The majority, probably even the vast majority, of what we call the left has denounced Hamas’s attacks on Israel and has no trouble holding in its collective head two ideas at the same time: that Israel’s blockade of Gaza is a complete moral horror, and that what Hamas did last weekend is its own moral horror and utterly without justification. But what to make of the defenses and even celebrations of Hamas’s attacks by a few leftists?
This isn’t hard or complicated. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez expressed it perfectly in her criticism of the Times Square rally last weekend where there was so much Hamas cheerleading: “The bigotry and callousness expressed in Times Square on Sunday were unacceptable and harmful in this devastating moment. It also did not speak for the thousands of New Yorkers who are capable of rejecting both Hamas’s horrifying attacks against innocent civilians as well as the grave injustices and violence Palestinians face under occupation.”
The people refusing to hold these two ideas in their heads—a number of Democratic Socialists of America leaders and members, some prominent academics, a couple left-wing Israeli groups, the Chicago Black Lives Matter chapter, and assorted campus leftists—are smart enough to do so. So why don’t they?
There are a lot of stated justifications—that the occupation is uniquely evil, that the Palestinians are so dispossessed that they are justified in meeting violence with violence, and so on. But I submit that behind the justifications sits one basic reason. These are people who reject universalism—the conviction that certain ideas and principles have a universal value that transcends nations, borders, bloodlines.
I understand where the position comes from historically. But it is insupportable both philosophically and practically, and the rejection of universalist principles will result—I would go so far as to say will always, unfailingly result—in movements that might triumph against their oppressor in the short term but in the long term become regimes that are reactionary, sanguinary, and enemies of progressive values. Is that really the side progressive people want to be on?
Hamas, in fact, is already all three of those things. Of course the main oppressor of the people of Gaza is Israel. But Hamas administers the area, and its record is grim. Elections have been promised and canceled (this is true of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank as well). Corruption is staggering. And as for free speech and women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, things are as retrograde as you’d expect. Start with this 2021 decision by a Hamas court holding that women cannot travel without a male guardian, then move to this damning Amnesty International report from last year.
People in the West who don’t understand all this, or who do understand it and choose to excuse it, are dishonoring the very principles that all progressive people are duty bound to defend. At best they’re being naïve. As Jamie Raskin put it to me Wednesday evening, referring to the Times Square rally: “Hamas would have gladly slaughtered everyone at that rally just like they slaughtered all of the progressive young people at the music concert in Israel.”
Short version of a long history: Originally it was the left, the idea of which was really born with the French Revolution, that promoted universalism. The argument that rights were universal served the left’s purposes well as long as conflicts were intranational (the French Revolution) or within a mutually understood or shared set of religious and civic traditions (the American Revolution).
But in the twentieth century, conflicts became international and inter-traditional. They gained a colonialist and, make no mistake, deeply racist overlay. Arguments arose from the Western left (Jean-Paul Sartre, notably) and from a new group of intellectuals from the developing world that universalism was a Western fiction, a bourgeois ruse; that we could not expect people who were not steeped in Western traditions, especially when living under a brutal and unyielding occupation (by an “enlightened” Western power, no less), to adhere to these values. The real-life Ho Chi Minh and the fictionalized Ali La Pointe became heroes to this left. The Palestinian resistance took shape during that same period, the mid-1960s, so the trip from there to the kinds of defenses of Hamas we’re seeing now is a fairly short one.
The Israeli occupation, particularly the premeditated and carefully thought-through cruelty of its Gaza manifestation, is without question the first-order offense here. Among the things it is an offense to, I would argue, is universalism. When Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant refers to Gaza Palestinians—all Gaza Palestinians, including children, including cancer patients who need to go to the hospital—as “human animals,” he is being as anti-universalist as a person can be. What Israel is apparently gearing up to do right now—on Thursday, it ominously warned Gazans in the north to relocate, and according to Haaretz, the number of Palestinian dead is already higher than the number of Israelis killed last weekend—is going to be hideous. And it’s worth remembering that lots of people in this country who are far more prominent than some DSA members are cheering on this violence.
Still, none of that permits us to say, under any circumstances, that the murder of babies and children is excusable. Never.
A line has crept into the discourse in the past week that violence “is never acceptable.” In truth, that just isn’t the case. The world often accepts and venerates violence. And sometimes it’s necessary. I’m quite glad that the Union Army chose violence after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, and that the world’s democracies decided that violence was the way to answer Hitler and Tojo.
There are different forms of violence. Violence against slaveholders or fascist dictators is one thing. Violence against babies is quite another. And sure, to decide which form of violence is acceptable and which is not constitutes sliding along the proverbial slippery slope. But it is exactly these distinctions that intellectuals and engaged activists are supposed to make, and if we can’t make them, we enter a deep moral abyss.