The recent International Court of Justice ruling confirms what experts have been saying for months: Israel is plausibly carrying out a genocide in Gaza. That’s why the court ordered Israel to take “all measures in its power” to prevent acts of genocide. They accepted South Africa’s claim that, at first glance, although not a final verdict, Israel’s words and actions appear genocidal.
Jewish Israelis, however, see things differently: 95% of Jewish Israelis believed the Israeli military had used either the “appropriate” amount of force or “too little” force in Gaza, according to a mid-January 2024 poll. That’s 95% support for a plausible genocide:
Polling data from the Agam Institute suggests that some 60% of Israeli Jews oppose allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza. That is, 60% of Jewish Israelis believe all 2.2 million people in Gaza should die of dehydration and starvation.
Israel’s problem is not its lunatic fringe, as Gideon Levy said earlier this week, “Israel’s problem is its mainstream.”
So, how did this happen?
It would be easy to blame the atrocity propaganda—the 40 beheaded babies, the baby in the oven, the mass rapes, the military HQ under Shifa—stories that have all been debunked, even if still believed to be true among Jews in Israel.
But the propaganda runs much deeper in Israel, and goes something like this: the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) avoid civilian casualties, while the Palestinians use human shields; the IDF is the most moral army in the world, while the Palestinians either are themselves terrorists, harbor terrorists, or support terrorism. Or maybe they know a terrorist? Or maybe they once met a terrorist?
To restate the point in the words of a Jewish Israeli liberal Zionist, Israel is “an army targeting terrorists who plan to kill civilians,” fighting against “terrorists who kill civilians.”
The belief that “they are terrorists” is deeply ingrained in the Israeli social order. Israelis are reminded to fear Palestinians every time they enter a bus station, mall or cafe. Jewish Israelis fear walking through Palestinian neighborhoods, driving through Arab Israeli towns, or providing service in Arab Israeli villages. Jews are afraid to shop at Arab stores or hire Arab employees. You never know, maybe they support terrorism?
For Jewish Israelis, the myriad of reports carefully documenting Israeli apartheid, the Israeli army’s use of human shields, starvation as a weapon of war, and now a plausible genocide violate a basic principle of Jewish life in Israel: namely, that the Israeli Defense Forces are, at the end of the day, “the good guys.” That’s a principle that no fact or report can call into question.
After all, in his 10-page opinion on South Africa’s genocide case against Israel, Israeli judge Aharon Barak claimed that it was in the “DNA of the Israeli military” to abide by international humanitarian law. In other words, Barak’s argument was not that Israel has not been committing atrocities, his argument was that Israel cannot commit atrocities. It’s a sort of impossibility.
There is at least one obvious reason the “IDF are the good guys” myth is so effective among Israeli Jews: for most, service in the Israeli military is compulsory. It’s not just compulsory, it’s a rite of passage, a fact of Jewish citizenship, an essential part of one’s identity as a Jewish Israeli that, in many cases, extends far beyond adolescence. Many Jews serve beyond their 3 years of required service, and many continue compulsory reserve duty until middle age.
But I would suggest there’s an even deeper problem here. Deeper than the propaganda and the compulsory military service.
The problem lies at the core of the idea of the Jewish state, which is that the state of Israel and its army, being a Jewish state and a Jewish army, are meant to protect Jews, to serve Jewish interests and to ensure Jewish prosperity.
And so, if there is a single Jew in need, the Jewish state and its army must try to save them. Now imagine that there are more than 100 Jews in need? No need to imagine—Hamas is holding more than 100 Jewish Israeli hostages. And so, in the words of one observer: “60% of Israelis believe they should not be providing aid to people that are still holding 136 of their brothers and sisters hostage,” stated as if the point is self-evidently defensible.
The logic of the Jewish state, the preference for Jewish life and the commitment to ensuring Jewish security above all else has reached its final destination: overwhelming support for a plausible genocide.
This post first appeared in the Palestine, In Your Inbox newsletter.