David Rothkopf on war in Gaza: "Revenge is not a strategy. It doesn't make people safe"

Israel's invasion of Gaza may "compound one set of atrocities with another" just as 9/11 did, Rothkopf warns

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published October 18, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

A Palestinian youth reacts as he sits on the rubble of a destroyed home following an Israeli military strike on the Rafah refugee camp, in the southern of Gaza Strip on Octobers 15, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images)
A Palestinian youth reacts as he sits on the rubble of a destroyed home following an Israeli military strike on the Rafah refugee camp, in the southern of Gaza Strip on Octobers 15, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza is a test of both America’s global leadership and our dysfunctional domestic politics. Both those problems are largely the result of the Republican Party's all-out embrace of Donald Trump, borderline fascism and outright chaos.

This war is also a test of the American people’s collective capacity for solidarity and empathy, both with the Israeli people as they confront a 9/11-style disaster and the Palestinian people of Gaza, most of whom had nothing to do with the Hamas attacks but now face the catastrophic consequences of a large-scale war.

In an attempt to begin processing these complex questions of morality, truth-telling, American politics and Israel's war in Gaza, I recently spoke with David Rothkopf. He is the host of the Deep State Radio podcast and the author of several books, including “American Resistance: The Inside Story of How the Deep State Saved the Nation.” Rothkopf is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and a contributor to USA Today, and has written hundreds of articles on international, national security and political themes for many leading publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Given the terrorist attacks by Hamas and now the likely Israeli invasion of Gaza, not to mention the state of the world more generally, how are you feeling? How is your hope tank doing?

I'm feeling pretty much the way I felt before all this started. There's a lot of bad things going on in the world. There's a great deal of suffering being endured by a lot of innocent people. But that is as it always was. There have always been conflicts and injustices. I believe that our job is to learn from what we see and do what we can do to try to improve the lives of those people who we can impact.

I'm devastated, obviously, to see the horrors of this past week in Israel and Gaza. But we've been seeing horrors of the same type every single week in Ukraine and all over the world. The Palestinians have been impacted by such horrors for years. We live in a world where our compassion gets a workout every day. The challenge is whether and how we can act on that, how we try to help, to make a difference in whatever way we are able.

"Our compassion gets a workout every day." That is a powerful statement. These crises and horrors are moral tests for us as individuals, as a society and for our leaders and other elites. Are we passing or failing?

Our collective character is compromised. There are many individuals out there who subordinate morality or ethics to self-interest and prejudice. That's something every society has to struggle with. We each have one asset in the world, and that's time. The real test is: How much of your time do you spend trying to push back against those who threaten our ideas of how the world should be? How do we help people who need it, or shape discussions and communities that are trying to have a positive impact on society? For everybody, the test is different. But the stakes are always the same: How are you using your time?

As someone with a public platform, how do you negotiate your responsibilities in a moment like this, with the expectation that you will have something to say? There are too many members of the pundit class who offer observations and "expertise" on subjects where they should not. We see this whenever there is a crisis, on the internet and social media. Sometimes there's wisdom in knowing when to be quiet. But so many people are desperate for attention. On Monday they are experts on Ukraine. The next day, they're experts on Israel and Gaza. Then the next day there's something else.

The advent of social media has sent the wrong message to a lot of people, which is that they ought to have an opinion about everything all the time, or that we ought to know their opinion about everything all the time. Of course, neither of those things are true. From my perspective, I hear a great deal from people who actually do know what's going on in these areas, but who compromise their opinion by subordinating their insights to political or social or economic or other such priorities. 

"What we've seen in the media and among political opportunists is a kind of bloodlust that reminds me so much of what we saw after 9/11, where there was political hay to be made by sounding tougher, being more aggressive and talking about revenge."

If I seem a little subdued right now, it's because this past week has been troubling on more than one level. Obviously, it's been a troubling week because we have seen the atrocities that were committed in Israel. But it's also troubling to me because what we've seen in the media and among political opportunists is a kind of bloodlust that reminds me so much of what we saw after 9/11, where there seemed to be political hay to be made by sounding tougher, being more aggressive and talking about revenge. Given the horrors of what happened in Israel, we can certainly understand why people might want revenge. But revenge is not a strategy. Retribution is not a strategy. It doesn't make people safer.

