“The need to stop the narratives that rationalize what is indefensible is clear. How to stop such narratives is not.”
In the following guest post, Colleen Murphy, the Roger and Stephany Joslin Professor of Law at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign College of Law and co-Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Transitional Justice discusses how understanding the “psychosocial narratives” of the Israelis and Palestinians helps us understand the conflict between them, and what resolutions to it may involve.
The post is the second in a brief series, “Philosophers On the Israel-Hamas Conflict.”
Israel, Hamas, and Narratives of Atrocity
by Colleen Murphy
Ending and preventing atrocity requires exposing and contesting the narratives that explain, rationalize, and defend the indefensible, enabling human beings to countenance and inflict suffering indifferent to the pain it creates. It requires a refusal to dehumanize fellow human beings and a refusal to see any person as ‘deserving’ of atrocity because they are perceived as oppressors, terrorists, and/or savages. It requires insisting on the necessity of restraint in action. Occupation does not justify massacre. Self-defense does not justify collective punishment and starvation. One’s humanity is not protected (nor is one’s security guaranteed) by abdicating one’s humanity in relation to others.
I often teach courses on transitional justice. Such courses examine how societies globally do and should confront the moral, political, and legal aftermath of egregious wrongdoing. A common assumption initially shared by my students is that perpetrators of atrocities are fundamentally different from them or other ordinary people.
It is this assumption I problematize throughout my course. Atrocities, I emphasize, are always committed for reasons that make sense to those who commit them, even if they might not make sense to you. Perpetrators of atrocities have narratives that explain, rationalize, and justify the indefensible, narratives which they share with members of their community and those outside their community who support them, who are also complicit in wrongdoing. They say/believe/rationalize that committing atrocity is permissible when it is a response to an existential threat or to the atrocity committed by those who they name as perpetrators and now target as victims or when one’s victims are perceived as subhuman savages or animals. Similarly, they say/believe/rationalize that those they perceive to be savages and animals know no restraint and are therefore not owed the restraint that international humanitarian law or international criminal law requires- such restraint is a luxury that must be dispensed with when confronted with communities who will not reciprocate. At the same time, the reasons seen to underpin the defensibility of one’s own atrocities are not extended to understanding or explaining the atrocities committed against one’s community. Instead, the atrocities to which one’s community is subject are viewed through reductionist narratives characterizing the perpetrators and the communities from which they come as pure evil, irrational and so unmoved by dialogue, lacking in basic humanity, and thus can only be understood as terrorists or oppressors only.
The narrative dynamics I describe are on vivid display right now in discussions about and by Israelis and Palestinians as well as international observers. Equally on display are the fundamentally incommensurable narratives of who is the victim and who the perpetrator; of who has been betrayed; and of which wrongdoing or injustice now demands a response. The psychosocial narratives at the core of the group identities of Israelis and Palestinians are shaped by their histories with each other, histories which inform each group’s expectations of how they will be treated now by the other, as well as each group’s collective fears and hopes.
The massacre of Israelis by Hamas on October 7 evoked the deepest existential fears of some Israelis and many Jews worldwide. The methodical murder of Jews in the attacks has traumatized the Israeli nation, evoking memories of the Holocaust, during which Nazi Germany led the genocidal killing of 6 million European Jews in World War II and pogroms in many countries including Russia and Poland. The massacre of October 7 occurred in the context of a recent global spike in anti-Semitism and by a group defined in part by the denial of the right of Israel to exist. In this context, commentary defending Hamas or discounting sympathy towards Israeli victims by appeal to ongoing apartheid in Israel only strengthens a profound sense of vulnerability and existential fears among many people of multiple identities about the fate of the very existence of the state of Israel.
At the same time, the words and actions by the Israeli government in response to October 7 have evoked core existential fears of many Palestinians of erasure at the hands of a government and broader community seen as committed to Palestinian destruction. In the context of the suffocating blockade imposed since 2007 when Hamas came to power, the Israeli government has responded to October 7 by ordering 1 million Palestinians in the northern part of Gaza to relocate to southern Gaza in advance of a ground attack aimed at the ‘total annihilation’ of Hamas; bombing Gaza, killing thousands and wounding thousands more; imposing a total blockade of food, water, fuel, and electricity; and preventing Palestinians from leaving. The unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in one of the most densely populated places on earth evokes for Palestinians the ‘Nakba’ or catastrophe of 1948. By massacre and threat of massacre Zionist militias forcibly displaced and permanently dispossessed from their homes hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, some Palestinians ending up in Gaza and the West Bank and other Palestinians becoming refugees to this day in nearby countries like Lebanon and Egypt and beyond. In the view of many people of multiple identities, Israel is trying to ‘solve the Palestinian problem’ by committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. In this context, anyone defending Israel or expressing sympathy for victims of October 7 is seen as an apologist for genocide.
Such narratives explain the basis for the existential fears of Israelis, Palestinians, and those outside their communities who support them at this moment. However, there is a deeper sense in which atrocities are often incomprehensible. The incomprehensibility of atrocity emerges in testimony by victims at truth commissions, one process of transitional justice. Truth commissions are official, ad hoc investigative institutions that typically investigate patterns of human rights violations over a delimited time, identifying root causes of violence and making recommendations for reforms to ensure non-recurrence.
Through testimony, victims communicate the impossibility of fully grasping how their cries or the cries of a person they love and cherish so intensely could not move another to restrain conduct. In deeply divided communities with entrenched histories of violence, this incomprehensibility is mutual. Just as many Israelis, Jews, and those who support them cannot comprehend the callousness and brutality of October 7, many Palestinians and those who support them cannot comprehend the viciousness and ruthlessness of Israeli responses to October 7. Such incomprehensibility can raise doubts about the basic humanity of perpetrators in ways that sometimes (but not always or necessarily) rationalize retaliatory violence and denial of its indefensibility.
The need to stop the narratives that rationalize what is indefensible is clear. How to stop such narratives is not. Nor is the moral and political aftermath of atrocity simple to navigate. Reckoning with wrongdoing in fragile political contexts where deeply held incommensurable narratives of the past coexist is a fraught political and moral undertaking. Societal experiments in transitional justice to date underscore how modest is our ability to fundamentally alter dynamics deeply entrenched with existing tools like trials and truth commissions. To the extent that measures like reparations satisfy the right of victims to remedy and repair, they do so incompletely and imperfectly. Confronting past atrocity to prevent recurrence in the future does not guarantee ‘never again.’
If members of deeply divided communities with histories of violence and atrocity and those who are invested in them cannot move beyond a single story, as Chimamanda Adichie so aptly puts it, the future will likely hold a war to no end. Hamas reasons that it must massacre and terrorize in order to enflame the Israeli state into showing its truly violent colors, and the right-wing Netanyahu government reasons that destroying innocent Gazan civilians is the only way to eradicate Hamas. A step in ending such cycles is to reject and resist such stories and to refuse to view the ‘other’ as anything but an ordinary human being to whom we are accountable for what we say and do.
I am very grateful to Antoinette Burton, Adil Haque, Brett Ashley Kaplan, Brinton Lykes, Lesley Wexler, and the Illinois Chancellor’s Scholars currently taking my transitional justice course for comments on earlier drafts.
 On psychosocial narratives see Marc Howard Ross, Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict (Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics, Cambridge University Press, New York 2007).