Saturday, June 15th 2024   |

Jewish groups are anguished over Israeli strike that killed aid workers — and divided on who to blame

By BEN SALES

(JTA) — Some worked with World Central Kitchen and mourned the loss of their partners. Others say they have been sounding the alarm bell about a humanitarian crisis in Gaza that has only become more urgent. 

Still others say, or suggest, that blame for the Israeli bomb that killed seven aid workers in Gaza  lies with Hamas. 

People receive the bodies of World Central Kitchen workers who were killed by Israeli air strikes on April 2, 2024 in Rafah, Gaza. (Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)

Taken together, a range of American Jewish organizations’ statements on the strike that killed World Central Kitchen’s humanitarian staffers reflects American Jewish anguish about the war and impending famine that aid groups have warned of in Gaza. In response to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency request for comment about the strike and the humanitarian crisis, most groups mourned the loss and a few had harsh words for Israel on the shortfall in aid for civilians in Gaza. 

Others focused criticism on Hamas. The Jewish Federations of North America declined to comment, and bodies representing Orthodox, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews did not respond to inquiries or said they could not formulate a response by press time.

Israel is facing pressure more broadly. In the wake of the strike on Monday, its leadership has apologized and pledged to investigate, the White House has condemned the bombing and humanitarian organizations have withdrawn from Gaza, further imperiling the flow of aid. Governments and humanitarian agencies called on Israel to do more to protect aid workers.

Joining that call to protect aid workers was IsraAid, an Israeli relief group that has worked in disaster zones across the world, and in Israel with the onset of the war. On some of those missions, the group has worked alongside World Central Kitchen, which provides food in conflict areas and set up shop in Israel following Hamas’ invasion on Oct. 7.

IsraAid called World Central Kitchen “an important partner” in crisis response around the world. 

“We are shocked and devastated by the deaths of World Central Kitchen team members in Gaza,” the group said in a statement. “For humanitarian aid organizations to do their jobs effectively and deliver lifesaving support, we need safe access to crisis-affected populations, wherever they are. We call on all parties to do everything they can to ensure the safety of humanitarian workers and the communities they serve.”

Two other Jewish groups that focus on food security also mourned the loss of the aid workers. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which helps Jews in need in countries around the world, said, “We mourn this loss of lives, especially as [we] have worked with World Central Kitchen in the wake of natural disasters in the past.” 

Also expressing condolences was Mazon, a Jewish anti-hunger group that has been providing relief in Israel since Oct. 7 — though it placed ultimate blame for starting the fighting with Hamas. 

“We are devastated to learn that, yet again, humanitarian aid workers were killed while risking their lives to provide food to those in need,” the group said in a statement. “We mourn alongside our friends at World Central Kitchen, who have lost colleagues and friends in this tragic conflict sparked by Hamas’ horrific attack on October 7.”

Groups on the left on the pro-Israel spectrum were more critical of Israeli policy. Rabbi Jill Jacobs, CEO of the liberal rabbinic human rights group T’ruah, criticized “Israel’s failure to protect civilians including deconflicted humanitarian organizations.”

“The killing of aid workers from World Central Kitchen is a horrific tragedy, first for their families and friends and second for the people of Gaza, who are experiencing a humanitarian crisis and great risk of famine,” Jacobs told JTA. “While the incident must be fully investigated, it’s clear that this is one more example of Israel failing to take proper measures to protect civilians, including humanitarian workers, too many of whom have already been killed in this war.”

The liberal Israel lobby J Street, likewise, said it was “utterly horrified” by the bombing and cited figures saying that almost 200 aid workers have been killed in the war. 

J Street, like T’ruah and other liberal Zionist groups, has become more critical of Israel’s conduct as the war has gone on. They were among the signatories to a letter on March 5 calling for a “bilateral ceasefire that brings a stop to fighting, a release of all hostages, and a surge in humanitarian assistance.”

“The work of humanitarian groups and agencies in Gaza is nothing short of heroic, and is essential to alleviate the catastrophic level of suffering. They must be protected,” J Street said. “With famine beginning to spread in Gaza, there is an urgent need for the Israeli government to facilitate and coordinate the delivery of massively increased levels of humanitarian aid, rather than impede and obstruct it.”

The anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace claimed without evidence that Israel intentionally targeted the aid trucks. It posted online, “Listen to Palestinians first — and immediately — whenever they endure Israeli genocide and colonization. The Israeli military’s killing of anyone in Gaza is conscious and calculated.” Its frequent partner IfNotNow, which like JVP has accused Israel of “genocide,” called the strike a “massacre.”

The Reform movement, the largest and most progressive of the three major American Jewish denominations, mourned the losses and juxtaposed the provision of humanitarian aid to Israel’s fight against Hamas, which it said it supported. “We remain committed to both Israel’s ability to defend itself from Hamas’s ongoing efforts to achieve its destruction and to the delivery of aid to Palestinians suffering terribly during this war,” it said.

Several groups highlighted that Israel has pledged to investigate the bombing. That includes the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, which shared a series of statements from Israeli officials on social media pledging to probe how the strike took place. The American Jewish Committee also noted that “Israel immediately took responsibility, launched an investigation, and grieves the circumstances that have resulted from a war it did not seek.” It also mourned World Central Kitchen’s loss and praised its work. 

The AJC statement then pivoted to condemning Hamas and saying it has the ability to end the war.

“Hamas continues to violate international law every day – intentionally and with no remorse,” the statement said. “Hamas has the power to prevent further loss of innocent life by releasing the hostages and surrendering.”

On Wednesday morning, the Jewish Federations of North America released a statement noting that World Central Kitchen worked in Israel following Oct. 7 and coordinated with its government. “The accidental killing of 7 WCK workers is a tragedy, and

Jewish Federations mourn the loss of life and share in the grief of their families. We welcome the Israeli government’s commitment to thoroughly investigate the incident,” the statement said.

Other groups have been less focused on the strike. Morton Klein, the president of the right-wing Zionist Organization of America, said that he did not know about the incident before being informed of it by JTA on Tuesday in the early afternoon. He said, “Now that you’ve made me aware of it, obviously I’m devastated that totally innocent people trying to do humanitarian work have lost their lives, I’m sure unintentionally.”

He also said the ultimate responsibility for the aid workers’ death belongs to Hamas.

“I blame Hamas. Every single fatality is blamed on Hamas for launching this war,” Klein said. “In any war you’ll have deaths of civilians that are unintentional. In a war, mistakes are made, targets are missed. if one takes the position that one doesn’t go to war if any innocents will be killed, you won’t go to war and Hamas tyrants will win.”

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