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Blood Libel Writ Large

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

The Israel-Hamas war has already spread way beyond its original borders. There are clashing demonstrations, sometimes violent, practically everywhere. This war seems to have polarized the world.

It is important to understand what makes this war different. Hamas is waging a war specifically targeting civilians. I will not recount individual atrocities; it would take far too long. I would only emphasize that the Hamas attack was engineered to maximize the anguish and suffering not only of those raped, tortured, mutilated, and murdered, but also their family members. Hamas uses grief and extreme humiliation as weapons of war. Israelis and Palestinians have clashed before, but this was unprecedented.

Some wondered if we might hear voices from the Muslim world denouncing this extreme brutality against innocents no matter what grievances people may hold, saying Islam does not countenance such cruelty toward people who are defenseless. Voices were indeed raised in Muslim countries, many voices, and virtually all supported Hamas. Some even celebrated the loss of civilian Jewish life, and called for more of it.

On the night of October 17 something hit the Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City. Initial reports from Hamas mentioned 500 or more people killed and the hospital destroyed, the result of an Israeli air strike. These reports elicited a murderous rage around the world directed toward Israel and Jews.

These reports were soon proven false. Evidence came to the surface, including an intercepted phone call between Hamas operatives as well as photos and video footage, indicating that the number of lives lost was far smaller, that the damage to the buildings was minimal, and that the cause was a rocket from Islamic Jihad that misfired. That did not matter to the thousands all over the world who demonstrated, expressing their hate.

During the Middle Ages stories spread of Jews kidnapping and murdering Christian boys to use their blood in the baking of unleavened bread for Passover. The stories were outlandish and false, yet resulted in mob violence against Jews, in which many Jews were arrested, tortured, and killed. No doubt the perpetrators actually believed these stories and felt themselves wronged by Jewish monsters. They did not pause to examine the veracity of these reports. They reacted purely on prejudice and unbridled emotion.

The intense frenzy and hatred currently targeted at Jews is of a similar nature. It is largely based on a willingness to believe the worst stories about Jews regardless of the evidence. Where does such hatred come from?

The Hamas Charter mentions not just Israelis but Jews as the mortal enemies of Islam. Article 7 states:

The final hour will not arrive until Muslims fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: “O Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.”

This is actually a quotation from the Hadith, the traditional collected sayings of Muhammad (Sahih Muslim, 41:6985). The early biographies of Muhammad recall terrible conflicts between the first Muslims and the Jews of Arabia. According to these biographies, Muhammad exiled two Jewish tribes and beheaded the male members of a third, the conflict originating in the refusal of these Jews to become Muslims and join his coalition. This is all recorded in the Arabic sources themselves, and whether or not the incidents are historical they have a place within Islamic tradition and historical consciousness. Thus Muslim antagonism toward Jews has roots long preceding today’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on which it is usually and often erroneously blamed. The Hamas-Iranian war not only against Israelis but against the Jewish people is largely religious. The Hamas Charter frequently mentions not “Israelis” but “Jews” for condemnation. “For our struggle against the Jews is extremely wide-ranging and grave” (Hamas Charter, Introduction.)

To be sure, the influence of these texts and resulting negative sentiment toward Jews fluctuated. Reactions to Jews varied: during the Holocaust, while Palestinian Muslims allied themselves with Hitler, Albanian Muslims saved almost all of Albania's Jews. Nevertheless, while the treatment of Jews in Muslim lands changed from time to time and place to place, and while Jews at times were treated relatively well (though never as equals), negative views of Jews were not uncommon, found expression in sporadic violence, and exploded especially over the last two centuries, largely due to Christian influence. The anti-Jewish passages in some foundational Islamic texts do surface occasionally even today in antisemitic rhetoric. (For example, one old chant heard often, even in modern times, is “Khaybar Khaybar ya yahud, jaish Muhammad soufa ya'oud”: “Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews, the army of Muhammad will return,” referring to the conflict between Muhammad and one of the Jewish tribes of his day.)

Those who justify Hamas and blame the current war on Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory are historically wrong. Arab rejection of Israel’s “right to exist” long preceded the Six-Day War, which led to the occupation. Even today Hamas calls every inhabitant of Israel a “settler,” and considers all of Israel to be “occupied territory.” Thus even the kidnapped and murdered grandmothers and toddlers are to them enemy combatants. This gives the lie to Hamas’s claim they were executing a “military operation” or “resisting the occupation”: they knew they were attacking civilians, and that was the whole point. Hamas rejects absolutely any coexistence with Jews, even within the recognized State of Israel, and is committed to their genocide as stated in its charter. For Hamas, all of Israel is “occupied territory.“ “Israel, by virtue of its being Jewish and of having a Jewish population, defies Islam and the Muslims” (Hamas Charter, Article 28); “Israel will rise and remain standing until Islam obliterates it” (Hamas Charter, preamble).

