, was destroyed and this resulted in the deaths of over 500 people [13,14].
The last sentence is a point of contention for some people, though as S4P has said on their twitter, it was modified to avoid directly laying blame on Israel for the bombing of the hospital. There are scientists who have refused to have their name associated with the statement because of this one sentence that might lay blame on Israel for doing a thing that they had suggested they might do and which they have done several times before in the past.
I cannot imagine withholding adding my voice to the choir calling for a ceasefire and an end to the threats of mass civilian death over this, even if I shared this objection. The word "truth" gets thrown around a lot in these conversations, as if IDF, Netanyahu, and the US state apparatus never lie but should still always be believed over Palestinians and Hamas.
I also want to point out that Palestinian scientists believe that Israel is plausibly responsible for the bombing of the hospital, and who am I, from the comfort of my living room to tell them that after decades of experiencing living under Israeli occupation, that they are wrong? If I had been living the way these scientists have been living, with the persistent reality of the periodic destruction of humanitarian facilities, aware that Israel does in fact bomb hospitals, I would react the way they are reacting and analyze the data the way they are analyzing it. I too would conclude that the whole thing is the state of Israel’s responsibility whether it was an IDF airstrike or artillery strike or not.
There are also scientists who have refused to sign on or otherwise make any public statements against the unfolding genocide because they do not want to upset their Zionist and/or Israeli scientific colleagues. I cannot imagine failing to oppose a genocide because I didn't want to hurt someone's feelings. But also, it’s interesting that they don’t seem to care about the feelings of non-Israeli Palestinian scientists, including Palestinian students who may be watching to see if they are included in our statements of support for "diversity and inclusion." I’m willing to bet that like me, most of them do not have a Palestinian colleague in their circle of research collaborators, and they’ve never stopped to ask why they work with so many Israelis and Israeli institutions and no Palestinians. In my view, this concern for one group but not the other is a product of socialized supremacy and humanization of one group over the other, and it is also a willingness to sustain the status quo because it is professionally safer.
There are specific professional opportunities I am thinking of that I may very well be denied because I have been outspoken on this issue. Despite all the conservative talk about fighting cancel culture, people who support Palestine are very much targeted. But my moral commitment to building a better world has to be a higher priority than my professional aspirations.
As a particle physicist, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that others in my field don’t necessarily see it this way — we were, after all, somewhat born as a discipline out of the Manhattan Project. Nonetheless, I hope that scientists of all kinds, including in the particle physics community, will ask themselves what their moral commitments are in this moment. If you’ve ever said, “never again,” then don’t just talk about it, be about it. If you’ve ever proclaimed “Black Lives Matter,” know that the tactics IDF hones on Palestinians it then teaches to US police forces, who then use them brutally against Black people in the US. These deadly exchanges are well-documented and highlight the way in which standing up for Black lives means also standing for Palestine, and not just because there are Black Palestinians, too.
As I write, Palestinians are running for their lives in yet another episode of a neverending catastrophe. There is a quote commonly attributed to legendary, barrier-breaking Black baseball player Jackie Robinson: “It is up to us in the north to provide aid and support to those who are actually bearing the brunt of the fight for equality down south.” It is up to us to provide aid and support to those who are actually bearing the brunt of the fight for justice and right of return in Palestine. It is up to us to understand that none of us are safe until all of us are safe, throughout our collective diasporas.
People have said they want no part in the violence, and that’s fine. I'm not interested in it either, though I understand it is more likely to happen when peaceful protest is suppressed. I agree with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous words, that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” If you don’t want the riot, make sure all are heard. Although boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) is now in some form or another illegal in 35 US states, we should all support the call from Palestinian civil society for BDS, which is peaceful. Recently, the Just Mathematics Collective made such a call to their corner of the STEM community. And we should all demand a ceasefire, an end to the occupation, and an end to apartheid as a matter of urgency, using whatever platform and means is available to us.
It’s worth remembering that in his “I have a dream” speech, King quoted the Book of Amos 5:24 (of the Jewish Tanakh, recast by Christians as The Old Testament), “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” If you’ve ever read Amos, then you know that it is a book that prophecies G-d’s violence after humans have: harmed women’s bodies in order to draw borders, cast out exiles, mistreated exiles, and raised arms against their brothers. Of course, this retribution is G-d’s vengeance to mete out, not humankind’s. Nevertheless, the justice King spoke of was potentially a violent kind, a prediction of what would come if G-d’s people did not learn to deal fairly with both each other and with outsiders.
Let us deal fairly with our Palestinian colleagues by heeding their cries for justice. Let us all find a way to use whatever platform is available to us to visibly stand in solidarity with them.
Scientists who want to co-sign the S4P statement can do so here. Those who want to learn about BDS can do so here. I want to remind people also that if you don't like the language of the statements that are in circulation, you always have the power to write and circulate your own.
Those who wish to read analysis and history (from both Jews and Palestinians) of what is happening can find useful information at +972 Magazine, Jewish Currents, n+1 magazine, Mondoweiss, and Democracy Now. The Haaretz op-ed section can also be useful.
Those interested in Palestinian and Israeli human rights work should visit the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and B'Tselem. Jewish Voice for Peace, where I have long been a member, is an American counterpart to these organizations. Also, on Monday 23 October, Palestine Action US is launching and joining Palestine Action UK to support the campaign to #ShutElbitDown. You can watch the campaign launch here.