A young woman reacts as she speaks to Israeli rescuers in Tel Aviv, after a was hit by a rocket fired by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip on October 7, 2023.
A young woman reacts as she speaks to Israeli rescuers in Tel Aviv, after a was hit by a rocket fired by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip on October 7, 2023.
(Photo by Jack Guez / AFP via Getty Images)

No Easy Answers Amid Horrific Bloodshed in Israel and Gaza

Voices of sanity, and reason, are in too short supply, and in constant danger of being drowned out by the rhetoricians of all-out war.

“When violence answers violence in a growing frenzy that makes the simple language of reason impossible, the role of the intellectual cannot be... to excuse from a distance one of the violences and condemn the other... that role is clarify definitions in order to disintoxicate minds and to calm fanaticisms, even when this is against the current tendency.” –Albert Camus, “Preface to Algerian Reports” (1958)

I am no expert on Middle East politics. But I am a human being and an American citizen who teaches and writes about politics for a living, who also happens to be a Jewish American and a person who believes in human rights and cares about the world. And so failing to think through the current unfolding situation, and to share my thoughts, is not for me an option. What follows are some hastily-composed reflections on a situation that will surely try many souls, and disturb many hearts and minds, in the days and weeks to come.

1. Last weekend’s violent Hamas attacks on Israel and on Israelis were absolutely awful, reprehensible, brutal, and inhumane, and could have no possible moral or political justification. In other words, they were criminal and indeed, in their wanton murderousness, evil. They are sickening, deplorable, and worthy of the most loud and unequivocal condemnation.

2. I unequivocally deplore and condemn the Hamas attacks.

3. It is obvious that such terrorist attacks, deliberately murdering and kidnapping civilians, and also exploiting real security vulnerabilities of the Israeli population, require an Israeli military response, in order to defend the Israeli population, to subdue the attacker and make further such attacks impossible, and in order to satisfy a deliberate public expectation that the perpetrators of such a violation—Hamas leaders and militants– will be in some way justly punished.

4. It is equally obvious that any sustained military response faces many difficult tactical, strategic, and moral challenges, because the regional situation is volatile, there are Israeli hostages in danger, and there are over two million Palestinians living in Gaza, most of them also innocent civilians, whatever their religious or political beliefs. To collectively punish the entire civilian population of Gaza is a crime.

5. I feel for all humans, especially those who are civilians, whose lives have been and are being threatened or snuffed out by violence. For a long time many civilians, Israeli and Palestinian, have suffered, as their leaders have failed to bring about a civil, peaceful, and at least modestly just end to a long and violent conflict. I feel for them all, and particularly for the children who have grown up knowing nothing else.

6. Right now I feel especially for the Israeli victims of the Hamas terrorist attack–those who have been brutally killed or kidnapped or raped, and their families, friends, and neighbors. No serious, even halfway plausible “resistance” or “liberation” movement engages in such brutal tactics, displaying such contempt for human life. And anyone on the left, or anyone in the name of “anti-imperialism” or “solidarity” with the wretched of the earth who can applaud much less justify such terrorism, is contemptible. I know such people, and I am saddened to learn that I was wrong to once respect them.
7. I am a Jewish American, and I have family and friends in Israel–though I have never been to Israel, which I have never regarded as “the Promised Land” or “Eretz Yisrael,” but merely as a place, and a nation-state, which is not “mine” whatever ties to some of its people or even its history I might feel (I feel closer ties to Romania, where my dearest friends live and where I have visited around ten times this century). That said, for many years I was the unofficial “representative” of Americans for Peace Now in Bloomington, Indiana, where I live. In this capacity I spoke at and organized local, campus and synagogue events, promoting a “two-state solution”; publicly challenged Noam Chomsky when he came to Indiana University to denounce Zionism and Oslo (he had my mic shut off) and publicly challenged Edward Said when he did the same (he was a gentleman, and listened to what I had to say, and admirably engaged me in a dialogue from the floor). I argued with local anti-Zionists who insisted that the solution of all regional problems required “linkage” to Palestinian statehood, and indeed I quarreled with some friends over these arguments (and, fortunately, eventually repaired these friendships). I contributed semi-regularly to Tikkun magazine, and published a substantial essay on Hannah Arendt’s views about Zionism and Jewish identity sometime in the mid-nineties. A few years later, when Tony Judt came to Bloomington to argue that only a single, binational state could “solve” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I argued with him, steadfastly defending the so-called “two-state solution.”

