After October 7: the Palestinian question and the Jewish question

Two months after 7 October, Bruno Karsenti describes the turning point that such an event represents for Israel and the Diaspora. An existential coordinate of the Jewish world has been shaken, and although the reaction of the Israeli people and their State was immediate and strong, what happened nonetheless calls for a fresh look at the constraints and duties weighing on the Jewish world in its entirety. This also means, and no doubt above all, looking at the Palestinian question differently from the way we have done up to now. 


Jerusalem, Kotel, 1917. Wikipedia Commons


As soon as the acts perpetrated by Hamas commandos in southern Israel on 7 October became public knowledge, astonishment triggered the need to qualify and name them in accordance with their nature. Anti-Zionist opinion had no hesitation: it immediately converted them into “acts of resistance”, their violence and cruelty being understood only in the light of the prior and equally unheard-of oppression suffered by the Palestinians since the creation of the Jewish State. This was not the case for the majority of Western opinion, particularly that held by governments in Europe and the United States. Overall, the shock was great and provoked reflection. People tried to assess the scale of the indiscriminate violence and the passion for extermination that had been unleashed. And so, the search began for the right word to describe the event. 

A problem of qualification 

Some people, both Jews and non-Jews, immediately recognised in the events the ancient experience of the pogrom. The reference was not without raising objections – particularly on the part of defenders of Palestinian rights, who feared that it amounted to an “instrumentalisation of the memory of the Holocaust” in encoding a conflict whose perception would thereby be distorted. Those who raised these objections were eager to point out that a pogrom in the strict sense of the term, for any population whatsoever, only exists when the victim is a minority in a context where the persecutors – whether popular uprisings, organised armed gangs or a mixture of the two – belong to the majority group. Since the violence took place on Israeli territory, this was not the case on 7 October. Therein lies the notable difference with the pogroms recorded in modern and contemporary history, whether they concerned Jews or other peoples. 

And yet this is precisely what makes the category meaningful. The distortion it undergoes on this point (and on this point alone) makes it possible to grasp two things: the extent to which the act, by its modus operandi, has something classic about it, underpinned by a tradition of collective violence against certain minorities, including Jews, and the extent to which, by its singular location, it is actually new, with regard to Jews and the recurrent experience they have of this type of crime. 

The term pogrom refers to what happened to Jewish communities in Russia and Ukraine between the end of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century. It was during this period that a lexical category was formed that could be applied in a backwards direction, making it easier to read Jewish history in its entirety, from the first century AD to the present day, with the Shoah as its climax. It was from this point onwards that the expression came to be applied to other minority groups who were victims of similar crimes. 

For the Jews, however, the term’s impact was at its most intense for a reason that is worth emphasising. Living in exile since the loss of the temple and the kingdom of Israel in 70, what the Jews refer to as their condition of Galut, means being exposed to exactly that: to the ever-present possibility of a pogrom, as well as to an explosion of violence of which the host environment is always capable, according to the alliances in hatred that can bring together diverse groups, with or without the support of the authorities in place. In this sense, it can be said that pogrom and Galut are linked. Together, they define the constitutive absence of security, the insecurity that can at best be limited, but not cancelled, for this people who, deprived of sovereignty, is structurally and not merely conjuncturally a minority. 

Achraf Bazani, ‘Into the Abyss’, 2014, WikiArt

The creation of the Jewish State, and therefore of Jewish sovereignty, was in this respect the great new feature around which the entire post-Shoah era was organised. Not  a theological State equivalent to the restored kingdom, Zionism, a secretion of modern European thought, aims at nothing other than a state governed by the rule of law in which religion does not constitute the law.- Rather  it is a political artifice that locally modifies fundamental Jewish insecurity, which Europe had made more extreme than it had ever been, Germany having raised the exterminating dynamic of the pogrom to the level of a planned state policy on a continental scale. The breaking point was this: there is one place in the world where pogroms are in principle neutralised, and that is the place where Jews are in the majority and have state sovereignty. It is a paradoxical place, however, because for the Jews, being in the majority can only be a temporary exception. It is superimposed on a self-perception which remains shaped by the minority ethos, the ineliminable basis of the Jewish condition, since it is an integral part of the way in which the people conceives of itself and organises itself globally, spread as it is throughout the world. This is the point that must be understood: the exilic condition of the Jews persists, even as the state of Israel comes into existence. And the difficulty is that it persists for Israeli Jews themselves, not insofar as they are citizens of this State, but simply insofar as they are Jews. In other words, insofar as they belong to the same people as those in the Diaspora. 

