When violence answers violence in a growing frenzy that makes the simple language of reason impossible, the role of the intellectual cannot be … to excuse from a distance one of the violences and condemn the other … that role is clarify definitions in order to disintoxicate minds and to calm fanaticisms, even when this is against the current tendency
I am no expert on Middle East politics. But I am a human being and a U.S. citizen who teaches and writes about politics for a living, who also happens to be a Jewish American and a person who believes in human rights and cares about the world. Failing to think through the current unfolding situation, and to share my thoughts, is not for me an option.
The October 7 violent Hamas attacks on Israel and on Israelis were reprehensible and inhumane. No credible “resistance” or “liberation” movement engages in such brutal tactics, displaying such contempt for human life. And anyone on the Left or anyone in the name of “anti-imperialism” or “solidarity” with the wretched of the earth who can applaud, much less justify, such terrorism is contemptible. I know such people, and I am saddened to learn that I was wrong to once respect them.
It is obvious to me that such terrorist attacks, deliberately murdering, raping, and kidnapping civilians, and also exploiting real security vulnerabilities of the Israeli population, require and will be met by an Israeli military response, in order to defend the Israeli population, to subdue the attacker and make further such attacks impossible, and to satisfy a public expectation that the perpetrators of such violations—in this case, Hamas leaders and militants—will be punished.
It is equally obvious that any sustained military response faces many difficult tactical, strategic, and moral challenges. The regional situation is volatile, there are Israeli hostages in danger, and there are over 2 million Palestinians living in Gaza, most of them also innocent civilians. To collectively punish the entire civilian population of Gaza would be a crime.
I feel for all humans, especially those who are civilians, whose lives have been and are being threatened or snuffed out by violence. For a long time many civilians, Israeli and Palestinian, have suffered, as their leaders have failed to bring about a civil, peaceful, and at least modestly just end to a long and violent conflict. I feel for them all, and particularly for the children who have grown up knowing nothing else.
I am a Jewish American, and I have family and friends in Israel—though I have never been to Israel, which I have never regarded as “the Promised Land” or “Eretz Yisrael,” but merely as a place, and a nation-state, which is not “mine” whatever ties to some of its people or even its history I might feel. That said, for many years I was the unofficial “representative” of Americans for Peace Now in Bloomington, Indiana, where I live.
In this capacity I spoke at and organized local campus and synagogue events, promoting a “two-state solution”; publicly challenged Noam Chomsky when he came to Indiana University to denounce Zionism and Oslo (he had my mic shut off); and publicly challenged Edward Said when he did the same (he was a gentleman, listened to what I had to say, and admirably engaged me in a dialogue from the floor). I argued with local anti-Zionists who insisted that the solution of all regional problems required “linkage” to Palestinian statehood, and indeed I quarreled with some friends over these arguments (and, fortunately, eventually repaired these friendships). I contributed semi-regularly to Tikkun magazine, and published a substantial essay on Hannah Arendt’s views about Zionism and Jewish identity sometime in the mid-1990s. A few years later, when Tony Judt came to Bloomington to argue that only a single, binational state could “solve” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I argued with him, steadfastly defending the so-called “two-state solution.”
And yet over the past many years, I have become increasingly revolted by the way right-wing settlers and reactionary religious zealots have been coddled and empowered by the Israeli political system; the way the Israeli state has become increasingly anti-liberal; the way the Israeli public, through an admittedly arcane electoral and party system, has elected awful leaders, including, many times, the deplorable and corrupt Bibi Netanyahu; and the way the Israeli state has treated the question of Palestinian statehood and indeed has treated the Palestinians themselves—without any serious regard.
I have come to see “the Jewish state”—which is not “the state of all the Jewish people,” even if many Zionists insist on seeing it that way—as an ethnonationalist democracy that systematically privileges Jewish over non-Jewish citizens and indeed religious Jewish citizens over secular Jewish citizens, and in so doing runs contrary to modern liberal and universalist norms. This is true even if it is also true that the Israeli state more closely approximates a liberal democracy than any other state in the region, and grants more rights to its Arab citizens than they possess in the other states in the region, from Egypt to Syria to Saudi Arabia to Iran.
