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responsibility, ignorance and helplessness
What do Hamas terrorists and Hamas supporters have in common?
What can be more different than a white, transgender, liberal, upperclass PhD candidate at Harvard who was raised in Providence, Rhode Island, and a poor, uneducated, chauvinist, extremist, Islamic jihadi raised in Khan Yunis, Gaza?
As has been endlessly pointed out, but somehow not heeded, the former wouldn’t last five minutes in the latter’s neighborhood. Just a year ago, Ahmad Abu Marhia, a gay Palestinian was found beheaded in the city of Hebron. In 2016, Mahmoud Ishtiwi, himself a Hamas commander, was shot and killed by his comrades for apparently engaging in homosexual behavior. It seems clear from even cursory research that these are just a couple examples of many (although, naturally, the Hamas Health Ministry does not publish to the international community the numbers of internal dissidents they eliminate).
While clearly not all LGBTQ people condone Hamas’s actions on October 7th or otherwise, the very fact that any, and frankly, many do, boggles the mind.
The same is true about all liberally-minded Americans and Europeans who you would think would be constitutionally opposed to right-wing, theocratic, fascist regimes, especially, if we may add, happen to also be internationally recognized terrorist organizations.
All of this begs the question:
What does the Western Left have in common with the Middle Eastern Far Right?
The Philistines were an ancient seafaring people who settled on the coast of Israel in the area of Gaza and north of it from the 12th century BCE until they disappeared six centuries later. There is no religious, cultural, ethnic or genetic connection between modern Palestinians and the ancient Philistines, except for the incidental similarity of name and geographic coincidence. This said, it is interesting to consider the possibility of symbolic connections between them.
The Philistine King, who employed the epithet Avimelech (literally “My father, the king”) had a few interactions with Abraham and Isaac which are recorded in the Torah. And again, while there is no causal historical connection between the Philistines who ruled this area in the ancient world, and the Palestinians who live there today, I believe that this episode can shed light on this question of what is at root of the unlikely relationship between Hamas and Hamas sympathizers.
On multiple occasions, Abraham and Sarah were forced to rely on a protocol they had devised to avoid Abraham getting killed by local authorities while they abducted his wife: she would have to publicly identify herself as his sister — not his wife.
This is precisely what they do when they entered the Philistine city of Gerar. As expected, Sarah was immediately singled out as an exotic and beautiful woman who would be appreciated by the king, and was taken against her will to Avimelech.
That night, God appeared to Avimelech in a dream, and said to him:
Now, the Torah itself attests to the fact that Avimelech had not yet made his move on her. What is fascinating though is the back-and-forth conversation that ensues between Avimelech and God. It provides a window into the king’s subconscious moral mind.
Avimelech’s rebuttal to God’s accusation was to in turn to accuse God of unjustly indicting him for a crime he had not yet committed. He further defended himself with the superficially reasonable claim that he had been lied to about her marital status. Indeed, how could he be held responsible for that which he didn’t know?
Avimelech had not yet approached [Sarah] — he said, “Lord, will You slay people even though they are innocent!? [Avraham] himself said to me, ‘She is my sister!’ And she also said, ‘He is my brother!’ When I did this, my heart was blameless — and my hands are clean!”
Although everything Avimelech said was true at face value, his response definitely seems aggressively defensive. It is one thing for a person to simply not believe in God, but to believe in God, experience His Presence in a dream, and tell Him to His Face that He is unjustly accusing him of a crime he didn’t commit — is theologically odd, to say the least.
If a person is actually innocent, which Avimelech seemingly was, and God knows all, which He does, wouldn’t He know that he’s innocent?!
Perhaps stranger still was God’s response.
After accusing him of taking a marries woman, God put Avimelech at ease by validating that He was well aware of the impossible circumstances of not knowing that she was married:
So, then he’s off the hook?! It’s that easy???
