Why Antisemitism is an Insufficient (and Risky) Explanation for Hamas’s October 7 Attack on Israel

Hadassah members at the November 14, 2023 March for Israel in DC hold "Stand Up to Hate and Antisemitism" signs. Image: Hadassah

Find all of RD’s coverage of Israel’s war on Gaza, here. — eds

Amidst a recent layover, my phone pinged to indicate I’d been “mentioned” on Twitter, which is never a good sign. Right-wing provocateur Andy Ngo had tweeted a photo from my 2018 book event suggesting it was an “antifa training” session. He then tagged Haaretz—a left-leaning Israeli newspaper I occasionally write for—asking why they would publish an “antisemitism denier.” Pointing to a recent interview with journalist Kelly Hayes (and presenting my comments out of context) he took issue with my suggestion that antisemitism was an insufficient framework to understand Hamas’s October 7th attack.

Ngo likely felt emboldened by the absolute torrent of conservative commentary framing the attack as the largest killing of Jews since the Holocaust, a framing that essentially categorizes the violence as antisemitism. My argument was that we can’t assign antisemitism as the primary motivation of the Hamas attack because the larger political conflict makes infinitely more sense—and that any claim to the contrary bears the burden of proof.

It isn’t difficult to understand why antisemitism is a quick “go to” response, particularly when the violence held an eerie familiarity with one archetypal memory of antisemitism: the pogroms that terrorized Jews in the Russian Empire and the Pale of Settlement. Historical trauma has a profound influence on Jewish identity, so it may seem natural to simply slot Hamas’ violence into a framework already used to explain the memory of Jewish suffering and ongoing fears of persecution.

“[This] massacre was a function of hate—the kind of toxic intolerance in its purest form,” wrote Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), who argued that the Occupation (a term he puts in scare quotes) was not responsible for the attack. For Greenblatt, the only thing that could motivate such venomous anger is the seething antisemitism he believes is rampant in the Muslim world. 

In a piece for the Atlantic, Bruce Hoffman sifts through various Hamas charters to demonstrate that the organization’s violence is driven by what some scholars refer to as ‘consensus antisemitism’—or hatred of Jews because they’re Jews. In the same magazine, Gal Beckerman compares the Hamas attack to his grandparents’ experience in the Majdanek concentration camp.

But those who understand Hamas’s brutality this way employ a fixed and broad definition of antisemitism: animosity towards Jews supposedly as Jews is all the label requires. In this formulation, antisemitism is an eternal, causeless hatred that defines Jews’ lachrymose history. It predates Christianity, persisting from Haman’s attempted extermination of the Israelites to the desecration of the Temple; from Jewish exile and pogroms, to expulsions, persecutions, and annihilations—and now, to those who would attack Israel. What binds these different events, historical periods, and even categories of Jewishness is the animosity and terror Jews faced: this is all antisemitism, the thinking goes, so everything that can be described as such must likewise be antisemitism.

When antisemitism is the cause

Because antisemitism has a particular pedigree and logic, antisemitic attacks often have an easily detectable DNA. On January 15th, 2022, a rabbi and his congregants were held hostage in Colleyville, Texas by a gunman demanding the rabbi, somehow, order the release of an al-Qaeda prisoner held in the nearby Fort Worth prison. The gunman’s logic is clear: since Jews control US prisons, law enforcement, and (particularly Middle Eastern) foreign policy, a local rabbi must have the power to make this happen. The assumption of a Jewish conspiracy is all that’s required to decode the attacker’s rationale.

Violence stemming from this logic has a long history in the US and around the world. The Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018 was an effort to stop the “migrant caravan” because, according to the shooter, Jews are responsible for orchestrating non-White immigration to replace native-born Whites. In 2006, a Moroccan-Jewish man named Ilan Halimi was kidnapped and tortured because, as revealed by the demands of his kidnappers, they believed his Jewish identity ensured he was rich. It’s not the victims’s identities that connect these attacks, but the logic of the perpetrators, because it’s so easily recognizable as part of an ideological legacy that, while evolving over time, stretches back centuries. 

