Fearful Symmetry in Israel and Palestine

Finding a Just Peace Somewhere in the Faultlines of Seismic Despair

My father fought the Nazis during World War II on the battlefields of Italy and in what is now known as the Netherlands. There, the Canadian army liberated the Westerbork transit camp, which sent 100,000 Jews to Nazi death camps across Europe as part of the Holocaust. Any person with 1/16 ‘Jewish blood’ was marked for extermination, regardless of faith. My father was billeted with a Jewish family for a time after the liberation of the Netherlands, a family who loved my father and who fashioned for him a beautiful ring that he wore until he died in 1980. I was raised to respect and admire the Jewish people.

In 2015, I visited Auschwitz, and that visit left an indelible mark on my soul that will never heal as long as antisemitism persists in its evil march across the continents. Never again! is a motto that this Scots/Irish Catholic has also taken to heart. I have visited Israel and Palestine on several occasions, presented talks at several universities, and met with Palestinian and Israeli activists working for peace. I have been justifiably harsh in my criticism of Israel’s far-right Likud Party and how the Israeli and American governments have worked together to conceal acts of brutality against Palestinians. And I have been made acutely aware of the desire of some Palestinian groups to demolish the State of Israel in its entirety.

But my admiration for both the Israeli and Palestinian activists that I met years ago has not diminished. I have lost touch with some of these activists, and others my age have passed away, buried in the sands of time. But my memories remain, thankfully permitting me to recall past events and to frame them within today’s Orwellian zeitgeist fuelled by market determinations and entrenched inequality and concealed behind a patina of endless myths about capitalist prosperity, American exceptionalism and the like.

I do not need to wrack my memory bank for images of my visits to Israel; they come readily. Nor do I need to overstretch my brainpan with vague reminiscences since they remain relatively clear, refracted only by the vicissitudes of old age and the attendant fear of losing visual, acoustic, semantic and tactile acuity in encoding information long past the point of easy recall. But, in the final analysis, retrieval is always subject to error because memories are always reconstructions of events and reconstructions of reconstructions along a ‘forgetting curve’ bound to refract reality along emotive tangents of our own making. In short, we tend to believe what we want to believe about the past.

I recall leaving Israel, hopeful that peace was possible. Even in the midst of what appeared to be an unflinching mutual resentment towards a demonised Other, I remember an urgent willingness among both Palestinians and Israelis to reach beyond the history of settler attacks in the West Bank, rocket attacks from Gaza, and the stench of burnt flesh emanating from the smouldering, bombed out ruins of Palestinian towns and villages, and to commit themselves to never giving up hope for peace, no matter how intransigent the despair and desolation may appear. But have these memories been retroactively redacted over time, bent by the dwindling light of my innate longing for peace?

On Friday, October 6, Israelis packed their synagogues to celebrate the end of Sukkot and the beginning of Simchat Torah, ‘rejoicing with the Torah.’ The following day, rockets struck nearby towns and cities, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Masked Hamas gunmen breached border regions. Entire families were massacred in their sleep. Men, women and children in kibbutz communities such as Kfar Aza And Be’eri were kidnapped as they attempted to flee the carnage. Hundreds were slaughtered, including infants and children.

The events of Saturday, October 7, when Hamas terrorists broke through Israeli barriers along the Gaza Strip, murdering hundreds and holding others hostage in a major operation known as ‘Al-Aqsa Storm,’ must be condemned, unequivocally and with no reservation. During this terrorist attack on Israel by Hamas, more Jews were killed than during the infamous Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht), a pogrom against Jews carried out by the Nazi Party’s Sturmabteilung (SA) and Schutzstaffel (SS) paramilitary forces in November 1938 and a prelude to the Final Solution. It says something about the decrepit state of some so-called progressive groups that these attacks were not roundly denounced in the harshest of terms. The attacks by Hamas were more than your usual acts of adversarial identity politics or garden variety sabre-rattling; they were barbaric acts of wanton violence and moral outlawry that can never be tolerated nor justified under any circumstances. We cannot create a moral equivalence between the targeting of women and children for rape, mutilation and death, and Hamas’ claim that this was a matter of self-defence. The plan of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which participated in this attack, was to kill as many Jews as possible, without regard for age, gender, or political orientation. Hamas has long been invested in scuttling any possible plans for peace. In their attack, Hamas murdered 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and took 200 prisoners back to Gaza with them. Peace is an existential threat for Hamas, which is a semi-state entity, a religious, political, social and terrorist organisation that basically runs the Gaza Strip. Israel is facing its ISIS.

