For many Americans, the attack on Israel by the Palestinian militants of Hamas is forcing a re-examination of everything we took for granted about the Mideast. This is particularly true of American Jews.
For decades, Israel was seen as a refuge if things went bad, the post-genocide antidote to diaspora and dispossession. As Eric Alterman wrote in his 2022 book We Are Not One: A History of America's Fight Over Israel this was a view largely shaped by the schmaltzy Leon Uris novel Exodus and even more compellingly, by the 1960 movie based on the novel.
In recent years, liberal Americans' view of Israel has become more nuanced. As the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza dragged on and Israel's treatment of Palestinians became increasingly influenced by the country's religious extremists, the usual remark was that one could support Israel but not the country's government, particularly the corrupt and increasingly untrustworthy Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu. Now, this rather offhanded analysis - virtue signaling, maybe? - feels insufficient.
Like the U.S., Israel has become increasingly divided, grappling with a conflict between authoritarianism and the rule of law. With no commitment to working toward a long-term peace within the right-wing Israeli government, the stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians felt both inevitable and eternal.
It turned out to be neither.
Hamas fighters using Israeli children as human shields. Posted on Twitter by Amjah Taja of the British Center for Middle East Studes, footage released by Hamas.
While the uneasy quasi-apartheid lingered in the West Bank and Gaza with no impetus toward a lasting solution from Israel's right-wing government, genuine efforts to build a lasting peace were nonetheless ongoing. In 2020, the Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco established diplomatic ties with Israel — reversing their stance of refusing to recognize the country before the creation of a Palestinian state. Regional unity is regarded as the only hope for breaking the long stalemate over Palestinian autonomy.
But Iran has been working to undermine U.S. influence in the region and with it, the groundwork for peace, China and Russia loom in the background, aiding Iran in its effort to become the regional hegemon. This year, China brokered an agreement to re-establish diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, former rivals, a sign that the U.S. could no longer count on Saudi Arabia to consistently broker its interests in the region.
At the same time, Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman continues to work with the U.S., including negotiating a potential deal to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Experts agree that the Oct . 7 Hamas attack on Israeli civilians was an attempt to derail these talks. The full-throated support of the Biden administration for Israel is not only a realpolitik attempt to buttress U.S. influence, but also to keep these negotiations intact.
In the days following the attack, it became clear that Iran had been, if not quite the puppet master, certainly something close. It's old news that Iran has been providing weapons, training and funding to Hamas - $100 million in 2021 alone, according to the U.S. Department of State. But this was different. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard had been working with Hamas on the invasion plans for roughly a year, and it was Iran that gave the go ahead for the attack, according to senior members of Hamas and Hezbollah quoted in the The Wall Street Journal. It seems likely that Hamas was able to bypass Israeli security because of Iran's intelligence capabilities. If these reports are accurate, this was as much an Iranian attack as an attack by Hamas.
The Great Game, Redux
From the days of T.E. Lawrence, the people of the Mideast have been pawns in the Great Game. This era is no different, wrote one Israeli official to the Journal. The official, a U.S.-born emigre to Israel who asked not to be named, stressed the geopolitical importance of the current crisis.
"American interests and prestige, too, are on the line," he wrote. "If Israel doesn't have a decisive victory, the Palestinians will be in some sort of vassalage to the Iranian mullahs. That will also work to push the U.S. out of the region, which opens things up to the Chinese and Russians. Ukraine and Taiwan will be in danger of falling."
"The Sixth Fleet showed up to protect American interests in the region, including deterring Hizbollah and Iran from joining the war. Get rid of the mullahs in Iran and the Middle East will bloom, including the Iranian people who are being terrorized themselves by the regime. Obama’s empowerment of the mullahs was a mistake of many magnitudes," he added. "But then again Obama had a hard time seeing beyond his arrogance and ignorance."
The Biden administration's unequivocal support for Israel is clearly strategic in realpolitik terms. At the same time, like Ukraine, it is part of an effort to preserve the rules-based world order. President Joe Biden gave what was arguably the best speech of his entire political career after the attack. Biden's strengths were clearly in evidence: empathy combined with a grasp of the larger issues of history and geopolitics.
Israel's Original Sin
For liberal American Jews, the conflict is forcing a re-examination not only of Israel as a refuge, but of the country's history. Certain facts are not in dispute. In 1947, the United Nations recognized a state that would be partitioned between Jews and Palestinians. The Jews accepted this; Palestinians did not. Millions left their homes when Israel became a nation. Did they go voluntarily or were they forced?
For decades, historians sympathetic to Israel alleged that Palestinian leaders misled their people, frightening them into leaving their homes within the borders of the new state of Israel. This was true in some cases, but not in the majority. A 2019 story in the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz detailed the discovery of incriminating notes detailing Israeli war crimes by historian Tamar Novick. Shocked by what she had uncovered, Novick consulted with Benny Morris, whose books are basic texts in the study of the Nakba – the “calamity,” as the Palestinians refer to the mass emigration of Arabs during the 1948 war. Morris told her that he had come across similar documentation, including this:
He (Morris) was referring to notes made by Mapam Central Committee member Aharon Cohen on the basis of a briefing given in November 1948 by Israel Galili, the former chief of staff of the Haganah militia, which became the IDF. Cohen’s notes in this instance, which Morris published, stated: “Safsaf 52 men tied with a rope. Dropped into a pit and shot. 10 were killed. Women pleaded for mercy. [There were] 3 cases of rape. Caught and released. A girl of 14 was raped. Another 4 were killed. Rings of knives.”
