Three Questions after October 7

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Editor’s Note: Israel is at war, and the suffering is difficult to bear. To better appreciate this transformation and the pressures of this moment, we have assembled a symposium of community leaders and thinkers to address the effect of the crisis on Diaspora Jewry.

Henry Abramson

We lack adequate terminology to describe the horrors of our young century. We are reduced to using mere numbers for events too huge to encompass with a word, like 9/11 in the US and 7/7 in the UK, and now October 7 in Israel. The terrorists have been, sadly, more creative: Al-Qaeda speaks of Gharat Manhatin (The Manhattan Raid), and Hamas infamously termed their attack Tufan al-Aqsa (The Al-Aqsa Flood). Only the London bombings are still called 7/7, perhaps because the perpetrators were Anglophones.

Historians, of course, spend a lot of time thinking about dates, leading to some jarring contrasts. For example, the Europeans list day before month, so 9/11 is not September 11 but November 9, which marks the anniversary of the massive Nazi aktion known as Kristallnacht. October 7 also has an echo, albeit of a different sort. On that date in 1944, in a doomed but highly symbolic act, the most degraded and debased prisoners of Auschwitz—the so-called Sonderkommandos, Jews forced to manage the grotesque process of burning the corpses of gassed fellow Jews in the crematoria—revolted against their Nazi overlords and destroyed one of the gas chambers, effectively shutting down the Holocaust machinery shortly before the camp was liberated by the Allies.

Despite their common date, there is nothing remotely similar to connect these two October 7 events. 1944 was a desperate attempt to assert a fundamental belief in the dignity of humanity. 2023 was a perverted criminal act of murder, rape, kidnapping, and arson that renders the term “pogrom” weak by comparison. Yet the juxtaposition demands questions, and I have three of them.

1. Who are the Palestinians?

I don’t have the temerity to suggest I have a solution to the deep-seated challenges of the region, but whatever thoughts I ever had on the subject were always based on some fundamental assumptions about the Palestinian people. I believed that, despite our very different backgrounds, we shared fundamental values. They, like me, loved their children and wanted them to reach their maximum potential for personal happiness; they, like me, had a basic moral code that may have been inspired by different sources but ultimately championed similar objectives of peace and coexistence.

After October 7, I’m not so sure. Even a casual perusal of video clips from Arabic-language media on the remarkable Middle East Media Research Institute website ( demonstrates just how pervasive the death-cult philosophy of Hamas has penetrated the Palestinian mindset. We have all seen the videos of school plays featuring six-year-old boys with realistic toy guns capturing classmates dressed as Israelis and dragging them off into captivity. I used to dismiss these as expressions of a radicalized minority, but no more. There are just too many videos of mothers who express joy at the prospect of raising children who die as suicide bombers, because “we should devour the Jews with our teeth.”

I can’t imagine any Jewish mother saying this. I just can’t. And the tearful expressions of joy from a mother in Gaza when her son called her from the phone he took from the body of a yahudia after killing her and her husband, urging them to get on WhatsApp to see the corpses of the ten Jews he murdered? I can’t wrap my mind around it.

So who are the Palestinians? All I see in Gaza are people who seem to come from another planet. Where are the Palestinians who share our basic human values?

2. Who are the polezni duraki?

The Russian term “polezni duraki” was coined in the Soviet era to identify unwitting human assets outside the USSR that would promote pro-Soviet foreign policy objectives, even at the expense of their home countries: they were therefore called “useful idiots.” Included in this category were people who were encouraged to foment dissent against their own democratically elected leadership, broadening social fissures and weakening resistance to Soviet propaganda.

After October 7, many Jews—especially, perhaps, those with liberal leanings—encountered a wave of vitriol from erstwhile friends. Offensive slogans like “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free” (which many understand as “free of Jews”) are widely disseminated, along with open calls to violence like “Resistance by any means necessary” and the incomprehensible “Globalize the Intifada.” They certainly have no clue what those slogans mean, hence the moniker “useful idiots.”

Yet these are, or at least were, our friends. They were our non-Jewish and some Jewish coworkers, colleagues, and neighbors. How can they be so blind to the gross violence perpetrated against Israel? Yesterday there was yet another polezni duraki gathering here in Manhattan, and I saw signs calling for “the release of all Palestinian prisoners.” Where is the concern for those Israelis snatched from their homes and abused in the darkness under Gaza?

So who are these people who we once thought were friends and fellow travelers? Are those friendly relationships viable anymore? Were they ever?

3. Who are we?

Since October 7, Jews around the world are experiencing a “Come to Moses” moment. We recall the divisive arguments that literally filled the streets of Tel Aviv last summer, and just two weeks prior to October 7 we saw the ugly confrontation over public prayer. Now, however, so many Jews have set aside their profound differences and have come together as a people. That’s encouraging, and I hope it will continue.

The first two questions are beyond me, and I raise them in the hopes that people smarter than I will answer them. The third is a question I’ve taken to heart and have been exercising my own personal teshuvah to respond to appropriately. The answer is obvious: we are a family. Raucous, sometimes dysfunctional and fractionated, but a family. And families come together, especially in times of crisis.

Am Yisrael Hai.

Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish history, serving as a Dean of Touro University in Brooklyn, New York. His most recent work is a three-volume survey of Jewish history, forthcoming from Koren Publishers (Jerusalem).