Nov 4, 2023·edited Nov 4, 2023

Such is my hope as well. I stick to it like a mussel.

But I am quite anguished to be honest, and dismayed. Not for anything other than the reaction of the world to this.

In the last 15-20 years, says Mr Pfeffer. But to me, it is far more years than that. Far more years that the image of the Israel-as-evil has been built into the subconscious of the Western liberals... not just the Left, everything much to well right-of-centre, to the places where I would never look for friends. No, it is not that they cannot conceive the monstrosity of October 7 (there have been many other genocidal acts in other parts of the world: Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, to quote a few that implied vicious murders, rape, dismemberments). It is that they cannot see it because their ideology prevents them.

I have revisited history a lot in these last 4 weeks. I have discovered things, even personal, that had evaded me.

Since I was in university, an that was the mid 70s, I was led to think that Israel did terrible wrongs to the Palestinians. Only Israel. That the Palestinians did not actually hate Israel at all, but only wanted their own state that Israel callously denied them. That the terrorist acts of the Palestinians were all directed at the military superior Israeli forces, never at civilians (the constant rockets, the suicide bombers, that all did not really compute); that some other acts like the Munich massacre were excesses driven by exasperation, that people like Abu Nidal and his group were just flukes, not representative. The Palestinians were the heroes of the students of 68 and of all the students movements that followed. One never criticised the Palestinians, because they fought against American imperialism expressed through its lackey, Israel. Intifada was poor people with pebbles against armed soldiers. Good and evil written large and clear.

My understanding changed a bit after I married a Jewish woman, and more after our separation when she made aliyah with our son, and I saw more of Israel. But the environment where I moved, the generically liberal moderate Left, was still sold on the evil of Israel - ahistorically refusing to see how the entire conflict developed, assigning blame on the basis of preconceived ideas that did not budge. But it was far away and not so relevant, so it did not show so much, and I did not have to seriously face the morality of my friends.

Then comes October 7, and masks fall.

No, it is not blindness to excessive horror. It is an ideology that comes straight from the beginning of last century, that part of Marxism-Leninism that divides the world in oppressor and oppressed with the West always on the wrong side of history because rich and capitalist, and its enemies always in the right, whatever they do. No, they do not see that it is also a war of religion (or better, to quote Benny Morris, a clash of civilisations -- one of which is the one to which they belong, whose grave they are helping to dig) simply because the ideas are superstructure, the reality is the power relations.

It goes through Marx and Lenin, through especially French philosophers like Sartre -- through years and years of sustained USSR propaganda and painful American missteps into supporting totalitarian regimes on the Right -- up to Derrida, until it begets this that we call identity politics and its insanity. No, it is not a conscious conspiracy: it is a set of beliefs that clearly resonates with people, just in the same way that religion does. And it is old, and it persists.

And it creates the moral bankruptcy of these people (including a number of Jewish intellectuals) who can brush aside the atrocities of October 7 and blame them on the victims, because their cosmogony tells them so. Because there are worthy and unworthy victims.

No, I do not think that it is something so noble as refusal to accept the horror. I believe it is just the same thing that has always allowed people to rejoice in the massacre of the enemy -- and very few who do that ever think that they are abetting evil. They are just very sure of where the good stands and will let nothing come in the way of their conviction, because it feels good to be right.

And the others who are not celebrating but just tepid, incapable of simply condemning an act of abominable terror (all the Western countries that abstained and prevented the UN condemnation of the act of Hamas), the universities that declared support for the Palestinians just the day after the attack and before there was even the first military response, the establishment media that keeps taking the word of Hamas without fact-checking, that refuses to call them terrorists -- these are all steeped in the same refrain that has gone on for well over 50 years, and cannot shake it off. Israel is bad. Israel defends itself and succeeds, so it is twice bad, because we only love victims who are powerless.

(Here, again, read the rationale of it all if you have the stomach. This bloke was a Trot, then a Corbynite: he has the original framework very clear: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/jenkins/2006/xx/terrorism.html)

I am not sure if the West will be able to shake off the self-hating doldrums that have gripped it, through this infection that, incubating for so long, has mutated into a religion of increasingly deranged widespread dogmatism, even worse than the original one.

