US Critics of Israel’s War Are Being Slandered for Making the Same Criticisms as Israelis

A variety of prominent Israeli voices, including its paper of record, have denounced the war on Gaza and pointed to anti-Palestinian repression as the root cause of Hamas's violence. But those in the US saying the same have been met with slander and censure.

A smoke plume erupting during Israeli bombardment on the Palestine. (Fadel Seena / AFP via Getty Images)

The past month has seen a wave of condemnation, threats, and repression aimed at pro-Palestinian voices across the Western world. Critics of Israel’s occupation and unrelenting assault on Gaza have been painted as whitewashing or even supporting Hamas, while calls for justice for Palestinians have been condemned as beyond the pale or even an incitement to violence.

What well-meaning observers in the United States might not realize is that some of the most prominent figures who have made these kinds of criticisms, often in terms far more vociferous than US critics, are Israelis themselves.

Establishment Rebellion

On the morning of October 8 — one day after Hamas’s massacre — the Israeli paper of record Haaretz published a blistering lead editorial charging that the attack was “the clear responsibility of one person: Benjamin Netanyahu,” the country’s prime minister. As the “ultimate arbiter of Israeli foreign and security affairs,” the paper stated, Netanyahu had “completely failed to identify the dangers he was consciously leading Israel into when establishing a government of annexation and dispossession, when appointing Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir to key positions, while embracing a foreign policy that openly ignored the existence and rights of Palestinians.”

Imagine for a second that a mainstream US or European politician was unaware of this editorial and who wrote it. Then imagine they read its contents and were told this was a statement from a US student group or a left-wing organization. If the past few weeks are any indication, they would likely react by declaring the authors antisemitic and demanding they be investigated for potential links to Hamas.

The Haaretz editorial wasn’t a one-off. It was one of many scathing pieces accusing Netanyahu of bringing the attacks on by “partnering” with Hamas to make a two-state solution impossible, of taking “the country to the brink of destruction,” and of legitimizing and empowering a far right that “sees the current war as an opportunity.”

Some members of the Israeli establishment have leveled similar criticisms. Daniel Levy, a former advisor to the Israeli prime minister’s office and a peace negotiator under multiple governments, has assailed the Israeli war effort and Western governments’ support for it.

He has characterized this full-throated backing as telling Israel, “Do your worst, there’s no such thing as the need to adhere to proportionality,” and that — contrary to the line taken by Israeli and US officials — it’s not Hamas that’s responsible for the deaths of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, but instead “the people dropping those bombs.” When a BBC presenter put it to him that Israel is merely defending itself by targeting Hamas targets, he replied, “Do you really keep a straight face when you say that?,” adding that “these kinds of lies can’t be allowed to pass.”

In an October 14 op-ed cowritten by Levy, he argued that it was Israel’s “closing off all diplomatic, political and legal avenues to Palestinians for advancing their rights and for pushing back against Israeli impunity” that set the stage for Hamas’s attacks, that Israel was heading toward a policy of “mass killing and forced expulsion,” and that its leaders were using language that was “extremely escalatory, even genocidal.” If he had been a student in some US university, Levy presumably would have been denounced as an apologist for terrorism or worse.

In the Times of Israel, Gershon Baskin, who served as a liaison on the peace process for multiple Israeli governments, similarly laid the root cause for the attacks at the foot of decades of Israeli government policy. “We Israelis must finally begin to confront the delusion that we have been living under for decades with almost total acceptance,” he wrote at the end of October. “It should become clear to us all that you cannot occupy another people for fifty-six years and expect to have peace. You cannot lock more than 2 million people into what is a human cage and expect to have quiet.”

Baskin further alleged that Netanyahu had “allowed for the funding of Hamas rule” as a deliberate strategy to divide Palestinians and have half of them governed by “a government with whom no negotiation was possible.” His charges here are widely acknowledged to be true, as these two Israeli newspaper reports illustrate, but good luck making the same case in the United States or Europe right now without being accused of who-knows-what.

Late last month, writing in Haaretz, economist Eran Yashiv charged that Netanyahu was “directly” and “essentially responsible for the current Israel-Hamas crisis,” recounting how as a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), he had authored and offered to the prime minister a long-term plan for a solution to Gaza, but that Netanyahu “preferred not to resolve anything” and instead (just as Basin alleged) “facilitated the transfer of funds from Qatar and Iran to Hamas.” The INSS is a major Israel think tank peopled with former members of the Israeli national security establishment and other parts of government.

And while likening Israel’s assault on Gaza to “genocide” has been deemed antisemitic in the wave of anti-Palestinian McCarthyism that’s hit the United States, it was an Israeli scholar of the Holocaust who labeled the bombing campaign a “textbook case of genocide” as early as October 13.

