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URJ’s Call for a “Humanitarian Pause” is Irresponsible

The URJ did not provide any details for its war plans, which seem to amount to an unconditional cessation of hostilities by Israel.
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October 31, 2023
Protesters stage a demonstration in support of a cease fire against the Palestinians in Gaza in the Cannon House Office Building on October 18, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Well, that was quick.

After the barbaric Hamas attacks on Israel that left 1,400 dead and a nation traumatized, most Jews understood that the immediate international vows of support for Israel would soon evaporate in the face of the inevitable toll on Gaza civilians and fear, especially in European countries, about their own Arab streets. That took about 10 days, hastened by the false reports about Israel blowing up the Gaza hospital.

What was less clear was how long it would take before Jews, in the face of the greatest atrocity since the Holocaust, would begin to diverge from Israel to promote other agendas. The answer, we now know, is three weeks. On Friday the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) — leaders of the largest denomination of Jews in North America — called for the swift release of all the hostages and for a “humanitarian pause” to “ensure that food, water, medicine, and other humanitarian aid can flow more quickly into Gaza.”

The URJ did not provide any details for its war plans, which seem to amount to an unconditional cessation of hostilities by Israel. It did not, for instance, say how long this pause should last or whether it was plausible that Israel could restart bombing and the ground campaign, presumably leading to the same humanitarian concerns as before. The URJ also simply ignored that Hamas would use the time to rebuild its command-and-control functions, give its fighters a rest and allow Iran and other supporters to resupply it. As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, noted, “People who are calling for a  ceasefire now don’t understand Hamas … It would be such a gift to Hamas because they would spend whatever time [that] there was a ceasefire in effect rebuilding their armaments … to be able to fend off an eventual assault by the Israelis.”

The URJ said it was repeating the calls of some in the U.S. government for a humanitarian pause.  It did not say if there were any Israelis of note who were calling for such a gambit. In making recommendations for how war should proceed, the greatest credence should be given those who are within missile range and have to fight, and who will suffer if it goes badly.

The URJ did say that, “At the same time, there must be guarantees that Hamas will not siphon off the aid. Hospitals must be able to function. Families must not starve.” There will be no such guarantees. I know from having studied peacekeeping for many years, including co-editing the first major pubic examination of the US/UN intervention in Somalia, that aid resources are routinely diverted by armed groups who are invariably more motivated to steal than international authorities, dedicated to preventing their officials from being in harm’s way, are to preventing theft. Hamas has shown what they can do to Israelis, and previously demonstrated their willingness to kill fellow Palestinians when they took over Gaza in 2007. To build their army, they will steal the aid resources that others, with the best of intentions, provide, just as they have done for the past 16 years.

To build their army, Hamas will steal the aid resources that others, with the best of intentions, provide, just as they have done for the past 16 years.

Perhaps even more dangerous is the URJ’s reframing of the conflict. Other than the fate of Gazans, the URJ focuses only on the over 200 hostages taken by Hamas.  Everyone hopes, of course, that they are released immediately. However, the larger truth is that all 9.4 million Israelis are being held hostage by Hamas and Hezbollah by the threat of missiles and further terrorist incursions. Unless Israel succeeds in dismantling Hamas and restoring deterrence in the region, its people will never be safe. That is the true hostage crisis that must be resolved.

Humanitarian concerns during war should always be discussed. However, Israel has reached a desperate moment where the valid concerns about the safety of others must be subsumed before a more basic priority: Survival.

To read Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ response, click here.


Jeffrey Herbst is President of American Jewish University. He was for 18 years a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. He is the co- editor of, among other publications, “Learning from Somalia: The Lessons of Armed Humanitarian Intervention.”

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