I know that I see those who would like to see the West destroyed score points, cheer and rejoice.

And I know that I have been shedding friends like ticks, in the last few weeks.

Expand full comment

e were in college at the same time, and that's not how I remember those days at all

I remember a culture where anything short of blind unquestioning support of Israel would get you compared to Hitler. Where even moderate criticism of Israel could ruin a politician or journalist. Where horseshit propaganda like pre-Zionist Palestine was a barely inhabited wasteland or the Palestinians left because the other Arabs told them to would go unchallenged. Where anti-Arab racism was everywhere, where people as full of hate as Leon Uris and Martin Peretz were writing bestsellers and running influential magazines. Where a columnist at my usually left-wing college newspaper ran a friendly interview with Meir Kahane. Where the people who had the Irgun and the Stern Gang felt entitled to get on a moral high horse about terrorism.

So I reacted against it. A lot of people did. Can you blame us?

And yes, times have changed. I have no problem condemning what Hamas did; that sort of extreme cruelty, I can't be okay with it, I just can't. And yes, it does suck that so many people are so morally warped about it; polarized morality will lead you to some ugly places. But don't expect me to apologize for seeing through the lie that "It's just like the Holocaust, we're innocent victims getting killed just because we're Jews." People were living in Palestine. It was their home. And the Jews took it away from them. I know they've got a million ways to deny it, and I've heard it all, but that's what happened. And that, more than anything else, is why the people they did it to hate them and want to kill them. Deny that, and you're also lying.

Which, of course, doesn't tell is what is and isn't practical to do about it here and now. Neither, on, two, nor (pace Noah Smith) seems doable at the moment. But I would like to close out with the story of a man who asked dozens of young Palestinians what it would take for them to live in peace with Israel. The most popular answer: "Make them admit that they stole our country."

Expand full comment

I have no direct experience of America, for I did not go to school in the US. I know how it was in Europe, where I lived for 47 years. The situation was clearly very different, then. For yes, the non-fascist Right supported Israel. The Left, unanimously, supported the Palestinians and failed to push them towards more democracy and more reasonability.

A lot of it is because of the foundational myth of the stolen land that obfuscates everything, and justifies everything in reaction to it. This idea that you are repeating even now, while we are talking of the horrors of today and how they accrued, that the Jews were strangers in Palestine, that they had no place there. That therefore, even though you do not directly say it, Israel has no right to exist, Israel lives on borrowed time.

And I am sorry, but I am a historian, and I cannot take such a painful ideological warping of historical facts as you present (you read it all? I doubt it. You probably read opinions and pamphlets and books -- how many of them from actual, unbiased historians? -- but never could examine documents and facts, or put together the general situation of the region over the 60 years preceding, and the 20 years following, the foundation of the state of Israel.)

The stolen land... that's the Nazi propaganda of 1930 to 1945, the propaganda that poisoned the entire Arab world (which already had little love for the Jews, but never so terribly coherent... the pact of Caliph Umar was never strictly applied everywhere... but that's perhaps the oldest appearance of the yellow badge, for the yellow for Jewish badges in continental Europe dates from the reign of Edward Longshanks, 600 years later). Since the middle XIX century Jews bought land in Palestine, legally, with the hope of creating one day a Jewish state. Palestine under the Ottomans was never a state nor had been a state before; it was not a country; it was part of an administrative region of the empire, and it contained the third holiest site of Islam and the first holiest site of Judaism, Jerusalem. Thousands of Mizrahi resided in Palestine at the time, and hundred thousands in the surrounding Arab territories and countries. Jews are, after all, one of the Indigenous Peoples of Palestine.

And sure, there were a number of terrorists, during the British Mandate, among the Jews; they mostly planted bombs against the British; some engaged in reprisals and fights with the Arab fellahin -- they were seldom soldiers against unarmed civilians. I have never heard anybody (except rabid fascists) denying the right of the Irish to auto-determination because they had among them organized terrorists for over a hundred years -- and a lot of it financed by American Irish organisations.

But the war of 48, which started it all, was begun by the Arab ideologues that had nursed on Nazi propaganda and rejected the idea of a Jewish state and a Palestinian state, rejected the idea of the partition of Palestine into two states.

