Bronze statues depicting the Irish Famine are decorated with a Palestinian scarf during the ‘Irish for Palestine’ vigil, Ireland Park, Toronto, April 7, 2024

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Horror and Humiliation in Gaza

The outpouring of hatred for Jews and Israel after October 7 is rooted in the fear of extinction shared by post-Christian and Islamic tribes

David P. Goldman
April 09, 2024
Bronze statues depicting the Irish Famine are decorated with a Palestinian scarf during the 'Irish for Palestine' vigil, Ireland Park, Toronto, April 7, 2024

Mert Alper Dervis/Anadolu via Getty Images

Like the Nazis, Islamist terrorism weaponized horror to demoralize the West. Christianity has a soft underbelly: It struggles to reconcile belief in a God who so loved the world that He sacrificed Himself for its salvation with the suffering of innocents. That was the nub of Voltaire’s attack on theodicy after the Lisbon earthquake killed 12,000 in 1755, as well as Ivan Karamazov’s protest that “if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.”

The post-Christian world, which eschews the mystery of Divine Providence in favor of a squeamish urge for earthly salvation, is all the more vulnerable to the theater of horror. The post-Christian West has become paralyzed by the fear that the world is beset by forces hostile to humankind, which J.R.R. Tolkien called “the black breath.”

All too well have the Western-educated, multilingual leaders of Hamas gauged the spiritual state of the West, and invented an atrocious way of conducting war in order to psychically paralyze it. Hamas cannot win a war against Israel, but it has sufficient power to force Israel to fight a war that cost many civilian lives. Whether the civilian death toll is the 32,000 that Hamas claims or the 18,000 estimated by pro-Israeli analysts is of minor importance.

During the U.S. Marines’ siege of Fallujah 20 years ago, I wrote that the battle for that city brought into focus the vulnerabilities of both the Americans and the Sunni resistance. Horror—the perception that cruelty has no purpose and no end—is lethal to the West, which cannot endure without faith in a loving Heavenly Father. For the Islamic world, meanwhile, humiliation—the perception that the ummah cannot reward those who submit to it—is beyond its capacity to endure.

Horror was the prevailing affect of the god-haunted pagan world, a creation indifferent or even hostile to humankind. The source of pagan horror is the prospect of ethnic extinction.

The Muslim world said nothing when between 9,000 and 40,000 civilians died in the 2016-17 campaign against ISIS in Mosul. That involved Muslims (the Iraqi Army with American support) killing Muslims. But Gaza is not merely a slaughter but also a humiliation, the reduction of Hamas, and the displacement of most of the Gaza population. Muslims can accept Muslims killing Muslims, but they can’t abide Jews humiliating Muslims.

This toxic combination of horror and humiliation poisons world opinion against Israel. There is no near-term remedy. Horror elicits irrational responses. Never mind that Hamas forced an urban war upon Israel through unspeakable acts of brutality against Israeli civilians, and that it embeds terrorists in hospitals, schools, and other civilian installations to maximize casualties among its own civilians. Never mind that Israel’s response has occasioned fewer civilian casualties in urban combat than any other fighting force on record. As West Point urban warfare expert John Spencer wrote in Newsweek:

The UN, EU, and other sources estimate that civilians usually account for 80 percent to 90 percent of casualties, or a 1:9 ratio, in modern war (though this does mix all types of wars). In the 2016-2017 Battle of Mosul, a battle supervised by the U.S. that used the world’s most powerful airpower resources, some 10,000 civilians were killed compared to roughly 4,000 ISIS terrorists.

Russia and China denounce Israel simply because it is an ally of the United States, and many former colonies of the West, prominently South Africa, shoehorn the Gaza war into their own traumatic narrative of national liberation. That’s to be expected.

What’s new and dangerous is the extent to which the Hamas theater of horror has demoralized the remnants of the Christian world. Support for Israel in the United States has dropped to 36% in March from 50% in November, according to the Gallup Poll.

America has been the last bastion of Christian faith in the industrial world, with 63% professing the religion. Sixty-eight percent of American Christians say that religion is very important in their lives, while most of Europe responds in single digits or teens.

Support for Israel among American Christians varies with religious commitment: Committed evangelicals and conservative Catholics were steadfast supporters of the Jewish state—until recently. “As of late 2021, only 33.6% of young Evangelicals under 30 support Israel, compared to 67.9% in 2018. At the same time, in 2021, 24.3% of young Evangelicals said they support the Palestinians, compared to only 5% three years before,” according to a recent book by Motti Inbari and Kirill Bumin cited by The Jerusalem Post.

Young evangelicals are less religious than their parents. One of the book’s authors noted that younger evangelicals “see the Jewish people and the state of Israel as no longer necessary in the fulfillment of God’s plan for the second coming of Jesus Christ and the End Times.” The mark of Cain of fading faith among younger evangelicals is a drastic decline in childbearing. A generation ago, evangelicals and Hispanics kept America’s total fertility rate just at the replacement level of 2.1, while mainline Protestant fertility fell to European levels. By 2020, evangelical fertility had fallen to the same low level as the older liberal denominations. A century ago, the mainline denominations abandoned Christianity’s eschatological vision for the Social Gospel, the progressive doctrine of salvation in this world. Evangelical numbers surged in the 1970s and 1980s in response. Now, it appears, younger evangelicals are being drawn to a Social Gospel of their own, with similar results.

