Edit 12/22/2023: I wrote a follow-up! I never had much of an opinion on the whole Israel-Palestinian affair, because — true to my brand — I avoid opining on what I know nothing about. My horrified reaction to Hamas’s attacks morphed into existential despondency when I saw others cheering on the massacres with
Thanks for this post! You’ve articulated very well a perspective I’ve come to over the last few weeks. I’m a Canadian Jew (non-religious) and never felt a particularly strong connection to Israel. The fashionable thing to say in my very secular Jewish community was that a country like Israel of course ought to exist, but [insert a list of things you don’t like about Israel as it currently exists].
As I’ve dug more into the conflict, I’ve increasingly felt like Israel truly is held to a different standard than any other nation. There is no outcry among the pro-Palestinian left when China sends Muslims to concentration camps; there is no outcry among the pro-Palestinian left when Assad or other neighbouring governments kills thousands more Palestinians than Israel ever has; there is no outcry among the pro-Palestinian left when Egypt enthusiastically blockades Palestine along its border with Gaza.
Not only that, but the history of Israel’s conflict with surrounding nations has been repeated attempts to exterminate the Jewish population therein. The war for independence was a war of survival, as was the 6-day and Yom Kippur wars. At any point along this history, neighbouring nations could have stopped, recognized Israel as a nation, and formed mutually beneficial partnerships -- which Israel was certainly open to! But with each loss, Israel claimed more and more land, and suddenly they’re the bad guy for doing so.
I think one potential additional would be the Palestinian reaction to Israel pulling out of Gaza. Israel did exactly what people want them to do in the West Bank: all israelis were moved out of Gaza, some of them even forced by the military. They even went so far as to remove their own cemeteries to completely exit the region. Finally, the US oversaw a democratic election to establish some sort of legitimate government of Gaza.
Immediately, the people voted in Hamas, and the new government began a campaign of terror attacks against Israel. It’s extremely hard to say this was merely a response to oppression; Israel became LESS oppressive, and the answer was to attack them even harder. I find it very hard to say that Israel ought to do the same for the West Bank if this seems to be the likely response.
(I apologize for the length -- I’ve been very frustrated at what feels like widespread historical illiteracy among the twitter leftist class, and have become quite jaded about all of this)
"I can’t fathom the countervailing scenario where Muslims are willing to prohibit prayers at Al-Aqsa."
On this point: you might have added that, when Muslims *did* control the Temple Mount (Jordan, 1948-1967), Jews were not permitted even to visit, despite agreed-to armistice provisions that called for such access.
this may be slightly pedantic, but the kingdoms of israel and judah are not even close to being "the only cogent jewish political entities to have ever existed." for one, the religion they practiced isn't really recognisable as judaism, but something scholars call "yahwism," which was maybe closer to a pagan polytheistic cult with a particular focus on one local canaanite storm-god, yahweh, and his wife, asherah. the emergence of judaism proper was slow and mostly took place in exile; the religion in its modern form doesn't fully emerge until after the destruction of the temple in 70 ad with the compilation of the talmud.
but there were plenty of other jewish polities! there was a jewish kingdom called adiabene in northern mesopotamia under the parthian empire, and another, briefer jewish state nearby in mahoza. the jewish himyarite kingdom ruled yemen in late antiquity; a huge swathe of russia and ukraine was under the jewish khazar khaganate. there may have been a jewish state in northern ethiopia, and some historians have even proposed a (very contentious) jewish princedom around narbonne in present-day france under the carolingian empire. and while it might be tiny, a figment of stalin's megalomania, and on the far side of the world, there was (and still is!) the jewish autonomous oblast...
anyway, i don't really agree with a lot of what you've said here. on several points, but i'll restrict myself here to your preference for israeli governance and culture. yes, israeli political institutions are more democratic and seem to generate more general prosperity than palestinian political institutions - but only *if you're israeli.* this is not a conflict between states! israeli political institutions are the ones that ultimately determine all outcomes for both sides, including the relative poverty of the palestinians of the west bank and the absolute poverty of the palestinians of gaza. every international observer recognises that the israeli state holds sovereign authority in the west bank and gaza, but the palestinian population is not represented in that state.
