Since the 7th of October we are appalled by the continuous flow of reactions denouncing Israel and only Israel. We are especially appalled by those that come out of academic institutions, articulated by scholars and intellectuals. But should we be surprised and shocked? Was this response to the atrocities committed by Hamas, aided by their civilian Palestinian collaborators, not entirely predictable? Have not these same people, departments, student bodies, activists, etc. been saying the same thing for at least the last two decades? Of course, they have, and a number of them didn’t even hide their glee as the full story of the massacre, the sexual violence and the kidnapping emerged.
However, some people who supported the “Palestinian cause” without endorsing terrorism might have reconsidered their position when confronted with the terrible events. This was perhaps our silent wish. They could have said at least as a principled formulation: “this is not how we imagined Palestinian resistance,” or in a more instrumental vein: “this doesn’t represent the interests of the Palestinian people.”
Or, they may even have turned around and found more truthful words to designate the genocidal antisemitic motive at the core of the Hamas massacre. Since Hamas always spells out its intentions openly, this may not have been that difficult. However, it not only proved to be difficult, but rather turned out to be outright impossible. What we have here is a structural, quasi a priori impossibility as an effect of an ideological edifice constraining thinking. Therefore, perhaps, only a handful of individual dissensions were imaginable. But even those didn’t or only rarely happened (and were probably mostly restricted to Israeli leftists, post-Zionists or antizionists).
It is well documented that today’s antizionism is greatly indebted to Soviet versions propagandized mostly in the 70s and 80si. It has other foundations as well, chiefly contemporary vulgar social critique cultivated by some new “activist” disciplines in Western universities that see themselves as successors to critical social science. Most, although not all of the outputs of such disciplines as “ethnic studies”, “critical race theory”, “critical whiteness studies”, “settler-colonial studies”, and many more are deeply immersed in versions of identity politics and the most rudimentary anti-imperialist rhetoric. These disciplines have developed rigid conceptual frameworks that are intolerant of deviations or alternative viewpoints. Moreover, they often overlook or dismiss real-world evidence that could challenge their established interpretations. A significant ideological structure has been erected, a main component of which is an immutable and essentialized vocabulary that is used to describe and interpret structures of power and oppression. This vocabulary is applied in the most vigorous manner to Israel and Zionism, which it designates as “racist”, “colonial”, and “genocidal”. Palestinians, by contrast, are designated as victims of racist and colonial oppression, and genocide.
Conversions on the left
The hard left, sociologically speaking, has always had traits bearing similarities to religious sects, including nourishing fixed beliefs that are unharmed by the observation of empirical reality, rational argument, or even common sense. The unwavering belief in communism, the obstinate defense of Stalinism and Maoism, the denial of the existence of the Gulag, etc. were all the hallmarks of much left-wing intelligentsia well into the 1950s and 1960s, or even longer. It is true that the death of Stalin, the Hungarian revolution of 1956, and the Prague Spring of 1968 disillusioned a lot of believers, prompting them to confess and to convert, and by the 1980s the Soviet bloc found itself without any substantial ideological backing by Western intellectuals – while only the apparatchiks of some Western communist parties remained fervent supporters.
As the true oppressive nature of communism became evident, more and more people started to doubt its principles. Over time, periods arose where some more open-minded individuals and groups not totally deprived of reflexivity, who were once staunch supporters, began to question their own beliefs. This awakening wasn’t sudden for everyone; some took time to realize the flaws in their thinking and to confront their previous ideas. Key happenings played a crucial role in this shift. These happenings were so impactful that they contradicted the very foundation of the communist belief system, and thereby became genuine events. The belief system, at long last, at least for some, could not be saved any more by some utterly implausible auxiliary hypotheses. For many, these events exposed the weaknesses in the communist ideology that they once held dear. By the time communism collapsed in 1989-1990, a significant number of intellectuals had already reevaluated and changed their perspectives.
The October 7 pogrom should have been the moment of the de-Palestinization of the leftist mind based on the model of de-Stalinization. It could have promoted some thinking and reflexivity: what does the “Palestinian cause” stand for, for real? The successive waves of de-Stalinization and disillusionment in communism at large could have paved the way in this regard.
