By Tom Robotham
Last month, after Hamas fighters bulldozed their way into Israel and slaughtered some 1,400 people—including children and the elderly—I struggled to come to terms with the horrific news. Over the next few weeks, I watched CNN coverage for hours on end and read scores of reports and opinion pieces on the websites of The New York Times, Al-Jazeera, Le Monde and other media outlets.
Meanwhile, I had conversations about the attack, face-to-face, on the phone, via text and on social media—many of which made my head spin. The unity of sentiment among my friends on the left—a unity that has long brought me comfort as I’ve tried to cope with the trauma of Trumpism—was suddenly shattered.
Some, to be sure, shared my gut reaction: That while oppression of Palestinians must be acknowledged and addressed, the savage murders committed by Hamas constituted terrorism, pure and simple. Others were reluctant to embrace this view, for fear that it implied a lack of sympathy for long-suffering people. I understood these feelings, though they struck me as an unfortunate conflation of two different issues. One can forcefully condemn Hamas, after all, and still respect Palestinian grievances.
What shocked me was that some people seemed callously dismissive of the slaughter of unarmed Jews, implying if not stating outright that the Hamas attack was justifiable. Worse still, were people I saw on various videos who claimed that Israel was grossly exaggerating the nature and ferocity of the Hamas invasion.
“It’s all lies!” one commentator shouted.
It felt like gaslighting: You didn’t see what you think you saw. It felt very similar, in fact, to the feelings that erupted when people like Tucker Carlson and Marjorie Taylor Greene claimed that the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol weren’t violent at all—they were just tourists.
There is a big difference between the two, of course—I mean, aside from the fact that innocent people at the Capitol weren’t beheaded or burned alive. The difference is that I watched the insurrection in real time, on CNN. By contrast, all I knew of the Hamas attacks was what was reported after the fact.
Were the reports reliable?
More than a month after the attacks, I was still immersed in the stories. As CNN continued its coverage—with at least half a dozen correspondents in the Middle East—I saw images of a bullet-riddled Israeli infant lying in its crib, videos of corpses of elderly Israelis who’d been gunned down at bus stops, reports of people who’d been burned to death in their homes, and an interview with an Israeli rescue worker who recalled finding a body “then looking around for the head.” Adding insult to injury were the videos of Hamas fighters celebrating their brutality.
The evidence—and horror—felt overwhelming.
Then came the Israeli airstrikes, which have left thousands of Palestinians in Gaza dead or maimed, and hundreds of thousands homeless and starving. Israeli officials and independent experts made the point that there’s a big difference between “collateral damage” in war and the intentional targeting of civilians—and that is an important distinction. It does not, however, diminish the suffering in Gaza. Nor does it justify simply shrugging off that suffering as “unfortunate.”
What it has done is further divide our own, already fractured country. On Oct. 31, FBI director Christopher Wray reported that expressions of anti-Semitism in the U.S.—in the form of threats and actual violence—were now reaching “historic levels.” Anti-Muslim threats are on the rise as well. The problem has grown especially acute on elite college campuses, where some students and professors have gone so far as to glorify Hamas.
Disturbing as that is, the physical violence here is not likely to become widespread. But the emotional anguish already is.
An article published on Oct. 20 in The New York Times gave voice to the despair.
“Progressive Jews who have spent years supporting racial equity, gay and transgender rights, abortion rights and other causes on the American left — including opposing Israeli policies in Gaza and the West Bank — are suddenly feeling abandoned by those who they long thought of as allies,” the article noted.
“In Los Angeles,” it went on, “Rabbi Sharon Brous, a well-known progressive activist who regularly criticizes the Israeli government, described from the pulpit, her horror and feelings of ‘existential loneliness,’ her voice breaking. ‘The clear message from many in the world, especially from our world — those who claim to care the most about justice and human dignity — is that these Israeli victims somehow deserved this terrible fate.’”
Two days later, another Times piece further highlighted the pain felt by Jews, both in Israel and elsewhere.
