Decadence, Sickness, and Death: Mourning and the Israel-Hamas War

A desolate road in Israel lined with security fencing.
Image: Flickr/Public Domain (CC0 1.0 DEED)

Irving (Yitz) Greenberg once said about talking or writing about the Holocaust, “Don’t say anything that you wouldn’t say in front of burning children.” It’s an ominous comment, emotionally charged, and deeply felt. But as Michael Wyschogrod once said to me, referring to this comment, “Yitz then wrote hundreds of pages about the Holocaust.” Yitz did so, I assume, because he couldn’t stay silent, even as he advocated silence. I say this not to compare the Holocaust in any way to the atrocity of October 7th, for which there is no comparison, but only to express the anguish and pain of what one cannot do, and at the same time, in that same moment, what one cannot not do. I now understand Yitz’s choice.

Words of comfort (nechama) are permitted, even welcomed. But any attempt at reflection or analysis; any attempt to insert contextanything suggesting that, as horrible as October 7th was, it didn’t begin on October 7th; that, like every human atrocity, it too has a historyis met with raging accusations of justification. But of course, October 7th is not the beginning, nor the end, but as with most things, somewhere in the horrifying middle. Maybe the accusation of justification is inevitable and thus any writing that moves outside pure comfort can only be written against the forceful tide of condemnation. 

I will not justify a massacre, in any form. But I will not justify viewing a massacre as if it happened in a vacuum, either. I am no martyr, nor do I aspire to be one. I am a Jew, a Jew in pain and mourning with my people and for my people, but I cannot step away, I cannot be silent, and I cannot offer only comfort, even as the riptide of collective emotion compels me to do so. Or perhaps, I choose not to. 

October 7th was an atrocity of unspeakable magnitude and brutality for which there is no justification. But it was even more than that, if something can even be more than that. It jolted two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, already both in states of internal crisis, into a new state of crisis. Atrocities of this magnitude, and the retribution that has and will follow, are not limited to the human pain they produce, but can also break a societyboth the perpetrators and the victimsinto pieces. 

Hamas and its supporters think the attack was justified. I think they are wrong. Many in Israel and its supporters think that the attack was sui generis and thus any response, however brutal, however bloody and rooted in vengeance, is not only justified, but necessary. I think they are wrong. But I prefer to focus on the brokenness of both sides; not only broken by one another, but broken to themselves. 

It’s well-known within the Jewish tradition that one should not rebuke the Jewish people at a time when they are in danger. Rather, say the sources, the only thing one can do is pray for their safety and protect one’s life and property. I agree. But today, praying for the Jewish people also requires praying for innocent Palestinian people. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because, in the intricate web that is the state of Israel, or Palestine, the well-being of one is dependent on the well-being of the other. 

I stand in solidarity with my people. But I do not condemn the Palestinian people. I only ask that we view this tragedy as an event that has broken both sides, all sides, in unprecedented ways—not because the act has any equivalence, but because the long-standing deteriorated relationship that precedes it has left both sides weakened, vulnerable, and susceptible to a tragedy that has no justification. But that, of course, doesn’t mean that it has no explanation. 

Responsibility isn’t guilt—but neither is it innocence

The great poet and politician Aimé Césaire begins his short but powerful work Discourse on Colonialism with the following lines:

A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization.

A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a sick civilization.

A civilization that plays fast and loose with its principles is a dying civilization.

Decadent, sick, and dying. We are witnessing all three in real time. It is not a comparison to say, nor a moral equivalence to suggest (nor is it blasphemous to imply), that in different ways, very different ways, this is true of both sides of the conflict.

The head of the IDF stated that “Gaza will never be the same.” What they did not state, but which is equally true, is that Israel will never be the same. I do not argue that both are in crisis in order to draw equivalence where there is none, but to try to interrogate some of the contours of both sides under the rubric of Césaire’s framing of civilization.    

The horrific brutality and unjustifiable butchery of Hamason any termsis unquestionable and irrefutable. I have no idea how one can dehumanize the other to the extent that they can slaughter them in their homes. Yes, we human beings have done this before, many times, but it is still unfathomable.

Having said that, nothing exists in a vacuum, all human endeavors have context, and to deny that is itself an act of dehumanization. The problem here is that there is almost no space between explanation and justificationon either side. One is thus being forced to choose sides and express empathy only for one. Any gesture of empathy for innocents on the other side quickly evokes the accusation of moral equivalency at the very leastself-hatred and treason at most. 