And yet over the past many years, I have become increasingly revolted by the way right-wing settlers and reactionary religious zealots have been coddled and empowered by the Israeli political system; the way the Israeli state has become increasingly antiliberal; the way the Israeli public, through an admittedly arcane electoral and party system, has elected awful leaders, including, many times, the deplorable and corrupt Bibi Netanyahu; and the way the Israeli state has treated the question of Palestinian statehood and indeed has treated the Palestinians themselves—without any serious regard.

I have come to see “the Jewish state”—which is not “the state of all the Jewish people,” even if many Zionists insist on seeing it that way—as an ethnonationalist democracy that systematically privileges Jewish over non-Jewish citizens and indeed religious Jewish citizens over secular Jewish citizens, and in so doing runs contrary to modern liberal and universalist norms. This is true even if it is also true that the Israeli state more closely approximates a liberal democracy than any other state in the region, and grants more rights to its Arab citizens than they possess in the other states in the region, from Egypt to Syria to Saudi Arabia to Iran.

And I have come to see “the two-state solution” as a once-serious and noble aspiration that has become a meme, and is no longer a serious political project much less a solution to the moral and political problem of Palestinian domination, disenfranchisement, and statelessness. Can a “two-state” project be revived? I sincerely doubt it. But regardless, it is not something I can any longer advocate, even though I honestly have no idea what better alternative is now feasible.

8. I now feel a special kinship with Israeli victims of Hamas terrorism, and I confess that some of this kinship might have an ethnic or even a familial dimension—though I have never met my Israeli relatives. But the solidarity I feel is primarily what the Czech philosopher Jan Patocka called “the solidarity of the shaken.” It has nothing to do with Zionism—I am no Zionist, though neither am I anti-Zionist. It has to do with the value of human life, and with my abhorrence of the deliberate and terroristic murdering of civilians.

9. I am currently very concerned about the way in which the awful situation is being moralistically framed by most commentators in the U.S. political and media establishment, and the way in which a certain kind of snowballing of extreme and credulous and unconditional support for Israel–which in this context means support for the current Israeli government–is being promoted, and loudly and proudly announced by President Biden. I find this very disturbing intellectually, morally, and politically (and, if Kevin McCarthy were to be reinstalled as Speaker of the House because he promises to “lead” the U.S. Congress in its unconditional support for the Israeli response, I would be both disturbed and nauseated). I also think it is counterproductive to the effort to think with realism and responsibility about how to get out of the current mess. In international affairs no support should be unconditional. And everyone serious about solving the problems in play is obliged to think about ways of influencing, and conditioning, the behaviors and the outcomes that have the best chance of de-escalating the current war.

10. What happened last weekend in Southern Israel was terrible. But, contrary to what many are saying, it was not “a pogrom.” For Hamas is not the imperial Czarist Russian regime; it is a cruel and reactionary political-military organization in control of the Gaza strip, a tiny, overcrowded and completely dependent enclave, populated by a poor, powerless, and stateless people, an enclave described by Human Rights Watch as an “open air prison.” And the victims of Hamas’s awful terrorism were not a poor, disenfranchised, in some ways stateless Jewish minority; they were the citizens of Israel, the self-defined “Jewish state,” a state that is armed to the teeth, that has long superintended Palestinian “occupied territories” and has used a preponderance of violence to do so, and that, its recent intelligence failures notwithstanding, is undoubtedly the strongest state in the region.