Why are young Americans—even the children of Israel’s evangelical supporters—so obsessed with the Palestinian problem? We don’t need John Donne’s reminder that the bell tolls for us. No people in human history are more self-obsessed than the lost souls of the post-Christian world. They abhor the supposedly racist and misogynist past, and eschew a future that requires raising children. Futureless, they are condemned to wander in a purgatorial present of identity cultivation, in a perpetual state of existential trauma. Not since late Hellenism has a cultivated, technologically sophisticated society simply chosen to pass out of existence.

Religion and its carrier wave, traditional culture, offer mortal individuals the hope that some trace of their personhood will survive their physical demise. Whether one expects an eternal reward singing psalms in heaven, or hopes to live on in the hearts of one’s countrymen, the prospect of immortality is what makes mortality tolerable. Of all living creatures, only human beings are sentient of their mortality. “Death is a mocking fate which awaits us all, a trauma of human helplessness which disturbs our existential serenity. It is an absurdity which undoes all of man’s rational planning, his dreams and hopes,” wrote R. Joseph Soloveitchik about the parah adumah, the purification ritual for contamination from a human corpse.

Post-Christian culture is obsessed with death. Psychiatry, the counterreligion of the 20th century, tried to wish away the fear of death. Freud wrote, “We cannot, indeed, imagine our own death; whenever we try to do so we find that we survive ourselves as spectators. The school of psychoanalysis could thus assert that at bottom no one believes in his own death, which amounts to saying: in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his immortality.” He neglected to add that if we can’t imagine ourselves actually dead, we nonetheless can imagine ourselves as insentient rotting flesh. Mortality horrifies us as deeply as it did our ancestors. Instead of fighting it, we wallow in it.

Images of burned-out homes and dead children evoke the horror of mortality that haunts the post-Christian world. But perversely, images of Jews defending themselves ruthlessly are even more troubling.

If Freud kicked the fear of death out the front door, it crept back in through the windows and chimney. Popular culture is taken up with perpetual youth and horrified by images of death. Once marginal, the horror genre is almost as popular as comedy. When Universal Studios released its classic monster films in the 1930s, one out of 300 Hollywood features was a supernatural thriller. By 2013 the proportion was one in eight, by my rough count using the IMDB database. Statista in 2023 found that 45% of Americans streamed horror films, almost as much as thrillers, at 51%.

Consider our fixation with zombies, notionally the most repetitive and least interesting of all horror genres. Michael Jackson, the most popular entertainer of the past half-century, brought zombies into the mainstream with Thriller, still the most popular album of all time with 70 million copies sold. The Walking Dead at its peak was the most-watched item on television. Strictly speaking, zombie films are death porn, with anonymous actors doing the same thing over and over again.

More than any figure of popular culture in the past century, Jackson embodied the burning desire of his generation never to grow up. If you have no hope of some form of continuity of your life after death, the next best thing is to stretch out your youth as long as possible. Jackson’s nose decayed after numerous plastic surgeries like the portrait of Dorian Gray. But his search for perpetual youth endeared him to Americans on the same futile quest. Throughout his failed surgeries and reports of his pederasty, he remained a god.

There is nothing new in the now-ubiquitous horror genre. Horror was the prevailing affect of the god-haunted pagan world, a creation indifferent or even hostile to humankind. No Hollywood screenwriter invented a monster more horrible than Lucan’s Erichtho, the Thessalian witch who divined the future by reviving fresh corpses, not to mention Grendel in Beowulf.

The source of pagan horror is the prospect of ethnic extinction. “The love of the Gentiles for their own ethnicity is sweet and pregnant with the presentiment of death,” wrote the German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig. They “foresee a time when their land with its rivers and mountains still lies under heaven as it does today, but other people dwell there; when their language is entombed in books, and their laws and customers have lost their living power.” Their gods are immortal but not eternal; Zeus knew that his nemesis would arrive as surely as he overthrew his father Chronos, and the Norse gods awaited their twilight in Ragnarok.

Pagan life is bitter, as the demigod Silenus told King Midas, because it is futile. As the Chorus tells Oedipus, and Silenus told Midas, the best thing is “not to be born, not to be, to be nothing,” as Nietzsche quoted the tale. The second best is to die as soon as possible. “The Olympian magic mountain opens, as it were, to our view and shows us its roots. The Greek knew and felt the terrors and horrors of existence,” he added.

Nietzsche’s “horrors of existence” haunt the post-Christian world, which has rejected the past and abandoned the future by refusing to have children. It can find purpose only in the concoction of identity in the present, and it does this with the obsessiveness of religious fanatics. That is what explains such anomalies as “Queers for Palestine,” a label that first appeared in a 5,000-person march in Berlin in 2019. At a Jan. 6 event near Wellesley College, “Transgender Palestinian poet and activist Yaffa … queer Palestinian-American performance artist Juliet Olivier, and queer Palestinian-American author and activist Hannah Moushabeck spoke about how indigenous peoples around the world were queer before colonists brought homophobia to their societies.”