Hamas, for its part, has always shown elements of antisemitism. The group’s 1988 charter clearly mobilizes classical antisemitic conspiracy theories, including that Zionists have taken “over control of the world media” and “stir revolutions across the world,” such as the French Revolution and the communist revolutions, claiming they “destroy societies and carry out Zionist interests” using groups like “the Free Masons, Rotary Clubs, Lions Clubs, [and] B’nai B’rith.” It’s easy to find examples of Hamas members calling Jews “bloodsuckers,” and their 2017 revised charter barely shifts their rhetoric. 

This is why it’s entirely plausible to argue that antisemitism influenced the objectives of Al-Aqsa Floodparticularly the idea that Jewish civilians are collectively responsible for Israel’s behavior or that there’s a global conspiracy in which they’re all potential actors. But for us to identify the root cause of this, or any attack, as antisemitism we need more than just an aesthetic echo of past antisemitic violencewe need to show that this ideology influenced the decision making and moral conviction. 

When we look at this particular attack, the callousness seems more explainable by the colonialism that formed the Palestinian resistance and the guerilla, asymmetrical nature those movements utilize; and even if antisemitism motivates some individuals who took part, this is hardly evidence that the movement itself primarily operates from that particular ideological lineage. 

In an interview with Jewish Currents, scholar of Hamas Tareq Baconi says we must “push back against any effort to try to suggest this was driven by antisemitism, because doing that also completely erases any motivation that imprisoned people might have in breaking out of their prison.” It would be absurd, in other words, to ignore such an obvious motivationlike concluding that a woman who attacks her abuser simply hates men. Even at the most basic level, there’s a responsibility to demand evidence before allowing antisemitism to be quickly assigned as the most likely answer.

This question becomes especially important in a situation where Jews are overwhelmingly the more powerful party in the equation. “By radically decontextualizing such violence, and by claiming that the motivating force for any act against Jews, under any circumstances, is ‘antisemitism,’ we take Jews out of history and invalidate any political power they might hold,” writes Shaul Magid in his recent book The Necessity of Exile. “And by framing Palestinian violence against the occupation as inherently antisemitic, we invalidate violent resistance to oppression caused by the Jewish state.”

Interest in the work of Frantz Fanon has seen a resurgence since the Hamas attack because “On Violence,” the opening chapter of his 1961 book, The Wretched of the Earth, essentially outlines the motivation and structure of the Hamas attack. In the colonial situation, the colonized take the violence that was injected into their lives by the colonizer and spin it back onto those in power. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean their acts are always morally justifiable, it’s simply to acknowledge that their praxis is to cause harm to the powerful party by any means necessary. Decolonial movements largely rely on guerilla attacks simply because they lack the structures that established nation-states possess, so the “acceptable” rules of engagement are therefore stacked against them. Instead, like the Viet Cong or Algerian Liberation Front before them, they take on small-scale operations, which often focus on vulnerable targets that offer the greatest impact. 

This sometimes follows what’s referred to as a “strategy of tension,” whereby the attacks are intended to create enough dissension among the colony’s working class that it forces the state to finally back down. This was the explicit intention of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) as the Troubles began in the 1970s. Killing and bombings, including against civilians or through grievous sectarian attacks, were chosen to render Britain’s control of Northern Ireland untenable. 

Given Israel’s history it’s unlikely that the country would bow to pressure from the strategy of tension, but the attack certainly brought Palestine back to the center of global social movements and challenged Israel’s presumed invulnerability, which is exactly what Hamas has said it hoped to do. When asked, Hamas has flatly stated that they initiated the attack because of Settler rampages in the West Bank and the lessening concern for the Palestinian plight. Many have also suggested that the Saudi-Israeli normalization process as well as Hamas’s growing relationship with Iran and Hezbollah could have been factors as well. This suggests something rather mundane: the violence involved the same global political issues that most acts of warfare do.

Al-Aqsa Flood was a calculated political gambleone that may be frightening, but not illogical, or even unique. To explain it away as antisemitism would, by its very nature, be to inject a lack of political sensibility into the action and limit the efficacy of any response by operating on a faulty picture of the world. Such an explanation is not reflected in Hamas’s choices, no matter what individuals in their camp believe.

