Horror in the Holy Land

Photo: Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
November 7, 2023

It’s been exactly one month since Hamas fighters broke through the Gaza border fence and killed at least 1,400 Israelis, the vast majority of them civilians. They shot people at close range, hunting them like animals. They burned people alive, they tortured them and lopped off body parts, they mutilated the dead, and they raped. Some women were apparently raped so violently that their pelvic bones were broken. Dozens of victims have still not been identified because their bodies have been rendered unrecognizable or were burned at such high temperatures that there are no longer any fragments of DNA left to find.

Hamas also took at least 240 hostages and dragged them back to Gaza, where they are being held in a maze of tunnels. Some of them are tiny children who have been separated from their parents for a full month now, while others watched their parents murdered. One 85-year-old Israeli hostage, who was freed along with three others, said on her release that she “went through hell.” 

In response, the Israeli government, which had just been patting itself on the back for having contained the Palestinian “problem” and missed Hamas’s preparations for the attack, responded with overwhelming force, leveling whole neighborhoods, wiping out whole families at a time. As of this writing, some 10,000 Palestinians have been killed in just one month. Whether you believe the numbers coming out of the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry or not, the number is, according to the Pentagon, in the thousands. For that entire month, Gaza—where people regularly reported going hungry, downsizing meals or skipping them altogether in the months before the war—has been completely cut off from imports of food, water, and fuel. And whether you believe the fact that Hamas has all the food, water, and fuel it needs, whether you praise the Israeli government for letting in however many trucks of aid a day, it is hard to argue that Gazan civilians are not facing dire shortages of basic goods needed for human survival, and that they wouldn’t need aid trucks to begin with if they weren’t under siege. 

I say all this because, in the past month, facts have been turned into cudgels—if they are even acknowledged at all. I say this because, in the past month, I have had to list the facts above—depending on whom I was speaking with—far too many times. Too many times in the past month, I have found myself trying to defend the humanity of Israelis to someone anti-Israel, or the humanity of Palestinians to someone anti-Palestinian—because you cannot fight for the freedom and dignity of Palestinians and say that rape is a legitimate form of resistance, just as you cannot fight for the protection of Jewish life if you think that Palestinian babies deserve this but Jewish babies did not. Because I do not understand why the death and suffering of people on “the other side” evoke not empathy and grief, but fury and suspicion.

If your heart breaks for Palestinian mothers who write their names on their children in case their bodies need to be identified later, you have to make it break too for the Israeli parent who was tied to her child and set alight, their bodies fusing into one black husk. And if your heart breaks for Israeli young people gunned down at a music festival, you have to make it break for the young Gazans who would never get to go to such a festival to begin with, and who are now left homeless and bereaved by the retaliation being exacted on them. If your heart doesn’t break on its own, you have to break it yourself.

Every time I have to say this, something inside me breaks, too. Every time, I feel a little bit of earth connecting me to the other person snap off and the water come rushing in. Every time, I feel like I’m on an island, drifting farther and farther from land, land occupied by screaming, angry tribes. 

It’s lonely here, on this island.

My island, I should say, is a very specific island. Not because it is so righteous and kind, or the best, or the worst, but because it is one shaped by a very particular experience: that of a liberal, internationalist Jew who escaped institutionalized, state-sanctioned antisemitism as a child (and remembers well what it felt like), grew up in the Zionist tradition, and is now a journalist and writer. The truth, as I see it from this island, is not widely shared, though it once was. What I’m writing comes very much from that liberal, Jewish perspective, and I am not ashamed to admit it. 

It’s been hard to see people shout about their anti-Zionist bona fides, or that Zionism equals racism, because Zionism, as I’ve always understood it, is the right of Jews to self-determination in their historic homeland. To me, Zionism is not a dirty word, nor does it preclude the right of Palestinians to self-determination in their historic homeland—though the clash of Jewish nationalism and Palestinian nationalism have certainly brought us to this devastating moment. 

My friend, the writer Wajahat Ali, once said something very profound to me about this, and I think about it often, though I know he has caught hell for it from just about everyone. The Palestinians, he explained to me, are just like the Jews were before 1948: violently displaced from their homeland and made into a diaspora against their will, wandering the Earth and settling, always temporarily, in places that usually don’t want them and restrict their rights, always dreaming of a return home to that little corner of the Mediterranean. I want to remind the people on the right, who say that there is no such thing as the Palestinian people, that their policies only make that yearning—and that identity—stronger. Just ask us, the Jews.