This is not to say that the attack by Hamas erupted out of a historical vacuum. The lines of demarcation for this attack were visible to those with eyes to see and ears to hear the anguished screams of Benjamin’s Angel of History, unable to close her wings, as she tumbled from the heavens with a messianic force, blanched with horror, leaking memories and ideas across the firmament until she could no longer see past the debris of hubris, catharsis and nemesis piling up before her.

I have watched on the internet so-called progressive critics proudly refuse to condemn the recent attack by Hamas, citing as the paramount reason for it the brutal treatment of Palestinians by Israel from 1948 to the present. These same critics admitted Hamas’ attack was a despicable massacre, but they still refused to condemn Hamas for their murderous attacks because to do so would be siding with the real oppressor – Israel. They did so even in the face of videos of bodies that lay slaughtered on the ground, with one video showing Hamas terrorists parading through the streets of Gaza yelling ‘God is Great’ and spitting on an unconscious, semi-naked Israeli woman in the back of their pickup truck as if revelling in the cruelty of their acts.

Israel is facing its ISIS. The Charter of Hamas has been described as genocidal, as based on Koranic prophesy, awaiting a time when the earth itself will cry out for Jewish blood. Menachem Z. Rosensaft offers the following description of the Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement, otherwise known as the Hamas Covenant:

Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it,’ reads the Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement, more commonly known as the Hamas Covenant, adopted on August 18, 1988. Replete with antisemitic tropes, the Covenant asserts as a premise that ‘Israel, Judaism and Jews challenge Islam and the Moslem people.’ Quoting from the Quran, it warns, ‘Those who believe not, Ye shall be overcome, and thrown together into hell.’ The Charter makes abundantly clear that Hamas is determined not just to obliterate the State of Israel but to ravage and kill the Jews living there as it did on October 7.

Hamas leaders have reiterated this non-negotiable intention repeatedly over the years. ‘Palestine is Islamic, and not an Islamic emirate, from the river to the sea, that unites the Palestinians,’ declared Khalil al-Hayya, a member of Hamas’ politburo, in 2010. ‘Jews have no right in it, with the exception of those who lived on the land of Palestine before World War I.’ Two years later, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, a co-founder of Hamas who was killed in 2004, reiterated the organisation’s genocidal goals. ‘By God,’ he said, ‘we will not leave one Jew in Palestine. We will fight them with all the strength we have. This is our land, not the Jews’….

Israel, ranked 18 of 145 countries considered for the annual Global Firepower Review, and the tenth largest military exporter in the world, has a right to defend itself but must abide by international law in its attacks on Hamas. Cutting water, electricity and food to civilian populations is demonstrably against international law. Those following the war in the media have not failed to notice the vast devastation of Gaza and the number of children buried in the rubble of demolished buildings. That Hamas has created an extensive tunnel network under the infrastructure of Gaza City, the largest city in the State of Palestine, has complicated matters.

Even before Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza, life for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank was a nightmare. Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade of Gaza after its takeover by Hamas in 2007. Israel and Egypt continue to control the movement of goods and people in and out of the Gaza Strip, diminishing the flow of essential goods and restricting freedom of movement for Gaza’s residents. Exit and entry into Gaza are prohibited by sea and air. Two of the three crossings in and out of Gaza are controlled by Israel, and the other by Egypt. Recall that Hamas controls the Gaza Strip and that President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority governs the West Bank. Noam Chomsky has described the conditions in the occupied territories as being far worse than apartheid. Israel is currently occupying land that Palestinians regard as sovereign territory, such as the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In the West Bank, there are 144 Israeli settlements and 100 illegal Israeli outposts. Jewish neighbourhoods are being expanded in East Jerusalem. Palestinians who used to populate the Jordan Valley are being pushed out and replaced by semi-militarised Jewish settlements. Integrated infrastructure developments, including Israeli-only bypass roads, are a means of reclaiming for Israel more Palestinian territory. Gaza has been bombed nonstop since the October 7 attack. Some legal scholars are calling this a genocide against Palestinians. Alice Speri writes:

But collective punishment – including measures like Israel’s blockade on fuel, food and electricity into the occupied territory – and the indiscriminate targeting of civilians constitute war crimes under international law. A number of legal experts have argued the actions may also amount to crimes against humanity and genocide, as defined under the 1948 Genocide Convention. On Thursday, a panel of UN experts issued a separate statement that condemned the bombings of schools and hospitals in Gaza as crimes against humanity and warned that there is a risk the crimes might escalate to genocide.

