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Points to consider regarding the war in Israel

On Oct. 17, the Middle East Studies Program hosted a teach-in called “Behind the Violence in Israel and Palestine.” I was part of a standing-room-only crowd who attended. The event was organized to help our community understand the events that dominate the news today. As someone who is professionally involved in Jewish and Israel-focused education, there are several points that I think I can make which will contribute to that laudable aim. 


First, as difficult as it is to do so, it is important to focus attention on the nature of the violence perpetrated on Oct. 7. It was directed at children, the elderly, the disabled and other innocent civilians. The Hamas men tortured, mutilated, raped and desecrated Israelis who were at home or otherwise engaged in the activities of private life. Over 1,400 people were slaughtered and Hamas men kidnapped over 200 babies, toddlers, teenagers, women and men. I suggest that you visit this site: to see the faces and names of these hostages.

One of the panelists at the event commented, “There is violence, and then there is violence.”  It is useful to elaborate on this point. In the view of most political philosophers — and, indeed, most people — there is a moral difference between intentionally targeting civilians and causing the death or injury of civilians who are put in harm’s way by their proximity to military targets. President Biden was referring to this when he reiterated several times that there are laws of war and that Hamas is violating those laws by using civilians as human shields. I was disappointed that no one on the panel mentioned this well-established tradition of moral philosophy and how it applies in this case. 

Second, when analyzing political events, it is important to resist the temptation to believe that we live in the utopian world that we all wish for. In the world we do live in, the facts are these: Israel will not survive unless the enemies who are determined to destroy it are deterred. What does deterrence mean? It means that anyone who contemplates an attack on Israel will judge that the costs are too high. To put it bluntly, if there is to be peace, would-be aggressors must fear Israel’s military response.


The highest imperative for Israel right now is to reestablish deterrence. This will unfortunately entail a lot of violence against an enemy that intentionally entrenches itself among civilians and discourages their evacuation to safer places. There was no mention of these hard political truths at the panel discussion.


Third, it seemed to be taken for granted that Jews are occupiers and colonialists in Israel. Indeed, the panelists seemed at times to imply that Israel “deserves what it gets” because of this fact. The latter proposition is not worth dignifying with a reply. But I would like to register a strong objection to the former proposition. 


Every day, facing east toward Jerusalem, I recite the prayer from our liturgy: “Sound the great shofar for our freedom; raise a banner to gather our exiles, and bring us together from the four corners of the earth into our land.” This prayer is centuries old and has been recited by Jews in every country of the diaspora every day, three times a day for more than 1,000 years. There are many similar prayers that are part of the fabric of Jewish life. They show the centrality of the land of Israel to the Jewish people. This is simply not how colonizers or occupiers think and feel about the land where they reside.


The point can also be made without referring to prayer. If Jews are colonizers, where exactly is the “capital” or “homeland” from which they were sent out to colonize other lands? Was it Poland? Iraq? Morocco? Germany? Of course, it was none of these places. The Jews were homeless until they returned to their home. And this is the fact that their enemies never seem to absorb: They cannot be chased away by violence as actual colonizers have been. They are defending their home.  

Finally, a point about the broader geopolitical considerations — a question from a student at the event. Hamas gets most of its financial support, weapons, intelligence and military training from Iran. Hezbollah, a militant group based in southern Lebanon that is also sworn to destroy Israel, is even more closely supplied and directed by Iran. Whether Iran planned, approved or simply cheered on this attack, its support over many years made it possible, and it fits well into its own violent rhetoric about both destroying the Jewish state and harming the US. The calculations that the US is making now are certainly tied up with the strategy for dealing with Iran. This should have been something the panelists discussed.

I hope these remarks are of some service to the Carleton community and I would welcome your feedback ([email protected]).


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  • A

    Austin Infante Lane ‘16Feb 20, 2024 at 9:18 pm

    I found this article after reading a post on instagram by @carletonalumni4palestine which specifically cited Alan Rubenstien as posing a threat to current students. In my own alumni social media circle there has been nothing short of an antisemitic misinfo frenzy, so I was immediately alarmed when I read a specific professor was being targeted. In this article I find a tame and sober review of basic facts on the current situation is Israel. I do not know if this is the specific threat the instagram account is referring to, but I wouldn’t be surprised. The horrific situation in Gaza does not justify the targeting of Jewish people in America, or anywhere.

