Opening and closing eyes: two visions in war

The longer Israel’s military response in Gaza drags on, the more the memory of October 7 seems to fade in international public opinion. In this text, Danny Trom draws the consequences of such a development—the emergence of a clear divide between those for whom the event has passed and those who, increasingly isolated, keep it firmly in mind.


Odilon Redon, ‘Chimère’, 1883, Wikipedia Commons


It is in the nature of events to demand interpretation, otherwise they wouldn’t be events at all. The confusion that reigns at the moment of their coagulation is generally followed by a phase in which the interpretations, initially heterogeneous, gradually stabilize. As an event becomes more homogeneous, it is given a name, often summarized in a date. Some events, such as the great revolutions of 1789 and 1917, have a worldwide impact. Others have a more limited, regional resonance. Victories or defeats, they punctuate national epics or social struggle narratives.

Events of universal significance—like the Shoah —are rarely highly localized. Today, however, such events are generated in the global village that our planet has become. This was the case with the murder of George Floyd by the American police, which drew unanimous condemnation from around the world. It revived the memory of slavery and the question of racism, both of which found their actualization in this incident. The same is true of the October 7 massacre, except that it divided world opinion. It revived the memory of the Shoah and with it all the ambivalence of world public opinion, which is unsure whether this is a defeat or a victory, and makes it a matter of point of view. The disproportion between the Shoah and October 7 is immediately apparent, yet the latter seems to replicate something of the former on a smaller scale. What it replicates is intent.

We must leave the global public stage, where the logic of the icy tally of lives lost now prevails, to understand how the event of October 7 and its immediate consequence—Tsahal military campaign, so costly in Palestinian civilian lives—divide. This division can be summed up as follows—for some, the vast majority, October 7 is over in the sense that it is not remembered or kept in mind. It has faded into insignificance in its most tangible consequence, the ongoing war in Gaza, and thus in the reaction it has almost mechanically generated. For others, October 7 is an event in the sense that it is recorded and inserted into a framework of events whose culmination is the Shoah. Here, the event remains separate from its immediate consequences; it is folded in on itself, forming a meaningful totality. With time, it loses neither its intensity nor its singularity; it neither merges into the subsequent sequence nor is it diluted. The divergence of political sensibilities reflected in the global polarization of opinion is disturbing. And those for whom the Israeli offensive cannot erase or even blunt October 7 feel lonely, immersed in a hostile world. How can we describe this disposition to hold on to the event without giving up, despite the tornado blowing in the opposite direction?

Let’s leave the stage of world opinion for a moment and take a closer look at Jewish historical events, of which October 7 is a part. We need to leave behind the history of the current conflict and immerse ourselves in a much broader temporality. And examine the ways in which rabbinic tradition retains events that concern “Israel” in the conventional sense of the Jewish people. The tradition constructs this retention in homology with the Scriptures, which, unlike Greco-Roman mythology, leave no room for the glorification of victory in war. Ultimately, the glory belongs to God alone, and, as rabbinic literature insists, this glory never leaves Him and belongs to Him alone. Israel’s glory lies solely in its association with the name of God, its almighty Protector.

It is precisely from this suppression of any inclination to self-glorification that Israel’s name is enlarged, extended[1]Moses could well be the hero of an epic, but he isn’t. The Pesach Haggadah, the liturgical book that commemorates the episode of the Exodus from Egypt, makes no mention of him. And the rabbinic commentary advises us not to rejoice at the death of Pharaoh’s soldiers in the sea, for they too are God’s creatures. Similarly, the commemoration of the Hasmonean troops’ recapture of the Temple, which had been defiled by the Syro-Greeks, is marked on Chanukah by the unspectacular miracle of candles rather than by the exaltation of the combatants. And when defeat occurs, Jewish tradition expresses an irresistible tendency to shift the blame to oneself and to project the hoped-for liberation into an indefinite future.

So if there is a Jewish “pathos,” as Max Weber puts it, it has nothing to do with the triumph of the warrior-king, but with the bitterness of defeat and survival despite everything. Rabbinic tradition therefore marginalized the commemoration of victories early on. Tractate Shabbat (13b) explains—”Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel [first half of the 1st century CE] said—We also hold dear the memory of the troubles [tzarot] from which Israel was saved, but what can we do? If we came to write [remember] all the days of that kind, we would not manage to do so, as the troubles that Israel experienced in every generation and era are numerous, and on each day there is an event worthy of commemoration.” And since the exile, since the exclusion of Jewish warfare, the Hebrew calendar—explains Raban Gamliel—is immediately saturated, overwhelmed by the chain of crises. This is the structure of Jewish eventfulness.

