The fundamental cause of the war that Hamas recently launched against Israel is straightforward. It lies in the system of beliefs and the resulting policies of the Hamas organization itself.
In 1988 Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, issued its founding charter. The document, with minor modifications, continues to form the core of the Hamas ideology and policy. This charter, easily available with a few mouse clicks on the internet, is one of the clearest, most emphatic documents of Jew-hatred since the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. It stands in the tradition of Islamist Jew-hatred that emerged in the 1930s, flowered during World War II, and remains, in both Sunni and Shi‘a forms, the most important source of antisemitism in current world politics. It clearly demonstrates the nature of this fascism: It is fascism with a religious face.
The charter is a profoundly reactionary text, aimed not only at Jews but at liberal democracy and political modernity itself. It repeats conspiracy theories of Jewish responsibility for the French Revolution, World War I, and World War II. It asserts that not just the West Bank but the land of all of today’s Israel should be reserved for Islam. The charter calls for war—armed jihad—to produce this state of affairs.
On these religious grounds, Hamas considers the state of Israel to be wholly illegitimate. The logical consequences of the Hamas founding doctrine and persistent ideology are war and terror.
I am reluctant to quote myself, but I’ll cite something I wrote in 2014—because this obvious core truth does not enter often enough into discussions of Israel’s conflict with Hamas:
Now is a good time for anyone with an interest in understanding Hamas to read its founding document and see its debt to Nazism and European fascism presented in its own words. Only then will an observer know why Hamas started this and previous wars and why peace demands that its odious ideology be examined and delegitimated.
Yet in the past seven years, Hamas’ founding document remains little known. The arguments and evidence—in work by Paul Berman, Matthias Küntzel in Germany, and Boualem Sansal in France about liberal responses to Islamist antisemitism—have been in the public record for years, as is historical scholarship by Martin Cuppers and Klaus-Michael Mallman in Germany, as well as my own work on the connections between Islamism and Nazism. The refusal to focus clearly on Jew-hatred and totalitarianism from the Islamists is a type of unacknowledged “anti-anti-fascism.” Anti-fascism—or, in American parlance, “antifa”—is deemed appropriate when the fascist hatred comes from the far right; yet silence and muted voices descend when Islamists are the source of the hatred.
This reticence has become a feature and, for some, a defining feature of what now calls itself liberal or progressive politics in the United States. This politics refrains from denouncing or opposing movements and organizations that in fact arise from the extreme Right—as long as these movements present themselves in the form of Islamism. Yet Islamism represents an ideology and a movement that share, with the extreme Right in Europe and the United States, a hatred of liberal democracy—and the Jews. Zionism, Israel’s founding movement, was a product of the modern world, not a pre-modern or anti-modern one. It is Israel’s modernity, just as much as its character as a Jewish state, that arouses hatred among the Islamists.
Yet Netanyahu in Israel and Trump in the United States have proved to be incapable of rising to the challenge posed by fascism with a religious face. Both have entertained illusions about an Israeli “victory” over the Palestinians and supported the expansion of settlements on the West Bank. Both have also tolerated and even supported Israel’s own forms of anti-modernism within the ultra-Orthodox community. In recent years, that illiberal, pre-modern element in Israeli society has played a crucial role in ensuring that the right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party would remain in power. Without support from the ultra-Orthodox, Netanyahu would have been forced either to leave office or to form a coalition with parties of the center and center-left.
The sensible Israeli response to an enemy in Gaza on the extreme right—which threatened the more secular Palestinian Authority lest it entertain a deal to end the effort to destroy the Jewish state—should long ago have been a coalition of the center bringing together as broad a range of Israeli society as possible to meet the challenges of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. Instead, Netanyahu’s bargain with the ultra-Orthodox has empowered a religious fundamentalism that undermines the chance to resolve existing secular issues involving land and sovereignty. The efforts to evict Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem and to seek a “greater Israel” on the West Bank are not, as Israel’s critics claim, extensions of the original Zionist project. On the contrary, they represent a profound break with partition, the historic compromise that the founders of Israel accepted in 1947 and 1948 and that Palestinian leaders, especially current leaders of Hamas, have rejected.