So why do we call it antisemitism?

There are two primary reasons why these kinds of attacks are routinely labeled as antisemitism. The first is, perhaps, the most understandable: it looks like antisemitism. The history of antisemitism as an impulsive, populist, misdirected explosion of anger from below is best encapsulated, as noted above, in the pogrom. Across Jewish history, Jews have often been the scapegoat for the economic disenfranchisement of the mass classes, who have their righteous anger projected onto an imagined picture of “the Jew.” Pogroms are a part of our ancestral memory, memorialized in everything from folklore to liturgies, and are archetypal for how we understand antisemitism’s expression. When Hamas strays through a Jewish village in a rage-filled string of civilian murders, it’s eerily familiar.

This logic, however, fails in that it refuses to see antisemitism as a set of beliefs that can be clearly circumscribed. This is a problem that’s been highlighted by many scholars, like David Engel whose seminal article “Away From a Definition of Antisemitism” points out that every period of violence, bigotry or persecution of Jews has such a different historical context that it’s nearly impossible to identify a unified, coherent, and transhistorical phenomenon. 

This isn’t to say that the various episodes of anti-Jewish persecution weren’t ghastly, only that Jews have been persecuted for so many conflicting geopolitical, ideological, and xenophobic reasons, it’s nearly impossible to label every single instance as holding some shared definable DNA. The identity of the victims doesn’t make it antisemitism any more than identity determines the cause of every act of violence.

The second reason for reflexive charges of antisemitism is that it’s politically useful for those who view Israel as the only bulwark against “eternal antisemitism.” If our definitions of antisemitism emerge as a collective label for any and all oppression Jews have faced, and we use that to build our identity, then antisemitism appears so ingrained as to become inescapable; woven into the fabric of reality. More than this, a certain Zionist framing has become ubiquitous, where the Israeli identity becomes synonymous with Jewishness, and therefore the attack on Israel/Israelis is, categorically, an attack on Jews, which reinforces the notion that Israel is the center of the Jewish people.

On October 25th, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under the Law demanded that universities investigate Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) over their alleged support for Hamas and antisemitism at ceasefire rallies and in statements. Then, after Jewish Voice for Peace led a historic 5,000-attendee rally in Washington DC demanding a ceasefire and ran a full page ad in the New York Times saying that “Those of us grieving both Israeli and Palestinian loved ones this week know there is no military solution. The only future is peace and safety for allgrounded in freedom, justice, and equality,” the ADL shot back saying their ideas “help give rise to antisemitism” and employ “antisemitic tropes.” 

“In this moment of confusion and pain, we must be clear about one thing: Every Palestinian life, every Jewish life, and every Israeli life is precious, and the Israeli government has failed all of those lives. Only peace, justice, and equality can ensure safety and a thriving future for all,” said Kattler Kupetz, a West Coast organizer with IfNotNow on October 16th, just days before they were featured in the ADL’s spread on “anti-Israel rallies” that “justify and celebrate Hamas’s slaughter of Israelis.”

For better or worse the ADL has long been the leading American voice in determining what antisemitism is and how to address it, so their increasing focus on Israel has played a major role in reframing American definitions of antisemitism. Their formula, it appears, is to broadly characterize as antisemitism anything they perceive to be a threat to Jews; and since Israel is, in their understanding, the centerpiece of Jewish safety and identity, anti-Zionism can only be an attack on Jews. 

If anti-Zionism undermines Jewish safety then they must understand it as antisemitism, ignoring the history of Jewish anti-Zionism, flattening all differences, accepting Zionist historiography as a given, and refusing to acknowledge any other motivations. Hamas threatens Jews, therefore it is antisemitism. SJP challenges Israel, so it too is antisemitic

It’s important to note that all of this is happening just as the ADL is bowing to pressure from a demonstratively antisemitic far-right. Recently, after tepidly pushing for Twitter to address rising hate on the platform, a far-right campaign targeted the ADL for their alleged “cancellation” of far-right activists. Spread by White nationalists like Keith Woods and echoed by Elon Musk, the #BantheADL campaign gained enough leverage to force the ADL to back down after lawsuits were threatened. 

