Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and co-host of its podcast, For Heaven’s Sake. He is writing a book on the meaning of Jewish survival.
Perhaps the most enduring wound for Jews from the Holocaust is the memory of aloneness. For 12 long years, the international community scarcely intervened as Nazi persecution gradually turned to extermination. Even as we established a sovereign state and created thriving communities in a free diaspora, there remained a lingering anxiety that the post-Holocaust era of Jewish acceptance, at least in the West, was an aberration, and that some day we would once again be alone.
The ancient fear of the Jews is immutable otherness. “They are a people that shall dwell alone and not be considered among the nations,” declared the pagan prophet Balaam in the Bible. The miracle of the post-Holocaust Jewish recovery was that, just as history seemed to confirm Balaam’s curse, we managed to become a “normal” people, securing our place in the world.
But now we are at one of those defining moments in Jewish history when we find ourselves at a moral disconnect with much of the international community. As we struggle to absorb the enormity of the Oct. 7 massacre and to confront the worst wave of antisemitism since the Holocaust, the trauma of aloneness has returned.
Non-Jews rarely see the bitter messages that fill Jewish social media. One typical tweet in my feed reads: “First they came for LGBTQ, and I stood up, because love is love. … Then they came for the Black community, and I stood up, because Black lives matter. Then they came for me, but I stood alone, because I am a Jew.”
Another tweet shows an empty street, with the words “London When Hamas Massacres Jews,” followed by that same street packed with pro-Palestinian demonstrators, and the words “London When Israel Responds.” Anti-Israel rallies, we note, routinely attract large numbers of non-Muslims, but pro-Israel rallies attract mostly Jews.
Naively, we had assumed that the Oct. 7 massacre would linger in the world’s consciousness. Surely those who had played down Israel’s security fears would now understand the nature of the threat we face on our borders. After all, this was no “ordinary” terror attack but a pre-enactment of Hamas’s genocidal vision, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” – free, that is, of Jews.
But a mere month later, the memory of Oct. 7 has faded, replaced with scenes of Palestinian suffering. The massacre has been absorbed into the “cycle of violence.” “The attacks by Hamas didn’t happen in a vacuum,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres, citing the 56-year Israeli occupation. Both sides are responsible, former U.S. president Barack Obama added, urging us to “take in the whole truth” of the conflict.
Yes, many Jews readily acknowledge, Israel bears its share of the blame for this hundred-year conflict. So do Palestinian leaders, who rejected every peace offer ever put on the table.
But for all the complexity of the Palestinian-Israeli tragedy, this is not a complicated moment. The suffering of innocent Gazans deserves the world’s urgent attention, but not at the expense of moral clarity about the justness of this war.
And so once again we recite the litany of Oct. 7 – the burned and raped and dismembered bodies that were so disfigured that, a month later, many still haven’t been identified, the dying woman paraded to cheering and abusing crowds in Gaza, the kidnapped babies and the elderly, the pride with which the terrorists filmed their work. This is not a political conflict, we remind the world, but an outbreak of evil.
We invoke ISIS, recalling the terrible devastation caused by the necessary American assault in Mosul and Raqqa. But increasingly, we sense that we are talking to ourselves. The postreligious West, which substitutes the ideological rhetoric of academia for a genuine language for evil, doesn’t understand the old Jewish language we are speaking. Increasingly, we modern enlightened Jews find ourselves sounding like our grandparents. We may as well be speaking in Yiddish.
No, Israel is not a paragon of virtue. Along with hundreds of thousands of my fellow Israelis, I have spent this past year protesting every week against the anti-democratic Netanyahu government. But with the Hamas massacre, those arguments were deferred until after the war. For now, we agree: Those who did that to the Jewish people must not be allowed to claim victory.
We know that many of those who are demanding a ceasefire are our friends, good people who are horrified by Gaza’s devastation. But the fact that even they don’t seem to understand what’s at stake in this war, and that a ceasefire would allow Hamas to regroup, only reinforces our sense of isolation.
Yes, we say, our hearts break for the suffering of the innocent in Gaza. But how to compare a deliberate assault on civilians with a war against a terrorist group embedded in a civilian population? In war, the difference between tragedy and barbarism is intent. One side seeks to maximize civilian casualties, the other side to minimize them. Has the West lost its capacity for moral distinctions?
But the outrage is even greater than a lazy comparison between Israel and Hamas. Many in the West do indeed make a distinction between them: Hamas is good, and Israel is evil.
In this telling, it is Israel that is guilty of waging genocidal war. Ironically, Israel is accused of genocide by the very people chanting genocidal slogans. Oct. 7 ended any ambiguity about what a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea” would mean for millions of Israelis reduced to a helpless minority within it. Yet that chant reverberates louder than ever on streets and campuses across the West.
Shifting the blame of genocide from Hamas to Israel is indicative of a deeper assault on the Jewish story. For anti-Zionists, the Jews are not an indigenous people returning home, but “white European colonialists” stealing another people’s land. Jews don’t belong in their own history.
Denying the Jewish people the right to their narrative is an echo, however unconscious, of the ancient Christian doctrine of “supersessionism,” which regarded the Jews as interlopers in the biblical story they had created. Instead, the church had become “the true Israel,” replacing the fallen Jews who had rejected the messiah and were in turn rejected by God. Only after the Holocaust was that doctrine, the basis of centuries of persecution, rescinded by the Catholic Church and part of the Protestant world.
Jews know we are not entirely alone. U.S. President Joe Biden inspired us with his empathetic journey to Israel. We send each other clips of non-Jews voicing support, such as German Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck, head of the Green Party, who berated fellow progressives for their hateful anti-Zionism. We cling to expressions of solidarity like talismans warding off the darkness; most of us don’t want to live in a self-referential ghetto. Still, we know that, as the fighting intensifies in Gaza, those voices will become increasingly scarce.
On Sunday, together with thousands of mourners, I attended the funeral of a 23-year-old soldier named Yonadav Raz Levenstein, who was killed fighting in Gaza. Yonadav, whose family came to Israel from Montreal, married two months ago.
Speaking at the gravesite, Yonadav’s brother called on the government to resist world pressure and bring down the Hamas regime. He invoked Israel’s first prime minister: “David Ben-Gurion said that it doesn’t matter what the gentiles say, only what the Jews do.”
Israelis across the political spectrum agree that the regime of Oct. 7 cannot remain on our border. And like Mr. Ben-Gurion, we are willing to pay the price of being alone.