In fact, history shows that revenge perpetuates cycles of violence that simply compound one set of atrocities with another set of atrocities. And that seems exactly where we're headed with these horrible events in Israel. That is exactly where we were headed after 3,000 Americans died on 9/11. It was a horror, and it led us to fight an unnecessary war, based on lies and bad intelligence and contrary to our national interests, where 600,000 innocent people would die in Iraq. America's collective response was, "We were justified because we were hurt."

In the Gaza war of 2014, there were approximately 60 Israelis killed and 2,500 Palestinians killed. I'm not suggesting a moral equivalency. I'm not even getting into that discussion. If a baby dies, a mother's heart is broken, whether that's an Israeli baby or a Palestinian baby, a Ukrainian baby or a baby at the border in the United States. 

Social media really prefers high drama and strong statements. It doesn't like nuance. It doesn't like restraint. It doesn't like stopping to think. But those are things that are essential if we're going to get beyond the passions of the moment and try to figure out how to solve a problem. In the case of Israel and the Palestinians, the Israelis are perfectly within their rights to want to go after Hamas, and if they kill every single terrorist in Hamas, I will not shed a tear.

But I will shed a tear for every innocent civilian that is killed, and my heart will be broken by every step that ensures more violence in the future, every step we take away from laying the foundations for the political solution we ultimately must have. To have real peace and a long-term solution requires a political solution. When what you want is real peace and stability, what you need is a political solution. 

What are the boundaries of approved public discourse, in terms of what you are allowed to say in the mainstream news media and among the respectable political class about Israel and the Occupied Territories? There are some positions and views that are verboten, where you risk being exiled from those circles if you offer them.

For example, the reasons for these attacks are many. The main reason is that these Hamas terrorists are despicable people with twisted values that are fueled by hate. It is definitely not my intention to minimize that when I say there were other reasons. But there were multiple reasons. And the minute you suggest there are other reasons — whether it's because Hamas wanted to derail the Saudi-Israeli normalization talks, or because they saw an opportunity because Netanyahu had moved the military up to the West Bank, because his focus was on further annexations and saving his skin politically and legally — people call you an apologist for the monsters that committed those crimes.

Which is not the case, but if you seek long-term solutions, you really need to understand all the factors at play that led us to be where we are. The Netanyahu government is also very extreme: he has two people in his cabinet who were found guilty by an Israeli court of being terrorists. But if you start going on TV and saying, "I think we need to look at apartheid and the assaults on the rights of Palestinians," then the response is: You're blaming the victim.

My response to that is: I feel for the victim. I have friends and relatives who have been touched by this directly. What I'm trying to do is to understand the reasons for the violence and conflict, because I want the problem to be solved. But in the heat of the moment there is not much appetite for that kind of analysis.

Help me with my moral accounting and some critical self-reflection. Earlier today, I saw a college-aged young man riding his bicycle down the street with a large Palestinian flag attached to the back. He was obviously doing this to get attention. I rolled my eyes and heard myself saying aloud, "Really, man? Now? What the hell." I stand in solidarity with all good people in that region who are suffering unfairly from this violence. But talk about bad timing, given what just happened with these terrorist attacks by Hamas. Help me understand what I was feeling in that moment. 

"My heart will be broken by every step that ensures more violence in the future, every step we take away from laying the foundations for the political solution we ultimately must have."

Your feelings were reasonable and normal. One can believe that the Palestinians have the same kinds of rights as Israelis and that the Palestinians' rights have been violated by Israel for many, many years. One can also believe that the plight of Palestinians who are trapped in Gaza or in the West Bank is grave and deserves the world's attention. But if you have a friend or a relative who just died, you don't go the funeral and talk about their flaws. You wait for a few days at least. It's just the wrong moment.