Indeed, the Israelis did a lot of wrong things, and they expelled a large number of Arabs from the lands that became their state. But they had as much reasons as the Palestinians. And again, they were not crushed, despite everybody believed they would be -- which put them on the wrong side of history, again. The Arab states in the Middle East proceeded to expel hundred of thousands of Jews, confiscating their property, and these, all Mizrahi Jews, poured into Israel, having nowhere to go.

Egypt and Jordan held a larger part of Palestine that what is today Gaza and the West Bank. Did they push to create a state for the Palestinians? No, they kept the Palestinians in refugee camps, waiting for the day when Israel could be wiped out.

Fast forward to the Six Days War, where everybody in the Arab world (I have many friends in Egypt too) was so very certain that Israel would be wiped out for real this time. It did not happen, and the hatred only increased, and it left Israel with the rather impossible conundrum of occupation.

Look, I am a Medievalist and not an expert of post WWII history, but I studied WWII because my parents met during it. And so once I chose to finally, seriously look into the history of the conflict in Palestine, I knew where to find documents, accounts and assessments. I came to my conclusions through examining facts and reports, and I came from a position biased towards the Palestinians.

I am not lying. You are blinded by anti Israel ideology that has its roots in Nazi antisemitism joined with Comintern anti-imperialism and passed on to the Arab masses in a pan-Arab dream that focuses on Israel as the symbol of what must be defeated, helped by a particular reading of Islam that has mostly replaced the old, multi-voiced approach.

If you are really interested to understand more, and lread something outside your echo chamber, this is an article from a young Egyptian scholar about these historical developments:


You miss the entire context, and repeat the myth of the stolen land. It works as the original sin that justifies all that follows on one side alone. It is the same that I have heard repeated over and over in my youth, there not in America.

But people fight over a land, then one wins and the other loses, and there is peace and building the future where they are, in the part that they have. But the Palestinians were artificially kept landless, in pawn to a dream of the destruction of Israel. It is easy to become blind to this. It is easy to embrace the myth of the downtrodden hero. It makes us feel that we put our hearts in the right place.

Instead, it turns out that things are terribly complicated, and placing blame is not so easy.

And thanks for that little aphorism: very nice for a Western ear. Nobody wants Israel to admit that they have been bad, you know. But yes, what they want is "admit that they stole our land" (there was NO country) and "disappear". The two things go together and they always will, until the ideology changes. And there are many Palestinians that just would like to live in peace and build a future, but they cannot. And not because of Israel, but because of Hamas -- who has murdered thousands of Palestinians, and keeps most of the others under its thumb, using them as human shields, using the money of humanitarian aid for weapons, preventing them from sheltering in the tunnels it has built -- there are no bomb shelters for the public in Gaza. But if you listen only to some sources of news, you would never know.

Moreover. There is personal antisemitism and objective antisemitism. I am sure that you have nothing personally against the Jews. But the story of the pro Zionist Jews running the media and the cultural trends of America, the entire story of the all-powerful Zionist Lobby is objective antisemitism. Some have said and say that every critique of Israel is antisemitism -- but the Forward has existed for a long time, and so Hareetz, and a vast number of Jewish publications and think tanks that are far from accepting any version of Zionism. Still, denying the right of Israel to exist altogether is antisemitism.

And here is the rub. People who have bought into this propaganda (myself included for a long time, and despite the blood ties that happened) never really believe that Israel has the right to exist. It is a fact, "because they stole the land". We may concede this right because we are magnanimous, but -- as soon as there is a conflict, we justify the attacks, and especially the denial, "because they stole the land".

Maybe you want to read the Protocols of Zion and listen to how much of it, mutatis mutandis, resonates in the present discourse, including in your words about the ubiquitous and prepossessing Zionist Jews.

And maybe you want to also read this, if you wish to understand something more than what you have already decided is the unshaded truth:


Israel has her own internal hellscape to deal with, and the darkness produced in decades of living under threat (while also feeling strong and invincible) that has eroded its own democracy. There will be a reckoning and I hope that society can renew itself in a better vision of the future, because Israel is still there as a clump of Enlightenment in the middle of cultures and countries that are very, very different from it, and it will take a lot of good diplomacy and goodwill to prevent further clashes. The palestinians must have their own state.

