An Object Lesson in Ideological Dysfunction

People attend a rally at Trafalgar Square in London on November 4.
People attend a rally at Trafalgar Square in London on November 4. Wiktor Szymanowicz/Anadolu/Getty Images

Israel’s war against Hamas, which followed the terrorist attack against that country on October 7, 2023, reveals myriad lessons on the dysfunction — and evil — caused by ideological reasoning. There are so many of them, in fact, that it’s hard to know where to begin. So, I’ll begin by analyzing, ideologically, my own opening sentence.

You see, I called Hamas’s incursion into Israel a “terrorist attack.” Some ideologues would condemn this choice of words. Hamas, they might say, aren’t “terrorists” and didn’t launch a “terrorist attack.” They are, instead, “freedom fighters” pushing back against an evil oppressor of Palestinian Arabs.

That is one way to look at this, to be sure. But this framework prevents one from examining the actual events of that campaign to end Israel’s oppression. To wit, those “freedom fighters” didn’t go after military targets or other elements which are carrying out Israel’s supposed “oppression.” Instead, they went after “soft targets” — that is, mostly civilians — including attendees at a music festival. They also took hostages. It’s easy for ideologues to toss aside that observation, and just blandly assert that all Israelis — in fact, anyone inside the borders of Israel who aren’t Palestinian Arabs — are parties to that country’s oppression of Palestinian Arabs. They might be civilians, but they’re not “innocents,” by this definition. That makes them fair game, to be maimed, killed, or taken prisoner, according to this line of thinking.

And there, you see perhaps the most important problem with ideology: It causes ideologues to dismiss any and all information outside of the scope of their concern. For those whose ideology views Palestinian Arabs as wickedly oppressed by the evil Israeli regime, there is (obviously) only concern for Palestinian Arabs. Everyone and everything else is of no account.

On the other side of the coin, a different ideology would say almost exactly the opposite. That it’s not only Hamas that attacked Israel, it’s Palestinian Arabs in general who did so. Any of them who die in Israel’s war on Hamas — even civilians who didn’t participate in the attacks and don’t support Hamas in any way — are of no concern. Israel should be free to attack anyone and anything in Gaza that they want to, given the terror attack the country endured. Only Israel’s survival as a country matters; the lives of innocent Palestinian Arabs are of no account, in light of that.

Both of those ideologies, of course, would instantly dismiss any middle ground between those positions. A middle ground position would be that, yes, Palestinian Arabs in the Gaza strip have been under siege for many years now, and yes, it’s understandable they’d want to end that; but that terror attacks and the taking of hostages isn’t the way to do so. That, in turn, means Hamas deserves to be destroyed for it; but other Palestinian Arabs shouldn’t be harmed in the process.

That seems an eminently reasonable position; but ideologues on either side would count it as opposition to their own wishes and goals, and view anyone taking such a position, as being an ally of their ideological opponents.

It is this ideological dysfunction — spanning the decades following World War II — which has led to this particular crisis. Both sides involved have staked out ideological positions that have become ever-more entrenched with the passage of years and in the wake of violence engendered by this dysfunction. In other words, it’s self-perpetuating, and a vicious spiral.

There aren’t many folks these days who can recall how the Palestinian crisis began — that is, its context and how it played out initially — and can therefore understand how it grew into the clusterfuck it’s become since. Instead, there’s only concern, on either side, for rehashing “the party line” if you will along with a staunch refusal to give any ground to ideological opponents.

Summed up as simply as is possible: Starting in the late 19th century, Jews slowly began streaming into the Levant, which at the time was ruled by the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman regime had been in decline for some time and had done little with the Levant other than levy taxes on its subjects there; taxes that were onerous given the poor economy and almost total lack of infrastructure. Jews arriving in the Levant stepped into an administrative void, and built up what they could, in districts they settled in. In many places they represented the sole economic engine.

The Ottomans entered World War I as allies of Germany, due to German investment in the failing realm in the first years of the 20th century, and as a way of striking at Russia. The Ottomans weren’t very good at warfare in that time, having lost two wars in the Balkans as well as other campaigns over the preceding decades. They didn’t fare any better in World War I, either, and lost large amounts of territory as the War progressed. France and Britain seized the Levant, Britain obtaining a mandate to rule over what was then called Palestine.