Families and Human Rights Groups

In the United States right now, saying that you can’t simply bomb Hamas out of existence, that there is only a political solution to this cycle of violence, that the Israeli military knowingly kills civilians, that Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians set the stage for the horrifying atrocities of October 7 — all of that would get you labeled, at best, foolish and naive, but more likely, racist and pro-terrorist. Yet here former Israeli soldier Benzi Sanders makes each of these points and more.

Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem — whose 2021 declaration that Israel has become an apartheid state is serially ignored by those determined to call that charge antisemitic — has similarly criticized the Israeli war, even as it has condemned Hamas’s attacks and kidnappings as “a shocking crime” with “no justification,” regularly denouncing them since. The group has deemed the Israeli response a “criminal policy of revenge” that will lead “to nothing but more horror,” accused the Israeli government of having “no intention of working towards a deal” to rescue the hostages, characterized it as “indiscriminate destruction and a siege harming innocents,” and declared Israeli air strikes “a war crime” and its justifications for the destruction in Gaza “morally unacceptable” and “baseless.”

While calls for a cease-fire are a nonstarter in the United States and Europe — with UK Labour leader Keir Starmer threatening any of his MPs who vote for one with demotion, and the Biden administration forbidding use of the term while excoriating such calls as “repugnant” and “disgraceful” — B’Tselem is one of many Israeli human rights organizations to demand one. Early this month, thirty-five Israeli Jewish and Arab human rights groups signed onto a letter stating that “there is no military solution to this conflict, nor can there ever be one” and insisting that the Netanyahu government work toward a cease-fire and negotiations for a political settlement “based on mutual recognition of the right of the two peoples to self-determination.”

Some of the fiercest criticism of the war has come from families of the very hostages the Israeli government keeps using to justify its slaughter of Palestinian civilians.

“The fingers that pulled the trigger and murdered, the hands that held the knives that stabbed and beheaded and slashed were the loyal and determined emissaries of the accursed, messianic and corrupt government [of Israel], which consists of an arch-criminal accused of illegal acts and a group of entirely incompetent sycophants who lack any political vision,” Yaacov Godo, the father of one of the Israeli civilians slaughtered by Hamas, said at his son’s funeral. In the same eulogy, Godo warned of a “violent rampage of Jewish, messianic terrorism” and ethnic cleansing currently being waged in the West Bank with the support of Israeli military and police.

Godo’s rhetoric may be uniquely incendiary, but the sentiment underlying it is shared by no small number of the loved ones of those slain last month. At various times, family members of those who were killed or kidnapped have called for de-escalation or for making peace, demanded that their deaths not be used as an excuse for killing more innocents, and dreaded the fact that this is exactly what would happen in Gaza.

“We’ve been warning for years that we were on the precipice of an abyss, and now the biggest disaster since the Holocaust has struck the Jewish people, under the leadership of the ‘fully’ right-wing government, which will be the end of us,” Maoz Inon, who lost his two parents to the Hamas attack, said. “We have to change all our terminology and our basic assumption that Israel’s security is based on military might.”

“Those who didn’t think like us were mistaken, and they got us into this situation. Those who didn’t think [the Palestinians] deserve a fair life, who thought that we can rule over another people for so many years and it wouldn’t backfire — they were wrong,” said Neta Heiman-Mina, a member of Israeli peace group Woman Wage Peace whose elderly mother was taken hostage.

“She fought all her life . . . to create a place between the river and sea that’s shared by both people,” Sharone Lifschitz told the BBC of her eighty-five year old mother, Yocheved, who was recently released by Hamas, adding that the ordeal had only confirmed her mother’s belief that there’s “no alternative” to making peace with Palestinians. It’s worth noting that according to the US and European political establishments right now, Lifschitz’s use of that phrase — “From the river to the sea” — makes her an antisemite calling for a second Holocaust, with both Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) censured by Congress and UK Labour MP Andy McDonald suspended for using the phrase in the exact same way, as a call for peaceful coexistence.

An Out-of-Control Climate

None of this is to say that the views laid out above are held by most or even a majority of Israelis, nor that there’s currently more freedom of speech in Israel than in the United States. There patently is not.

The point is that criticisms of Israeli policy that are being characterized in the US and Europe as antisemitic, terroristic, or simply anti-Israel are also being said by Israelis who none of these smear merchants would ever dare slander with such labels — whether because of their membership in the Israeli political establishment, their service to the country, or because they’ve been directly affected by Hamas’s violence.

The fact that US critics of Israeli policy are facing a similar kind of repression that Israeli dissidents are suffering at the hands of an authoritarian, far-right government shows just how unhinged the US political climate has become.