Guest Column / A War of Words


David Stromberg

   A war of words has exploded since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, 2023, and Israel set out on its fiercest response yet to the terrorist group—unleashing aerial bombings and a ground campaign Hamas has said it explicitly expected as a response. As thousands of rockets rained down on Israeli cities both in the north and south—most but not all of them intercepted—battles raged across the media in a war of public opinion that continues unabated. Debates erupted in which some justified Hamas’s massacre in the context of resistance, decolonization, or liberation, and others justified Israel’s response in the name of self-defense. But as words are deployed to fight these battles, what is sometimes elided is that war is itself a breakdown of language: a state of affairs that has precipitated precisely because communication no longer fulfills its function. And when language is itself rendered ineffectual, we have to choose our words that much more carefully.    As a Jewish writer living in Jerusalem, a city that came under direct rocket attacks on October 7 and has continued to be attacked intermittently since, I have corresponded with friends and colleagues across the globe. What I find most notable is the amount of reading people are doing about this specific conflagration. There is an implicit understanding that what’s taking place in Israel and Gaza is different than anything that has come before—and that this war, however and whenever it ends, will leave us all in an unprecedented new reality. The level of damage and destruction in Gaza, both in terms of human life and property, can barely be comprehended. Yet the labyrinthine terror infrastructure that is being uncovered under its ruins is just as unfathomable. The idea that Hamas can build as many tunnels as it wants as long as they don’t cross into Israel was proven fatefully wrong on that Black Shabbat, as it has come to be called here, and resulted in a military conflict unlike any faced by a modern army. Yes, the comparisons abound, yet there’s no comparable modern-day circumstance in which a terror army has been so fully enmeshed within civilian society and infrastructure. It simply doesn’t exist anywhere else. This, too, is part of what makes the current fighting so unprecedented. Israelis and Palestinians have, in this conflict, been initiated into a world that increasingly feels like two sides of a shared nightmare.    We see the images of Gaza’s destruction. But it’s hard to get across the way in which Israel has been damaged—partly because this damage is not always there for the eye to see. Words would seem to offer a way of getting some of that damage across, but I often find they fail me, as nothing I can say or write seems to convey the depth of the shock, sadness, and mourning hovering over people I see. Kids whose fathers are in the reserves, acquaintances whose sons are killed in fighting, strangers evacuated from their homes sitting at local cafés in Jerusalem. There’s a zombie-like feeling—a twilight-zonish, groundhog’s day existence where every day is again October 7. This doesn’t compare to the suffering of civilians in Gaza—the hunger, disease, death—the extreme humanitarian crisis caused by this war. But, when faced with this reality, there’s an overwhelming sense of powerlessness that many people in Israel feel. You don’t want Gazans to suffer. But you can’t imagine tens of thousands of Israelis, who lived in the south until just a few months ago, returning to the kind of terrorist threat that has defined their existence since the first Qassam rocket was launched over twenty years ago. So you get through another day, checking the news in the hopes that you don’t recognize one of the names of the soldiers who’ve died, nevertheless discovering that one of them was related to one of your friends, and reading even more essays and opinions about how things look from the outside.    Reading what people abroad have to say about your existence is itself a strange experience. It involves nurturing a sort of double consciousness in which you are constantly trying to see how things look from without while also knowing that these appearances do not, in themselves, convey the reality of what’s happening within. It also leads to thinking about how people’s scrutiny of your blind spots reflects their own. They may wonder how you can possibly live your “normal” life while ninety miles away people are fighting a war. But, having grown up in urban neighborhoods in Los Angeles, I often wondered how people could live peacefully just a mile or two away, while down the block, young boys involved in gang warfare died on a regular basis. People also don’t exactly define the word “normal.” In Israel, life has not been “normal” for a long time, and every little bit of “normality” results from an abnormal insistence on a semblance of what may be considered normal. In many senses, the conflict as a whole can itself be seen as a reflection of the Israeli desire for “normal” life in a region that has never shown any propensity for normalcy.    