10. What happened was terrible. It was perpetrated by a movement with clear anti-Semitic commitments, and there can be no doubt that anti-Semitism played a role in motivating at least some of the terrorists. But repeating over and over again that “it is the largest number of Jews killed since the Holocaust” is also to invoke a misleading and inflammatory analogy. For Hamas is not the Nazis, and the Gaza Strip is not Nazi Germany, and Israel is not the Warsaw Ghetto, and Hamas’s terrorism—cruel, violent, despicable—is not directed towards a Jewish minority, but towards the state of Israel and its Jewish majority, a powerful state that bears no comparison to the Jewish victims of Nazi genocide.

Hamas’s anti-Semitism is beyond doubt, and it is proudly proclaimed in its 1988 Covenant. At the same time, in a perversely ironic way, the ideologists of Hamas simply take right-wing Zionists at their word. If Israel is the state of the Jews, and if the Israeli state, acting in the name of all Jews, injures Palestinians, then of course the only solution is to regard “the Jews” as the enemy. The logic here is perverse. The violence done in its name is evil. But invoking the Holocaust in this connection explains nothing, and only serves to inflame Jewish people who understandably feel vulnerable, and to further intensify the violence and to reinforce the vulnerability of all concerned.

11. The “9/11” analogy is equally problematic. For while the Al Qaeda airliner attacks on the U.S. in 2001 were genuinely shocking, the violent danger posed by Hamas was well known, precisely because it is very local—within striking distance—and was often directly experienced by Israelis in the form of bombardment (which typically led the Israeli government to very publicly respond with even greater violence). The entire situation facing Israel is much more serious, the danger more real, but also the complex political responsibility very real as well. For while almost no Americans had ever heard of al Qaeda before 9/11, every Israeli has known for the past quarter-century that a few miles away was a terrorist organization called “Hamas” that was hostile to the very existence of Israel, even as it was often a useful pawn to be played against the Palestinian Authority.

12. But the “9/11” analogy is not only misplaced, it is also dangerous. And I say this as someone who strongly supported the Bush administration’s invasion of Afghanistan. For we now know two things that we did not know on September 11, 2001. The first is that while the attack, and the threat, were both very real, it turned out to be very easy for American society to become caught up in a hysteria about the actual danger posed to the country by Islamic terrorism. The second is that this hysteria quickly gave rise to “forever wars” that put hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for almost two decades, at the cost of many billions of dollars and, more importantly, many hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, Afghan lives, and American lives.

I have thought about this a lot. Back in November 2001, I published a piece at openDemocracy, “What We Do With Words,” that explained why I believed it was right to view the U.S. response to 9/11 as a “war,” and to support the war, albeit provisionally. On that same day, my friends Nadia Urbinati and Steven Lukes published a remarkably similar essay at openDemocracy, entitled “Words Matter.” There was only one difference between their piece and mine. Both pieces opposed the terrorism, supported a military response, and opposed the use of cant and the propaganda of fear. But while I defended the use of the word “war,” they opposed it, arguing that the too-quick inflation of a military confrontation into a full-blown war threatened to promote hysteria and to escalate and widen a conflict that ought to be prevented from escalating and widening.

They were right. I was wrong.

If Israelis want to think of the current crisis as “their 9/11,” then the only wise lesson to be drawn is this: it is one thing to respond to an attack by fighting to punish and subdue the attacker, but it is another to invoke the rhetoric of full-scale war, much less the rhetoric of “clash of civilizations” or “a war between civilized and barbarians,” and then on the basis of this rhetoric to commence full-scale warfare, especially when this requires the bombardment and killing of thousands of civilians.

13. The situation right now in Israel, in Gaza, and at the border between them, is perilous. There is much understandable fear and anxiety among Israelis. There is also a great deal of understanding, among many Israelis, that the government now charged with responding to the terrorism, defending them, and charting the course in a dangerous region, is a government that has proven itself incompetent, unaccountable, corrupt, and at odds with the very freedom that it claims now to be defending, as the extraordinary recent mass demonstrations against Netanyahu’s “judicial reforms” make vividly clear (Micheline Ishay’s “Israel’s Golem and the Crisis of Democracy,” published in New Lines Magazine on October 3, days before the attack, is terrific on the awfulness of the Netanyahu government). This government, the most right-wing and anti-Arab government in Israeli history, has responded with the full-blown rhetoric and mobilization of war, ominously promising to teach a lesson that “will reverberate for generations.” And while it is the only government that Israel currently has, there is little reason to trust that it will act judiciously, and every reason to believe it may act maliciously.

