In the wake of Hamas’ gruesome slaughter, the banality of evil lurks in one simple word — “but”

How antisemitism and Islamophobia flourish in the ‘Age of Maximal Ignorance’ and its spreading mind virus of false equivalency

Brett A. Hurt
17 min readNov 7, 2023
An image I made on Midjourney when prompting for a mash-up of NYC and Jerusalem and shared widely following the horror of 10/7

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 innocents from 27 other countries, including America. It may seem, on this anniversary day of 10/7, that I’m trying to parse a minor point of grammar. I am not. 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.

Like many Jews I know, I’ve quite literally had nightmares ever since 10/7 and have never gotten so little sleep in my life. Pause for a moment and think deeply; ponder how you used the word “but”, or heard it used, on 10/8, the day after or as the days slowly passed and 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 October 8, and in the days soon following, as more gruesome details revealed themselves, is critical to reflect upon. It defines who you are deep inside, your essence really. This is not a small point, and I want you to watch how Mayor Eric Adams addressed the moment with moral clarity and courage. After all, language is the operating system of human cognition. And the war that we don’t see in our news feeds is the war of the mind. Not a war between differing individual minds or perspectives. No, this war is internal, almost biological, between our tribal minds hardwired for “fight or flight” 10,000 years ago and our evolved rational minds, much newer, which are products of the Enlightenment and many philosophers of centuries past. I’ll get to the connection between war and our minds in a moment, but first let me try and explain the tyranny of the “coordinating conjunction”, this three-letter word that has trapped our discourse.

Think deeply about the equivocation that followed this word, but, in the wake of the horror of 10/7:

  • 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. You have a mind virus. It may seem obscure, but this virus is part and parcel of what has been discussed so widely in recent years in the media, in academia, in political discourse — “false equivalence”. It may have been placed there by TikTok. Or it may be your subconscious, or conscious, antisemitism, a hate almost as old as civilization. Either way, you need to root it out now.

“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. No but can follow as we have learned and continue to learn more since that horrific day that will live in our hearts and minds forever. Since 10/7, we Jews at safe remove have been in shock and mourning. We have cried a river of tears. Those of us in Israel endure an anguish and desolation far greater — mourning friends and relatives lost in the most horrific pogram since we declared “never again” in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Tragically and horrifically, “never again” happened again on 10/7. The tragedy is global. As mentioned, those killed have left behind friends and relatives in 27 countries. 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.

Israelis, meanwhile, ponder the fates of those 360,000 reservists mobilized toward the front lines in a war against unspeakable, sadistic terror. To gain a sense of scope, consider that this is almost four percent of Israel’s population. A proportionately similar call-up in the United States would require muster of roughly 13 million — 68 times the size of America’s entire U.S. Army Reserve of 190,000 citizen-soldiers.

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’

One who did not equivocate, who did not say but, was President Biden when he addressed our nation on 10/10. He was the definition of moral clarity and courage in that speech, like Mayor Eric Adams was in the moment.

“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,” Biden told the world. “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.” Habeck reverses the conditionality of the word but. No scale of relativity can be insinuated into our response to a crime without precedent in nearly a century. “Here, we cannot be outraged enough,” Habeck continued. “What is needed now is clarity, not a blur.”

To say I was proud and touched by Biden’s words, as a Jew and as an American, would be an understatement. And yet I feel empty. To say Herzog is right on every point is insufficient. I thank Habeck, and my thanks feel shallow.

For yet around us we still hear this now ubiquitous word, but. This word is the hidden evil behind the crass and open evil we see. Now global, this is a slower moving, more insidious evil. Searching in recent days for some way to describe this evil, to understand it, I’ve realized it is a form of depravity that 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 banal evil committed by seemingly “normal” people, caught up in the crowd. In her accounting, it is those servants of Nazism who lost the ability to think critically and act morally. I would add that it is the evil of the lynching, among so many such killings in the last century, of the Walker family in Hickham, Kentucky, on October 3, 1908, attended by families with children, as if at a carnival. This evil is the darkness in the experiments of Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s, which revealed just how easily people could be coaxed to commit harm against others, to ignore atrocities. It is the evil imposed upon these young Gazan children, coerced and indoctrinated in a school play where they pretend to kill Jews.

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.

A virus of hate, mutating and spreading

I won’t dwell on what we all see happening on our college campuses, including at my alma mater, The University of Pennsylvania where I’ve now suspended my annual donation. You see it as well in our public squares, near or at our houses of worship, and ceaselessly in our social media feeds: this spreading and mutating virus of hatred that manifests itself both as antisemitism and Islamophobia. Readers know what I’m talking about:

