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The Legacy of October 7

A response to brian bean

In a reply to two pieces by brian bean, Mel Beinenfeld assesses the nature and consequences of the Hamas attack of October 7. Tempest magazine publishes “Reader’s Views” to facilitate debates among comrades.

On November 24, a “humanitarian pause” was declared in Israel’s war on Gaza. It continues as I write this, but in no sense does it signal an early end to the genocidal assault. Netanyahu has made clear to the world—if indeed it even needed to be made explicit—that his government plans to continue the siege for a long time, and in fact that Israel intends to remain to administer Gaza after active hostilities cease.

Already over 13,000 Palestinians have been killed, close to 2 million displaced from their homes, and survivors exposed to hunger, dehydration and disease. Israel’s army continues to get billions in support from the United States. Prospects for Palestinian liberation from colonial oppression can seem slim indeed.

But at the same time a large and growing movement of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle has emerged. The energy, creativity, and passion of this movement offer inspiration and hope. Tempest and the rest of the anti-Zionist Left has, correctly, thrown itself into building it. We must continue to build a movement for an immediate ceasefire (rather than the “humanitarian pause”), help reenergize the campaign for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and demand an end to all US military and economic aid to Israel.

Given the ongoing genocide and the enormous international protest movement in support of Palestine, our assessment of the event that triggered the current war—the incursion into Israel by Hamas fighters—is secondary. But because actions and events have consequences, our ability to shape a perspective for our activity depends on a careful and thorough assessment of what happened on October 7.

Our solidarity with movements of national liberation—currently, both in Palestine and Ukraine—is unconditional. However, as Marxists, we understand that unconditional solidarity is not uncritical support. Our solidarity with Ukraine does not prevent us from criticizing the Zelensky regime’s growing dependence on NATO and the IMF or its banning of strikes for undermining the Ukrainian struggle against Russian imperialism. Nor should we flinch from an independent assessment of the strategy and tactics of the leadership of the current Palestinian struggle—both Fatah and Hamas—and their impact on the prospects for a free Palestine. I hope what I write below, and any responses to it, can contribute to that assessment.

What has appeared so far on the Tempest website is inadequate. The article by Tempest member Jonah ben Avraham has already been critiqued on the site by Dan LaBotz and Stephen R. Shalom, and I won’t have more to say about ben Avraham’s piece. I will address, though, what I see as the inadequacies of the two articles by Tempest member brian bean.

A positive step for Palestine?

Hamas is a political party rooted in the Palestinian population. It has a significant base of supporters. With a well-organized military arm, it is a major force in Palestine’s resistance movement. It is not simply an Islamist terrorist organization of individuals motivated purely ideologically, like Al Qaeda or ISIS. Both its politics and its activities should be evaluated from the standpoint of how well they contribute to Palestinian liberation.

Without question, the October 7 incursion revealed that the Israeli security apparatus did not possess the omnipotence and omniscience that it claimed for itself. But whether that increases the likelihood that Israel’s apartheid state will be dismantled any time soon is at the very least highly debatable. Indeed, we have not seen any attempt, from within the Left or outside it, to make such an argument.

brian bean, in both of his recent Tempest pieces, correctly centers the need to support Palestinians in their struggle. In the first of these articles, after condemning the hypocritical stance of U.S. liberal politicians (Sanders, AOC, Bowman) who see October 7 as nothing but an unprovoked act of terror, he writes, “Rather, we should fervently defend Palestinians’ right to resistance.” Does such defense imply that any criticism of Hamas’ actions on that day is off limits? In the same article, he says that “the attempt to take action to do something to change the balance of forces is audacious and should be defended.” Does “defending” this attempt mean defending the right to make such an attempt or refraining from making any criticism of it? To me his piece reads as implying that to criticize a specific act of force is to deny the right of oppressed people to use force and to determine for themselves when force is necessary. I don’t understand that logic.

Lebanese scholar Gilbert Achcar is forthright in his assessment of the Hamas-led action. In an October 8 blog piece he wrote:

There can be no doubt that this new chapter will end with a terrible cost for the Palestinians in general, the Gazans in particular, and Hamas specifically—much higher than the cost endured by the Israelis, as has unfailingly been the case in every round of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians. And whereas it is not difficult to understand the “enough-is-enough” logic behind Hamas’s counter-offensive, it is much more doubtful that it will help advance the Palestinian cause beyond the blow to Israel’s self-confidence mentioned above [the demonstration of Israeli vulnerability—MB]. This would have been achieved at a hugely disproportionate cost for the Palestinians.

