In the wake of Hamas’ gruesome slaughter, the banality of evil lurks in one simple word — “but” (shortened version)
How antisemitism and Islamophobia flourish in the ‘Age of Maximal Ignorance’ and its spreading mind virus of false equivalency
I published the original version of this article on 11/7, the one-month anniversary of the horror of 10/7. I had a lot to unpack, and it received a lot of gratitude. It was long — over 4,300 words, around a 17-minute read. I was asked by a good friend, Erin Defosse, who loved it to make a shorter version for younger adults. So here it is, a third of the length. I’m publishing it today, on 11/9, because it is both the inverse of 9/11 and it sometimes feels like we live in The Upside Down. It’s like Stranger Things but in this case Vecna, the Mind Flayer, is Hamas and other evil jihadists.
It’s time to tame the perverse tyranny of this word “but” in our discourse on Israel and the now month-old war raging in Gaza after the gruesome slaughter, rape, and torture of more than 1,400 innocent people. The slaughtered are primarily innocent Israelis but they also include citizens from 27 other countries, including America. It may seem that I’m trying to parse a minor point of grammar. I am not. This is not a small point, and I want you to watch how Mayor Eric Adams addressed the moment with moral clarity and courage. Please, think about “but” in your next conversation concerning 10/7, a day that I’ll never forget and which for me counts just as profoundly disturbing as 9/11 was more than two decades ago.
Pause for a moment and think deeply; ponder how you used the word “but”, or heard it used, on 10/8 and in the days after as the detailed reality of the horror of 10/7 was more and more known. And keep thinking about it amid the unfolding repercussions, and the spreading virus of mutating hate, which we see toward both Jews and Muslims.
How you thought, how you acted, how you equivocated or did not on the days following October 7, as more gruesome details revealed themselves, is critical to reflect upon.
- I believe Israel has the right to defend itself, but…
- The killings of 1,400 civilians, the beheadings and atrocities were horrible, but….
- Israel’s anger and invasion of Gaza are understandable, but…
The seed of false equivalence — the mind virus
Let’s go back in time. Did you condition your reaction to the murder of George Floyd with a but? Did you use a but during Trump’s Muslim ban? Did you say but in discussion of the Stop Asian Hate movement? Did you use a but after the slaughter of so many Muslims (over 230,000) at the hands of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad? Did you react with a but in the Rwandan genocide (over 800,000 slaughtered)? Did you use a but in your thoughts about the Russian slaughter of so many Ukrainians (around 70,000), still happening right now?
If you only used a but in the slaughter of 10/7, almost reflexively and immediately, you really need to get your human cognition checked out. Because, honestly, it is sending you a big error signal — it needs an antivirus software upgrade. It may seem obscure, but you have a mind virus that is part and parcel of what has been discussed so widely in recent years in the media, in academia, in political discourse — “false equivalence”.
“False equivalencies are developing on a grand scale as a result of relentlessly negative news,” wrote Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy in one exploration of the phenomenon. “If everything and everyone is portrayed negatively, there’s a leveling effect that opens the door to charlatans.”
And the key to that door of charlatanism is casual language, this reflexive use of “but”.
You may have heard a version in other contexts that made you shake your head in dismay:
- Some of my best friends are Black, but…
- I don’t think gays should be discriminated against, but…
- I feel for the homeless, but…
- I’m sure you remember that utterance after a deadly white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — and who said it: “You had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
Yes, Israel and Palestine have a difficult past and a complex future ahead. But in the present, no but can follow the imperative that Israel must deal with the perpetrators of the worst crime against Jews since the Holocaust — with a terror group in Hamas that has made hostages not just of Jews, but of more than two million Gazans as well. In addition to the citizens of Israel, those of five countries are among the hostages. American, Russian, Romanian, Dutch, and Mexican families and friends wonder if they will ever again see those 240 souls again. Citizens of 18 nations remain among the missing.
This is an evil that set in motion a war that has also killed thousands of Gazans used as human shields above a 300-mile labyrinth of underground bunkers, armories, fuel depots, and rocket launchers, placed by killers whose acts of merciless barbarity, defy any possible resort to this word, but.
Those who did not say ‘but’
Three who did not equivocate, who did not say but, were President Biden, Israeli President Isaac Herzog, and Germany’s Vice-Chancellor, Robert Habeck.
