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What solidarity requires

A response to Mel Bienenfeld on October 7

brian bean replies to Mel Bienenfeld’s criticism of two earlier Tempest articles by the author on the analysis and posture of revolutionary socialists towards the events of October 7 in Palestine.

The recent article “The Legacy of October 7” written by Mel Bienenfield criticizes two of my recent articles on the current situation in Palestine. In his description of what he calls the inadequacies of my pieces, Comrade Bienenfeld makes three claims. Each of them reflects a methodological and political error that speaks to larger questions on the Left. It is for that reason I am responding, as getting these questions wrong holds us back from building solidarity with a radicalizing Palestinian movement both in the U.S. and internationally.

Bienenfeld implies that my articles “uncritically support” and “flinch from an independent assessment of” Hamas. I disagree. I argued then that:

There are legitimate strategic criticisms of the emphasis on armed struggle, concerns about the relegation of the kind of mass resistance of the First Intifada, Great March of Return and 2021’s Unity Intifada, and concerns about Hamas’ sectarianism and increasingly authoritarian internal regime—a function, in part, of its isolation in Gaza. In the deadlock of Palestinian politics and with general mass dissatisfaction with the traditional Palestinian political groups.

My latter article made similar points when I argued that criticism of Hamas “must be made”—while cognizant of the ideological minefield of the Zionist backlash—on a strategic, not moral basis. So what Bienenfeld finds inadequate is not that I am “uncritical” of Hamas but rather that he disagrees with my assessments.

He makes three claims about the apparent inadequacies of my articles as it relates to the events of October 7. One, that these events reflect “the most profound defeat” for the Palestinian liberation movement. Two, that the actions taken by the armed groups on October 7 need to be perceived in a negative light because they set back the development of a peace movement in Israel and “enhanced” and helped “gain credibility” for the fears of antisemitism in the United States. Third, that the ability of revolutionary socialists “to shape a perspective for our activity” apparently requires a clearly stated “moral” opposition to at least some of the actions of October 7. I will take up each of these in turn.

“A positive step for Palestine”?

Comrade Bienenfeld faults Hamas for the events of October 7 on the basis of his assessment of its “legacy”—as his article is titled. He argues that there is “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.” He argues that Hamas’s military strategy has paved the way for “the most profound defeat” for Palestinians since the 1948 Nakba and claims that “it’s hard to see how these people will be able to contribute to active resistance any time soon.” This is a simplistic view.

It is demonstrably the case that since October 7, the genocidal violence enacted on Gaza is catastrophic. Many, like Bienenfeld, have pointed out that the current death toll in Gaza has exceeded those murdered by Zionists during the 1948 Nakba that established the state of Israel on its foundation of ethnic cleansing and massacre. The razing of Gaza and Israel’s potential plans for Gaza’s Palestinians in many ways could be clearly a setback. It is uncontroversial to see how the wake of October 7 has led to a situation of calamitous disaster and unfathomable human cost for Palestinians.

Most importantly, the notion that this is simply a “profound defeat” very critically obscures and tragically minimizes the conditions before October 7. This claim depends on an assumption in Bienenfeld’s analysis that if Hamas had not carried out the attacks on October 7, or perhaps if the fighters had shown greater restraint, that somehow things would be better off for Palestinians. Without minimizing the extent of the current violence still one must ask, “What would you have them do?” The context of sixteen years of the siege of Gaza accompanied by the routinized Israeli bombing sprees, the continual international isolation of the Palestinian cause due to normalization, the pending Saudi/Israel deal, the rise of a right-wing government in Israel that was fervently explicit before October 7 about its aim of carrying out the final annexation of the remainder of historic Palestine, this aim beginning to be implemented with pogroms of Palestinian villages carried out by settler organizations, record levels of violence directed at Palestinians in the West Bank, as well as the targeting of Al Aqsa Mosque with multiple armed demonstrations of right-wing settlers with ministers in the current government at the lead.

The actions taken on October 7—that I and others characterized as having a desperate quality—was a calculation at choosing a military gambit perhaps risking genocide in the context of facing a slow-motion genocide underway. The slow certainty of death of the siege of Gaza and the withering of the Palestinian resistance versus an attempt to upset this status quo with great immediate cost is a decision that for some is hard to grasp from afar. But it is a decision that rests firmly with the Palestinian movement.

