It’s been many years since we have had occasion to mention Rashid Khalidi—enthusiast for the Palestinian cause, bosom buddy of Barack Obama, and the Edward Said (!) Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University—in this space. Back in June 2005, in a column called “Faculty follies,” we quoted Khalidi’s thundering dismissal of what he called “the utterly spurious assumption that universities are strongholds of radical and liberal beliefs.”
As if to underscore the malign fatuousness of that declaration, Professor Khalidi has just put his name to an open letter, signed by more than a hundred of his Columbia colleagues, calling on the university to defend those students who publicly support Hamas, the terrorist organization that controls the Gaza Strip and that, without warning, slaughtered more than 1,400 people, mostly civilians, in southern Israel on October 7. That massacre, which also left some five thousand injured and saw more than two hundred people—including infants, toddlers, and the elderly—kidnapped and dragged back to the Gaza Strip, killed more Jews than any event since the Holocaust. Khalidi and his colleagues are incensed that the names and likenesses of some of these pro-Palestinian student protestors have been posted under the rubric “Columbia’s Leading Anti-Semites.” “As scholars,” the professors write, apparently without irony,
who are committed to robust inquiry about the most challenging matters of our time, we feel compelled to respond to those who label our students anti-Semitic if they express empathy for the lives and dignity of Palestinians, and/or if they signed on to a student-written statement that situated the military action begun on October 7th within the larger context of the occupation of Palestine by Israel.
Where does one start? We’re tempted to begin with the question of whether anyone anywhere has objected to people expressing “empathy for the lives and dignity of Palestinians.” But let’s leave that trope, along with the needling “as scholars” gambit, to one side for a moment and concentrate on two phrases: “military action begun on October 7th” and “the larger context of the occupation of Palestine by Israel.”
In the modern world, a “military action” is understood to be an action undertaken to achieve a specific military objective and employing only those means that are in accordance with the recognized rules of combat. High up on the list of those rules is concern for noncombatants. It is an unfortunate fact that civilians are often killed in a military action. But they must not be explicitly targeted. Nor may they be deliberately mistreated.
In this sense, what Hamas started on October 7 was not a “military action.” It was slaughter undertaken to foment terror. Civilians were not collateral victims of the operation. They were deliberately targeted for rape, torture, kidnapping, and murder. The vast majority of victims were civilians, not military personnel. It is also worth noting the video evidence that in some instances so-called civilian Gazans seem to have participated in the atrocities.
Contrast the behavior of Hamas with the behavior of the Israeli Defense Forces responding to the massacre. For weeks after the attack, the idf urged civilians to evacuate to the south of the Gaza Strip, away from the headquarters of Hamas, which was certain to be the center of Israel’s operations. Close to a million Gazans did evacuate. More tried to do so but were prevented by Hamas, which confiscated their car keys and gasoline and destroyed humanitarian corridors that Israel had constructed to aid evacuation.
Hamas, in direct flouting of the Geneva Conventions, has always used civilians as human shields. In this instance, the more than two hundred hostages it took from Israel are part of that shield. Who knows where they may be secreted? But by far the largest component of human bargaining chips have been ordinary Gazans. Hamas, again in violation of the Geneva Conventions, places military assets and command centers within, adjacent to, or underneath schools, mosques, hospitals, and residential buildings. Not only does this ensure collateral damage to life and property, it also transforms those nonmilitary sites into military targets. It is furthermore worth noting that not only does Hamas exaggerate the extent of its civilian casualties, it also, as many video clips have confirmed, displays fake deaths and injuries. The “corpses” that suddenly arise and walk or the gruesomely “injured” actor who is later seen cavorting on the street make for inadvertently amusing viewing.
The same perfidy is true of Hamas’s cynical exploitation of sacrosanct symbols and protected assets. Ambulances have large red crosses painted on them to signal their exemption from assault. But the exemption is in force only so long as the vehicles are used for the purpose for which they were intended, the transportation of the sick and wounded. The idf has presented video footage of Hamas operatives using ambulances essentially as taxis to get around the city with impunity. That has the effect of making all ambulances suspect, and thus vulnerable, and transforming ones that are identified as transporting military personnel into targets.
We would be hard-pressed to adduce examples of a military power operating with greater deliberateness or care for civilian life than the idf. Yes, civilian casualties have resulted from its military operations. But here is the difference: Hamas directly targets civilians. The idf does not. Moreover, Hamas does not simply kill its victims. Many are humiliated, raped, tortured, and beheaded. In one wrenching video, an injured ninety-four-year-old Israeli woman plaintively, agonizingly recounts how her granddaughter was raped and murdered before her eyes.