Indeed, there are two great dangers that present themselves. One is strategic–that it will act in ways that are bound to escalate and widen the war rather than contain it, perhaps inflaming the situation in the West Bank, perhaps involving direct military confrontation with Iran. The other is moral—that it will collectively punish the entire population of Gaza, through a strangulating siege and a vicious bombardment that will create massive destruction and kill thousands upon thousands of civilians.

14. If an intensification of the cycle of violence is to be averted, these things must be avoided.

15. It would be nice to imagine that Hamas might relinquish its hostages or surrender its leaders or agree to release control of Gaza to some other more benign governing force. But it will do none of those things. It can be counted on to act with a violent zealotry, and with zealous violence, to keep its power and to draw Israel into a brutal war in the hope of it spreading. And so, as Israel responds to the terrorism in the way that any state would respond to terrorism, with force, it risks being dragged into a maelstrom beyond its control and beyond all control, a maelstrom that can bring no good to ordinary people anywhere.

Brutal terrorist attacks produce understandable outrage, fear, indignation, anger, and for victims the desire to defend and even to exact some measure of retributive justice–and retributive justice is different from simple revenge, however, difficult in practice it is to draw the distinction.

Intelligent victims of terrorist attacks will hopefully avoid being overcome with a sense of victimization, and will continue to be intelligent people, taking seriously “intelligence information,” and also simply using their brains and their minds and even their hearts to think rationally and ethically about what is going on and what to do about it.

There are no easy answers, and there will no doubt be much bloodshed in the days to come. And voices of sanity, and reason, are in too short supply, and in constant danger of being drowned out by the rhetoricians of all-out war.

Yossi Alpher is one voice of sanity and reason.

He has spent an entire career trying to navigate the challenges of crafting a peaceful and just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer, he served in July 2000 (during the Camp David talks) as Special Adviser to the Prime Minister of Israel, concentrating on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. From 2001 to 2012 he collaborated with Ghassan Khatib (until recently vice-president of Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, Palestinian Authority), in publishing the bitterlemons web platform, devoted to sharing perspectives and promoting dialogue.

For a great many years Alpher has regularly written intelligence briefings on the Israeli-Palestinian situation for Americans for Peace Now.

Anyone who cares about what is now going on in Israel and Gaza should read his recent report, linked here, which very clearly outlines the complexity of the situation moving forward, and the very real strategic and moral challenges ahead.

If you do, you will see that there are intelligent Israelis who would like to see both peace and a modicum of justice in Israel-Palestine, and who are capable simultaneously of denouncing and fighting Hamas brutality and thinking POLITICALLY about a situation, and a conflict, that is political, and whose settlement can only come about by means of serious political negotiation between real political enemies.

The fate of the Israeli hostages is at stake. And the fate of the millions of Palestinian civilians who are veritable hostages in Gaza. Indeed, the fate of all Israeli citizens, and all Palestinians, is at stake. And if this war were to become a regional conflict, the fate of the world itself is at stake.

There is no forestalling the Israeli military response. But unless this response is targeted, and restrained by the moral and legal requirements of respect for the lives of civilian non-combatants, it will quickly become a moral and a political catastrophe. Indeed, news footage suggests it is precipitously headed in that direction already.

Albert Camus, whose writings on the Algerian conflict remain a treasury of ethical and political sobriety, understood this danger well, and said it best: “When violence answers violence in a growing frenzy that makes the simple language of reason impossible, the role of the intellectual cannot be... to excuse from a distance one of the violences and condemn the other... that role is clarify definitions in order to disintoxicate minds and to calm fanaticisms, even when this is against the current tendency.”

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