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Since Hamas’s attack on Israel, too many people and institutions have failed to find the right words to condemn them – and others have even celebrated them

Yascha Mounk is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University, the founder of the digital magazine Persuasion, a Moynihan Public Fellow at City College in New York, a contributing editor at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time, from which parts of this essay have been adapted.

This past week, the world witnessed the worst slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust.

Hundreds of attendees at a music festival were murdered in cold blood. Families hiding in their homes were burned alive. Jewish mothers and fathers were, in an eerie echo of the 1940s, imploring their children to stay quiet lest their would-be murderers should detect their whereabouts. More than 100 people remain in the clutches of a terrorist organization that announced its genocidal intentions in its founding charter.

Many people, of all faiths and convictions, have recognized the enormity of these crimes. Numerous world leaders denounced the terrorist attacks in clear language. Private citizens shared their grief on social media. Millions mourned.

But despite the outpouring of support, there has also been a large contingent of people and organizations who stayed uncharacteristically silent – or went so far as to celebrate the carnage.

Even as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak found clear words about Hamas, the CBC and the BBC have steadfastly refused to call the Hamas fighters who killed more than 1,300 people by the name rightfully reserved for those who deliberately target innocent civilians for political ends: terrorists. Meanwhile, many schools and universities, non-profit organizations and corporations that have over the past years gotten into the business of condemning and commemorating all kinds of tragedies, both small and large, fell uncharacteristically silent.

Some of the most famous universities in the world – including both American institutions such as Princeton, Yale and Stanford and Canadian ones like the University of Toronto – neglected to release statements, or only did so after they came under intense pressure on social media. At Harvard University, it took an outraged thread on X (formerly Twitter) by Larry Summers, a former president of the institution, to prompt his successor into belated action.

Worse still were the people and organizations who actively celebrated the pogroms. Multiple chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America, an influential organization that counts famous members of Congress among its ranks, encouraged their followers to attend rallies that glorified Hamas’s terror as a righteous form of resistance. As its San Francisco chapter wrote on X, the “weekend’s events” should be seen as part and parcel of Palestinians’ “right to resist.” The Chicago chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement even glorified the paragliders who murdered scores of people at a rave in southern Israel in an invitation to yet another solidarity rally, pairing a now-deleted image of a paraglider with the caption: “I stand with Palestine.”

Meanwhile, academics from leading universities were busy defending these terrorist attacks as a form of anti-colonial struggle. “Postcolonial, anticolonial, and decolonial are not just words you heard in your EDI workshop,” a professor in the school of social work at McMaster University wrote on X. “Settlers are not civilians,” a professor at Yale maintained.

All of this raises a simple question: How could such a notable portion of the left side with genocidaire terrorists? Why have key institutions proven so reluctant to denounce one of the worst terrorist attacks in living memory? What, to them, renders the victims of these attacks so much less worthy of solidarity than those of the many other atrocities they have full-throatedly condemned?

Israeli soldiers inspect what is left of Kibbutz Be’eri on Oct. 11, after Hamas militants from the nearby Gaza Strip raided it, killing and abducting people. Outside, munitions shells pile up on the ground; at a kindergarten, the entrance is pocked with bullet holes. Ilan Rosenberg and Violeta Santos Moura/Reuters; Baz Ratner/AP

The ideological roots of the great obfuscation

In recent days, people have offered many possible explanations for this selective silence. Some focus on outright antisemitism. Others emphasize that an understandable concern over the immoral actions that Israeli governments have taken in the past have blinded many activists to the suffering of innocent Israeli civilians. Others still point out that institutional leaders want to avoid eliciting angry reactions from activists, preferring to stay silent on a sensitive issue out of simple fear for their jobs.

Each of these explanations contains a grain of truth. Though this can be hard to recognize for the kinds of people who like to read a quality newspaper as they enjoy their morning coffee, some people in the world are genuinely consumed by one of the world’s most ancient hatreds.

Others are indeed hyperfocused on everything that Israel has done wrong, a stand that is easier to understand in the case of Palestinians whose ancestors have been displaced than it is in the case of leftist activists, who have for many decades found the missteps of the one state that happens to be Jewish worthy of much greater condemnation than similar, or greater, missteps perpetrated by any other.

