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Arguing about Israel won’t redeem us
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Arguing about Israel won’t redeem us

A promo for the Supernova Sukkot Gathering addresses itself to the “Tribe of Nova,” which is also the name of the event’s organizer. Talk of “tribes” and the “tribal” is standard in the dance music community, as is the kind of Burning Man, techno-hippie speak promising a party “where the essence of unity and love combines forces with the best music.”

These words take on a sad irony knowing the horror that awaited those who attended. The revelers found community not just in the music they loved but also in the provincial identities they’d shed, if only for a weekend. The “tribe” metaphor may be corny, but it does reflect our unshakable modern assumption that the obligations we choose take priority over the antiquated claims of family, nation, ethnicity, and religion imposed on us at birth.

It usually takes an encounter with tribalism in the older sense of the word — rooted in land and history and ancient grudges — to knock this assumption loose. The 9/11 attacks did this for Americans; now, in Hamas’ massacre of at least 1,500 unarmed men, women, and children, Israel has a 9/11 of its own. The analogy isn’t entirely accurate. What’s shocking about the October 7 attack is the scale. It doesn’t alter worldviews the way 9/11 did; anyone already invested in this ongoing conflict already knows what to think. But the sheer brutality on display seems to demand that everyone else, no matter how uninformed, also take a side.

For the Westerner who is neither Jew nor Muslim, this is a difficult task. Of course, any sane person instinctively sympathizes with the victims and condemns the attackers. Extensive and shockingly immediate documentation of the atrocity — at a level unthinkable even five years ago — reinforces this view. But to attempt to understand this event in its larger context is to be pulled to one of two extremes.

The right proposes that if you truly condemn the attack, you must follow this gesture to its logical conclusion and declare yourself “pro-Israel.” But it’s not hard to notice that “supporting” Israel is not like supporting any other foreign country. Might Israel have political interests that differ from our own? Ask that perfectly reasonable question, and suddenly we’re talking not about a specific sovereign state but the Jewish people in general, a people to whom we’re meant to grant unquestionable moral authority. Conservatives like Ben Shapiro — who otherwise reject the kind of identity-based grievance politics that gave us rampant “white supremacy” — are quick to slap down opponents with the incendiary, utterly unprovable label “anti-Semite.” The extreme pro-Israel position is tribalism masquerading as politics.

The extreme anti-Israel position is also tribal, whether the secular leftists ghoulishly cheering on the “decolonization” of Palestine realize it or not. These campus keffiyeh kids are happy to ally themselves with radical Muslims to further their disastrously misguided aims, but they arrogantly assume they can control and direct the ancient hatred at the heart of the movement. What the late scholar of Islam Bernard Lewis wrote almost 50 years ago still holds true today:

Islam from its inception is a religion of power, and in the Muslim world view it is right and proper that power should be wielded by Muslims and Muslims alone. Others may receive the tolerance, even the benevolence, of the Muslim state, provided that they clearly recognize Muslim supremacy. That Muslims should rule over non-Muslims is right and normal. That non-Muslims should rule over Muslims is an offense against the laws of God and nature, and this is true whether in Kashmir, Palestine, Lebanon, or Cyprus. Here again, it must be recalled that Islam is not conceived as a religion in the limited Western sense but as a community, a loyalty, and a way of life ...

Hamas certainly advocates Muslim supremacy by this standard and has no qualms about killing as many Jews as it takes (to say nothing of its own people) to overthrow Israel. The world would be better off without Hamas. But the same could be said of any number of despots and terror groups. We have to weigh the risks of destroying Hamas. We also have to understand what actions — including those by Israel — fostered a situation in which a group like Hamas could flourish.

Pointing this out is not “moral equivalency,” as if discerning the truth were simply a matter of totting up the atrocities on both sides to see who’s “worse.” This objection to nuance and moderation reveals the blindness that tribal identity can cause in even its most reasonable members. Victimhood does not confer virtue; you are not good in direct proportion to the wickedness of your enemies. This applies to Jews as much as it does to black people and to MAGA white people.

In the Old Testament, God’s chosen people enjoy His favor, but they also endure His justice. Time and time again He lets them suffer defeat rather than reward their lack of faith. Perhaps it is our faith, rather than our ability to persuade, to which we need to attend. Only a select few have the power to act and end the carnage in Israel; the rest of us spout our opinions in a void, engaging in online disputes that will never save so much as one Israeli or Palestinian life.

What then can we do to help? It’s fashionable to ridicule “thoughts and prayers” as the ultimate empty gesture, but in my opinion the two are unfairly linked. “Thoughts” are what you post on X or Facebook, usually in reaction to the thoughts of others. Prayer is at once far more private and universal. Prayer is what Fulton Sheen, addressing his fellow Americans during World War II, recommended:

In wartime the proper approach is to ask God to use our collective wills and our national arms for His holy purposes, rather than to ask Him to serve our purposes. In prayer we do not ask God to fight on our side; we pray to fight on His side.

Sheen recognized that the most important battle of all is waged in the human heart. Of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, he asks:

Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven”? Do we mean it? Does it not imply a continual conversion and purgation of selfish, evil desires, that we may be caught up as an instrument to serve God’s purposes and that peace, grounded on His justice, may reign throughout the world?

One could ask the same question of Judaism’s oldest daily prayer, the Shema. Early in his ministry, Jesus cites its opening as the most important commandment of all: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The great evil Hamas unleashed on the morning of October 7 continues to play out on our screens. Are we unwilling to look away because we’re bearing witness, or is it because we’ve succumbed to the temptation to indulge our own enmities? The only way to find out is by contending not with our fellow fallen creatures, but with the perfect, perfectly good God who made us.

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