This article was originally posted on The Tracinski Letter and has been reposted with the author's permission.
There has been a lot of speculation that the “woke” fad may already be fading, that it has reached its peak and even its own supporters or fellow travelers on the center-left are getting sick of it. There is some evidence that this is true in academia. But if we’re looking for a moment that could mark a definitive turn away from wokeness in the culture at large, the Hamas war just might be it.
Why? Well, view these comments from a debate in the Oakland City Council in which residents furiously reject a proposal to condemn Hamas.
According to the person who posted them, these excerpts are representative of only a third of the public comments—but one third is actually a heck of a lot for such insane views, even by the standards of the Bay Area.
The left’s reaction—its defense and even outright celebration of a terrorist group’s campaign of mass murder—puts a giant asterisk in front of everything they ever said about “marginalized” people, about how “silence is violence,” and any rhetoric they have ever used about “liberation” or “justice.” That asterisk stands for the proviso: “Except for the Jews.”
This is not mere hypocrisy but reflects and reveals the tribalist ideology behind the contemporary “woke” left.
Before we look at the domestic repercussions of the war in Gaza, first let’s look at the current state of that war.
We have reached the stage Hamas was counting on all along. The initial reports of the atrocities committed by Hamas terrorists in the October 7 attacks have faded away, to be replaced by stories about the deaths of Palestinian civilians in the war Israel has waged in return. As those stories begin to dominate the headlines, everyone forgets why Israel is fighting the first place—or they find it easier to evade the reason—and so Israel somehow ends up looking like the aggressor.
There is a clear double standard that applies here.
As David French observes, there are a lot of people who want to put diplomatic pressure on Israel to reduce the violence and specifically not to conduct military operations against hospitals in Gaza City. But no one is putting diplomatic pressure on Hamas to stop launching attacks on Israel, or to stop basing its military operations in civilian sites. We are asked to evaluate Israel by the standards we apply to civilized countries—actually, by a much higher standard—yet we expect nothing of Hamas.
To understand what is happening, and what is wrong with it, I find it useful to rewrite the headlines you are seeing right now as if they were written about Germany in World War II. So take the headline, “UN Officials Describe Catastrophic Conditions in Gaza as Israel Advances.”
What would you think instead about, “Officials Describe Catastrophic Conditions in Berlin as Allies Advance”?
Or take the complaint, "Why Must Palestinians Audition for Your Empathy?" Knowing what we know about the Holocaust, would we ask, "Why Must Germans Audition for Your Empathy?"
There is no war that can be fought without civilian casualties and massive dislocation and hardship for civilians. People apparently don’t remember the widescale devastation we had to inflict to defeat the Nazis. But then the question is: Should we have not have fought that war? Should we have left the Nazis in power? Would the world have been better—or much, much worse?
Obviously, it would be worse, just as both Israel and America will be far worse off, far less secure if Israel does not defeat Hamas. Yet only one country, only one people, are expected not to take the most basic steps to secure their security from a brutal attack—especially with Hamas leaders promising “a second, a third, a fourth” attack in the future.
So Israel has no choice but to do what the allies did during World War II: destroy the regime that started the war, even at the cost of many civilians casualties on the other side. If the Palestinians didn’t want that result, they shouldn’t have started the war.
And to be very clear, Hamas did want this result. Hamas has genocidal intentions toward the Jews, but it also has deadly intentions toward its own people, whom it has drafted as “martyrs” to be sacrificed for the glory of Allah. I already quoted a Hamas official describing the group’s creed of death worship.
The Israelis are known to love life. We, on the other hand, sacrifice ourselves. We consider our dead to be martyrs. The thing any Palestinian desires the most is to be martyred for the sake of Allah.
In an excellent commentary, CNN’s Jake Tapper explores at lenght the Hamas attitude toward civilian casualties among Palestinians.
Something that has concerned us greatly, something that we have wondered about ever since Hamas brutally attacked so many Israeli civilians on October 7th: What exactly did Hamas think the Israeli military would do in response to that? Did they not anticipate that Israel would retaliate? Did they not anticipate Israel would retaliate in a way that would cause innocent Palestinians in Gaza to die, especially given the fact that, as has been established by Israeli intelligence, US intelligence, and journalists who have visited Gaza, the fact that Hamas embeds within the Palestinian population. What did they think would happen?
