Large pools of blood stain a child’s bunk bed and sheets inside a safe room, as seen through the window on Oct. 19, 2023, after Hamas militants days earlier attacked this kibbutz in Nir Oz, Israel, near the border of Gaza

Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Navigate to History section

Longing for Auschwitz

The ultimate aims of the war against the Jewish state would rival the worst horrors of our history

Alvin H. Rosenfeld
March 04, 2024
Large pools of blood stain a child's bunk bed and sheets inside a safe room, as seen through the window on Oct. 19, 2023, after Hamas militants days earlier attacked this kibbutz in Nir Oz, Israel, near the border of Gaza

Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Hamas’ assault on Israelis on Oct. 7 was not an act of war as we normally think of it but something far worse. We don’t have an adequate term for what occurred on that day, so people use words like “terrorism,” “barbarism,” “atrocity,” “depravity,” “massacre,” and so on. All are correct, and yet all fall short of capturing the annihilationist fury set loose at the Nova music festival and in the kibbutzim and small towns of southern Israel. The people attacked in those places were not only to die, but to die in torment. In addition to the merciless torture, killings, slashings, burnings, beheadings, mutilations, dismemberments, and kidnappings, there were gang-rapes and other forms of sadistic sexual assault, including, according to some reports, the cutting off of women’s breasts, nails driven into women’s thighs and groins, bullets fired into their vaginas, and even intercourse with female corpses. Unimaginable? For most normal people, yes. But before going into Israel, the Hamas assassins were instructed to “dirty them” and “whore them.” And that’s precisely what many of them faithfully did.

If it were possible to encapsulate all the evil of that day in a single image, it would be that of the violent seizure of a young Israeli woman, Naama Levy, 19, barefoot, beaten, and bloodied, her hands tied behind her back, the crotch of her sweatpants heavily soiled, possibly from being raped, dragged by her hair at gunpoint into a Hamas car, and driven off to Gaza to suffer an unspeakable fate among her captors there. Her assailants filmed every second of her ordeal; and as one watches the clips of her being taken away, one sees crowds nearby loudly shouting “Allahu Akbar”—“Allah is the greatest”—a victory cry that offers religious sanction to the malign treatment of Naama Levy and countless others seized, slaughtered, and abducted on that horrific day.

All wars cause human suffering, but the cruelties visited upon Israelis on Oct. 7 far surpass what normally happens when armies go to war. Hamas’ actions had a different aim: not conquest but the purposeful humiliation of Jews by people who detest them and were sworn to degrade and dehumanize them before murdering them. For those familiar with Jewish history, the mass violence enacted against Jews in Kishinev in 1903 came instantly to mind, as did the Farhoud in Iraq in 1941 and Chmielnicki’s savage decimation of Ukrainian Jewish communities in the mid-17th century. With memories of those earlier massacres newly revived, Oct. 7 instantly evoked the word “pogrom.” With cause. But how could such a catastrophe occur in today’s Israel? The country’s military has been hailed as one of the strongest in the world and was regarded as invincible. And yet on Oct. 7, it failed to protect its southern border and prevent the ruthless assault on Jews in the Gaza envelope. Responding to Hamas’ bloody deeds, one Israeli woman summed up the reactions of virtually every Jew in the country and millions of others abroad when she said, simply and incontrovertibly, “Every Israeli’s worst nightmares have come true.”

All wars cause human suffering, but the cruelties visited upon Israelis on Oct. 7 far surpass what normally happens when armies go to war.

Oct. 7, 2023 was the most destructive day of mass violence against Jews since the end of the Holocaust. The carnage carried out on that day, far from being a by-product of war, was a religiously sanctioned, orgiastic display of unrestrained Jew-hatred. One cannot begin to understand it if one ignores the Hamas Charter and other Islamist teachings that make Hamas the organization it is and inspires it to do what it does.

Hamas originates as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is and always has been a jihadist organization, which sees the existence of the State of Israel as an intolerable intrusion into the Domain of Islam (Dar al-Islam) and is committed to removing Israel by whatever means necessary. The preamble to the Hamas Charter declares that “Israel exists and will continue to exist until Islam obliterates it, just as it obliterated others before it.” The “Palestinian problem,” it affirms, “is a religious problem” and is not amenable to a negotiated political settlement. The only way to “raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine” is through “jihad,” a holy war that is a “duty for every Muslim wherever he may be.”

As a result of their success in invading Israel on Oct. 7 and killing and capturing so many Jews, Hamas has incited the passions of many in the broader Arab and Muslim worlds and, alarmingly, well beyond. In doing so, it has made emphatic the Islamist reading of the Arab-Israeli conflict as essentially a Muslim-Jewish conflict. Most people in the West view the problem as basically political and territorial in nature. That is true, but only in part. As represented by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, and the Islamic Republic of Iran (the sponsor of all the others), it is also religious, and at its heart of hearts there resides an annihilationist fantasy of killing Jews and bringing an end to the Jewish state. Hamas and its allies are not looking for a two-state solution but a repeat of the Final Solution. Their brutally successful killing spree on Oct. 7 was an extravagant rehearsal for that larger goal, a genocidal one.

