“Israel faces the vertigo of vengeance” was the headline of an article published in Le Monde a week after 7 October. But to imagine that Israel will act in this way is to delude oneself. Danny Trom explains why Israel will not and cannot avenge itself by deciphering what this omnipresent warning imperceptibly conveys.
Late on October 7, before anyone realized the magnitude of the event that had just taken place, Israel’s Prime Minister told the public that the State of Israel would strike the enemy with all its might, that it would avenge itself on those who perpetrated the attack. Vengeance, the word was dropped, but never to be used again. Although it was aimed only at those responsible for and carrying out the mass murder, the international press, especially the French, has been saying ever since—“Israel must not avenge itself.” The fear of vengeance is on everyone’s lips because we understand it almost spontaneously. In the face of the horror of the October 7 pogrom, vengeance is feared and condemned, regardless of the exact words spoken on that occasion.
Vengeance, as we know, originates from the desire to immediately strike back at the one who harmed us. It’s like a discharge that helps to quell anger as quickly as possible. In premodern societies, particularly in tribal societies, vengeance is a method of regulating intergroup conflicts. The aggrieved group seeks to vindicate their honor. Ritualized, vengeance manifests itself in endless cycles, constantly revived. Serial and endless, it still adheres to an often unspoken code—the retaliatory actions must remain proportionate. Taking a life in one camp calls for taking a life in the opposing camp, plunder begets plunder, and so forth. This is why cycles of vengeance repeat, regularly restoring a balance in a relationship where each party, each time, legitimately restores its honor. No party contemplates the elimination of the opposing group.
Modernity has outlawed institutionalized vengeance. Modern states wage war against each other, they do not take vengeance. Since the conceptual separation of state and civil society, and since conscription, war requires the exclusion of civilians. Modern states do not seek vengeance, although they sometimes take revenge. Fortunately, the French [and the English] language distinguishes between the two terms. Modern war is like a duel between states, symmetrically arranged, measuring their respective powers. This measurement produces a victor and a vanquished, followed by a state of peace that recognizes the war’s outcome. Revenge takes its place in this modern logic—it introduces a new moment of measurement, initiated by the vanquished, who hope to prevail this time. The 1973 Yom Kippur War was typically a revenge for the Arab states after their defeat in 1967.
The ubiquitous warning against Israel’s vengeance therefore presupposes that we understand the violence it unleashes as a potentiality of our psychic economy that cannot be eliminated. For the affect that generates vengeance has not disappeared from the palette of affects that operate in each of us at the individual level. This is evidenced by the fact that the vengeance film, in which an individual bypasses the legal process in order to make direct reparation for the loss he or she has suffered, has become a genre in its own right. But above all, this warning presupposes that a humiliation felt and an honor to be restored can be aggregated, carried from the individual to the collective level, and then translated into the behavior of a modern state like Israel.
However, the October 7 event did not provoke a sense of humiliation in Israel, but rather shock and grief. And it gave rise to scathing criticism of the government and the army. Israel’s response, in its general tone, has been not to seek vengeance for the dead, but to take steps to ensure that such a crime cannot be repeated; and to punish the perpetrators, the instigators as well as the executors, who acted under the banner of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Punishment takes us out of the world of vengeance. It lies within the orbit of justice, even in the absence of a superior third party capable of administering it impartially. Was the State of Israel taking vengeance on Nazi Germany during the Eichmann trial, or was it doing justice when an Israeli court sentenced to death and executed a man responsible for the machinery of extermination? Whether this comparison is outrageous or justified depends entirely on how we interpret the events of October 7. Even after WWII, voices were heard claiming that the Nuremberg trial was a vendetta by the Allies, and yet international criminal law, which applies to all nations, was built on this jurisprudence.
So, if we fear that Israel is caught up in the “vertigo of vengeance,” as Le Monde wrote on October 15, is it not primarily because common sense apprehends the Hamas aggression itself, the one that opened the current cycle, as an act of vengeance? The fact that the rulers of the Gaza Strip sometimes mimic the characteristics of a state does not hide the reality of their behavior—there is nothing statelike about it. Hamas has no desire to measure its strength against the State of Israel—too weak, it knows it cannot prevail—but to strike at Israel’s neighboring political society, deliberately targeting civilians.
“Hamas is avenging the Palestinians”—that’s what the warning against Israeli vengeance is all about. This inversion of blame overdetermines and distorts the reality of what is at stake in this conflict. The vengeful passion that the modern state has tamed arises here because what Hamas has built is not a modern state but a basis for the destruction of Israeli society, with no regard for Palestinian society in Gaza, which it views not as composed of citizens but as a sacrificial mass. This asymmetry leads to a cascade of confusion, including the suspicion that the State of Israel might take vengeance. How could it do so in a ritualized, proportional exchange? By deliberately slaughtering a roughly equal or slightly greater number of civilians, with equal ferocity, and then exposing some of its victims, wounded women and children, to a jubilant Tel Aviv crowd?