But I also want to remind people on the left of this: that Jews before 1948 were like the Palestinians after 1948. With each expulsion from the land, whether it was perpetrated by the Babylonians or the Romans, the Jews yearned to come home—and they usually, eventually did. For thousands of years, the centrality of Jerusalem, Zion, was at the core of the religion, which, in turn, formed the ethnos and the culture. For millennia, whether they were in Yemen or Ukraine, Jews prayed facing Jerusalem. Whether they were in New York or Baghdad, Jews said, “Next year in Jerusalem!” during Passover. But if they were in Jerusalem—where there has been a continuous Jewish presence for thousands of years—they celebrated each holiday differently than if they were in galut, exile. 

For thousands of years, this ritual distinction has been central to how Judaism has been practiced after the destruction of the Second Temple. It is not ancient history; it is how millions of Jews are Jewish every single day, now, today. It is also not a coincidence that the centrality of Jerusalem to Judaism made it central to the two religions that grew out of it and in direct opposition to it: Christianity and Islam. You cannot say that Jerusalem is holy to Muslims but dismiss its religious significance for the Jews. You cannot respect one culture and religion, only to say that the other is just made-up stuff in an old book. Both are, for tens of millions of people, all too painfully real.

It’s also why I’ve always found the narrative that Jews are European colonizers to be an incoherent and ill-fitting one. It negates the fact that Jews and Judaism are native—indigenous—to this land. Saying they were forced out 2,000 years ago, as if that legitimately severs that tie, opens the door to saying that forcing out Palestinians 75 years ago was a legitimate severance, too. It blesses the military conquest and expulsion of one people while seeking to undo another. Why are they different? 

Nor does the American lens of race work when looking at this conflict. It is an incredibly U.S.-centric and myopic way to understand a part of the world that, for thousands of years, has been creased along other lines: religious, sectarian, tribal, national. The Black-white racial hierarchy was invented in America to justify the enslavement and dehumanization of Africans. Why are we imposing it onto two peoples who are cousins and are often hard to tell apart? There are white Palestinians and brown Israelis, and vice versa. There are black Israelis, and Israelis themselves who deem white Russian Jews to be less worthy than white German or Polish Jews. It just doesn’t fit. It’s not from there, and it’s not for there. Moreover, to equate Jews who fled Nazism and pogroms in Europe, or Middle Eastern Jews violently kicked out by Muslim countries in 1948, with the powerful white establishment of Europe and America is not just ahistorical and weird, it also plays into the long-standing antisemitic trope of Jews possessing secret and malevolent power, only looking out for themselves—and for which they deserve to be targeted.

In the past month, I’ve also had several troubling conversations with Black American observers who feel that the Palestinian struggle is their own. It is baffling to Jews, who see themselves as the true underdog, the real victim, though it shouldn’t be. (That is another fascinating, impossible dynamic in this conflict: It is a war of two sides who each see themselves as David fighting Goliath. To not be David, to not be the victim, would collapse their entire notions of themselves and their people.) But these Black friends and colleagues have gone further, saying the following to me in the last month: Don’t you understand what this conflict represents to Black and brown people who have been enslaved and colonized for hundreds of years? Or: This is about anti-Americanism, and everything America has done to fuck over the left.

Humbly, I posit the following: For hundreds of years, Black and brown people have been colonized primarily by white Christian Europe, which, before it discovered and conquered the continents on which Black and brown people lived, brutalized European Jews for not converting to Christianity—and for killing Christ. America fought the left at home and abroad, led by a political, diplomatic, and military establishment that, until very, very recently, was antisemitic and exclusionary. To now say that the symbol, the scapegoat, of the sins of Christian Europe and the American right is the Jews is incredibly problematic. It is, in fact, antisemitic.

It is also the same thing that the American right wing does to us, which is to treat the Jews as utilitarian objects. Be it the Second Coming or river-to-the-sea, left or right, Jews have once again become ideological playthings, tools in the striving for some better, brighter future for which we must be sacrificed. No one cares what Jews themselves want—or that we may all want different things. 