Over the past decade, many records such as these, once suppressed, have been released. Scholars now estimate that while roughly 30 percent of Palestinians left Israel because they decided independently, 70 percent were forced from their homes.
The toll on Bedouins was more genocidal, if only because the Bedouin way of life was more closely tied to the land. Israeli fighters shot the nomadic peoples' camels and sheep and burned their tents, forcing them out of occupied lands.
"On the eve of Israel’s establishment, nearly 100,000 Bedouin lived in the Negev," writes Haaretz reporter Hagar Shezaf. "Three years later, their number was down to 13,000. In the years during and after the independence war, a number of expulsion operations were carried out in the country’s south. In one case, United Nations observers reported that Israel had expelled 400 Bedouin from the Azazma tribe and cited testimonies of tents being burned. The letter that appears in the classified file describes a similar expulsion carried out as late as 1956, as related by geologist Avraham Parnes."
And yet. For most of its existence, Israel has been dominated by Ashkenazi Jews, the settlers who came from Europe in the wake of the Holocaust. The country is, in many ways, progressive, with world-class universities and a thriving business community. It is no coincidence that many of the victims of the Hamas attack were at a rave in southern Israel, anathema to Muslim extremists who paraded one of the female attendees naked through the streets after her capture.
But as the population of Sephardic Jews, who tend to be more militant, has grown, the country turned rightward. In recent years, hardcore religious fundamentalists, a striking number of them American, have expanded Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, making compromise more difficult. Thesef fanatical, hard line settlers were profiled by Jeffrey Goldberg, now editor of the Atlantic, in a 2006 New Yorker article. Their world view is not so different from Islamic extremists.
"Absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely,"
As Israeli leadership was taken over by the right wing, Palestinian leaders repeatedly failed their people. In 2005, Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yassir Arafat is blamed for walking away from negotiations despite major concessions from Israel. The exact nature of this event is debated, but there is no doubt that Arafat felt pressure from anti-Israel leadership in Arab countries.
In the following years, the Palestinian Authority, the nominal government, has become increasingly corrupt. The stalemate that ensued after the abandonment of inept negotiations by the Clinton administration at Camp David was kept in place by cynicism on both sides, according to Tareq Baconi, president of the board of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network and former senior analyst for the International Crisis Group on Israel/Palestine. It was a deal with the devil, and the devil, in this case was not Hamas but expedience.
"Israel has long portrayed Hamas as a nothing more than a terrorist organization, and yet since 2007 it has enabled its role as a governing authority in Gaza, facilitating a dynamic that can best be described as a violent equilibrium," Baconi wrote in The New York Review of Books.
"Israel adopted a policy of bombarding the Gaza Strip periodically to trim Hamas’s military capabilities by destroying its military sites and assassinating its leaders—what Israel’s military refers to as “mowing the lawn”—even as it relied on Hamas to stabilize the enclave. Hamas, for its part, acted as a governing authority while simultaneously developing its military arsenal and capabilities."
"Absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely," wrote Fintan O'Toole in The New York Review of Books, likening Hamas to the terrorists of the Irish Republican Army. Add to that the belief that the only thing that matters is paradise, and one can easily believe reports Hamas bombing Palestinian civilians attempting to flee Gaza through the Egyptian border. For years, Hamas has been as ruthless with Palestinians as it is with Israelis, using Palestinian children as human shields and terrorizing local communities. Like the Islamic State extremists whose tactics Hamas has adopted, Hamas fighters embrace a fundamentalist view of the world as illusion and Paradise the only thing that matters.
President Biden's speech made it clear that, for both for the U.S. and Israel, nothing less than extinguishing Hamas will provide the kind of security needed to move forward with regional alliances that can lay the groundwork for a peace settlement. The political math is clear: to quell Hamas, it's necessary to support Netanyahu's government - for now.
But the Biden administration is under no illusion about Netanyahu's liabilities. It is widely believed that the fragmentation of Israeli society caused by Netanyahu's attempt to subvert the country's court system was a distraction that made Israel vulnerable to attack. Within Israel, knowledgeable observers say that Netanyahu's tenure in office will end with the current hostilities. "There is Immense rage against the right-wing coalition government's messianic fantasies that brought Israel to this situation." said Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari.
In fact, one might argue that Israelis comprehend the stakes of the country's internal struggle between authoritarian government and the rule of law better than Americans. Earlier this year, when Bibi Netanyahu's government tried to institute the right to override the country's courts, more than 100,000 protesters filled the streets of Tel Aviv, week after week. For now, though, the country has unified in the wake of trauma.
