Ben Stiller: Why I Can’t Stay Silent About the Suffering in Israel and Gaza

6 minute read
Stiller is an actor, filmmaker, and humanitarian

What a time we are all living through. Like so many people, I have been watching the awful events happening in the Middle East over the last year and trying to determine how to react. I have been seeing the brazen antisemitic incidents in my own city and feeling a mix of anger, fear, and astonishment that we are at this place in our country. Saying nothing at this point feels like I am betraying my own conscience. But what do you say? How does one express the complicated and very real feelings in this scary world of social media, where it seems any sentiment opens you to online vitriol from one side or another? The issues we are dealing with are so nuanced and complicated that short statements cannot in any way express fully what I want to say from my heart. As a public advocate for refugees, I’ve been struggling to reconcile my silence with that work. Please bear with me as I explain. And to be clear, what I say here is my personal view, not that of any organization–it’s just how I feel.

I was given the opportunity in 2016 to work with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, a global organization dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights, and building a better future for people forced to flee their homes because of conflict and persecution. The agency was created to help the millions who fled the Second World War and leads international action to protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities, and stateless people, ensuring that everyone has the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge from violence, persecution, or war at home.

With UNHCR I have visited refugees and those impacted by war and violence in Lebanon, Guatemala, Jordan, Poland, and Ukraine. I visited Lebanon just before the eighth anniversary of the Syrian conflict and met refugee families struggling to survive, among the millions living on the razor’s edge. I went to Kyiv after the full-scale Russian invasion and talked to people whose lives have been upended by this senseless war. I’ve advocated for refugees at the UN and in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, imploring the U.S. government not to look away from this global humanitarian crisis. I say this not to toot my own horn, but to explain that for me, if I am to speak out about these issues in these places, I can’t ignore the crisis that is front and center in the world right now.

I am Jewish. I’m also half Irish. My father’s mother came to the United States as a refugee from Poland. His father’s grandfather came from Ukraine, where over 100,000 Jewish people lost their lives in the ethnic pogroms that preceded the great horror of the Holocaust by just two decades. My mother’s grandparents came from Ireland seeking a better life. They arrived in New York with a surplus of hope and not much else.

My dad served in the U.S. Army at the end of World War II. He met my mom and they got married–he was Jewish, she was Catholic. At the time that was an issue. They dealt with judgment from both sides of their families and the outside world. They turned that tension into humor and based their stand-up comedy act on their ethnic differences, which brought them together – and brought them success.

My mom converted to Judaism when they married. Ours was not a religious household, but we learned the traditions of inclusion and tolerance. After my Bar Mitzvah, I didn’t really go back to synagogue too often. But I always felt connected to my heritage, both Irish and Jewish, and valued the bonds I saw formed by both sides of my family. Eventually they came together through my parents’ love for each other. It was a palpable and beautiful thing I experienced as a child. As a kid growing up surrounded by that love, in New York City in the ‘70s, I never really experienced antisemitism. Where we find ourselves now is a place I never thought I would be.

Like so many Jews I grieve for those who suffered in the barbaric Hamas attack on October 7 and for those who have suffered as a result of those atrocities. My heart aches for the families who lost loved ones to this heinous act of terrorism and for those anxiously waiting these long months for the return of the hostages still in captivity. It’s a nightmare. I also grieve for the innocent people in Gaza who have lost their lives in this conflict and those suffering through that awful reality now.

I detest war, but what Hamas did was unconscionable and reprehensible. The hostages have to be freed. Terrorism must be named and fought by all people of conscience on the planet. There is no excuse for it under any circumstances.  

I stand with the Israeli people and their right to live in peace and safety. At the same time, I don’t agree with all of the Israeli government’s choices on how they are conducting the war. I want the violence to end, and the innocent Palestinian people affected by the humanitarian crisis that has resulted to receive the lifesaving aid they need. And I know that many in Israel share this sentiment.

I believe, as many people in Israel and around the world do, in the need for a two-state solution, one that ensures that the Israeli people can live in peace and safety alongside a homeland for the Palestinian people that provides them the same benefits.

I also see a troubling conflation in criticism of the actions of the Israeli government with denunciations of all Israelis and Jewish people. And as a result, we are seeing an undeniable rise in global antisemitism. I am seeing it myself, on the streets of the city I grew up in. It isn’t right and must be denounced.

Antisemitism must be condemned whenever it happens and wherever it exists. As should Islamophobia and bigotry of all kinds. There is a frightening amnesia for history in the air. We must remind ourselves that we can only manifest a more hopeful, just, and peaceful future by learning from the past.

Obviously I am no politician or diplomat. I have no solutions for these world conflicts and claim to offer none. I think I, like so many people, am struggling with how to process this all. But as an advocate for displaced people, I do believe this war must end. As I write this, there are about 120 million people all over the world who have been displaced by conflicts. In the Middle East, in Ukraine, Sudan, and many other countries. They all deserve to live in safety and peace. The human suffering must end. We must demand this of our leaders. Peace is the only path.

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