I would also add that it is too quick and too narrow to proclaim defeat and have the assessment stop there. Other political dynamics show a more complicated balance sheet. The global display of solidarity with Palestinians has been unprecedented. Regional demonstrations, some directed at Arab governments complicity with Zionism, have re-emerged. Israel has been increasingly discredited, the normalization deals with the other Arab countries is at least temporarily stalled and problematized, several South American countries have symbolically broken ties with the apartheid state, and Joe Biden’s unwavering support for genocide has created a deep divides in his standing globally and domestically.

A recent poll found that among “young Democrats” dramatic shifts towards support for Palestine have occurred and that this is, according to the director of the poll, “the deepest shift in a short time I have seen” and that “this isn’t episodic.” Others, like in a Nation piece entitled “Israel Is Losing This War,” have pointed out that even while it appears that Hamas may face a short-term military setback there is a convincing argument to be made that some of its long term political objectives have made gains. The article argues that “by shattering a status quo that Palestinians find intolerable, Hamas has put politics back on the agenda. Israel has significant military power, but it is politically weak.”

Even imperialist goons like Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have publicly commented that this situation will lead to Israel “replac[ing] a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.” While I probably share with Bienenfeld an analysis that “It seems tragically unlikely that the armed resistance in its current state will be able to militarily defeat the enormous Zionist military apparatus” (even though he seems to ignore that this is the conclusion of my October 8 piece) I think that to simply declare the “legacy” as a profound defeat is too early to tell.

Comrade Bienenfeld’s analysis also completely—and problematically—excludes the viewpoint of Palestinians in his assessment. Much of the assessment of October 7 from Palestinians acknowledges the immense and threatening danger of Israel’s response but also contains a sense of hope. This needs to be engaged with. If it is such an “easily predicted” setback, why is it that one of the few polls conducted among Palestinians since October found that 73 percent of Palestinians polled had “expectations of victory” and over 80 percent viewed as favorable the Al Qassam and Al Aqsa resistance brigades? Obviously opinion polls don’t immediately translate into material gains but the subjective experience of the Palestinians in struggle should be centrally considered. We can imagine that this has everything to do with the strategic alternatives on offer. It also seems to reflect that Palestinians are thinking in political, not purely military, terms when they speak of victory.

This is why the events of October 7, the literal tearing down of the fences and puncturing the myth of the invulnerability of the Zionist enemy for many Palestinians meant—as Basil Farraj recently told me in an interview—”thinking about freedom, about breaking metaphorical and literal walls.” He stated that there is the sober awareness that “if we get defeated now, it would take us, if not decades, centuries back.” And with that he also said “we are talking about hope and an unleashing of our imagination.” This is a common perception that cannot just be discounted.

Photo of hundreds of demonstrators at a Free Palestine demonstration in Oranienplatz. Kreuzberg, Berlin, Germany, on October 21, 2023 . At the center of the photo is a protester holding a handmade cardboard sign reading, “ceasefire now” with two offset images of roses. The protester is also holding a rose with the sign.
Free Palestine demo – Oranienplatz. Kreuzberg, Berlin, Germany, October 21, 2023 . Photo by Montecruz Foto.

It is also hard to simply intone “defeat” when you see the joyful reunion of Palestinian political prisoners and their families released by the prisoner exchange. The refrain of thanks they give to the armed resistance and to the solemn sacrifice of Gazans is universal. They do so in awareness of the costs. While it is true that we need to “face the hard facts” that this exchange is a drop in the bucket of Palestinian political prisoners, and that Israel arrested more than they released in that period, for someone who emphasizes the need to empathize with others this subjective reality should be noted. One Palestinian comrade remarked to me that when October 7 occurred, many Palestinian political prisoners who faced life sentences packed their clothes up and placed them by the door of their cell because they expected that this—in contrast with the impasse of negotiations—would be their way out. There is hope here amid the despair.

Bienenfeld places too much emphasis on the specifics of Hamas’ actions instead of seeing what transpired as the product of the conditions imposed by Israel, what Tareq Baconi (who Bienenfeld quotes while ignoring his conclusions) calls the “inevitable rupture” caused by “Israel’s relentless and indeterminable provocation.” It was an attempt to change the balance of a status quo that was completely untenable. What Baconi calls “a new reality” “has left in tatters the illusion that ethnic partition in Palestine is either a sustainable or effective form of demographic engineering, let alone a moral or legal one.”

