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Hamas didn’t attack Israelis because they are Jewish

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Picture: Jewish Voice for Peace / X – Jewish protesters demand a Gaza cease-fire in Grand Central Station. We need a basic analysis of power and history to understand that Hamas’ attacks on Israeli civilians, while egregious, had nothing to do with those Israelis’ religion and everything to do with occupation and settler colonialism, the writer says.

By Anna Baltzer

I had just returned from a Jewish gathering calling for a ceasefire in Gaza when I received a startling text from a dear friend, Elena:

Anna, I went to Jewish services this morning, which allowed me to have more capacity to read your writing. I have been unexpectedly overcome with fear since October 7. As a Jew raised to believe Israel is the only safe place for us, it has taken much disciplined work as an adult to open my eyes to the oppressive colonial reality that Israel inflicts on Palestinians. I have this consciousness now. But October 7 activated my lizard brain and all my disciplined analysis was cut short by a primal fear. I think I’m coming back around.

In all my urgency, I’d neglected the core thing that needed tending to in my Jewish community: the assumption that Hamas’ attacks on October 7 were an expression of antisemitism, and thus, a threat to all of us.

Much of my family was killed in the Holocaust. On my grandparents’ wedding night, Hitler invaded their home country of Belgium. I grew up hearing my grandmother’s stories of narrowly escaping death at every turn, the wails of Jewish mothers over their dead children, fields of lifeless bodies. My grandparents arrived at Ellis Island traumatised by the unfathomable murder of their families in the gas chambers of Auschwitz while the world let it happen.

So I can understand why many of my fellow Jewish Americans’ limbic systems were triggered on October 7, especially in a world where antisemitism still very much exists, particularly in the context of white nationalism. A world where we are told the same story that Elena was, and where Palestinians are demonised to legitimise that story.

Jews can grieve for Israeli lives lost and refuse the weaponisation of that grief to commit genocide against Palestinians.

Antisemitism is defined as “discrimination against, violence toward, or stereotypes of Jews for being Jewish.” Let me be clear: Hamas’ killings of Israeli civilians were wrong, in clear violation of international law. But they weren’t about antisemitism.

The key thing to understand is that, in Israel/Palestine, unlike anywhere else in the world, Jewish people — specifically white Ashkenazi Jews — are the ones in power. Jewish Israelis are the occupiers and Palestinians are the occupied.

When I spent eight months in the West Bank documenting human rights abuses, I saw the way Israel controls every aspect of Palestinian life, separating Palestinians from their schools and hospitals; torching their olive groves; demolishing their homes; imprisoning them without trial; discriminating against Palestinian citizens of Israel; and bringing about the slow, sometimes quick, death of Palestinians in Gaza by cutting them off from the outside world, putting them on a collective “diet,” and periodically bombing civilian infrastructure, homes, and families.

Palestinians, of course, do not care what religion their occupiers are. Like all occupied people, they will resist whoever is occupying them. My mother’s cousin Marc, in the Belgian Resistance, did not stab a German soldier because the soldier was Christian. The very idea is ludicrous. We need a basic analysis of power and history to understand that Hamas’ attacks on Israeli civilians, while egregious, had nothing to do with those Israelis’ religion and everything to do with occupation and settler colonialism.

Hamas says as much in their perennially misquoted 2017 charter, which mentions Jews in one section:

Hamas affirms that its conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion. Hamas does not wage a struggle against the Jews because they are Jewish but wages a struggle against the Zionists who occupy Palestine. Yet, it is the Zionists who constantly identify Judaism and the Jews with their own colonial project and illegal entity.

Hamas rejects the persecution of any human being or the undermining of his or her rights on nationalist, religious, or sectarian grounds… antisemitism and the persecution of the Jews are phenomena fundamentally linked to European history and not to the history of the Arabs and the Muslims or to their heritage…

Today, President Biden’s refrain, “[October 7] was the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust,” while numerically true, is being promoted in a way that implies that the Jews killed on October 7 were killed because they were Jewish. This distortion serves a specific political agenda with disastrous consequences.

It is reinforced by widely cited reports by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a controversial Israel interest group that conflates criticism of Israeli state violence with instances of antisemitism, producing staggering statistics that are not only wildly distorted but that distract us from the fight against real antisemitism.

