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OPINION

More rabbis are calling for Israel-Hamas cease-fire

The number, while still relatively small, reveals a growing willingness in the Jewish community to speak out on a highly emotional and divisive topic, one rabbi says.

A woman wore a yarmulke that reads "Ceasefire Now" during a Jewish Shacharit morning prayer service near the US Capitol on Nov. 13.Alex Wong/Getty

On Nov. 13, Rabbi Brian Walt of West Tisbury was among some 40 rabbis who gathered in front of the US Capitol to pray for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war. The rabbis — part of a group called Rabbis for Ceasefire — mourned the 1,200 people killed by the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 and grieved for the approximately 240 Israeli hostages taken by the terrorists. They also mourned the Palestinians, now said to number about 14,000, who have been killed by the Israeli counterattack in Gaza.

Since that day in Washington, Rabbis for Ceasefire has grown in number to about 200. To Walt, that number, while still relatively small, reveals an increasing willingness in the Jewish community to speak out on a highly emotional and divisive topic: “What it shows is that more and more rabbis are feeling they can call for a cease-fire,” he said.

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For a rabbi, that’s not an easy call to make. “I do get pushback for it,” Walt told me. “But I am part of a group. For sure, there are colleagues who are angry and disagree, but we have strong support.”

Since Israel and Hamas agreed to a temporary pause in war to allow for an exchange of Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners, political support for an extended cease-fire has been growing. On Monday, Israel and Hamas were said to have reached a deal for a two-day extension. President Biden has said it is his goal to extend the cease-fire as long as possible and more voices in Congress are supporting that view.

In the Massachusetts delegation, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey issued statements calling for extending the cease-fire. Representative Jake Auchincloss, who has opposed any cease-fire, said on Fox News that the release of hostages is “progress,” and Israel has to be “prepared ... to resume military operations.” Meanwhile, Representative Ayanna Pressley — who attended the Nov. 13 gathering alongside Rabbis for Ceasefire — continues to push for a permanent cease-fire.

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To some degree, the shifting politics of the moment reflect shifting public opinion. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken in November, 32 percent of respondents said the United States should support Israel, down from 41 percent in a poll conducted in October. The weeks of news reports showing Gaza bombed to bits, helpless babies taken from incubators, and body bags filled with dead Palestinians have no doubt played a role in resetting public attitudes. A video displaying the brutality of Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7 has been shown to audiences in the United States and the world — but you have to seek it out. It’s not on the nightly news.

From that, you may conclude that media coverage has been helping the Palestinian cause and hurting Israel. But groups like Rabbis for Ceasefire took their stand long before media coverage shaped public opinion. It is delicate territory, especially for a rabbi.

Walt, who grew up in South Africa and has lived in Israel, said he has seen the terrible scenes from Oct. 7. “There was sexual abuse. There was brutality. I condemn it.” At the same, “the horrifying images from Gaza violate the most sacred values of Jewish tradition,” he said.

Apart from that, he sees the Palestinians as “the less powerful party, the oppressed and aggrieved party. Anywhere where Israel rules, from the river to the sea, there’s no place where Jews aren’t privileged.”

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Other Jewish activist groups that have called for a cease-fire and expressed support for Palestinians have been accused of antisemitism. Walt said he has been accused of that, too. But he doesn’t care. He sees ceasefire as the only way to follow the Jewish teaching that “All human life is sacred and precious.”

From a purely strategic perspective, Walt also said he does not believe Israel can achieve its goal of destroying Hamas. “There’s no way to wipe out Hamas. You can’t wipe out the grievances of Palestinians by killing Palestinians.”

Those who join Rabbis for Ceasefire sign onto a statement that says, in part, “Never Again is Now. Never again for anyone. Not in our name. Ceasefire now!”

Given the history behind “Never again,” those might be difficult words for a rabbi to embrace. But to Walt, the only way to prevent more suffering by Jews and Palestinians is to end the war between them. No more bombing. No more ground war. All the hostages returned and a commitment from the international community to broker a “just and lasting peace in Palestine.”

That’s what he and other Rabbis for Ceasefire want to see.


Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her @joan_vennochi.