Finally, it is indeed true that many university presidents, non-profit leaders and corporate chief executives have, among the institutional meltdowns of the past years, come to believe that they must avoid controversy at all costs if they are to keep drawing their generous paychecks.

But the double-standard that has in past days become so obvious on parts of the left also has a more profound source, one that is ideological rather than practical or atavistic. Over the past decades, a new set of ideas about the role that identity does – and should – play in the world have transformed the very nature of what it means to be on the left, displacing an older set of universalist aspirations in the process.

This novel ideology, which I call the “identity synthesis,” insists that we must see the whole world through the prism of identity categories such as race. It maintains that the key to understanding any political conflict is to conceive of it in terms of the power relations between different identity groups. It analyzes the nature of those power relations through a simplistic schema that, based on the North American experience, pits so-called whites against so-called “people of colour.” Finally, it imposes that schema – in a fashion that might, in the fashionable academic jargon of the day, ironically be called “neo-colonial” – on complex conflicts in faraway lands.

Pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups hold competing demonstrations on Oct. 9 at the Sydney Opera House, which was lit blue to show solidarity with Israel. Police set up a task force after reports of antisemitic remarks at the demonstration. DAVID GRAY/AFP via Getty Images; AAP Image/Dean Lewins via REUTERS

The trouble with structural racism

Many advocates of the identity synthesis rightly point out that an account of racism which focuses purely on individual beliefs or motivations runs the danger of concealing important forms of injustice. Even if everyone has the best of intentions, the aftereffects of historical injustices can ensure that many immigrant students attend underfunded public schools or that many members of ethnic minorities suffer disadvantages in the housing market. It therefore makes sense, they argue, to add a new concept to our vocabulary: structural racism.

As the Cambridge Dictionary explains with reference to the closely related concept of systemic racism, it consists of “laws, rules, or official policies in a society that result in and support a continued unfair advantage to some people and unfair or harmful treatment of others based on race.”

By pointing out that some forms of racism are “structural” in this way, we are better able to capture – and hopefully remedy – circumstances in which members of some racial groups suffer significant disadvantages for reasons other than individual bias.

This is plausible insofar as it goes. To understand contemporary Canada, it is indeed helpful to add the notion of structural racism to our conceptual toolbox. But in recent years, many advocates of the identity synthesis have gone one step further: They have begun to claim that this more recent concept of structural racism should altogether supplant the older concept of individual racism.

Rather than acknowledging that there are two different forms of racism, each of which deserves careful attention and needs to be combatted, parts of the left have come to conceptualize racism in an exclusively structural form. “Racism,” one online guide puts the growing consensus, “is different from racial prejudice, hatred, or discrimination” because it must involve “one group having the power to carry out systematic discrimination through the institutional policies and practices of the society and by shaping the cultural beliefs and values that support those racist policies and practices.”

In its most radical form, this claim entails that it is impossible for a member of a historically marginalized group to be racist toward a member of a historically dominant group. Because racism does not have anything to do with individual beliefs or attributes, and members of groups that are comparatively powerless are incapable of carrying out “systematic discrimination” against members of groups that are comparatively powerful, even the vilest forms of hatred need not count as racist. As an article in Vice put it, “It is literally impossible to be racist to a white person.”

The result has, again and again, been a form of selective blindness when members of minority groups have expressed bigoted attitudes toward supposedly more privileged groups, including those that are themselves minorities. When Tamika Mallory, one of the founders of the Women’s March, was criticized for calling Louis Farrakhan, a homophobe, misogynist and proud antisemite, the “greatest of all time,” she defended herself by telling The New York Times that “white Jews, as white people, uphold white supremacy.”

This inability to recognize the importance of the more traditional conception of racism makes it impossible to name what is happening when members of one minority group are the victims of hate crimes committed by members of another minority group that is now considered to suffer from greater disadvantages. In December, 2019, for example, two terrorists killed a police detective and then murdered three people at a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, close to New York. They had a long trail of posting antisemitic content on social media; one assailant belonged to a congregation of Black Hebrew Israelites that holds overtly antisemitic beliefs. But because the assailants were Black, and the victims perceived as white, many news outlets failed to categorize the shooting as antisemitic, or to treat it as a hate crime, for an astoundingly long period of time.

