October 17, 2023

SCHWARZ | The Significance of the Oct. 7, 2023 Hamas Atrocities

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At this time of national tragedy for Israel I, as a longtime Jewish faculty member and as a human being, feel strong and impassioned sympathy and empathy for innocent victims of barbarous Hamas terrorists who murdered and kidnapped defenseless people including babies, small children and elderly people. 

I respect the frustrations of the Palestinian people who want their own country. But what occurred Oct. 7, on the Jewish Sabbath, were not acts of resistance but atrocities on the order of the Holocaust and pogroms Jews suffered in Europe. Such inhumane and horrific behavior will not move the Palestine community towards its goal. 

On Thursday, Oct. 12, for the first time in 56 years teaching at Cornell, I spent much of the time in my “Imagining the Holocaust” class discussing parallel current events to our course subject, namely how the barbaric murder and kidnapping of Israeli civilians by Hamas resemble the Holocaust as well as the pogroms in Russia before the Holocaust. I commend my students for a nuanced, insightful discussion, one in which we differentiated between those of any ethnicity who commit atrocities and those who are decent human beings. 

I understand that within Gaza are innocent victims who have nothing to do with terrorism, but I also know that the continued existence of a Hamas presence in Gaza dedicated to the destruction of Israel is intolerable. We hope to differentiate between Palestine civilians caught in the maelstrom of war and Hamas terrorists, although it is sometimes hard to identify those who aid and abet terrorism and those who are innocent bystanders.

Israel has no choice but to destroy Hamas if it is to avoid a repeat of these atrocities. No decent person can cheer for innocent people, especially children, being killed inadvertently by Israeli bombs. But what other choice does Israel have when Hamas terrorists take refuge in schools, hospitals and mosques?

I teach and write about the Holocaust. I have always understood the need for a two-state solution with an independent Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem. I have lectured in Israel and have friends and colleagues there, but I have also visited  Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and the West Bank (as well as Egypt which is not Arab but mostly Muslim). I have always been somewhat stuck on an island when it comes to Israel: not willing to sign petitions endorsing illegal settlements in Palestine territory and concerned that Israel respect the rights of its Arab citizens, but also unwilling to condemn Israel for defending itself. 

I would hope that those of my colleagues who continually fault Israel but did not denounce the Oct. 27, 2019 killing of Jews at a synagogue in Pittsburgh; who fail to notice that virtually every synagogue in the world, including those in America and right here in Ithaca, requires special security; and who have repeated,  without supporting evidence, universal condemnation of Israel’s behavior — no matter what the provocation from terrorists — would consider their role in fostering an atmosphere where anti-Zionism bleeds into anti-Semitism. Today, as I write, rallies against Israel which often become blatant celebrations of violence to Jews are occurring every day.

It behooves educational leaders, who for the most part have lagged behind political leaders, to denounce what occurred in the most forceful terms. I have the highest regard for President Pollack, but her first statement  — along with some of the other Ivy League Presidents — fell far short of my expectations for moral leadership. Equating Hamas’ behavior to natural disasters or unrelated events in Armenia, as she did in her statement, is demeaning what occurred in Israel on Oct. 7.  Even her use of the word “atrocities” was confined to events that had nothing to do with what occurred in Israel.

Not surprisingly, many of Cornell’s Jewish alumni and students are outraged at President Pollack’s letter and not fully satisfied by the second one which some attribute to pressure from Jewish donors and trustees. Nor is she alone among university presidents in disappointing not only her Jewish alumni audience, 

but also all those who understand the significance of Hamas’s sadistic attack on innocent civilians in their own homes. Finally, on Oct. 16, nine days after Hamas’ hideous attack, President Pollack wrote the Cornell Community a letter that began to recognize the implications of what was a pogrom

What happened on Saturday Oct. 7 in Israel — killing and kidnapping babies, children and the elderly — had something to do with the fraught and complex history of the Middle East. But for Jews it had far more to do with a history of the persecution of Jews dating back centuries, including pogroms, and culminating in the Holocaust. 

Daniel R. Schwarz is the Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English Literature and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow in the College of Arts & Sciences. He is The Cornell Daily Sun’s 2023 visiting columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].

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