Family and friends of hostages taken from Kfar Aza demonstrate in the Tel Aviv Museum plaza, Nov. 2, 2023

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We Will Defend Ourselves

A letter from Tel Aviv

Gadi Taub
November 06, 2023
Family and friends of hostages taken from Kfar Aza demonstrate in the Tel Aviv Museum plaza, Nov. 2, 2023

Amir Levy/Getty Images

This article is part of Hamas’ War on Israel.
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We did not think we would ever see such sights in Israel. Helpless Jews—women, children, the elderly—tormented, raped, torched alive, beheaded, and mutilated. There is much that has not yet been made public, and may only reach few, because the gore is not just incomprehensible, but actually traumatizing. In some of the worst footage the victims are recognizable, and so they have to be kept away from the public eye lest the victims’ families witness their loved ones tortured and killed. We are faced with Nazi-scale atrocities—inhuman barbarism.

It goes without saying that any civilized person would be deeply shocked. But that does not even begin to describe how this horror played on the collective Israeli psyche, indeed the Jewish psyche in general.

For two millennia, Jews have been helpless. When antisemitism swelled and rose around them, they could only try to flee or beg for mercy. They rarely had the chance or the means to organize and resist. Jewish history since the fall of the Second Temple reads like a string of expulsions and pogroms culminating with the Holocaust. The promise of Zionism, the promise of Israel, was therefore “Never Again.”

By Never Again, Zionism did not mean that Jews would be spared hate, or wars, or even violent death. Rather Zionism meant that we will defend ourselves or die trying. This is so deeply ingrained in the spirit of anyone who grew up under the influence of Zionism that it is an instinct, an existential orientation toward life and death, more than it is a thought or an ideology.

The late Hebrew University professor of history Zeev Sternhell was a child in a ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland. From a hiding place, in a hole in the ground, he saw Jews hunted like animals in the streets, men and women fleeing and shot in the back, shot children falling from treetops where they tried to hide. He survived, migrated to Israel and later served in the Israel Defense Forces. In an interview he gave to journalist Ari Shavit in 2008 in Haaretz he said that when he saw friends and men under his command die in battle, he thought that:

at least they died like human beings. They didn’t die being hunted on the streets. For me the state of Israel is not a political affair. It is something far more fundamental. Far more basic. It is a return to being human. A return to living like a human being. Because there, in the ghetto, there was a loss … of your human identity. You ceased to be a person altogether.

Sternhell’s politics were on the far left, and as a scholar and pundit he tended to see veiled fascism in every expression of nationalism and patriotism. He believed that Zionism betrayed its leftist promise, because it clung to its nationalism at the expense of its original socialist promise. Still, he insisted he was a Zionist. “I’m not just a Zionist,” he said in that interview, “I’m a super-Zionist. For me Zionism was and still is the right of Jews to control their destiny and future.” Politically it is difficult to make sense of Sternhell’s anti-national yet Zionist stance, since Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jews. Sternhell seemed to support the principle of self-determination for all peoples but reject its concrete realization in nation-states, or at least he often come close to rejecting it.

But emotionally, his position was easily understood by any Zionist, including those who, like me, sharply disagreed with his politics: Never Again.

The horrors of Oct. 7 reminded us that the existential condition of Zionism is not a given and cannot be taken for granted. It is something that we willed and carved out of history against all odds. It is something we must constantly protect and uphold, because it can be lost.

At the heart of Israel’s Declaration of Indepen­dence there is a single-sentence paragraph, the shortest one in the parchment. This is the heart of the text, the line that separates the section that talks about the past from the section that discusses the future. It says: “It is the natural right of the Jewish people, to be like all peoples, master of their own fate, in their own sovereign state.”

You can—indeed you should—read this statement politically. But you can also read it emotionally. And we all do. It means for Israeli Jews, and for many Jews outside Israel, that henceforth Jews will not be hunted in the streets, slaughtered while trying to hide in basements, or shot off treetops. They will die, if they must, on their feet, a weapon in their hand. Or, to use Sternhell’s harsher terms, they will not die like hunted animals but like human beings.

The horrors of Oct. 7 reminded us that the existential condition of Zionism is not a given and cannot be taken for granted. It is something that we willed and carved out of history against all odds. It is something we must constantly protect and uphold, because it can be lost.

I think the Israeli public, emerging gradually from the initial shock, senses this already, though politics has not yet adjusted. It seems that our politicians have not yet realized that the ground has shifted under their feet and they still think in terms of yesterday, as if this is just another round in a continuing war. It is not. It is going to change Israel in fundamental ways, which we may not yet fully comprehend.

What Hamas has now done has not just buried the two-state solution and killed all hopes for peace in our lifetime, or in our children’s lifetime. It has also tripped the wire that triggers the deepest of Jewish fears, the fears that run so deep that they precede reflection or even verbalization. That is why you hear from most of the left what you would normally hear only from the right: calls to see this all the way through to the complete destruction of Hamas as a functioning organization.

Modern antisemitism has learned to hide in its moral opposite: the language of human rights. Old blood libels claimed Jews kill Christian children to use their blood for the baking of matzot, the Passover bread. Contemporary blood libels claim the IDF is uniquely murderous and deliberately kills Palestinian children to satisfy its bloodlust. The form is new, but the content is not.

The contemporary versions are peddled by organizations claiming to uphold human rights, while undermining the universality of that principle, which is its very essence. They do this by applying one standard to the Jewish state, and another to all others, especially those belonging to groups with a postmodern moral badge of official victimhood, which supposedly grants them a waiver from moral imperatives.

This corruption of morality relies on marginalizing the evidence of the actual behavior of such groups toward their own members (especially gays, women and nonbelievers), toward minorities in their midst (such as Jews and Christians) as well the outside world.

This application of double standards has caused Israel to voluntarily impose on its army a stricter code than any other army does, a task made all the more difficult by the increasing sophistication of its enemies in manipulating these very vulnerabilities. As Benjamin Netanyahu succinctly put it: We use rockets to protect our women and children. They use women and children to protect their rockets.

Israel should be done with this game. It is an immoral one, and it has enabled our murderous enemies to escape responsibility. It has led to the sacrifice of our own men to save the lives of those who would turn their own children into cannon fodder. Israel should insist that those who have tied together Jewish children with rope then burned them alive, will not manipulate us in the name of human rights. It should insist that only those who put their own children in harm’s way to protect the weapons they use against our innocent civilians, are responsible for their safety. It should insist that Hamas has committed crimes against humanity and we will not sustain its rule under the guise of “humanitarian aid.” International law prescribes that if the enemy does not separate civilians from combatants it alone bears responsibility for the lives of the innocent. Israel should insist on that rule and not flinch.

This is a chance to begin restoring moral clarity, and the gore from this attack, much of which was recorded by Hamas’ sadistic antisemitic terrorists, should serve to remind us of this.

Those who have not lost their conscience to the auto-immune disease of wokeism, to conformity and cowardice, would do well to leverage the horror that befell Israel to clean their own house, too. It is, perhaps, not yet too late to save the Judeo-Christian tradition from the self-inflicted destruction of postmodern pseudomorality.

This article was originally published in Quadrant Magazine, and was reprinted with their permission.

Gadi Taub is an author, historian, and op-ed columnist. He is co-host of Tablet’s Israel Update podcast.