Nachricht | Rosa Luxemburg - War / Peace - Israel - Democratic Socialism - War in Israel/Palestine “No One Has Pity for Us Humans”

What can the Israeli anti-war movement learn from Rosa Luxemburg’s courageous career?



Dana Naomy Mills,

“The catastrophe has taken on such huge dimensions that ordinary ways of measuring human guilt and human pain no longer apply; the elemental devastation indeed has something calming about it precisely because of its immensity and blindness.”

Dana Mills is the resource development manager for the Israeli magazine +972/ Local Call, the author of Rosa Luxemburg (Reaktion, 2020), and a member of the editorial board of the Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg.

These lines were written by the German-Jewish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg in August 1915, a year after the outbreak of World War I, to her friend and comrade Franz Mehring. Luxemburg would serve several prison sentences for her resistance to the war, a stance that put her in a minority position even within the ranks of her own Social Democratic Party (SPD), which conceded to the militarism sweeping across Germany at the time.

Her opposition to the war arose out of a robust analysis rooted in her understanding of how imperialism and capitalism overlapped and intertwined. She co-organized the first anti-war meeting in Germany, illegally, and spoke up against the war and militarism whenever she could. At the same time, there was a deeper pulse underscoring her opposition to militarism, rooted in her deep, ethical commitment to humanity, which in turn motivated her to feel deep care and concern for the world.

I specifically use the term “humanity” rather than humanism, to highlight and respect Luxemburg’s rich understanding of the relationship between (wo)man and nature, which was far ahead of her time, and indeed left a fledgling framework for environmentalist thinking today. Our humanity galvanizes us to be responsible to the world as a whole, with all its inhabitants, both human and non-human. In Israel today, as the war in Gaza rages, this is more true than ever.

Living through war darkens the soul. There is a calamitous vortex always swirling beneath our feet, threatening to swallow us whole as we try to go on with life. Death lurks around every corner, tempting us to stare it in the face. Seven months since Israel began its horrifying assault on Gaza in response to Hamas’s atrocious attack on the South of Israel costing some 1,200 Israeli civilian lives, at least 35,000 Palestinians have been killed, including some 8,000 children. Although the Israeli government appears to have forsaken them, 134 Israeli hostages remain in Hamas captivity in the Gaza Strip.

Luxemburg’s lines echo in my mind as I sit at my desk in Tel Aviv, an hour’s drive from Gaza. The war rages on and on, with no apparent end in sight. Yet, brave acts of resistance tear holes in the seemingly impenetrable wall built between us, civilians of Israel who resist what is being done in our name, and Israel’s militaristic zeal.

On 15 November 2023, Knesset member Aida Touma Sliman was expelled from Knesset committees and her wages withheld for two weeks following a tweet concerning Al-Shifa Hospital, in which she questioned the ubiquitous statement that the IDF is “the most moral army in the world”. After being summoned to the Knesset’s Ethics Committee, she expressed her opposition to war more broadly. The committee justified Touma Sliman’s expulsion by citing the fact that accusing the Israeli military of war crimes would aid Israel’s enemies. Incidentally, when Luxemburg first stood trial in 1914 for her anti-war stance, the official reason given was for slandering the German Army.

Touma Sliman already sparked controversy earlier in the war by daring to state that “in Gaza, too, whole families are being slaughtered”, and warning against the growing threat of famine. She dared to say that violence only begets more violence. For both Sliman and Luxemburg, then, speaking up for humanity and against violence begins in recognizing the human being intentionally obscured by a torrent of vicious militarism.

The world is beautiful with all its horrors and would be even more beautiful if there were no weaklings or cowards in it.

On 25 February 2024, 18-year-old conscientious objector Sophia Orr refused to serve in the Israeli military, as is obligatory for all Israeli citizens, and was sentenced to imprisonment for this stance. Orr’s words echo the horror of war — not just this war, all wars: “I choose to refuse because there are no winners in war … I’ve always felt more of a commitment to people than to states.”

Her act of refusal was grounded in her humanity and commitment to fellow human beings: “There’s a serious problem of dehumanization … The moment you stop believing that Palestinians are people, it’s much easier to dismiss the idea that their lives are worth something, and to kill them without thinking twice.”

People, rather than states, motivate Orr’s decisions. She looks beyond the repertoire of actions given to her as necessary and exclusive responses to grief. She chooses, when it is nearly impossible, to see human beings she is told are her enemies as her equals.

In one of Luxemburg’s most famous letters from 1917, as the war was still, inexplicably, raging, she wrote to her friend Sophie Liebknecht about a heart-wrenching scene: Water buffalos had arrived in the prison yard dragging blood-soaked uniforms from the front, carrying with them the residuals of death and horror. Luxemburg found herself weeping in response to the buffalos’ apparent pain from the immense physical load they were forced to carry and the violence inflicted upon them by a soldier, who whipped them. “No one has pity for us humans”, the soldier replied when Luxemburg asked him why he had no pity for the animals.

A line connects the stance taken by Aida Touma Sliman, Sophia Orr, and Rosa Luxemburg. Their resistance is derived from their ability to act upon their humanity, which motivates them to care for the world, including those they are told to see as their enemies. Being human and grounded in the world brings with it both a possibility for resistance and a moral calling to refuse the orgy of militarism and violence.

To end on Luxemburg’s words once more, this time to her friend Mathilde Wurm, in 1916:

See that you remain a human being. To be a human being is the main thing, above all else. And that means: to be firm and clear and cheerful, yes, cheerful in spite of everything and anything, because howling is the business of the weak. To be a human being means to joyfully toss your entire life “on the giant scales of fate” if it must be so, and at the same time to rejoice in the brightness of every day and the beauty of every cloud. Oh, I don’t know any recipe that can be written down on how to be a human being, I only know when a person is one, and you too always used to know when we walked together through the fields of Sudende for hours at a time and the red glow of evening lay upon the stalks of grain. The world is beautiful with all its horrors and would be even more beautiful if there were no weaklings or cowards in it.

Let us join Luxemburg’s calling, reverberating in the oath taken by Touma and Orr, summon our moral courage and walk together, drawing on our shared humanity — against dehumanization, against militarism, and against war.