israeli politicians are fairly open about the fact that the relative wealth and freedom of israel directly depends on the suppression of the palestinians. there's even a separate israeli law code for west bank palestinians! a palestinian in area c lives under the same direct authority as their israeli neighbours, but if they commit a crime they face very different systems. the israeli will be tried in a civil court under ordinary israeli law. the palestinian will be tried by a uniformed army officer in a military court. these courts prosecute acts that are only criminal for palestinians, and not israelis. they will try 16 year olds as adults, while israeli civil courts set the age of majority at 18. they almost never grant bail, even for traffic offences, and the conviction rate is a very democratic 99.7%. this, more than the position of the israeli arabs, is why israel can be accurately defined as an apartheid state.
i don't think it's a question of choosing to support israeli or palestinian institutions as they presently exist, like these are football teams. as far as i can see, the only possible just solution, however distant it might seem right now, is one in which these (as you note, superior) israeli governance models are expanded to democratically represent the palestinian population, even if it means that the state loses its specifically jewish character. there have been other jewish states in the past. there will, i'm sure, be other jewish states in the future. but this one - frankly, it isn't worth it.
Thank you for this, Yassine.
Sensible reasoning while avoiding statements of things taken from granted is what we all need more of. Or at least, it is what relieves some of the terrible weight from my heart in this moment in time.
As a side note, much is to be said for the Nazi propaganda in North Africa during the 1930s and 1940s, all mainly aimed at stirring Arab animosity against the Jews and promote the extermination of the Jews. The pogroms against the Jews (of which many hundred thousands, Haredi Jews, had been living in Palestine and the territories of surrounding now Arab countries since the expulsion from Palestine by the Romans in 71 CE, that is, 600 years before the conquest of North Africa by the Arabs) increased manyfold over those two decades of the past century. Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Hamas has spawned, was an ardent Nazi sympathiser; the imperialist nationalist aspirations, together with hatred of modernity and of Western capitalistic corruption, resonated between the two, and it found its natural symbol in hatred of the Jews.
This is a strain, in Islamist thought, with which the world continues to deal today. And it is the strain that is most evident in the unrelenting, apparently irrational hatred of ideologised Muslims against Israel.
And this is also the reason why the Palestinians have never been allowed to settle either in Egypt when it controlled Gaza nor in Jordan when it controlled the West Bank, but kept in eternal refugee camps: so that the cause against the existence of Israel could be maintained and forwarded.
Both Egypt and Jordan did later come, as states, to much more moderate terms and formally recognised the State of Israel. But the radicalisation of the Palestinians, and in particular the link to Iran of the main terrorist organisation among them, have been first among the more recent reasons of the refusal of both Egypt and Jordan to allow Palestinian refugees on their territory: they fight Islamist terrorism within their borders and dread the influx of more militants among the civilian population.
I have several secular or moderate Muslim friends in Egypt, who all are terrified at the prospect.
And just in case you want a further insight in the reasons why Israel is hated so much by a certain part of the progressive Left, I can offer you a couple articles. The first is an examination of the reasons of the particular antisemitism that plagues the Left, and which stems beautifully from the ideological discourse of oppressor vs oppressed, anti-capitalist maximalism, anti-imperialist ahistorical moralism, and identitarian ideologies all bunched together with old, never dead anti-Jewish conspiracy theories.
The second is the explanation, from within and without a iota of self criticism, in pure Marxist-Leninist terms, of why a certain Left can justify and even celebrate things like the Hamas attack of 10/7 and the practices of Islamist terrorists, or deny genocides like in Rwanda or in Bosnia.
Can I not just call you a Colonialist Nazi, and be done with it? Do I have to be reasonable? .....good history. If I were to add anything I would re-emphasize earlier in your essay Israel was a legal land purchase as legal as Louisiana from France, or Alaska from Russia. Also, Trans-Jordan lost the West Bank to Israel because it was used as a military staging area. Used to kill Israelis. After Trans-Jordan ceded West Bank to Israel by legal treaty West Bank became Israel and Tans-jordan (had its side surgery) became Jordan. West Bank is Israel.
This post was amazing. Thank you for rolling out your exploration and thought processes in such an understandable way. Most of it was familiar to me but knowledge I've acquired very differently. In the '90s I argued against my mom's advocacy of US support for Israel (I thought they should stand on their own two feet); toward the end of her life, we had completely switched sides. In-between I was out and about measuring results (or lack thereof) of policies and programs in low- and middle-income countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, and (very briefly) West Bank, and including being in Dar when the US Embassies in Kenya/Tanzania were bombed, among a long list of other adventures. I learned a few things about people, history, and political economy along the way.