Similar threats came from Chaya Raichik, who runs the far-right account Libs of TikTok, best known for pushing “groomer” conspiracy theories and targeting trans youth. When Raichik threatened legal action, the ADL pulled down their page dedicated to her, an unprecedented move for an organization allegedly combatting “right-wing extremism.” When one tweet said that Jews have a “dialectical hatred” of White people, Musk commented, in full view of the media and investors, that the author “speaks the actual truth.” Instead of ramping up pressure on the Twitter-happy far-right, the ADL set its sights on Palestine solidarity activists at 200 schools, including Columbia and Harvard. This led to a public grilling of university presidents regarding alleged antisemitism on college campuses led furiously by Elise Stefanik (R-NY) who herself has shown support for the antisemitic “great replacement theory.” 

The reflexive position of so much of the infrastructure designed to combat antisemitism is to use Israel as a primary litmus test. Apart from indiscriminate attacks on critics of Israel and partnerships with antisemites who validate Israel’s increasingly ethno-nationalist direction, this approach greatly hinders these organizations from combatting the most pernicious forms of antisemitismand weakens their reputations when they do.

Failure to address actual antisemitism 

It’s not hyperbole to affirm that antisemitism is both rising and increasingly violent, or that it has shown up in some areas of the left. While Leftist antisemitism is never as pervasive as the Right claims, nor does it have the lethal pedigree of the Right, those on the Left imbibe the same messages the rest of us do. Some have suggested that the callous response to the killing of some on the Left itself displays antisemitism, perhaps through an inherent suspicion of Jewish claims of suffering. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the war has sparked a rash of antisemitic incidents, from screeching protesters chasing Israeli travelers in a Russian airport to a car driven into what the attacker thought was a Jewish school. 

We can’t avoid acknowledging the unique experiences, histories, and traumas of Jewish identity that can make the effect of the October 7 attack distinct. The image of hands bound, fires set, and sharp-edged tools used against fleeing Jews seems uncomfortably familiarthe same types of experiences that acted as a recruiting narrative for Zionism itself. Even if we can’t reduce the Hamas attack to antisemitism, we can’t ignore the trauma it triggers or the suffering involved.

While terms like “from the river to the sea” or “free Palestine” are often erroneously labeled as intrinsically antisemitic, when they’re indiscriminately graffitied across a Jewish organization’s building or spam commented on an Orthodox TikTok creator’s video about kosher food, Jewishness is clearly the object of derision. This has created a problem where actual antisemitism fails to be addressed on the one hand, while groups like the ADL manufacture accusations on the other. So, frightening statistics from the ADL, like the 388% increase in antisemitic incidents, also come with a lot of questions due to the ADL’s history of conflation and lack of discernment.

When violence in Israel-Palestine explodes we usually see a flurry of both antisemitic and Islamophobic attacks, such as the shocking murder a six-year-old Palestinian boy in Illinois and the shooting of three Palestinian students in Vermont. But it’s critical that we separate the question as to whether or not Hamas’ attack was motivated by antisemitism from larger concerns about whether the rest of the world is indifferent to Jewish suffering. By flattening the entire story, by creating a singular narrative for how the violence both in Israel and across the diaspora is discussed, we give up our tools to fight any of it because our efficacy is so deeply dependent on what exactly caused the violence in the first place. 

Shortly after I returned from my trip I co-facilitated a meeting of union staff who were hoping to support those affected by the violence and to push for a ceasefire. The agenda began by discussing reactions to the October 7 attack and antisemitism, and which prioritized Jewish voices. This raised concerns for some attendees who identified it as anachronistic to label this attack, however brutal, as antisemitism. 

What was not contested, however, was that Jewish trauma remained, that this would change the course of Jewish history forever, and that many Jews present believed their friends and colleagues were unconcerned. The Hamas attack may not have been motivated by categorical antisemitism, but the trauma of its horrors remain fresh for millions. And this is where we’re at. Trapped in futility, and using the wrong tools because we’ve misdiagnosed the problem.