“Your funeral is inconvenient for my activism"
On the weaponization of "genocide," polarization on the center-left over Israel-Gaza, and the still necessary work of building Israeli-Palestinian co-existence.
I am an American Jew. I have three middle names. One is the source of the L in my name. The other two, Emanuel and Samuel, are for Mendl Walter and Shmiel Walter, siblings of my maternal grandmother who were killed in the Holocaust. My brother and sister also have three middle names for the same reason. My mother was born in Belgium, and along with her family, survived the Nazi occupation of their country separated from her parents, hidden in a convent and at other times in homes of members of the Belgian Resistance. They were lucky. My wife’s father also lost many family members; she carries a copy of a list he made of more than 80 of them.
I don’t use my extra middle names, even though they’re on my Social Security card. Nor do I want to make my identity as the child of a Holocaust survivor central to my public or private life. But at a moment when the word “genocide” is being used quite frequently to describe the State of Israel’s actions in Gaza, I don’t feel I have a choice but to recall some of this history and to reflect on what it means to call something a genocide.
After the war ended and the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two countries, my mother’s older brother went to fight with the Haganah in Israel’s War of Independence, which Palestinians call the Nakba (“Catastrophe”) because 750,000 were driven from their homes in the process. Both names are appropriate. My mother’s mother and sister joined her brother in Israel soon afterward. Their families and descendants live there. They have no other home.
Starting with summers spent there as a child, I have visited Israel more times than I can count. I met my future wife at a Socialist Zionist summer camp and along with a tight circle of friends, we made plans to “make Aliyah” (“go up” literally, or emigrate) to a kibbutz together. Only the post-college offer of an internship at The Nation magazine changed my life path. At the same time, I started reading Noam Chomsky on Israel, and my understanding of the world started to expand. I have come to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a historical tragedy that can only be resolved when both sides accept that the other side’s narrative is also legitimate, that neither can eliminate the other, that neither are leaving the land, and that they have to find a way toward shared co-existence.
Back to the topic of genocide. One of my Israeli cousins’ students was killed by Hamas on October 7. An elderly couple I know from my summer camp days lives on Kibbutz Nir Oz next to Gaza somehow survived the assault on their village; a third of its 400 residents did not. A cousin of my wife’s was injured trying to repel the invaders. A close friend here in New York just told me his business partner’s family was kidnapped. And I have a Palestinian friend who has lost several family members in Gaza from Israel’s bombing.
According to more than 240 experts in international law, what Hamas and Islamic Jihad did on October 7 – the massacre of more than 1,300 people with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part” a national group, something explicitly declared by Hamas, qualifies as genocide under the Genocide Convention and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. It takes two things for a violent action or series of actions to be labeled a genocide: the targeting of a specific national, ethnic, racial or religious group for destruction, and the declared intent to do so.
It's by this same definition that many, many people have also called what Israel has been doing to Gaza’s population since October 7 a “genocide.” Here is Raz Segal, an associate professor of Holocaust and genocide studies, writing in Jewish Currents, calling it “A Textbook Case of Genocide.” For proof of intent, he cites Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defense minister, who called Gazans “human animals” while imposing a complete siege on the territory, along with other pertinent examples. (To be precise, Segal admits that not many people in his specialty would call Israel’s war on Gaza a genocide in progress, and most legal scholars have instead been warning of a “potential genocide” there.)
I too fear that Israel may have genocidal intent and the means to carry it out. But I wonder: of all the people condemning Israel for how it is bombing and strangling Gazans—have any also said what happened on October 7 was also genocide? Do any admit that Hamas, with its declared belief that all Israelis are legitimate targets and that Israel must be destroyed, is a genocidal organization?
Why is it so hard for us to hold two seemingly contradictory ideas in our heads?
Even well-intentioned groups like If Not Now, whose young Jewish members threw their bodies against the White House entrances last week to demand an immediate cease-fire, use the word “genocide” in only one direction. They only emphasize how Israeli leaders speak of vengeance and genocide; even as the full horror of what Hamas did continues to unfold, they have already moved on. “We cannot get caught up in petty bullshit right now,” Arielle Angel, the brilliant young editor of Jewish Currents, told Arno Rosenfeld of The Forward six days ago. “We need to be talking about the fact that there’s an imminent genocide.”
I’m looking at my in-box. And the glib weaponization of “genocide” is breaking my heart.
