Stephen Slater

Why is condemning the massacre in Israel so hard?

The inability to correctly frame the moral nature of the massacre in Israel on Simchat Torah of 2023, exposes the moral corruption of post-colonial theory, and widely held contemporary beliefs about power, and the socially imposed limits to human freedom. 

Hamas shattered our sense of security this past Sunday. To cries of Allah hu Akbar! young Palestinians rushed across the border and murdered innocent Israelis. I have not seen something similarly grotesque in my lifetime. And it touches on one of the deepest fears that we as a Jewish people have. We fear pogrom. We fear another Holocaust. And we fear that the world will sit by complacently while Jews are murdered again. We fear that those who hate us will murder us with impunity. We long to see a rules based order, where Jewish life is respected. And those who act upon hate are brought to justice. Yet since the Hamas fighters disappeared back into Gaza, where they are inextricably mixed up with the local population, where they shelter behind human shields, using children as their moral high ground, we realize that there will be no accountability. They will have murdered again with impunity. 

As students at Harvard and Claremont make statements of solidarity with the Palestinians – immediately following the greatest massacre in modern Israeli history – and long before Israel launches any war to destroy Hamas – I am dumbfounded. How did a generation of highly educated young Americans attending elite schools – come to see the world with such a warped moral vision? And given the schools that they attend, this augurs poorly for the future. They will shortly be put in charge of the corporations and government agencies that shape our lives and our ability to respond to such crises. And they feel that there is somehow a moral equivalence between murderous terrorists with blood on their hands, and slain Israeli civilians. What?! How did this happen? 

Our moral reasoning is corrupt. Let’s examine together what some of the sources of this newfound instinct to create a moral equivalence may be. 

Why do students believe that there is nothing wrong with Palestinians murdering Israelis? 

Because Israelis have more power than Palestinians. Because Israel is seen as a settler colonial enterprise in which white people continue to extend their power over brown people. Because the choices that people make are limited to those available within their own society. 

Let’s take them one at a time. 

For most young people the most fundamental unit of moral analysis is power. Who has the most power is the big question. And we always suspect the party with more power. Yet this leads to an inability to be fair minded. And it leads to subverting justice in favor of the marginalized and disempowered. 

Where did this way of thinking come from? What were first philosophical trends toward an analysis of power have come to influence news-reporting, government agencies, academics, and the young.

This leads to the ridiculous situation where those who are members of a disempowered minority can do no wrong. Since they are by definition victims, they cannot also be perpetrators. 

There is a very simple narrative that has been told and retold endlessly about the Palestinian Israeli conflict. It is the story that the powerful Israelis are oppressing the poor, defenseless Palestinians. And for many, this is the decisive story. It is all they need to know about the situation in order to form their moral judgments. This is the kind of thing that I hear most distinctly from my British and European friends when they talk about Israel. 

I blame French philosopher Michel Foucault for this trajectory in political thinking. However, he is really just the most recently influential tradent in a line of thinkers who see power as the most essential thing in ethics. 

Secondly, due to the rise of post-colonial thought in Western Universities, we see Israel as a colonial enterprise. Nevermind that it doesn’t fit the facts. How does it not fit? Because Israelis have nowhere else to go – as the Holocaust made abundantly clear. Because Israelis are also brown and black, not only white. Because Israel was not founded from a place of strength, but in desperation after having exhausted all other options. It is a country of refugees, not of colonists. 

But nevermind all that, students in elite colleges think of their idealized image of “the Israeli” and they think they know from the racial profile of their “average citizen” almost everything they need to know in order to make moral judgements about the conflict. This kind of – literally – skin deep analysis feels to them clever and educated. Holding such views is part of what makes them part of the elite – as opposed to those who hold a now passe color blind approach. Post-colonial thought has distorted our ability to see the Israeli Palestinian conflict for what it is. And as a result our moral judgments are warped. 

Finally, sociology taught us that we are not as free as we think we are. Instead, our basic choices are hemmed in by the society in which we live. Therefore when a member of an oppressed minority chooses to become a member of Hamas, and when Hamas chooses to go on a cross border murderous raid, that is because that young man had such limited options, that his justified desire for Palestinian political autonomy led him to such violent means. We live at a time when we celebrate the ability to be whoever you chose to become. However, more and more people feel that their life decisions are hemmed in by impersonal forces of economics, technology, social media. And the growing sociological awareness that our choices are not made with complete freedom, leads us to see nothing as purely a decision between right and wrong. Therefore, there is nothing to say morally about the murderous Palestinian. 

This is likely why we have heard very little from University Presidents this week. But it is not just University presidents who feel that the situation is “too complex” to warrant taking a moral stance. A rabbinic colleague told me that he notices a huge difference between how people responded immediately after the murder of 11 unarmed people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg, and who they have not responded at all after the murder of hundreds of unarmed Israelis in their homes in Ashkelon, or at the music festival near Gaza. The lives of the American Jew and the Israeli Jew are seen as having a different moral weight. Why is that? It is because of the influence of post-colonial thought on our understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

It is also because we no longer believe that people are free actors, who are responsible for their actions. It is because we believe that the fundamental fact in life is power. And as a result, like Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic, we believe that justice is merely the advantage of the strong. In other words, these beliefs have made cynics of us all. 

Sitting in the ashes of this awful moment, we are receiving a blaring wakeup call. These ideas, taught in our leading Universities from Harvard to Claremont have morally corrupt effects. They cause students to think they are acting morally when they issue statements of solidarity with murderous Palestinian jihadists.

The responsibility for our inability to take moral action, lies with the insufficiencies of some of our most popular philosophies. We need a way back to personal responsibility. Only by correct philosophical understanding can we take back our freedom. This is not a moment for moral relativism. It is a time that requires moral clarity.

About the Author
Rabbi Stephen Slater is the husband of the new Director of Hillel at the Claremont Colleges, Bethany Slater. I love being a rabbi and am passionate about inspiring the Jews to grow personally and spiritually through encountering Torah and Avodah, Torah study and communal worship. Ordained in 2018, I have led congregations in Birmingham, AL and Glens Falls, NY, and Columbus, Ohio. I met my life long hevrutah (study partner), Bethany, in an undergraduate philosophy class. In my free time, I love to read and write non-fiction. I especially love going on adventures with my two young children, Anav (8) and Emet (5). I studied Hebrew and Second Temple Jewish literature and history at the Hebrew University. Primary influences for me intellectually include the Hartman Institute, the Conservative Yeshiva, and Yeshivat Hadar. I am particularly inspired by a young generation of Jews who are seeking out a richer spiritual life, and are searching for something more in the Jewish tradition. I am so pleased that we now live in Southern California, and look forward to helping Hillel to develop a thriving center of Jewish life in Claremont.
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