Back in May a big, happy yet wary fuss was made over the 75th anniversary of Israel’s founding. Moment dedicated our Spring 2023 issue to Israel, posing a far-reaching symposium question: What does 75 years of the State of Israel mean in the context of 3,000 years of Jewish history?
Some of the philosophers, historians, religious leaders and others we spoke with revealed their fears that the country’s “civil” civil war (“civil” in the sense that no arms were borne) over the proposed judicial overhaul threatened the country’s future. “Is this the beginning of the unraveling and one more tragic example of Jewish self-destructiveness?” wondered writer Yossi Klein Halevi. Others argued for Israel to be considered the spiritual and political center of the Jewish world. In my column, I added that the diaspora is and always has been as important to Jews as Israel, and acts as a balance.
Six months later, it is still Israel’s 75th anniversary year, but it is a soberingly different time: Jews in both Israel and the diaspora face pressing dangers. On October 7, as Israelis quarreled among themselves, Hamas, with Iran’s help, planned and implemented what turned out to be the largest pogrom and hostage grab in recent memory. The surprise attack with the deliberate intention of provoking war was followed by the launch of a masterful PR campaign. The lie that Israel had bombed Al-Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza on October 17, readily accepted by the international press, unleashed a tsunami of hate, and not just against Israel. Jews throughout the world now face even higher levels of anti-Israel antipathy and outright antisemitism. Waves of hate continue to break on city streets and college campuses.
I am always amazed at the power of one assassination or violent act to upend the fragile progress of humanity—in particular the painstaking work of constructing peace. Hamas has certainly achieved this, at least in the short term and possibly for far longer. Back when I was a PhD student in political science I read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He wrote that the accumulation of new knowledge does not progress in a linear fashion but is punctuated by paradigm shifts, whereby the prevailing framework we use to understand the world is replaced by a new one. October 7 and, I’d argue, October 17 along with it constitute such a revolution in the political realm, although one of regression, not progression.
I find myself thinking that the attack and what’s happened since could instigate the final death throes of what political scientist Francis Fukayama hailed in 1992 as the triumph of liberal democracy. That’s doubly worrisome because the State of Israel is deeply tied to the Western world order, which expresses a certain global will about coexistence based on international law and shared consensus. What we are seeing now could change all that. In addition, the war has shaken our deeply distressed democracy at home, jolting not just Jews and Muslims but all Americans.
Antisemitism is good for no one (nor is Islamophobia, which is also rising) and it’s terrible for America. In recent decades, we’ve seen discrete points when antisemitism has spread out from the fringes of society, where it normally lives. (Prejudices never go away entirely. They are like a diseased cell; when the time is right, they activate and spread.) Two points in particular stand out for me. One is Saturday, July 2, 2016, when presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted an image of his rival, Hillary Clinton, with the words “most corrupt candidate ever” appearing over the image of a six-pointed Jewish star. This act opened up the mainstream to far-right antisemites. The next activation point was October 7, which gave the kinds of antisemitism that live on the far left permission to take center stage. This was the goal of Hamas leaders all along: They knew full well how Israel would respond to such an attack and what would sway public opinion in their favor. The horrible humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which they knew would come, has compounded this exponentially.
I am not an alarmist or a hawk but a pragmatist in search of consensus and a seeker of third and better ways. But now that the die is cast, I see no alternative for Israel but to continue its war against Hamas—with appropriate humanitarian pauses. This has nothing to do with revenge, which should never be a reason for action. Israel can no longer coexist with Hamas on its border. It can coexist with Palestinians within Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank (although we desperately need the two states originally envisioned) and it could coexist with Palestinians in a different Gaza, one not led by extremists willing to sacrifice their own people for the destruction of Israel. For this to happen, we will all have to work together to build a better home for Gazan children and their families. I don’t say any of this lightly; I have been wondering what Moment’s previous editors would say if they were alive today, and I think all of them, from their different political perspectives, would agree.
I’d love to be able to say that the October 7 attack has brought the Jewish community together. It has in certain
quarters, but elsewhere the divisions are on full display. I have dear friends who are angry at Israel’s government and its mistakes, who believe that this war is one of them and that only a permanent cease-fire would reflect true Jewish values. I have equally dear friends who are convinced that all Palestinians, not just Hamas and other terrorists, hate Jews and that peace will never be possible. They are equally convinced that doing everything it takes to protect Israel reflects true Jewish values. As always, reality is far more complex. Neither the Jewish community nor the America we live in can afford these divisions. As my friend Eric K. Ward described it, “American democracy is Humpty Dumpty, and a loose coalition is all that’s holding it together.”
So it’s not time to draw lines in the sand. It’s time to come together to lean compassionately into the complexity of the situation, then stand united to defend what we have. What we have is our Western liberal democratic world order, and as battered as it is, it’s informed by centuries of human progress based on wisdom gleaned from countless missteps. History has shown us that liberal democracies, with independent judiciaries and institutions that balance one another’s power, provide the best protection for minorities, among other things. Our very right to publicly argue with one another stands upon this gift inherited from previous generations. Yet liberal democracy and the moderation it requires have become so familiar, even meaningless, to us that we keep forgetting that it’s our responsibility to protect it and nurture it.
World orders, of course, never stay the same. They evolve and sometimes they end. I hope ours doesn’t, and that we don’t cede moral and other authority to despots or extremists under any banner. I know we can do a better job of understanding human nature, healing trauma and making the world, or at least our country, more equitable. I hope that, as Americans and as Jews, we will teach our next generations not just the Jewish story but that of the world order that has made so many lives better and has the potential to do the same for more people.
I believe we can navigate this shifting terrain calmly and together, with new clarity that allows us to value what we have and invest in it. After all, given the choice, many people from the illiberal, authoritarian and fundamentalist places in the world would give much to be able to live in a liberal democracy. We need to keep ours strong and safe, not just for ourselves but as a beacon of hope.