I read a lot of essays, as I said, but none disturbed me as much as did Masha Gessen’s “In the Shadow of the Holocaust” (The New Yorker, December 9, 2023). It wasn’t the comparison of Gaza to a ghetto—Michael Brizon had said it two years earlier, and less than a year ago Carolina Landsmann had used the same imagery to describe Israel—all of which merely indicates that, if there was ever a taboo about using such language—it was used in a Salmagundi essay on Israel almost a decade ago—it now has no force at all. Not so disturbing was the comparison between the Jewish Ghetto Police and Hamas’s terrorists, who are described almost quaintly as “a local force”—making the analogy nearly laughable. But what did unnerve me was this short sentence: “The ghetto is being liquidated.” The term “ghetto,” as deployed by Gessen, could at least be read as a kind of metaphor, or simile, not exact, but perhaps suggestive. But with the statement “the ghetto is being liquidated” Gessen moves beyond metaphor or analogy. Doing no less than accusing Israel of systematic and institutionalized human extermination.    I had trouble sleeping that night and, every time I awoke, I thought again about that accusation. I wanted to believe that it appeared in the essay merely as a rhetorical flourish. A provocation, perhaps. But when I reread it the next morning, I wasn’t sure. Apart from that sentence, I saw little controversial in the piece. The question of German or Polish politicians misusing Holocaust memory to suppress free speech was nothing new. The critique of Germany’s so-called Staatsraison—the state’s raison d’être as unconditional support of the State of Israel—had already been argued succinctly by Sabine Broeck in an address that appeared online a week earlier. The criticism of Israel’s right-wing policies over the last decade-and-a-half could be found in countless opinion pieces, both in Israel and abroad. Actually, when you took away that sentence—“The ghetto is being liquidated”—the essay lost most of its shock value. What made it stand out among most think pieces written about the war between Israel and Hamas was that, beyond comparing the actions of the Israeli government to the crimes of the Nazis, it openly and unabashedly accused Israel of literally committing those very same crimes.    The mental acrobatics that brings thinking people to such shocking statements sometimes forces us, fellow writers and intellectuals, to undertake a more critical analysis of the writing itself. So I went back to the essay for a third time, trying to glean not only its ideas, but also the method it deployed to get to them. I looked, for example, at a sentence like, “Throughout the Polish Holocaust-memory wars, Israel maintained friendly relations with Poland.” And then I thought of the revisionist laws in which Poland’s far-right government made it illegal to say that Polish people were “responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich.” With this in view it seemed to me that Gessen’s statement was at best misinformed. Though I am loathe to defend him, it happens to be that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had initially protested the law, with a member of his Likud party—one of his most loyal lapdogs—creating a diplomatic debacle on his first day as Foreign Minister by saying that Polish people “sucked anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk.” And though Netanyahu, in his usual slimy way, did find a way to maintain his alliance with his illiberal allies, the debate in Israel never ended. But the paragraph in which this sentence appeared functioned in an even more insidious manner—it equated Netanyahu with Israel—first using the word “Israel,” then describing Netanyahu’s policies, all in one breath, as if the country’s leader represented the soul of its people. Anyone who has spent any time reading anything about Israel over the past decade and a half knows that the reign of Benjamin Netanyahu has been accompanied by increasing protests and fears over the extremism of his policies. Equating him with Israel plays into the image he tries to propagate as the country’s only legitimate leader—like equating Putin with Russia. By using the words “Israel” and “Netanyahu” interchangeably, Gessen actually reinforces his false claim to uniquely represent the nation.    Having noticed this, I began looking through the piece for other linguistic sleights of hand that might lead to misimpressions. At one point, I saw that Gessen, while ostensibly qualifying the use of the Holocaust by both Netanyahu and Putin as a way of justifying military action, appeared to admit that “Russia’s claims … are false” while “Hamas … is a tyrannical power that attacked Israel and committed atrocities that we cannot yet fully comprehend”—but then just as quickly dismissed these crucial differences by asking whether they “matter when the case being made is for killing children.” But this presumes that a case was actually being made for killing children. The fact that children are dying, which is horrible, does not make their death the goal of the military action—as was the case in the Holocaust, and, for that matter, during Hamas’s attack.    