‘We are sounding the alarm: There is an ongoing campaign by Israel resulting in crimes against humanity in Gaza,’ the experts wrote. ‘Considering statements made by Israeli political leaders and their allies, accompanied by military action in Gaza and escalation of arrests and killing in the West Bank, there is also a risk of genocide against the [Palestinian] people.’

US administration officials, in turn, are not supporting a ceasefire; instead, they are accusing Hamas of genocide:

Barbara Leaf, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and Dana Stroul, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday on the Israel-Hamas war and broader conditions in the Middle East region. The administration officials argued against a ceasefire with Hamas, noting that such a move would allow Hamas to remain in power, maintain its warfighting and terrorism capacity and, according to Stroul, provide no assurances that Hamas would actually release its hostages. Leaf added that ‘it’s a real question’ whether Hamas ‘is serious in any degree about releasing those hostages,’ and noted that Hamas has repeatedly violated past cease-fires, including on October 7. Stroul and Leaf agreed that Hamas is guilty of war crimes and genocide, and in violation of humanitarian law, with Stroul noting that Hamas itself has released evidence of such crimes. Leaf noted that Hamas is also preventing the Red Cross from visiting hostages.
‘The rules of international humanitarian law are clear. They apply to the Israel Defense Forces. They also apply to Hamas,’ Stroul said.

The United States has pledged unwavering diplomatic, financial and military support for Israel for its war against Hamas and has not, at the time of this writing, demanded a ceasefire but instead has asked and received pauses in the bombings so that trucks with humanitarian aid can enter Gaza. The US is currently sending guided-missile carriers, F-35 fighters and other equipment into the war zone. The Anti-Defamation League considers those who call for a ceasefire to be ‘anti-Israel,’ including progressive Jews. One ADL spokesperson warned: ‘being Jewish does not exempt an organisation or a person from being antisemitic.’
It’s important to recall that the United States waged and fueled devastating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, following September 11, 2001, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths from direct fighting and millions of indirect deaths resulting from health and economic problems caused by the wars, including deaths from diseases, malnutrition and destruction of infrastructure. Not to mention those who were permanently displaced. These costs are worth considering further:

The US post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Pakistan have taken a tremendous human toll on those countries. As of September 2021, an estimated 432,093 civilians in these countries have died violent deaths as a result of the wars. As of May 2023, an estimated 3.6-3.8 million people have died indirectly in post-9/11 war zones. The total death toll in these war zones could be at least 4.5-4.7 million and counting, though the precise mortality figure remains unknown. Civilian deaths have also resulted from US post-9/11 military operations in Somalia and other countries.

People living in the war zones have been killed in their homes, in markets and on roadways. They have been killed by bombs, bullets, fire, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and drones. Civilians die at checkpoints, as they are run off the road by military vehicles, when they step on mines or cluster bombs, as they collect wood or tend to their fields, and when they are kidnapped and executed for purposes of revenge or intimidation. They are killed by the United States, by its allies, and by insurgents and sectarians in the civil wars spawned by the invasions.

War can also lead to death weeks or months after battles. Many times more people in the warzones have died as a result of battered infrastructure and poor health conditions arising from the wars than directly from its violence. For example, war refugees often lose access to a stable food supply or to their jobs, resulting in increased malnutrition and vulnerability to disease.

The US also supported dictatorial regimes in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, which cost the lives of thousands of priests, nuns, lay catechists, social workers, union organisers, students, teachers and journalists, along with ordinary farmers and workers in El Salvador, Chile, Brazil, Argentina and other South and Central American countries. We tend to forget the death and destruction of human life in the wars that the US has either initiated or supported. Given the track record of the US in the Middle East and Latin America (not to mention Vietnam), there is mounting opposition to U.S. financial and military aid for Israel. In fact, ‘Americans have become more likely to describe Israel as an ally that shares U.S. interests and values since the war with Hamas began, but they’re divided over whether Israel has gone too far in its response to last month’s attack, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.’

Support for Palestinian human rights is not tantamount to support for terrorism. There should be no conflation between Hamas and all Palestinians, despite the narratives created by counterterrorism operatives designed to create public alarm and fear. Support for Palestinian human rights is part and parcel of supporting human rights for all, for universal human rights – for Israelis and Palestinians alike. There should be no weaponisation of counterterrorism laws that result in shutting down peaceful protests.

Air attacks on Gaza followed Israel’s declaration of war, taking a deadly toll on civilians living in Gaza, a narrow, 25-mile stretch of land pressed against the Mediterranean Sea, an enclave also bounded by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, and populated by two million people. Israel’s embassy to the Holy See warned the Vatican to avoid what it described as ‘linguistic ambiguities’ and ‘parallelisms’ that would equate the aggressors in the conflict with its victims. Yet what are we to make of Israel’s relentless retaliatory strikes that have claimed the lives of more than 2,778 Palestinians, including more than 700 children, and wounded 9,700 at the time of this writing? The attacks have provoked Spain’s minister of social rights, Ione Belarra, to release a statement calling on her country’s coalition government to petition the International Criminal Court to open a war crimes investigation into Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, citing the ongoing aerial bombardment of the Gaza Strip and the inhumane blockade that has prevented the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid. She has also petitioned to have Hamas investigated for war crimes committed in Israel and the occupied territories against the civilian population. Rather than precision attacks on Hamas, Israel’s assault on Gaza is primarily geared toward inflicting massive damage, which has created a humanitarian catastrophe, displacing more than a million Gazans.

Clinging to feelings I had when last returning from Israel – that peace is somehow possible – seems ridiculously naïve today, as nonviolent resistance seems about as tangible as the last whiff of smoke emanating from a peace pipe that had just been crushed under the heel of a US cavalry officer overseeing the Trail of Tears (just ask the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee and Seminole nations). I have not given up hope for peace. There are times when a dialectical response is warranted, one uncoupled from raw tribalism – when it is necessary to condemn both Hamas and the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces). I believe that this is such a time.

Making Jews the focus of scapegoating and hateful rhetoric; limiting freedoms for Palestinians in a Jewish state; occupying Palestinian territories in the West Bank; blockading Gaza – all of these acts were never going to provide a viable context for co-existence, not for stateless people who lack basic freedoms and rights. Nor would rocket attacks aimed at Israeli neighbourhoods be any more helpful. But let’s not fool ourselves that the massacre by Hamas was an act of justified rebellion or legitimate, heroic resistance – it was not. It was a pogrom. Launching Qassam rockets targeting civilian areas, murdering and kidnapping men, women and children attending a music festival in the desert near the Gaza-Israel border, and engaging in multi-pronged attacks against towns, villages and kibbutzim with armed drones, modified AK-47s, Soviet-built .50 calibre machine guns and hand grenades, is a ghastly violation of international humanitarian law. Any so-called progressive organisation that refuses to denounce this insidious, wholesale slaughter of over 1,400 Israelis and the capture of 199 others, including children, is not living up to its moral self-designation, assuming that they have one.

Since taking power in Gaza in 2007, Hamas hasn’t exactly helped the residents of Gaza. They have used external funding from Israel, Qatar and Egypt not to rebuild Gaza, but to create their military infrastructure, including miles of underground tunnels to hide its combatants and store its arsenals of weapons, as its terrorist fighters strategically meld into civilian population centres and launch their attacks from schools, mosques and other civilian infrastructure. Bloody confrontations between Israel and Hamas occurred in 2008–2009, 2012, 2014 and 2021. These battles, which often included Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and other Palestinian groups, resulted in considerable Gazan civilian casualties. The aim of Hamas’ attacks in 2023, which included 2000 terrorists from the special unit of Hamas’s Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, known as the Nukhba, was to provoke a multifront war against Israel.

Since 2007, Palestinians have been prohibited from leaving their homes in Gaza. An Israeli blockade has made it next to impossible for Gazans to acquire the necessary construction materials to repair the apartment blocks, power plants, water treatment facilities, schools and mosques that Israel had destroyed in previous bombing raids over the years. Attacks on Palestinians by armed Israeli settlers in the West Bank have been on the increase, especially with Israel’s new right-wing, nationalist government, which has announced its intention to vastly expand Israeli settlements and outposts.

Clearly, demands for Palestinian sovereignty and self-determination have mainly gone unheeded – in fact, they have been trampled upon. For peace to come to the Middle East, Palestinians must believe that a viable, favourable, diplomatic solution is possible. And Israelis need to feel confident that peace accords are not invitations for the self-destruction of Israel.