It turns out that a Saudi journalist asked the spokesman for Hamas that very question. His response was quite telling in terms of Hamas’s concerns about Palestinian lives.
"Dear sister, nations are not easily liberated. The Russians sacrificed 30 million people in World War Two in order to liberate it from Hitler’s attack. The Vietnamese sacrificed 3.5 million people until they defeated the Americans. Afghanistan sacrificed millions of martyrs to defeat the USSR, and then the US. The Algerian people sacrificed 6 million martyrs, over 130 years. The Palestinian people are just like any other nation. No nation is liberated without sacrifices."
No nation is liberated without sacrifices. Not exactly an expression of regret for innocent Palestinian deaths.
The death of Palestinian civilians is part of the Hamas plan and in fact one of its strategic goals.
I hasten to add that while Hamas clearly has significant support within Gaza and within the Palestinian population—many of whom were raised on religious fanaticism and accept its death cult—that support is not universal. Hamas is infamous for persecuting and torturing dissenters, and about half the population of Gaza is under 18, which includes many children who have never had a choice over what kind of regime they live under. The innocent lives destroyed by this war will be a very great tragedy. But the same was true among Germans during World War II. There were courageous dissenters against the Nazi regime and many innocent children. But their deaths were made necessary by Hitler’s decision to start a war of conquest and extermination.
(The death of innocents is and will be unavoidable in Gaza. Such deaths are not necessary in the US, where a crazed man in Vermont recently shot three Palestinian college students. And then there is the yahoo in Congress who has proposed a bill to expel all Palestinians staying legally in the US, a throwback to the kind of mentality that imprisoned Japanese-Americans during World War II.)
As to the eventual solution in Gaza, if there ever is one, one of the more hopeful signs in the past two months is that the Fatah faction that controls the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has declined to join in with the Hamas death march and has even been signaling that they would be happy to control Gaza after Israel defeats Hamas.
Fatah was forcibly purged from Gaza by Hamas in 2007. So the old PLO faction will be happy to let Israel destroy their rivals and take all the world’s calumny for doing so, so long as they can come in and accept the benefits from it.
Thirty years ago, Israel adopted the strategy of turning Yasser Arafat and his successors into “friendly dictators” who would suppress Palestinian terrorists on their behalf. In theory, this is one way to end an insurgency—though it involves resigning oneself to living side-by-side with a semi-hostile dictatorship, which has not worked out so well.
Moreover, the recent pause in the Gaza fighting and Israel’s decision to swap Palestinian prisoners for hostages has had the effect of undermining Fatah and encouraging would-be insurgents in the West Bank.
Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and the elation over the prisoners’ release have deepened support for Hamas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank…. For some Palestinians living under military occupation in the West Bank, the freed prisoners have become a potent symbol of Hamas’s ability to achieve tangible results and its willingness to fight for the Palestinian cause. Each night in Ramallah, as new batches of prisoners were released, one refrain echoed across the crowds: “The people want Hamas! The people want Hamas!”
It’s not clear how widespread this sentiment is, but it explains a new terrorist attack by West Bank Hamas members in East Jerusalem. This indicates the kind of devil’s bargain Israel has struck when its best bet seems to be that the old, corrupt PLO faction can hang onto power.
I think there is a solution in Gaza, but not a neat or pretty one: a thorough, highly intrusive campaign of occupation, counterinsurgency, and reform, persisting over a period of many decades. I have little confidence that Israel will implement such a solution, so I think they are going to drag out the agony even longer. But I also think there’s a lot of justice to Douglas Murray’s complaint: “If the outside world thinks it knows what to do with a whole generation Hamas has indoctrinated into hate, then be my guest. Any takers? Any?”
The government of Israel will not implement the best response, but nobody else is proposing anything that will actually address the problem.
That most definitely includes the many people on the left who have adopted a pro-Hamas line.
One of the craziest stories on this, which is simultaneously horrifying and strangely comic, comes out of New York. Two people covering up posters of kidnapped Israelis were confronted by a Jewish New Yorker, and they told him to “go back to your country,” by which they presumably meant Israel. The names of these two fervent nativists? Kurush Mistry and Shailja Gupta. There’s an old joke about how America is so good at assimilation that people transform in one generation—or, it seems, less—from just getting off the boat to complaining that all them furriners are ruining this country.
