Whoever has a gun should prepare it, and whoever does not have a gun should prepare his cleaver, axe, or knife. – Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, 30 April 2022.
Nothing characterized Jewish life everywhere during the two millennia of diaspora more than the contingency of it. There were good times, bad times, and worse times, but unless some non-Jewish power protected them temporarily – and it was always temporary – anything could be done to the Jews. Their property could be stolen, their women violated, their homes burned. Over and over.
In her article Nostalgia for a Slaughterhouse, Phyllis Chesler contrasts the reality of the turn-of-the-century shtetel with the sentimental picture of Anatevka presented in Fiddler on the Roof, and quotes researcher Irina Astashkevich’s description of the second day of the pogrom, after the Cossacks and the Jews’ gentile neighbors had already stolen everything of value:
The carnival of violence, complete with scenes of torture, rape, and murder, played out on the second day of the pogrom as ‘celebratory street theater.’ Pogrom perpetrators purposefully drove Jews into the streets and hunted down their victims … acts of torture took place in front of an audience of pogrom perpetrators, the local population, and frightened Jews. The ritualized violence reiterated the previous pogroms, but often in a more grotesque and horrifying form. The elderly couple, Yudko Gurshevoy, aged seventy-five, and his wife Bruckha, mad with fear, were stripped naked and forced to run through the streets as hunted animals, cheered by the Cossacks. Pogromschiki bayoneted their victims, careful not to kill them, but to leave the wounded to suffer and bleed to death in agony that lasted sometimes for several days. Elderly parents were left to die, while their families were not allowed to help them … Pogromschiki made sure that all the apothecaries were wrecked, and there was no medical assistance; the only remaining non-Jewish medical practitioner was strictly prohibited to provide any help to the Jews on pain of death.
Astashkevich notes that in the Pale of Settlement during the period 1917-21 there were “over a thousand pogroms in about five hundred localities.” Anyone who has even a sight acquaintance with Jewish history knows that similar happenings were common everywhere and at any time in the Christian and Muslim worlds that the Jews inhabited, always as a powerless minority. Blood libels that triggered anti-Jewish riots were common during the medieval period, and have continued into the 21st century.
In June of 1941, Jews had lived in Iraq for more than two millennia, since the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. The Babylonian Talmud was composed here. But here too, Jewish life was always contingent. And in June of 1941 it came to an end in the Farhud, a bloody pogrom inspired by a pro-Nazi regime. Official estimates of the number of Jews murdered are in the range of 100-200, but more recent evidence indicates that the true number may be closer to 1000. The number of raped and maimed is unknown. In any event, it was the beginning of the end for the Jewish presence in Iraq; and in 1952 almost all of the remaining Jews were ransomed by the Israeli government and airlifted to Israel, forced to leave behind (as always) their possessions, including businesses and real estate worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The custom, indeed the institution, that it is always open season on the Jewish people, reached its zenith with the Holocaust, which industrialized the impoverishment, torture, degradation and murder of Jews. We were treated like insects, even exterminated using a product originally intended for fumigation.
The phrase “Never Again,” if it means anything, should mean that the state of imminent victimhood in which Jews have found themselves since 586 BCE must never be allowed to recur. One of the purposes of establishing the Jewish state, which required a massive sacrifice of Jewish lives, was to accomplish this.
But we have not succeeded. Pogroms occur even here in the Jewish state, small scale ones that we call “terrorism,” and larger ones like the “riots” of May 2021 when our Israeli Arab neighbors attacked Jews in the streets, burned their homes and synagogues, and murdered them. On a continuing basis, the small-scale terrorism of rock-throwing and crime-as-jihad happen every single day, wherever Jews and Arabs come into contact with one another.
From time to time, the Jewish state is attacked with barrages of deadly rockets, which kill just a few Jews each time, because the vaunted Jewish intellect and great chunks of Jewish money have built domes of iron (and now, laser beams) to hide behind while our enemies take their potshots at us. Our carefully measured military responses take exquisite care to protect enemy civilians, and always stop before actually defeating the enemy. And afterwards, we avert our eyes as Gaza receives cash from Qatar and cement from Israel, ostensibly to help civilian victims of the conflict, but in fact is used by Hamas to dig more tunnels and build more rockets.
