Alan Tenenbaum

On the Interpreters

On the Interpreters

Here are some thoughts on the October 7th pogrom and its aftermath, after listening to Sam Harris’s podcast (here) this morning. Trying to understand, as far as possible, the reasons that motivate someone to act in that barbaric way.

Two narratives on evil

Let’s compare two narratives on evil: the view of some Western secular people on Palestinian Islamist terrorists of Hamas, whom I will call “the Interpreters”, described by Harris; and that of Hannah Arendt on Eichmann in The Banality of Evil (1963). 

(A main difference that should be considered for further analysis is that Eichmann, an official of the Nazi Party, the SS and a major organizer of the Holocaust and the Final Solution, did not commit crimes with his own hands. So a more precise comparison of the Hamas’ terrorists could be with the Einsatzgruppen death squads.)

On the one hand, in her essay Arendt argues that Eichmann was not a monster, but an all-too-common person. The point, in order to understand the mindset of the Nazi, would be to go beyond the statements that he himself had made (boasting in an interview about killing millions of Jews; dedicating his last words to Germany; etc.) in order to understand what prompts a person to get involved in such barbaric acts. 

On the other hand, according to Harris, the level of monstrosity of the acts of Hamas pushes certain secular people to interpret that, even when they declare that they are doing the crimes in the name of Allah, it cannot be so. Certain secular Westerners, “the Interpreters”, do so in order to accommodate it to their own set of values. Since by those values  no God would command to act in that barbaric way, the blame should be put somewhere else. 

Also, Hamas’s jihadists must have gone through such a traumatic experience that, regardless of their set of values, found in Hamas’s charter or pact (here), it has led them to act in the way they did. If this is so, then it is not the ideology they openly declare to embrace (by the cries of “Allah Akbar”, rather than “Historical Reparations” or what-have-you, when they rape, behead, burn alive civilians in cold blood, and kidnap), that is responsible for their barbaric acts, but something else. For example, such as the Other that determined them to do so. And, in the case of Hamas, the Other would be the State of Israel. 

At face value

In contrast to the attitude of the Interpreters, as Harris says, the jihadists’ statements should be taken at face value. But what Hamas’s jihadists declare should not be changed by way of interpretation. The problem with the interpretation is that it does not explain why the same methods and the same cry are used again and again elsewhere. For example, when a refugee murders a teacher in France (Dominique Bernard in 2023; Samuel Paty in 2020); or when the terrorist group Boko Haram kidnaps 200 girls in Nigeria 2014, still not rescued (here); or an Uzbek plow a truck at 5 Argentinian tourists riding bikes in the streets of NY in 2017. These are just three of the thousands of examples where it seems harder to excuse the ideology of the perpetrators by blaming Israel. 

An Epistemological difference

Let’s go back to the comparison between Arendt on Eichmann and the Interpreters’ on Hamas’s mindset.

In one case, a monster is a normal person, and the terrifying thing is that any son of a neighbor, or oneself, could follow the same path. In the other case, behind the monster it is hidden a normal, suffering person, to whom no religious ideology is capable of pushing to such an extreme. In both cases, the one who looks like a monster is a normal person, and he is a criminal almost in spite of himself.

But, in Arendt’s analysis it is ideology that acts as a barrier between the individual’s mind and reality, rendering anyone in that society incapable to rightly judge the facts, and, therefore, of taking any responsibility. 

In the viewpoint of the Interpreters, it is the other way around. For the Palestinian jihadists, the ideology would not act as a barrier, and as such be the cause, but the traumas they went through. In an analogy with sheer physical pain which stops a person from thinking clearly, the sufferings of the Palestinian people would be the barrier that renders acting in a rational way impossible. This would be so, even if we do not know anything about the personal history of those perpetrators; or if we have trouble finding other peoples, who don’t cherish the Islamist nihilistic values, and who suffered a lot, but do not act in the same barbaric way.

For the Interpreters radical pain replaces the weight radical ideology bears. If so, the jihadist would not act because of the ideals he believes in, but because of the Other’s intended crimes he has suffered.

The Other

So, even though he rapes, burns alive, beheads, dismembers and kidnaps, the Hamas’s terrorist would be a normal person that Israel has turned circumstantially into a monster. In this Interpretation, Israel is, as in the Disney movie, like the merchant who after stealing a rose from the garden (from the mythical Land) forces his daughter Belle (the Palestinian “Movement” or “Cause”) to marry the Beast (Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Islamist movements). And this is a rather charitable analysis of what the many celebrations of the attacks, in America and elsewhere, reveal.

What makes the atrocities of Hamas different from other terrorist attacks is, perhaps, not the acts themselves since, as Harris points out, the acts are no different from those committed by Islamists across the globe. Nor it is the victims they supposedly vindicate, if these are seen as Arab or Muslim people. Otherwise, why does not the defense of the rights of Uighur, Iranian, or Syrian victims arouse so many passions? This is not what drives so many people at once-respectable universities in America and across Europe to march, or to share inflamed messages in social media. But the specificity of the target. Unlike the 200 African girls abducted by Boko Haram; or the recital-goers in Paris; or the hundreds of Muslims murdered in the Muslim world, Hamas’s primary target is Jewish people. It is not by chance that the Other is the only state that can be called “Jewish”. And this is a passion that, contrary to what Arendt, or the Interpreters may say, is shared by both Eichmann and Hamas.

About the Author
MA in Philosophy (EHESS)