Even though the Hamas war on Israel is not about the occupation of Palestinian land, the latter still requires mention. Until this war began, I had been an outspoken critic of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. I believed, and still do, that Israel’s greatest mistake was not to withdraw from those territories as soon as the Six-Day War concluded. I strongly dislike Israel’s being in any way in control of Palestinian lives. It is not good for the Palestinians and it is not good for Israel. And so until this war began, I supported the creation of a Palestinian state.

I can do so no longer. Hamas has made its aggressive agenda quite clear. Were Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, there can be hardly any doubt Hamas would make moves to wrest control of it, just as it did Gaza when the latter was controlled by a more moderate faction. Israel did withdraw from its occupation of Gaza, and now we see the result: a murderous campaign against Israeli civilians lasting for years and only reaching its culmination right now. Israel traded not land for peace as it hoped, but land for war. And so a Hamas state on the West Bank, jutting into Israel’s heartland, would pose an existential threat. It would mean the end of Israel. The current war makes that very clear: there is no doubt Hamas would do to the entire Jewish population what it did to the inhabitants of southern Israel if it had the opportunity. Their stated goal, after all, is to wipe Israel out completely. So as much as I dislike the occupation, I now consider it the lesser of the evils. Maybe that will change. I hope it does. I still hope that in the future the peace process can be revived, and equal conditions for all established in peaceful coexistence between Israel and a Palestinian state. But that time is not now. It may be many years until that once again becomes a viable prospect, if it ever does.

Unfortunately this war, possibly the final showdown between Hamas and Israel, is likely to continue for an extended period, resulting in tragic loss of life on both sides. One unfortunate casualty of this war may well be Muslim-Jewish relations. We cannot afford to allow that. We need to keep talking to each other. But the nature of our dialogue needs to change.

Virtually every Israeli-Palestinian dialogue I have witnessed has followed a similar pattern. The Palestinian side is ready to criticize Israel. The Jewish side is also willing to criticize Israel. So on that they find common ground. Palestinian self-criticism is nowhere to be found, and one wonders whether it exists at all. In the worst cases, I have seen dialogues where the Jewish side tries to reach out and admit to its mistakes, and the Palestinian side responds by taking those admissions as proof of Jewish culpability. This resonates with a long tradition of antisemitism in which Jewish self-criticism as recorded in the Hebrew prophets was turned back against them: Look at these Jews, goes the argument, even their own prophets tell them how bad they are. There are Jews who will defend whatever Israel does, whether right or wrong, but also many Jews who will criticize their own side and try to judge themselves according to the same standards by which the prophets judged all the nations. And Israel’s antagonists are only too eager to agree with them.

This cannot continue. From their initial rejection of partition as well as subsequent offers of peace, to continuing acts of terrorist violence against civilians even predating the occupation, to Hamas’s current sadistic and genocidal campaign, Palestinians have contributed mightily toward sabotaging any prospect for peace. The blame does not fall solely on one side. Defining Israelis as demonic aggressors and Palestinians as innocent victims is a recipe for stalemate and failure. Both sides must be willing to admit their mistakes and to self-criticize. Muslim-Jewish dialogue must survive, but it cannot succeed unless both sides engage in self-examination and outreach to the other. Anything less is a waste of time. My prerequisite for a dialogue partner would be: Are you willing to criticize your own side, as I have criticized mine? If not, then our time will be better spent doing other things.

Israel is now fighting a barbarism Jews have not experienced since the Holocaust. This needs to be respected, not shouted down. Hamas has shown a depraved indifference not only toward Israeli lives but also toward their own, hiding ammunition in schools, hospitals, and mosques, firing at Israel from civilian locations, and setting up roadblocks forcing their own people to disobey Israeli evacuation orders so that Gazan citizens remain in the line of fire to become statistics for Israel's vilification. Hamas does this because they know Israel distinguishes between combatants and civilians, while they do not. In struggling against this inhuman disregard for civilian lives Israel is joined by Ukraine, which fights a similar anti-civilian barbarism from Russia. Ukraine has expressed unequivocal support for Israel in their common struggle. Israel should reciprocate and show support for Ukraine. There is no point in appeasing Russia, which already betrays Israel by its support for the Iran-Hamas axis. “Never again!” should apply not only in Israel but everywhere.

The entire world is at a crossroads. How will it react to this resurgence of barbarism? Will it permit the dominance of forces standing for mass attacks against noncombatants as well as a lust for cruelty? Or will we try to restore some semblance of a national order and basic human decency? These wars against civilians are not like ordinary wars. They test the very notion of what it means to be human.

We are passing through a long and difficult and very dispiriting time. We need to be careful not to lose our own humanity, not to fall victim to our own unthinking hate. In this we are each other’s salvation. Muslims and Jews need to save each other from their mutual hatred. People of good will from both communities must continue their joint efforts, each side showing awareness of its own mistakes as well as those of the other. Without such willingness, it is hard to see from where any hope can come.

October 2023