Of all the lessons to be learned following Hamas’s brutal incursion into Israel, one is so glaringly obvious that it runs the risk of going unnoticed: the attack was a failure not just of Israel’s border security systems, but of the country’s concept of a border itself. In its desire to believe that the rulers of Gaza share their motivations, and even a piece of their worldview, Israeli leaders lost sight of the fact that the border — left scandalously unguarded — is not a territorial nicety but an element vital to the sovereignty of every nation.
This slackening did not occur in a vacuum. Over the past decade, the West has witnessed a gradual, systematic breakdown of its borders: from the chaos unfolding on America’s southern border to the failure of the UK and France to clamp down on cross-Channel migration. But this is as much a political and moral phenomenon as a physical one. Where borders were once sacrosanct — the very definition of where sovereignty begins and ends — today they are cast by many as a form of fascism that, by definition, strips migrants of basic rights.
With regard to its state borders, Israel doesn’t have this luxury. The borders of the tiny country are hard boundaries, designed with the specific intent of keeping others out. Though Israel briefly allowed for tens of thousands of migrants to enter, via Egypt, from Eritrea and Sudan, it promptly shut the door. It too has struggled with the question of how to repatriate those migrants, some of whom took part in internecine political riots that overran parts of Tel Aviv this past September. But in all other regards, Israel’s border crisis — in terms of its ability to clamp down on unlawful migration — is behind it.
There is, however, another aspect of Israel’s approach to its national boundaries that has proven to be more serious — and more vital to the notion of sovereignty itself. One of the most profound and devastating symbols of Hamas’s attack on Israel is the music festival that was targeted. It was there, amid a celebration of peace and love, and all the accordant values of liberal universalism — empathy, diversity, and (in the words of the festival goers) “infinite freedom”— that Hamas exercised a barbarous particularism, a tightly bound tribalism that put the needs of a single group above even their own humanity. This was not only an attack on Israel or Israelis — it was an assault on the spirit of universalism itself.
One of the strongest — and, perhaps, healthiest — tensions within the Jewish state is the tension between particularism and universalism. Among his recent interviews with international media, Israel’s head of state Isaac Herzog frequently speaks about the experience of his father, the statesman Chaim Herzog, liberating the death camps of Europe. But he speaks less of his uncle, the great Irish-Israeli statesman, diplomat and philosopher Yaakov Herzog, who argued in A People That Dwells Alone that Israel is a particular nation set apart from other nations. As a worldly man — the son of Israel’s chief rabbi who earned a degree in international law from McGill — Herzog balanced his religious and national particularism against his universalist instinct. The tension made him, and the nation he represented as Israel’s envoy to the Vatican and, later, ambassador to Canada, stronger and sturdier.
In Israel today, we have seen the rise of a new force of particularism in the form of a rising ultra-Orthodox population. But this is a relatively fresh phenomenon. Far more entrenched in Israeli culture is its strong current of universalism, its roots stretching back to the early Zionist movement that emerged from a strain of internationalist socialism. The kibbutz project inspired volunteers from around the world, but particularly from northern Europe, because of this vision of a borderless utopia.
Since those early days, Israeli universalism flowered in many forms, including in the kind of music-festival togetherness that was so soullessly desecrated by Hamas. A primary driver of Israel’s universalist culture is the belief that closeness, connection and union with others — and especially the other — are among the highest aims of human existence. The Israeli sub-cultures that embrace this view — see the diverse flora of Israeli-activist NGOs — have sought to engage Palestinians not merely as a way to solve a longstanding geopolitical crisis or to ensure domestic security, but for the sake of connection itself. For them, Palestinians are our brothers and only on account of the corruption of governing powers are we separated from our natural state of togetherness.
Within Israel, this ethic plays a powerful role. Its advocates successfully kept Arabic as a semi-official state language. It integrated Sharia law into the national legal framework, with Sharia courts active to this day. It permitted the activity of internationalist NGOs, defeating at the court level government attempts to curb their power. It has ensured broad diversity at schools and universities and advanced the cause of LGBT rights not only because they believed it was good, but because they believed it was essential to the health of citizen and state.
But the countervailing warning is that universalism is also a vulnerability. That might be part of its benefit: its empathy allows us to understand ourselves and our world better. We see ourselves differently, and more fully, by seeing the other. But there also has to be a limit — a border.
One thing we learned about the atrocities of October 7 is that one of the reasons Israel was caught unaware was because its security apparatus believed Hamas had changed its ways. Contrary to all the evidence afforded by a long history and a painful present, a belief emerged that its leaders are at least somewhat like us — they want the same things, they act the same way. Israel watched Hamas train for October 7 believing that the training for the real thing was itself the deception.
This was not a failure of imagination. It was a profound success of the imagination. Israeli universalism extended so far that, like the fairy dust from a child’s story, it settled over a genocidal regime in Gaza, cloaking it in a mystical quality of quasi-benevolence. It made the most serious and commonplace category error of the Western mind: believing that others around the world are just like us, that the differences are skin deep, related to cuisine and clothing rather than beliefs and values. In effect, this not only widened Israel’s moral border but nearly dissolved its physical one. All of the country’s formidable military technology meant nothing for the simple reason that — despite decades filled with thousands upon thousands of Hamas-directed attacks and kidnappings — they believed there was nothing on the other side of that fence to be overly alert to.
What so many miss in the debate on the various overlapping border crises is that borders aren’t only, or even primarily, about keeping others out. They’re about keeping yourself — your identity — in. This was demonstrated in the particularism exhibited by ghetto Jews for millennia, which kept their communities intact despite intense external pressure. By contrast, what we’re seeing today is that a pendulum that swings too far will, eventually, topple its own structure. Universalism is good and healthy, and particularism is necessary, but they must be balanced. Just as importantly, the physical, political and moral borders that demarcate where a state’s realities begin and end are there not to further immiserate millions of people already enduring unspeakably hard lives, but to keep a society intact.
There are many lessons to learn from the past few weeks, most of them branded by searing pain. One of them will be that the role of empathy, of seeing ourselves in others, is a noble product at the individual level. But when, on a national level, empathy is taken to its extremes and becomes a means of seeing ourselves through the eyes of the other, what Rousseau called amour propre, we end up creating a danger not only to ourselves but to the other we aim to protect.
For when borders have no consequences, sooner or later consequences forge borders. By failing to recognise this, by failing to put its moral might behind its boundaries, Israel’s government has created unimaginable suffering for its citizens.