Why the Israel-Hamas war is so hard to talk about: identical narratives but different facts
Since the Oct. 7 massacre of innocent civilians by Hamas and Israel’s subsequent declaration of war on Hamas, a fascinating dynamic has emerged: the Jewish and Palestinian narratives we see posted on social media have converged—with the protagonists and antagonists reversed.
Most Jews, and especially Israeli Jews, view this conflict as an existential threat to their survival. Given that nearly half of all Jews in the world reside in Israel, should Israel lose this war, there could be another Jewish genocide, these Jews say. Palestinians and their supporters make a similar assertion: Israel is committing genocide in Gaza and trying to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from their land, using the attack on Oct. 7 as a pretense to do so. Both groups claim that the media is biased against them, that fake news and propaganda are rampant and that these atrocities are only able to take place because too many good people remain silent.
Of course, the views people present of the conflict are rooted in much deeper narratives about the past. As we wrote in an Oct. 23 article for America, “What you choose to include or exclude from your retelling of the region’s history determines your understanding of the more recent Israeli and Palestinian conflict.” Yet what we described then as “inherently disparate narratives of the Holy Land” are often flattened in our online conversations about the Israeli-Hamas war.
The narratives are so similar that it can be difficult to determine on whose behalf certain social media posts are made. One post, for example, reads:
I learned how genocide really happens.
- People tell themselves “it’s complicated”
- People tell themselves “it’s not my place to say something”
- People are scared to speak, and punished for speaking
- An entire population is made to bear the consequences of the actions of a minority
- People say, “well, there’s two sides”
- Yet, a relentless propaganda campaign affords nuance, humanization, and empathy to only one side
- The air is hot with righteousness and vengeance
- Perpetrators frame their actions as a result of “having no choice”. The choice is framed as an existential one. Propaganda makes the populace believe the same.
Who do you suppose this post was intended to support? Israelis or Palestinians?
The answer is both. This exact post has been shared and repurposed by activists who support both groups.
Further comparisons between the Israeli and Palestinian narratives reveal that both people suffer from generational trauma. Jews carry the trauma of pogroms, the Holocaust and the mass expulsions from Middle Eastern and North African countries in 1948. Palestinians carry the trauma of their land being continually colonized by various empires, and they view the establishment of the State of Israel as yet another colonization. They are scarred from mass expulsions that took place in 1948 as well, when many were forced or encouraged to leave their homes during the war—homes to which many were unable to return. Thus, Jews fear another expulsion from their homes in the diaspora with the rise of antisemitism since Oct. 7 and expulsion or even genocide in Israel, while, simultaneously, Palestinians fear expulsion from their homes, ethnic cleansing (what they have deemed as “the second Nakba,” the second catastrophe) and genocide in Gaza by way of Israeli military invasion.
With such similar narratives, why is it so difficult for us to agree on anything? Why can’t we agree on the basic facts of the current situation? Why can’t we agree on each other’s generational trauma and the legitimacy of the fears that stem from them?
Perhaps we all fear that acknowledging someone else’s experience somehow negates our own suffering. Perhaps we cannot agree on framing and terminology—as in whether 1948 was the War of Independence or the Nakba. But perhaps we struggle most to agree on something difficult to determine: intent.
One group believes that Israel intends to secure its borders and eliminate a terrorist organization, while another believes that Israel’s intent is to remove all Palestinians from the territory. One side believes that pro-Palestinian movements are fronts for perpetrating anti-Jewish hatred, while another believes that pro-Palestinian movements are bringing awareness to injustices that Palestinians face.
A number of individuals have oscillated in their views. Some who initially sympathized with the unjustifiable attack on Israeli civilians changed their allegiance as soon as Israel began what they characterize as a disproportionately strong military response, suggesting that the Israeli military is perpetrating war crimes or even “genocide,” further diminishing Israel’s standing in the international community. These individuals often ascribe negative intent on the part of both Palestinians and Israelis or, more problematically, equate the actions of Hamas with those of the Israeli government. This Solomonic solution depicts many villains and few heroes.
Amid the noise, the parallel stories and the self-sealing narratives that claim that opposition to them is but further proof of their correctness, there is a painful core truth: There will be no winners in this war. Both Palestinians and Israelis will endure mass casualties, while the long-hoped-for two-state solution becomes even more unattainable.
If we could begin our discourse with this reality in mind and follow by acknowledging the trauma that both Jews and Palestinians hold, we might yet escape the rhetorical echo chambers that have reduced one of the world’s most complicated and intractable conflicts to soundbites that dehumanize everyone involved. While the war in Gaza continues to unfold in excruciating ways on the ground, and our awareness of the depths of Hamas’s depravity continues to emerge, we need not allow the unthinkable events of the past two months to ricochet in such harmful ways far from the fighting itself. We all share the responsibility to improve the dialogue through more careful use of our words and more thoughtful presence online in this time of profound hurt.
Cantor Olivia Brodsky and Rabbi Joshua Stanton are co-clergy at East End Temple in New York City.