It has come to pass since 1948 that the Jews, somewhere, are now in the majority, quantitatively and qualitatively, demographically and politically. The qualitative dimension can take on several meanings (involving religious and cultural factors of varying degree and nature). It should be noted, however, that this is not an ambiguity peculiar to this state, since it is consubstantial with the idea of the ‘majority’ present in any national-state configuration and with the kind of hegemony that correlates with it. What is singular about this case, however, is that the Jewish conjunctural majority keeps within itself the remnant of the structural minority: it is the theological mark, in a sense, that remains active in this construction of a modern state that is constitutively secular. 

This is not political theology – no part of theology passes into law – but it is politics which, by calling itself Jewish, assumes its exceptionality with regard to ordinary Jewish existence: Galut and pogrom can therefore be dissociated in one part of the world, as long as a Jewish State exists. 

Existential security: the latest developments 

This can have a number of consequences for the form and nature of the State, and for its domestic and foreign politics. The currents of Israeli politics, insofar as they remain within the orbit of Zionism, have been divided and in conflict on this subject since the beginning of the country’s history. In this respect, they inherit the contradictory options of the Zionist movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. These differences can be very significant, in that they present more or less consistent versions of the way in which modern politics and Judaism are composed. This has direct repercussions on the social processes of integration at work in the country, and therefore on the way in which the Palestinian question is approached. Be that as it may, at a preliminary level, the important thing is to understand that the Jewish State is not a negation of Galut, otherwise it would no longer be Jewish. For the laity themselves – and we can say for the laity above all, insofar as they are Jews – the end of the exile is in the hands of God, not of men. Paradoxically, the theological feature here entails a ban on political theology. And it is a feature that, in law, is embraced by everyone, irrespective of the question of who is religious and who is not. The fact that those who currently refer to themselves as “religious Zionists” are defecting from it – introducing a messianism in which Israel would achieve the end of Galut – means in this respect nothing other than their withdrawal from the Zionist paradigm, which in fact they themselves assume when they speak of a “new Israel”. 

The real novelty of building a Jewish state, by contrast, is that the human politics of the Jews can effectively neutralise the pogrom. Here, the Jews have dared to intervene, to take charge of their own worldly destiny, to act autonomously. But they did so in order to produce this security in the Jewish sense, this security that comes down to no longer being exposed, somewhere, to the specific form of violence that is the pogrom. 

The fact is that this security in the Jewish sense, collectively conceived and perceived, has to be paid for by an increase in the objective insecurity of individuals, Israel being a country which has known frequent armed conflicts and which has been in a state of quasi-war since its foundation, with the population subjected to recurrent missile attacks and bombings. This does nothing to detract from the Zionist conquest: security in the Jewish sense is achieved there, more and better than in any centre of the Diaspora, the most preserved and peaceful imaginable. Even the American centre, which at certain points in its history appeared to be the other exception, has not been able to fulfil this role over the long term. For there can be no Jewish security in this specific collective sense, other than that which the Jews, present to themselves in this way in their State as they cannot be anywhere else, take upon themselves, without relying on anyone else. 

It was this very structure that was undermined on 7 October, for the first time in the new era of Jewish history that began in 1948. In the self-perception of the Jews, a pogrom in Israel upset the balance that had been established in their condition as a people. The entire Jewish world – whether individuals support Zionism or not, regardless of where they live – is affected. An existential coordinate has shifted. Today, it must be fixed anew. The balance must be restored – which, as a direct result of the aggression of 7 October, had to begin by engaging in a war aimed at annihilating the aggressor and securing the borders. 

But this restoration, however reassuring it may be in satisfying the aims of the war, will not erase what the earthquake opened up and made present to all consciences. What political consequences will result from this new awareness? What transformation of the policy of the Jewish State, that is to say of its fundamental orientations – since it is nothing less than a reformulation of Zionism, whose momentum on the 1948 axis cannot fail to undergo an inflection after 2023 – will we witness? 