Not quite. God goes on to affirm that he’s very much on the hook for a capital crime regardless:
Just to add to the above-mentioned mysteries, a couple additional questions:
Why DID God tell Avimelech that he is guilty of a capital crime if God knew that Avimelech hadn’t done anything illicit with Sarah yet? What crime did he commit?
What did God mean to say by insisting that Avimelech should return Sarah to Abraham “because he’s a prophet?” And if he hadn’t been a prophet, the king WOULDN’T have to return his kidnapped wife to him?!?
These are some of the questions that bothered the Sages of the Talmud some 1.5 millennia ago. Their analysis provides us a deep insight into the human psyche, and couldn’t be more relevant to the spiritual war raging around the world today.
But first, some background.
The most prominent yet most ignored part of the human psyche is the moral mind.
Modern psychology tends to focus on our thoughts and emotions, our traumas and our desires — and tends to ignore the moral judgements we make and their consequences.1
But the truth is: our moral decisions matter.
We can lie to others, and we can superficially and temporarily lie to ourselves, but our souls — our subconscious moral minds — recognize and register everything we do. With profound side effects.
Betraying my conscience leads to guilt. Guilt leads to shame. Shame leads to blame and callousness. Blame and callousness, in turn, divert attention from myself who is the unequivocal source of the problem.
Conscience can therefore be seen by some as a nuisance that produces the unpleasant feelings of guilt and shame. Some went so far so as to consider it the “scourge of humanity.”
To quote Hitler (inspired by his favorite philosopher Schopenhauer):
Providence has ordained that I [Hitler] should be the greatest liberator of humanity. I am freeing man from the restraints of an intelligence that has taken charge, from the dirty and degrading self-mortifications of a false vision known as conscience and morality, and from the demands of a freedom and personal independence which only a very few can bear.
It’s for this reason that drugs and alcohol are used to temporarily dampen the voice of conscience so that we can obey our more pressing desires.
It was discovered after the October 7th attacks that Hamas terrorists were drugged on Captagon to allow them to be ruthless without inhibitions or remorse. And ruthless they were.
The Nazis’ drug of choice for SS soldiers to do their jobs without succumbing to depression, anxiety and/or psychosis was methamphetamine.
These drugs are, however, only topical anesthetics. The soul of the human being isn’t extinguished by narcotics. It continues to burn in the depths of the human psyche.
If the human being doesn’t ultimately take responsibility for his or her mistakes, the guilt, shame, blame, and their auxiliary emotions anxiety and depression come back with a vengeance.
This brings us back to the very deep dialogue between God and the king of the Philistines…
When God accused Avimelech of rape and adultery, it immediately elicited a defensive posture from Avimelech. His conditioned, subconscious response while dreaming was to point the finger right back at his accuser — “God! How could you blame an innocent man?! Shame on you. I expected more from you…”
As a political leader to whom people look to as responsible, he had thoroughly accustomed himself to shift blame elsewhere.
God responded by recognizing that He knew full well that Avimelech was unaware that Sarah was married. This was not what He was indicting him for.
So then what WAS he being indicted for?
Avimelech’s crime started way earlier, and ran way deeper.
God was taking Avimelech to task for being the patriarch (av-father) and leader (melech-king) of a society that had completely normalized abducting female visitors and killing their husbands, and doing nothing about it.
Citizens can to some extent claim victimhood and blame their society for their moral failures, but the moral buck has to stop with someone. Among the Philistines, Avimelech was that someone. Not everyone can be a victim. Someone has to be making decisions, right?
Claiming ignorance, which is what Avimelech did, is claiming victimhood. He didn’t know. How could he? His “heart was blameless” and his “hands were clean.”
What about God saying that “he should return the man’s wife since he’s a prophet?” What’s that about? The Talmud understands that God was communicating to Avimelech that the husband of the woman whom he had locked up in his palace was a person of immense spiritual sensitivity. This explains why he sensed that the city of Gerar was a highly dangerous place for a man to travel to with his wife. He saw people’s faces and expressions, and knew right away that he had to conceal their marriage. According to the Talmud, the “smoking gun” for Abraham was the fact that the people of Gerar would open conversations with him and his entourage by asking them about Sarah — not about whether they needed any provisions:
Abraham saw in this behavior a dangerous prioritization of their carnal needs over the basic needs of strangers. In this, he saw the roots of cruelty that could easily lead to murder.