But the presence and rule of Hamas is the greatest obstacle to all of this.

Expand full comment

Talk about the zeal of a convert. I'll just hit a few points.

1) "Stolen land" is a myth? The defense calls David Ben-Gurion: "Why should the Arabs make peace? If I were an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel...They see only one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why would they accept that?"

2) It's "objective antisemitism" to acknowledge that there's a powerful Israel lobby? Former AIPAC official Steve Rosen once bragged that in 24 hours he could get 70 senators to sign a napkin. Besides, isn't that "objective" language Marxist?

3) No, there was never a Westphalia-type state called Palestine in this area of the world that only started using Westphalia-type states fairly recently. So what? Does it mean the people who were living there didn't count? That they weren't attached to their homes? Unless the point is to claim that nobody but the Jews could ever really, legitimately consider this land home. And that is *objective* antigentileism.

4) How is the idea that anyone would think they had a legitimate claim to a land that's home to someone else because their ancestors of seventy-odd generations ago lived there not the craziest fucking thing ever?

5) There was a small minority of Jewish Palestinian Arabs like there was a minority of Christians, and there were the occasional religious pilgrims. "Thousands" may be technically accurate, but the estimate I've heard is that prior to the first aliyah they were about 3% of Palestine's population. Early Zionists didn't think they mattered, or they could never have said that shit about "a people without a land for a land without a people." Perhaps more to the point, they never, and even Zionists don't deny it, tried to assert themselves as a separate national group. Or to put it another way, it's not like prior to Zionism there was a Jewish nation in Palestine that considered itself a Jewish nation and claimed a right to self-determination. They did not exist.

6) Israel isn't simply demanding that the Palestinians accept pragmatically that they're stuck with Israel, or even that the Jews did what they did under such terrible circumstances that they deserve a break. "Right to exist" may sound so innocent, but since you couldn't have one without the other, it amounts to demanding that they say "You had the right to take [at least 78% of] our homes away from us." No one should ever have to say "We recognize your right to fuck us over." To use one of Zionism's favorite cliche-words, that's obscene.

Expand full comment
Nov 6, 2023·edited Nov 6, 2023

Dear friend, you are a bit insulting. I have no zeal and I am no convert. Don't give me the words of Ben Gurion as proof of something, he said many things, and he also believed that it would be wise to work secretly towards the Greater Israel, for that matter. Humans are humans. And I never use the Marxist term as a dog whistle, since Marxism belongs to my cultural background -- I just know the strains of it that produce bad things, and point them out.

There is no dialogue here, because you negate the right of Israel to exist, and base it on the "stolen land" idea. That is what a myth is: an idea that becomes a foundational, untouchable dogma. The land was not stolen but bought. The land was then the subject of an international agreement. A war ensued. A vast part of the fellahin left because told to do so; a part were expelled during the war. Israel stood were it stood; most Arabs did not like it and acted consequently, building a chain of consequences that comes to today.

Large sections of populations were displaced during wars many times, and especially in the World Wars... but if you believe that every group ever displaced has a right to use violence to go back to the place where they were displaced from, please do solve for me the problems between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh on the same principles. Many decades have passed, many people have been born in Palestine, both Jews and Arab.

Even on your terms, if you believe that now it would be fair to repair an old wrong with a new wrong, and remove Israel, if you believe that the horror of October 7th is somewhat justified, and not the product of a warped ideology that uses the Palestinian people as a tool, then you are indeed an antisemite.

It is all right, I do not have to share bread with you.

But for the sake of Israelis and Palestinians both, it would be much better to focus on the present and the possible solutions of the present. To stick to the past in that manner -- not to understand the many factors that brought us here, not to recognise the fact that blame cannot be placed exclusively on any party (with the exclusion of Hamas, which is NOT the Palestinians), but instead to blow on the coals of hatred -- it is irresponsible and, in my opinion, an act of intellectual arrogance of someone who looks at things from the outside and decides that this people is more worthwhile than that people.