Of course, it is impossible to say so soon after the event. What is certain is that there will inevitably be a transformation, since the earthquake was profound and affected the foundations. Describing the turning point that has been reached, with the options that it entails, and with due reserve for the course that the war will take and its repercussions, is nevertheless possible right now. It is even necessary if we do not want to simply endure what is about to happen. For it is clear that decisive choices can no longer be avoided: those concerning the contradiction of postponing or concealing the resolution of the Palestinian question, which includes the Jewish occupation and colonisation of territories that do not belong to the Jewish State. Or again, the decisive choices that consist in confronting the real conditions of coexistence of two peoples with contradictory national aims, in an area that is still pending a viable social and political structure for all the parties involved. 

What the tragic clarity of 7 October has made obvious, precisely through the genocidal anti-Semitic acts carried out in Israel by the Palestinian party in power in Gaza – and whose power extends to all the territories – is that there will be no security in the Jewish sense, that is to say, no neutralisation of the pogrom, without the reconstruction, beyond the war that is necessary, of this coexistence of peoples, with the double movement that it implies of integration and separation. In short, if Zionism is to achieve its full potential, then the Palestinian question, in all its aspects, must become the focus of Israeli policy. 

Let us emphasise: what is now required is not simply international law, human rights, the rights of peoples to self-determination such as any modern State must respect. Israel has always endeavoured to meet these standards within the country’s borders, pursuing a policy of integrating the Arab minority based on equal civil and political rights, a deepening of social rights, and extensive recognition of the collective rights claimed by the communities. What has often been overlooked is the fact that it has done so as much as a European state governed by the rule of law, but also as an original realisation of Jewish policy, in its specific understanding of the issue of minority rights, which includes security in the Jewish sense just described. The fact remains that Israeli policy over the last two decades, pursued by an increasingly irresponsible right wing, blinded by neo-liberal and conservative credos, has shown through the confirmed illegality of colonisation in the occupied territories that it can depart from these principles, either by invoking the raison d’état, or by making the State drift in an expansionist and colonising direction. 

What is no longer acceptable is any form of derogation from these standards. The most scrupulous respect is required, in the name of the Jewish State – not just insofar as it is democratic and must be ordered to respect the rights of peoples, but insofar as it is Jewish. For in Israel, the two parameters have always been intimately linked, and refer to each other in a subterranean fashion. It is exactly what is Jewish about the Jewish State that now demands a break with the policy that has prevailed since Rabin’s assassination in 1995, in which the Palestinian question has been cloaked in a classic “security” issue – repression, “regular mowing of the lawn”, and no concern for what the progress of Palestinian rights in Israel and in the territories expresses as fundamental for Israel itself – which is the opposite of its Jewish meaning. 

Kandinsky, ‘Mit Und Gegen’, 1929, WikiArt

The turning point of 7 October, insofar as 7 October was a pogrom, means that the other foundation has been touched, that is to say the other idea of security, the one that is truly constitutive of the Jewish State. An idea that is no less demanding in terms of eradicating the enemy that has shown itself to be more active than ever, i.e. all those who want the Jews dead, whose agenda is the negation of Israel as a legitimate sovereign state with a Jewish majority. But it is an idea with a completely different horizon, since what is being targeted here is the establishment of the unique relationship, exceptional historically and politically, between majority and minority, which is still and will always be able to neutralise the existential threat of the pogrom. 

In such a context, the central role of the Palestinian question resurfaces in a different way, because it must now be considered in all its dimensions, without confusing them with one another, but without excluding any of them from the equation to be resolved. These dimensions are multiple, and Israeli policy cannot pretend that only some of them and not the others concern it directly. The primary support remains the social and political integration that continues to take place within the country’s borders for the Israeli Arabs, as distinct from that of the Palestinians in the territories, who are considered to be engaged in a process of state-building and nationalisation of their own. Distinct as they are, these two dimensions of the Palestinian question are not independent of one another for Israel itself. It is the whole issue that needs to be embraced, both in terms of building a Palestinian majority in what is to become a nation-state, and in terms of integrating the Palestinian minority more fully into the Jewish state. For, as in the case of the Jews, it is a national issue that arises for a people who are always the same people, and whose existence is distributed over separate territories and political entities. 

Basically, this is where all the difficulty lies: when we refer to “the Palestinians”, we are in fact talking about one people, but one people with a differentiated regional distribution spread over several countries, comprising several diasporas that are very unequally treated – in this case, mainly Jordanian and Israeli, the latter being the only one to enjoy equal civil and political rights – and awaiting the constitution of its own state in which it would have a majority, autonomy and sovereignty. 