Achcar went on to point out that, in the face of Israel’s massive military superiority, the consequences of the ensuing war were bound to be devastating. Indeed, with so many Gazans killed and many more spending weeks living in terror, uncertain whether they will ever be able to return to their homes in Gaza or elsewhere—or even whether those homes are still intact—it’s hard to see how these people will be able to contribute to active resistance any time soon. The West Bank, of course, is another story, but there’s no getting around the fact that the outcome of October 7, in military terms, is a severe setback to Palestinian liberation—as could have been easily predicted, and should have been.

In the foreground is gray urban rubble from bombing. In the middle distance are damaged buildings. The upper two stories of the building in the center has collapsed on the lower two stories, and the structure looks like it could collapse entirely at any moment. There appears to be some dust in the air, but the sky behind is blue with scattered clouds
Damage in Gaza in October. Image by Wafa.

We must face the reality that Hamas’ militarist strategy and tactics have opened the way to what may be the most profound defeat of the Palestinian struggle since the first Nakba in 1948. Any attempt to avoid this reality does a disservice to the Palestinian struggle and to those building solidarity with it.

I realize that bean’s motivation in writing is to urge support for Palestinian liberation, and there is much in both of his articles that I find useful and would agree with. But when it comes to the events of October 7, he shies away from a clear assessment.

In his second article, bean asks us to confine our criticisms of Hamas to pointing out the need for a principled, internationalist left-wing leadership. He asks us, in effect, to be silent on the aspect of October 7 that has received the most attention: the attacks on civilians, including the murder of about 1200 and the taking of hostages.

We need more thoughtful analysis, not less. It should not be taboo to take a critical stance towards Hamas’ actions, even if it risks a disagreement with some Palestinian and other militants. Advancing ideas that others disagree with does not prevent us from being respected by them, as long as we present those ideas in a comradely and non-sectarian manner, do not let disagreements dominate what we have to say, and contribute constructively and actively as loyal members to building the movement.

Hamas’ attacks on civilians

“In war,” bean writes, “the intentional and targeted killing of civilians is almost always counterproductive and regrettable.” This abstract generalization tells us next to nothing. What about this instance of the killing of civilians? What do we have to say about it? Revolutionary socialists need to look reality in its full specificity squarely in the face and draw conclusions from it.

Israel is a small country. Its Jewish citizens, by and large, strongly identify with the state and its strength. They are accustomed to feeling that any violent attacks on Jews by Palestinians or other Arabs are strictly contained. Jews living in one area of the country often have ties, direct or slightly less so, to those living in another. What happens after an attack that leaves 1200 dead, many of them teens and young adults attending a music festival, could easily be predicted. The entire country is going to experience tremendous shock, grief, fear, and anger.

The stated war aim of “eliminating” Hamas was therefore met with solid enthusiasm: Something must be done! Despite Netanyahu’s unpopularity he was able to assemble a “unity” war cabinet including the National Unity Party’s Benny Gantz. Hamas succeeded in uniting Israelis at a time when deep divisions (to be sure, all within the bounds of Zionism) were the order of the day.

I am not arguing that Israel would have refrained from carrying out its assault in the absence of civilian deaths. bean is absolutely right that the simple breach of Israeli defenses would have precipitated the incursion into Gaza (or provided a convenient excuse for it). After what happened, though, internal voices calling for an end to the genocide remained very few indeed. There is certainly some revulsion at the more extreme mass murder being carried out by the IDF. But the chance that this revulsion could lead to the development of an internal anti-war movement or other form of resistance—even in the name of liberal Zionism—is vanishingly slim.

It is possible that a massive attack on civilians was part of Hamas’ motivation: to demonstrate to ordinary Israeli Jews that the Zionist state can never be a safe place for Jews. The Palestinian historian Tareq Baconi (whose appearance on the podcast The Dig is an invaluable summary of the history of Hamas) implies in an October 11 New Yorker interview that this may indeed have been their motive. Even this “rational” motive, though, achieves nothing beyond terrifying people into increased reliance on a powerful military.

