A bloody handprint inside a house at the Nir Oz kibbutz, one of the Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip attacked on Oct. 7 by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, on Oct. 31, 2023

Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images

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The War Against the Jews

Some thoughts on the first pogrom of the 21st century

David Blumenthal
November 02, 2023
A bloody handprint inside a house at the Nir Oz kibbutz, one of the Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip attacked on Oct. 7 by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, on Oct. 31, 2023

Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images

Editor’s note: This essay is excerpted from letters the author has written daily since the beginning of the Hamas pogrom. 
This article is part of Hamas’ War on Israel.
See the full collection →︎

We, Jews in the exile, knew that we were not safe.

Christians could complain to the Christian authorities and Jews would be drained of their wealth and then imprisoned or expelled. At times, it suited the Christian rulers to allow their Christian subjects to “riot,” that is, to enter Jewish homes and to rob, rape, and kill Jews at will, with no punishment by the rulers. There are heart-rending scenes depicted in Jewish poetry and prose—of women raped in the presence of their children and husbands; of children torn apart alive; of slit throats of children and parents in the presence of each other, of whole communities enclosed in synagogues and then burned alive. It didn’t happen every day, or even every year. But it happened every once in a while. The word was “pogrom” and it meant a riot by Christians, the purpose of which was to kill Jews, in the cruelest ways, with the quiet sanction of the state.

To be sure, living in a society that preached that Jews were Christ-killers, demons, and sorcerers, the source of the plagues that killed large percentages of the population, and so on, ensured that Jews would be a target. Christian education and preaching prepared the masses for the murder of the Jews. Jews in Christendom knew they were not safe.

Jews in Muslim lands were not much better off. There are searing narratives and poems that describe what it was like living in a society that forced Jews to cross the street when they encountered a Muslim; that did not allow public celebration of Jewish holidays; that made Jews pay a poll tax and get beaten publicly when they did; that invented the idea of special Jewish garb to single out Jews; that allowed Muslims to seize Jewish orphans and raise them as Muslims; that punished Jews for assaulting Muslims but not Muslims for assaulting Jews; and more. And then, there were the “riots” in which the masses were allowed, even encouraged, to roam through the Jewish community, raping, killing, torturing, and humiliating the Jews of all ages and genders.

The riots didn’t happen every day, or even every year. But they happened every once in a while, and became part of Jewish reality. The word was “sin’ut,” Jew hatred, and it meant the long-term humiliation of Jews, mixed with the sporadic violent murder of Jews. To be sure, living in a Muslim society that preached that Jews were deniers, apes and pigs, dishonest, greedy, and sources of illness, ensured that Jews would be a target. Muslim education and preaching prepared the masses for the murder of the Jews. Jews in Islamic lands knew they were not safe.

Then, came the Enlightenment with the idea that humans are alike. “Liberty, equality, and fraternity.” “All men are created equal.” It wasn’t true. Women were excluded. Blacks were excluded. So were Jews. But, it was a dream which, very slowly, was extended until the declaration of human rights was understood to be universal.

European and American Jews were glad to live in the Enlightenment. There were still remnants of the old regime and they were called “antisemitic,” but we, Jews, believed them to be remnants of medieval Christendom that would fade away in the Enlightenment. The problem was that antisemitism had very deep roots in western culture and religion and, in their enthusiasm for the Enlightenment, the Jews of Europe forgot those roots. In time, the forces of deep Jew hatred reared their heads, and secular modernity also turned against the Jews. Jews were hated because they were Jews, again: greedy for world power, the source of the loss of the old traditional values, vermin, an inferior race, modern Antichrists. That resulted in the Holocaust, an almost-successful, systematic, mechanized, state-sponsored effort to annihilate all the Jews in Europe. The education of the populace by these forces, especially in the Nazi and communist states, prepared the masses for the murder of the Jews. Jews in the modern world learned that they were not safe.

The Enlightenment never came to the lands of Islam—not for the Jews, not for women, and not for others. Modern technology came, but not the Enlightenment. Rather, modern Islam borrowed the “antisemitism” of the Christian modern world, added it to Islamic antisemitism, and began to educate Muslims to murder Jews in the modern spirit and way.

The Jews responded to Christian, secular, and Muslim Jew hatred by creating their own state. It was to be a place where Jews could live without pogroms and sin’ut, where Jews could breathe freely. At first, Jews moved to the Holy Land and settled there with their own self-government. Then, they established their own state with the purpose of making it into a place where they could live without fear of pogroms and sin’ut. They had to fight for it. Many died, but it was worth it. They were free to live, to work, even to quarrel with one another. There were occasional incursions of Muslims and wars with them, but the Muslims were fought off. We paid a price, but we thought we were safe—even to have mass protests against our own government. We knew that the Muslims hated us, but we held that at a distance and, when their hatred of us, welled up, we responded. A stalemate, but a livable one.

