Erasing the Context

Paul Thornton, the Letters Editor of the Los Angeles Times was really angry. By 14 October 2023, he just had to vent, using the LA Times website to do so. So what had riled him up? Well, it had been a week during which he and others had watched as “hundreds of civilian Israelis were massacred for the crime of existing in the Jewish state.” Thornton was aware that this judgment flowed from “a purely gut-level emotion.” Here is how he describes that feeling: “disgust—not just over the attack, of course, but also disgust at the reaction by some…who reflexively blame the victims or engage in endless whataboutism.”

What, pray tell, is “whataboutism”? For Thornton, it is “the disgusting” practice of reminding us about Israeli policies toward the people of Gaza and suggesting that those policies, carried on consistently for decades, had something to do with the recent barbaric behavior of Hamas fighters. It would seem that for Thornton, you mustn’t argue this way—indeed, you are not supposed to raise any possible causal connections in the face of such slaughter, or what President Biden has called “sheer evil.”

Thornton refers us back to columnist Jonah Goldberg who complains about commentators who “insist that Hamas’ barbarity is what Israel should expect from its policies in Gaza” or characterize the Hamas attack as a “prison break.”

Goldberg’s point seems to be that cause and effect are irrelevant here. Or perhaps Thornton and Goldberg think that the relationship between Israeli policies and Palestinian responses is a mere correlation rather than a cause. Either way, their position is that the Palestinians and the Hamas fighters are all human beings. As such, they have “human agency.” They are capable of making moral choices. They made the choice to slaughter innocent people and the broader circumstances under which that choice was made is apparently not open for discussion. It is they, the Hamas fighters and their leaders, and not Israeli decision makers and their policies, who are responsible.

You can, of course, loudly proclaim this sort of stand-alone moral agency, detached from any historical context, but in the end, as Thornton realizes, it is just an emotionally fueled opinion. In practice—in a real conflict pitting oppressor and oppressed—such abstracted morality has no explanatory value. For instance, take the assertion that the Hamas fighters exercised “human agency” or the freedom to make “moral choices.” In this regard, one can ask, given an objective understanding of the history of the Gaza Strip over say the past 30 years, just how true such an assertion can be? How capable were the fighters, having literally grown up in this particular oppressive environment, of rendering moral decisions that would satisfy Jonah Goldberg? How much “moral responsibility” can the Zionists reasonably demand of them? Shall we set that bar at the amount of moral responsibility the Israelis accept for their terrorist operations during and right after the Nakba?

You know the common saying: “there are two sides to a story.” In this case, whether Paul Thornton or Jonah Goldberg like it or not, that adage is true. Moreover the stories on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle shape human responses. In other words, there is no way you can isolate one actor from the actions of the other. The violence used by both sides has been mutually reinforcing.

That is why the following statement made by David Grossman in the English edition of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz is hard to take seriously: “Even Israel’s conduct and its crimes in the occupied territories for 56 years cannot justify or soften what has been laid bare: the depth of hatred towards Israel, the painful understanding that we Israelis will always have to live here in heightened alertness and constant preparedness for war.” Why should he think this way? What exactly prevents decades of Israeli policies—which frequently killed, maimed, and imprisoned Palestinian civilians, demolished their homes, and generally impoverished an entire people—from “justifying” a homicidal reaction? Can a stand-alone, ahistorical moral code which one side uses to point fingers at the other, be used as convincing proof that the Hamas attack was unjustified? The truth is that Palestinian behavior is shaped by a context and that context has been shaped by the goals and behavior of Zionists. The Zionists, in turn, have their own explanatory context.

Grossman seems to think that this cycle of violence is going to be unending. But, if we take Israeli “moral agency” seriously, that does not have to be the case. If the side with most of the power exercises one of those Thornton/Goldberg/Grossman stand-alone moral capabilities (the same kind they think the Palestinians should exercise). And as a consequence, Israeli policy over the next 30 years is significantly more accommodating than in the past 30, then maybe the Israelis will not “always have to live here in heightened alertness and constant preparedness for war.” Yet I would not bet any money on such a turnaround. Grossman and other Zionists get hopping mad when you mention context. For them cause and effect has been rendered irrelevant.

