Israel, Hamas, and the Narratives of Atrocity (guest post)


“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.[1]

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.


Notes

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.

[1] On psychosocial narratives see Marc Howard Ross, Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict (Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics, Cambridge University Press, New York 2007).

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Cospito
Cospito
7 months ago

The need to stop the narratives that rationalize what is indefensible is clear. 


I wish this was true, but a quick look at many of the comments made on the first post of this series shows that attempts to rationalize Israeli atrocities are rampant. I would jokingly advise the ‘enlightened’ philosophers to keep the mental gymnastics to their next paper on a hyperspecialized niche philosophical issue, but sadly the situation is too horrible to make any jokes.

Hyperspecialized
Reply to  Cospito
7 months ago

One such niche: what can be the social intent of (unsolicited) joking that is offered subjunctively so as to simultaneously disavow the very same joke?

And, is the first sentence not evidence for the quoted claim wished to be true?

Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Cospito
7 months ago

Classic modus ponens / modus tollens

Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Cospito
7 months ago

This is a philosophy blog, but there is no rule that restricts commenting here to people with degrees in philosophy or who identify as philosophers. You seem to be under the misimpression that there is such a rule.

simplyignorant
simplyignorant
7 months ago

I agree with Murphy’s point in general. But it seems to me that this is not what is at stake now. Any theory that does not address the real issue—which is first, the occupation, and second, putting 2M Palestinians in the Qaza cage for nearly 20 years—misses the point. Considering this context, justification, and rationality are not good criteria for capturing the issue. To illustrate the point, let’s consider the Holocaust. Suppose a Holocaust survivor miraculously flees from the concentration camp and kills a Nazi child. Was she justified in doing so? No. But can true statements like “the Holocaust genocide and killing a Nazi child are both morally unjustified” capture what is at stake? Of course not. Any “and” beside the “Holocaust genocide” downplays the significance of it. And any suggestion to the Holocaust survivors to be rational, to stop the narratives that escalate atrocity seems beside the point. What goes on in Gaza now resembles the Nazi extermination camps. The least we can ask is to stop the Gaza blockade.

David Wallace
Reply to  simplyignorant
7 months ago

“ What goes on in Gaza now resembles the Nazi extermination camps.”

The typical person arriving at most of the Nazi extermination camps was dead within 24 hours. Even at Auschwitz, which was in part a labor camp, the great majority of people sent there were killed soon after arrival. You can unreservedly condemn the conditions in Gaza without recourse to this indefensible comparison.

ehz
ehz
Reply to  David Wallace
7 months ago

At least the pseudonym was well-chosen.

David Wallace
Reply to  simplyignorant
7 months ago

As an addendum to my last: even putting aside the comparison of Gaza to the death camps, I don’t think the argument here makes sense. We’re told:

“ Suppose a Holocaust survivor miraculously flees from the concentration camp and kills a Nazi child. Was she justified in doing so? No. But can true statements like “the Holocaust genocide and killing a Nazi child are both morally unjustified” capture what is at stake? Of course not. Any “and” beside the “Holocaust genocide” downplays the significance of it.”

But about 6,000 Palestinians died between 2005 and last October (according to the UN); 10,000 since 2000 (according to Israeli human rights groups). That’s much larger, but not thousands or millions of times larger, than the 1,500 Israelis who died on October 7th (and the 300 or so who were killed in the conflict between 2005 and then.) So a more plausible analogy would be, “suppose a large group of holocaust survivors miraculously escaped and then inflicted terrible harm on hundreds of thousands of innocents, none of whom were responsible for the holocaust”. I think in that situation it’s perfectly in order to condemn their behavior as wrong, even while acknowledging the far greater wrong of the holocaust. Indeed, according to most of Israel’s critics, this isn’t an analogy to the actual situation: it *is* the actual situation.

Jean Kazez
Jean Kazez
7 months ago

“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.”

People have reasons and narratives, but they also have limits to what they’re willing to do. Among people with the same reasons and narratives, there are people who will shoot babies and people who won’t. People who will drag away old people and hold them hostage and people who won’t. People who commit atrocities may have been trained to have a particular emotional make-up–it certainly seems possible. If that emotional make-up is something pretty fundamental, then why aren’t your students right when they say they are fundamentally different from perpetrators of atrocities?

GradStu
GradStu
Reply to  Jean Kazez
7 months ago

But surely part of what most folks mean by saying things like “I’m fundamentally different from the perpetrators of atrocities” is something like “in the counterfactual world where I had been raised just as they were, and so faced the same pressures to develop the emotional make-up they did, I nonetheless would have resisted.”

