Three Stories About Israel and Gaza

I haven’t said anything about what’s happening in Israel and Gaza, but I’ve been thinking about the whole situation endlessly. Though I have read a great deal on the subject, I have no expertise, no special knowledge, and I don’t recommend that you read what follows. I am writing about this because I have an internal need to write about it, and I am posting these thoughts publicly because the responsibility inherent in public statement helps me to think better and write more clearly. Perhaps that is not an adequate justification.

Today I’m going to focus on three stories among the many that could be told — related but distinct stories.  

Here's the first story. David Stromberg:

On October 7, 2023, we discovered that the Israeli establishment had failed to ensure our safety as civilians: failed not only militarily but also and especially politically. It had pursued policies that failed to take into account the realities of our region. It created facts on the ground that put us in ever greater danger. It empowered forces — especially Hamas but not only it — that oppress both Gazans and Israelis. Our state let us down. It not only failed to protect its people from terror, but it also criminally failed to provide the resources those people needed to defend themselves. 

It is difficult to overstress the irresponsibility of the current Israeli government. Netanyahu — who, for all his lifelong faults, was once a great patriot — has come in his old age to care about nothing but sustaining his own personal power and beating down the Israelis he thinks of as his enemies.

But it wasn’t just Netanyahu. Noah Millman is correct, as usual: 

I do think the perception of weakness had a lot to do with Hamas’s attack, but the perception was of Israel’s weakness. Part of that perception of weakness was due to the protests tearing the country apart, for which I think most of the blame belongs to Prime Minister Netanyahu personally. Even more important, though, was Israel’s actual weakness: the over-reliance on technology to give warning of an attack across the border with Gaza, the transfer of Israeli troops from that area to protect settlements in the West Bank, and the ignoring of intelligence warnings that something serious was brewing. For these failures, all of the blame belongs to the current Israeli government. 

And — returning to my own thoughts — I think this obvious and humiliating weakness has been the primary cause of the government’s mindlessly bludgeoning attack on Gaza. Having been revealed as weak and feckless, the government is trying to make everyone forget that through a show of strength. But: A. The fecklessness will not be forgotten. B. All those who want Israel to become the world’s pariah state must be absolutely delighted to see the civilian casualties the Israeli armed forces have inflicted. They now have all the documentary evidence they could desire. C. It is not at all clear that such a bombing campaign is the best way to remove and destroy Hamas — indeed, I think there’s good reason to believe that it’s highly inefficient with respect to its purported goal. But Netanyahu & co. weren’t really looking for the most efficient means of destroying Hamas: they responded thoughtlessly, hurriedly, out of shame and rage. As has become habitual with them, they are thinking more defending themselves against their internal opposition than their external foes. (And perhaps this should be a lesson to other nations whose politicians and media treat the Repugnant Cultural Other as a straightforward enemy. That move can have some terrible consequences.)

But let’s be clear about one thing: Even this Israeli government, if given a way to destroy Hamas without the loss of civilian life in Gaza, would take it. Given Israel’s precarious international position, it would be utterly idiotic not to, and these men, while feckless and corrupt, are not idiots. But the explicit purpose of Hamas (and not only of Hamas) is first to drive every single Jew out of Palestine — that’s what the phrase “from the river to the sea” means, no matter what Rashida Tlaib says she means by it — and then, at the end of history, to murder every Jew in the “final confrontation” between Islam and Judaism. The Israelis don’t really care how many Palestinians and Arabs and Muslims there are in the world as long as Jews find safety; conversely, Hamas (and not only Hamas) sees genocide of the world’s Jews as their divine mandate. It’s a distinction — partly though not wholly rooted in the difference between a proselytizing religion and a non-proselytizing one — that no honest observer can deny.  

That’s the first story. Here’s the second one. I don’t think it’s ever been more important to distinguish among three parties: (a) the Israeli government; (b) Israeli citizens, roughly a quarter of whom are not Jewish; and (c) Jews. But those are precisely the distinctions that international antisemitism — or, let’s call it by its proper name: Judenhass, Jew-hatred — is determined to erase. The people threatening and intimidating Jews on America’s and Great Britain’s university campuses aren’t pausing to ask whether those Jews are Zionists. (It’s not just a university-campus problem, but it’s especially shameful in institutions supposedly committed to free inquiry and almost cringingly deferential to students’ demands for safety — unless they’re Jews, of course, in which case they’re told to hide from threats of violence or just see a therapist.) In the short term my deepest concern is for the suffering of the people of Gaza; in the long term my deepest concern is for the shaky future of the world’s Jews. 