Then came the Enlightenment with the idea that humans are alike. ‘Liberty, equality, and fraternity.’ ‘All men are created equal.’ It wasn’t true.

The “Hamas pogrom” changed all that. The invaders were of two sorts: untrained invaders who came across the border on motorcycles, bicycles, and even on foot. Their job was to kill, or take as hostages, as many people as they could, and then retreat into Gaza. They did this well. The other sort were trained special forces who were heavily armed. Their job was to invade communities and military bases, kill and seize hostages and equipment, and then move farther into Israel. Some of them stole Israeli cars, police and army uniforms from the dead, weapons, ID cards, etc. If needed, they had contacts in the local Palestinian community who will hide them. Some of these terrorists are still on the loose, which is why all apartment doors have to be locked and one never opens a door to anyone.

Suddenly, here were the Muslim masses overrunning Jewish villages and murdering Jews in their sleep, tearing babies apart, raping women, seizing the elderly, dragging our soldiers out of tanks and abusing them, burning whole families in their homes, and then putting up videos of all this, bragging to the world of what they had done. And the Islamic world saw this as a victory, and celebrated it. The old Christian and antisemitic secular worlds were quick to join in, celebrating the slaughter of Jews and blaming Israel for it all.

True, the Enlightenment world did rally, at least in words. Even minute segments of the Islamic world that understood the Enlightenment condemned the sin’ut. But, it was too late. We, Jews, learned from the Hamas pogrom that even in the land that we thought was more or less safe, we have been subject to a pogrom. We learned that even in the State of Israel, we are not safe. We also know, deep down inside, that it could happen again. We will strike back this time, but the reality of the resurgence of Jew-hatred even in the Jewish state is now upon us.

It is actually worse than that. The success of the Hamas pogrom has reinforced Jew haters everywhere. Their hand has been strengthened by the Hamas pogrom. What will happen when the Jew haters in the U.S., Britain, France, South America, Germany, Poland, Russia, and elsewhere realize their power?

Sin’ut is a worldwide phenomenon with worldwide communication and funding. Many of the non-Muslims are still in the shadows, but they won’t stay there long. Word of Hamas’ victory will spread, as the blood libel that began in England during the Crusades spread, igniting Jew hatred everywhere. The right-wing Jew haters, the left-wing Jew haters, and the Christian Jew haters will join the Muslim Jew haters. Modern media will make this possible. After the Hamas pogrom, Jews are no longer safe anywhere. My European daughter-in-law says: “This feels like Brussels.” We have reports from Texas that groups of Palestinians are turning up at gun ranges, learning how to shoot, and then buying guns. There are times when I feel that I am in a nightmare, one of those that makes you wake up trembling but, in the end, you know it isn’t true. This, however, is no nightmare. It is our reality.

Therefore, a few words of advice: First, know that it is OK to be angry. It is OK to be outraged. Westerners have a tendency to be stiff-upper-lipped. Don’t be that Westerner. If you run across a university president or a religious or political leader who is not outraged enough, call them out on it. Don’t be shy. Second, know that it is OK to cry. Some things require tears. A person who does not cry is not quite human. Third, do pray even if it is not your usual custom and even if you don’t believe, or are not sure of what you believe. Prayer, that is, turning to a Presence that is beyond us, is natural. Just say what comes from your heart. It doesn’t hurt, really.

Yesterday, my son Philippe went to see an older colleague who is one of the academic experts on Hamas. He has had a stroke and can no longer go out. I know him too and have read his book. He lives in Tel Aviv. Normally, I would have gone along, but no one needs an old man with a suprapubic catheter tagging along and I did not want to leave my wife alone. So, I did not go. Then, Philippe went to see an old woman, a famous European businesswoman whose family fled here after Kristallnacht (1938). She, too, lives in Tel Aviv. It turns out that her Thai helper lost two people in the south: one who was killed and the other who is one of the known Thai hostages.

Then, Philippe went to two military funerals in the local cemetery. The first one was delayed because the coffin had been sent to the wrong place. So everyone had to wait, including the group for the second funeral. In Israel, bodies are buried in shrouds. If a coffin is used, it means the body has been severely mutilated. Both funerals were with coffins. Normally, at a military funeral, the commanding officer speaks. In these funerals, one commanding officer had been killed and the other is on the front line.

