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People attend a rally in support of Israel in Toronto, on Oct. 9.Jessica Lee/The Canadian Press

Of all the responses from world leaders to Hamas’s barbaric attack on Israel, perhaps the most striking, in its immediacy and its forcefulness, was that of Volodymyr Zelensky.

Hamas terrorists were still rampaging around the Israeli countryside when the Ukrainian President took to social media, repeatedly and at length, to offer Israel his country’s condolences, its support and its solidarity – even as he and they are fighting for their own lives. Presidents and prime ministers with far less on their plates took longer to say less.

“Terror,” he wrote, “is always a crime, not just against a specific country or this terror’s victims, but against humanity in general and our entire world. … In the face of such a terrorist strike, everyone who values life must stand in solidarity.”

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For some, what was noteworthy about this was its unstinting generosity, considering the Israeli government’s own lukewarm support for Ukraine after it was attacked by Russia. I’m fascinated more by the question of why he did it – beyond simple human decency, that is.

He may have calculated that aligning Ukraine so conspicuously with Israel could not hurt his cause with the MAGA Republicans in the U.S. Congress. Though they have become increasingly hostile, for whatever reason, to supporting Ukraine, the American far right has not (for the most part) abandoned its support for Israel.

But I suspect Mr. Zelensky had the bigger picture in mind: the moral and strategic interests of the democracies, as a group, in the face of the rising challenge presented by an increasingly coherent alliance of dictatorships and terror organizations – from Russia to Iran and its client states in Syria and Lebanon and the various militias under its wing, Hamas among them, with China and North Korea providing auxiliary support.

Israel’s fight and Ukraine’s fight are, in this analysis, the same, because their adversaries are the same: Whether or not Iran or Russia were directly involved in the planning and preparation of Hamas’s attack, there should not be the slightest doubt that they approve of it, and intend to profit from it.

As Mr. Zelensky put it: “We have data very clearly proving that Russia is interested in inciting war in the Middle East. So that a new source of pain and suffering would erode global unity and exacerbate cleavages and controversies, helping Russia in destroying freedom in Europe. … All of this represents a much greater threat than the world is currently aware of. The world wars of the past were triggered by local aggressions.”

This rather raises the stakes. Ukraine and Israel are in similar positions: both democracies, in parts of the world that have not been hospitable to democracy; both homes to the survivors of genocides and their descendants; both now under attack by forces willing to employ tactics of the utmost savagery. And both are on the front lines of the defence of the West.

Neither the fight to save Ukraine nor the fight to save Israel can be understood strictly on their own terms, as much as each rightfully engages our sympathies as fellow democracies. If Ukraine falls, the whole of Europe is threatened, by a Russia emboldened by success and convinced, rightly, of the West’s weakness. Were Israel to fall, likewise, the credibility of the United States and its allies would be shot throughout the region, with reverberations from Turkey to Pakistan.

And of course the consequences would not end there. China would draw the appropriate lessons about its chances of taking Taiwan, and every expansionist dictatorship would do the same. We have not faced such a threat since the end of the Cold War, or rather we have not understood that the threat remained, notwithstanding the fall of the Soviet Union, and has grown the more malignant for our inattention.

So now the “holiday from history” is well and truly over. We will need to arm ourselves for the struggle to come: physically, yes, but, as important, intellectually. Neither plays, shall we say, to this country’s strengths. Decades of nestling under the U.S.’s nuclear umbrella have infantilized us. We imagine that we have no natural predators. A good many Canadians truly seem to believe we are some sort of neutral power – the only one in world history to have another country pay for its defence.

The state of our military is accordingly a national disgrace, and an international embarrassment. We have too few troops, the few we have are horrendously underequipped, and the equipment we buy is massively, massively overpriced. We cannot begin to defend our own territory, and we refuse to contribute our share to the collective defence of the West. And then we are dismayed to find ourselves shut out of international forums. We fancied we could make up for our lack of hard power in soft power, but we never stopped to think that, in this world, soft power is hard power.