“There is a reason so many Jews cannot stop shaking right now,” it began. “The feeling of deep dread that these atrocities stirred in Jews was horribly familiar. This is what Jewish history has all too often looked like: not civilians tragically killed in war but civilians publicly targeted, tortured and murdered, with the crimes put on public display. Accounts of past crowd-pleasing killings are folded into Jewish tradition; every Yom Kippur, we recount the public torture and execution of rabbis by their Roman oppressors in a packed second-century stadium. Those ancient stories are consistent with the experiences of the more immediate ancestors of nearly every Jew alive today.”
This is one of the things that alarms me most about the fiercely anti-Israel camp: there seems to be either ignorance or dismissal of the long history of persecution that Jews have endured—and their need for a homeland in their ancient ancestral region.
Unfortunately, Hamas has made it crystal clear—in its own charter—that its goal is to wipe Israel off the face of the map. Meanwhile, hard right-wingers in Israel have also long opposed a two-state solution—a fact dramatically illustrated in 1995, when an Israeli extremist assassinated then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin because of Rabin’s support for the Oslo Accords.
It’s even been suggested that Netanyahu sought to weaken the Palestinian Authority, which favored compromise, by actually “bolstering” Hamas, as New Yorker editor David Remnick put it in a moving and informative article last month.
In short, to call this crisis complicated would be a gross understatement.
IN HOPES OF REACHING some deeper level of understanding, I recently sought out people who have more immediate connections to the region.
One of them is Ron Koas, senior rabbi and spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El in the Ghent section of Norfolk.
Koas grew up in Israel and still has relatives there. His girlfriend, moreover, has relatives who were taken hostage by Hamas. As of this writing, she doesn’t know whether they are dead or alive.
When Koas and I met at a local café recently, he recalled the morning of Oct. 7.
“I woke up to many messages from friends in Israel,” he remembered. “One said that 26 people had been killed, and I thought, ‘Oh my God! What a number!’ Then the messages kept coming, and the number kept rising.
“It was the first time I let myself cry,” he said. “I have to be strong for my congregation, but that morning I sat on my bed and cried. And I’ve cried every day since then. I just don’t get how someone can be that evil, as to do something like this.”
Koas went on to emphasize that he doesn’t see this as conflict between Jews and Muslims or Israelis and Palestinians, but as a conflict with Hamas.
“They don’t care about the Palestinian people,” he said. “On the contrary, they use them as human shields. I still cannot believe there are people who support them—including here in America. I’m not saying you shouldn’t support the Palestinian people. But if you support Hamas, it’s like you support the Nazis. I mean, the people at the music festival—what did they do? They went to a party to celebrate love and peace. Why kill them? Why butcher them? Why, why, why? They were peace activists.
“This is a fight between good and evil—and evil must be finished. There is no other way.”
That, of course, is a lot easier said than done, I pointed out. After all, young Palestinian boys are growing up in an atmosphere of violence and fierce resentment. Even if the current Hamas leaders are wiped out or rendered impotent, won’t new militants arise?
“The ideology can be crushed,” Koas answered. “In Germany, there are still neo-Nazis, but they’ve been marginalized.”
Assuming the goal is achievable, though, another question remains: What will happen in the long-term? Is a two-state solution possible? For that matter, is peace under any circumstances a realistic hope?
“If the Palestinians have someone who can elevate them, then yes,” Koas said. “Someone like Anwar Sadat (former president of Egypt). We want to live in peace with everybody. And within Israel, we do. Not that there aren’t disagreements. But twenty-percent of the Israeli population is Arab, and we sit down together, we eat together. So, you have to understand, Israel has tried to pursue peace with the Palestinians again, and again, and again. They’ve had many opportunities.”
PALESTINIANS, of course, have a very different perspective. Tariq Jawhar is among them. While he was born in Virginia and resides here now, he lived in the West Bank for much of his life.
I wanted to know, first of all, what it was like to grow up there.
“Israel is an apartheid state,” he said. “There’s no other way to say it—no other way to make it sound better than that. We’re living under occupation. They restrict our movements; they restrict where we’re allowed to travel; they break us into little communities where they have over a thousand road blocks; they restrict our access to education and medical treatment; they restrict our water supply, and they monitor us. We don’t have rights. And now in Gaza, they’ve cut off water, electricity—basic needs. Fuel! From a civilian population. On what basis?”