Louis F. Cooper
7 months ago

Prof. Murphy writes:
“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.”

The word “genocide” is now being used loosely by people who have different views of the conflict. On the one hand, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee has written to the U.S. State Dept. asking that it formally declare the Hamas attack of Oct. 7 an act of genocide. On the other hand, some are accusing Israel of genocide in Gaza, as the OP notes.

The use of the word “genocide” here (by any side) is, I think, counterproductive. The term has a technical definition in the UN Genocide Convention, but for most people genocide means the destruction or attempted destruction (often by a state or a state agent) of a national, ethnic or religious group, either wholly or in part. On this understanding of the word, the Hamas terrorist attack was not genocide and the Israeli response is not genocide either. Use of the word conjures up such grim historical instances as the Holocaust, the Cambodian genocide by the Khmer Rouge, or the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. None of these is an accurate analogy here. The discussion of the horrible current situation in Gaza and the region can and should proceed without the use of words that don’t really fit and historical “analogies” that are not apt analogies.

Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Louis F. Cooper
7 months ago

p.s. “destruction of a national etc. group either wholly or in substantial part” is what I should have written.

Last edited 7 months ago by Louis F. Cooper
Patrick S. O'Donnell
Reply to  Louis F. Cooper
7 months ago

Cf. https://www.academia.edu/108603745/Public_Statement_Scholars_Warn_of_Genocide_in_Gaza?email_work_card=view-paper Incidentally, I think the best philosophical and legal treatment of genocide remains Larry May’s Genocide: A Normative Account (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Patrick S. O'Donnell
7 months ago

Thank you for the reference.

Amadeus
Amadeus
7 months ago

Thoughtful article. I find it extremely hard to extend the type of sympathies and depth of understanding behind motive – to religious motivations. They are, in every sense, indefensible except to sentimentality. The ‘sacred’ is subjective and the veneration of ‘sacred’ ideas has been a abysmal path of division, legal trouble and ethnic indiscretion across history.
It’s this adherence to a ‘single story’ that we’re seeing play out – whether or not you consider Israel ‘theocratic’, it is fighting a war of theology here.

Leslie Glazer PhD
6 months ago

thoughtful article. and one important for all of us to consider even here as we create various narratives.. But what keeps going through my mind is that if only those who need to hear this and consider it could….. Except for the most right wing, the israeli government might be able to consider this, but for the emotions of the current situation that probably makes it impossible. And, Hamas has shown no sign, now or in the past, of even being able to step back and consider the humanity and perspective of the israelis. So this is really preaching to the choir as they say. Hamas has to go. Israel needs to be more temperate or even stop, but they need a solution and it will not come from Hamas. This is not a narrative issue but a problem solving one. Is it possible to get the perpetrators of the attack without so much suffering to those not involved? While I appreciate the narrative self-criticism, I think it too easily devolves in to both sides-ism. And while there are a both sides to the israeli palestinian problem we have all lived with since the british decided to divide the region, with Hamas there is only the side on stopping evil or appeasing it and hoping it doesnt continue. this of course, whatever the narrative, would not happen. hopes, thoughts , and prayers cannot stop evil

Kriegsflaggesteinberg
Kriegsflaggesteinberg
6 months ago

“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.”

I’m sorry to say that this doesn’t capture the thinking of many people in the world, because they reject those international legal norms as (liberal-progressive) Western imperialism and so don’t consider themselves to be truly bound by them. To be sure, their leaders may try to justify their actions within the bounds of those international legal discourses. However, to say that those people and leaders don’t actually give a shit would be to understate their resentment of the norms themselves.

There’s already a lot of academic literature on this…

So, who owns what land and why, who is “occupying” whose land, and all of that, is not really determined in many peoples’ minds, and many countries’ minds, by those international norms. Indeed, it’s literally the official policy of some of the rising powers of the Global South vis-a-vis their own lands.

Accordingly, where does Truth and Reconciliation REALLY start in this case (remembering that it would be “official” according to a system and via norms that many will not, on good grounds, accept)? With 1948? With 1967? (Would the Gazans be fine with Egyptian sovereignty, and, if not, must Egyptians and Jordanians be plugged in for the 1948-67 period. What about the Turks?) Should instead begin with the Arab conquests of the 7th century and the imposition of dhimmitude, legal subordination, and the cultural appropriation and cultural erasure of Jewish cities and holy sites? With the ethnic cleansings in the 9-10th centuries? For the Sephardi and Mizrachi, but really for all Jews, it certainly doesn’t start with the European experience or the Holocaust.