One point I'd like to add is that exploitation of the concept of dispossessed Palestinian people can only occur because their brethren refuse to assimilate them into their countries. It has less, or nothing, to do with Israel but is a deliberate construction of the Israel-scapegoating powers-that-be who instrumentally maintain Palestinians as stateless people to be perpetually trapped in 'refugee' camps, generation after generation, so they can distract and bait the unruly masses to hate the Jews instead of noticing their own rulers suck.
And a final digression: I appreciate the history and the lead-up, which is certainly useful to know and understand in great depth. At the same time, what happened before the 1948 war seems largely irrelevant to understanding the here-and-now -- because it would not have to matter if those so passionate about the Palestinian cause gave a damn about the Palestinian people in their midst. It (the history) is merely part of the mechanism being transparently manipulated to demonize Israel.
Throughout human history, political entities that win wars get to decide what to do with any territories and peoples they conquer, for as long as they can (or choose to) maintain control. There is no such thing as persisting private property rights qua rights after a foreign entity takes possession of your (former) government's territory, because those rights were secured by a legal and judicial system that no longer pertains (your defeated former government's). The territory and its uses are now subject to the laws, contracts, courts, and even the whims of the conquering people. At different times and in different places, what's acceptable to do with the spoils of war varies, but an interpretation different from the one the winner imposes will have to be enforced through levers of policy or... another war.
If Hamas rampaged through Israel and killed every last Jew from the river to the sea, does anyone think the kids of those people could come back and say, "hey, that's my factory, my farm, my tech innovation, so give it back and leave"? No, that is not the way anything has ever worked. Israel should remember that after they win this war, for a more lasting peace.
Yassine: I know you said at the outset you're no expert and you just read up here-and-there on this conflict, but you did a REALLY amazing job here. Yes, details were left out, yes, certain people would characterize various events differently, but you really pressed on all the pressure points with a lot of clarity and wit and I loved reading your article.
Please, please, PLEASE write a book. I will buy copies for all my friends, I promise. If you won't do this, could you (or any other readers) point me to a book that takes the same balanced approach and hits as hard and as honestly as you do? I have a read a few books, but so far they're all very biased.
Your post finally inspired us to start our own substack complaining about bad arguments & rhetoric about this issue (https://thosewhotremble.substack.com/p/gerrymandering-power). Thanks for giving us the final push to actually start something.
I think your conclusion is pretty reasonable, but the words used for it are overly broad. I find very little to sympathize with for Hamas, but plenty to for Palestinian civilians. Israel is definitely not behaving as ethically as they can be, there's quite an extensive history of human rights abuses on their Wikipedia page. One vague metaphor might be Israel as US and Hamas as Al Qaida. Sure it's justified to kill and destroy a terrorist organization, but not in also doing indiscriminate detentions, kidnapping, killing, and torture of civilians, as both the US and Israel are doing/did in their wars.
I'm actually hoping this attracts some good counterarguments. The usual realms I inhabit have all been pretty strongly pro-Israeli, and the counterarguments I've seen have all been covered here (aside from some specific critiques of Netanyahu's policies and plans, but I'm already on board with "fuck that guy").
Wow. This was absolutely incredible. A tour de force. Thanks so much for putting the work into this and laying it out so clearly. I hope you follow-up with any credible challenges and further points that impact your thinking on the matter.
Ok I don’t like settlements in West Bank either. But if you drew a regression line to put in factors which lead to this conflict, the settlements would contribute very slightly to this ongoing conflict. It’s the perpetual grievance culture of Palestinians and their annihilationist philosophy. For them a settlement is Tel Aviv.
Just a little memory of what the PLO did. Look up the Achille Lauro incident in which they took an American Jewish man, Leon Klinghoffer who was on a cruise on the boat with his family, captured him and threw him off the boat in his wheelchair to die. Thd antisemitism is a feature. Not a bug.
The savagery is a feature. Not a bug.
Israel is numerically far more multicultural than any country in the middle east. If it's a supposed ethnostate, I'm not sure how to describe the Hamas governed territory of Gaza with a 99% Sunni Muslim population. Their ambition of ethnically cleansing the rest of what was British Mandate Palestine from the "river to the sea" by "any means" intends to create more of the same.
This was by far the most brilliant, spot-on text I have read on this matter. Thank you so much for sharing it!