All our wars since 1948 have been, in a political sense, defensive. Even in 1967, when the IDF took control of great swaths of territory, including the heartland of the Land of Israel, one of the first acts of our leadership afterwards was to return the heart of the heartland, the Temple Mount, to Muslim Arab control. In following years, instead of a massive drive to settle the liberated and conquered lands and to drive our enemies out of them, our politicians tried to find ways to return them to our enemies in return for “peace.”
The message that we have been broadcasting non-stop for the last few decades, and that our enemies have been receiving loud and clear, is that “we will defend ourselves, but only just enough to stop your immediate assault.” So naturally, as soon as they can, they try again. And the same goes for our response to terrorism, both large and small-scale. Apprehended terrorists, even mass murderers, are temporarily incarcerated in institutions that they to a great extent control, while their families are richly rewarded by the Palestinian Authority, with money that comes from Israel, Europe, and the USA.
So yes, the situation of the Jews is better today in Israel than it was in Kishinev in 1903, or Iraq in 1941-52. But the basic nature of our response is the same: pay the ransom if possible, and ward off the blows if not. What we do not do is change the perception of the Jew as the victim-in-waiting. What we do not do is discredit, for once and for all, the idea that it is normal to try to kill Jews.
On the evening of 4 May 2022, a few days after Yahya Sinwar exhorted them to use their knives and axes, two terrorists entered the town of Elad in central Israel, murdered three Jews and injured seven others – with knives and axes, as instructed. This continues a streak of terrorism that began in March in which a total of 19 Israelis (including Druze and Christian Arabs) have been killed by Palestinian terrorists.
This is nothing particularly out of the ordinary. The messages that come from the official media of Hamas and the groups that make up the PLO (which constitutes the Palestinian Authority), is that killing Jews is praiseworthy, murderers are heroes, and that continued violent “resistance” will bring about the removal of the Jews from every bit of the land from the river to the sea. This message also permeates social media, mosques in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza (including the al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount), the educational systems of the PA and UNRWA, and every aspect of “Palestinian” culture.
It is time, for the first time since the end of the War of Independence, to permanently end the pernicious perception of Jews as appropriate victims. It is time for all of our enemies to understand that killing Jews or even trying to do so is not an option, because the cost will be astronomical for them. It is time to finally actualize the promise inherent in the slogan “Never Again.”
Today we have a golden opportunity to do this, to demonstrate that finally, after more than two millennia, it is not normal to try to kill Jews.
MK Itamar Ben Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit faction, responded to the terror attack in Elad, saying “in a normal country, an Air Force flyover would now be dropping missiles on the house of [Hamas leader] Yahya Sinwar, who called for attacks with weapons and axes, and killing him. This is how you cut off terrorism.” Some call Ben Gvir an extremist, but numerous other politicians and media personalities agreed with him. The argument against killing Sinwar is that he would be replaced, and terrorism would continue. And Hamas has threatened that if he or any other Hamas official is harmed, they would respond with “immediate war,” including suicide bombings in Israeli cities, like those that took hundreds of Israeli lives during the Second Intifada.
But Israel should assassinate Sinwar tomorrow, and as many of his associates in the leadership of Hamas as possible. And she should preempt the threatened war with a war of her own, on Hamas in Gaza as well as its cells in Judea, Samaria, eastern Jerusalem, and anywhere else they are found. The operation should be carried out in accordance with international law; that is, so that collateral damage to civilian lives and property is proportional to military necessity – as opposed to the previous policy of attempting to achieve military objectives with close to zero civilian casualties.
The operation should have a twofold objective: one goal should be purely military – and it should continue until Hamas (and associated factions like Palestinian Islamic Jihad) in Gaza and Judea and Samaria cease to exist. The other should be in the information arena, to declare to the world that Israel will no longer tolerate attempts to murder Jews. Israel must make it clear to her enemies and allies alike that – as Ben Gvir said – we are a “normal country,” and if you try to murder our citizens, you will pay dearly.
Israel has many enemies, and Hamas is only one. There are many areas in which she has lost the sovereignty so painfully obtained in 1948 and 1967. All of these enemies must be deterred or destroyed, and sovereignty recovered – at the Temple Mount, Joseph’s Tomb, Hevron, and even the Negev and the Galilee. There is a long road to follow to take back what has been given up over the years, and to educate the world that the conditions of diasporic oppression that the State of Israel inherited no longer hold. The destruction of Hamas can be the first step on this journey.