Tzvi Novick

No Contextualization Without Explanation

Everywhere you look, you find people seeking to provide “context” for the massacre of Israelis by Hamas of October 7 (“Black Saturday”) and the ensuing Israeli declaration of war on Hamas. The contextualization occurs, almost inevitably, as a pivot from condemnation of Hamas: “I condemn Hamas. There is no justifying their attack. But let me provide context. Etc. etc. etc. And let me repeat that I do not thereby mean to justify what Hamas did.” A textbook example, and the most famous (or infamous) one, is the address by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, to the Security Council on October 24:

I have condemned unequivocally the horrifying and unprecedented 7 October acts of terror by Hamas in Israel. Nothing can justify the deliberate killing, injuring and kidnapping of civilians – or the launching of rockets against civilian targets. All hostages must be treated humanely and released immediately and without conditions. I respectfully note the presence among us of members of their families.

Excellencies, [i]t is important to also recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum. The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation. They have seen their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence; their economy stifled; their people displaced and their homes demolished. Their hopes for a political solution to their plight have been vanishing.

But the grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas.

The reason that Guterres needed to sandwich his contextualization in between denials that the contextualization was meant to offer justification for Hamas’ attack, is that the contextualization could reasonably be construed as intended to do just that, given that it consisted solely of an account of the suffering of Palestinians at the hands of Israelis.

My purpose here is to note what is missing in Guterres’ contextualization: a positive explanation for why he was contextualizing. He rejected one possible explanation for why he was contextualizing (it was not for the purpose of justifying Hamas’ attack), but he did not explain what, in fact, his purpose was in contextualizing.

Now, perhaps it was self-evident to Guterres what his purpose was. Perhaps he thought: Well, you can’t understand how it came about that Hamas did what it did if you just begin on October 7. And this is, I think, self-evidently true: No event in the world can be “understood” in isolation. But this, I contend, is not good enough, not by any means. If Guterres wanted to offer contextualization, he should have thought through very carefully, and very carefully explained, why it was important to better understand, just now, in this place and time, how Black Saturday came about, and how the particular historical claims that he was marshaling served that purpose.

Contextualization can serve many purposes. One is justification. “Yes, he killed her, but you have to understand, she was trying to kill him, and so we shouldn’t punish him.” Another is excusing. “Yes, he killed her, but you have to understand that his mind had been twisted by a childhood full of abuse and violence, and so he shouldn’t be punished as severely.” Another is simply “understanding” of a more academic or detached sort. Such understanding could come in the service, perhaps, of general policy-making. “Did you know that in a disproportionate number of killings of this sort, the murderer is an acquaintance of the victim? So we should take the following precautions in the future.” Or it could occur within the framework of historiography. “Here is my history of the conflict; you’ll find the Hamas attack in chapter 7.”

Guterres told us why he wasn’t offering context: the purpose was not, he said, to justify Hamas’ attack. Maybe he meant this honestly. But in the absence of a positive explanation for why was in fact offering context, and in view of the fact that his contextualization consisted of a one-sided story that told of Palestinian suffering and not at all of the wars and terrorism and threats of annihilation that Israel has confronted over the decades, his contextualization sure does look like justification, despite his denial. Or, if it wasn’t justifying, then at least it was excusing. And if Guterres meant to excuse what Hamas did, then he should have had the courage to say so. And if he meant to do something other than justifying or excusing, then he should have explained just what that something was.

No contextualization without explanation. When it is so easy and reasonable to construe contextualization of a certain sort—contextualization that focuses exclusively or almost exclusively on Palestinian suffering and Israeli crimes—as aiming to justify, it is not enough to couple your contextualization with condemnation of Hamas, and with an insistence that you don’t mean to justify it.  You need to explicitly and carefully explain what your contextualization does mean to accomplish. And if you claim that your contextualization is simply meant to educate, to offer “background” of a general sort, then don’t make a lie of this claim by telling a story in which the decisions of surrounding Arab states, of Palestinian leaders, of terrorist organizations, are totally absent, and the only actor is Israel.

About the Author
Tzvi Novick is the Abrams Jewish Thought and Culture Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on law and ethics in early rabbinic literature, and on pre-medieval liturgical poetry.
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