Radical queer activists and Islamic militants have a deeper affinity, though: They know they have no future. The identitarian terrorism of the tide-pool tribes left behind by the great transformation of the world resonates with Westerners who also have no past and no future—only the tepid consolations of self-invention. Never mind that Hamas beheads gay Palestinians on the West Bank and ISIS throws gay men off buildings. The solidarity of the doomed is stronger than the survival instinct.

The above considerations help explain why the post-Christian world is so easily horrified, but they do not explain why it is especially horrified by the Jews.

In October 2016, the Iraqi Army under U.S. direction laid siege to Mosul, a city of 2 million in northern Iraq occupied by ISIS fighters in 2014. ISIS seized from the Iraqi Army enough American munitions to equip three divisions and indulged in an orgy of rape and murder. The Iraqi Army liberated the city after seven months of fighting in which 9,000 to 11,000 civilians died by the most common estimate. The high estimate of civilian deaths is 40,000. The U.S.-led coalition destroyed entire neighborhoods with airstrikes—without dropping leaflets, placing phone calls of warning, or using dummy bombs, as do the Israelis. A U.S. Army report estimates that 40,000 homes were destroyed and 800,000 survivors fled to displaced persons camps.

Yet internet searches reveal not a single mention of “genocide” in the context of Mosul during and in the two years after the siege. Amnesty International scolded the coalition for inadequate protection of civilians but attributed war crimes to ISIS alone. The parallels between Hamas and Islamic Jihad are striking: The use of civilian shields is a war crime per se, and rockets fired from Gaza at Israeli cities may have killed as many or more Arab civilians than Israelis. Jihadists fired 4,360 rockets at civilian targets in Israel between May 10 and May 21, 2021, Human Rights Watch reported, killing 10 Israeli civilians. Six-hundred-forty of these fell back into Gaza, according to the Israeli military. A single misfire documented by the rights organization killed seven Gazan civilians, and it is likely that there were many more.

Some instances of large-scale civilian death horrify the post-Christian West more than others. Images of burned-out homes and dead children evoke the horror of mortality that haunts the post-Christian world. But perversely, images of Jews defending themselves ruthlessly are even more troubling.

The immortality of the Jewish people is a reproach to the gentiles who know that their culture has a use-by date. This can be an inspiration to Christians, who may see the fulfillment of God’s promise to the Jews as proof that there is a God who fulfills His promises. To the self-doomed, infertile, futureless post-Christians, Jewish continuity is a reproach. Antisemitism is the grudge against the living borne by the soon-to-be dead.

If the ancient pagan was overcome with horror at mortality, ancient Israel trembled in dread (pachad) of the Infinite. Jacob (Genesis 31:42) refers to God as “the dread of Isaac,” and R. Soloveitchik explains: “Man has never regained complete peace with God after the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Even the greatest personalities could not free themselves from that sinister feeling of tremor and terror. God claims the entirety of the human being. God gave a son to his chosen one, Abraham—and demanded him back. God is called Pachad Yitzhak, the horror of Isaac, for the latter’s destiny was interwoven with that of Divine ‘animosity’ at the Akeidah [Binding].”

Pachad in the Bible is mainly a response to the manifestation of the Divine, except in two instances in the Bible in which pachad appears not as an attribute of God, but as a quality with which God endows Israel. In these cases, God’s people themselves partake of the dread of God. As we prepared to cross the Jordan (Deut. 11) Moses told us: “There shall no man be able to stand before you: for the Lord your God shall lay the fear of you and the dread [pachad] of you upon all the land that ye shall tread upon, as he hath said unto you.” And again in the Purim story as recounted in Esther 8:17: “And in every province and in every city, when the king’s command and decree arrived, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a feast and a holiday. And many of the people of the land professed to be Jews, for the fear [pachad] of the Jews had fallen upon them.”

Dread, or horror, is double-edged in Judaism. God left Creation incomplete, and parts of the primal chaos can burst back into the unfinished work: That chaos, as R. Soloveitchik said, is Amalek. Man is called to be God’s co-creator and perfect the work, by extirpating Amalek. Repelling Amalek emulates God’s creation of the world, and is an act of imitatio dei. When Jews arise to fight Amalek, God’s pachad is laid upon us.

God was manifest in our march into Canaan and hidden in the Book of Esther, but His presence nonetheless was felt in the pachad that fell upon the subject peoples of Persia. Far be it from me to read the workings of Providence into current events. But facts are facts: Israel reduced Hamas in Gaza with a fraction of the military casualties that Western urban warfare specialists predicted, and a fraction of the civilian casualties caused by similar operations in Iraq. Israel continues to strike Iranian assets in Syria with impunity, and Iran fears to respond. Hezbollah failed to launch the expected second front against Israel after Netanyahu’s warning that “what we are doing in Gaza, we can do in Beirut.”

The dread of the Jews has fallen upon the rest of the world. That is not what we asked for, and it has also called forth hate. But we have been there before, and it is not altogether the worst outcome.

David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine’s classical music critic, is the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online, Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too) and the new book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World.