The new opium of the intellectuals: antizionism
The structurally equivalent totalitarian ideology with communism on the left today – the contemporary opium of the intellectuals – is antizionism. In the leftist imagination, Hamas and the PLO stand for the “liberation of the Palestinian people”, which for some reason has become the highest political and even moral good on the Western left for at least the past two decades. The focus on the Palestine issue, as being central to, and symbolic of, all oppression was constructed without relevant knowledge and sufficient reason. Why is the focus of attention fixed on this conflict, when many others are worse in every respect? Why was it made into a symbol against oppression, a universal political-ethical cause, without regard to what leading Palestinian factions actually stand for, who their allies are, what kind of society they promote? There are no rational answers for these questions, which showcases the customary ideological blindness that historically characterizes leftist dogmatism.
Now, the “Palestinian cause” of the antizionist imagination is confronted with an actual and significant atrocity, a pogrom we can say, but on a greater scale than is usually associated with the term. Therefore, the October 7 event bears more similarity to the Holocaust by bullets (and knives). (Although, for example the Ukrainian pogroms of 1919, such as this pogrom, in their genocidal ferocity and their basis in antisemitic ideology, may be appropriately discussed in relation to the Holocaust.) What people took to be the promotion of a highly cherished moral good manifested in practice as sheer evil through the most atrocious genocidal acts: the deliberately planned targeting of the Israeli civilian population, their torture, sexual assault, and execution, the murdering of children, the taking of civilian “hostages”, among them elderly and babies. And still, all of this did not constitute what the left would perceive as an event, despite that absolutely nothing more horrendous could have happened on October 7. Hamas perpetrated the most and the worst it was capable of doing; and it was executed with glee and enjoyment. Nothing was hidden, nothing had to be unearthed: no mass murder was better documented in human history, along with acts of torture and sexual assault, the utter barbarism of the perpetrators being exposed by themselves. This is a novel breach of civilization; and it is being celebrated, justified or trivialized by Western leftist bystanders, who are obstinately refusing to take note, thereby abetting its potential repetition, which Hamas has frequently stated that it seeks to do.
Could the Palestinian mythology have been more brutally shattered? Now everything that could have been known all along by any sensible people who had not deliberately chosen willful ignorance, is laid bare. In this situation, pro-Palestinian activists and opinion leaders could have opted to disavow Hamas, driving an ideological wedge between the terrorists and the “Palestinian cause” with the intention of “salvaging” the latter. But they didn’t feel the need to do that in order to preserve their legitimacy, since no serious challenge was mounted; and also, no serious willingness, let alone movement for soul-searching was ever engaged. Keeping Hamas within the fold of the “Palestinian cause” seemed unproblematic even after October 7. Since leftists haven’t systematically denounced the pogrom, have kept quiet about it and have tried to find the customary justifications for it, or just simply ignored it as a “non-event”, it is obvious that most of them view it as an organic chapter in the fight for the “Palestinian cause”.
The ideological transformation one could have naively expected didn’t happen. Indeed, on the contrary, “progressive” intellectuals and academics strengthened their antizionist dogmatism in spite of all the evidence in front of their eyes. The handful of activists who even dared to demonstrate with “Free Palestine from Hamas!” placards in “pro-Palestine” spaces were attacked and chased away. In fact, no theoretical or even practical need to distinguish between Hamas and these other representatives of the “Palestinian cause” arose on the Western left in the face of the “Zionist enemy”. Without surprise, on the Palestinian side the PLO confirmed this stance, neglecting or refusing to denounce the October 7 massacres and even expressing its willingness to administering Gaza with Hamas once the war ends22.
Lethal moral fundamentalism: “Justice for Palestine!”
Assuredly, it is not the case that the “Palestinian cause” or the Palestinian mythology – at least the way it was formulated – was ever a true and moral cause. It was always based on exclusivist nationalist and even racial ideologies, antisemitic conspiracy theories and – with the emergence of Hamas, Hizbollah and affiliated groups (with Iran in the background) – it moved towards the most lethal form of religious fundamentalism and eliminationist antisemitism. Obviously, this should be understood as a cumulative process, not that religious ideology supplanted the racial ones. A number of times, the Palestinian leadership notoriously refused any peace agreement that would have resulted in a free Palestinian state living alongside Israel, insisting on conditions that could only be conceded at the cost of Israel itself. This was particularly true of their insistence on the absolute right of “return” for Palestinian “refugees” who left, or who were expelled, in 1948. This seems to be good evidence that their political leadership actually focuses on extinguishing the existence of a Jewish state more than on the founding of their own country.iii This is the most unfortunate for Israel, which has to maintain the partial occupation of the West Bank, with devastating consequences also for its own society. Growing settler violence is rarely dealt with appropriately, especially that now it has its outspoken supporters inside the Israeli government itself. Even a new government will have a hard time to rein in the extremist tendencies. Re-launching the “peace process”? Obviously, every sensible leadership will have a try at it, against all odds, but without Palestinian and outside Western backing it cannot yield different outcomes than it had until now.
