The real terrorist network

Rembrandt, Sacrifice of Abraham, 1655. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
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By STEPHEN F. EISENMAN*

Some Jews and many Gentiles think the bond between American Jews and Israelis is natural and inevitable, even atavistic.

Hamas' October 7th attack

The numbers are grim and the details are worse: 1.400 dead (1100 civilians, 300 soldiers) and 240 taken hostage. The victims at the music festival Supernova Sukkot They were just kids – sweet ones too: lefties, hippies, peaceniks. First, they fled; then they were caught and slaughtered. The other attacks against civilians were equally gratuitous – against children, their parents and grandparents in their homes.

It was like a pogrom of the Cossacks in the pale of Imperial Russia. Or how the executions of Einsatzgruppen and the Waffen SS, who followed the German Wehrmacht, as she swept through Jewish districts in Eastern Europe during World War II. In all cases, the deaths were crude and gratuitous.

But there is a difference. In those earlier cases, the Jews were weak and their oppressors were strong. This time, it's the opposite. Palestinians are weak and Jews are strong. The Israeli army is the best in the Middle East. It is as if the Jews of Warsaw, in August 1944, escaped their ghetto, crossed the Oder River and murdered German women, children, teenagers and elderly people – or took them hostage.

But this comparison is also not right. Hamas is a state actor, not a desperate militia. They seized power in Gaza after the 2006 parliamentary elections and took full control the following year. Since then, they have fought against their Palestinian rivals from Fatah, as well as other militant Islamic groups. thanks to transfers from Israel, they have a lot of money. They also have many weapons.

In addition to truck-mounted machine guns and small arms, its militants can fire long-range rockets, mortars and grenades. They have access to improvised explosive devices, drones and anti-tank missiles. They have built and control an extensive network of tunnels and deploy cyber attacks and espionage. On October 7th, they set up simultaneous and complex attacks against several Israeli military guard posts and drove vehicles through border fences and other barriers to reach their targets. They had physical maps and electronic communication to guide them.

The U.S. State Department designated Hamas a terrorist organization in 1997. In 2001, a Hamas operative placed a bomb in a Tel Aviv nightclub, killing 21 people. Over the next two decades, bus bombings in Israel killed and injured hundreds. But calling Hamas a terrorist group is wrong for two reasons.

Firstly because the group is more like a well-trained army, as we have seen, than a network of fanatical bomb throwers. And second, because the use of the term “terrorist” whitewashes the much greater chaos perpetrated by powerful states.

When the US bombed civilian populations – as they did in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, El Salvador, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, El Salvador e até Grenada – claimed “reason for being” and mainly escaped disapproval or sanction. With US support, Israel is currently bombing the densely populated Gaza Strip. More than 10.000 civilians have been killed so far, according to Hamas, more than a third of them children. The US and its allies – including Israel – make up what Edward S. Herman,  in 1983, he called it “the real terrorist network.” US victims number in the millions.

Whether conducted by the United States, Israel, Russia, Palestine or dozens of other states or non-state authorities, war today is a version of terrorism. Little distinction is made between combatants and noncombatants, and legal determinations of responsibility are generally made, if at all, after the fact, by the victors. “There will be plenty of time to make assessments about how these operations were conducted,” US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken blithely stated on November 6. The lime has already started.

Hamas' attack on Israel is reprehensible. It is also consistent with modern warfare. He was led for one reason: to prevent a possible treaty – an expansion of the Abraham Accords – to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Such an agreement would ignored the Palestinian struggle for emancipation and further isolated Iran, one of Hamas' allies.

Hamas certainly knew that its attack would lead to fierce Israeli reprisals, possibly even an invasion. But they figured that, whatever it took, it was worth it. When the war finally ends, Israel may be more willing than ever to negotiate a solution to the long and bloody dispute over Palestine.

Indeed, the higher the death toll on both sides, they probably reasoned, the more likely accommodation was. At the  However, they may be mistaken. Postwar conditions may end up little changed from prewar conditions, except with many thousands of Palestinians dead, hundreds of thousands homeless, and Israel or its Middle Eastern allies policing Gaza.