  • A 400 percent rise in antisemitic attacks globally since October 7.
  • A lecturer at U.C. Davis calling for violence against Jewish students. Another professor at Cornell University declaring the Hamas massacre of young dancers at a music festival that had “exhilarated” him. Molotov cocktails thrown at synagogue in Berlin. And so much more. Its viral spread reaches from Russia, to Australia, to Europe, to Austin, Texas, where a close friend of my family was forced to deny her Jewishness to an Uber driver who declared, “Good, because if you were Jewish, I’d have to kill you.” Or an acquaintance’s seven-year-old Jewish son, confronted at his elementary school by another child, a Palestinian-American classmate, who he had proudly invited to his birthday party just a few months ago. That child, who enjoyed the party, told him after 10/7, “We’re going to kill you and your family.” It’s endless and tragic. As Britain’s Lord David Wolfson pointed out in the House of Lords, today it is dangerous across Europe to wear a Star of David.
  • And while Jews are bearing the brunt of this, we are not alone. Just a week after Hamas’ attack, six-year-old Palestinian-American Wadea Al Fayoume died after he was stabbed 27 times, allegedly for being Muslim. In the two weeks following Hamas’ attack, the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported nearly 800 incidents against Arab-Americans and other Muslims.
  • Where are we as a nation when a member of the United States Congress accuses President Biden of “supporting the genocide of the Palestinian people”, as Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib did on Friday — without even condemning the Hamas slaughter of 1,400 or the 240 hostages in captivity right now? And where are we as a country when a member of the United States Congress introduces a bill to expel Palestinians from America, as Minnesota Republican Ryan Zinke did the day before?

This was vividly explored a few days ago on the All-In Podcast, which has a huge following in the technology sector. While I don’t always agree with podcast “bestie” and investor David Sacks, he threw light on the banality now rife among the so-called “woke left.”

“This war has really thrown gasoline on the fire by showing that wokeness leads to the simplistic breaking up of the world into oppressor and oppressed categories,” said Sacks, who was also outspoken on that episode on the rights of the Palestinians and the need for a two-state solution. “What we’re seeing is a lot of people on the woke left basically cheering for a terrorist organization. And they’re able to rationalize the atrocities because of the simplistic woke dichotomy.” Sadly, yes.

Examining the disease, not merely the symptoms

The collapse of integrity among so many on the left remains a symptom, not a cause. To get to the disease, we must face the fact that we are trapped by this mind virus, about which I wrote last fall in a different context, and which is now exploding in its lethality. No one has written about this more effectively than author Tim Urban, who explores how our polarized politics and hate-optimized media echo chamber is driving us toward the worst of our natures in, What’s Our Problem?: A Self-Help Book for Societies.

It’s more than ironic that as we celebrate the “Information Age” of ubiquitous knowledge, the remarkable tools of the internet, and now artificial intelligence — as I certainly do — we are evermore trapped in a paradigm of discourse that only becomes more shrill and ill-informed. Since 10/7, we have ushered in at maximal global scale what I’ll call a contrasting “Age of Maximal Ignorance”.

I’m coming to the “mind virus” of false equivalences. First, though, a few more thoughts on the Age of Maximal Ignorance it has spawned.

Yes, the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a Rubik’s cube of causality. I won’t make any attempt to summarize a history that fills libraries worth of books, has yielded hundreds of documentaries, and has created millions upon millions of news pages. There are 1.2 million videos with the title “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” on YouTube, according to the company’s advanced search filters.

Still, despite that torrent of insight and information, a few things about which we must be clear:

The return of the Jews to their ancestral homeland began as early as the Spanish Inquisition of 1492, if not before. Not even the oft-cited founding of the First Zionist Congress in 1897 is the starting point. And it certainly did not begin with the United Nations partition of British Palestine in 1947. I don’t want to hear another sophomoric lecture on the Balfour Declaration. So much for the “imperialism” argument that is often hurdled at Israel.

I won’t make any attempt to excuse the abuses of Palestinian rights over the years, the illegal settler movements that have been supported by the zealous government of the disgraceful and disgraced Benjamin Netanyahu, or the indignities suffered by so many Arab citizens of Israel (or for that matter the discrimination against Sephardic Jews). Like all democracies, Israel is not perfect and is a work-in-progress. Let’s not forget, however, that what was offered by the U.N. in 1947, following the Holocaust where six million Jews were raped, tortured, and murdered by Nazis, was more than twice the area that Palestinians now control as the West Bank and Gaza — over which they engaged in their own Arab-on-Arab civil war in 2007. Instead, in 1948, four Arab nations attacked Israel, after which they ultimately expelled somewhere between six-hundred thousand to one million Jews from Arab lands. There are very, very few Jews left anywhere in the Middle East outside of Israel now. From there it’s a very consistent if serpentine road to where we are today, 75 years later. So much for the “colonialism” argument, also so often hurled at Israel.

Let’s not forget that a Palestinian is a member of the Israeli Supreme Court, and Palestinians serve on lower courts as well. Let’s not forget that a Palestinian-Israeli diplomat served both as Israel’s ambassador to Greece and Finland, and as peace process envoy in the Israel Foreign Ministry. There are now 17 Palestinian members of the Israeli Knesset, representing five Arab-majority parties, and whose share is roughly proportionate to Israel’s Palestinian citizen population of over two million. Let’s not forget the dozens of Palestinian scientists and researchers who have helped make Israel — about the size of America’s fifth smallest state, New Jersey — home to one of the most vibrant tech sectors in the world. Among them, as just one example, is Professor Hassam Haick at the Technion Institute of Technology, where I’ve lectured and my book is taught. His innovations include AI nano-technology that can detect 17 diseases including cancer and kidney disease. So much for “the apartheid state” argument, another trope in the insulting lexicon hurled at Israel.