So it must be said, decades of humiliation, domination, and the deaths of many men, women and children, must be part of the equation of mourning. Because innocents die at the hands of terrorists does not by extension mean that we are all innocent. As Abraham Joshua Heschel said regarding Vietnam, “in a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible.” Responsibility isn’t guilt. But neither is it innocence.

In the aftermath of the events of October 7, both Israeli and Palestinian societies were thrown into a new state of crisis. Israel was already in a state of internal crisis around questions of democracy, as the unprecedented protests have shown. And Palestinians were also in a state of crisis over their unwillingness, or inability, to recognize that armed resistance will not achieve the goals they justifiably seek: the right of national determination. But on October 7 things were put into an entirely different register. Hamas’ brutal attack demonstrated that, although the organization may have formally amended its call for Israel’s destruction, it continues to assert that “Israel has no right to exist in this region.” And in doing so, it sows the seeds of its own destruction.

On the other side, on October 7 the last vestige of Israel’s myth of invincibility was shattered as a result of its failed intelligence and tragically slow response, resulting in many more deaths than there otherwise might have been. And many Israelis felt that they were no longer safe within the borders of their own countryprecisely what Zionism sought to address. No doubt Israel will continue to respond with terrifying force. But that force will not reinstate Israel’s invincibility. That, I’m afraid, has been lost. There’s no moral equivalency here: Hamas attacked Israel. But the result of that attack changed both. A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization.

We can see this in the Hamas incursion. There was no human mechanism to contain the violence that exploded there. It was human beings at their most carnal selves. How does someone dehumanize the other enough to slaughter them with no guilt? Perhaps it’s only possible if one is in a state where all external constraints vanish. When life becomes a video game. And while the barbarism we witnessed is unimaginable, the killing of civilians by Israel’s stealth weapons is still barbaric and dehumanizing, just as the lesser of two evils is still evil. Yes, Hamas’s hatred existed before, no doubt, and I don’t mean to take away agency (and therefore responsibility) from the actors. But still. There was something unleashed in those who acted as they did, something collapsed in the very core of humanity, and some dangerous part of the human condition emerged unchecked by anything that could restrain it.

It’s no accident that this happened in the midst of probably the largest internal crisis in Israel’s history. Something in the elections and resulting protest movement opened a fissure in Israeli culture and society that previously existed largely underground. In some way, I think the entire Zionist project was on trial. “Jewish” and “democratic,” labels only attached to Israel in the 1980s, were always fragile and precarious. What is “Jewish”? And “democratic” for everyone, equally—really? And so it went. But the dam mostly held. Until earlier this year when a newly energized far-right government decided to fortify its power by weakening its great liberal challenge, the Supreme Court. And the country exploded. 

The breach of the population’s trust in its government, the settler narrative becoming the narrative of the country, and many Israelis simply getting sick and tired of the occupation (to say nothing of the secular/religious divide), put Israel in a place where various sets of interlocking problems threatened to paralyze the country, all the while believing Hamas was not an imminent threat. And then the problem that Israel didn’t even think was such a problem suddenly burst into the world and stuck a dagger in its heart. A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization.

There’s often talk of Hamas as being in a “death spiral.” I don’t think that’s true. I think Hamas has a different definition of what it is to win and to lose. In a 2012 documentary called The Gatekeepers, former head of Shin Bet Ami Ayalon tells a great story about talking with a Palestinian acquaintance at a meeting in London in 2002, right in the middle of the Second Intifada: 

At some point, I was making myself a cup of coffee and I was approached by a Palestinian acquaintance named wad Satay, a Doctor of Psychiatry. He said, “Ami, we finally defeated you.” 

I said to him, “Are you mad? What do you mean, defeated us? Hundreds of you are getting killed. At this rate thousands of you will get killed. You’re about to lose whatever tiny bit of a state you have and you’ll lose your dream of statehood. What kind of victory is that?” 

He said to me, “Ami, I don’t understand you. You still don’t understand us. For us, victory is seeing you suffer. That’s all we want. The more we suffer, the more you’ll suffer.” 

Ayalon understood something about the Palestinian resistance that he hadn’t before. Israel is entering a stage where its remaining founders are few. A second and third generation Israeli society is living in a first world country. It has accomplished an enormous amount in a short time. But the “Arab Question” or the “Palestinian Problem” as it used to be called, remains. And given Israel’s political inclinations, it’s becoming less relevant because the Right has essentially crushed Palestinian aspirations, or pushed them to a breaking point. It wrongly thinks the Palestinians will be wrestled into submission. That they will give up. But zero-sum games are rarely successful as long as people remain alive (which may be why many observers, Israeli scholars among them, believe the government is threatening genocide). 