From Raban Gamiliel’s commentary, we can conclude that every day that Israel survives is worthy of commemoration. That God’s glory is attested in Israel’s survival is simply a way for Jews to explain their perseverance. And even if the threads of transmission have sometimes come unraveled for us, we inherit this tendency to gather the event of sur-vival through our particular experience inscribed in Jewish history, without sometimes being aware of it. We do this, each for ourselves, from generation to generation. Today, we add October 7 to the series of events that the word pogrom sums up and of which the word Shoah is the epitome. We remember each point in the series, even if we can’t list them all, as if they were fused into a single experience, and we marvel that we escaped, that we are still alive. And we know that October 7 is part of a series that is always open to to recollect coming event as it affects Israel. This mnemonic works like a device in which past and present are intertwined so that we run through the series from end to beginning and back again, the whole coagulating into an infinitely repeatable experience.

However, the Shoah is not interchangeable with the other events in the series. It introduces a rupture that we must grasp from within the structure of Jewish eventfulness. If the Shoah is a break, it’s because the categories handed down to us by tradition are unable to capture it. There’s a simple reason for this—the series is predicated on a promise, never denied until the Shoah, that political power will never completely exterminate the Jews. Rabbinic commentary based on the Book of Esther assures us that the Jews in exile may be regularly mistreated, occasionally massacred, and sometimes expelled, but that in the end the “king” will never consent to their total elimination. When the people are on the verge of collapse, the tradition assures us, they will always be saved by the king, who, misguided at first, will pull himself together in extremis. The fact that the king turned out to be a criminal, agreed to destroy the Jews, and then carried out his death sentence—this is the very definition of the Shoah —plunged the Jews into a profound crisis from which we have not yet emerged. This crisis colors our present situation.

The Shoah thus inaugurated the possibility of the extermination of all of Israel, even though tradition excluded this possibility. What followed were acrobatic contortions in the small world of traditional exegesis and a general disorientation of the Jewish world in the post-Shoah era. The Shoah discredited traditional Jewish policy and invalidated the old system of delegating God’s protection of Israel to foreign rulers. It disqualified it even in its modern version, where emancipation made Jews citizens of nation-states—where the question of their protection became obsolete—since it was precisely Germany, a modern nation-state, which initiated and organized their destruction with the support of its allies throughout Europe. From within the Jewish world, the neurosis of abandonment that runs through the bond between God and His people, and between the people and their God, was intensified, sometimes to the point of breaking. The existence of the State of Israel is the political output of this mistrust. October 7 is therefore no longer just another in a series of events—it is the first post-Shoah pogrom.

And yet, the birth of the State of Israel, which came almost immediately after the Shoah —as if, from today’s perspective, they were two successive events—was supposed to change all that. As a figure of a struggle for survival, it compensated for the powerlessness and abandonment of European Jewry. In 1948, it included a large proportion of Shoah survivors, since the survivor camps were evacuated to Palestine, as well as citizens indirectly affected by the disappearance of their people in Europe. This state welcomed the survivors, as has been amply documented, with a mixture of compassion and contempt. The new Hebrew man stood there while the survivors reflected to him his inverted image and the embarrassing memory of Jewish impotence that the new state was supposed to overcome. But the Eichmann trial soon reintegrated the Jews of Europe into the national memory until they never left it again. Embedded in the self-understanding of Israeli society, the Shoah logically became a motive for action, at first more or less consciously, sometimes implicitly, then increasingly assertively. In Europe, on the other hand, the Shoah became above all a reason for abstention. It stood in the background of political restraint—since evil had arisen in the heart of Europe in the criminal form of total nationalism, its resurgence was to be made impossible by the process of continental unification.

As a result, the memory of the Shoah is now caught between a motive for abstention and a motive for action. As European Jews, we have inherited both. We are alerted to any policy that is determined from within Europe by reminiscent features, however confusingly, of the stages that led to the catastrophe. But any hostility towards the State of Israel, any reluctance to overcome the powerlessness of European Jewry, leads us to share the motive of that State’s action, especially when it is confronted with an attack whose exterminatory intent is obvious, as was the case on October 7.

We must keep October 7 in mind as we oppose with all our might those who perversely accuse the State of Israel of using its motive for action to commit genocide against the Palestinians. And we can certainly keep October 7 in mind as we sympathize with the suffering of innocent civilians. We can support the goal of overthrowing Hamas while hoping that it is achieved at the least possible cost to the people of Gaza. We can even criticize the conduct of the operations for not doing it enough, knowing that if the goal is not achieved, it will be an invitation to the enemy to repeat October 7. In other words, not only to continue the series that the Zionist doxa thought had been bring to a close but to put an end to it by annihilating the Jews. And if the goal of destroying Hamas and its allies is achieved, we will never be seized by the pathos of victory.

Danny Trom


1 God says to Abraham, “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name glorious […]” (Gen. 12:2) a more literal translation would be preferable—”and I will enlarge (agadlecha) your name [for it will be associated with mine]”

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