Israeli right-wing policy has turned its back on this composite population, which needs to be able to recover as a unit, or has wanted to see only the part that suits it. In this respect, it has been profoundly damaging. But it should also be noted that it was not the only one to act in this way. International opinion has behaved in exactly the same way, with the difference that more often than not it has only wanted to see the other side of the same reality. This is how the growing anti-Zionism of recent decades, subjugated by an anti-colonialism out of touch with the situation, has abstractly massified the people for whom it took up the cause, with the only gradient being the situation of occupation and colonisation in the West Bank and the Egyptian-Israeli blockade in Gaza. Similarly, this is what the Arab countries involved in the Abraham Accords, in collusion with the Israeli right, have also concealed. And finally, this is what the Palestinian political parties – for they bear all the responsibility – have failed to articulate, which has given Islamism, with the external support of that part of the Muslim world that is fiercely hostile to Israel – Iran, first and foremost – the dominant position it occupies today, at least everywhere else than in the views expressed by Israeli Arabs. 

For our part, let us limit the description to Israel’s point of view. Today, as a result of the events of 7 October, these issues are coming to the surface and being laid bare. There are Palestinians in the Middle East, and they count not in a secondary capacity, but in a primary capacity, in the reconstitution of security in the Jewish sense – that is to say, of Israel’s raison d’être. They need to be integrated on two levels: as a minority in Israel (as in other countries where a Palestinian minority lives); and as a majority awaiting self-constitution in what will be their state. 

This state will have to be internally integrated, and will therefore include minorities which it will integrate by granting them rights, as must happen under the rule of law – the possibility of a Jewish minority remaining there being too implausible, however, for other solutions not to be imposed, either evacuation, or territorial redistribution with proportionate cessions, as some projects propose. 

But this state will also have to be integrated externally, i.e. in a peaceful and cooperative relationship with the other states in the region, including Israel. Of course, a consistent regional international axis, centred this time on the Palestinian question, is necessary here – and we know that discussions are already moving in this direction – for the process to have any hope of getting off the ground. In other words, Israel is certainly not the only player in the development of this policy. But it must play its part, and it must do so all the more because, reconsidering itself after 7 October, it understands that what is at stake in its involvement is nothing less than the restoration of its identity as a Jewish state, committed to building and consolidating security in the Jewish sense. 


There is more. If we must recognise that, although internally differentiated, the Palestinians are nonetheless one people, and that supporting a national claim for all those who recognise themselves as belonging to this people is legitimate; if we give in neither on their internal differentiation nor on their unity – since both are the real parameters of the equation – it is above all because we start from the Jewish point of view, and not only from the Israeli point of view. In other words, it is because we adopt the way Jews look at themselves, eminently aware as they are of being one people – constitutionally sensitive, whether they are Zionists or not, to that curious aphorism of Herzl’s launched in the State of the Jews: “We are a people, one people”. All in all, current experience bears this out. What we have just experienced concerns Israel only because it concerns the Jewish world as a whole, the people in its extension and unity. Every Jew in the world has felt the shockwave and has perceived that their condition has changed. It was as if a rediscovery was underway of the entirety of this scattered world, seen in its dynamic equilibrium, that is, in its reconfiguration over the course of its long history. 

7 October has a particular sound here, one that goes beyond Israel, or rather envelops and requalifies it. What we witnessed, what all Jews witnessed, sitting in the front row so to speak and looking at what happened in the villages and kibbutzim bordering Gaza, was the brutal return, for a brief but implacably cruel time, of the Israeli centre to the status of a diasporic centre like any other – doomed to the same insecurity as any other, and therefore always liable to be stripped of its exceptionality. 

The existential lesson of the event, which applies to Israeli Jews as much as to Jews throughout the world, is based on this statement: the miraculous and yet human neutralisation of the pogrom achieved by the Jewish State having failed, the homogeneity of the Jewish condition as a diasporic existence in Galut resurfaced, and imposed itself with a greater coefficient of reality than was previously perceptible. Whereas pogrom and Galut, associated everywhere, had been dissociated in a single place, it happened that they were reassociated in this same single place. There was a pogrom in Israel. What’s more, it was by far the deadliest that the Jews have experienced since Nazism. The sense of the unity of the people has been inverted, and the worst has happened. As a result, it is no longer the knowledge that the people as a whole is still in Galut, but the knowledge that a pogrom can happen anywhere, that is now homogenising the Jewish experience once again. 