In this case, what the immigrants are assimilating into is the left-wing ideology taught at the universities, particularly so for Indian-Americans like Mistry and Gupta, who are among the most educated immigrant groups. Before this, ironically, the immigrants most dedicated to educational achievement were the Jews, who often embraced previous variants of leftist ideology. But the new variants of the left offer something that is uniquely poisonous in this context.
Over at Tablet, Egyptian-American liberal Hussein Aboubakr Mansour explains the nexus that connects Islamist fanaticism with secular left-wing ideology.
Islamists articulate the fantasy of Jewish eradication in the language of jihad, framed in eschatological terms, and imbued with a sense of divine justice and cosmic warfare—what Westerners would ordinarily recognize as a type of religious fascism. But while the Islamist version of this idea is potent for the purposes of mobilizing the impoverished and uneducated masses, the “left-wing” or secular version—couched in the language of [Frantz] Fanon and Karl Marx, of human emancipation, equality, anti-capitalism, and social justice—is the more effective means of mobilizing opinion among the Western intelligentsia. The point is that they are two sides of the same coin, the value of which is set in Jewish blood.
For those who are shaped by such a worldview—whether the “right-wing” or the “left-wing” version, the religious or the atheistic—celebrating the murder of innocent Israeli civilians, including children, women, and the elderly, is an expression of the partial fulfillment of a moral vision.
At Quillette, Julian Adorney gets more specific about the nature of that moral vision.
In Critical Theory circles, it’s common to lump people into the categories of oppressor and oppressed, based on certain immutable characteristics. The oppressors are held largely responsible for all the bad that has ever been done by anyone who shares those immutable characteristics. Thus, all men can be safely blamed for patriarchy and for denying women the right to vote until 1919; all white people can be safely blamed for slavery, etc. In the academy, these claims are usually interpreted in a way that permits some nuance; and most academics stop well short of advocating violence towards “oppressor” groups based on ethnic guilt. But ideologies mutate when they enter the mainstream and generally become more simplistic and more tribal. That’s doubly dangerous when the core of the original ideology is already simplistic and tribal.
He concludes that the alternative is “the Enlightenment philosophy of individualism.”
Oddly, I found that the best commentary I wrote on this was in 2019, in a culture war skirmish that served as an early and unheeded warning of what we’re seeing now: the collapse of the Women’s March movement as it was taken over by left-wing antisemites.
As I observed almost five years ago:
Philosophically, the racial and gender politics of the left is a return to the naked tribalism of group identity, in which your status is determined by the “intersection” of your identification within various victim groups. But do you know what happens when we return to tribalism? The tribes fight.
Seen in this light, the meltdown of the Women’s March isn’t really a diversion from the feminist agenda. It’s a preview of the future that leftist tribalism is offering everyone—even the left itself: blacks and Muslims venting their resentment at Jews, transgender activists fighting with radical feminists, and pretty much everybody hating white women. It’s like the introduction to that old Tom Lehrer song: the Women’s March is just an updated, feminist version of National Brotherhood Week.
One of the things some of us have been puzzling over is: What is the endgame for today’s racial politics? What is the ideal society this view sees itself as working toward? And I’m afraid the answer is: constant tribal conflict.
It shouldn’t need to be said—but it probably does—that the only way to win this game is not to play, and to reject the premise of tribalist identity politics in the first place.
I made a similar observation when the basketball player LeBron James was complaining about racial injustice here at home, while urging silence about China’s brutal suppression of protesters in Hong Kong and its ongoing genocide of the Uighurs.
Again, I argued, the problem is not hypocrisy, but the actual meaning of today’s leftist ideology.
Identity politics is by definition narrow, parochial, and tribal. It is about obsessing over one’s “identity” as a member of a very particular victim group, fighting for the prerogatives of one’s group, and declaring one’s hostility or indifference to everyone else….
They cannot make common cause among all women because they are too focused on the grievances that one particular group of women has against another. So what started out as a “women’s march” ended with bitter infighting between white women, “women of color,” and Jews….
These conflicts aren’t mere excesses of the overenthusiastic. They flow from the fundamental logic of these movements. They are what happens when you define everything by tribal identity, so that declaring your support for one tribe puts you in competition against every other tribe in a scramble for power and authority.
