Within hours of the slaughter in Israel, the question of Israel’s “massive intelligence failure” — as many have called it — came to dominate a lot of the media coverage and conversation.
On one level, this is entirely defensible. Israeli officials acknowledge the obvious fact that it was, with the arguable exception of the surprise invasion that launched the Yom Kippur War, the worst intelligence breakdown in Israeli history. Israeli citizens are talking about it openly, including those I’ve spoken with.
But there is something about the way some people talk about Israel’s inability to detect or prevent these attacks that is deeply troubling and speaks to the moment we’re in. It resides in the gray area between “they should have known” and “it serves them right.”
In other words, talking about intelligence failures can be a way of blaming Israel: Of course Hamas wants to send monsters to slaughter parents in front of their children, rape women, abduct grandparents and parade them as trophies. It’s the geopolitical equivalent of figuratively (and one might say literally) blaming rape victims for not being careful enough.
For the intelligence-failure obsessives, writes John Podhoretz, the editor of the Jewish American journal Commentary, it’s “as though Israel somehow summoned this evil upon itself and therefore what we should talk about is what Israel did wrong.”
Again, Israel’s leaders did fail here and there is no doubt that Israeli politics, and Israeli society, will be grappling with that fact for decades to come.
But what about the other side of the equation? The assumption that Israel must always be on guard against this sort of organized barbarity suggests that the barbarians have no agency. This is just what “they” do. They are like bad weather, or wild animals that it is pointless to get angry at or assign blame to. Can’t blame them for being what they are.
This dehumanizing refusal to accept that human agency, that pure moral choice, is a common affliction. We see it on full display in the debates over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Of course, Russia did this, the realists and apologists argued. Ukraine is their “sphere of influence,” part of the historic Russian empire. Ukraine or NATO “provoked” Russia, insist an ideologically diverse coalition of victim-blamers. The idea that Putin had no choice but to launch an illegal and barbaric invasion of Ukraine is a perverted form of Western arrogance and myopia. Putin had a choice and he made it.
Over the weekend, particularly, some anti-anti-Hamas commentators on MSNBC insisted that Hamas’ barbarity is what Israel should expect from its policies in Gaza. This was a “prison break,” according to countless Israel critics. Therefore, voices as diverse as the governments of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar and anti-Israel students of Harvard insist Israel is solely to blame for Hamas’ crimes.
It is fine to criticize various Israeli policies. But this prison break talking point is deeply problematic. If Gaza is a prison, it’s in part because it is run by a prison gang in the form of Hamas, which brutalizes and exploits Palestinian inmates. Also, if the moment inmates escape from a prison they go on a murder, kidnapping and rape spree, many reasonable people might assume the prison exists for good reason. But again, however brutal you might think Israel’s Gaza policy might be, the murderers still chose to murder, the rapists chose to rape. If you deny them that agency, you’re the one calling them unthinking animals.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Iran helped fund and orchestrate the Hamas attack. The Biden administration is pushing back, claiming there’s no direct evidence of that yet. And, of course, Iran denies it.
But let’s make the tiny leap of the imagination and assume it’s true that Hamas’ Iranian patrons were involved. Iran is not Gaza or a cage of Israel’s design. Israel has not “occupied” Iran. In other words, this was a choice made by human beings. Similarly, Qatar, where the Hamas leader behind these attacks has a comfortable office and ample resources, is not some impoverished Palestinian ghetto. It’s the fifth richest country per capita in the world.
The arrogant solipsism that assumes Israelis, Americans or the West in general has all of the agency and power to work their will — and therefore deserves all the blame when bad things happen — is a form of moral corruption. It is also profoundly dangerous. Such thinking closes avenues of action — diplomatic, economic and military — because it assumes that the bad actors in the world are forces of nature that cannot be deterred or reasoned with, only appeased.