Conditions created for the U.S. movement

Americans are, if anything, more ignorant than Israelis of the conditions under which Palestinians have been living. The mainstream press presented what happened on October 7 as nothing but an unprovoked attack by a terrorist group that hates Jews. There was no chance—in fact no attempt—to provide the context of displacement followed by decades-long occupation that might lead Palestinians to seek ways to resist.

The narrative that those supporting Palestinian liberation are antisemites was thus very easy to propagate. (It is not new, of course, but in the context of current events larger segments of people have been exposed to it over and over). In New York State, this began even before the October 8 Times Square demonstration, when governor Kathy Hochul stated that those planning to protest were supporters of Hamas’ terrorism.

We find ourselves in a situation where the discourse in many spaces is all about antisemitism even when what is really going on is the suppression of Palestinian or pro-Palestinian voices because they oppose Israel. The dominant Jewish organizations, news media, and political forces have always promoted this narrative, but a growing fear of rising, uncontrolled antisemitism seems to have created a panicked atmosphere that further enables them.

The New York Times ran an article on November 9 whose headline referred to “antisemitic attacks” on college campuses. Jewish students, the article said, lived in fear because of these attacks. The first example it provided was of a Northwestern University student who felt unsafe after seeing a poster on a bulletin board calling Gaza “a modern day concentration camp.” The student called the mood on campus antisemitic. At Cornell, a student did in fact post online death threats to Jews on campus. Though the threat referenced Israel and Palestine, there was no evidence that the student in question—a psychologically troubled individual who was later arrested and charged—had any connection to pro-Palestine organizations or participated in any of their activities. (The student was neither Middle Eastern nor Muslim.) No matter, the vice president of Cornell’s Hillel Chapter, even after this student was arrested, said she was afraid to walk outside, according to the Times.

Color photo of demonstrators on a city street. Several Palestinian flags are waving in breeze, which is blowing from left to right. The foreground is dark and slightly blurred, with a few cops on the right. One woman—a bit farther away at center of the photo—is in sharp focus wearing a light-colored shirt. She is framed by the darker elements, and she holds up a hand-lettered sign that reads, “STOP THE GENOCIDE.”
Demonstration in Kreuzberg, Germany, October 21, 2023. Image by Montecruz Foto.

The article goes on to outline raging campus debates over what constitutes antisemitism and what speech should be considered offensive. These confused, impassioned debates, of course, drown out reasoned discussion of Zionism and its relation to imperialism, and grab headlines while repression of pro-Palestinian speakers and organizations gets little attention until protests make it impossible to ignore.

The October 7 attacks don’t necessarily fully explain the rising fears of perceived antisemitism. And I want to be clear: The Anti-Defamation League and other strongly Zionist groups would scream “antisemitism” even in the absence of any civilian killings. Certain University Trustees would pressure administrators to ban pro-Palestinian groups and speakers, donors would pull the plug, etc. But all of this has gained credibility in the current highly polarized environment, and I think it’s important to discuss this piece of the reality. Ubiquitous posters (in neighborhoods like mine) with images of Israeli hostages create momentum for pro-Israel rallies like the one that took place in early November on Manhattan’s liberal Upper West Side. Memories of the attacks, especially given that many U.S. Jews have relatives or other connections in Israel, help build events like the DC rally in support of Israel’s “right to defend itself.”

Thus the voices of capitalist politicians and pro-Zionist forces denying the legitimacy of Palestine’s liberation movement have been enhanced. While it may be that some of the reported instances of antisemitic events on campuses—scrawled graffiti targeting Jews, etc., — are in fact coming from those angered by Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, the overwhelmingly dominant source of rising antisemitism in the US today is the far right. This is now being obscured, as an equivalence is drawn between the killing of Jews by a segment of the Palestinian liberation movement and anger at supporters of Zionism in the US. And the attribution of a sharp rise in antisemitism to the Palestine solidarity movement is being mobilized in support of a new McCarthyism that has made denouncing Hamas the prerequisite for even the mildest criticism of the Israeli barbarities in Gaza.

“Misplaced moralism”?

The strongest statement that brian bean makes against the targeting of civilians is to say that “regrettable actions were taken by Hamas.” Karl Marx, in the quote bean cites about the Indian rebellion of 1857, explains what Marx calls the “infamous…conduct” of the Sepoys as a response to colonial oppression. I wonder if bean would allow “infamous conduct” to apply to Hamas.

bean wants us to refrain from criticizing Hamas out of “misplaced moralism.” (I wonder how he proposes to determine what moral points are properly placed?) The ability to empathize with others is not an optional extra skill for revolutionary socialists. Solidarity among groups and movements, and our own solidarity with all of capitalism’s victims in struggle, including the victims of colonial oppression, depends partly on human feelings of ethics and moral behavior. And our judgment of what tactics are or are not consistent with the revolutionary socialist project also has to be informed partly by moral considerations—that is, human considerations—and not some cold calculus of gain versus loss.