While it’s plausible that Hamas was motivated by vindictiveness on October 7, this circumstance only partially sheds light on what happened. Where did the commandos who massacred civilians—men, women, children and infants—get their destructive energy? It’s a question that fascinates us all. The success of the “Shoah by Bullets” literature is an indication of this fascination. We’d like to enter the psyche of those who indulge in murderous intoxication in order to understand it. And then we ask ourselves—Where do those who applaud and enjoy the televised images of mass graves, mutilated and burned bodies, decapitated babies, raped women delivered naked to the crowd, get their pleasure? Criminals and their supporters around the world, including in Europe, including in our own educational and research institutions, are united in this same mystery.
Are they united in vengeful rage against Israel, against the Jews? If vengeance must be proportionate in order to deserve this qualification, we can doubt it. For what we witnessed on October 7 was the unleashing of unlimited violence. Unlimited in its intensity, as demonstrated by the relentless assault on the lifeless bodies. Unlimited also in its scope, as each and every Jew was targeted, one by one. Hamas may not have realized its ideal that day, but it pushed its exterminationist ambitions to the limit.
So let’s take up the fear on everyone’s lips that Israel will vengeance itself. The war in which the State of Israel is involved cannot be a conventional one, because it is not facing a state, but an existential enemy that is difficult to describe. It must eliminate Hamas, its apparatus, its armed militias and its infrastructure, not the population of this territory, which is never deliberately targeted. There is no doubt that this confrontation causes and will cause civilian casualties, euphemistically called “collateral damage.” The Israeli public acknowledges and accepts it, but is by no means happy about it. Even those least inclined to sympathize in such circumstances dread it, knowing that their army’s conduct will be closely scrutinized by the international community and public opinion, while Hamas counts on a maximum number of civilian deaths as proof of its martyrdom.
But perhaps we have misunderstood the warnings about Israeli vengeance. It would not mean that Israel could avenge itself through the war, but within the war itself, as if there were an underlying primal urge that surfaces in the conduct of operations. It is possible, and no one can rule it out, that such acts may occur, but they are prohibited by the laws of war, reinforced by the very strict military code. Is this code always respected? No, of course not, but when it is violated, when a soldier succumbs to a vengeful passion, he is generally held accountable. These transgressions are never a source of pride.
So, despite the unlimited nature of its violence, which directly contradicts the code of vengeance, let’s admit that Hamas avenged the Palestinians on October 7, as it often claims. The question then arises as to what exactly for. Because the extreme violence that broke out on October 7 must have been motivated by the utmost humiliation of the Palestinians. And what humiliation is that? The failure to nip the nascent State of Israel in the bud? The failure to wipe it off the map in 1967 or 1973? For Israel’s occupation of the rest of the Palestinian territories, except for Gaza since the military disengagement and evacuation of the settlements in 2005? For its colonization of large parts of the West Bank and its suppression of all armed resistance there, with all its tyranny and frustration for the Palestinians? Or that the embryonic Palestinian state entrusted to the Palestinian Authority since the Oslo Accords has remained subservient to Israel, with which it shares the goal of suffocating Hamas in the West Bank? That this authority has proved to be corrupt, monopolized by a predatory and dictatorial elite, as is the rule in the region? Or should we interpret this humiliation through the Islamist rhetoric of Hamas and Islamic Jihad? That Jews should defile a Muslim country whose center is Al-Quds? That Jews, once despised dhimmis, have become the masters of the place? It’s all mixed up, and we can’t quite figure out what this humiliation is all about. What is certain is that it is coagulating into a generalized resentment that is spreading across the planet.
But to regain your honor, you must be honorable. Isn’t it Hamas that defies all norms of proportionality by exchanging one Israeli prisoner for a thousand of its own? Is it not the logic of suicide bombings and the systematic transformation of its own people into human shields that tells us time and again that Hamas and its openly jihadist allies despise life, all life, including their own? “A life is worth a life,” insisted a recent petition published in Le Monde, deploring the fact that each Israeli victim of the October 7 attacks has a face, a story, a singularity, while the dead in Gaza remain anonymous, faceless. Should this injustice also be attributed to Israel, or should it not rather be attributed to the extermination policy of Hamas, to its contempt for life and for the Palestinian national cause, which it has probably set back further than any Israeli government, however right-wing, could have done?
What can we do in the face of self-humiliation? We remain paralyzed. For nothing here calls for restoration. Yet we witness the spectacle of parades in support of Hamas all over the world, including in the streets of Europe, where whole sections of the left claim to belong to the “global south.” For them, Israel and its existence are a humiliation. The passion for annihilation is renewed, beyond the Shoah. The front has become global. Europe, not the continent but the idea of Europe, is trembling under the feet of the Jews and those for whom they are still important.