On October 7th, the Jewish people was dealt an awful, blood-soaked victim’s card. We must resist the temptation to use it.
In the eyes of the world, Israel has long been Goliath against the Palestinian David, and all the more so the Gazan David. Years and years of terrorist attacks and rockets did nothing to change this. But the unspeakable cruelty of the premeditated mass butchery of October 7th has granted us an internationally recognized victim status that the Jewish people has not “enjoyed” in a long time.
The desire to maintain this status is understandable, because it truly is justified. The scale of the brutality and evil of the attacks feel closer to the Holocaust perhaps than anything else we have experienced. Moreover, victimhood comes with some awful privileges, beginning with greater sympathy, but continuing to the far more significant tolerance for the reaction to the atrocities. The victim card entitles its bearer to a sense of exemption from moral limitations.
A victim is not considered fully responsible for their reaction, and is not expected to abide by the same standards of “proportionality.” If their reaction is extreme, it is the immoral evil they suffered that is to blame. They are, after all, the victim. In a world that is constantly making disproportionate and unrealistic demands for Israeli restraint, the possibility of some relief from these constrictions is attractive.
Thus, Israeli hasbara efforts have focused on demonstrating and emphasizing our victimhood, from sharing extremely graphic pictures of the atrocities Hamas committed, to the decision of Israel’s ambassador to the UN to don a yellow star that bears the words “Never Again is Now”.
But, as enticing as it is to use the victim card, as real as our pain and suffering is, it is both a strategic mistake, and a betrayal of the essence of Zionism. This should not be our narrative.
Strategically, we can already see that claiming victimhood becomes a macabre numbers game that we are rapidly losing in the word’s eyes, as the number of civilians killed in Gaza continues to rise. The victimhood competition looks at sheer human suffering, ignoring context and cause. Although our position at the beginning of this war was more compelling than ever, with every passing day, against an enemy that cynically sees the death of its own civilians as a victory in the PR war they are willing to win at any cost, we don’t stand a chance.
More fundamentally, we don’t want to play the victim card because the very essence of Zionism was meant to spell the end of Jewish victimhood, not because we would never again be victims, but because we would never again lack the agency to respond. A narrative of agency is the polar opposite of a narrative of victimhood. The agent trades the privileges of powerlessness for the responsibilities that come with power.
The Jewish people’s position today is thankfully radically different than it was during the Holocaust. We have the power to respond to Hamas’ heinous deeds, and we also have the obligation to use that power responsibly. This means taking responsibility for the lives and the safety of our own citizens. It also means doing everything in our power to exercise that responsibility with the minimum possible injury to non-combatants. A victim can fantasize about revenge, about “wiping out all of Gaza.” As a responsible and powerful agent, we can do no such thing. Against an enemy like Hamas, who plays the victim card to absurd extremes that seek to avoid moral responsibility for kidnapping grandmothers and babies, and burning families alive, our decisions will not be perfect, and they will certainly not be popular. But I much prefer the responsibility of the powerful to the popularity of the victim.