Overall, the inauguration of this new reality, which seems likely to be a part of the calculus of Hamas’ actions, now exists. As that relates to the question of “defeat” it is too early to tell, and the evidence points to a more complicated picture, even if one possible conclusion might terrifyingly indeed be a generational setback. Our analysis should engage with this reality, and also engage with the element of hope that October 7 brings for Palestinians while not minimizing the immense existential threat that Israel’s current aggression presents. That also means a political method that understands the difficulty of the situation and the narrowing of the horizon of political action because of the situation imposed by Israel. Comradely criticism is not only permissible, but should be aired. And, of course, I agree with Comrade Bienenfeld that to avoid reality “does a disservice to the Palestinian struggle and to those building solidarity with it.” However, the “reality” presented by Bienenfeld is too narrow, minimizes the conditions that preceded October 7, and neglects current Palestinian viewpoints.

“Conditions created for the Israeli and US movement”

Comrade Bienenfeld similarly finds fault with Hamas’ actions for foreshortening the chance of the emergence of an anti-war movement in Israel and with “enhancing” the “credibility” of the slanderous association of anti-Zionism with antisemitism. In regards to Israel, he claims that the actions of October 7 provoked a revulsion that would make “the development of an internal [Israeli] anti-war movement or other forms or resistance—even in the name of liberal Zionism—vanishingly slim” and will drive people into an “increased reliance on a powerful military.” Bizarrely, Bienenfeld uses as evidence the entry of ex-general Benny Gantz’s (a war criminal himself who in 2019 bragged that he “bombed Gaza back to the stone age”) rightwing National Unity Party into government. This far from reflects anything aside from some consolidation of the Israeli right-wing as Gantz’s party differs politically from Likud only in its criticism of Netanyahu’s corruption. In the U.S., Bienenfeld says that Hamas’ actions made it “very easy to propagate” “the narrative that those supporting Palestinian liberation are antisemites…” and that as a result, “the voices of capitalist politicians and pro-Zionist forces denying the legitimacy of Palestine’s liberation movement have been enhanced.”

To his credit, Comrade Bienenfeld appropriately calls attention to the propaganda of Israel and the U.S., Zionist groups like the ADL, along with corporate media and university administrators, for promoting the hawkishness in Israel and the angle of antisemitism in the US. Still his method of critique presents problems.

In general, putting the blame on the actions of the oppressed—even if we may think they are unstrategic—for racist reaction is to abdicate the role of socialists as “tribunes of the oppressed.” To see the litmus test for how the oppressed should resist as being what is seen as acceptable by the oppressor is completely backwards. In the context in which—as Marx points out—the dominant ideas of any age are those of the ruling class, the notion that resistance should conform with and pander to those ideas is absurd. Should the Algerians have determined their method of resistance based on the tastes and fancy of the French colonists? In the United States should the Black Lives Matter protest have been less militant in its slogans because it provoked reaction among some? No. Resistance will always provoke reaction and the utilization of backwards ideas to attack it. Our responsibility is to blame the racists, condemn the powerful, attack the rulers and oppressors, expose their cynicism, hypocrisy and complicity rather than accidently lend support to their grotesque characterizations of the most backward elements of society.

Even before the events of October 7, Israeli society was already politically shifting right with its right-wing government and settler movement, increasing polarization, the roughly 50 percent support for annexation, among many other examples. The recent mass movement against Netanyahu’s judicial changes not only did not make mention of Palestinians at all but banned Palestinian flags from the demonstrations.

The Israeli working class operates in a settler-colonial context, in active collaboration with Israeli capitalism in the continued ethnic cleansing and occupation project of Israeli apartheid.1 Despite the actions of some individuals of conscience, the class character and relationship to the state means that as a class Israeli workers are not allies in the struggle for Palestinian liberation, for democratic rights for all, and for the right of return for the generations of Palestinian forced into the diaspora. This is the material reason why the Israeli peace movement has, tragically, always been, and currently is even more so, small, isolated, and insignificant. This is an unfortunate reality that we wish were different. However, it is a fantasy to think that there was some nascent movement waiting in the wings that now is discouraged due to revulsion to the killings on October 7.

