Yossi Klein Halevi
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Why is Israel being blamed for the Hamas massacre?

Erasing the legitimacy of the Israeli narrative fundamentally revives a pernicious antisemitic trope that Jews deserve their fate
Screenshot of Hamas bodycam footage as terrorists approach an Israeli vehicle during the terror organization's October 7, 2023 attack in southern Israel, released by the IDF and GPO. (Screenshot)
Screenshot of Hamas bodycam footage as terrorists approach an Israeli vehicle during the terror organization's October 7, 2023 attack in southern Israel, released by the IDF and GPO. (Screenshot)

How is it possible that, in much of the international community, there is “understanding” for the mass atrocities of October 7? That on parts of the left there is greater outrage against Israel’s response to the Hamas massacre than to the massacre itself? That those who feel most vulnerable on liberal American campuses are not Hamas supporters but Jews? That anti-Zionists who call for turning Israelis into a defenseless minority within “Greater Palestine,” “from the river to the sea,” are chanting their hateful slogans with even greater vigor and moral self-confidence?

One answer was inadvertently provided by Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas. Speaking last month on Palestinian TV, Abbas sought to explain the origins of the Holocaust. The Nazis, he said, were not antisemitic, but opposed the Jews “because of their role in society, which had to do with usury, money… In [Hitler’s] view, they were engaged in sabotage, and this is why he hated them.” In other words: the Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves.

Abbas was widely condemned as an antisemite, including by some on the left. Yet Abbas’s sensibility informs the response of many progressives to the events of recent weeks. Israel, they say, effectively provoked the massacre with its occupation of the Palestinians, its racism and colonialism and apartheid, perhaps with its very existence. Once again, that is, the Jews have brought tragedy on themselves.

Blaming Jews for their own suffering is an indispensable part of the history of antisemitism. Whether as the Christ-killers of pre-Holocaust Christianity or as the race-defilers of Nazi Germany, Jews were perceived as deserving their fate. Invariably, those who target Jews believe they are responding to Jewish provocation.

What makes this moment more complicated is that, unlike in the past, Jews do indeed have power. We are no longer innocent. We are occupying the Palestinians in the West Bank. As the war intensifies, civilian casualties are rising in Gaza. And expansion of West Bank settlements undermines the long-term possibilities of a two-state solution.

But this moment does fit the historical pattern of antisemitism in the ease with which much of the world has, over the last decades, erased the Israeli understanding of the conflict and how we got to this point. A systematic and astonishingly successful campaign on the left has negated the Israeli historical and political narrative.  As a result, one of the world’s most complicated moral and political dilemmas has been turned into a proverbial passion play, in which The Israeli plays the role of Judas (in place of The Jew), betraying his destiny as noble victim and becoming the victimizer.

The Jewish state has been transformed into the sum of its sins, an irredeemably evil society that has lost its right to exist, let alone defend itself.

To blame the occupation and its consequences wholly on Israel is to dismiss the history of Israeli peace offers and Palestinian rejection. To label Israel as one more colonialist creation is to distort the unique story of the homecoming of an uprooted people, a majority of whom were refugees from destroyed Jewish communities in the Middle East. To brand Israel an apartheid state is to confuse a national with a racial conflict, and to ignore the interaction of Arab and Jewish Israelis in significant parts of the society. To understand Israel and its security dilemmas only through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian power dynamic is to ignore its vulnerability in a hostile region, and the Iranian-allied terror enclaves pressing against its borders.

The Israeli narrative is not as foolproof as some of Israel’s defenders believe. Israel has become a full partner, along with the Palestinian national movement, in helping sustain the conflict. In the past year especially, the most extreme political and religious parts of Israeli society became this country’s official face, creating the first Israeli government since the late 1980s whose goal is not a political solution to the Palestinian tragedy but annexation.

Still, blaming the massacre on the occupation is a fundamental misreading of the goal of Hamas. Hamas is not working for the creation of a Palestinian mini-state on the West Bank and Gaza, but for the destruction of Israel. For Hamas, all of Israel is “occupied,” and no two-state solution would end its war against the Jewish state. In 1995, at the height of the Oslo peace process, Hamas launched its first wave of suicide bombings. The communities decimated on October 7 were, in Hamas’s terminology, “settlements,” though they are within Israel’s internationally recognized borders.

Hamas’s intimate form of mass murder was a pre-enactment of its genocidal plan for an Islamist state between the river and the sea. This is the face of the one-state solution being promoted on Western campuses and on the streets of London and Brooklyn and Sydney.

The mindset that blames Israel for provoking the Hamas massacre explains the astonishing readiness of much of the international media to initially accept Hamas’s version of the tragedy at the al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City on October 17. Banner headlines and news alerts strongly implied that an Israeli missile had destroyed the hospital. When Israel provided compelling proof that the culprit was a stray rocket fired by an Islamic Jihad cell positioned near the hospital (which was not directly hit), and even though Hamas offered no proof at all for its claims, much of the media still refused to exonerate Israel, instead continuing to refer to “two versions” of the event.

The truth did finally emerge, but by that point, the damage had been done. The war had found its symbol. For much of the world, Israel not only bombed the hospital, but surely did so deliberately. The belated media retractions were irrelevant. Whether Israel had technically committed this particular crime, it was guilty because it could have bombed the hospital, because sooner or later it will commit an atrocity, because it is in essence, for much of the world, a criminal state.

Certainly, many of those who fault Israel for the crisis, including some of its most extreme critics, are not consciously doing so because they are motivated by antisemitism. But the decisive role played by antisemitism in shaping Western thinking over millennia, compellingly analyzed by David Nirenberg in his book, “Anti- Judaism,” is once again stirring. Regardless of whether Hamas’s apologists are acting out of antisemitic motives, they are collaborators in a classic antisemitic moment.

Many Jews today feel as though they are living in a surreal but familiar reality. Now we understand, they say, how the Holocaust could have happened, and how seemingly decent people could blame those pushy Jews, who were too smart for their own good and always went to the head of the queue, for their own troubles.

The sadistic frenzy of October 7 was not an expression of political frustration, but one of primal Jew-hatred, which has been adapted to  opposing sensibilities and ideologies, and which today unites the far right and the far left.

But the Jews today are no longer helpless. We can defend ourselves, and we can strike back against those whose vision of a better world depends on our disappearance. If progressives seek to turn our reclamation of power into their symbol of human depravity, we will deal with that too.

History imposes on Jews the responsibility to confront the moral consequences of power. But October 7 wasn’t a response to the abuses of Jewish power; it was a reminder of the necessity of Jewish power. In a world in which genocidal enemies persist, powerlessness for the Jewish people is a sin.

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.
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