-From the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), a “Black queer feminist” group, an email in the colors of the Palestinian flag that says they stand “in solidarity with our Palestinian comrades as they resist the occupation of their land and the genocide of their people,” that calls efforts to unpack the complicated history of the Israel-Palestine conflict “white supremacist propaganda,” that affirms the Palestinian people’s “right to resist” and urges “in sustained actions that actively target American decision-makers (like Genocide Joe) and push back on the propaganda, misinformation, and lies spread about Palestinian resistance.” Genocide Joe and white supremacist propaganda. I wonder if the MacArthur Foundation is happy about the big $350,000 grant they gave BYP100 back in 2019 for leadership development. Same with the Ford Foundation, which gave them $800,000 in 2020. Or Open Society Foundations, which gave them $800,000 as well.
-From Allied Media Projects, last Wednesday: “Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed the impact that decades of Israeli apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and violence have had on the Palestinian people. Their cry for freedom from occupation, and to live in peace and with dignity, is a story that reverberates throughout many of our communities. We are witnessing a genocide and we demand an immediate ceasefire.” I saw that email because a Jewish friend high up in movement circles shared it with me, dismayed that AMP couldn’t say anything about the Israelis killed, many of whom were leftists with similar values to the group. The silence, this friend noted, made it seem violence against any Israeli was justified, a deep betrayal of AMP’s vision of a world of collective care for each other.
-From DSA Seattle, whose October 2023 Palestine Organizing Toolkit includes these lines: “When people are occupied, resistance is justified…Settlers are not ‘civilians’ in the sense of international law, because they are military assets used to ensure continued control over stolen Palestinian land…Gaza broke out of prison… Liberation is not an abstract concept. It is not a moment circumscribed to a revolutionary past as it is often characterized. Rather, liberating colonized land is a real process that requires confrontation by any means necessary.”
-From Ali Abunimah, who runs the Palestinian uber-site Electronic Intifida: a post from Jeet Heer, a writer for the Nation (that left-wing rag), citing the grisly reports of Israeli forensic doctors trying to identify the bodies of many of Hamas’s victims, gets this derisive and frankly insane response: “Imagine someone taking ‘Israel’s’ word for anything especially when so many of its lies have been debunked. Spreading unverified Israeli atrocity propaganda makes you complicit in the ongoing Gaza genocide.” Spreading unverified Israeli atrocity propaganda makes you complicit in genocide. Got that?
How did we get here?
In the last several days, I’ve found myself talking with a lot of other progressive Jews who are in multiple layers of shock from first, the still-roiling effects of October 7 and the people we know who were directly affected; second, the rapid escalation by Israel towards an extremely ill-advised ground invasion of Gaza; third, the rapid development of mass protests here in the US that are either explicitly in support of Hamas or just adjacent, cheering the rise of “Palestinian resistance.” And fourth, the challenge of avoiding the polarization trap and uplifting the logic of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, the only way out of this never-ending conflict.
But the common heart to these conversations is a deep sense of betrayal, as they see so many friends and organizations unfurl a new-found commitment to anti-Zionism, with little to no recognition of the genocide of October 7. “Your funeral is inconvenient for my activism,” is how my friend Sahar Massachi put it. He went on, describing exactly what it feels like to be a progressive Jew in diverse movement circles right now:
“Either we are junior partners in a progressive coalition, held hostage to strengthening it by our fear of the far right, swallowing abuse and sucking up to our neighbors so they put us in the attic and not the gas chamber, OR we are equal partners in a multiethnic democracy. If the former, let's be clear that's the plan. If the latter, I am finally going to insist on being treated as an equal. We have a clash of values. On the one hand, a postcolonial ‘left’ asserting its truth, and on the other universalists who think Hamas terror is immoral AND politically stupid on the other. This is not a time for both-sidesing it. Or for asking the two sides to respect differences. We need a community showdown. Either this is a community clear and open about opposing the massacre of civilians, OR a community that supports hashtag resistance even when that means babies and demented holocaust survivors. This isn’t about my feelings, or Jewish nationalism, or Zionism, or US funding for Israel. It’s about whether or not a community value that we thought existed ('no mass murder‘) was an illusion.”
He adds, “I'm here to fight for a left that I actually want to be part of. It's precious enough to me to not leave it to the ultras and edgelords. And I actually think that the ‘no murder’ camp is the majority!”
(By the way, this isn't the first time the liberal-left has fallen apart over these tensions between Jews and other groups. In the late 60s, particularly after the 1967 war, the Black-Jewish coalition broke up—particularly when antisemitism flared up around fight over community control of public schools in Brooklyn. They didn't have social media then, so I don't think the sting was as personal--now I can find out exactly how every one of my friends and peers thinks about Gaza or has stayed silent about Hamas or whatever. I almost don't want to know.)
