The horrors of 7th October did not happen in a vacuum. Why has this become unsayable?

We should be able to condemn real and vile antisemitism while also acknowledging an obvious reality: this Israeli government includes criminals and despots who have no interest in peace

February 16, 2024
Not on good terms: Joe Biden is said to have called Benjamin Netanyahu a “bad fucking guy”. Image: Zuma Press / Alamy
Not on good terms: Joe Biden is said to have called Benjamin Netanyahu a “bad fucking guy”. Image: Zuma Press / Alamy

Have there been times in recent weeks when, in thinking of Israel, you’ve wanted to swear? Is it possible that, with Bibi Netanyahu, even stronger curses come to mind?

If it’s any comfort, President Joe Biden is reported to have had some equally profane thoughts about the Israeli prime minister. He’s said to have called him “a bad fucking guy” and an asshole. More than enough to get him suspended from the Labour party. 

Having killed as many as 28,000 people (around the population of Chichester) in retaliation for the atrocities of 7th October, Israel is preparing to launch an assault on Rafah, an area of Gaza currently sheltering around 1.5m men, women and children. 

What, in this context, is sayable? More than half the countries in the UN called for a ceasefire in Gaza in the month or so after 7th October. So did the Pope, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. But eight Labour frontbenchers were sacked for demanding the same thing on 15th November. Unsayable. 

The great defender of free speech, Toby Young, thought it reasonable to ban from Twitter anyone using the words “from the River to the Sea”, on the grounds the words implied wiping out the state of Israel. Some even thought the chant worthy of prosecution. Yet Netanyahu recently pronounced that Israel “must have security control over the entire territory west of the Jordan River”—thereby wiping out the idea of a state of Palestine. Is one sayable, and the other not? 

The secretary general of the United Nations, António Guterres, told the UN Security Council back in late October that the attacks by Hamas “did not happen in a vacuum”—and was promptly told by Israel that he should resign. It was unsayable. But does any reasonable person consider that you can begin to fathom the horrific events of 7th October without considering the 56 years of history that preceded them? 

In the aftermath of the Hamas massacre I found myself listening intently to the multiple podcasts that the New York Times journalist Ezra Klein has devoted to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Since early October I’ve clocked up no fewer than 13 episodes—each around an hour long—in which Klein has delved ever more deeply into the past, present and future of this troubled region. In other words, he has done that which Israel deplored in the UN secretary general: he has gone in search of context and understanding. 

Just before Christmas, Klein mused on how his conversations to date had changed his thinking about Israel. “I am not certain, and, in fact, somewhat doubt, that Israel makes Jewish people safer,” he said. 

“I’m a Jewish person. Do I feel safer? Do I feel like there’s less antisemitism in the world right now because of what is happening there, or does it seem to me that there’s a huge upsurge of antisemitism, and that even Jews in places that are not Israel are vulnerable to what happens in Israel?… It is both potentially, in some circumstances, a place that could protect us. But it is also, in other circumstances, a place that could endanger us.” 

There’s a degree of nuance and blunt honesty in that response which I find rare in the British debate which, with a tiresome predictability, requires you unequivocally to take sides. Or, in many cases, to “take Israel’s side”. 

The same was true of another episode in which Nimrod Novik—a top aide to former Israeli PM Shimon Peres and member of the so-called Commanders for Israel’s Security—talked about the context to the 7th October attacks. That’s right—the same urge to understand that led to Guterres being accused of “bias and hatred” and told to pack his bags. 

Novik’s analysis placed heavy blame on the utter failure and futility of Israel’s supposed policy of containment. He was scathing about Netanyahu; contemptuous of the “galloping” annexation of the West Bank by settlers; despairing of Israeli governments “choking” the Palestinian Authority; and frank about Netanyahu’s deliberate policy of funding Hamas—“$35m a month coming in suitcases,” as he characterised it. 

He went further—denouncing two members of Netanyahu’s coalition government as “lunatics”. He described the national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir as a “street thug” and finance minister Bezalel Smotrich as “implementing a horrible agenda on the West Bank”—in effect, a one-state solution “close to apartheid.” 

Klein didn’t interrupt Novik to demand that he condemn Hamas – that staple of so many British interviews—nor did he suggest that Novik was appearing to justify the slaughter of 7th October. That would have been ridiculous, as the Commanders for Israel’s Security, which includes Novik, is a select group of retired members of the country’s defence establishment (IDF, Shin Bet, Mossad and the Israeli police). 

But do you have to have security hawk credentials before the unsayable becomes sayable? Maybe it takes an Israeli columnist, such as Rogel Alpher, to point out the “historical uniqueness” of Netanyahu—a man who “has completely broken the rules of both democracy and dictatorship, creating a hybrid that the whole world looks at in despair, incapable of dealing with it effectively.” 

There is, of course, real and vile antisemitism. There really are bigots who will believe any nutjob conspiracy theory about Israel. Condemn them, suspend them, marginalise them.

But take it from Nimrod Novik: the current Israeli government is one which includes criminals, lunatics, extremists and despots who have no interest in a peaceful solution to the Israel-Palestine question. The horrors of 7th October most certainly did not happen in a vacuum. 

It’s not “anti-Israel” to say so, nor is it “anti-Zionist”, let alone antisemitic—but how casually those three are sometimes elided. 

Meanwhile, we watch helplessly—but, I hope, not silently—as something like “carnage” is unleashed on Gaza. I’m using a word uttered this week by the Pope’s deputy, Cardinal Pietro Parolin. Needless to say, he was immediately rebuked by Israel. It’s unsayable, you see.