Sylvia Barack Fishman, Ph.D.

Sylvia Barack Fishman, Ph.D.

Sylvia Barack Fishman, Ph.D., ISGAP Senior Research Fellow; Joseph and Esther Foster Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life, Emerita, Brandeis University, Waltham, U.S. She is the author of eight books and numerous articles, and the recipient of the Marshall Sklare Award from the Association for Social Scientific Study of Jewry and the Samuel Belkin Award from Yeshiva University. 

While Hamas terrorists were still massacring “peacenik” kibbutz-members, young people dancing in the desert, and farmers in Israel’s arid South on October 7, 2023, American newspapers and media worried loudly about the evils of Israel’s retaliation. Hamas videos of terrorists in action revealed: “terrorists torturing a pregnant woman and removing her fetus,” and “bodies of women and girls raped with such violence that their pelvic bones were broken,” with “mass rape a premediated part of Hamas’s plan.”[1] Meanwhile, professors at prestigious institutions, as well as participants in anti-Israel rallies gleefully celebrated “freedom fighters” and “resistance by any means necessary.” Despite the enterprisingly sadistic violence against women and children in Hamas’ October 7 attack, on top of the large number of casualties and hostages, public denouncements of Hamas were delayed or tentative. Many American Jews were hurt that colleagues and friends did not share their horror and grief.

     But Israelis were less surprised by judgements evaluating Jews by a different scale than the rest of humanity. On October 8, in an Israeli morgue, a pathologist displayed the reality of Hamas victims’ mutilated bodies to CNN reporters, commenting sadly: “I want you to see this because in one week you will call us war criminals.” It did not take a week for the Israeli pathologist’s prediction to materialize. On that same day, Octoboer 8, some American legislators were already rejecting the Biden administration’s declarations that Israel had a moral obligation to protect its citizens from further attacks, which Hamas repeatedly promised. Instead, they called for Israel’s “ceasefire” almost before Israel’s defense of her citizens had begun.

      Hamas murders and mutilations of Israeli women and children were denied by some: Iman Khativ-Yassin, United Arab List party lawmaker, claimed that “no babies were slaughtered…and no women were raped.” Others claimed that “only about 400 people were killed“ and there was no massacre at the dance party, but rather some people were killed in the cross-fire between the IDF and Hamas. Denials erupted on academic-adjacent social media networks. Author Steven Salaita ranted about Israel’s “colonizer’s systematic malice” and America’s condemnation of Hamas’ “Indigenous resistance,” insisting that “reports of Palestinian savagery” were untrue or “exaggerated”: “Israeli babies weren’t beheaded and the mass rape event turned out to be complete nonsense.”[2]

      More often, Hamas terrorism was trivialized: Rep. Pramila Jayapal, in a December 3 interview with CNN’s Dana Bash, refused to deal with Hamas raping and mutilating Israeli women, declaring that rape was a common war “tool,” but rather Israel’s warfare in Gaza was outrageous.. LGBTQ associations identified not with Israeli victims but with Palestinians, despite Hamas’ undisguised scorn for non-cis-gender lifestyles. Professor Ruth Halperin-Kadari, former Vice-Chair of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), was stunned that American and international feminist groups openly blamed the victims rather than the perpetrators of sadistic sexual crimes, reporting at a Harvard Medical School conference, “never did I imagine that when faced with such undeniable atrocities….unprecedented, premeditated and extreme cruelty of the sexual violence committed by Hamas” that CEDAW would refuse not only to condemn Hamas’ actions but even to acknowledge them.[3]

     Antisemitic incidents skyrocketed after October 7, demonstrating the bizarre fact that savage attacks on Jews lead to more attacks on Jews. We can learn a great deal about the nature, creation, and nurture of antisemitism from the virtual silence on the documented deeds of Hamas, versus the immediate condemnations and escalating critique of Israel. These lessons have critical implications for efforts to combat antisemitism, and also about necessary definitions of antisemitism.