In one funeral, the deceased was a 23-year-old girl. In the other, the deceased was a 19-year-old girl who had just finished her training as an observer (these are the young women who watch the electronic cameras and pass on any dangerous information they gather). The Hamas terrorists carefully shot out the cameras, bombed the communications tower, and attacked the observation tower, raping, abusing, and killing these girls. She was one of those killed, from a Yemenite family of the community of my daughter-in-law Nili’s parents.

Philippe remarked that you could feel the anger in the crowd of hundreds gathered for these funerals. Yes, they are angry, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli commentators reflect this anger, promising a long war that will “eliminate” Hamas in Gaza—not Gazans or Muslims or Arabs, but Hamas. Upon objective reflection, such a goal seems hardly possible. In the long run, it would be useless because others will rise and take their place. Still, the Jewish anger is there. The more we read, the more we, too, feel that anger. 

Many years ago, when I was about to write the concluding chapters of Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest, I fell physically sick for several days. I’m beginning to feel like that now. There are a lot of Hamas documents that have been recovered showing that killing civilians was the major goal and taking hostages next, plus a guide for how to take hostages. One article reports a document on how to torture hostages. American senators were forced to go to shelters because of rockets and a session of the Israeli parliament was suspended for 40 minutes for the same reason. Pro-Hamas demonstrations are multiplying all over the world. Antisemitic incidents are also multiplying all over the world. The Times of Israel and the Jerusalem Post are dedicating space to photos and write-ups of known hostages and victims.

We went to the mourners’ services again this morning. The boy was 28 years old. He was in charge of the outgoing shift at the Sderot police station. He sent home two men early and, as the next shift arrived, he saw the attackers arriving. He warned the new shift to run away because they did not have the necessary heavy arms to fight, only pistols. He then engaged the enemy to cover their retreat.

One woman still in the station fled to the roof. She was shot in the hand. So, she smeared the blood on her face and played dead. She survived. Another policeman hid in a shaft for seven hours until help arrived. Our young policeman and about a dozen others were killed.

From the porch of Philippe’s apartment, Ursula can hear the afternoon service from the parking lot next door. It is very moving.

Everyone agrees that this was a pogrom, a successful mass-killing of Jews, the worst since the Holocaust. The last tally shows: 1,300 Jews killed, 3,300 Jews injured, many of them seriously, and over 200 Jews and others taken as hostages. The Israelis have retaliated, killing uncounted numbers of Hamas and Palestinians, and reducing large parts of Gaza to rubble.

Now, the real war has begun. It is a second war—a war of words, blackmail, and standing in the world. It is the midgame battle in a larger chess game.

Israel, with the backing of many Jews and others worldwide, wants to “eliminate” Hamas. This cannot actually be done because there are too many Hamas members and way too many Hamas believers, and because this would require a ground invasion that would cost many more Jewish lives. There are also the hostages to take into consideration, including those of Israel’s closest ally, the United States. Nonetheless, after the Holocaust and “Never Again,” the Jewish state, representing dead and living Jews, must make the price of killing Jews with the cruelty that only Jew hatred can evoke as high as possible. The world of Jew haters must know that any such action will evoke a very, very serious response in kind. Jew haters must learn that we will fight back, that we will punish severely such action against us, no matter what the price.

Jewish anger is there. The more we read, the more we, too, feel that anger.

The Jew-hating world wants to recuperate as much as possible and to go on to plan the next step in the war against the Jews. They have two pieces to bargain with: the hostages and the devastation of what they present as innocent civilians whom the West, but not Islam, regard as precious. The center of this movement is Iran. It is the leader of the anti-Western and anti-Jewish world. Iran’s leadership of this jihad is at stake. To win this midgame battle is to lose a few Palestinian pieces but to be able to advance to the next move toward an ultimate win. The rest of the Islamic world knows this well and is watching very, very carefully. So are the Jew haters in the West, on both the left and the right.

America has reason to be a loyal ally of the only democracy in the Middle East. This would restore America as the leader of the Western world and the Western values of human rights, especially after decades of defeats in the Middle East. The return to this position of power is politically crucial for America’s leadership in the South China Sea, in the Middle East, and in Europe. Japan, Korea, Australia, Ukraine, NATO, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and others are watching very carefully.

So what comes next?

Israel can occupy the Gaza Strip. The Americans, who have long experience with the futility of such occupations, argue (correctly, I think) that such an occupation will not work. Israel could invade the Gaza Strip, destroy as much as possible of the Hamas personnel and infrastructure, and then withdraw. But, the world of bleeding hearts and the world of Islamic solidarity will pour in enough money to rebuild that human and military infrastructure as well as the ideology of Jew hatred that motivates it.