Actually, it is notable that there has been little public opposition to Netanyahu’s bombardment and attempts to reinstate the death penalty. Ironically, some opposition has come from one section of the families of those taken hostage, precisely the individuals who, per Bienenfeld’s equation, should be more uncritically supportive of the genocide.

This same error applies to the points made about the United States. Of course the shrill McCarthyite calls have resulted in fierce reaction, legal challenges to the movement, people losing jobs, etc. But placing the emphasis on this being the “result” of Hamas’s actions is a mistake. By extension, would Bienenfeld say that similarly the “revulsion” to October 7 “enhanced” Islamophobia and that led to the killing of 6-year old Wadea Al-Fayoume in Chicago or the shooting of three Palestinian students in Burlington, VT. Should we criticize Hamas actions on the basis that somehow they are “to blame” for this racist violence? I am sure that Bienenfeild would not, but the logic he lays out walks dangerously close.

Lastly, Bienenfeld writes of how these events are being used to build pro-Israel sentiment in the U.S. and points to a pro-Israel rally in Manhattan. I think the political mood here is certainly quite polarized, but I think he skips over the dynamic that rather than a consolidation of support for Israel, the stunning spread of massive protest and civil disobedience carried out by groups like Jewish Voice for Peace reflect that there is also—and I would claim much greater of—an impact of these events in breaking a substantial number of young American Jews from Zionism and bringing them into the the struggle. There really is no comparison between a few, often measly pro-Israel rallies and the massive pro-Palestine demos that almost occur daily in major cities.

The events of October 7 have certainly polarized public opinion, but the notion that Hamas’ actions are causally related to the lack of an Israeli peace movement or the rise of a new McCarthyism is incorrect, and his description of consciousness in the U.S. is one-sided. While we can talk about these things in a descriptive fashion, to use these as a point for criticism as Bienenfeld does in his piece, and thus making the actions of Palestinians responsible for the racist hate and violence being directed at them is perverse and should be rejected completely. No socialist should be blaming the oppressed for the conditions of their oppression or actions of the oppressor.

“Misplaced moralism”?

Lastly, Comrade Bienenfeld argues that I use the wrong adjectives in describing the violence of October 7. “Stronger words” need to be used to decry the violence because our “judgment of tactics” has to be “partly informed by moral considerations.” My basic response to this is, simply, “why?” Bienenfeld does not offer an explanation. I don’t think that a solidarity movement in the imperial center has any imperative of responsibility to condemn actions of anti-colonial violence. The reason is that this kind of violence is a product of the conditions of settler colonialism itself; it should neither surprise nor shock us; we see it as not just expected but reasonable in context, even if we think that strategically military action alone will not liberate Palestine. That the violence of the oppressed reflects the actions of the oppressor should be our simple maxim.

Bienenfeld mentions a quote that I use from Marx in a way that I think is instructive. He asks me if I “would allow” the term “infamous conduct” that Marx uses to describe the anti-colonial violence in India to apply to Hamas. Simply, I would say, of course, because that is why I used the quote. But I want to use this to emphasize something else. The actions that Marx was describing in the 1857 Indian rebellion were of a violence far greater in scale than anything that Hamas did on October 7. By some estimates a full 15 percent of all British citizens living in India were killed. Civilians were slaughtered, sometimes with hatchets, and wells were filled with bodies and limbs. This would be the equivalent of 139,000 Israelis being killed. And yet, even with a level of violence that dwarfs October 7, the emphasis Marx makes is: “There is something in human history like retribution: and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself.” This mode of analysis differs sharply from those expressing the imperative to deplore, or even worse, “condemn” Hamas.

Photo shows two suspected participants in the 1857 Indian Rebellion hanging from a gallows, at an unknown location, surrounded by nine Indian soldiers.
“Hanging of Rebels.”  Photo by Felice Beato. Persons who participated, or were suspected of participating, in the 1857 rebellion risked the death penalty. The photograph shows two participants (or suspects) being hanged at an unknown location in 1858.