A Yeshiva boy

Every American Jew learns about Israel in childhood. I don't remember much about my first exposure, but it must have come in the context of a family discussion (this would have been in the early 1960s) about Jewish identity and anti-Jewish prejudice.

If we saw a movie or TV show featuring a Jewish actor or entertainer – Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas Dinah Shore, Woody Allen – that fact was mentioned approvingly, unless the person was considered low-brow, like Milton Berle or Danny Kaye , in which case there would be a tongue fingering. If a right-wing or Republican politician was seen or mentioned – Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, George Wallace – it was followed by the (usually accurate) words “anti-Semitic.” What happened when the State of Israel was invoked. It was the place where Jews were safe and respected, and where they could find refuge if things in the US went sideways.

The “Law of Return”, approved in 1950 by the Knesset Israeli, was a stroke of marketing genius. Jews around the world were immediately given a second nationality and a real or imagined place of refuge – Palestinians be damned. The injustice that we could “return” to a territory we had never inhabited, while Palestinians were prevented from returning to the land from which they had recently been expelled, never entered our minds.

And even if it had, we would never have demanded that sovereignty over the land of Israel be shared with the exiled Palestinian population. Our anti-Arab prejudice was overcome only by the strength of our memories. The Holocaust was less than a generation away and we knew many survivors.

There was the silver-haired Hungarian Mrs. Block in apartment 2R below us; the cheerful Mrs. Schlesinger, and her dog Socrates who had his own phone number – you could look him up “in the book”. And there stood the tall, stern doorman; because he was a Pole and a Gentile, we were admonished to approach him with caution. I was once scolded by my mother for asking him about the blue numbers on his arm.

In 1966, I began to yeshiva – an Orthodox after-school program at the small Temple Shalom in Forest Hills. I was sent there because it was close and cheap. If I continued with my classes, I would be prepared three years later for my Bar Mitzvah. I enjoyed learning Hebrew, which I was wrongly taught was the historical language of the Jews. (Between about 200 and 1900, it was only a liturgical language; it was revived by the Zionists.) But regular religious worship was not pleasant in the extreme. No one in my family believed in God or regularly attended services, not even my Eastern European grandparents who still spoke some Yiddish. From my earliest memory, I was a proud atheist.

The only godly student in my class yeshiva it was Samuel or Shmu'el. He was small for his age and wore thick glasses. He refused to say the word “God” out loud because it was too holy, so instead, he would substitute “Hashem” (Hebrew for “the name”). We teased him by pulling a nickel out of his ear and asking, “What’s written to the left of Thomas Jefferson’s nose?” He stammered jokingly: “In Hashem ww-we, trust.” Or we would stop him on the way home and ask, “What song is that Kate Smith always sings?” “Hashem Bless America“, he would respond.

We were smart and good kids at school, Shmu'el included. We follow political events and know a little about the history, but we never discussed – or knew anything about – the Nakba or “catastrophe” that befell Palestinian society and made the State of Israel possible. Between 1947 and '49, some 750.000 people out of a population of 1,9 million were displaced, 15.000 killed, and 530 Palestinian towns and villages destroyed.

During the Six Day War, in June 67, we returned to yeshiva – even with the school closed – to follow events closely. I remember Rabbi Sanders standing in front of a blackboard, erasing the x's and y's that represented Egyptian planes and tanks, and counting the dead Syrian, Jordanian, and Egyptian soldiers. When Israel quickly prevailed, we celebrated as if the last-place New York Mets had won the World Series, which they would do two years later. We exult in the territorial expansion of the Land of Israel and could not care less about Palestinian civilians killed, injured or displaced.

It would be at least a decade or more before I began to doubt Israel's righteousness. The key event for me was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, followed by the  Sabra and Shatila massacres, carried out by Lebanese Christian militias with the tacit approval of the Israel Defense Forces. The succession of Israeli blockades and attacks on Gaza between 2007 and 2014 confirmed my view that Israel was an occupying power, determined to impose a policy of apartheid.