Where does that leave Israel? Right now, at war with Hamas in Gaza and in a simmering battle with Hezbollah in the north that could rapidly explode into a full-scale and even more fearsome war. What is at stake, as most Israelis understand it, is nothing less than the survival of the state itself. Hamas spokesmen have said as much. On Oct. 24, Gazi Hamad, speaking as a representative of Hamas to a Lebanese television station, declared that the Oct. 7 attack “is just the first time, and there will be a second, a third, a fourth … until Israel is annihilated.” Iran, long sworn to finish off “the criminal Zionist entity,” has inscribed some of its newest ballistic missiles with the words “death to Israel” in bold Hebrew letters. The Houthis in Yemen, well-armed with powerful Iranian-supplied missiles, chant “death to America, death to Israel, and a curse upon the Jews.” Iran itself, as recent reports indicate, continues its progress toward building nuclear weapons. As far back as 2001, Hashemi Rafsanjani, then president of Iran, boasted that “the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything.”

What is new here are not the threats against Israel but the determination to carry them out and the capability of doing so. Hamas’ successful penetration of southern Israel and the extreme violence it displayed has no precedent in Israeli history. The country was traumatized on that day and remains traumatized, making Oct. 7 a date frozen right now on the national calendar. Most of the world has moved on, but to Israelis every day will remain Oct. 7 until all the hostages are returned home from Gaza, Hamas is militarily disarmed, and its aim of obliterating Israel is definitively nullified. Whether Israel can succeed in achieving these goals is an open question. What is clear is that Israelis today feel seriously let down by their national and military leaders, less secure, and far more vulnerable than they did before Oct. 7.

Every Israeli’s worst nightmares have come true.

Although the existential circumstances of Jews living outside of Israel are much different, on the emotional and psychological levels they, too, have been shaken by recent developments. The anti-Israel passions set loose in street demonstrations and on college campuses and social media have heightened already resurgent displays of open Jew-hatred and rattled a previously assumed sense of security. Academic scholars will continue to debate whether anti-Zionism and antisemitism are similar or separate phenomena, but to most others, the links between hatred of Israel and Jew-hatred are apparent. The reasons are clear: The widespread and unapologetic branding of Israel as an apartheid, genocidal, even Nazi state—defamatory accusations that were in wide circulation well before Oct. 7—are rapidly becoming normalized. The same is true for both verbal and physical hostility to Jews. As these impassioned animosities coalesce and go mainstream, Jews everywhere are experiencing an unease about their place in society that is new and unnerving for many of them.

Reactions vary: For reasons of self-protection, some feel it’s best to be less visibly Jewish, set aside Jewish markers, and distance themselves from Israel. For reasons of pride and self-affirmation, others refuse to be cowed, step forward as strongly identified Jews, and publicly proclaim themselves in solidarity with Israel and other Jews. Oct. 7 has sharpened both responses, and what lies ahead remains to be seen, but the date’s significance for how Jews see themselves and others see Jews is evident.

Also evident is the following: There will be no Jewish future worthy the name without the State of Israel. At present, something like 47% of world Jewry lives in Israel. That’s almost one out of every two Jews alive. Were Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and their allies ever to succeed in liquidating Israel, the loss would be immeasurable and irrecoverable. Most Jews still alive elsewhere would be physically imperiled, psychologically traumatized, and spiritually enervated to the point of collapse. That might have been the Jewish condition after the Holocaust, were it not for Israel’s founding only three years after the liberation of the death camps—an act of collective revival that demonstrated a level of national resilience and spiritual rebirth almost without parallel in history. But far from recognizing the Jewish people’s reestablishment of national independence and political sovereignty in its ancient homeland in positive terms, some of Israel’s neighbors have seen the existence of the Jewish state as an intolerable affront that needs to be reversed.

Hamas set out to reverse it as forcefully as possible on Oct. 7. Its murderous deeds on that day were meant to debase and kill Jews and rally others to collectively put an end to the Jewish state, a strategic objective that recalls some memorable words of the Hungarian Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor Imre Kertész: “The antisemite of our age no longer loathes Jews; he wants Auschwitz.” Today’s most passionate antisemites continue to loathe Jews and, for that very reason, want Auschwitz. If Israelis were not fully aware of those hateful passions before Oct. 7, they surely know them now. They also know that one Holocaust is one too many and are committed to doing whatever they must to make sure there will not be a repeat. They need and deserve all the support we can give them.

Alvin H. Rosenfeld is the director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Irving M. Glazer Chair in Jewish Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the editor, most recently, of Resurgent Antisemitism: Global Perspectives.