     In the war on Israel initiated by Hamas, and the ensuing Israel-Hamas War, two factors contributed to a macabre moral unevenness. First, from the beginning much of the reportage was skewed by a palpable expectation that Israel was or would be at fault. Prestigious papers like the Washington Post and New York Times indulged in what Robert Satloff termed “one-sided editorialization of the news,” [4] inserting interpretations and opinions into news features, often via judgmental headlines, reinforced by inflammatory opinion pieces. This disinformation route was egregiously apparent in early declarations by the New York Times that “the blast at the Al-Ahli hospital was an Israeli airstrike,” producing 200 casualties, according to “The Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza.” Those figures first reported by Arabic Al-Jazeera were almost immediately picked up by Twitter. Then, “within a few minutes the count jumped to 500,” and “almost every single media organization in the world was reporting the line that originated with Hamas, claiming Israel had bombed the hospital, presenting it as if confirmed information.” Statements by the American government that Israel was not responsible for the blast, later confirmed by the U.K. government, eventually led to corrections by various television networks and newspapers, including The New York Times, which stated after several days that it had “relied too heavily on claims by Hamas.” Reliable figures for the casualties may have been around 50, rather than the hundreds many outlets reported, based on the Hamas-tied health authority.[5] On electronic media—the exclusive source of information for large swaths of Americans—a flood of “disinformation, and conspiracy theories denying”[6]the Hamas massacre and atrocities on October 7, spread through Instagram, X, Tik Tok, and other platforms like 4chan, Gav and BitChute, incorporating horrific photos and videos sometimes borrowed from earlier events like Syrian massacres, or invented by AI, and claiming they illustrated Israeli brutality.[7]

     Distorted reportage in both print and electronic media profoundly influenced American perceptions and perspectives, including those of some American politicians. Congressman Gabriel Amo (Rhode Island) complained that Instagram had distorted the foreign policy demands of progressive legislators calling for a cease-fire. [8] A New York Times/Siena Poll of American registered voters (conducted December 10-14) found “those who identify as regular users of TikTik were the most adamant in their criticism” of President Biden’s support of Israel, and had the grimmest assessment of Israel’s war on Hamas in Gaza.

     Many publicized graphics were not genuine photos or videos of Gaza but, “misappropriated depictions of unrelated tragedies.” For example, a much-circulated photo of “a heap of dead children swaddled in white, described as Palestinians killed by Israeli forces” were actually a 2013 photograph of children in Syria. A heartbreaking video, of “a young boy trembling in the dark, covered in a white residue,” actually documented victims of “a recent flood in Tajikistan.” Hosam Katan, the photographer who filmed distressed children in Bashir Al Assam’s vicious attacks on his own people Syria a decade ago, complained, “my photos and videos are being used outside,” and commented: “Maybe some people are trying to get more empathy for Gaza, but at the same time, such fake videos or photos will have the opposite impact, losing the credibility of the main story.”[9]

     Some images were completely false, invented by AI. The “inflammatory stream of videos” aimed at younger Americans achieved its goal of portraying Israel’s stated attempt to disable Hamas violence against Israeli citizens as unjustified punishment. One 27-year old voter described the totality of Israel’s efforts as pictured on TikTok and Instagram: “It’s a lot of really violent imagery of civilian casualties and hospital bombings.”[10]

      But profoundly disproportionate hostility to Israel grew not only because of print and electronic media amplifying negative and often false information about Israel. The fury toward Israel—and apathy toward Hamas’ precipitating attack—was facilitated by mindsets already receptive to anti-Israel disinformation and antisemitic tropes. Many so-called “pro-Palestinian” Americans had already been influenced by anti-Israel—and antisemitic—propaganda.

    The Hamas attack on Israel activated pre-existing prejudices, including a stereotype of Israel as colonialist villain, a cartoon Israel colored by the ideologies of Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, Malcom X, and Judith Butler. These ideologies erased the ongoing Jewish presence in Judea and Palestine, commemorated in the Arch of Titus and other archaeological evidence. The indigeneity of the Jews in the region was clear in the Dead Sea Scrolls—but was denied by colonialist accusations. Erased were the numerous Jewish nakbas over the centuries, in which ancient pagans, then Christians and Crusaders, then Muslims expelled Jews from their land. Some ideologies ahistorically insisted that Jews first emerged from the very lands to which they were exiled.  

     Also erased in anti-Israel propaganda was the fact that the modern Palestinian nakba itself was set into motion not by the creation of the Jewish State by a vote of the United Nations, but by the 1948 Arab war to annihilate Israel and its Jews rather than to accept the U.N. partition granting Israel a tiny sliver of land. Contrary to false narratives circulating on college campuses, Israel was not unique in being created through partition, and it was not unique in violence accompanying its birth. India and Pakistan were also among countries created by partition, for example, and endured ample violence during that process. But Israel is judged on different scales, and those disproportionate standards are key to contemporary anti-Zionism and antisemitism.