It remains to be seen if we can have the kind of clarifying debate that Sahar Massachi is calling for. But it seems to me that what we should start calling the “Hamas-adjacent left” has gone off the rails for four reasons.
First, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Israel is a regional superpower; it is led by people who oppose the idea of a Palestinian state; and its policies in the occupied territories are harshly unjust. Palestinian Arabs inside Israel are citizens but second-class.
Second, because they are convinced that anti-Zionism equals anti-colonialism. Once you convince yourself of that, further thinking is not necessary: Hamas, an authoritarian religious fundamentalist army that rules Gaza, is a “resistance” movement and therefore deserving of support.
Third, because of the terrible trope on the so-called left of ranking oppressions rather than standing for universal principles. If in the broader society a particular group is more dominant, then in left circles it becomes legitimate to be dismissive of members of that group, to expect them to take a “step back” while we “listen to the most oppressed.” The worst expression of this being, “your words against me are violence, but my violence against you is mere words requiring compassionate contextualization as the language of the unheard."
And finally, because of antisemitism. Here in America, prejudiced attitudes toward Jews remain prevalent, though not held by a majority. But among Blacks and Latinos, particularly younger ones, antisemitic views (specifically, that Jews have too much power, that they are more loyal to Israel than America, and that it’s appropriate to boycott Jewish businesses in America in opposition to Israeli policies) are as prevalent as they are among white alt-right supporters, according to a November 2020 survey by Eitan Hersh and Laura Royden. (In general, they found that overall Blacks and Latinos have more favorable views of Israel than whites. And of course this was all back in 2020. This stuff is complicated.)
What is happening now across the big tent that is the center-left in America is extremely bad for our ability to keep the pro-democracy coalition together into 2024. Two important constituencies—American Jews, who are mostly liberals, and American progressives, who are a rainbow mix—are driving themselves and being driven into polar camps. One is reflexively pro-Israel and prone to see any call of sympathy or solidarity for the Palestinians, for a cease-fire, for de-escalation, as anti-Israel. The other is reflexively pro-Palestinian, and prone to see any call for sympathy or solidarity with Israelis, for recognizing Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas, as anti-Palestinian.
As my friend Charles Lenchner, an Israeli-American progressive organizer who has been active working for peace and human rights in Israel and Palestine for more than 30 years, and a refusenik who spent time in military prison during the First Intifada, has been saying:
“The global left is faced with a binary it dislikes. On one side, champions of a shared future and a shared struggle of Palestinians and Israeli Jews, with their allies around the world. On the other, champions of a zero-sum struggle, hitting the gas pedal only for Israel or only for Palestinians, and believing that this is the only way to achieve the correct balance. To 'turn the power dynamic upside down.'
In this struggle, Bibi and the Hamas adjacent left are on the same side, beating the drums of war and violence as hard as they can. In harmony with each other. A deadly duet. And on the other, the brave, lonely voices of the Israeli left, Jewish and Palestinian, declaring even now that only a shared future is a future worth fighting for. And the only struggle that can get us there is a shared struggle, one that relies on universal principles and a bone deep appreciation for the other, with all the imperfections.
I see no peace possible between the two sides of this binary. Either people firmly on the side of shared struggle win, or the 'all resistance is beautiful side' wins. A middle ground is one where this or that group is victimized, this or that individual is reduced to a stereotype. Call me an extremist for peace if you like, I embrace it and cheerfully go to battle with the other side, where Israeli genocide shakes hands with Hamas war crimes, and lifts up the banner of 'no justice no peace' as a prescription rather than a warning.”
—Related: Today at 2pm Eastern, you can tune in on YouTube for “The Gaza War in Israel,” which is centering the efforts by the Israeli and Palestinian left to build a new movement rooted in shared values. It will be moderated by Charles Lenchner.
Barack Obama, “Thoughts on Israel and Gaza.”
Matthew Yglesias, “Israel, Palestine and the need for principled free speech.”
Masha Gessen, “The Tangled Grief of Israel’s Anti-Occupation Activists.”
Jonathan Chait, “Hamas, the Jews, and the Illiberal Left.”
Jawaad Kaleem, “The left has really let us down.’ Why many American Jews feel abandoned.”
Jennifer Medina and Lisa Lerer, “On Israel, Progressive Jews Feel Abandoned by Their Left-Wing Allies.”
Thomas Friedman, “Israel is About to Make a Terrible Mistake.”
Zack Beauchamp, “What Israel Should Do Now.”