But as painful as this reckoning will be, it will be even more of a challenge intellectually. In this country, more than most, moral confusion seems to be accompanied by existential doubt – the consequence, I suspect, of several decades in which we not only accepted the possibility of our own dismemberment and destruction, but the legitimacy of it: that the country could be torn apart by a trick vote in one province, and there was nothing we could do about it, or should.

A country that cannot assert its own right to exist, it turns out, has a hard time asserting anything else. When the country’s very existence is contingent, so is everything else: Every right, every principle becomes negotiable, a matter of mere opinion. And so we are peculiarly vulnerable to a kind of moral confusion that exists in all countries, but which seems to find particularly fertile soil here – and which has been on strident display in the past few days.

I don’t mean the hardened little zealots on the university campuses, overtly crowing at what the “resistance” has wrought. I mean their equivocating elders: university presidents and union leaders, heads of departments and political figures, furrowing their brows and sucking their teeth at the “complexity” of it all, who after four drafts are still incapable of writing a clear and forthright denunciation of the massacre – because clear and forthright is a language they no longer speak.

People who say “of course I’m opposed to targeting civilians but,” or “I’m not saying Israel deserved this but” – those fatal buts – and who then go on to say “you have to expect this when,” and “these are the consequences for,” may sincerely believe they are not justifying slaughter or blaming Israel but merely “connecting the dots.” But that is what they are doing. This is not just a grievous moral error – no one deserves to be raped or murdered – but a factual one. To believe there is any connection between the aspirations of Palestinians for an independent state and Hamas’s ambitions, which are the annihilation of the Jewish state, you have to ignore just about everything that Hamas has ever said.

At best this is a kind of transference, imputing one’s own agenda and motives to people with very different objectives in mind. We saw a lot of this after 9/11. “I object to this or that aspect of American foreign policy. Therefore that must be what al-Qaeda objects to.” Worse, it amounts to hiring terrorists to make your point. Why else would people insist, in the midst of the worst slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust, on yammering on about Israel’s past transgressions, real or alleged? Why would this even occur to them, except to connect them in some way: to suggest that one was responsible for the other, or that it was commensurate with it, or at the least similar.

It is legitimate to be concerned about what comes next: to hold Israel, even as it is exercising its undoubted right of self-defence, to its obligations under the laws of war, particularly with regard to minimizing, so far as possible, the loss of civilian lives. It is legitimate, for that matter, to criticize Israel’s past conduct – on its own terms, not as justification for a pogrom – to hold it, indeed, to a higher standard than its adversaries, for we expect more of the democracies.

But the single-mindedness of some of its critics – the selectivity, the obsessive, unrelenting focus on Israel’s faults to the exclusion of any other country in the region or the world – is telling. I don’t doubt that some of this, maybe a great deal of it, is rooted in antisemitism. But I think the greater part of it, especially as it arises in our own societies, is a kind of self-loathing. They hate Israel because they hate the West: because Israel is a part of the West, and they have absorbed the idea that the West is the root of all evil.

The thrill of this discovery to the undergraduate mind! “Hey, wait a minute: We’re the bad guys! My parents might not understand this, but I have been privileged to see what they cannot.” There is no point in debating this: People who cannot discern the moral differences between the United States and Russia, or between Israel and Hamas, are beyond reach. More to the point it is impractical. The people we are fighting now are not interested in debating us. They do not want to compete with us, to compare their merits and demerits with our own. They want to destroy us.

So the atrocities in Israel are a watershed moment, as 9/11 was – a test of our ability, not just to reason clearly about fundamental moral questions, but to stand up for ourselves: to understand the moral case for the West, and to act on that conviction.

Or as Mr. Zelensky put it: “How far can such evil go? No further than we allow it to. Our unity must and can stop evil. Our desire for peace, not their desire for blood, should determine how the world lives.”

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