     In lieu of actual historical facts, in these “progressive” ideologies Israel’s very existence was conflated with South Africa’s Apartheid policies, with the European colonial empires, and with American White Supremacist violence, and thus appropriately subject to revolutionary violence “by any means necessary.” Typical of the ahistorical amputation of the Jewish experience, one New York Times editorial “Why race and colonialism matter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” fiercely presented as historical fact James Baldwin’s opinion that “The state of Israel was not created for the salvation of the Jews; it was created for the Salvation of Western interests.”[11]  

     The impact of this ideological prejudice against Israel is clearly seen in the reluctance of UN officers and agencies to confront the extent and severity of Hamas violence, despite the fact that Hamas videoed itself in detail. Images for the Hamas massacre on October 7—many of which were taken by and circulated by Hamas itself—were heavily utilized by 24-hour outlets such as CNN and MSNBC. Many journalists reported their experiences of finding these videos viscerally sickening. Israelis kidnapped on video were quickly identified by relatives, and subsequent newscasters often personalized them with their names and background stories. Almost all news outlets ran fully documented stories initially on the massacre. and some anchors, like CNN’s Anderston Cooper, Erin Burnett, and Jake Tapper, ran daily interviews for weeks with family members of kidnapped or massacred Israelis, renewing awareness of the plight of Israelis in the wake of the Hamas attack. Some outlets sent reporters to Israeli morgues and IDF briefings to document reports of mutilation and other atrocities.

     But it was not until eight weeks after October 7, UN Women, “a branch of the body that advocates for gender equality…condemned Hamas’ attack on Israel,” finally acknowledging the sexual brutality against Jewish women, after intense pressure by Jewish groups and their allies. A month later, on December 4, 2023, “a special session at the U.N. called ‘Hear Our Voices,’ convened by Israel’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, with the World Zionist Organization and the National Council of Jewish Women,” sought to draw attention” to that violence. The U.N. session was attended by “about 700 mostly female activists,” and was addressed by Sheila Katz, CEO of NCJW, Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, tech executive Sheryl Sandberg, and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Columnist Brett Stephens, who had attended the U.N. session on December 4, 2023, was horrified by the graphic firsthand, eyewitness testimony of Hamas atrocities and outraged that it took U.N. Women months to begin discussions. Stephens condemned the silence of Human Rights Watch as one more antisemitic “double standard” isolating Jews.[12]

     Outside the U.N., a few hours before the special session, “about 300 pro-Israel protesters gathered …to demand justice for victims of sexual violence during the terrorist attacks,” carrying signs and chanting, saying: “Me too, unless you’re a Jew,” “rape is rape,” “UNbearable silence,” “UNbelievable, Unacceptable,” [13] “Rapists are Not Freedom Fighters.” Some women “were dressed in bodysuits stained red at the groin and the breasts,” dramatically visualizing the “sexual-based violent war crimes” committed by Hamas, and protesting the U.N. for “insufficiently criticizing Hamas and its allies.” Speakers at the outdoor rally included Rabbanit Leah Sarna, an Orthodox educator and rabbi, and Rabbi Joanna Samuels, chief executive of the Marlene Meyerson Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, declared UN Women  “an institution that has lost its moral compass,” and that “in failing Israeli women…failed all women.”  Danielle Ofek, founder of “#MeToo Unless UR A Jew,” accused the U.N. of “legitimizing sexual violence as a weapon of war.” Many women in the outdoor rally carried Israeli flags, and agreed with one participant’s statement, “We have shown up for so many different women, and so many different countries when their human rights were abused, and no one is standing up for us.” [14] In January 2024, the United Nations finally began its investigation of Hamas attacks on Israeli women and children. Even the  New York Times,  which on December 5 called the Hamas terrorists who implemented and filmed their own sexual violence, “Hamas Fighters,”[15] changed their language on December 28 when the Times published a long report of its own “investigation,” corroborating “How Hamas weaponized sexual violence.” The report was based on information gathered from “video footage, photographs, GPS data from mobile phones, and interviews with more than 150 people,” and uncovered “new details showing a pattern of rape, mutilation, and extreme brutality against women in the attacks on Israel.”[16]

     One of the few methods of combatting unfair evaluations of Israel is to insist on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which demands that equal scales of justice be applied to Jews and to Israel as are applied to other peoples and nations. If sexual violence against women is a criminal outrage, it is equally a criminal outrage when Israelis are the victims. The perpetrators of these deeds are not “freedom fighters,” they are terrorists and war criminals. If seizing civilian hostages is a war crime, it is equally a war crime when Israelis are seized.

