Philip Mendes
Australian Jewish academic and policy commentator

Twice Traumatized: Australian Jews and progressive responses to October 7

The national conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs is an ongoing tragedy that adversely effects the lives of Jews and Arabs living in the Middle East, and additionally the wellbeing of Jews, Arabs and many others living across the globe. Its perpetuation can arguably be attributed to what may be termed the ‘unresolved harm’ to Palestinians emanating from the historical events of 1948 including particularly the creation and long-term non-resolution of the Palestinian refugee catastrophe or Nakba. But that interpretation requires the key caveat that multiple not single players were responsible for the Nakba: Israel, the neighbouring Arab States, and the principal Palestinian Arab leaders of the day such as the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini. Any contemporary peace proposal that frames the conflict as a simplistic morality play involving alleged oppressors and oppressed or evil perpetrators and infantilised victims will inevitably fail. That is because the same multiple participants from 1948 continue to be active players whose joint actions and choices over more than seven decades have retarded rather than enabled conflict resolution.

That dispassionate historical overview brings me to the traumatic impact of the October 7 Hamas death squad massacre – the largest murder of Jews on a single day since the Nazi Holocaust – on Jews in Australia and elsewhere. This impact played out via four intersectional components.

The first was the concern of many Jews to check on the safety of relatives and friends inside Israel. Personally, I have one first cousin and her family remaining in Israel (her father who is my maternal uncle and two siblings recently returned to Australia after living in Israel for more than four decades), a number of friends who grew up in Australia and then immigrated to Israel, and a number of Israeli academic colleagues with whom I have collaborated with on research projects. Fortunately, they are all okay at the moment, but everybody in Israel is anxious about the future including particularly those who have young adult children that have been called up for reserve army duty.

The second was the post-traumatic historical memory that the massacre triggered for many Australian Jews (known as Ashkenazim from European backgrounds) whose families were persecuted in the Holocaust. There remain about two dozen Holocaust survivors alive in Australia today, plus thousands of Jews whose parents, grandparents or other relatives were assaulted or murdered by Nazi death squads and gas chambers.

Additionally, there are some Australian Jews (known as Misrahim) who come from Arab or North African countries (and noting that at least half the Israeli Jewish population emanate from this background), for whom the massacre revived family memories of violent anti-Semitic mobs assaulting Jews in Arab countries before the creation of the State of Israel.

One prominent example is the Farhud in Baghdad in 1941 which I have called elsewhere an Iraqi version of the Nazi Kristallnacht. That massacre resulted in the following traumatic outcomes: about 180 Jews murdered, nearly two thousand injured including multiple cases of gang rape, many children orphaned, numerous Jewish properties, businesses and religious institutions damaged and looted, and more than 12,000 people left homeless:

Similar anti-Jewish massacres took place in Algeria in 1934 (25 Jews murdered) and Libya in 1945 (130 Jews killed and 10 per cent left homeless): Those historical events arguably bear close cultural similarities to the October 7 Hamas massacre including particularly the combination of ultra-right ethnocentric Arab nationalism and Islamic religious fanaticism that inspired the murderers.

The fourth component was the failure of many Australian progressives to recognize this traumatic reaction, and to provide humanistic solidarity to Australian Jews. There were very few examples of progressives actively engaging with Jewish lived experience voices regarding October 7. Yet, most progressive intellectuals today will not author a single line of a research or policy analysis or commentary on vulnerable groups without actively consulting and co-designing their views with representatives of those groups. But in developing their political response to October 7, they have seemingly chosen to ignore the lived experience of Jews despite (as noted above) their historical oppression by racists in both Europe and the Middle East.

Some local progressives have merely chanted inflammatory slogans such as ‘Free Palestine’ and ‘From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free’. These slogans can be ambiguously interpreted as either urging the violent elimination of Israel to be replaced by an Arab State of Greater Palestine, or alternatively (and this is highly charitable) an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank to facilitate the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. But either way, they are exclusivist nationalist slogans that make no reference to the national and human rights of Israeli Jews traumatized by the events of October 7. They are arguably the complete antithesis of a universalistic progressive perspective which would advance the rights of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

But far worse are the progressives who openly endorse the massacres perpetrated by the Islamo-fascist Hamas. Their rationale seems to be based on the root causes argument – that because the Palestinians are victims of historical structural oppression – any form of violence against their alleged oppressors is legitimate. As noted in my introduction, I would argue that the Palestinians are not mere passive victims of Israeli oppression. Rather,

their actions and choices along with those of Israel and the Arab states have actively contributed to their current disastrous state of affairs.