Now, I suspect that much of what I just described will be new to many (but certainly not all) readers, even though you’ve been glued to your news feeds, social media, and television for a month. Why? Well, it’s easy to grumble about The New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. No one gets a pass in this lack of education. Yet there is certainly some great journalism out there — you just have to use your Higher Mind to find it.

The ‘Higher Minds’ in the Age of Maximal Ignorance

The best of late is certainly historian Simon Sebag Montefiore’s incredibly insightful article in The Atlantic, The Decolonization Narrative is Dangerous and False. I’d also include the work of Graeme Wood, also of The Atlantic and author of the 2016 book, The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State. You can read his work at the magazine or listen to him on this profound episode of the Making Sense podcast with Sam Harris, discussing the terror of 10/7 and the “rationalization” of it with the Jihadist mind virus.

The eloquent historian Israeli Yuval Harari — certainly a hero to many on the left — was compelling, empathetic, and entirely unequivocal about the imperative of ending Hamas in a powerful interview with British journalist Piers Morgan. While I’m usually no fan of many positions of far-right commentator Ben Shapiro, I applaud his staccato delivery of the history and reality of today’s war in a debate last week at the University of Oxford. There are more than a few outrageous assertions in this Open to Debate panel, Is Anti-Zionism the New Antisemitism?, funded by my good friend Gary Lauder, also of the Henry Crown Fellowship, and his wife, Laura, who serves on the Aspen Institute Board of Directors. It is both a broad and deep debate and includes columnist Bret Stephens, former Israeli lawmaker Einat Wilf, Palestinian activist Yousef Munayyer, and journalist Peter Beinart. It’s a valuable listen, particularly the last 20 minutes.

The public intellectual and podcaster Coleman Hughes has a remarkable conversation with fellow podcaster and intellectual Andrew Gold that is an important listen. Anything recently written or broadcast by my friend Noa Tishby, the author and former actress, is worth Googling your way toward. And I’d certainly urge you to pick up her 2021 book, Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth. I encouraged everyone that went to Israel with us back in June for my son Levi’s Bar Mitzvah to read it as an important, and balanced, primer.

Nonetheless, this body of insight is lost on so many, which returns me to this other war, the “mind virus” war between our biological brains, what Tim Urban calls our “Primitive Mind” in his most recent book. We are evolutionarily hardwired for the tribal world of 10,000 years ago, while our evolved and intentional consciousness — our tolerant and creative “Higher Mind” — is a means of thought we’ve willed into being despite ourselves in only in the last few hundred years. When we’re operating in our Higher Mind, we’re civil and productive; when stressed, as rapid change and the fear-generating algorithms of social media take over, we’re pulled down into the paleolithic, suspicious mind of old.

“…the Higher Mind’s goal is to get to the truth, while the Primitive Mind’s goal is confirmation of its existing beliefs,” Urban writes. “These two very different types of intellectual motivations exist simultaneously in our heads.”

Urban’s duality of our Primitive and Higher minds works as a kind of perverse prism. The ways by which it refracts our thought and discourse toward simplistic, opportunistic rhetoric is clear in the ceaseless calls for an Israeli ceasefire in speech, letter-writing campaigns, or yet more false shibboleths from the strident and sickening “Boycott, Divest, Sanction”, or “BDS”, movement.

Ceasing the ignorant calls for ceasefire

Hamas itself has ruled out a ceasefire. Just take a chilling minute to listen to Hamas spokeman Ghazi just days ago:

“The Al-Aqsa Flood (Hamas’ code name for 10/7) is just the first time, and there will be a second, a third, a fourth, because we have the determination, the resolve, and the capabilities to fight. Will we have to pay a price? Yes, and we are ready to pay it. We are called a nation of martyrs, and we are proud to sacrifice martyrs.” The interviewer asks: “Does that mean the annihilation of Israel? Hamad responds:

“Yes, of course…The existence of Israel is illogical. The existence of Israel is what causes all that pain, blood, and tears. It is Israel, not us. We are the victims of the occupation. Period. Therefore, nobody should blame us for the things we do. On October 7, October 10, October 1,000,000 — everything we do is justified.”

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. I won’t attempt to armchair general the IDF. However, the thoughtful calls for a shift in strategy, with the goal of eliminating Hamas while minimizing civilian casualties, are worth considering.

In his comments linked above, historian 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, and with whom I met in Israel last summer when he graciously hosted us for Shabbat, 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. But I do know that after peace, justice must come. 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 Age of Maximal Ignorance. And the end of antisemitism, Islamophobia, and all forms of hating “the other”.



Brett A. Hurt

CEO and Co-founder,; Co-owner, Hurt Family Investments; Founder, Bazaarvoice and Coremetrics; Henry Crown Fellow; TEDster; Dad + Husband