The Importance of Context

The ability to contextualize a situation, that is to recognize historically relevant cause and effect, is key to understanding events. This has a lot to do with injunction to practice critical thinking. Nonetheless, hardly anyone, leader or follower, bothers to contextualize events that touch on their identity. How come? Here are a couple of reasons:

— When we are raised to one narrow worldview (via nationalism, religion, tribal aggrandizement, etc.), it becomes very difficult to accurately, objectively contextualize events touching on that storyline. The Israelis are taught an historical story from early childhood. That story becomes an identity affirming narrative. It provides an explanatory “moral” rationale for actions and policies toward the Palestinians. On the other hand, it is a struggle for the Palestinians to formally teach their own story, however they live it and learn it that way.

—When that worldview takes on a holy aura, or alternatively is presented as a “do or die” basis for group existence, critical thinking and contextualization become harder still. At this point, seeking an objective understanding of the conflict in question may identify you as a traitor. Under such circumstances, an environment that literally denies cause and effect can flourish. One wonders if President Biden has reached this stage.

—At the leadership level there is such a thing as “groupthink.” Decision making groups become united around a specific outlook. To disagree with the outlook is to disrupt the group, threaten unity, be seen as disloyal. This often leads to an inability to see a situation clearly and make adjustments in policy.

—The emotions of anger and frustration, the bloodlust that underlies the drive for revenge, etc. certainly obviate the ability to contextualize. Such emotions push us into the realms of the deadly and the absurd. We know where they pushed the Hamas fighters. They have also pushed Thornton/Goldberg/Grossman to insist that the Palestinians should behave as if they somehow stand outside the historical context that they share with the Israelis—and thereby only “resist ethically.” This is an impossibly absurd demand.

No One Deserved It

It is interesting that many of the Zionists interpret the demand that Israel face up to the part they have played in creating the present historical context, as a kind of trick. As if it is a gambit to get Israel and its supporters to admit that the victims of Hamas’ brief invasion “deserved what they got.” Yet, there is a difference between (1) being fatally caught up in a violent two-sided conflict made worse by the belligerent policies of the most powerful party, and (2) deserving to be slaughtered because of your citizenship/ethnicity. By the way, one version of this latter onslaught is historically known as a pogrom—a kind of massacre which is often carried out against Palestinians by Israel’s settlers on the West Bank.

Regardless of the fact that Israel has an almost universal draft, the civilians killed on 7 October 2023 did not “deserve what they got.” It is however true that an objective understanding of the context would have revealed their fate was becoming increasingly probable, and therefore perhaps preventable by a change in Israeli policies. Yet, to have done this, the Israelis would have had to break out of their present inability to see their own part in the shaping of the historical context. To the extent that they could not do this, despite countless warnings that they were courting an explosion, they have made themselves complicit in the gruesome fate of their fellow citizens.


It is heartening to see just how many diaspora Jews clearly understand the historical context that brought on the Hamas invasion and the horrible ensuing consequences. In the meantime almost every U.S. national and state official seems to have no problem getting into bed, so to speak, with a wretched apartheid state exercising the biggest act of ethnic cleansing since 1967.

In this regard, we note the New York Times indignation over a protest chant used against Israeli behavior: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” What is their problem with this chant? The NYT writers describe this as “a slogan that leaves no place for the State of Israel to exist in its own land.” No critical, much less historical, thinking here! Israeli policies  have made sure that only with the demise of the State of Israel can a democratic state for both Jews and Palestinians become possible.

Well, it used to be that everyone, low or high, would have bought into the NYT playing fast and loose with history. So let’s end on a positive note. Let’s be encouraged that despite the “full court press” of Zionist propaganda and the Western media demanding blindness to context, so many have stood up with the counter-demand that Palestinian lives matter and so does the context so brutally forced upon them.

Lawrence Davidson is a retired professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.