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For the dead on both sides, it is time to stop

Jewish Australians held a vigil in support of a ceasefire in Gaza in Melbourne last night. MICHELLE LESH delivered this speech.
Michelle Lesh
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Men around body bags

People perform funeral prayer near dead bodies of Abu Nahal family after an Israeli strike hit their house in Rafah, Gaza on February 18, 2024. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Published: 19 February 2024

Last updated: 21 March 2024

Jewish Melburnians held a vigil in support of a ceasefire in Gaza last night. MICHELLE LESH delivered this speech.

I hesitate to speak. Who am I to do it? I’ve not experienced what Israelis have. Obviously, I cannot speak for Palestinians who continue to suffer unspeakable horrors. I am an Israeli citizen, though I was born and live in Australia, but I speak as a Jew. I do this because more than Israel’s other wars against Gaza this is a Jewish war, fought in the name of Jews against the hatred shown in the crimes against them on October 7 with macabre enthusiasm. It reignited inter-generational trauma in Jews world over.

Like many, I am deeply and acutely pained by the atrocities perpetrated on October 7 and the war that followed. The pain is not the same for everyone and the perspective from which people see the war is not the same. Part of the distress about the debate that has accompanied it is that there is very limited space to hold more than one fear, to call out more than one wrong, to make room for qualifications and time to reflect. For those reasons, most people prefer to have conversations in private about the horrors of asymmetrical warfare that have entered unprecedented moral and legal terrain.

The reaction of many Jews cannot be disentangled from the latent antisemitism that has risen to the surface, sometimes viciously as early as October 9 and increasingly since then. I understand why Israelis, typical of any nation during war, do not welcome condemnation or counsel from friend or foe. Understandably they believe that outsiders do not appreciate the nuances of their national ethos and trauma, or what it really feels like to become a pariah state reeling from the brutality of the October 7 massacre whose scars may be permanent.

As much as I grieve for the victims of October 7, including of course, the hostages, I also grieve for the Palestinians, whose families and friends have been killed in the tens of thousands, whole worlds destroyed, and those who remain alive are on the brink of starvation with nowhere to go and no one to trust. I accepted the invitation from the brave organisers of this vigil to talk here this evening because despite the very real complexities of this conflict and the qualifications that must be made, I believe the overriding imperative is for a ceasefire. 1.5 million Gazans are in mortal danger in Rafah and close to 30,000 Gazans are dead. A ceasefire is the best path to end the killing, the appalling suffering and the return of all the hostages. In the long run, I believe, it is the path for Israel to achieve the security it needs to protect its citizens from its enemies.

My criticism comes from a place of connection and love to those people and that place.

Hamas, which uses terror as its principal military strategy, cannot be trusted to end the bloodshed. It is unrelentingly ruthless. It does not regard itself as answerable to the rules, standards and expectations that apply to the international community in its many forms , yet it has wielded unfathomable power and influence. I realise that to say that both sides have been let down by their leaders is an understatement of tragic proportions. Nonetheless, we call upon Israel to do as it has been urged to by many nations – to agree to a ceasefire.

This war is unique on so many levels, but universal norms continue to apply. There are legal and moral limits to war. The public’s moral outrage against, and intolerance of, civilian casualties during war has grown stronger and louder since World War Two. It has influenced the law and how it is interpreted by States. That cannot be ignored.

The increasing number calls for a ceasefire throughout the world does not betray naivety, and could not fairly be read as making complex debate simplistic. One can acknowledge complexity and still believe that some things are overriding. It is not easy for me to say this publicly, but I believe that it is important for our community that voices such as ours exist. That like-minded people can gather, grieve and criticise a government rather than a people. My criticism comes from a place of connection and love to those people and that place. It’s against the government and its actions that I protest under the banner ‘not in my name’.  

I am not a pacificist and believe in Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself. I recognise the dangerous threat Israel is contending with regionally from Hezbollah to Iran. I also believe that the Palestinians must be enabled to live full, dignified lives, free of oppression in a state that fulfills their need for political self-determination. Many people believe that, but discussion of it has been dragged into the culture wars globally. Those wars have been a fertile ground for racism and hatred. As a consequence, support for the Palestinian right to self-determination has been distorted by explicit and implicit denials of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

Tonight, we gather here, omdim beyachad (standing together), to grieve and mourn the dead – Israelis, Palestinians and those from other nations who were the victims of a conflict that was not theirs. We believe that our shared humanity imposes this obligation on us.

About the author

Michelle Lesh

Dr Michelle Lesh is an expert in international humanitarian law. She has worked as a legal advisor for Israel's (former) Deputy Attorney General for international law and at the United Nations.

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