What many rightly call “Palestinian rejectionism”, the incapacity of making any compromise (after a number of lost wars) was based on a “moral” argument expressed in the slogan: “Justice for Palestine!” Thus Palestinian “politics”, or rather, anti-politics, has been imagined as reparation for the injustices relentlessly suffered for seventy-five years. The unrealistic demands have been formulated by the Palestinian leadership in an anti-political framework. They are raised as moral absolutes, regardless of Palestinian actions, including: not recognizing the existence of Israel as a Jewish state, or as a state at all, fomenting antisemitic hatred among Palestinians and Muslim through their schools and propaganda, launching terrorist attacks, while supporting the spirit of anti-Israeli terror in general.
Could the Palestinian cause have been formulated differently? Theoretically, yes, and it was, by many people, including by the handful of democratic Palestinians and including much of the Israeli and Jewish left, for whom the cause was based on politics instead of moral fundamentalism that resulted in obstinate anti-politics, based on the conception of eternal and symbolic victimhood. But the activists and the intellectuals, both inside and outside of Palestine, who fought for rational, democratic, liberal politics have long been defeated. It could have been different, it still could be different, but this is so far the story of the Palestinian cause. Religious fundamentalism is only the most recent and extreme outgrowth of this basic moral fundamentalist appeal for “justice”. In fact, “Justice for Palestine!” is the slogan that anchors its derivative ones we are seeing today: “From the river to the sea”, “(Globalize the) Intifada!”, “Apartheid Israel”, etc. This deeply immoral moral fundamentalism has been widely accepted in the West as a “liberation movement” by wide parts of public opinion, while its religious fundamentalism and Nazi-like messianic antisemitism is still not being acknowledged. Striving for “justice” in an absolutist sense is an essentially pre- or anti-political attitude, a zero-sum game, in which one party should win all, while the other loses all. Of course, the one who “should win it all” is the oppressed people. Moreover, in a profoundly totalitarian vein, the case for the oppressed is independent of what they actually stand for, or what they actually do, whether they intend to ethnically cleanse or maybe even massacre Jews, in a vein of genocidal antisemitism, or just to spread global jihad.
This type of thinking has been largely aided and encouraged by the Western left (and of course by the “international community” for slightly different reasons). This moral fundamentalism perfectly matches the ideology of leftist intellectuals. Social criticism is more and more conceived as an absolute moral stance against “oppression”, without any regard to true context and even to empirical reality. The contemporary academic approach to critique often relies on extreme oversimplifications. Two prevalent forms of this radical critique are the use of essentialized categories and “methodological dualism.”iv In this approach, nuances, contradictions, and complexities are overlooked or flattened out. Categories like oppressor versus oppressed, native versus settler-colonialist, or racialized versus member of the ruling white class become overly binary and fail to capture the intricacies of real-world situations.
In the case of Israel these dichotomies are contained in the concepts of “colonialism”, “occupation”, “apartheid”, and “genocide”, with one party being the perpetrator and bearing all the responsibility, while the other is portrayed as nothing but the passive victim. However, when these “critical” concepts are applied to Israel and Palestine they are not only untrue but rather they outright cancel reality altogether, by hampering even the will to empirically verify the truth value of the assertions in which they appear. The people deploying this language neglect or ignore the precise definitions of these terms in international law, while at the same time demanding that they are legally applied and upheld. By the same token, critics having recourse to these concepts pretend that they are capable of revealing some deeper truth behind the visible phenomena, as the program of a critical social science would prescribe it.
Despite the fact that the empirical validity of these concepts with respect to Israel have been debunked numerous times, they continue to shape public debate on the topic. Clearly, any discussion that engages with real-world evidence would find it challenging to support a radical anti-Zionist position, which is likely why such discussions are deliberately sidestepped.