Hamas’ indiscriminate and indefensible attacks of terror and mass slaughter that have left hundreds of Israelis dead, followed by acts of retributive violence by the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) that have killed innocent civilians in a medieval-style siege of Gaza City that includes forced starvation, only makes the prospect for peace seem woefully out of reach. We need to remember that 16 years of Israel’s blockade and a ban on imports and exports have virtually destroyed the economy. The unemployment rate in Gaza is above 40%, more than 65% of the population is under the poverty line, and 63% of Gazans are regarded as food insecure, according to the United Nations. Confirmation by Human Rights Watch that Israel has used white phosphorus in its airstrikes in violation of international law, coupled with its razing of entire city blocks, will only spark international condemnation of Israel. So, too, will the Israeli military’s evacuation order that demands the territory’s entire population of 1.1 million people cram into the southern half of Gaza within a mere 24 hours or face a deadly ground invasion.

A first step to any realistic solution is to take off the blinders and acknowledge one’s complicity in wilful acts of violence. And there is plenty of blame to go around. It is worth remembering, however, that not all Israelis support Binyamin Netanyahu’s current ultra-nationalist government that is allied with far-right, pro-settler parties and that seeks even more governmental power (amounting to what is a constitutional crisis). Not all Israelis support the annexation of Palestinian territories in the West Bank. And not all Palestinians, including Palestinian Arabs, support terrorist groups such as Hamas. We need to be clear about that. There are Israelis and Palestinians who are not fanatical ethno-nationalists and who are ready and willing to fight for peace, as difficult as that prospect seems at present.

Too often, however, the left fails to consider the broadening of anti-Israel propensities that historically have posed a grave threat to Israel and the Jewish people, a people who have a long history in the region, a history that has lasted millennia. We do ourselves a disservice in the search for a lasting peace if we forget the history of Anti-Judaism and how Jews have suffered historically at the hands of European genocidal antisemitism and also how Jews have been marginalised in the Arab world for centuries, including their expulsion from Arab countries between 1948 and the early 1970s. For almost 2,000 years before the Holocaust, the Jewish people were subjected to forced conversion (the Spanish Inquisition), wholesale slaughter (the Crusades), expulsion from various European countries and pogroms (Russia). Not only were Jews punished for much of history for their refusal to accept the Christian messiah, but they were blamed for killing Jesus. As the Jewish historical narrative was deviously compressed and perverted by the most vile form of antisemitism in the Third Reich, six million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis during World War II for the supposed sin of polluting the Aryan race. They were exterminated by the Nazis in the name of progress and a narrative of perfection. It seems clear that antisemitism is bound up in a multitude of ways that exploit the social cohesion of Jewish identity and is manifested socio-economically, politically, culturally and ideologically. New forms of conspiracy theories about the Jews have been marinated with older ones, such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which has been weaponised ideologically to foment hatred of the Jews throughout Europe, North America and in Arab and Muslim societies. The same is true of the revival of the medieval blood libel, claiming that the Israeli army deliberately killed Palestinians to harvest their organs for profit.

Israelis have had to face groups from Arab and Muslim societies who would never agree to have Jews occupying what they perceive to be Islamic lands. We ignore at our peril the global implications of radical political Islamism and antisemitism, especially as it is expressed by the Iranian regime, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Salafists. We also are remiss when we ignore the antisemitism proliferating on our college campuses. Holocaust denial and antisemitism on US campuses is not a new phenomenon. We diminish the cause of peace and justice at any time or any place where antisemitism and Islamophobia are tolerated. Antisemitic symbols on our campuses are not only semantically forbidding, but they can compel individuals to commit violent acts.

Recounting the history of genocidal global antisemitism is by no means meant as a justification for crimes committed by Israel’s armed forces. But it helps to deepen our understanding of the adversity faced by Jews throughout history – an understanding that is sorely missing in many of the published accounts of the war. The adversity faced by Arabs and Muslims – especially during and after the US invasion of Iraq – is no less significant. For half a century, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip (up to 2007) has resulted in systematic human rights violations throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Tens of thousands of Palestinian properties in the West Bank have been demolished and transferred to Israeli settlers over the years. Approximately 600,000 Israeli settlers live in the occupied West Bank. The settlers have unlawfully appropriated Palestinian resources such as land, water and minerals to create their own businesses. Amnesty International offers this report:

The hundreds of Israeli military closures across the West Bank, such as checkpoints, roadblocks and settler-only roads, as well as the overall permit regime, make simple daily tasks for Palestinians who are trying to get to work, school or hospital a constant struggle. Israel claims the winding 700 km fence/wall is there to prevent armed attacks on Israel by Palestinians. But that does not explain why 85% of it is built on Palestinian land, including land deep inside the West Bank. What the fence/wall does is cut off Palestinian communities from each other and rip families apart. It also deprives Palestinians from accessing essential services and separates farmers from their land and other resources, crippling the Palestinian economy. Inherently discriminatory and unjust laws also prevent many people from being able to marry or travel within the occupied territories or into Israel to visit or live with their loved ones. These arbitrary restrictions are discriminatory and unlawful and must be lifted immediately.