Before leaving the phrase about “military action,” it is worth noting that Khalidi and his colleagues write that the action by Hamas has only “begun.” That implies that it is ongoing. As we write, the Israelis have made rapid progress against Hamas; perhaps by the time you read this the conflict will be over. The quick inroads made by the idf have led to loud demands, from the White House to the streets of London and many other places besides, for a “humanitarian pause,” a “ceasefire.” But no such suspension should be contemplated against an enemy who has begun but not completed its hostile actions. It’s a surreal demand: a “humanitarian pause” requested by an entity that just weeks ago undertook an ostentatiously anti-humanitarian rampage of such murderous ferocity and savageness.
Let us turn now to “the larger context of the occupation of Palestine by Israel” of which Khalidi and his colleagues speak. Pace the prevailing narrative, there is no “occupation of Palestine by Israel.” Really to understand the political situation in that part of the world, one would have to go back at least to 1917 (if not, indeed, to ancient times). In that year, the Balfour Declaration, contemplating the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, explicitly sought to create a “national home for the Jewish people,” which became an international commitment when the League of Nations formally adopted it in 1922. The goal was eventually accomplished in 1948, when the state of Israel was created, having been strengthened by a 1947 resolution adopted by a two-thirds vote of the United Nations General Assembly. The succeeding history is complex. Its chief feature has two aspects. One is the story of attack after attack by Arabs against Israel, beginning just hours after the nation was born. The other is the series of compromises, negotiations, and concessions by Israel, whose overriding desire has been peaceful coexistence.
In the present instance, the relevant drama began in 2005, when Israel withdrew all its civilian settlements and military outposts from the Gaza Strip. The following year, Hamas won power in a legislative election—the last such election in Gaza—expelled other Palestinian groups, and has ruled the area as a theocratic war party ever since. Some pro-Palestinian commentators say that the Gaza Strip is a prison state. If so, as one observer put it, Hamas is the warden.
What is Hamas and what does it want? The organization dates from the late 1980s. Its founding document, The Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement, features two themes. One is jihad. Following the Muslim terror attacks of 9/11, soft-palmed commentators regularly assured us that “jihad” encompassed much more than beheading journalists, murdering filmmakers, or driving jumbo jets into skyscrapers or the Pentagon. Essentially, we were told, “jihad” referred to an “inner spiritual struggle.” The founding document of Hamas does not indulge in any such subterfuge. It extols jihad, noting that “Jihad is its path and death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes.” In the words of one Palestinian official, the moral—or part of it—is that committed Islamists “love death more than life.”
That’s one theme. The other is the obliteration of Israel. “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it,” the Covenant says. Some people seek to distinguish between anti-Zionism—i.e., anti-Israel sentiment—and anti-Semitism, i.e., anti-Jewish sentiment. Khalidi and his colleagues did so implicitly in their open letter. Hamas is not so obfuscatory. Quoting Mohammed himself, their founding document predicts that
The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.
If nothing else, that statement has the virtue of clarity. You don’t need advanced training in hermeneutics to grasp its meaning.
There is a reason that Hannah Arendt began her magnum opus The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) with a long section on anti-Semitism. The latter is a regular concomitant of and fuel for the former. It is heartening, therefore, to note that a day or two after Columbia’s pro-Palestinian open letter appeared, more than two hundred faculty members published a response, decrying the “spate of antisemitic incidents” on campus and calling on the administration to take action to combat the many death threats, acts of vandalism, and assaults that have been directed at Jewish students. Affirming its support for robust debate about the situation and fate of the Palestinians, this second letter nevertheless insisted that “there is no excuse for Hamas’s barbaric attack on Israeli civilians.” “We are horrified,” the letter continues,
that anyone would celebrate these monstrous attacks or, as some members of the Columbia faculty have done . . . try to “recontextualize” them as a “salvo,” as the “exercise of a right to resist” occupation, or as “military action.”
We agree, and we are pleased to see similarly clear-eyed and robust responses beginning to appear on the many other campuses infected by the virus of anti-Semitic, historically illiterate activism on behalf of Hamas and its proxies. Together with the much-publicized actions of major donors to withdraw their financial support from institutions that celebrate such anti-civilizational, death-embracing ideology, they may just mark the beginning of a sea change in the public’s support for this widespread but destructive embrace of radical-chic attitudes and initiatives.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 4, on page 1
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