While Israel has been criticized for attempting to force the evacuation of 1.1 million people from southern Gaza in preparation for attacking Hamas, the government, after initially failing to notify civilians with its former punctiliousness, is now returning to what it considers the rules of war. Otherwise, it is no different from its attackers.
There Are No Rules
The larger struggle here is for a rules-based world order. As Anne Appelbaum wrote in the Atlantic, it is not just the rule of law that is threatened by terrorism used not by small extremist cells, but as a tool of war. The well-planned and large-scale slaughter and kidnapping of civilians by Hamas is not grabbing the world's attention simply because Israel is a Westernized country with a strong media relations team. The attack is unprecedented in many ways, but it is not purely stochastic.
As President Biden said in his White House speech, and in 2017, Biden's friend Sen. John McCain said in the best speech of his career at the 2017 Munich security conference, the international order is imperiled. The signs have been apparent for some time: the international community's inattention to the "dirty wars" in West Africa in the 1990s, the U.S. failure to intervene when Syrian president Bashar-al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, the torture of suspected militants in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo, and most recently, Russia's relentless attacks on civilians and kidnapping of Ukrainian children.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine and Hamas’s surprise attack on Israeli civilians are both blatant rejections of that rules-based world order, and they herald something new. Both aggressors have deployed a sophisticated, militarized, modern form of terrorism, and they do not feel apologetic or embarrassed about this at all.
Terrorists, by definition, are not fighting conventional wars and do not obey the laws of war. Instead, they deliberately create fear and chaos among civilian populations.
Ahmad Abdulnaser Adnan, 14, killed by Israeli forces in Hebron in October.
"This is a crime against humanity in the deepest sense of the word, to destroy trust in humanity."
Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian and public intellectual, takes into account the psychological aspects of an attack that, to many Jews, not only Israelis, was like the pogroms of the early 1900s in eastern Europe and the Nazi slaughter of Jews in their homes. Yet he was able to take a balanced view, acknowledging the immorality as well as the impracticality of a long-term Israeli occupation.
Like Appelbaum, Harari sees the more profound implications of the attack, and of the disturbing trend toward war without rules.
"I think this is a war on the mind, a war on the soul," he said. "Again, this is deliberate. The way that Hamas orchestrated this attack, again, not just attacking civilians but torturing and executing people in the most horrendous ways they could think about, taking examples from Isis and not hiding it but making sure that this would be publicized, this was intentional...Psychologically, what is happening is they are not just inciting fear and hatred but destroying any trust."
"This is a crime against humanity in the deepest sense of the word, to destroy trust in humanity. When you witness or hear or see the decapitation of babies, things like that, you lose trust in humanity and you lose your own humanity."
In the New York Review of Books, Irish Times writer Fintan O'Toole found irony in the devastation described by Harari and others:
In the Jewish legend, the great warrior Samson ends up, as John Milton famously puts it, “eyeless in Gaza.” He is blinded by the Philistines and harnessed to a huge millstone, forced to drag himself around and around in circles, always moving but unable to go anywhere. Eventually, in the most spectacular of suicides, he gets his revenge by pulling down their temple on top of the Philistines, killing both them and himself. The story is apparently supposed to be heroic, but it feels more like a fable of vicious futility. Cruelty begets cruelty until there is nothing left but mutual destruction.
In the Book of Judges, where we find the Samson story, God has delivered the children of Israel into subjugation by their enemies as punishment because they “did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord.” As it happens, Hamas’s forebears, the Muslim Brotherhood, held the same belief. The Harvard scholar of the Middle East Sara Roy tells us that, after Israel’s victory in the war of 1967, “the Brethren in Gaza especially remained convinced that the loss of Palestine was God’s punishment for neglecting Islam.” It seems that God has a peculiar way of chastising his various chosen peoples in Israel and Palestine: by inflicting them on each other. With millenarian religious believers in power on both sides of the Gaza wall, it seems that this blood-dimmed vision is again being played out as reality.
For those of us who grew up on Exodus and tales of Israel's superhuman intelligence services ("We're smaller but we're smarter") yet somehow caught unawares this October, one might ask: How many times must we in America lose our innocence? American Christians, too, should stop romanticizing Israel and recognize the country's true strength: the founder's roots in European Enlightenment thought, not the destructive fanaticism of its settlers in the occupied territories.
In a Washington Post column about Eric Alterman's book, Columbia University Journalism School's director of academic affairs Jane Eisner writes that "what is too often missing from the clinical, critical writing on this subject, is the sheer anguish felt by those who are terrified that this near-miraculous experiment in Jewish sovereignty is beginning to unravel."
What's too often missing, as well, is the cry from both Israelis and Palestinians. "We have nowhere to go," both have said, at different times, to reporters trying to make sense of the region. If the rules of war no longer apply, their cry will become universal. And in our mean-spirited era, with nation-states indulging in tribal insularity and nativism, there will be no Exodus.
Watch the interview with Yuval Noah Harari on "The Rest is Politics" the podcast with Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell, two of the best in the business.
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