What appears here is not simply a conceptually driven discourse, a sort of conceptual radicality or fundamentalism, which is responsible for epistemological closure. These concepts convey utter moral fundamentalism, or rather, fundamentalist moralizing. And this is the elective affinity, the love affair of the “progressive” intellectuals with the “Palestinian cause”: two moralizing fundamentalisms mutually reinforcing each other. How should these fundamentalisms ever yield a Palestinian state? It’s a mystery. How could anybody expect Israel to ever accept these terms by turning them into a self-destructive auto-critique? An utter impossibility. Would it ever occur to leftist “pro-Palestinians” that they are actually doing everything to hinder the creation of a Palestinian state? They are not interested; their ideological goal, maybe unconsciously, is to perpetuate the conflict and thereby the ever-recurring empty criticism of always the same.
Moral fundamentalism founded in “persuasive definitions”
Following the late Adorno, the kind of critical attitude originating in some branches of social and juridical studies and spreading on the political left could also be named “activist”.v Adorno first and foremost criticized the prioritization of immediate and radical social change over work to construct viable social theory. He thought that the abdication of thinking, accompanied by involvement in theoretically unfounded and unwarranted practice, would lead to the flight into radicalism, and “activism”. When the explicit or implicit call for political action supplants theoretical reflection, political stance and critical attitude over-determine the formation of concepts. When theory is politicized to such a degree that it only serves political purposes, while totally neglecting the interpretation of empirical reality, then “activism” takes the leading role.
The use of critical concepts that inherently contain elements of critique, while simultaneously sidestepping both theoretical and empirical validations, perfectly encapsulates the notion of “activism”. Contemporary activist academia uses the terms and forms of critical theory but tends to strip them of their original juridical, sociological, and historical meanings, reconstructing them as “ethical”, or rather, emotive (or even “moralizing”) terms. This is a pure, or even a radical, case of what Charles L. Stevenson called “persuasive definitions”. As he set out:
“In any ‘persuasive definition’ the term defined is a familiar one, whose meaning is both descriptive and strongly emotive. The purport of the definition is to alter the descriptive meaning of the term, usually by giving it greater precision within the boundaries of its customary vagueness; but the definition does not make any substantial change in the term’s emotive meaning.”vi
“Our language abounds with words which […] have both a vague descriptive meaning and a rich emotive meaning. The descriptive meaning of them all is subject to constant redefinition. The words are prizes which man seeks to bestow on the qualities of his own choice.”vii
In terms of content, a persuasive definition can also function the opposite way, which is what happens with the above-mentioned concepts bearing highly negative connotations. “Apartheid”, “genocide” and others when applied to Israel are being stretched to such an extent that their descriptive meaning becomes blurred or even annulled, while their emotive meaning is preserved. This kind of critique is deprived of all objectivity anchored in existing social and historical conditions, and based solely on subjective emotions, feelings, and suffering, which are voiced in the mode of indignationviii. “Genocide”, “apartheid” and the like, which are the most heinous, and unjust conditions imaginable, are used in the case of Israel to express a fundamentalist indignation that passes for a just and morally anchored critique. Since the term “genocide” has been assigned to Israel by large parts of contemporary critical scholarship (for example in “settler-colonial studies”)ix as something inherent to the functioning of the state, its usage becomes all the more self-evident (but epistemologically all the more dubious) during an actual war. It is enough to look at the statements signed by hundreds of sociologists, or the ones signed by anthropologists, or those by gender studies departments, or even hundreds of universities. Their monotonous, invariable language evokes memories of the darkest totalitarian dogmatism of communist party resolutions. Its formulation is always the same: “Israel, the colonial state practicing occupation and apartheid for seventy-five years, is now engaging in genocide…” That Israel or the Zionists are committing genocide against the Palestinians is always assumed, therefore there remains nothing to verify when there is an actual conflict: the accusations are automatically triggered. And conversely: the genocide committed against Israelis cannot be perceived, let alone recognized.