The fact that Hamas is a terrorist organization has had consequences for Israel’s domestic politics. The Hamas strategy should not be seen in a Middle Eastern or Islamic context alone. Hamas’ terrorist attacks, from suicide bombings to the recent barrage of rockets, share a strategy evident in terrorist organizations and individuals in European and American history. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a relative reformer, in Sarajevo in 1914 by Serbia’s Black Hand; the killing of Weimar democrats Walter Rathenau and Matthias Erzberger by right-wing extremists; the murders of nonviolence advocate Martin Luther King by a white racist and of political reformer Robert Kennedy by a Palestinian terrorist; the murder of Italian centrist Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades and of officials ofHelmut Schmidt’s Social Democratic government in the 1970s by the Red Army Faction; the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by a Jewish religious right-wing fanatic—all of these share a common purpose. That purpose was to destroy domestic reform and dialogue or international diplomatic negotiations and to bring hard-right governments into power, in the expectation that the absence of reform would lead to repression, which, in turn, would foster radicalization and thus revolution.
The strategy of “the worse the better” is a continuing thread in the history of terrorist movements, because their advocates believe that governments devoted to reform are their worst nightmare: an environment in which apocalyptic visions give way to the prosaic give-and-take that turns seemingly unresolvable hatreds into solvable problems.
Hamas’ terrorist campaigns and the now-three wars it has waged have succeeded in convincing Israelis to keep a hard right-wing government in power and made it easier for Netanyahu to argue that only such a government can keep Israelis safe. The nightmare for Hamas, Iran, and Hezbollah would be a unity government, extending from center-right to center-left, that would fight terror and stop settlement construction; rein in the undeserved privileges of the ultra-Orthodox parties; work with the United States to explore negotiation with the Palestinian Authority; and adopt the previous Israeli consensus in favor of a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.
It is no accident, as they say, that in the same weeks in which a centrist coalition in Israel looked like a possibility, Hamas decided to seize upon events in Jerusalem to start yet another war.
Contrary to the view of some, it is now essential that Israel move decisively away from the politics of the Netanyahu era and toward a coalition of the center. Such a move is needed to sustain a consensus within Israel for the longer term confrontation with the still potent forces of Islamist antisemitism in the region. Netanyahu and his supporters have not taken the reactionary essence of Hamas seriously enough. If Netanyahu had done so, he would either have stepped aside long ago for a centrist successor or agreed to a unity government encompassing the majority of modern Israel and pushed aside the anti-modern and pre-modern ultra-Orthodox parties. American policy in the Trump era facilitated this serious blunder by nurturing illusions that “victory” over the Palestinians was in sight and that the conflict with the Palestinians could be ignored by focusing on relations with Arab countries. Hamas was the beneficiary of that miscalculation.
The current conflict, temporarily paused by the cease-fire, began as a war of aggression for which Hamas has the entire responsibility. The most recent war, like the previous two wars, is the direct product of Hamas’ ideological foundations. True, Palestinians should not be evicted from their homes in East Jerusalem. Some way must be found to calm tensions at the city’s holy sites. Jewish extremists must be assigned their share of accountability for attacks on Arab citizens of Israel. The power of the ultra-Orthodox must be curtailed.
Yet none of the recent conflicts in Jerusalem justifies waging war on Israel. During the weeks in which Israel appeared to have a chance to move beyond Netanyahu, Hamas exploited tensions in Jerusalem to launch yet another war that would sustain an Israeli right-wing government in power. This war, like Hamas’ previous wars, is inspired by a profoundly reactionary worldview that is anathema to every element of liberal modernity. The response to this type of fascism with a religious face should be an Israel that draws on the talents, insights, and creativity of the people who have established one of the world’s most modern, liberal, and free societies.
Jeffrey Herf is professor of modern European history at the University of Maryland, College Park. His next book is Israel’s Moment: International Support for and Opposition to Establishing the Jewish State, 1945–1949 (winter 2022).
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe