Yossi Klein Halevi

The lonely people of history

When even Israel’s allies begin to lose moral clarity about the justness of this war, Jews will stand and proclaim our truth
Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protesters gather with placards and flags, including a banner urging "Resist! Return!, at a 'National March For Palestine' in central London on November 11, 2023 (HENRY NICHOLLS / AFP)
Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protesters gather with placards and flags, including a banner urging "Resist! Return!, at a 'National March For Palestine' in central London on November 11, 2023 (HENRY NICHOLLS / AFP)

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. Even as we established a sovereign state and created thriving communities in a free diaspora, there remained a lingering anxiety that the post-Holocaust era of Jewish acceptance was an aberration and that someday we would once again be alone.

The ancient fear of the Jews is immutable otherness. “They are a people that shall dwell alone and not be considered among the nations,” declared the pagan prophet Balaam in the Bible. The miracle of the post-Holocaust Jewish recovery was that, just as history seemed to confirm Balaam’s prediction, we managed to become a “normal” people, securing our place in the world.

But now we are at one of those defining moments in Jewish history when we find ourselves at a moral disconnect with much of the international community. As we struggle to absorb the enormity of the October 7 massacre and to confront a global wave of antisemitism, the trauma of aloneness has returned.

Non-Jews rarely see the bitter messages that fill Jewish social media. One typical tweet in my feed reads: “First they came for LGBTQ, and I stood up, because love is love … Then they came for the Black community, and I stood up, because Black lives matter. Then they came for me, but I stood alone, because I am a Jew.”

Another tweet shows an empty street, with the words “London When Hamas Massacres Jews,” followed by that same street packed with pro-Palestinian demonstrators, and the words, “London When Israel Responds.” Anti-Israel rallies, we have noted, routinely attract large numbers of non-Muslims, but pro-Israel rallies attract mostly Jews.

Naively, we had assumed that the October 7 massacre would linger in the world’s consciousness. Surely those who had played down Israel’s security fears would now understand the nature of the threat we face on our borders. After all, this was no “ordinary” terror attack but a pre-enactment of Hamas’s genocidal vision. “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” – free, that is, of Jews. 

Moral clarity

But a mere month later, the memory of Oct. 7 has faded, absorbed into the “cycle of violence.” “The attacks by Hamas didn’t happen in a vacuum,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, citing the 56-year Israeli occupation. Both sides are responsible, added former president Barack Obama, urging us to “take in the whole truth” of the conflict.

Yes, many Jews readily 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.  

But for all the complexity of the Palestinian-Israeli tragedy, this is not a complicated moment. No, we patiently explain, the massacre was not in response to anything Israel does but to what Israel is. And yes, the suffering of innocent Gazans deserves the world’s urgent humanitarian attention, but not at the expense of moral clarity about the justness of this war.

Once again we recite the litany of Oct. 7 – the burned and raped and dismembered bodies that were so disfigured that, a month later, many still haven’t been identified, the dying woman paraded to cheering and abusing crowds in Gaza, the kidnapped babies and the elderly, the pride with which the terrorists filmed their work. This is not a political conflict, we remind the world, but an outbreak of evil. Just like ISIS, we note, recalling the terrible devastation caused by the necessary American assault in Mosul and Raqqa. 

But increasingly, we sense that we are talking to ourselves. The post-religious West, which substitutes the ideological rhetoric of academia for a genuine language for evil, doesn’t understand the old Jewish language we are speaking. Increasingly, we modern enlightened Jews find ourselves sounding like our grandparents. We may as well be speaking in Yiddish.

We watch the mass marches against Israel with astonishment. What may well be the most horrific massacre of our time, outdoing even the atrocities of ISIS, has resulted in the unprecedented popularity of the Palestinian cause. Has the world lost its mind, we ask, even as we feel our own grip on reality faltering. 

No, Israel is not a paragon of virtue. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have spent this last year protesting every week against the anti-democratic Netanyahu government. But with the Hamas massacre, those arguments have been deferred until after the war. For now, we agree: Those who did that to the Jewish people must not be allowed to claim victory. 

To leave a genocidal regime on our border would be a betrayal of the founding ethos of Israel as a safe refuge for the Jewish people. It would be the beginning of our unraveling.

We know that many of those who are demanding a ceasefire are our friends, good people who are horrified by Gaza’s devastation. But the fact that even they don’t seem to understand what’s at stake in this war, and that a ceasefire would allow Hamas to regroup, only reinforces our sense of isolation.

Yes, we say, the suffering of the innocent in Gaza is heartbreaking. But how to compare a deliberate assault on civilians with a war against a terrorist group embedded in a civilian population? Over and over we repeat what we’d assumed was self-evident: One side seeks to maximize civilian casualties, the other side to minimize them. Isn’t it obvious that only Hamas benefits from Palestinian deaths, winning the world’s sympathy and increasing pressure on Israel? 