The concepts and terms being deployed are being used to formulate political slogans masquerading in a juridical and social scientific guise, and at the same time, their evocative force will be taken as expressing something inherently “moral”. But moral judgment without at least the intention of a truthful interpretation of reality is empty. If the concept is hollowed out of its empirical and also theoretical reference, the emotive force will be turned into nothing but a moralizing stance, the vindication of moral righteousness, which can only become a travesty of a genuine moral position. This is the moral fundamentalism of contemporary antizionism, which can harmoniously be accorded with the moral fundamentalism of the Palestinian cause formulated as mythology.
The October 7 massacre as a non-event
For most leftist academics and intellectuals there was no event to contemplate and to comprehend on October 7: nothing happened and there was nothing to see or discuss. In this totally ahistorical, conceptually-driven, and morally fundamentalist perspective, the notion of an “event” is rendered non-existent. The portrayal of the animosity, once termed the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict”—possibly a remnant from more tempered times—is now predominantly or solely framed on the “left” in relation only to the overwhelming power, violence and cruelty of Israel. If Israel is a colonial-settler state practicing apartheid and even genocide (but, as we saw, according to “theoreticians” of settler colonialism even in times of peace!), then there cannot be any act committed against it, be it the most horrendous, which could not be justified or simply overlooked. All those phrases that we heard from the UN secretary general, human rights NGOs, echoed also by university statements express just that: “It didn’t happen in a vacuum”, “we have to examine the root causes”, “the massacre has to be put into context”. But the “context”, and “causes” invariably refer to the framework of understanding, conveying no empirical information whatsoever. Genocidal acts committed against the Israeli population in the material world are already conceptually excluded. Genocide-denial necessarily follows.
Even a genocidal act against Israelis becomes a (morally insignificant) non-issue, and worse, an (imperceptible) non-event, and not because it went unexposed in the way that happens in relation to South Sudan, the Kurds, the Uyghurs, and others in an ever-recurring cycle and also with many other oppressed peoples. Nothing could have been more exposed than the October 7 massacres, because the genocidal murderers documented and publicized the acts themselves. But the facts documented don’t amount to an event in its own right for contemporary leftists.
Israel being perceived as an oppressive settler-colonial state automatically means that – no matter the genocidal intent and genocidal practice – all actions taken against it will be portrayed and seen as legitimate, even Holocaust-like acts of brutality never seen before. By definition, no atrocities committed against Israelis and Jews, let them be the most extreme and gruesome, will be taken as such, or if they are they will be given automatic justification. It has been proven: even the most defenseless Israelis, beheaded babies, families burnt alive, kidnapped children as “hostages” cannot be perceived as real victims, because they are always associated with some essential guilt related to Israeli “power”, “domination”, “oppression”, and even “genocide” in close connection with genuine antisemitic imagery; in contrast, Palestinians will always be victims, even when enacting a Nazi-like mass murder. The conceptual sources are the same as in the denial of antisemitism: there can be no meaningful animosity against a “powerful” and “privileged” group deemed “white”. Antisemitism denial works with antisemitic presuppositions, just as the denial of the October 7 atrocities. In such a mindset the horrific massacre is a total non-issue. It is at most something that provides Israel the “pretext” to wage its unjust war on the eternally oppressed Palestinian people. Thus, leftist propagandists including “intellectuals” are keen to spread the already very old “news” without knowing or wanting to know what is going on on the ground.: “Israel is committing genocide”.
This non-recognition of the victim status of Israelis and Jews is doubly antisemitic: it not only rests on antisemitic presuppositions but also potentially yields the most extreme antisemitic consequences. This perspective essentially strips Jews of their humanity, portraying them as being incapable of becoming victims. Consequently, it rationalizes any harm inflicted upon them, given that the concepts of “Jew” and “victim” are seen as mutually exclusive. This viewpoint also paves the way for justifying and potentially endorsing all future acts of violence against them. In contrast, this thinking automatically absolves even its most inhumane and barbarian enemies who in any other context would be considered as the enemy of humanity as a whole. This is worse than Holocaust denial: this is the outright justification of all potential Holocausts.
Balázs Berkovits was born in Budapest and lives in Tel Aviv. He is a sociologist with a PhD in philosophy, pursuing research in the Comper Center at the University of Haifa, the London Centre for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism (LCSCA) and MEMRI (Jerusalem). He is also the book review editor of the Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism. At present, his work concerns the re-emergence of the “Jewish problem” in contemporary works of philosophical, social and political criticism. Occasionally, he also writes on the political and social situation in contemporary Hungary.