But regardless, this odd progressive apology for Hamas death squads is not new. Rather, it was first presented two decades ago when the second wave of Hamas suicide bombings (following the first wave from 1994-98) completely derailed the Oslo Peace Accord and the prospects for a negotiated two-state solution. Cherie Blair – the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s partner – famously opined the view that suicide bombings were an understandable response to Palestinian hopelessness:

But an Australian academic and co-convenor of the first Australian petition in favour of an academic boycott of Israel, Professor Ghassan Hage, arguably presented in 2003 a more serious philosophical defence of the motivations of suicide bombers. According to Hage, it was imperative to ‘understand’ the ‘social disposition’ that produces them, rather than to condemn ‘suicide bombers as such’. He was willing, however, ‘absolutely to condemn the living conditions that make people into suicide bombers’:

Hage’s comments may be viewed by some as a reasonable example of a structural analysis of social oppression. But they completely fail to distinguish between progressive and reactionary response to that oppression as do many progressive responses to October 7 globally:

In Australia, Dr Nick Reimer, one of the leaders of the organized campaign to boycott Israel, tweeted: ‘No progressive should feel the need to publicly condemn any choices by the Palestinian resistance. Doing so just adds to the perception that their cause is unjust. Condemnation is the speech-act you perform when breaking contact off with someone, not when standing in solidarity’:

Another Australian academic, Tim Strom, bizarrely tried to reframe the death squad massacre of defenceless civilians as an heroic attack on a repressive military apparatus:

Both Reimer and Strom confuse nationalism and universalism, imply a racist stereotyping of all Israelis (whatever their diverse class identity, family background or political beliefs) as evil, and obtusely conflate the impact of structural oppression with the methods chosen to attack it. Progressives have always carefully distinguished between progressive and reactionary responses to structural oppression. That distinction began in the late 19th century when the German Socialist leader Auguste Bebel famously coined the term ‘Socialism of Fools’ to criticize those workers who were conned by anti-Semites into believing what may be called the reactionary response to structural oppression, the assumption that only Jewish capitalists (rather than all capitalists) were responsible for their oppression.

Later, this reactionary scapegoating of vulnerable minority groups as a means of obscuring the broader systemic causes of social and economic division and inequity was effectively exploited by the Nazis for political gain. They successfully targeted Jews as the alleged ‘source of our misfortune’ in order to divert the anger of the unemployed and other disadvantaged groups from the real structural sources of political and economic power in German society. 

The implied defence by some progressives of the October 7 massacre similarly fails to address the complex underlying causes of Palestinian oppression. It is also a reactionary response to oppression that would never be accepted by progressives in contemporary social science analysis. To state the obvious:

  • They don’t defend groups of working class men, who as a result of class exploitation in the workplace, divert their anger into family violence against their female partners;
  • They don’t support disenfranchised groups of workers, who have lost their jobs as a result of a multinational takeover of a local company, expressing their frustration via violent attacks on First Nation Australians;
  • They don’t approve vulnerable youth, who have been bullied at school, taking their revenge by assaulting other more vulnerable peers who are gay and lesbian;
  • They don’t condone the actions of homeless people, who come from a background of major childhood adversity, that have raped and killed women.


None of this analysis obviates the need for a negotiated political solution that advances the national rights of both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, whether that be two states or a confederation or some form of trusteeship arrangement that involves neighbouring Arab states and the international community.

But as Nick Dyrenfurth and I opined at length in our earlier book, Boycotting Israel is Wrong:, Israeli-Palestinian peace can only be enabled by actions and language on both sides that privilege open dialogue aimed at achieving compromise and reconciliation, and which display zero tolerance for hate speech. Australian progressives who act as cheerleaders for the most hardline manifestations of Palestinian nationalism retard rather than advance conflict resolution and the achievement of any form of Palestinian national self-determination. Moreover, their actions threaten to undermine Australian multicultural harmony, and further traumatize our historically oppressed Jewish population.

About the Author
Professor Philip Mendes is the author or co-author of 13 books including Jews and the Left: The rise and fall of a political alliance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), and Boycotting Israel is Wrong (New South Press, 2015). His most recent critique of the Australian BDS movement has just appeared in Robert A. Kenedy et al (Eds.) Israel and the Diaspora: Jewish connectivity in a changing world. Springer Nature Switzerland, pp.221-238.