Others have used stronger words than “regrettable” to the attacks. I want to suggest that we ought to as well. Tareq Baconi, in the New Yorker interview, says this:

This is the first time I have been interviewed by The New Yorker, and it’s happening because Israelis were killed. What happened when Palestinians were killed in the thousands, just in the fifteen years that I’ve been covering Hamas? And so, when we really want to think about what this driver of violence is—and the pictures that have been coming out are sickening—we need to understand that colonial violence instills dehumanization both in the oppressor and in the oppressed. And it’s completely out of mind. It’s mind-boggling to me that Israeli protesters go out to protest for democracy in an apartheid regime. The only way they can hold that contradiction is if they accept that Palestinian lives are absent or expendable. And so we have to understand this violence, which, again, is heart-wrenching, in that context.

Baconi is absolutely clear about the ultimate source of violence, and about which side he is on. Yet he can use the terms “sickening” and “heart-wrenching”—that is, he can describe things as they really are—when describing what Hamas did. May revolutionary socialists use those terms?

Palestinians have used even stronger language. Jewish Voice for Peace cited the Israeli Arab human rights group Adalah which mentioned the “brutal and illegal” Hamas attack. (JVP itself refers to “massacres” and “horrific war crimes.”) Both groups used this language in the context of statements demanding a stop to the genocidal response of the Israeli government.

Turning to the revolutionary socialist Left, I urge Tempest members, friends, and readers to read David Finkel’s article in the latest Against the Current. Finkel has written on Israel/Palestine for many years and has decades of experience observing international events. The entire article is useful. But Finkel, never one to mince words in criticizing the Zionist project and its effects, has this to say about October 7, under the heading “Facing Brutal Facts”:

It is necessary to face hard facts of October 7 and the aftermath. The extraordinary organization, secret preparation, complexity and sheer power of the Hamas attack truly shocked the world.

So did the extreme brutality of the mass murders that it committed. Unless there was a breakdown of command and control, it would appear that the raid’s principal purpose was to kill people—even more than taking captives to exchange for more than six thousand Palestinian prisoners (including 360 children) held in Israel, many under “administrative detention” orders without charges or trial.

Claims that some Israeli citizens may have been killed in the army’s assaults to regain control, for example, “A growing number of reports indicate Israeli forces responsible for Israeli civilian and military deaths following October 7 attack” are unverified, but wouldn’t be unprecedented in Israel’s history of dealing with hostage crises.

Nonetheless, large-scale murders on October 7 by Hamas militants are extensively documented in body-cam and cell phone footage as well as survivors’ accounts. It included indiscriminate butchery of families in their homes—and of many civilians who could have been captured but instead were gunned down.

The extent of the killing beyond any evident strategic goal marks this as a hideous action, nothing to do with advancing Palestinian resistance or any progressive purpose.

It displays even more appalling indifference to the incineration it would bring down on the civilian Gaza population. In what way would this “advance” the struggle?

The moral and political crimes of Hamas include its failure to carry out construction of civilian bomb shelters and emergency supplies in the face of repeated rounds of Israeli air and ground assault.

Supporters of Palestinian freedom need to face what this says about the real nature of Hamas, as well as the way it has ruled in Gaza. Recognizing the absolutely essential right of oppressed peoples to resist, including with arms, does not absolve us of the responsibility to analyze the methods and politics of the forces acting in their name.

The criminality is all the greater if, as some analysts suggest, a purpose of the Hamas attack was deliberately to draw Israel into a ground invasion. Could the organization’s military or political leadership have imagined that regional state powers would come to its rescue?

I hope that revolutionary socialists will agree with Finkel that “it is necessary to face hard facts.” I offer this submission as a contribution to a conversation in that regard.

The author wishes to thank Sam Farber, Tom Harrison, Bill Keach, and Charlie Post for their comments on a draft of this article.

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Mel Bienenfeld View All

Mel Beinenfeld is a member of the Tempest Collective in New York City.