‘Yad Vashem with an air force’

And that’s not all. There’s something that continues to haunt Israel’s collective psyche, so to speak; its unwillingness to abandon the position of victimhood, despite its tremendous power and years of sovereignty. This is certainly understandable in this moment of crisis. I ask, however, echoing Hannah Arendt’s skepticism over the potential for a state founded in the shadow of the Holocaust, whether it’s constructive toward a productive Jewish future. This comes to the fore most alarmingly in the use of Holocaust analogies. The swiftness with which the Holocaust was invoked to describe the atrocities was both shocking and totally predictable. It was also wrong. 

Nazi Germany was a country with an army, a police, and an economy. Hamas is a violent terrorist organization born in occupation with no formal military and relatively few resources. Israel is a first-world country with a high-powered military and nuclear weapons. Even if they were brutally victimized, Israelis in Tel Aviv are not the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto and they’re not living in concentration camps. Holocaust parallels only illustrate the extent to which Zionism is in a deep crisis of identity. 

Thomas Friedman famously claimed Israel had become, or is susceptible to become, “Yad Vashem with an air force.” He was criticized, and the remark was overly provocative, but when one hears Israel’s president and prime minister openly make Holocaust comparisons, they simply affirm Friedman’s remark. The problem with the comparison is that it flattens everything down to survivalism; and when you have a gun to your head you have no moral obligations. None. 

So when Israel’s defense minister declared “I have released all the restraints [on soldiers entering Gaza],” I wondered what that could mean. Executions? Liquidation of civilian homes? No one yet knows the full extent. But we will. That’s what survivalism produces. So both sides claim they’re fighting for survival; not victory, not deterrence, not even security, but survival. A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a sick civilization.

Shooting and crying

But what about dying? Aren’t all civilizations slowly dying? Perhaps, but playing fast and loose with one’s principles just expedites the process. And don’t all societies play fast and loose with their principles? Indeed, it was the Golda Meir character in Munich who said, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” 

Hasan al-Banah founded the Muslim brotherhood in the 1920s as a protest against British colonialism with the saying “Islam is the answer.” But what happened to Hamas’ early commitment to fight corruption, to provide social services to its people, like soup kitchens, medical care, etc? It was founded to undermine the corrupt PLO, which it very likely has done, but its commitment to commit acts of terror threaten its people, undermined its social vision. In that sense, it seems to have largely abandoned its people who are now refugees from their homes in an open-air prison. Doubly displaced. but it seems to me something inside Hamas has died because it’s lost contact with many of its principles and substituted unadulterated hatred in its place. Destroying Israel, itself an impossible task, became more important than feeding its people, which is a more realizable goal, or even seeking a viable path to liberation.

Like many (maybe all) countries, Israel is accountable for being fast and loose with its principles too. A society founded on the principles of solidarity and cooperation, a social safety net, and the aspiration to be the “most moral army in the world.” Remember the old IDF adage “shooting and crying” (yorim u bokim), to illustrate the necessity of war and the moral conscience that remains. A democracy, albeit flawed, but one that included a meaningful movement with a sincere belief that coexistence was possible. 

Peace Now, founded in 1978 to promote a genuine and just peace between Israel and Palestine, was a real, forceful movement in the 1980s, with some political power. No more. In fact, it is today’s protest movement, a mostly centrist movement, which has taught us that Israel has transformed into a more ethnocentric, illiberal, even autocratic, right-wing society. Many are against this, but the mere fact that they are means that it’s real. As Alon Pinkus wrote in his open letter to American rabbis before Yom Yippur, “The Israel you thought you knew is a relic of the past.” A civilization that plays fast and loose with its principles is a dying civilization.

One can say this about many, maybe even all, countriesthough each in a different way. But viewing how it becomes manifest in a particular situation, in context, in situ, can be helpful. I ask those who are in any way justifying Hamas’ actions: setting aside the legality or morality of Israel’s methods, what country would not be shocked and traumatized, and react with force, by such barbarism perpetrated against its citizens? And I ask those who refuse to see any culpability by Israel: Gaza is also a society in trauma, where almost every single family has had a family member killed or imprisoned by Israel—a territory under a 16-year siege. Decades of humiliation, domination, and inequality. Not to justify, but to recognize. 

Israel is mourning the deaths of its loved ones, innocent civilians brutally murdered thinking they were safe in their homes in their own state. Palestinian civilians are also mourning their loved ones, victims of retribution, trapped in a world from which they cannot easily escape. No moral equivalency here: people need to mourn their dead. 

And what about those of us who, like it or not, have to find a way to live on this planet together? If we can’t we will all die, our last words being “only the other side is to blame.”