Just as before, a linguistic sleight of hand moved the comparison into the realm of accusation. So that it seemed important—to me at any rate—to look back at Gessen’s earlier work on Israel and to discover what she has perhaps been building towards. For example, in a discussion of German activities against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, Gessen acknowledges that “some B.D.S. supporters envision a total undoing of the Zionist project.” That word, “project,” dropped into the sentence in an almost casual manner, would suggest a perspective that dismisses seventy-five years of Israel’s existence as a state that now includes over seven million Jews. In this sense, a phrase like “undoing of the Zionist project” itself represents a willfully revisionist notion of history, relating to the presence of Jews in the region as might have been conceivable a hundred years ago, when a Jewish state was still an idea, and not the reflection of a reality in which Israel is a small but robust nation. A project can perhaps be undone, but Israel is clearly not a project: for millions of human beings, Israel is their only home in the world.    At this point, I began to suspect that Gessen’s argument—presented as being occasioned by a trip to Europe—rests on preexisting convictions about Israel. Gessen’s first article written in the wake of the October 7 attacks focused on the difficulty of anti-occupation activists in dealing with the atrocities absorbed by Israeli society alongside the severity of Israel’s military response in Gaza, and the second one with an Israeli “crackdown” on free speech in the wake of its military campaign. Both pieces were “reported” by proxy—mainly by quoting phone conversations with local activists—rather than from the ground. The only piece I saw that referenced being in Israel was from 2019, in an essay on Donald Trump’s executive order on antisemitism, which—perhaps unsurprisingly—rested on a similar argument to the one that raised so much controversy. Referring to a tour of the West Bank aiming “to show … what the occupation looks like,” Gessen describes a harrowing scene of settler land appropriation, then reflects: “Comparing this sort of approach to Nazi policies may not make for the most useful argument, but it is certainly not outlandish.” Unlike in the piece on the so-called “politics of memory,” Gessen admits that the argument needs fleshing out, and, from today’s perspective, it reads like an initial impression that is developed with the years. In 2019, still reflecting more spontaneously on the Holocaust, Gessen adds: “The memory of the Holocaust stands as a warning to humanity about the dangers of dehumanizing the other—and invoking that warning in Palestine is warranted.” This reflects gross flattening of the issues at hand. Though it’s difficult to deny the two separate ideas—that the Holocaust stands as a warning to humanity and that a warning against dehumanizing Palestinians (and anyone) is always warranted—I cannot ignore the fact that, in this context, the intention is to suggest, imply, that Israel intends to do to Palestinians what Nazis did to Jews. Is this merely invoking a warning? Perhaps. Or is it tantamount to charging an entire nation with the same crime that was perpetrated against them?    Important in Gessen’s latest essay is the justification resting upon the invocation of Hannah Arendt as a predecessor in comparing Israelis to Nazis. Gessen quotes Arendt in two separate sections. In the first, Gessen cites Arendt’s 1948 open letter about “the emergence in the newly created state of Israel of … a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy, and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.” Gessen picks up on the Nazi part of the comparison alone—so as to suggest that Israel’s crimes are worthy of that comparison. But Arendt, in her seminal Origins of Totalitarianism, made a clear distinction between the Nazi and Fascist parties, noting that “Mussolini . . did not attempt to establish a full-fledged totalitarian regime and contented himself with dictatorship and one-party rule.” For Arendt, who was researching her book at the same time that she was writing this open letter, the distinction between fascism and totalitarianism was far from trivial. Arendt’s mention of the Nazi and Fascist parties in her open letter referred specifically to the methods of autocratic regimes, as well as their appeal to the populace, not to the specific crimes that one or the other committed. It is one thing to say that Netanyahu is using methods similar to those used by Mussolini or other autocratic leaders in their rise to power. It’s another to say that Israel, as an entity, is exterminating Palestinians the way that the Nazis exterminated Jews in Europe. That was not an accusation Arendt levelled at an Israeli political party.    