Can a “two-state” project be revived? I sincerely doubt it. But regardless, it is not something I can any longer advocate, even though I honestly have no idea what better alternative is now feasible.
I confess that some of the special kinship I now feel with Israeli victims of Hamas terrorism might have an ethnic or even a familial dimension—though I have never met my Israeli relatives. But the solidarity I feel is primarily what the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka called “the solidarity of the shaken.” It has nothing to do with Zionism—I am no Zionist, though neither am I anti-Zionist. It has to do with the value of human life, and with my abhorrence of the deliberate and terroristic murdering of civilians.
I am concerned about the way in which the awful situation is being moralistically framed by some U.S. commentators, and the way in which a certain kind of unconditional support for Israel—which in this context means support for the current Israeli government—is being promoted, and loudly and proudly announced by President Joe Biden (even as his administration also tries, understandably, to prevent escalation). In international affairs no support should be unconditional. And everyone serious about solving the problems in play is obliged to think about ways of influencing, and conditioning, the behaviors and the outcomes that have the best chance of de-escalating the current war.
What happened last weekend in southern Israel was terrible. But, contrary to what many are saying, it was not “a pogrom.” For Hamas is not the imperial Czarist Russian regime; it is a cruel and reactionary political-military organization in control of the Gaza strip—a tiny, overcrowded, and completely dependent enclave populated by a poor, powerless, and stateless people, that has been described by Human Rights Watch as an “open-air prison.” And the victims of Hamas’s awful terrorism were not a poor, disenfranchised, in some ways stateless Jewish minority; they were the citizens of Israel, the self-defined “Jewish state,” a state that is armed to the teeth, that has long superintended Palestinian “occupied territories” and has used a preponderance of violence to do so, and that, its recent intelligence failures notwithstanding, is undoubtedly the strongest state in the region.
What happened was perpetrated by a movement with clear anti-Semitic commitments, as Hamas’s 1988 Covenant makes clear. But repeating over and over again that “it is the largest number of Jews killed since the Holocaust” is also to invoke a misleading and inflammatory analogy. The Gaza Strip is not Nazi Germany, and Israel is not the Warsaw Ghetto, and Hamas’s terrorism—cruel, violent, despicable—is not directed towards a Jewish minority, but towards the state of Israel and its Jewish majority, a powerful state that bears no comparison to the Jewish victims of Nazi genocide. To say this is not to deny that recent Hamas calls for a broader “jihad” have already fueled a wave of anti-Semitism and generated real fear of anti-Semitic attacks in other parts of the world, especially Europe. This is very serious. But it does not make invocations of the Holocaust any less misleading.
The 9/11 analogy is equally problematic. While the al Qaeda airliner attacks on the United States in 2001 were shocking, the violent danger posed by Hamas was well known, precisely because it is very local—within striking distance—and was often directly experienced by Israelis in the form of bombardment (which typically led the Israeli government to very publicly respond with even greater violence). The entire situation facing Israel is much more serious, the danger more real—but the complex political responsibility is very real as welll. For while almost no Americans had ever heard of al Qaeda before 9/11, every Israeli has known for the past quarter-century that a few miles away was a terrorist organization called “Hamas” that was hostile to the very existence of Israel—even as it was often a useful pawn to be played against the Palestinian Authority.
Brutal terrorist attacks produce understandable outrage, fear, indignation and anger. There are no easy answers, and there will doubtless be much blood shed in the days to come. Voices of sanity are in too-short supply, and in constant danger of being drowned out by the rhetoricians of all-out war.
There is no forestalling an Israeli military response. But unless this response is targeted, and restrained by the moral and legal requirements of respect for the lives of civilian non-combatants, it will quickly become a moral and a political catastrophe. Indeed, recent developments suggest it is precipitously headed in that direction already. Decent people and responsible political leaders must do everything they can to forestall what can only be both a humanitarian and a political disaster.
—October 10, 2023
This piece was originally published in Public Seminar on October 16th, 2023. [A longer earlier version of this text can be read here.]
Jeffrey C. Isaac is a Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.