  • J

    Jordan KNov 9, 2023 at 2:59 pm

    As (another) Jewish alum (’97), I also want to thank you for emphasizing these important points that are all too easily overlooked in the prevailing discourse not just on college campuses but in mainstream coverage and conversation.

    Whether folks do or don’t have a personal or familial connection to this conflict (Jewish, Israeli, or Palestinian), many folks feel very confident judging this situation from a safe, safe remove, but I don’t know how they would feel if terrorists bent on their destruction lived on their doorstep. (Nor what lengths they would insist on their government going to to ensure their protection and survival.)

  • B

    Beth ENov 5, 2023 at 9:54 am

    “Third, it seemed to be taken for granted that Jews are occupiers and colonialists in Israel. Indeed, the panelists seemed at times to imply that Israel ‘deserves what it gets’ because of this fact.”

    WHAT? Members of the faculty were saying this? What the actual….

    Seriously, as a Jewish alum (c/o ’98), what is going on over there?

    The rhetoric on these comment pages is, frankly, appalling, full of not-exactly-fact and kind of appalling. Sure, this is true of any Internet comment page, but somehow I expected better from a Carleton space.

    I absolutely expected better from a Carleton academic sponsored even than to use such reckless language as that the Jewish people are “colonizers” in the land of Israel, or that October 7 was anything other than appalling.

    The current actions of Israel are heartbreaking. The death toll in Gaza is heartbreaking. Given that Hamaas is using their own people as human shields (note: this is as much a war crime as targeting civilians, as is taking hostages), well, you would think the IDF would be using more special forces and fewer bombs to take out military targets, but I’m not a military strategist. There should be a better way. I don’t know what it is.

  • M

    MiMi KellyOct 31, 2023 at 8:53 am

    Surely Mr. Rubenstein you can acknowledge that the foundation/precondition to a good life is human rights – those rights that are inherent to every human being and inalienable. In practice this is seen as I have rights, you have rights, and we have an obligation to respect each other’s rights. Yet, there are some groups whose full rights are denied although they are theoretically indivisible. One of the consequences of denying human rights is that it sows the seeds of violence. Fortunately, the world is full of human rights activists who take on the responsibility to advocate for those groups whose rights are denied. Palestinians are one of those groups.

    So, I applaud the groups of students on Carleton’s campus who recently condemned the conditions in which Palestinians are forced to live and advocated for their rights. Unfortunately, these same students are now being labeled as antisemites. To advocate for Palestinian rights does not make one an anti-Semite. These students are following a long tradition of courageous human rights activists and advocates whom the world admires – Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King to name a few. We do not consider them to be anti-British, anti-Afrikaner, or anti-white but resolutely opposed to the unjust systems that denied the groups to which they belonged their civil and political rights and to which they were absolutely entitled. They struggled — like the Palestinians struggle — against unjust systems. I am comforted by the words of Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister and abolitionist who inspired Martin Luther King’s speeches, “The arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And, I admire those courageous students who are attempting to contribute to a more just world in which each other’s rights are respected and there is no violence.

  • K

    Katherine Koop ClarkeOct 30, 2023 at 10:01 pm

    I was a 1983 Religion Major. I thank you for your well reasoned and thoughtful opinion and I 100% agree with you.

  • E

    EOct 28, 2023 at 12:57 pm

    Thank you for writing this. It is very meaningful to read as an alum living in Israel right now.

    • E

      ENov 1, 2023 at 1:01 am

      Did not realize there were other Carl alumns in Israel. Yea it’s crazy how some people back in Carleton are reacting to all of this.

  • A

    AOct 27, 2023 at 10:25 pm

    absolutely despicable to hear a member of FACULTY clearly express passive support of the genocide of Palestinian people. SHAME!!!!