Jews, Muslims (and Coptic Christians who self-identify as Palestinians) have a long and arduous path ahead of them, a path less travelled, one that is characterised by the need to recognise the Other as equal and respected members of society. But along the way, they need to engage in a critical apprehension of how they have been, and continue to be, imprisoned in false narratives and discourses of the ‘Other,’ which include Islamophobia, antisemitism and Christophobia. The hardliners on both sides of the divide will not be the ones to bring peace to the land – it is those who are willing to see beyond the hate.

The rise of neo-Nazi groups in the United States and the spread of fascism throughout US politics has stretched antisemitism, Islamophobia and white supremacy beyond its normal hinterlands of hate and has spawned vile swamplands of bigotry populated by groups such as the Proud Boys, Blood Tribe, Goyim Defence League and numerous other constituencies linked to the cult of MAGA. We cannot be ideologically swindled either by the discourse of Islamophobia or by the discourse of antisemitism. Each is equally vile in their treacherous machinations of obfuscation. Conspiracies of indirection and ignorance rarely lead to just resolutions. They are more likely to lead to moral panic.

Hamas wrested control of Gaza in 2007 from the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority controlled by Fatah. Although trapped in a condition of perpetual insecurity, Israel nevertheless needs to exercise restraint by serving the cause of peace rather than revenge. Its armed forces need to refrain from demonising all Palestinians and restore electricity, fuel and food to those in Gaza – such as children and the elderly – who should not be at the mercy of a violent reprisal from Israel because of the brutal actions of Hamas, a party that has made the strategic choice to use violence and terror, a choice which clearly does not reflect that of all Palestinians and certainly not that of Palestinian children, 700 of whom have already perished in the carnage. Let’s not forget what happened when blind rage against Muslims infected the United States after 9-11. This hate was canalised and amplified through social media and information technology. Numerous countries in the Middle East were destroyed in the wake of such a searing rage, killing millions and generating refugees, the numbers of which have never been seen since World War II. The Israeli military cannot claim to be focused on military targets alone while at the same time demolishing residential buildings, hospitals and mosques, and then justifying those attacks by blaming Hamas for using children and hostages as human shields. They must accept responsibility for such actions, knowing well in advance that children are being used as human shields.

Pope Francis has justifiably affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself but, like many, questioned if violence would solve the larger cause of a lasting peace. Recently, I have heard the following questions being raised by both Jews and Palestinians: Who is going to run the civilian infrastructure when Hamas is pushed out of the tunnels, when they are defeated, and the Israeli prisoners are either rescued or viciously murdered? When innocent Palestinians take refuge at a United Nations school and it, too, is bombed, will Palestinians then choose to die at home, believing evacuation is futile? What vision of the future will be left for the Palestinian people, if any? Will the destruction of Gaza be remembered by the Palestinians as a second Nakba (referring to a time in 1948 when Palestinian towns and villages were reduced to rubble)? Will the ground invasion of Gaza lead to peace for the Israeli people who mourn the egregious murders of their loved ones and wait desperately for news about their captured family members?

Tia Goldenberg writes that for many Jews in Israel and around the world, the recent massacre by Hamas has created frightening parallel associations with the Holocaust:

For many Israelis and Jews around the world, the horrors committed by Hamas militants during their stunning onslaught on southern Israeli communities is triggering painful memories of a calamity of a far greater scale: the Holocaust.

Long seen as a catastrophe so horrific nothing else should be compared to it, Israelis are now drawing direct parallels between the murder of 6 million Jews in Europe eight decades ago and their most recent tragedy, underscoring how traumatic the attack has been for a country that rose from the ashes of World War II and was created as a safe haven for Jews.

‘I have been strict about not using the word ‘‘Shoah’’ in any context other than the Holocaust,’ political commentator Ben Caspit wrote in the daily Maariv, referring to the Holocaust by its Hebrew name. ‘When Jewish children hide in a protected room and their anguished parents pray that they won’t cry, so that the marauders won’t come in and set the house on fire, it’s a Shoah.’

