Most Israelis were appalled when United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made his now infamous speech on October 24th, saying that we must “recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum.” He pointed out, both in that speech and in clarifications thereafter, that he utterly condemned Hamas’s massacres, and that terrorism cannot be justified, but it was too late. It sounded to Israeli ears as if he was painting Hamas’s actions as “legitimate resistance” or giving them some measure of moral credibility. Israel called for his resignation.
But it’s time to take a deep breath and think about Guterres’s words more carefully.
Nothing exists in a vacuum. Nothing happens without context. I like soccer because I grew up in London, in a society where soccer was on TV and in the papers a lot, and the other kids at my school spoke about and played soccer all the time. If I’d grown up in America, that context would have been different, and I would probably like American football instead, although I should clarify that I am not making a moral equivalency here: soccer is a proper sport, whereas American football is merely a series of TV commercials occasionally interrupted by a bunch of men trying to give each other brain damage. 😉
As a Jewish educator, I also know that context is critical. We send kids to summer camps or on Israel tours in order for them to experience a different Jewish context. Instead of being in an environment where birkat hamazon, grace after meals, is either unknown or ignored, at summer camp it becomes part of the accepted norms of society, something that everyone just “does.” Instead of being in a milieu where Hebrew is the desiccated and esoteric language of prayer, on the Israel trip, it becomes a living, vibrant language of slang, sexiness, and supermarkets.
In life, and in Jewish education, different contexts shape different beliefs and practices, whether those are about football, grace after meals, or language. The sociologist Peter Berger termed these broad societal contexts “plausibility structures” and wrote (in The Heretical Imperative, 1979) that “human beliefs and values depend upon specific plausibility structures.”
Contexts can breed love or hate. The Ultra-Orthodox boy who spat on me while I was standing in solidarity at the Women of the Wall prayers did so because he had been brought up in a particular context. He wasn’t a bad kid, or genetically wired to hate egalitarian Jews. The context around him had inculcated in him particular beliefs and legitimized certain actions that stemmed from those beliefs. Or, to take a very different example, the recent explosion of young people identifying as “trans” is presumably at least partly because the societal contexts in which they live increasingly discuss, legitimize and celebrate trans identity.
History also teaches us that contexts matter. The Germans who turned to Nazism during the 1930s and 1940s did not do so “in a vacuum;” they did so as a result of a particular economic and societal context that allowed Nazi ideology to take hold of them. Those same Germans, in the 1950s and 1960s, became cornerstones of the Western World and great friends of Israel and the Jewish people. Same people, different contexts.
In all of the examples I’ve brought so far, it’s not only context that is the defining factor. There is ideology too, whether this is the ideology of Camp Ramah, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, the trans community, or the Nazis. And to state another point that should be obvious: I am not suggesting any equivalency between these ideologies. Nazism is a disgusting, immoral, world-destroying ideology; the ideology of Camp Ramah is warm, lovely, and world-improving. Except for the mosquitos.
Let’s now take another deep breath as we try to apply these ideas to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Hamas is a disgusting, immoral, world-destroying ideology, no less than Nazism. But a particular political/military/social/economic/religious context has allowed that ideology to flourish and take hold of people, just as happened in Germany in the 1930s. Acknowledging the significance of context does not, in either case, justify the ideology or those who act upon it. But ignoring the significance of context prevents us from addressing the problem. The Allies defeated Nazi Germany on the battlefield in the 1940s, but then, in the 1950s, they sought to eradicate Nazism as an ideology by changing the context in which German people lived; they changed the environment so that Nazism could no longer flourish in that environment. A different context created different people.
Gazan Palestinians are not hard-wired to hate Jews. It’s not a genetic issue. (You can prove that by simply noting that many successful, integrated, patriotic Arab Israelis are cousins of Gazans). But the context of Gaza – and, yes, the context of the occupation in the West Bank too – is the environment that enables a disgusting, immoral, world-destroying ideology to flourish. Acknowledging this fact does not mean justifying that ideology; but it does teach us that in order to eliminate, or (as with Nazism) to severely diminish, that ideology, we have to address the context. If we do nothing to change the environment, then the ideology will continue to flourish. Why would it not?
There are still Nazis in the world today. They exist in small pockets and are rejected by the vast majority of civilized society, including in Germany. So too, in the future, there will probably be Islamic jihadi fundamentalists who hate Jews and wish to see us dead. Eliminating that ideology is probably impossible, at least in the medium term. But changing the context is not impossible. It will be extraordinarily difficult – probably more difficult in the Palestinian context of the 2020s than it was in the German context of the 1940s – but it’s possible.
Israel does need to severely diminish Hamas’s military capabilities on the battlefield, as it is currently attempting to do, so that communities on the border will feel safe again. But we also need to address the Palestinian context. A changed context, with cultural dignity, economic security, and national self-determination for Palestinians (all of which can and must be achieved without jeopardizing Israel’s security), will, over time, create a different environment that will prevent Hamas from flourishing. And, of course, there are aspects of the Palestinian context (for example, a shift in the discourse of religious leadership, changes in educational materials about Israel and Jews, etc.) that the Palestinians themselves, not Israel, must take the responsibility to address. The moderate Arab world should also be involved in this context-changing work, both within their own societies and in their regional attempts to use moderate Muslim voices and attitudes to sideline Iran’s jihadi influence: before October 7th, countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE were embarking on that journey, and we must encourage them to continue.
It is clear that Palestinians and Israelis are not going to have warm relations for many years to come. This is not a Pollyannaish vision of kumbaya peace tomorrow morning. Germany did not establish diplomatic relations with Israel until 1965, twenty years after the end of World War II. But if we start changing the Palestinian context now, then maybe there’s a chance that in twenty years’ time we could be looking at a different reality here.