Socialists in the imperial center should not see themselves as the “referees” of anticolonial struggle, assigning moral categories to different actions of the anticolonial resistance. To be clear, again, this does not mean being uncritical. BUT there is a huge chasm between criticism about the strategic effectiveness of a political act and issuing moral determinations on appropriate or inappropriate forms of struggle. The reason for this is connected with how we understand anticolonial struggle in that it is and has always been violent for reasons. Thinkers like Fanon have laid this out at length like in The Wretched of the Earth where he writes that:

The violence that governed the ordering of the colonial world; tirelessly punctuated the destruction of the indigenous social fabric; and demolished unchecked the systems of reference of the country’s economy, lifestyles, and modes of dress—this same violence will be vindicated and appropriated when, taking history into their own hands, the colonized swarm into the forbidden cities. To blow the colonial world to smithereens is henceforth a clear image within the grasp and imagination of every colonized subject.

We have to understand that the conditions of colonialism produce its response and that this often includes violence, to which perhaps revolutionary socialists can feel free to use a variety of adjectives. I don’t cheer joyously at the killing of noncombatants. On the human level, I find it sad that families have been broken. I find the murder of civilians in war usually counterproductive. At the same time, I see absolutely no reason to “condemn Hamas” for violence that I hold as a component of Zionist oppression and occupation. Even more so, I see it as vitally important to reject even the suggestion that condemnation of these actions has any merit to describing the political contours of the anticolonial struggle.

It doesn’t matter if I find it acceptable or not. It is not for me to decide. What does matter, and what is critical for the movement to build solidarity with Palestinian liberation and against Zionist settler colonialism is that our description and analysis of violent acts like what happened on October 7 centrally acknowledge that as long as the settler-colonial project of Zionism persists, so will anti-colonial violence. We should not deny that the violence occurred, or be shocked or surprised as it should be unfortunately expected, but point to the fact that the guilt is Israel’s and that the solution—the image that we must see clearly—is the abolition of settler colonialism.

I consider these to be basic socialist principles, and the long block quote from David Finkel that Bienenfeld presents as a positive example of a revolutionary socialist description of the situation does not hold up to this. Socialists—particularly in the imperial centers—have no role in moral judgments of anti-colonial violence as a component of their political analysis. And more often than not our role is to help point out how—and why—the violence of the colonized arises and how it can be appropriate in the course of resistance.

To conclude

In anticipation of what I fear will be an ungenerous read, I want to conclude by reiterating that I am not arguing an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend approach to Hamas. I think more Left analysis and critique of Hamas is warranted. The general position of the need for a Left alternative still stands. Whatever critique also needs to be done without a shred of the Islamophobia that still saturates sections of the Western Left. But I don’t think that an analysis of how we understand Hamas is what this debate is about; rather it is about how to talk about, understand, and analyze the events of the Al-Aqsa Flood and the current Palestinian resistance.

The three claims that comrade Bienenfeld makes of my articles reflect larger positions that are politically faulty. In assessing any events the subjectivity of the oppressed in struggle needs to be included and the absence of Palestinian views and agency in the analysis of October 7 is an error. It is backwards to fault the events of October 7, Hamas, and Palestinians for various elements of reactionary racism, like the new McCarthyism in the U.S. The notion that there was any anti-war movement in Israel that could be sabotaged sadly has no inkling of reality. Lastly, those in solidarity with anti-colonial struggles would be wise to not go down the patronizing lines of moral judgments about anticolonial violence as different from, as Marx says, “a retribution forged by” the colonial oppressor. Failure to grasp this appears out of touch with the sweeping radicalization standing in solidarity with Palestine that has not stumbled in the face of these questions. A recent Harvard poll found that 51 percent of Americans 18-24 thought that the actions on October 7 were “justified by the actions of Israel.”

This is the milieu in which the vanguard for building a new movement operates. And similar engagement by socialists in the U.S. with the international Left and critically in the Middle East/North Africa region are equally necessary. It is precisely such engagements—wherever possible—that will best facilitate building a movement up to the enormous tasks of the moment, an issue which should be at the forefront of our thinking on all of these questions. Viewing the events of October 7 and its aftermath through the wrong lens, or with the wrong focus, or with misplaced moralism weakens our ability to do that.

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brian bean View All

brian bean is a socialist organizer and writer based in Chicago, a member of the Tempest Collective, a part of the Rampant Magazine editorial collective, and an editor and contributor to the book Palestine: A Socialist Introduction from Haymarket Books.