The mass killings of Israelis by Hamas make it clear that the Holocaust should not be considered a historical relic; it could happen again. And it must never happen again. Consider the chilling phrase of American neo-Nazis, ‘Jews will not replace us,’ chanted at the Unite the Right rally organised by armed white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. We need to remember that, in recent years, there has been a rising number of antisemitic speeches and attacks in the US and coordinated efforts by known White supremacist groups to spread antisemitic propaganda. Antisemitic incidents in the US tracked by the ADL in 2022, reached nearly 3,700 reported cases, including incidents of assault, vandalism and harassment of Jewish people or those perceived to be Jewish. Similarly, Israel’s retaliation against Hamas in Gaza has also affected Palestinians, ‘drawing comparisons to the Palestinians’ greatest national tragedy, the Nakba, when hundreds of thousands fled or were forced to flee following the 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation. Many Palestinians fear a repeat of that mass exodus after Israel ordered the evacuation of northern Gaza.’

We cannot leave Israeli government policies of annexation and dispossession, including the establishment of Jewish-only settlements on Palestinian lands, out of the equation for peace, just as we cannot leave out an acknowledgement of and warning against the rising global antisemitism and racist attacks on Jews worldwide. Blinded by rage, Palestinians and Israelis seem fixated on destroying each other. There will never be a consensus on how to apportion blame and responsibility. But, at the same time, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Israel is an oppressive occupying force and has been for a long time. And that reality goes a long way with observers who otherwise would prefer to be neutral in their assessment of the crisis now unfolding. Yet there are Jews and Palestinians – and people of goodwill worldwide – who are committed to working for the freedom of all people, with the knowledge that if you aren’t working to free every human being, then you aren’t fighting to free anyone.

We, the people of this planet, have a global responsibility to help foster a negotiated end to this conflict. We need to make hope unreasonable and despair incredulous. There is no more room for a reasoned hope; there is only time for outlandish hope that defies despair should it not be realised. It is a hope so unorthodox, so preposterous, that it suddenly makes sense. Reasoned hope can be falsified. Unreasonable hope can transcend all the premises we have established and let us start anew. Unreasonable hope is liminal: it is not here and not there; it is everywhere. It exists in the universe of the ‘not yet.’ We must not comprehend the task of solving the problems of the Middle East from the perspective of Kierkegaard’s pre-moral ‘stockbroker [Vexel-Megler] of finitude’; but, rather, we must hope in the possibility of hope, which ultimately resides in the possibility of love, and we must believe in love in order to see love, and only a person who loves and is loved can see others as loving persons. Each time a bullet blasts through the rib cage or liver of an Israeli or a Palestinian, we are not only denying that the Other is a loving person but that the Other is incapable of love or loving. To deny that someone is incapable of loving is the worst form of dehumanisation. It is to ‘invisibilise’ the other, to make it easier to farm the other out to the killing fields.

The point here is that we need a drastic turn of mind; we cannot, under any circumstances, surrender to hopelessness and despair. We must join with our Jewish and Palestinian brothers and sisters to find a way forward to end the bloodshed. Not a solution, but a way forward. Attempts at judicial overhaul that have contributed to political polarisation in Israel are of great concern to those Israelis fighting for democracy at home and to Diaspora Jews around the world. Netanyahu’s political doctrine of strengthening Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza has proved to be a security disaster. Currently, grassroots movements in Israel critical of Netanyahu are keeping the flame of democracy from being extinguished. Clashes between the IDF and Hezbollah at the Israel-Lebanon border are stoking fears of a more regional war. We have a global responsibility to help foster a negotiated end to this conflict. That Israel, a Jewish ethnostate, is arrayed against a constellation of Muslim ethnostates makes for a difficult prospect for lasting peace in the Middle East, to be sure.

One can only agree with those who claim that there are definite political advantages to secular states over religious ethnostates. The US remains a secular republic, despite the protestations of big-tent evangelicals who wish to turn the country into a white, Christian ethnostate. There are clear benefits to policies of interculturality, ecumenism and critical citizenship, despite the wild-eyed protestations of those uniquely American ethno-nationalists who decry what they see as the Great Replacement of Anglo Americans with immigrants from las Americas and who favour laws that protect ‘legacy Americans’ from immigrants whom Donald Trump has described as ‘poisoning the blood of our country’, echoing Nazi rhetoric. And it is not difficult to see why a culturally responsive, critical pedagogy is fundamental to a thriving, multicultural society. The bottom line is that all human beings deserve to live in peace and with basic rights under international law.