Avimelech, it seems, accepted on some level God’s message, but after waking up from the dream, he still felt the need to confront Avraham and project the blame onto him:
Avimelech woke up early in the morning to call his servants and tell them all that had happened — they were greatly frightened. Then Avimelech summoned Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? What wrong have I done that you should bring such a great guilt upon me and my kingdom? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.”
As if to say: “You’re the immoral one going around lying to people.”
Here was Abraham’s level-headed response:
Well, I said to myself: “Surely there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. And besides, she is in truth my sister, my father’s daughter though not my mother’s, and she became my wife.”
Finally, having heard the same moral critique straight from Abraham’s mouth, Avimelech, further accepted responsibility. He returned Sarah to Abraham, granted them permission to settle wherever they wanted in Philistine territory, and sent them away with gifts.
What does all of this have to do with the seemingly esoteric and unlikely relationship between Hamas terrorists and Hamas sympathizers?
At any given moment, the human mind can take on a identity of actor or acted upon — agent or victim.
Psychological health is associated with a sense of agency.
When people feel that they can make choices that will improve their lives, in whatever state they find themselves in, they feel strong, they have hope, and can convert their traumas into resilience. Agency is a virtuous cycle. The more people make good decisions and reap the rewards, the more responsible they feel, and the better decisions they make.
When people feel that they are victim to their circumstances, however, they enter a vicious cycle. Their lack of moral responsibility leaves their problems unattended to. This leads to guilt and shame, which are shielded by blame towards the most convenient scapegoats. Their raison d'etre becomes their conflict with the enemy (read: scapegoat), and instead of their purpose being their own growth and self-determination, it becomes the elimination of their external enemy. All the while, their internal, moral vulnerabilities fester.
There is no room in this essay to detail the myriad of ways in which this vicious cycle applies to Hamas. Their raison d'etre is no doubt the elimination of Israel, Jews around the world, and the West. For decades, their leadership has sold the Palestinian people the unquestioned belief that all of their problems are due to Israel and the Jews. Institutions like UNRWA have further perpetuated the victim identity of the Palestinian people and have preserved Palestinians as refugees and victims for generations. Of course, not doing so would mean the dissolution of Hamas and UNRWA as organizations dedicated to saving the victims.
I assure you that the powers that be in Gaza have given no thought to what they will do and what their purpose would be if they achieve their goal of destroying their enemy (they won’t). They have no purpose other than eliminating their enemy, which is precisely why they will always be victims. It is for this reason that they don’t think twice every time they choose to invest in missiles and tunnels over the education and improvement of their people’s situation. In their mind, maintaining victimhood is what protects them from doing the real work of pulling themselves out of their own oppression.
Victimhood as an identity is a choice. Hamas made that choice a long time ago, and have perpetuated that identity through their immoral choices for decades.
Their strange bedfellows in the West have this in common with them. They have chosen the perverse moral compass which always points towards vindicating the weak and demonizing the strong. It is this very outlook that prevents those who have suffered oppression from taking responsibility for themselves.
I don’t doubt that among those marching for Palestine are well-meaning people who are guilty mostly of ignorance, and manipulation by those in power. But at some point, we as human beings who have faith in humanity have to believe in human agency.
Those who have blamed Israel for the heinous crimes of Hamas have accepted a vision of humanity that is de facto hopeless. Victims will perpetually remain victims.
But it is more sinister than this. If the weak are always the victim and everyone is to blame but themselves, they are doomed to stay weak, and will ultimately use any strength they can muster to victimize others.
This war is a war for the soul of humanity.
Our humanity depends on our decisions.
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