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Israel’s Moral Odyssey: Rising Above Revenge

The Imperative of Coexistence in the Wake of October 7

I couldn’t turn away. Footage of Hamas’ October 7 massacre has overwhelmed news coverage and social media, and though I’m well aware of the psychological danger it poses to view these horrors, I chose to open my eyes to the carnage.

Young partygoers slaughtered in the hundreds as they fled for their lives towards open desert, infants decapitated, women assaulted and paraded naked through the streets of Gaza, elderly bound and kidnapped, corpses desecrated - the brutality is soul-shaking. For me, the quest to see is partnered with a stubborn need to understand. In each account, I hope to find some semblance of clarity; what, where, and most resoundingly, why.

Families and friends of the hundreds taken hostage by Hamas protest in Tel Aviv, October 2023

The Convergence of Dehumanization and Infantilization

Fingers have flown to condemn somebody for the massacre. At turns, this ongoing global discourse has toed the line of dangerous absolvement, perhaps unintentionally. Some Israelis have cursed Hamas terrorists as “animals,” while a number of foreign onlookers have defended Hamas, and the millions living in Gaza as “a helpless people who did the best they could” with the few tools they wielded in the face of oppression. What both responses share, though opposites in their assignment of blame, is the suggestion that the carnage was inevitable - that we would have been naive to have hoped for something different.

The dehumanization and infantilization of Hamas may be soothing, but is unfounded. Hamas operatives are in fact human, and Gazans had the opportunity after Israel’s withdrawal in 2005 to build a fruitful democracy in the Gaza Strip; indeed Hamas’ initial rise to power occurred via legislative election, and in recent months, Palestinian factions expressed readiness to hold elections anew in Gaza for the first time in 18 years.

The October 7 massacre was an exercise of human evil; a devastating demonstration of the horrors mankind is capable of. This realization is terrifying, but especially important as Israel crafts her response. The darkness in others has a manner of rousing the darkness within ourselves - we must not let it.

Tuning Our Moral Compass

The day after the massacre, a loved one of mine received word that his close friend had been murdered by Hamas. Upon hearing this, his first reaction was an infuriated call for a shoah against Arabs. I was troubled but understanding. More than anything, his use of the word “shoah” was telling. Broad swaths of Israeli society seem bent to inflict revenge, not only in response to Hamas’ October 7 massacre, but for generations of suffering inflicted on the Jewish people. Hamas has transcended specificity.

Perhaps what was most interesting about the given conversation is that the friend who had been murdered was, himself, an Arab - yet the contradiction in mourning his fallen friend and vying for a genocide of all Arabs fell unapparent. All that mattered, then, was to return the brutality - to someone, to anyone, to everyone perhaps.

We are all capable of atrocity. The Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram Experiment exemplify that any of us may be turned to the unthinkable. Revenge can play an influential hand in this process. The almost instinctual thirst for revenge is deeply human, and has plagued human societies for millenia, fueling cycles of violence across eras and areas. Israel is no stranger to this age-old foe.

Following October 7, numerous Israeli voices have pressed for reciprocal atrocity towards civilians in Gaza, as well as Arabs in Israel and the West Bank. Calls for the punitive flattening of Gaza infrequently plaster the comment sections of social media posts related to the war. Earlier this week, hordes of Jewish rioters, waving Israeli flags and chanting "Death to Arabs," attempted to infiltrate the dormitories of Netanya Academic College, where Arab students sheltered to await police rescue. Even in personal conversation, where the veil of internet anonymity and herd dynamics are lifted, these sentiments find voice.

I, too, am afraid and enraged. Yet, I believe, as Israelis - particularly as Israeli leftists -, we must center our humanity, and be active in our commitments to justice and morality. We must not give in to that itch deep inside of us that calls out “an eye for an eye.” We must assure our own moral compass is finely-tuned.

Coexistence Is Not a Utopia

Incidentally, just days before the war began, I returned from a coexistence trip in the Galilee, where I was one of a cohort of Arab-Israelis and Jewish-Israelis camping together while teaching each other Hebrew and Arabic. After a beautiful shared experience, the war came as a tragic shock to our budding community on a unique level. The integration that felt so close as we laughed, ate, and hiked together suddenly seemed doomed to move devastatingly far. I grieve for my Jewish-Israeli loved ones, and recognize the trauma the October 7 carnage will inevitably inflict on Israel as a whole. I also grieve for my Arab friends, as I know Hamas’ atrocities will hinder the already fraught path to peace and incite intense backlash targeting Palestinians in the weeks and months to come.

Collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians in the path to peace is acutely needed, and intensely promising. Moderate majorities on both sides, though often quieter than radical voices, continue to hope for peace. Recent polling indicates the vast majority of Arab-Israelis oppose Hamas’ October 7 attack and support Israel’s right to defend itself, and half of the Gazan population would support a permanent two-state solution along the 1967 borders. Concurrently, months of Israeli protests decrying the proposed judicial overhaul testify that faith in democracy, and determination to protect it, are thriving within Jewish-Israeli society.

A sign in Kibbutz Ein-Shemer reads "Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies," May 2021

My coexistence community has brought me irreplaceable hope in recent weeks. While our cohort grew incredibly close during our trip, many of us have grown even closer in the wake of October 7 - checking in with each other regularly, and hosting virtual meetings to continue our language learning journey from afar. I’m still a shoddy Arabic speaker, but it’s undoubtedly the highlight of my day to sit down for each of our lessons, and I recognize the gravity that holds, as it’s difficult to find such moments of light in this dark hour.

Coexistence is not a utopia - or at least, need not be. The drive for cooperation remains strong, and the determination for peace resilient. Let us not forget that the only way forward is together.

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