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Fort Lauderdale police separate members of pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian protests on Oct. 8.Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP

The trouble with white privilege

The idea that all racism is structural is deeply damaging because it makes it hard for institutions to open their eyes to forms of discrimination toward members of groups that are supposedly dominant. In practice, it is made even worse by the fact that many people on the left have now embraced a very simplistic notion of who is dominant and who is marginalized – one that imposes American conceptions of race on situations in which they distort rather than illuminate underlying realities.

In North America, the most salient racial divide – though by no means the only one – has for centuries been that between white people and Black people. In assessing which group is supposedly privileged in a foreign conflict, many Americans therefore think it is enough to figure out who is “white” and who is a “person of colour.” This makes it impossible for them to understand conflicts in which the relevant political cleavage does not neatly pit whites against Blacks (or, more broadly, “whites” against “people of colour”).

Whoopi Goldberg, for example, has repeatedly insisted that the Holocaust was “not about race.” Since, from an American point of view, both Jewish and non-Jewish Germans are white, she found it impossible to get her head around an ideology that centres around racial distinctions between them. “You could not tell a Jew on a street,” she wrongly claimed. “You could find me. You couldn’t find them.”

In the case of Israel, this has led most observers to assume that there is a clear division in racial roles between Israelis and Palestinians: In their mind, Israelis are white, Palestinians “people of colour.” And since white people have historically held power over non-white people, this reinforces the impression that it is impossible for Israelis to be victims of racial hatred.

But this perspective once again turns out to be so simplistic as to verge on the delusional. Ms. Goldberg was wrong to believe that Nazis were unable to spot Jews; though some Jews did manage to survive by passing themselves off as “Aryan,” many Nazis were highly effective at spotting people whom they suspected of being Jewish.

More importantly, the assumption that most of the victims of last Saturday’s terrorist attacks were “white” Jews with roots in Europe is simply wrong. It’s not just that there are Black Israeli Jews whose ancestors immigrated from Ethiopia, or that Hamas’s victims included migrant workers from Thailand and Nepal; it’s also that Israel as a whole is now home to more Mizrahi Jews, who hail from the Middle East, than Ashkenazi Jews, whose ancestors long lived in Europe.

I will leave it up to others to speculate on whether the visual differences between Jewish and non-Jewish Germans are more or less stark than those between Arabs and Mizrahi Jews. But the prominence of Mizrahi Jews also betrays yet another way in which attempts to fit the Israel-Palestine conflict into a simplistic conceptual scheme go badly wrong.

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Dancers in Indigenous regalia take part in a pro-Palestinian rally outside the Israeli embassy in Mexico City.ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP via Getty Images

The trouble with decolonialism

The actual demographic composition of the country makes claims that Israeli civilians should be seen as settlers who are fair game for terrorist attacks doubly cynical. They are cynical because no political cause, however righteous, justifies the deliberate targeting of babies and grandmothers – neither on the Israeli nor on the Palestinian side. And they are also cynical because the great majority of Mizrahi Jews have, since the end of the Second World War, been violently displaced from the Middle Eastern countries in which their ancestors had lived for hundreds of years, with no country other than the world’s only Jewish state willing to offer them safe harbour.

Postcolonial apologists for terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah love to invoke Frantz Fanon’s glorification of violence. The problem is not just that their tendentious reading of his work overlooks the ways in which violence can be morally corrosive and politically destructive; it’s also that the implied analogy between the so-called pied noirs (white settlers in Algeria who could safely return to the French metropolis if they chose to do so) and Mizrahi Jews (who would be neither welcome nor safe if they were to return to Iran or Iraq, to Morocco or Algeria) is so misleading as to be perverse.

And yet, this misleading analogy governs how many on the left ascribe the role of victim and perpetrator, explaining why dozens of student groups at Harvard could claim that Israel is somehow “entirely responsible” for Hamas’s decision to murder more than 1,300 people. At a deeper level, they even help to explain how some of the world’s most prominent left-wing academics can contrive to perceive a deeply authoritarian and overtly theocratic regime that is explicitly hostile to sexual minorities as a progressive movement.