Clarence White, ‘The Brothers’, 1905, WikiArt

Again? Is the post-7 October present, which we are already in, just a return to the past? In a way, it might seem so. It seems that we are returning to the Jewish condition before 1948, the condition in which pogroms were possible everywhere, without territorial exception. This Jewish diasporic condition, whose pre-eminence is resurfacing, has always operated in the relationship between the Jews spread across foreign nations and the Jewish State that they have given themselves. However, it could, in the 1948-2023 sequence, be embedded in a relatively stable polarity, so that it seemed that at both poles, one could almost forbear thinking about it. 

In practice, we seemed to be living in a space structured in this way: Jewish insecurity versus Jewish security, Diaspora versus Israel. Everyone had gotten used to it. But this is no longer how matters stand in peoples’ minds. After 7 October, the versus was hit. And we must try to replace it with another link. Although the two poles do not merge, their distinction and articulation need to be examined and, ultimately, redefined. 

Israel remains an exception, but after what has happened, this exception is inexorably complicated by a concern about its true meaning and the current conditions for its preservation. Note that the change does not stem from the fact that Israel’s fragility is understood as that of a state under threat – it has never ceased to be that, and the Jewish view has never ceased to be concerned about the dangers that were known to be permanent. That its army might be defeated on the battlefield, that its territory might be invaded by enemy armies, this was a possibility in which the State was built, so to speak, and which the Jews of the Diaspora constantly kept in mind. ‘48, ‘67 and ‘73 were peaks whose memory has never faded. But it is worth reiterating here: Israeli insecurity is not at odds with Jewish security. The two are not on the same level: as a people, the Jews live in security in Israel, because their survival as a people experiences its fundamental condition on a daily basis – 7 October was the first time that this exact point was broken – the neutralisation of the pogrom, which is not war. 

Let’s put it another way. Insecurity in Israel stems exclusively from the war. That is why, however obsessive it may be, it has never harmed the existential spring that not only sustains, but deeply animates the existence of the Jews in this country. And that is why, no matter what anyone says or wants, no matter what the objective difficulties of living here, Jews there breathe a different air from anywhere else. In short, the fact of being or not being at war does not affect the existential level of Jewish life, as life in Galut. What does affect it, however, is whether or not one is threatened by the complexions of violence of varying degrees and nature emanating from non-Jewish social and political forces, which can be unleashed at any time. And 7 October affected exactly that. It was even their unprecedented outburst. 

This is why, beyond considerations relating to war and the restoration of military hegemony, beyond the restoration of deterrence, beyond international relations reconfigured to the state’s advantage, beyond even the elimination of the designated enemy of the moment (namely political Islamism represented by Hamas and by all the movements that may be similar to it in their desire to destroy and eliminate any Jewish presence in the Middle East), there remains the crucial problem of the moment, the new Jewish problem in short. It has its epicentre in Israel, but its influence extends to the whole of the Jewish world: to found a new mainspring by reconfiguring the great polarity that has prevailed for seventy-five years. The exception, therefore, once again comes under the light of the rule, which since 1948 has illuminated the rule by marking itself as an exception. The focus of light is inverted. And there is no other option than to build the Jewish world on new foundations, where it can once again adhere to its own rule by rethinking what enables it to structure itself with the help of a Jewish State that can truly and definitively make an exception to the rule – dissociating once again, at a point that has become essential to the Jewish experience, pogrom and Galut. 

It is clear that this task falls to the Jewish world as a whole, and not to Israel alone. Its core lies in the pursuit of intellectual and cultural work, not just political strategy. As is the case at any time when a higher degree of collective consciousness is required, it is the entire history of the Jews that must be rethought in the light of the questions and dilemmas that the present, as determined by 7 October, has raised. 

But this is intellectual work that does not escape the depths of the present. In this case, the key lies at the heart of the triggering event, in what it highlighted, or at least brought to the surface in such a way that it is impossible to forget: the unity of the people’s experience, which means that the polarity between Israel and the Diaspora remains asymmetrical, with the existential Jewish foundation residing in the latter and over-determining the former. From 1948 onwards, it is true, this unity gave way to an inner duality that enabled Jews – above all European Jews – to regain strength and vitality. But these elements now depend on a different relationship with ourselves. In short, it is the diaspora’s turn, spiritually and in practice, to help Israel rebuild itself after 7 October by shedding light on the meaning and inclination of the polarity. 

Bruno Karsenti

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