A two-state solution now appears more unrealistic than ever and, in the words of Nathan J. Brown, ‘would likely codify existing injustices rather than resolve them.’ For a while, it looked as if alleviating Gazans’ suffering could be a way forward in initiating incentives towards a new peace process. Now, that hope looks buried with the levelling of much of the civilian infrastructure by the Israeli Defence Forces. The hand of Netanyahu and his accomplices must be stayed. As long as they are given a free hand, we can expect that worse things will come. And we must all collectively shudder at what that might be. Similarly, it is time for Palestinians to reject Hamas and its fanatical hatred of Jews. All of us, inside and outside of the Middle East, must continue to fight antisemitism and Islamophobia worldwide. We need people with a reckless goodness if we want to get past the unctuous cynics of the present, those who foster conspiracy theories to fill the void within their hearts.

Throughout history, there have been men and women, Jews, Christians, Muslims and people of other faiths or no faith, who have risen to the occasion in the pursuit of peace, who have moved away from the widely employed credibility checks on the promotion of rational moral choices; who have come to each other’s aid, even to the point of risking their own lives, so that they and their children and grandchildren can live unmolested by sectarian violence. Peace always starts with small steps. Peace activists understand that each time someone labels a Palestinian an ‘animal,’ they are perpetuating the conflict, and each time someone uses an antisemitic typographical symbol such as multiple parentheses around Jewish names or an audio echo as a sound effect when someone on a podcast mentions a Jewish name, they are normalising hate.

We cannot give up on those Israelis and Palestinians who are still working for peace, who will fight to the end to stop the killing, who remain undaunted in challenging the ideologies, policies and practices of Likud and Hamas, who stand firmly against antisemitism and Islamophobia, who spurn the far-right’s use of free speech to promote hatred, who affirm the rights of self-determination of the Jewish and Palestinian peoples, who refuse to hold all Jews collectively responsible for the repressive policies and practices of the State of Israel, and who refuse to hold all Muslims responsible for the actions of Hamas and other terrorist groups. The conditions of possibility for co-existence require an understanding that Israeli self-determination cannot remain a just cause if it is achieved by cultivating Islamophobia, just as Palestinian self-determination cannot be considered a just cause if it is achieved by cultivating the ‘oldest hatred’: antisemitism.

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton has left us with some reflections on peace that are worth considering, especially at this time in world history:

To some men, peace merely means the liberty to exploit other people without fear of retaliation or interference. To others, peace means the freedom to rob brothers without interruption. To still others, it means the leisure to devour the goods of the earth without being compelled to interrupt their pleasures to feed those whom their greed is starving. And, to practically everybody, peace simply means the absence of any physical violence that might cast a shadow over lives devoted to the satisfaction of their animal appetites for comfort and pleasure.

Many men like these have asked God for what they thought was ‘peace’ and wondered why their prayer was not answered. They could not understand that it actually was answered. God left them with what they desired, for their idea of peace was only another form of war. The ‘Cold War’ is simply the normal consequence of our corruption of peace based on a policy of ‘every man for himself’ in ethics, economics and political life. It is absurd to hope for a solid peace based on fictions and illusions!

So instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men and love God above all. And instead of hating the people you think are warmongers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another.

Hope is not a border that can be breached; it is a means to transcend borders altogether. But, as I watch this war unfold, my anger roils the sinews of my sanity, revealing a heart camouflaged by disbelief in what I am seeing in the media: the brutal, blinding inhumanity of an Israeli military bent on treating living flesh as it might the wall of a school or mosque that needs to be demolished. This can’t be happening to the Palestinians, who are being exterminated like rats, but it is happening. Those who consider themselves civilised are smashing the living, the breathing, the screaming bodies into pieces with their airstrikes and their cannons. Even as I write about hope, I am losing my faith that it will make any difference. As each shell slams into a building filled with the screams of children and the wailing of mothers, I realise that I am witnessing Blake’s Tyger slaughtering the lamb.


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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2023). Fearful Symmetry in Israel and Palestine: Finding a Just Peace Somewhere in the Faultlines of Seismic Despair. PESA Agora. https://pesaagora.com/columns/fearful-symmetry-in-israel-and-palestine/

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.