For people like the feminist theorist Judith Butler, what determines whether a movement should count as left-wing or right-wing is based on whether it claims to be fighting on behalf of those they believe to be marginalized. Since Hamas is an organization of underprivileged “people of colour” fighting against “privileged” “white” Jews, it must be seen as part of a global struggle against oppression. Even though its program – which incidentally includes the violent suppression of sexual minorities within the Gaza Strip – is reminiscent of some of the world’s most brutal far-right regimes, Mx. Butler considers it “very important” to classify both Hamas and Hezbollah as “social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left.”

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People attend a memorial for Israel in Vienna.Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

It’s time for a reckoning with bad ideas on the left

Over the past few days, some observers have started to recognize how badly parts of the left have gone astray. Many leftist academics were genuinely horrified to see their friends and colleagues celebrate the murder of babies. There has been widespread outrage at the decision of influential movements such as Black Lives Matter to idolize terrorists. Shri Thanedar, a U.S. congressman, has publicly renounced his membership in the DSA.

This is a good start. In a free country, anyone must be free to express their support of extremist organizations, however vile. But mainstream institutions should stop uncritically embracing organizations that openly glorify terrorists. And citizens should demand that moderate political parties, like the Democrats, cease to tolerate members of organizations that equivocate about the moral permissibility of mass murder.

Black lives matter, greatly. But it should, even before this week, have become clear that the recognition of this important fact is compatible with serious concerns about the organizations that now speak on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement. Similarly, colonialism remains one of history’s greatest injustices. But it should, even before this week, have become clear that the recognition of this important fact is compatible with serious concerns about a postcolonial discourse that all too often glorifies violent resistance to anybody who, however simplistically, is judged to be a “settler.”

Many advocates of the identity synthesis are genuinely motivated by good intentions. But key parts of this ideology now provide cover for forms of racism and dehumanization of vulnerable groups that should be anathema to anybody who genuinely cares about the historical values of the left. It is time for the many reasonable people who have bitten their tongue as these ideas took on enormous power in mainstream institutions – in Canada and in the United States – to raise their voice against them.

In Gaza City, Palestinians inspect a mosque destroyed by Israeli fire and carry a wounded child to al-Shifa hospital; in Khan Younis, people dig graves for a family killed in an airstrike on their house. Adel Hana/AP; MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images; Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

The suffering to come

Any humane outlook on the world must recognize that civilians never deserve to suffer due to the group into which they were born or because of actions committed by those who claim to speak on their behalf. For that reason, I feel as much empathy for the Palestinian children who will die in bombardments of Gaza as I do for the Jewish children who were killed in Hamas’s attack on Israel. Each civilian death is a tragedy on the same moral order.

But while every civilian victim is in equal measure undeserving of their tragic fate, moral philosophers have for centuries recognized a key distinction between forms of military action that may be legitimate and forms of terrorism that will always remain illegitimate. In the former, military action is directed against military targets; while some civilian deaths are foreseeable as a consequence of such attacks, soldiers undertake to minimize them insofar as possible. In the latter, political action is directed against civilian targets; the killing of innocents is the goal, not an unintended side effect, of the attack.

This is a war that Israel did not choose, and the country has every right to defend itself. But the next days and weeks will show to what extent the Israeli army stays within the bounds governing the legitimate conduct of such a war. As political leaders including Joe Biden have rightly pointed out, it is imperative that it honour these long-established rules. If it doesn’t, full-throated criticisms of the Israeli government are fully justified.

But we no longer have to speculate as to whether Hamas, the organization which started the current war with a long-planned surprise attack that killed more than 1,300 men and women, toddlers and grandmothers, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, Jews and non-Jews, Israelis and Thais and Americans and Canadians and Germans and Chinese, obeyed the most basic moral rules. For we already know that they deliberately slaughtered scores of innocents in one of the most brutal terrorist attacks in human history.

The left has the potential to speak powerfully to this moment. To do so, it needs to jettison the ideological jargon that has made so many supposed idealists fall for the ever-present temptation to contrive reasons why my friend’s suffering is outrageous while my enemy’s suffering is glorious. To retain our moral composure in the ugly days and weeks now on the horizon, we must recover a moral universalism that, even in the darkest hour, reminds us of our shared humanity – and unhesitatingly laments the murder of innocents, irrespective of the group to which they belong.

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