The Americans could intimidate Iran and its proxies into refraining from intervening. That would result in a “check,” but not a “checkmate.” The Iranian Jew haters will then do what any chess player would do. They will strategically withdraw, and the dead Gazans will be declared martyrs who go to paradise while the surviving Gazans will be declared heroes who will live to fight again. The Iranians will then declare victory in a serious and successful preliminary battle. Make no mistake: This would indeed be a victory for Iran, and a major loss for the Americans and the Jews.

In the process, much fuss will be made over “freeing the hostages.” The price demanded for freeing the innocent people who were unjustly seized will be high. There will be no justice; only bargaining over what the losers should pay for the lives of the women, children, grandmothers, strangers working in the Holy Land, and soldiers to “free” them, or their dead bodies. Not all of them will be released. Hamas is already claiming that they do not know where all of them are. Whatever is agreed upon, no matter how unjust, the payment is a victory for the Jew haters. It is blackmail paid.

The reinforcement of the jihad against the Jews (and also against the Christians though Christians don’t take this seriously, yet) will have the secondary effect of being the death of the “two-state solution.” Why, after a great victory against the Jews, should the forces of Islamic antisemitism agree to a Palestinian state that would imply the recognition of the legitimacy of the despised Jewish state? The West will continue to “push” for the two-state solution but the success of the Hamas pogrom has torpedoed that forever. For that matter, what Jew would ever trust a Jew hater to agree to “peace”?

For the same reasons, the success of the jihad against the Jews probably means the end to “normalization.” Who leads the Islamic world? If Iran wins the midgame chess battle by taking its Palestinian losses and withdrawing from further military action until the next move, Iran, not the United Arab Emirates and others, will be the leader, and normalization will have been an interlude.

Antisemitism, on the right and on the left, will grow. It is already spreading rapidly, particularly on college campuses. Sometimes, antisemitism is violent Jew hatred, and sometimes it is couched in equity, diversity, inclusion language which shrinks from declaring the killing of babies a crime against humanity.

There is a concept called “moral injury” that we discovered among American soldiers returning from wars in the Middle East and Asia. It is not PTSD, for which there are established treatment protocols. Moral injury is the realization that one did something in a wartime situation in which the morality of the military protects one psychologically but which, when one returns to normal moral life as civilians, one realizes was terribly wrong. For instance: A soldier in the Middle East sees a pregnant-looking woman dressed in Islamic clothing walking toward him. He does not know whether she is pregnant or has a bomb under her clothing. He shouts at her several times in the local language to stop. He fires into the air to deter her. But she keeps coming toward him. In the end, he follows standard instructions to protect himself and his unit, and he kills her. But she turns out to have been pregnant, and not a terrorist. After release from the army, he returns home and sees his pregnant wife walking toward him. The scene comes back to him and the soldier turns violent, or turns to drugs or alcohol, or commits suicide. This is “moral injury.” He did what he should have done in the situation but, in a normal context, he realizes it was a terribly wrong thing to have done. I think that, for many Israelis and Jews, the anger, indeed the rage, that we are experiencing now and our intense desire for revenge as we read the stories and watch the videos of this horror, are going to become moral injuries as life moves forward.

Finally, remember that 2033 is the 100th anniversary of the rise to power of Hitler; that 2038 is the 100th anniversary of Kristallnacht; and that 2041-44 is the 100th anniversary of the Nazi death camps. The Jew haters know this, for sure. I won’t be around to see this. Many of you won’t either. But our children and grandchildren will.

In the end, it is my thinking that Iran will play it rationally. They will not risk nuclear war for Palestine. They will, therefore, take their Palestinian losses, restrain Hezbollah and other pawns from intervening, declare victory, and return to planning the next major step in their jihad against Jews, Christians, and the West. Israel will do something in Gaza but will not be able to “eliminate” Hamas or Islamic Jew hatred. Hamas will suffer, will declare victory over the Jews, and will succeed in getting more money to rebuild. America will claim to have prevented another damaging war and will go on believing that it leads the free world in its march for justice and peace. Jews everywhere will grudgingly be forced to acknowledge that “there is nothing new under the sun”; that Jew hatred is here to stay. The Hamas pogrom will take its place, alongside other pogroms against Jews, as the first pogrom of the 21st century. Welcome to Jewish history.

David R. Blumenthal is the retired Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies at Emory University. He has contributed greatly to the growth of Jewish Studies, the place of Judaism in Religious Studies, interreligious dialogue, and the reframing of Judaism in light of the Holocaust, postmodernism, and poststructuralism.