The British saw the Jews of what became known as “the Palestinian Mandate” as their natural allies, with the War still underway. It didn’t hurt that, despite being a minority there, Jews had charge of a larger part of the Mandate’s economy. The “Balfour Declaration” of 1917 explicitly stated Britain’s policy that the Jews should have their own state in the region. There was, of course, opposition to this from Muslims and Christians who comprised the majority of the population.

Over time tensions grew, and starting in the mid-1930s, Arabs in the Mandate rebelled against British rule. In 1937, Grand Mufti Admin al-Husseini, de facto leader of Muslims in the region, fled and found sanctuary with the fascist regimes of Italy, first, and then Germany.

While in Germany, al-Husseini learned the fine art of anti-Semitism from masters of that art — i.e. the Nazis — and conveyed their propaganda through the Muslim world and especially among his countrymen in the Mandate. At the end of World War II he was arrested by France, and was the subject of efforts to extradite and prosecute him, as a Nazi collaborator, by several countries, including Britain and Yugoslavia. But the French did a poor job of holding him; al-Husseini escaped in 1946 and took refuge in Egypt.

The creation of Israel in 1948 was a result of the 1947 UN partition plan and Britain’s ending the Mandate. Within hours of its creation, neighboring Arab regimes attacked the new state. Al-Husseini was a key to Egypt’s involvement in that invasion. Ever after, he worked tirelessly to try to destroy Israel, right up to his death in 1974.

After this war was over, and Israel remained in place, Arabs living within that state fled to Egypt and Jordan, mostly. It is their departure which led to the sore point upon which the Palestinian conflict has revolved, since. The Arabs who fled — and subsequently, their descendants — demand the right to return to their lands. Israel, on the other hand, wants no part of allowing them to return, based on the bad blood ginned up when they were attacked in 1948.

It’s not far out of line to say that this “right of return” remains the chief point of contention between Israel and Palestinian Arabs. It’s the reason many Palestinian Arabs are holed up in places like the Gaza Strip and refugee camps in Jordan and elsewhere, decades and generations later.

That’s one element of the context of this ongoing conflict. Another is, the creation of Israel and the start of Palestinian/Israeli strife was a direct result of World War II. Interestingly enough, that War led to the migration of millions of people, both while it was underway, and in its aftermath. How those movements played out has worked out in a very different way. For instance, Germans living in what had been Königsberg were forced to leave when that district was given to the Soviet Union. It’s now called Kaliningrad, and is part of Russia (even though it’s geographically detached). But the descendants of what had been German territory since at least the 14th century are not, now, demanding a “right of return” to Kaliningrad. Instead, they are wherever they settled after the Soviets took over.

The reason the Palestinian/Israeli conflict has become such a clusterfuck is because each side has dug in, ideologically. For Palestinian Arabs, the territory of Israel is by right “their land” and they want to return. For Israelis, their country is “their land” and Arabs shouldn’t be allowed back in (because if the many millions of them were, Jews would become a minority). Neither side is giving ground, due to these ideological positions. The reality of the situation they’re in, hasn’t changed any of their thinking.

So now, here we are, watching a war between Israel and Hamas play out. That too is being viewed through ideological lenses. Protesters around the world demand Israel stop, leave Gaza, and (in essence) allow Hamas to get away with their terror attack. This is because they’re ideologically concerned about Palestinian Arabs, at the expense of Israelis who were the targets of a Hamas attack. That members of Hamas are hiding behind civilian Palestinians — using them as human shields — is something most of them aren’t aware of, and those who are, it doesn’t matter to them … because it’s not something their ideology is able to comprehend.

On the flip side, Israelis and their supporters view most Palestinian Arabs as collaborators with Hamas, if not outright members of that group, and don’t concern themselves overly about “collateral damage.” As I type this, I’m seeing reports about a hospital in Gaza City that the IDF has besieged and is attacking, because they believe Hamas leaders are hiding in it, or in tunnels below it. That this is a hospital with patients and healthcare workers — most of whom aren’t members of Hamas — doesn’t register with them, also because that’s something their ideological thinking doesn’t take into account.

This leaves us in a dire situation where people have been killed, are being killed, and will be killed, for no reason other than ideological thralldom. Hamas’s terror attack on October 7 was the product of their own ideology. Civilians dying in Gaza due to Israel’s counterassault is also the product of an opposing ideology. There are some negotiations underway, I’m sure, but there can be no resolution to the problem because neither side will give any ideological ground to the other. And that, my friends, is what’s wrong with ideology in general. It overtakes pragmatic concerns, and even reality itself, and drives people to say and do things they’d never have said or done otherwise.

Photo credit: CNN.

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