In a powerful and compelling piece, Yossi Klein Halevi recently wrote about the unimaginably horrific day of October 7th. Klein Halevi, with whom I’ve corresponded in the past, and whom I take to be an intellectually honest and morally enlightened human being, delineated the unfolding exigent reality that threatens not only the Jewish people everywhere but our humanity as well. In his piece, The Lonely People of History, Klein Halevi writes, “Perhaps the most enduring wound for Jews from the Holocaust is the memory of aloneness. For 12 long years, the international community scarcely intervened as Nazi persecution gradually turned to extermination.”
This enduring wound was one I explored while writing my 2014 novel, Absolution, an epic love story between an Israeli and a Palestinian. (The novel is set to be adapted to an 8-hour television series by one of Israel’s leading directors, Eran Riklis.) As an Egyptian American writer, I set for myself the challenge of defending an aspect of the post-Holocaust Jewish experience, as well as the meaning of Israel for Jews all over the world. Although the two protagonists of my novel are fictional, all of the other characters are actual historical figures. Two such characters I felt were important to the conversation regarding Israel were Palestinian American academic Edward Said and Israeli diplomat and politician Abba Eban. Both of these intellectual giants captured the voice of their people better than anyone else. Although Said and Eban never met, I created a fictional debate between them that distills the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of Palestinians and Israelis. Eban echoes Klein Halevi’s point regarding the enduring wounds of the Jewish people:
“For millennia, the Jewish people have left their fate in the hands of others. Our history is filled with extraordinary achievements as well as unimaginable violence. Our centuries-long Diaspora defined our existential identity in ways that cannot be reduced to simple labels. It was the portability of our religion that bound us together as a people, but it was our struggle to fit in; to be accepted that identified us as unique. Despite the fact that we excelled academically, professionally, industrially, we were never looked upon as anything other than Jewish.”
My point is that the earth-shattering, existentially negating events of the Holocaust continue to transmit a reverberating sense of fear, isolation, alienation, and doubt, as well as the ontologically disturbing sense of annihilation.
Klein Halevi goes on to make the point that the Jewish people have arrived at one of those punctuated historical moments that reveal, “a moral disconnect with much of the international community.” He is referring here to the wave of blatant antisemitism sweeping the world and reminding us how this is a trigger for Jews that brings back the collective memory of centuries of terror inflicted upon a people who simply wanted to live in peace and safety.
Although I’m Egyptian, I’m also a moral agent in the world, and as such, I need to respond to the horrific event of October 7th. I need to be clear and unequivocal in my language. There is no moral framework that can accommodate the murderous and cowardly acts of Hamas. The mass demonstrations sweeping the globe on behalf of the Palestinian people, as well as the responses from Arab intellectuals, failed to acknowledge that what took place on October 7th was a senseless act of pure savagery. I suspect that for those who support the Palestinian cause, acknowledging October 7th somehow implies tacit support for Israel’s response, regardless of scope or any measurable proportionality. This kind of thinking is not only misguided but also dangerous. It is possible to condemn in the strongest language the slaughter of innocent people while also supporting the Palestinian people.
Once Israel responded to the butchery of one of the darkest days of Israel, every reasonable person knew the narrative would change. Klein Halevi acknowledged this when he wrote, “[T]he memory of Oct. 7th has faded, absorbed into the ‘cycle of violence.’” While I agree with him that once Israel responded, the memory of that horrific event faded, I must point out that Israel’s response, wittingly or otherwise, contained within it explicit messages of vengeance and unmitigated destruction. Let’s not forget that Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, stated, “we are fighting barbarians and will respond accordingly.”
Here is a question for Israelis to contemplate: What is the degree of separation between the barbaric acts of Hamas and the innocent Palestinian men, women, and children who find themselves the casualties of the Jewish people’s fear of totalizing destruction that Klein Halevi describes? Just as there is no moral framework that can accommodate the murder of innocent men, women, and children in Israel, there is also no moral framework that can justify the annihilation of the so-called “barbarians” who live in Gaza.
Klein Halevi points out that many Jews, “acknowledge Israel bears its share of the blame for this hundred-year conflict. So do Palestinian leaders who rejected every peace offer ever put on the table.” He is absolutely correct about this. I’m sure we can both come up with a compelling list of arguments and counterarguments to assign endless blame, but we shouldn’t, precisely because this approach perpetuates greater animosity. Level-headed people have a moral obligation to acknowledge the mistakes on both sides, just as Klein Halevi and I do so. There is today an opportunity that peace may emerge in a post-Hamas world. In my novel, I wrote, “peace is not a discrete event; rather it is a renewable proposition, filled with affirmations designed to mitigate against the collective distrust of two people who knew little beyond hatred, suspicion, blame and counter blame, intellectual gamesmanship, fear, paranoia, historical necessity, retribution, and a host of other deeply engrained emotional projections that are constantly lurking beneath the surface.”
In the West, particularly America, the media tends to reduce complex, and seemingly insoluble, problems to an essentialist reality. This is profoundly true of how Palestinians are represented. That is to say, Palestinians are often represented as an amorphous mass of undifferentiated misery, barbaric behavior, and agents of evil who are bent on the destruction of Israel. If you are reading this and your immediate response is, what about the hundreds of thousands of people who are chanting, ‘from the river to the sea?’ then I would have to agree with you that such people are misinformed or unwitting agents of hatred. This, however, does not change my point that Palestinians, Arabs, and the Muslim world as a whole have always been represented as a paradigmatic “other,” bent on destroying the Jewish state. The people in Gaza live in generational poverty; their humanity simply ignored. When you dehumanize another people, you make it possible to kill them en masse without having any moral doubt as to the rightness of your actions.
To the Israeli people, I say again: I feel your pain; what happened on October 7th was vile and grotesque. In a post-Hamas world, the Israeli people, as well as the Palestinian people need to once and for all commit themselves to solving the most intractable geopolitical problem in modern human history. Each side needs to stop dehumanizing the other. Just as Israelis need to acknowledge their own mistakes, so, too, must the Palestinians acknowledge their mistakes. Just as antisemitism needs to be addressed by the world entire, criticism of the Israeli government cannot always be conflated with antisemitism. Just to be crystal clear on this point, if someone criticizes Israel with the subtext of undermining its legitimacy, then it is fair and just to identify such criticism as antisemitic. The Israeli government, just like any other government, is not above reproach.
Just as the Jewish people feel that they cannot trust history to deliver them from the evils of the world, the Palestinian people also feel abandoned not only by the cowardly acts of Hamas, but the world as a whole. As difficult as it is to do at this historical moment, Israelis must recognize that the Palestinians cannot be looked upon as a disposable people. Similarly, the world as a whole must rise up to not only condemn but also confront antisemitism. Both Israelis and Palestinians deserve a better life, one driven by our collective humanity and the dream of a better tomorrow. Both Judaism and Islam remind us that to save one life is to save the world entire.