Cumulatively, these misportrayals have led to a “McCarthyite Backlash” consisting of blacklisting, death threats, accusations of terrorism, doxxing, and other intimidation tactics being wielded against people expressing even the most basic support for Palestinian freedom; a climate in which journalists are being fired, job offers rescinded, and everyday people are being denied the right to free speech and protest at a time when it is most needed.

I do not believe that US support for Israel is driven by concern for Jewish safety; it is driven by US imperial interests. Antisemitism is real, anti-Arab racism is real, and right now, two historically oppressed groups are being pitted against each other in service of white supremacy and colonialism. And misrepresentations of antisemitism are performing the central function of stopping well-intentioned people — Jews and non-Jews alike — from rising to the immense urgency of this moment to stop genocide and resist US imperialism.

There is no time for confusion. We must get clear that Israel’s wiping out of entire families in Gaza is not simply revenge for October 7; Israel is continuing its long-existing practice of forcing Palestinians out of Palestine and closing the door behind them.

Today’s events have given Israel the green light to accelerate its 75-year campaign of securing maximum land with minimum Palestinians. Top Israeli officials have long asserted Jewish people’s exclusive claim to all of historic Palestine, some calling for the erasure and wiping out of all Palestinians, with little Western outcry.

The majority of Palestinians are, in my experience, more able to distinguish between the Jewish people and Zionism than most people in the West are.

I understand that the nature of intergenerational trauma is that it is unconscious and not something we can simply turn off. In her book, Wounds into Wisdom: Healing Intergenerational Jewish Trauma, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone writes, “Hyperarousal can show up in any group that carries a history of near annihilation … what might be figuratively called limbic lava flows, and reasoned, well-considered responses are rarely made.”

In the words of Israeli journalist Amira Hass, we “at the same time [can strive to] be emotional and rational”. We must be disciplined to feel with our hearts and think with our heads. Jews can grieve for Israeli loved ones lost or held in Gaza and refuse the weaponisation of that grief to commit genocide against Palestinians (and I do not use that word lightly). Thousands of American Jews have found a way to do both.

I know that many well-intentioned non-Jews have been encouraged to “check in with your Jewish friends”. While many Jews you know may be having a trauma-informed response, and are more likely than most to know Israelis killed on October 7, it is not helpful to reinforce the idea that October 7 was an attack on world Jewry. You are not being an ally to Jews when you quietly watch Israel decimate Gaza. A future in which the world has watched Israel commit genocide against millions of Palestinians in the name of Jews everywhere is not a safer future for my Jewish children.

Israel’s policies have never been about Jewish safety. Does it make Jews safer to uproot Palestinians’ olive trees? Does it make Jewish Israelis safer to pay them to move to West Bank settlements to replace Palestinians? Does it make Jews safer to render Gaza uninhabitable? Of course not. These policies are consistent with a desire to remove Palestinians from their land —the same motivation behind Israel’s current carpet bombing and invasion of Gaza.

Many people and mainstream media are fixated on the need to hear from Palestinians that they oppose what Hamas did. I urge you to put yourselves in the shoes of Palestinians being asked to “audition” for their humanity as they experience their 76th year of deadly assault, asked to affirm Israeli life to prove themselves to a Western world that has shown total disregard for Palestinian life.

I will go further and say that, it doesn’t actually matter if Palestinians oppose Hamas. Palestinians do not have to earn their human rights. Nobody is circulating among the grieving Israeli families to ask if they oppose Zionism. Nobody is bringing up the politics of the Israelis killed – who, statistically, would have included many voters for Israel’s genocidal right wing – because there is no litmus test for Jewish Israelis’ humanity and right to live in safety.

I wonder why I did not share Elena’s reaction. I think it is because living in Palestine, over the course of thousands of interactions with Palestinians, I was universally welcomed as a Jew. While all people have the potential to internalise antisemitism, it is not something I personally experienced from Palestinians of any political party.

In fact, it is astonishing to me that in spite of Israel oppressing Palestinians in the name of all Jews, despite Israel working nonstop to conflate itself with all Jews, the majority of Palestinians are, in my experience, more able to distinguish between the Jewish people and Zionism than most people in the West are. It’s time for the rest of us to learn to distinguish, too.

Anna Baltzer is author of Witness in Palestine: A Jewish American Woman in the Occupied Territories and an award-winning public speaker on Israel/Palestine. She lives with her spouse and two daughters in California.

This article was published on Common Dreams