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  • Writer's pictureAriel Tovlev

In Support of a Ceasefire

I have not said much on the war in Israel and Palestine. In truth, it has been hard to find words. My heart has been broken, and I have been grieving.

I have been grieving for those killed in the brutal attacks on October 7. I have been grieving for those kidnapped, living in unthinkable conditions, those whom we still do not know whether they are alive or dead. I have been grieving for those killed in bombings and air strikes. I have been grieving for those who have lost their homes, their homeland, their hope. I have been grieving for those who do not have enough food or water, who don’t know how much longer they have.

I have a deep love for my people. But my love for my own does not preclude my love for others. After all, one of the most repeated phrases in the Torah is to love the stranger.

While I consider myself a Zionist because I believe that Israel has the right to exist as a homeland for Jews, I often use the term Critical Zionist to qualify that my love and support of Israel does not come at the cost of death, destruction, and suffering of others. I am critical of Israel’s actions because I believe a Jewish state must uphold Jewish values, such as to love and not oppress the stranger. I further believe that nonviolence is the best path forward for the safety and security of all peoples living in the land, Jews and non-Jews alike. But in truth, I am not writing about my political beliefs; I am writing about my moral position.

This recent conflict has torn our communities apart. Some people I love dearly have used dehumanizing language against Palestinians, calling them “animals” and “barely human.” Some have even gone so far as to suggest that Israel will never be safe until Palestine is eliminated. Other people I love have engaged in blood libel, suggesting that all Jews are bloodthirsty killers who want to take over the world. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that Hitler was right in wanting to exterminate us.

So many people have hardened their hearts. Many with hardened hearts have tried to express their love for one group, only to end up expressing hatred for another group instead. Love cannot translate into hate. The feelings warp and change, becoming something else entirely. Hate cannot represent love. It only represents hate.

As someone who is trying their hardest to keep their heart open, no space has felt safe. Trying to show support for Israel, I feel hurt by the anti-Palestinian and often islamophobic hatred. Trying to show support for Palestine, I feel hurt by the anti-Israel and often antisemitic hatred. I have felt like my love is unwanted, and therefore it has nowhere to go.

So I have been silent. I have not allowed myself to join conversations or demonstrations. I have been afraid of what others may say or who I may end up in community with.

Until now.

What’s changed? First, I think I simply needed time to grieve. Israel is my second home. I lived there for a year, and I have family and friends there. It was like seeing your hometown attacked after moving away. It was heartbreaking. At the same time, one of my best friends lives in Palestine. After checking in with my family, she was the first person I reached out to. She is, for the most part, safe in Ramallah. But I know she has family and friends in Gaza, and my heart breaks for her and her people.

Second, I needed a lot of time to process my thoughts and emotions. I wrote a lot of poetry. I had a lot of arguments in my end. I thought back to a community organizing training I received as a rabbinical student called “Momentum,” which uses polarization to group people together for a singular cause. The idea is that we can disagree about more things than we agree about, but if we all agree on one simple action, then we can be in bigger coalition and have more power to move forward. I have been thinking over these last couple months, who am I willing to be in coalition with?

Well in the beginning, I wanted nothing to do with the individuals likening my people, my family and friends, to Nazis. I struggled a lot. I felt like I was free floating in a middle ground with no tether. Where was my community?

Third, I have been following the leads of Israelis, especially the families of the hostages. When I saw that more and more Israelis are speaking out in support of a ceasefire, including those with loved ones in captivity, I knew I had to join with them. (The Israeli organization Standing Together - Omdim Beyachad - has been incredibly influential to me and my thinking around this.)

As I was able to process my own grief, I recognized that my pride was interfering with my open heart. When I felt myself and my own were threatened, my heart closed in protection. I focused on my grief and did a lot of internal work to recognize when my heart was closing and how I might open it again.

I realized that I was willing to be in coalition with anyone who could recognize the atrocities of the October 7 attacks. If they could acknowledge the pain, trauma, and devastation of my people, I felt safe enough to keep my heart open and join them in focusing on the pain, trauma, and devastation of the Palestinian people.

Why am I writing this now? Because today I broke my silence.

I was invited to speak at a ceasefire rally in my local district. The coalition first condemned the October 7 attacks, then stated that we do not support the killing of innocents in response. The goal of the ceasefire rally was to urge our representative to vote in favor of a ceasefire.

I want to share with you the speech that I gave at the rally. It is possible that some of you may be angered by my words. It’s possible that others may be validated. If it happens that my position upsets you: I would be eternally grateful if you were in dialogue with me. Please don’t cut me out. Please don’t dismiss me. Let’s talk about it. We may have more in common than we think. Or we may receive excellent practice in being in dialogue with people we disagree with. These are not easy conversations to have, which makes them all the more crucial.

Here is what I said:

I stand before you not as a politician, not as a military strategist, but as a rabbi, a Jewish religious and moral leader. My concern certainly involves politics but it is a moral concern. As a rabbi, I turn to the Torah for guidance.

Our Jewish sacred text begins with the story of creation. Humanity is created within a single person. This first human is described as both male and female, both singular and plural, multiple apparent opposites in one. Not only that, but this human is also created in the image of God. Later, the first human is split into two, into the individuals we may know as Adam and Eve. But the story did not begin with Adam and Eve as distinct individuals. They were once one, and we all originate from that one singular complex multi-gendered person whose image is a representation of God. Whoever we are, whatever we may be like, we are represented in that first human.

Ancient Jewish sages asked, why did God make humanity in God’s image? Well, if God cannot be seen, then the only way to see God is in the faces of our fellow humans. Not just those like us, but everyone. We must therefore see every person as a representation of God.

The ancient Jewish sages also asked, why did God start with only one person? One answer is so that no one can say, “My family is better than yours,” because in fact we all descend from the same ancestor. We have forgotten over the years, but we are all family. Another answer is so we can learn that within every human being is an entire world. From the first human we now have the billions of people currently living on earth. If an entire world can come from one person, then an entire world can also be lost when even one life is destroyed.

As a Jew, this is what I believe: every human being is a representation of God. Every human life is an entire world. I say this to my friends and my foes alike: your life is sacred simply because that is what it means to be human.

It is irrelevant whether or not a ceasefire is fair. The moral choice is not always the fair choice. The moral choice is not always the logical choice. But it is always the right choice. Within every human is the face of God. Within every human is an entire world. A universe has been lost already. We cannot lose any more. We must call for a ceasefire now.

Dear friends, I have not forgotten the hostages. I continue to pray for their return. But I do not believe more civilian death will bring them back. I do not believe they can be avenged by hatred and violence.

I may sound unrealistic, but so did our prophets in the prophetic writings. I admit I am not always a realist. I believe that as a rabbi dedicated to our tradition's prophetic mission of repairing the world, it is not my job to see the world as it is, but rather to remind people of the world as it could be. Ken yehi ratzon — May it be God’s will.

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Jan 11

Dear friend and rabbi, did you coin the term "Critical Zionist"? I love it. I was also way too old when I learned the meaning of "critical thinking" (a misnomer, IMO) - either way, it works! Can I be a Critical Zionist too???

Ariel Tovlev
Ariel Tovlev
Jan 11
Replying to

I did not coin it, but welcome you to the club with open arms! I love the connection with critical thinking, and I will definitely be chewing on that for a while…

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