In light of this experience, I asked him whether he supports Hamas.
“That’s the wrong question,” he said, his voice swelling with emotion. “We don’t support racism. We don’t support apartheid. We don’t support occupation. It’s the longest ongoing occupation in the world. And that’s acceptable? Why?
“On a daily basis in the West Bank—prior to the events of this October—people were being killed. Children were being killed.” When I asked him to elaborate, he said that the killings happen both during military raids on refugee camps and “rampages” by Israeli settlers in Palestinian towns. The military, he added, also holds people in detention—including minors—without charges, after storming into homes at night and seizing them.
“It’s considered calm when Israelis aren’t getting killed,” Jawhar said. “But no one hears about these other things.
“As long as you have this,” he went on, “it’s going to continue to breed more and more violence—whether there’s Hamas or something else. So, you want to solve it? Look at the roots of the problem. Give everyone equal rights, regardless. What’s wrong with that concept?! If there was no occupation, if there were equal rights, there would be no problem—there would be no issues. But now, to date, more than 9,000 people have been killed in Gaza.”
Jawhar said that his emphasis on treatment of Palestinians does not mean he’s dismissive of the horrors of Oct. 7. The loss of any innocent life is tragic, he said. But we need to apply that standard consistently—and right now, he said, we’re not.
He also told me that he fully recognizes the persecution of Jews throughout history and during the Holocaust.
“They suffered horrendously under the Nazis,” he said. “But why did that become the burden of Palestinians?”
IN THE DAYS FOLLOWING my conversation with Jawhar, I wondered whether I had made any headway at all toward my goal of reaching deeper understanding and moral clarity.
It seems to me that there are two questions looming: What is the appropriate immediate response for Israel? And what is the long-term solution to the conflict? As far as the here and now is concerned, calls for a cease-fire seemed reasonable to me at one point. But then I came across an article in The Wall Street Journal, reporting on a speech given by Ghazi Hamad, a member of the Hamas Politburo, on Oct. 24 on Lebanese television.
“We will do this again and again,” he said. The Oct. 7 attack, he added, was “just the first, and there will be a second, a third, a fourth…. We are called a nation of martyrs, and we are proud to sacrifice martyrs.”
On the other hand, there must be a way to take out Hamas without continuing to slaughter civilians, however unintentionally. What it is, I don’t know. That’s a question for people with expertise in military strategy and diplomacy.
Nevertheless, in light of Hamad’s statement, and everything else I’ve heard and read, I don’t think that asking about support for Hamas is the “wrong” question. On November 3, in fact, The New York Times reported on a survey of people in Gaza conducted by a Palestinian researcher just days before the attack on Israel. She found that only 27 percent of Gazans supported Hamas.
While it’s not the “wrong” question, however, it can’t be the only question. Jawhar’s stories about life for Palestinians in the West Bank make irrefutable, to my mind, his assertion that the cycle of violence will continue as long as the oppression does.
It was only after talking with Jawhar that I began to wonder whether the ultimate goal should not be a two-state solution, but a single-state solution: One Israel, where Jews, Palestinians and anyone else could live together in equality and peace. I suspect some experts would argue that this is not feasible, and right now it’s about as realistic as the world John Lennon described in “Imagine.”
And yet, both Jawhar and Koas said that peace is what they want.
“We will continue to pursue peace with our Arab neighbors,” Koas said. “We need to love each other. What a beautiful world we would have. I don’t care if you’re Muslim or Christian or Buddhist or anything else. Just let’s love each other.”
Jawhar, too, in spite of his despair, said he holds onto hope. “I have faith,” he said, “that we can find a better way.”
The first essential step toward that goal, it seems to me, is dialogue grounded in empathy rather than vitriol. Unfortunately, since Oct. 7, there has been far too much of the latter. I’d love to see Jawhar and Koas sit down together. (They don’t know each other.) Meanwhile, all we can do—each of us—is try to keep our minds and hearts as open as possible in an effort to recognize our common humanity.