You are not in this war, my friend. Half my family is. The half of my family that is in Israel has always strived and worked for a two state solution, and to the last days of September opposed and demonstrated against the settlements in the West Bank. Now they are fighting a war.

I tried to explain how more complex things are than a simple attribution of blame based on the stolen land thesis. But I will not engage any longer in theoretical disquisitions of this kind.

I have no heart to spare.

Expand full comment

"If you believe that the horror of October 7 is somewhat justified"? I said unambiguously that I don't. I don't know if you were too blinded by your ideology to see it or if you're deliberately lying, and frankly I don't care. Continuing this conversation would be pointless.

Expand full comment

It’s not hard to unequivocally denounce hamas, defends Israel’s right to exist, and simultaneously acknowledge that Israel has been violating international law since they annexed territory starting in 1948.

All the land currently occupied that was not included in the original agreement, is by definition, occupied. I reject that being attacked gives a country a right to expand their borders indefinitely. Ex. I reject that the US had the right to annex Japan after WWII.

I’ll note that I don’t really place much blame on Israel, but rather on the US. If you’re the global super power, you need to police your own Allies who’s military you supply. While I disagree with Israel’s expansion beyond its borders & find it wrong, I understand why they did it. It’s certainly rational.

As far as the moving forward part, I think this is where things become intractable. Palestinians want their land back--that requires an acknowledgment of the land taken and Israel’s willingness to cede it. I don’t see Israel doing that and I don’t see Palestinians moving from this condition. I wish I had a better answer, but sadly I don’t see much reason for hope.

Expand full comment
Nov 4, 2023·edited Nov 4, 2023

As a lay person trying hard to find an ethical position to take on this conflict, I found this podcast troubling. After giving lip-service to the value of every civilian life, Mounk and Pfeffer have pitted themselves against those who express sympathy for the plight of Gaza as though it were not possible to feel deep sorrow for—and anger at— both Israelis and Gazans. Horror at the gruesome slaughters of October 7 does not have to blind us to the fact that Israel's response has shown as little respect for civilian life as the incident that triggered it. I see this conversation as an example of the identity politics that Mounk claims to reject. There are victims on both sides here, as there always have been in this 75-year-old conflict. I didn't hear even lip-service to that.

Expand full comment

This piece makes a similar rhetorical move to that made by the identitarian left which, once the right adopted the pejorative use of the term "woke," a usage already current among some of us not on the right, now dismisses any criticism of their ideology as "far-right." Here we find opposition to Israeli policy toward Gaza, or perhaps failure to offer Israel full-throated support in its response to the attacks of October 7, attributed to identitarianism or ignorance, with perhaps also a hint of anti-semitism. My experience of the allowed range of attitudes toward Israel since at least the 1960s fits that of Wayne Karol: even the hint of a suggestion that the Palestinians might have a case was considered absolutely unacceptable and attributable to anti-semitism. Now the loudest voices raising concerns, at least in the US, about what's happening in Gaza do often speak in the language of identity, and in a shallow, outrageous way. But that should not be taken to mean that everyone with concerns about what's happening in Gaza, who's shocked at the bombing of refugee camps, ambulances or hospitals as well at the October 7 slaughter of Israelis, shares an identitarian framework. I've read a fair amount about Israel and Palestine before, and have spent a lot of time reading news and commentary since October 7, US and European with a glance at the headlines in Haaretz in English. My preferred source of information has been Le Monde where I found an interview with the Israeli academic Omer Bartov [https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2023/10/27/omer-bartov-historien-israel-ne-semble-disposer-d-aucun-plan-politique-il-ne-dispose-que-d-un-plan-militaire-tres-hasardeux_6196683_3232.html]. The article includes a link to a petition labeled The Elephant in the Room [https://sites.google.com/view/israel-elephant-in-the-room/home]. That petition now presents a link to another, a response to October 7. [https://sites.google.com/view/israel-elephant-in-the-room/response-to-october-7]. I include these links because they summarize well important counterarguments. The "elephant" petition started within the academic world and sometimes sounds like it, but it seems unlikely in the extreme that its writers and signatories are identitarians, ignorant, or anti-semites.

Expand full comment