Every day at this week’s Davos World Economic Forum, I have had to respond to Arab officials and friends who are unable to sympathize to any degree with the trauma that Hamas inflicted on Israel on Oct. 7, given the thousands of Palestinian civilian deaths in Gaza. These deaths, of course, are the result of Israel’s war on Hamas fighters who deliberately hide under, and fire rockets from, civilian homes.
My own way of dealing with the nightmarish nature of this war is to focus all my energies on thinking about how to stop it. But I can always think about China, or something else, if I want. That’s not the case if you are Secretary of State Antony Blinken and you are Jewish and you understand how unspeakably vicious the Hamas onslaught was on Oct. 7. Not to mention if you understand that Israel has a right to self-defense, but you also understand that Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza have reached numbers you cannot ignore and that could leave a long-term stain on Israel and America.
So when I was invited to Davos to interview Blinken before a large audience today, I asked him bluntly the question people here have been asking me: One of the things you hear so often from people given the high number of civilian casualties in Gaza is, for the United States, do Jewish lives matter more than Palestinian Muslim lives or Palestinian Christian lives, given the incredible asymmetry of the casualties?
Blinken did not hesitate for a second to give an impassioned and heartfelt answer that I thought did him and America proud — an answer that neither obscured the vast human tragedy that has been triggered by Israel’s retaliation nor let Hamas off the hook for its role in starting the whole thing.
“No — period,” Blinken immediately shot back at me.
“I think for so many of us,” he continued, “what we’re seeing every single day in Gaza is gut-wrenching, and the suffering we’re seeing among innocent men, women and children breaks my heart. The question is: What is to be done? We’ve made judgments about how we thought we could be most effective in trying to shape this in ways to get more humanitarian assistance to people — to get better protections and minimize civilian casualties at every step along the way. Not only have we impressed upon Israel its responsibilities to do that, we’ve seen some progress in areas where, absent our engagement, I don’t believe it would have happened.”
Blinken continued: “But that in no way, shape or form takes away from the tragedy that we’ve seen and continue to see. It’s why we’re at it relentlessly, every single day. All I can tell you, Tom, is just on a purely human level, it’s devastating,” he said, referring to the “gut-wrenching” suffering that Israel has inflicted on the Palestinians in Gaza. “But it also reinforces my conviction that there has to be — and there is — another way that answers Israel’s most profound concerns” about security.
Because of deep-fake technologies and other distortions that are made possible by social media, Blinken added, “there are large swaths of the world” that “don’t believe Oct. 7 actually happened — they don’t believe that Hamas slaughtered men, women and children, that it executed parents in front of their kids, that it executed kids in front of their parents, that it burned families alive. They don’t believe it.” Therefore, he explained, when Israel responds the way it did, with seeming indifference to thousands of Palestinian civilian casualties, a lot of people think there is no context at all.
The biggest poison around the world is the inability to see the humanity in the other, he concluded. “When that happens, you get so hardened that you’re willing to do and accept things that you wouldn’t if the humanity of the other was front and center in your consciousness. So one of our challenges is to fight that dehumanization — to find ways to diffuse it to take that poison out.”