Which leads me to the third story: What if this conflict is like no other? I’ve written a lot over the years, especially in How to Think and Breaking Bread with the Dead, about the ways we rely on simple heuristics to help us respond quickly and decisively to complicated questions, especially when we’re faced with a firehose of information and misinformation (which we always are these days). You see this everywhere: for instance, I recently read in Josh Barro’s newsletter about an obviously disturbed faculty member at UC-Berkeley who relentlessly harassed a colleague — the documentation of the harassment is extensive and indisputable — but is being defended by many UC professors anyway, because the harasser is a woman of color and the victim is a white man. The relevant heuristic says that white men are oppressors and women of color are oppressed, and literally nothing could happen that would induce some people to relinquish, or even question, that heuristic. If the woman murdered the man in the middle of campus a good many faculty would say, “What did he expect his white supremacist sexism would lead to?” And I’m not kidding; I am convinced that it really would play out that way.

It’s difficult to overstate how completely young intellectuals have been betrayed by their education. They think of themselves as politically knowledgable and committed, but their political vocabulary, and indeed the entire conceptual structure associated with it, could be written on an index card. They are completely incompetent to deal with the complexities of any real-world situation, which would be sad if they were the only people who suffered from their ignorance, but, alas, they make other people suffer too, so their ignorance is tragic. They are often highly intelligent people, but they have been so badly educated, they are so completely deficient in actual knowledge, that they might as well be dumb as a sack of rocks. 

And when Israel is involved in any conversation, the simplistic heuristics kick in with a vengeance, leading to a classic availability cascade. The logic works like this: 

X is wrong and bad; 
Israel is X; 
Therefore, Israel is wrong and bad. 

Making the relevant adjustments for inflection, all you have to do is replace X with “colonialism” or “settler colonialism” or “apartheid” or “racism” or “ethno-nationalism” and hey presto: done and dusted. 

But there are some problems here. If Israel is an example of settler colonialism then it’s not like any other example of settler colonialism in the history of the world. I mean: What nation is Israel a colony of? And in what other place do the “settlers” have a 3000-year history of waxing and waning residence?

If Israel is “an apartheid state,” then how is it that there are Israeli Arabs in the Knesset, and in the judiciary, and indeed in every other sphere of Israeli society?

How does racism come in if (a) Jews and Palestinian Arabs are closely genetically related and (b) the majority of Israeli Jews are not European Ashkenazi but rather Sephardim from places like Yemen and Ethiopia? What “race” is being preferred to another?

And If Israel is an example of ethno-nationalism then it’s not like any other example of ethno-nationalism in the history of the world. Whatever Israel is doing, and however wrong it might be, it’s not remotely like the Nazi quest for an Aryan empire from which lesser races are excluded, or the systematic persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar or the Uighurs in China. Again, around a quarter of Israeli citizens are non-Jews, though if that percentage were to rise above 50% then it would soon thereafter go to 100%, since all the Jews would be expelled from Israel, as they have been expelled from so many other places over the centuries. Israel was created as a desperate, last-ditch attempt at survival by a people who had been for two thousand years subjected to either (a) the legitimate fear of imminent persecution or (b) actual persecution, pogroms and exclusions and assaults amounting at times to attempted genocide — the latter within the living memory of many. Around 150,000 Holocaust survivors live in Israel today. Some of them were just murdered by Hamas. That’s not a history any other ethno-nationalism shares. 

I’m not trying to suggest any solutions, or to advocate for any existing proposal. I’m not even arguing that Israel should exist, though in fact I think it should. I’m doing what I usually do, which is to ask people to back up a few steps. If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that our familiar heuristics, with their familiar dichotomies, are utterly inadequate to this situation. The facts on the ground are too distinctive and too complex. The rhetorical and political earthquakes that we’re currently experiencing won’t ease until we abandon our reliance on bad simplifications. Fat chance of that, for two reasons, both of which I have already pointed to. One: Almost everyone is so committed to the comforting simplifications of their heuristics that they prefer ignorance to knowledge that complicates. And two: millions of people are possessed — and I use that word advisedly — by a profound and wholly irrational hatred of Jews.