     While it is entirely appropriate to criticize problematic policies of the current Israeli government, it is the bearing of false witness in the international court of public opinion to tell lies about Israel. The claim common in current anti-Israel propaganda that the creation of Israel in 1948 was in itself an “occupation” denies the reality of Jews as an ethnoreligious people with a right to self-determination. To refer to Jewish Israelis  as “white” “colonialists” compiles two untruths: First, half of Israel’s Jewish population are Jews of color, many of whose families emigrated from Middle Eastern or African Muslim countries where they endured serious religious discrimination as “inferior” Jews. Second, as Bret Stephens eloquently explained, “the ethnic group that is most vociferously accused of settler colonialism is the one that can unmistakenly trace its language, culture, and religion to the same place from which it was long exiled and now inhabits and governs.”[17] Jews have irrefutable historical ancient and ongoing ties to the land that is now Israel and are as “indigenous” to the region as anyone else now inhabiting it.      

     Half of the world’s Jewish population lives in Israel. Lies about Israel and about the Jewish people—whether told through ignorance or through malice—matter. Jews and the Jewish State must be judged honestly on the same scales as other peoples and countries. Persons of good will, who genuinely believe in justice, must speak out. Bearing false witness against Israel and having a double standard for Israel are both antisemitism, and should be opposed like all racial and religious hatreds.

[1] Michal Herzog, “The silence from international bodies over Hams’ mass rapes is a betrayal of all women,” Newsweek, November 22, 2023.

[2] Steve Salaita, “A practical appraisal of Palestinian violence,” [].

[3] Michal Herzog, “The silence from international bodies over Hams’ mass rapes is a betrayal of all women,” Newsweek, November 22, 2023.

[4] Matthew Kassel, “The Washington Post accused of anti-Israel bias in its war coverage,” []November 27, 2023.

[5]  Ksenia Svetlova, “Why did the world media believe the Hamas hoax about the Gaza hospital explosion?” Haaretz ,October 24, 203.

[6] [].

[7] Tiffany Hsu and Sapna Maheshwari, “Researchers lament data on war posts,” New York Times, November 20, 2023.

[8] [].

[9] Angelo Fichera, “Horrifying images are real. But they’re not from the Issrael-Gaza war,” New York Times, November 3, 2023.

[10] Jonathan Weissman, Ruth Igielnik, Alyce McFadden, “Most voters disapprove of Biden’s handling of Gaza War, poll shows,” New York Times, December 19, 2023.

[11] Karen Attiah, “Why race and colonialism matter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Washington Post, October 27, 2023.

[12] Brett Stephens, “An appalling silence for Israeli rape victims,” New York Times, December 6, 2023.

[13] Camille Barone, “At the UN a call to recognize Oct. 7 victims of rape,” The Forward, December 4, 2023.

[14] Katherine Rosman, “Protesters Outside U.N. Accuse Hamas Fighters of Rape,” New York Times, December 5, 2023. See also Jeffrey Gettleman, Adam Sella, and Anat Schwartz, “Slow Response to Reports Of Hamas Sexual Assaults Stirs Activists’ Criticism,” New York Times, December 5, 2023.

[15] Katherine Rosman, “Protesters outside U.N. Accuse Hamas fighters of rape,” New York Times, December 5, 2023. See also Jeffrey GAdam Sella, and Anat Schwartz, “Slow response to reports Of Hamas sexual assaults stirs activists’ criticism,” New York Times, December 5, 2023.

[16] Jeffrey Gettleman, Anat Schwartz, and Adam Sella, “Screams without words: How Hamas weaponized sexual violence,” New York Times, December 28, 2023.

[17] Bret Stephens, “Settler Colonialism: A Guide for the Sincere,” New York Times, February 6, 2024.