It seems appropriate here to make a special note about an ugly little sideline that has also been revealed in the reaction to Hamas: the history of black antisemitism. This goes all the way back to Louis Farrakhan, whose fans ended up running the Women’s March into the ground, but it has more recent roots as well. When the New York Times published The 1619 Project, one of the criticisms made by mainstream historians was that Nikole Hannah-Jones argued that “black Americans fought back alone” against segregation. It was considered a relatively minor complaint at the time, but it looms a bit larger now when you consider that one of the things she wrote out of the history books is the crucial role played by Jewish support for the Civil Rights Movement. If people never learned that history, it is easy for them now to cast Jews in the role of “white oppressors.”
Or does anyone remember how Al Sharpton got his start as an alleged “civil rights” advocate? By promoting antisemitic conspiracies that incited an arson and murder attack on a clothing store in Harlem. Here is Malcolm Gladwell in a Washington Post article from 1995.
Shouting "Kill the Jew bastards and burn down the Jew store!" and "This block for n------ only, no whites and Jews allowed!" the demonstrators vehemently challenged Freddy's plans to expand into a black-owned business next door. The Rev. Al Sharpton called the owner of the store a "white interloper."
So don’t be surprised by anything you are seeing thirty years later.
Gladwell also added this trenchant observation.
Sharpton and other black leaders, meanwhile, have found themselves in the unusual position of arguing that hateful speech and hateful deeds are not always connected, and that the epithets and racial taunts of the protesters have been blown out of proportion.
This, too, has its contemporary parallels. University of Illinois professor Nicholas Grossman points out leftist protesters echoing the Palestinian motto, “from the river to the sea.” This refers to a Palestinian state that would stretch from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean—including the entirety of modern Israel, which is to be rendered judenfrei. It is an expression of the genocidal agenda of Hamas. But as Grossman puts it:
I have a hard time squaring years of left-wing arguments that society should be hunting for any possible racist implication of words and symbols, even if unintended today, with the claim that “from the river to the sea” must be judged only by what the speaker says is in their heart.
He may only be speaking ironically about how hard this is, because I find nothing more consistent with the underlying ideology of wokism.
This is what will really put an end to the recent era of woke politics. It is a movement that set itself up as a kind of puritanical moral crusade rigorously policing the content of our souls for even a leftover, implicit influence of racism—all while actually promoting such a profound ethnic tribalism that it can deny the common humanity of the victims of a genocidal attack. It tried to steal the good will the American public still have toward a Civil Rights Movement based on the creed that “all men are created equal”—and then used it for a movement that has generated a new contemporary equivalent of Holocaust denial.
The answer to this ideology is readily available. I have argued that the Hamas attacks show why “why liberals should break with the left.” The idea is catching on. In the New York Times, Pamela Paul notes:
For those of us who never abandoned the term…liberal values, many of them products of the Enlightenment, include individual liberty, freedom of speech, scientific inquiry, separation of church and state, due process, racial equality, women’s rights, human rights and democracy….
Whereas liberals hold to a vision of racial integration, progressives have increasingly supported forms of racial distinction and separation, and demanded equity in outcome rather than equality of opportunity….
Divisions became sharper after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, when many progressives did not just express support for the Palestinian cause but, in some cases, even defended the attacks as a response to colonialism.
This doesn’t go deep enough, but it’s a beginning. It at least defines the problem.
The answer is to reject a collectivism that has been inherent in the ideology of the left since the very beginning, a hostility toward the classical liberal principle of individual liberty. And contemporary liberals like Paul need to think more deeply about how overthrowing “classical” liberalism opened the door to the enemies of all variants of liberalism.
Like I said, it’s a start, and the road will be long and difficult. But the Hamas attack and the defenses of it by the “woke” Western left expose the way in which collectivism is not new or modern or enlightened but always ends up just being a throwback to the most regressive tribal hatreds of the past.
Rob Tracinski studied philosophy at the University of Chicago and has been a writer, lecturer, and commentator for more than 25 years. He is the editor of Symposium, a journal of political liberalism, is a columnist for Discourse magazine, and writes The Tracinski Letter. He is the author of So Who Is John Galt Anyway? A Reader’s Guide to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.