In another section, Gessen refers to Arendt’s 1961 report on the Adolf Eichmann trial, claiming that the infamous phrase, “the banality of evil,” reflected Arendt’s assessment that “Eichmann was no devil, that perhaps the devil didn’t exist.” This may well have been the case for Arendt, but it ignores the fact that in the sixty years since, considerable research has been undertaken on the topic—culminating, in many ways, with Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem, which traces Eichmann’s life from the rise of the Nazi party to his capture in Argentina by using archival material, historical documents, and his own journals. As Strangneth writes in her introduction, “Eichmann-in-Jerusalem was little more than a mask.” She suggests that, faced with evil incarnate, Arendt fell into its trap, taking Eichmann and his words at face value. Strangneth argues that Eichmann’s diabolical evil consisted in the fact that “even someone of average intelligence can induce a highly intelligent person to defeat herself with her own weapon: her desire to see her expectations fulfilled.” Reading this, I couldn’t help wondering whether Gessen, too, had fallen for the trap set by Hamas—seeing not their terrifying malevolence, which had embarked on this attack fully knowing its consequences for Gaza’s civilians, but only the so-called Nazi crimes of Israel’s response.

   Like Gessen’s family, mine comes from the USSR, and I’ve often considered the difficult reality that they survived partly thanks to being on the Soviet side of the border. I think, too, about the Belgian Holocaust survivor I met years ago, who told me that, had he had a choice, he would have picked Stalin over Hitler, because, despite the deportations of Jews to Central Asia by the Soviets during WWII, more people survived the war in the USSR than in Europe—which meant that, statistically, his siblings would have had a better chance of still being alive. Israelis today are stuck between an autocratic leader who has done more damage to the country’s civil society than any individual in the state’s history, and attacks on at least seven separate fronts as part of a concerted military effort to “undo” the “Zionist project.” None of this justifies the killing of civilians—and certainly not children—either Palestinian or Israeli. We are living through an unprecedented event and part of the problem is that language has not yet been invented to describe what’s happening outside our windows. Our period is unlike any that has been experienced by the majority of people currently alive. Even people who have actually survived the actual Holocaust are at a loss for words. Much of the current reality, certainly as it exists for ordinary Jews in Israel, is absent from Gessen’s essay. Why that should be I cannot say. Why does she not acknowledge that Jews in Israel fear that October 7th portends another extermination, or holocaust? If analogies are to be invoked, why not that one?    In an essay devoted to similarities between the Holocaust and the war now taking place between Israel and Hamas, the absence of any serious consideration of Hamas’s actions is glaring. Yes, the word “Hamas” appears a few times in critical terms—as if it were necessary to pay lip service to condemning their actions simply because what they did was so horrendous that it couldn’t be completely ignored—yet the only time that the connection between Hamas and the Holocaust is mentioned is as a dig at a comment by Netanyahu. Gessen’s essay lacks any real exploration of why both sides are using Holocaust imagery as a potent symbol for describing this war’s atrocities. Why do Israelis and Palestinians both use the most gruesomely efficient genocide in human history to get at the truth of the present conflict?    Beyond the specificity of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, there’s also the constant fear of a broader threat looming just behind the fighting. People’s concerns over the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the increasing settler attacks in the West Bank are accompanied by the growing realization that the October 7 attack was connected to powerful forces in the region, particularly those emanating from Iran and Russia. South Africa’s genocide case against Israel has left many people speechless, especially as the provisional proceedings revealed that the case’s actual aim is not to prove genocide but to force an immediate ceasefire, so that even progressives accuse the South African plaintiffs of abusing the postwar legal order. What will come of such efforts no one can predict. Though there is increasing talk about “the day after,” each new day brings with it a new round of proposals, and only this morning, as I write on January 21st, I read of a growing movement within Israel itself that is willing to agree to a long-term end to the fighting if all remaining Israeli hostages will be released. How such an agreement might be met by Hamas, let alone by Hezbollah and other factions, is of course unknowable.