People are emotionally raw. In the wake of what were disgusting, inhumane, demented atrocities committed by Hamas against the Israelis, people need some time to regain their bearings. When you carry a Palestinian flag down the street, as warranted as that may be if you're concerned about potential civilian casualties in the next several weeks, you've just got to ask yourself: What am I achieving? Candidly, I believe that a lot of the people who are doing that have bad motivations. I think they're trying to stick their thumb in the eye of the Jewish community. 

There are some idiots who are on college campuses celebrating Hamas. That's even a step further. Those people are saying, "Oh well, I side with the murder of babies and the rapists and the kidnappers and so forth." I can basically understand why somebody might want to express their solidarity with the Palestinian people, but not with Hamas. They're criminals. They're terrorists. They are ISIS. They are the Russian army, throwing children into mass graves in Ukraine. They're the bad guys. When people who are on the fringe left behave that way, it empowers the right wing in America to make claims, which are lies by the way, that "the left" supports Hamas and is not standing with Israel. Those on the left who believe such things are on the far, freaky fringe. They are idiots.

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I also think it is extremely absurd that people on the right are trying to claim they support Israel and a strong national defense and standing up against terrorists when they're the ones trying to block support for Ukraine. Ukraine is suffering the same types of attacks as Israel. Or they're the ones who actually support a presidential candidate in Trump who said “there were good people on both sides” when a crowd marched down the street in Charlottesville saying, "Jews will not replace us." How can Republicans and others on the right say that they stand with Israel while they support Donald Trump, who is an antisemite?

Too many people want simple answers when the world is actually complicated. That is true of political leaders and everyday people as well. Two things can be true at once. Hamas is a criminal terrorist organization that deserves to be obliterated. But I'm deeply disturbed by watching innocent Palestinian people being victimized, just as I am disturbed by seeing innocent Israelis being victimized. I believe that the state of Israel and the Jewish people, like all countries and peoples, have an inherent right to self-defense. But I also believe we must respect the human rights of all people, especially in terms of their self-determination, dignity and freedom. That includes the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank. How do we balance this complexity? 

I don't think that what you're describing is that difficult. You are manifesting what the moral imperative should be in action. You have values. Are you against murder? Yes. Do you accept that people have a right of self-defense? Yes. Are you against terrorists? Yes. Do you sympathize with people fighting for their freedom? Yes. Are you against the indiscriminate killing of civilians by the military? Yes. Do you recognize that some military goals are so important that there will be some collateral damage? Yes.

What you are describing is a basic sense of right and wrong. The thing that makes it hard is a hyper-politicized atmosphere where people jump to the wrong conclusions because it suits them. Such people do not care about what's right and wrong. They care more about what suits their political objectives, what other people in their group are saying, what is being accepted in the news media and other kinds of filters that distort a person's understanding of right and wrong.  

What does the war between Israel and Hamas and this larger crisis revealing about the differences between Joe Biden and the Democrats versus Trump and the Republicans? This is a moral test as well. 

They're just not comparable. Joe Biden is a good man, a dedicated and effective public servant who's trying to do a good job, who believes in our institutions, who believes in our values, who believes in alliances, who believes people are fundamentally good, and who is the kind of person Donald Trump thinks is a sucker. Donald Trump is a bad man; he is all about himself. He doesn't care. He has no moral code whatsoever. He doesn't believe in the rule of law. He doesn't believe in the Constitution. He doesn't believe in American values. He actually has embraced the tactics and approaches of some of the world's worst people, whether it's Putin or keeping the speeches of Adolf Hitler bedside when he was married to Ivana or celebrating Kim Jong-un or the Saudis. Trump is a racist, a misogynist, a criminal and a rapist.

The fundamental question is: What is so wrong in American society and its political system that a man who should be cast aside by any healthy society is still so powerful? Why hasn't Trump been expelled like a poison or sickness? Why isn't that happening here? Why is it that with every additional felony count and every additional crime, Trump's popularity goes up? That is the riddle of our time. Why is it that tens of millions of Americans are embracing a leader and movement that are fundamentally terrible?

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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David Rothkopf Donald Trump Foreign Policy Gaza Hamas Interview Israel Joe Biden Terrorism War