We are wasting our words: Much of the West has lost its capacity for moral distinctions.

Shifting the blame

But the offense is even greater than the lazy comparison between Israel and Hamas. Many in the West do indeed make a distinction between them: Hamas is good, and Israel is evil.

In this telling, it is Israel that is guilty of waging genocidal war. Israel is accused of genocide by the very people chanting genocidal slogans. October 7 ended any ambiguity about what a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea” would mean for millions of Israelis reduced to a helpless minority within it. Yet that chant reverberates louder than ever on streets and campuses across the West. 

We are living the ultimate Jewish nightmare: to be slaughtered and then branded the criminal. 

Shifting the blame of genocide from Hamas to Israel is indicative of a deeper assault on the Jewish story. For anti-Zionists, the Jews are not an indigenous people returning home, but “white European colonialists” stealing another people’s land. Jews don’t belong in their own history.

Denying the Jewish people the right to its narrative is an echo, however unconscious, of the ancient Christian doctrine of “Supersessionism,” which regarded the Jews as interlopers in the biblical story they had created. Instead, the Church had become “the true Israel,” replacing the fallen Jews who had rejected the messiah and were in turn rejected by God. Only after the Holocaust was that doctrine, the basis of centuries of persecution, rescinded by the Catholic Church and part of the Protestant world.

With the rise of this new secular version of Supersessionism, the spaces in the West where Jews feel welcome, even safe, are shrinking. Universities were the Jewish entry point of acceptance into the non-Jewish mainstream; now they are the staging ground for what feels like a rescinding of that promise. 

Ran Harnevo, a leader of the Israeli democracy movement and a high-tech entrepreneur, declared he would boycott the Web Summit, an annual technology conference, because of the anti-Israel stance of its CEO, Paddy Cosgrave. In an English-language clip that went viral, Harnevo mocked Cosgrave for tweeting, on the day of the massacre, a chart comparing the number of Palestinians and Israelis killed over the last 15 years. “You see Paddy, what happened on October 7 was not another data point on your f*king charts. It was something else, unbearable.” 

Still, we know we are not entirely alone.  We cling to expressions of solidarity like talismans warding off the darkness. President Biden inspired us with his empathetic journey to Israel. We send other each clips of non-Jews voicing support, like German Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck, head of the Green Party, who berated fellow progressives for their hateful anti-Zionism. And following the withdrawal of Intel, Google, Amazon and other leading companies from the Web Summit, Cosgrave apologized and resigned.

Without fearing the consequences

Most of us don’t want to live in bitter seclusion from the world. Zionism intended two kinds of Jewish return: The first was to the land of Israel; the second was to the family of nations. In 1945, the overwhelming majority of Holocaust survivors embraced the Zionist vision of the dual return of the Jews to their land and to the world. Like those survivors, we reject the ultra-Orthodox approach of radical separatism and see the Jewish people as inseparable from humanity.  

Still, there are moments when we must risk going alone. We know that the longer the fighting in Gaza lasts, even our friends will begin to pressure us to relent. We must resist that pressure and not fear the consequences. 

The ancient rabbis say that Abraham was called “the Hebrew” — “HaIvri,” from the root word for “across” – because he stood on one side proclaiming his truth and the entire world stood on the other. During the Second Intifada, when the IDF fought suicide bombers in Palestinian towns and villages, an exasperated Kofi Anan, then secretary-general of the UN, demanded: “Can the whole world be wrong and only Israel is right?” Israelis unhesitatingly replied: Absolutely.

This is a similar moment for us to reaffirm our identity as Hebrews. 

Last week, together with thousands of mourners, I attended the funeral of a 23-year-old soldier named Yonadav Raz Levenstein, who was killed fighting in Gaza. Yonadav, the grandson of my colleague and friend at the Shalom Hartman Institute, Chaim Solomon, married two months ago.

Speaking at the gravesite, Yonadav’s brother called on the government to resist world pressure and persevere. He invoked Israel’s first prime minister: “David Ben-Gurion said that it doesn’t matter what the gentiles say, only what the Jews do.”

Israelis across the political spectrum agree that the regime of Oct. 7 must be destroyed. Like Ben-Gurion, we are willing to pay the bitter price of being alone.

A version of this essay appeared in the Globe and Mail.)


About the Author
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where he is co-director, together Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University and Maital Friedman, of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), and a member of the Institute's iEngage Project. His latest book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, is a New York Times bestseller. His previous book, Like Dreamers, was named the 2013 National Jewish Book Council Book of the Year.