In his speech on 10/10, Biden said “We will make sure the Jewish and democratic state of Israel can defend itself today, tomorrow, as we always have. It’s as simple as that….These atrocities have been sickening. We’re with Israel. Let’s make no mistake.”
Biden’s remarks were followed by those of Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who was vociferous in his condemnation of Hamas and was deeply gracious in his thanking of Biden and the United States. Herzog added: “I also believe that the press around the world needs to look at the reality, they must declare and call Hamas a terrorist organization, without ifs and buts.” He too sees the evil in a word.
Days later, Germany’s Vice-Chancellor, Robert Habeck, spoke unequivocally about both the horror of Hamas and the ugly reality that virulent antisemitism has returned to Germany — 80 years after the Holocaust.
“People say the context is complex,” Habeck said. “But context must not lead to relativization….Here, we cannot be outraged enough,” Habeck continued. “What is needed now is clarity, not a blur.”
Searching in recent days for some way to understand the use of but, I’ve realized it summons the phrase of philosopher Hannah Arendt, coined in her 1963 book: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, drawn from her observations of the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the architect of Hitler’s “Final Solution.”
This is the same banal evil we see now, in those accepting without thought or reflection, such ahistorical phrases as “apartheid state”, “colonial imperialists”, “war criminals”, or the chilling call, “From the river to the sea.” It is ironic that this mindless surrender by so many self-styled “progressives” mirrors the lemming-like behavior of the 80,000 who attended the “Stop The Steal” rally on Jan. 6th, 2021, who then prompted the violent sacking of our nation’s Capitol — some even with children wearing clothing and carrying signs promoting violence and hatred.
Allowing Hamas to regroup, recover, and resume its avowed mission to eradicate Israel, at any price in Palestinian civilian deaths, would validate its aims, embolden Iran, and end any chance of lasting peace. The ceaseless demands for ceasefire, however, rob the global discourse of the meaningful ability to consider other ways Israel can accomplish its goals of minimizing loss of life. The thoughtful calls for a shift in strategy, with the goal of eliminating Hamas while minimizing civilian casualties, are worth considering.
The Israeli historian Yuval Harari advocates creation of temporary centers in Israel proper, perhaps under the authority of the Red Cross, for evacuation of the wounded, women and children. Other ideas are coming from diverse voices such as that of former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who seeks a strategy of siege around northern Gaza, with the south made a place of refuge. Former French Foreign Minister Dominique Villepin calls broadly for new thinking and new interlocutors. And former U.S. peace envoy Dennis Ross — who spoke at Austin’s Jewish Community Center a few days after 10/7 — has proposed an international police force for Gaza once Hamas’ ability to govern has been eliminated. David Breakstone, executive director of the Navon Center for a Shared Society, has argued that reconciliation with Palestinians AND among the riven factions of Israel itself must be a top Israeli priority once Hamas is gone.
All have my rapt attention. They deserve the world’s attention — particularly from those trapped in the mind virus of but.
Rushing not away, but towards injustice
How long will this war take? How many will perish while it continues? What will the “day after” look like?
I hardly know, as no one does. I do know that after peace, justice must come. Or, as Harari puts it simply and clearly, peace — and then justice. Not the reverse. Fair enough. Yet still, let’s start the justice conversation now.
For justice is at the historic heart of Judaism. From Uriah Levy, the contemporary admirer of Thomas Jefferson, the first Jewish officer in the U.S. Navy, who saved Jefferson’s home Monticello after his death, to Rabbi Stephen Samuel Wise, an immigrant from Hungary who joined other Jews and gentiles to help found the NAACP in 1903. From the Karnovsky family of New Orleans who adopted a seven-year-old named Louis Armstrong (as I learned at Rabbi Neil Blumofe’s concert tribute to Armstrong last week), to the Jews who joined Cesar Chavez’ farmworker organizing in the 1960s and 70s. The list of Jews fighting against injustice stretches to the horizon.
“Proportionality,” demand those who say but. Proportionally, I answer, no group in history has done more in service to equality, justice, and fairness than my people. No doubt due to our long history of suffering persecution at the hands of others, Jews are the first responders to persecution and suffering when we see it anywhere.
Jews don’t run from injustice. We run towards it. And we always will, unequivocally. Without conditional response — without that banality of evil that lies in the word “but”. And right now, we’re coming for Hamas. And the end of antisemitism, Islamophobia, and all forms of hating “the other”.
Now, if you want to delve much deeper, I encourage you to read the original version.