Which brings me to the question of anti-Zionism. Can you be anti-Zionist without being antisemitic? It’s a tough one. If you are Jewish, yes. If you are not, and you are questioning the right of the only Jewish state, created by the United Nations, to exist as a Jewish state; if you are a non-Jew who slams Jewish nationalism as racist while championing Palestinian nationalism or pan-Arabism as egalitarian and liberating, I would argue that you can’t. (I would also argue that you are suspiciously and ideologically incoherent.) Can you, as a non-Jew, criticize the Israeli government and not be antisemitic? Absolutely. Can you, as a non-Jew, question the existence of a country that is defined by its very Jewishness and not be antisemitic? Questionable. Personally, I think you’d be balancing, quite precariously, on a knife’s edge. And, lest you forget, on Oct. 7, Hamas fighters didn’t brag about criticizing Israeli policy. They bragged about killing Jews.

And yet. None of this was done by Palestinian children or Palestinian doctors or Palestinian mothers. In fact, what most polls of Palestinians show is that, in fact, Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people. A recent study conducted by Amaney Jamal, dean of Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs and a founder of Arab Barometer, polled Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Ominously, polling in Gaza wrapped up on October 6. But what it found was revealing—and comported with past polls. Less than one-third of Gazans trusted Hamas. Nearly three-quarters saw Hamas as very corrupt. More than half saw Hamas as unresponsive to their needs and 68 percent felt that they could not freely protest against the group that governed them. If elections were held then, more Gazans—30 percent—said they would not participate at all than those who said they would vote for Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s leader (24 percent). And as poverty and hunger deepened in Gaza over the last two years, only 16 percent of its residents blamed Israel and Egypt. Most blamed Hamas. 

But the status quo, enforced by the Israeli government until the morning of October 7, was completely untenable. In the months leading up to the Hamas attack, 57 percent of Gazans reported being unable to afford food at least once in the previous year. Fully 75 percent told Jamal and her colleagues that, at some point in the previous 30 days, they had run out of food and could not afford to buy more. Fifty-nine percent of them lived in poverty and few saw any hope. Only 28 percent of Gazans told Gallup they felt Gaza was a good place for children to grow and learn. Is it any wonder that over half of them reported feeling stressed, angry, pessimistic? 

The Israeli solution, and not just under Benjamin Netanyahu, was to wall off the Palestinian population, both in Gaza and in the West Bank, while Israeli settlers, protected by the Israeli army, systematically chipped away at West Bank land that would have, should have, been part of a Palestinian state. The Israeli national security establishment settled on a policy of periodically “mowing the grass”—a horrific and dehumanizing phrase—while the Israeli population pretended the problem didn’t exist. Not only was it unsustainable, it was immoral. 

So is “leveling Gaza” or threatening to drop a nuclear bomb on it. So is Bibi’s most recent proposition: controlling Gaza for the foreseeable future. 

A friend recently sent me a video of a crowd of Palestinians watching a video of Hamas fighting Israeli soldiers projected onto a screen—and cheering. The friend was horrified and noted that it was getting hard to feel bad for anyone there, in Gaza. I had to admit: I get where the people in the crowd were coming from. I think of Ukrainians cheering the deaths of Russian soldiers and I get it. If Gazans didn’t trust or like Hamas much before Israel’s reprisals for October, now they are the only people who are shooting back at the people shooting at them. As Jamal noted, “Israeli crackdowns in Gaza most often lead to increasing support and sympathy for Hamas among ordinary Gazans.” When the group that only knows how to fight is finally doing something you need it to do, can you blame them? 

Here’s what kills me about that, politically speaking. On October 6, 73 percent of Palestinians in Gaza told Jamal and her pollsters that they wanted a peaceful resolution to the conflict with Israel. Over half of Gazans wanted to see a two-state solution based on 1967 borders. Only 9 percent wanted to see what American progressives are pushing for, a one-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians share one country. (Turns out that the people who actually have to live there want something different than Brooklynites and don’t want to share a flag—and an army—with their enemies.) And, most significantly, only 20 percent of Palestinians in Gaza shared Hamas’s view that Israel needed to be crushed and dismantled. 

But after 10,000 lives lost in a month, after the mass displacement and destruction, after a crippling, humiliating siege, what is that proportion now? Who wouldn’t want revenge? After all, Israel did.