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Once More on Hamas

A Reply to Sean Larson

As part of a continuing exchange on October 7, the Palestinian resistance, and the posture of the Left towards Hamas, Dan La Botz and Stephen R. Shalom reply here to Sean Larson. La Botz and Shalom had previously submitted a response to an article by Jonah ben Avraham to which Larson, in turn, responded.

Sean Larson has written a long response to our short article in which we criticized author Jonah ben Avraham for his denunciation of those who, while organizing against Israel’s slaughter of Palestinians, also condemned Hamas’s attacks on civilians on October 7. Larson’s response is unfortunately as problematic as the piece we criticized.

Larson charges that we “forefront” criticism of Hamas. On the contrary, in almost everything we have done in the past three months we have in fact “forefronted” the horror being faced by the people of Gaza. Larson’s objection is actually not to our “forefronting” criticism of Hamas, but to our mentioning it at all. We only wrote our initial article on ben Avraham because he suggested that to criticize Hamas atrocities in any way was to be “pro-settler.”

Larson suggests that we are moral monsters who, had we lived in earlier times, would have supported slavery and colonialism. He puts us in the current conflict on the side of Israel and the United States and against the liberation of the Palestinians. We are excoriated for having had the temerity to raise criticisms of Hamas while writing “from the imperial core.”

Perhaps we ought to introduce into this discussion an element of realism. What do we and Larson actually do here in the imperial core? As activists on the Left we write, speak, and demonstrate demanding a ceasefire, opposing U.S. military aid to Israel, and expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people. The one difference is that we—but not Larson—also criticize Hamas for its reactionary politics and its murder of civilians, though this in no way inhibits our participation in the current movement. Perhaps Larson and ben Avraham should tone down their accusations of people being “pro-settler” or pro-colonial.

We know that Tempest agrees with us that one can support the victims of U.S. imperialism without blindly endorsing their politics. Tempest shares our criticisms of the Soviet Union during the Cold War and Russia and China today and disagrees with those whose justified defense of the oppressed led to vicariously identifying with and adopting the politics of Third World revolutionaries to the extent of sometimes setting aside the Left’s historic demands for democracy and for humane values even in the course of revolution. Tempest also agrees with us that the enemies of our enemy are not automatically our friends, an unfortunate tendency that led to a reluctance to criticize the crimes of Stalin during the Cold War or Russia, China, or Iran today. We and Tempest both support movements from below, without blindly endorsing all who challenge Washington or its allies. We support progressive forces from below, not reactionary or fundamentalist ones. But ben Avraham and Larson, in their denunciation of any who criticize Hamas, seem to have lost their way, abandoning this tradition and replacing it with uncritical support for reactionary leaders and groups.

Larson writes that perhaps our “most egregious assumption … is that socialists in the United States are the proper referees of anticolonial movements the world over.” What we actually believe is that socialists everywhere, while showing solidarity, also retain the right to critical thinking. As Marx put it: “Doubt all.” We claim no special role, but believe like other socialists of the last two centuries that we should not remain silent in the face of atrocities that violate socialist values. At one point, Larson describes the horrible crimes carried out against Indigenous people in North America and tells us that some of the responses involved atrocities.

He writes: “In the view of La Botz and Shalom, should socialists condemn the Dakota and other brave Indigenous warriors and insist on the use of the “legitimate means” of peaceful protest and moral appeal during the ethnic cleansing of Turtle Island?”

Larson here implies that we equate “legitimate means” with “peaceful protest and moral appeal.” But these terms are not at all equivalent. We are not pacifists, and we believe violence can be justified in the struggle for freedom from oppression. (As we said in our article: “Palestinians, like all oppressed people, have the right to resist, including by armed force, by all legitimate means.”) But that’s not the same as claiming that all violence is justified. Violence in and of itself is not illegitimate. Killing noncombatants is.

Our difference is that he and ben Avraham think the way to build support for a ceasefire is to  insist we don’t care about the means used by Hamas and that those who condemn the killing of civilians are “pro-settler.” We, on the other hand, believe that appealing to people’s humanity is one of the best ways to convince them to oppose Israel’s ongoing massacre. We also believe it is important to demonstrate that Hamas’ action have not been in the best long-term interests of Palestinians. Larson says we are wrong to suggest that Israel is winning the war (though we said no such thing), but in any case, the war has been catastrophic for Palestine, and should it become a regional war, it would be disastrous for the entire World.

Does condemning Hamas’s crimes mean that we are enabling Israel’s ongoing mass murder in Gaza? Not at all. We believe that just as it is wrong to kill Israeli civilians because of the crimes of their government, so too it is wrong to massacre tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians because of Hamas’s crimes. By urging silence on Hamas’s immoral behavior, Larson and others are sending the implicit message that they worry that Israel’s murderous response would be justified if Hamas had engaged in war crimes. No. Nothing justifies Israel’s onslaught. Some of our comrades have told us that they think we were too dismissive of the slogan “by any means necessary,” because, they say, since it is never necessary to kill children and other noncombatants, adherence to the slogan would preclude what happened on October 7. Point taken. But for Larson and some others, what is really meant by the slogan “by any means necessary” is “by any means at all.” Killing hundreds of people at a rave meets neither the “legitimate means” standard of international humanitarian law nor the standard of necessity, let alone the standard of morality.

Larson argues that one must take into account the context of the Hamas attacks. We fully agree. History didn’t begin on October 7. One needs to understand the long history of ethnic cleansing, dispossession, apartheid, and dehumanization to appreciate what brought Palestinians to this point. But understanding context is not the same as refusing to criticize. Consider the behavior of Zionists in 1947-48. The context for the atrocities they carried out during the Nakba was the fact that Jews had just come through the Holocaust. We understand that, and are even sympathetic, but we nevertheless believe that it is appropriate—indeed necessary—to condemn their horrific treatment of Palestinians. Understanding and justification are not the same. We in the Palestine support movement have been warning for years that Israel’s policy would lead to an explosion. But we can’t ignore the agency of Hamas’s leaders in choosing the policies they did.

photo of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Monument
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Monument; photo by Yuval Madar.

Larson analogizes Hamas’s attack to the resistance of the Warsaw ghetto, because it seems members of the latter once threw grenades into a lounge and a coffee shop (his source doesn’t report any casualties). If we don’t condemn the Warsaw fighters, says Larson, how can we condemn Hamas? But what an awful analogy. The scale of the killings and the balance of victims matter. The Warsaw resistance overwhelmingly aimed its weapons at soldiers, while most of Hamas’s targets were civilians. The scale of slaughter, on a larger scale, is also what makes Israel’s assault on Gaza so horrific: it isn’t a civilian here or there who is being killed, but a pace of civilian deaths with “few precedents in this century” (New York Times). We will not win popular support for a ceasefire, let alone for our more long-term aspirations for justice in the Middle East, by betraying the humane values that have always inspired the Left.

Opinions expressed in signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Tempest Collective. For more information, see “About Tempest Collective.”

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

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Dan LaBotz and Stephen R. Shalom View All

Dan La Botz is a member of Solidarity and DSA, and an editor of New Politics.

Stephen R. Shalom is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace and an editor of New Politics.