The long government of corrupt and incompetent president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and the incompetent and corrupt Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, made the current war inevitable. Today, Netanyahu and his neofascist regime they have alienated many American Jews who were once Israel's strongest supporters.

American Jews' Attachment to Israel

Some Jews and many Gentiles (e.g., Donald Trump) think that the bond between American Jews and Israelis is natural and inevitable, even atavistic: based on blood or race. This is nonsense, of course. Judaism is a religion, not a race, and in any case, there is no biological race. (The validity of the category was first refuted by Franz Boas in 1928.)

The Jewish diaspora does not even have a common lineage. Ashkenazi Jews (those from Central and Eastern Europe, currently about 70% of the total) are genetically heterogeneous and have little connection to the Jews of the ancient Near East. A study in Nature Communications, suggests that modern Ashkenazim originated in prehistoric Europe, not the Levant. In other words, the genetic origin of most modern Jews was not Jewish!

A more common belief is that American Jews revere Israel and Zionism because of cultural and religious solidarity. The position is understandable. American Jews number only about 7,5 million, or just 2% of the total US population, with half of them in New York and California. My chance of accidentally encountering another Jew while crossing the US from Micanopy, Florida, where I live, to the California border is extremely small. In rural Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, synagogues are harder to find than electric vehicle charging stations.

In fact, today, except for the Orthodox and Hasidic sects, American Jews are no longer Zionists than non-Jews. They are evangelical Christians, Christian Zionists and dispensationalists who are Israel's most ardent supporters, and this is because they see the State as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and the future place of the “rapture“, when will the Jews be  overturned to hell and Christians ascend to heaven.

The new Speaker of the U.S. House, Mike Johnson of Louisiana, is a dispensationalist who believes that during the final stage of historical development, or “dispensation,” the world will be destroyed by flames and Christ will return to Israel to establish a new heaven and land, populated by those who have been born again. Johnson is a supporter of Israel and supports a new military aid package – as long as the money comes from the IRS budget, revealing the limits of his faith; the tax man is feared more than the Messiah is desired.

The real basis of American Jewish attraction to Israel is the fear of anti-Semitism in the United States. The concern is not trivial. Jews had been shunned, fought against, and oppressed since their first arrival in the American colonies. Peter Stuyvesant, governor of New Amsterdam (later New York) called them “enemies and blasphemers” and tried in 1655 to stop Jews from emigrating to the colony.

So when some came anyway, he levied a special tax on them. Two centuries later, General Ulysses Grant issued an order expelling Jews from the southern territories under his control. (Lincoln revoked the order.) During and after the surge in Jewish migration from Eastern Europe between about 1880 and 1920, anti-Semitism in the United States increased significantly. Jews were discriminated against in employment, education, and housing, denied membership in private clubs, and “restricted” from many hotels and restaurants.

The lynching of Leo Frank in Atlanta in 1915, following his wrongful conviction for murder, marked a new low point in Jewish-American life. The assassination precipitated the revival of Ku Klux Klan and the widespread spread of anti-Semitic attitudes during the interwar years, promoted by prominent figures such as Henry Ford, Charles Coughlin, and Charles Lindberg. 

Research at the time indicated that a strong majority of Americans considered Jews “greedy,” “dishonest,” and “aggressive.” It would take a world war and widespread revulsion against Hitler and the genocide of the Jews to break the spell of US anti-Semitism. However, a recent ADL survey indicates a significant increase in anti-Semitic attitudes. While the research is flawed – it essentially equates anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism – Jews themselves detect an increase in anti-Semitic attitudes and behavior.

Among the many tragedies of Hamas' October 7 attack, and Israel's retaliatory program, is that they can strengthen American Jewish and evangelical support for the country by ensuring continued US military and diplomatic aid to the government. most racist and expansionist Israel has ever known. This makes the case for an immediate ceasefire and peace negotiations even more urgent. At stake is the survival of the Palestinian people and the reconstitution of Israeli democracy.

*Stephen F. Eisenman is professor of art history at Northwestern University. Author, among other books, of The cry of nature: art and the making of animal rights (reaction).

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on the portal counter punch.


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