A patterned image of a dove on a sage green background. There are four doves: the one on the left is in focus, and with each dove following, each dove becomes less in focus, as the background also slowly fades to a darker gray.
Getty / Photo Illustration by Victoria Rosselli

We Must Not Give In To Nihilism

How people respond to disillusionment shapes history. Without hope, we’re doomed to repeat it.

Few things feel worse than building your hopes up about something that later turns out to be bullshit. It’s the profound disillusionment of being burned by someone you trusted, by a belief you held, by a foundational narrative you built your life and identity around that’s no longer possible to maintain. Whether consciously or not, most of us will do just about anything to avoid these destabilizing feelings—to shut out the pain of grief and helplessness. When confronted with ugly realities that don’t match our grand narratives, we can mourn the loss and adjust, or dig our heels in deeper. Many choose the latter, because the rupture is too painful. 

I was already writing this essay on the dangers of nihilism in the face of atrocities and authoritarianism when the latest war between Israel and Hamas broke out. Russia-Ukraine, GOP Christian nationalism, and the climate crisis provided plenty of despairing material. I was feeling overwhelmed by the state of the world, and wanted to make sense of growing instability and extremism. Then came October 7.

There’s a Russian saying: Just when you think you’ve hit rock bottom, someone knocks from below. For the past few weeks, as I’ve watched the war in Gaza unfurl, the atrocities pile up, and ethnic cleansing further normalized, I’ve tried, and failed, not to catastrophize. It doesn’t seem like the world order is going to survive this, as failing democracies disgrace themselves, and warlords clap their hands. Still, I choose to remain hopeful that something better is possible, because giving up makes things infinitely worse.

By now, most people are familiar with how the latest round of violence erupted. Early in the morning of October 7, Hamas militants surprise attacked southern Israel, brutally massacring over 1400 people, killing infants, burning families alive in their homes, and shooting ravers celebrating Sukkot at a music festival in the desert near Gaza, in addition to kidnapping around 240 hostages—children and the elderly among them. The next morning, I woke up to a text from a friend who has spent years covering wars: “The world is hopeless.” I was horrified. I felt grief for the dead, and the survivors, and for Gazans, who I knew would soon suffer in retaliation for Hamas’ war crimes. I felt terrified for the hostages, and for Jewish people, my people, everywhere: October 7, 2023 is now understood as the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust. 

Israel responded to this by once again bombing the shit out of Gaza, and Gazan civilians—again, children and the elderly among them. Entire neighborhoods were flattened, as Palestinians desperately dug through the rubble to find survivors and what remained of those who’d been killed. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) also immediately imposed a blockade, and cut off Gaza’s electricity, fuel, water, and food supply—a job made easy by decades of occupation. All of it, of course, was signed off by Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. By now, whatever reserves were left have long run out, and minimal aid has come in through Egypt. The humanitarian crisis is as dire as it gets. Many hospitals have run out of fuel for their generators, meaning anyone on a machine will likely die. People are starving, drinking sea water, being operated on without anesthesia. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who ordered the siege, justified collective punishment—a war crime—by saying, “We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.” Hearing those words, again, I was horrified. I felt sorrow for Palestinians, who’ve been dehumanized, ghettoized, and unable to escape collective retribution. I felt complicit in their suffering. Once again Gazans were dying en masse while the world watched. I felt despair at the lack of leadership, and helpless to stop the cycle of violence.

Even through all the noise, it is clear many people have felt the same. Moments of crisis like the one we’re in now demand a lot from us emotionally, asking scared people in pain to hold the weight of many conflicting truths in our hearts at once. Zero-sum thinking is tempting, providing a false sense of certainty, a justified rejection of compassion. It’s also dangerous—all manner of atrocities follow when people believe they have no choice; that, in their circumstances, the ends justify the means. 

It’s a cliche, but it’s true: Hurt people hurt people. As political scientist Seva Gunitsky tweeted last month, “You know intergenerational trauma is real because the two nationalities most victimized by fascism are currently waging two proudly genocidal military campaigns.” 

As both a scholar of genocide and Soviet history, and as the American daughter of a Ukrainian Jew who survived Hitler and Stalin, fled Soviet repression as a refugee for Israel, and ended up in the US, only to fall for Fox News—wow, did I feel that. My people’s trauma is on full display in multiple wars, and I hate it. Despite living a remarkably secure life compared to my ancestors, disillusionment has still knocked on my door many times. It’s come for all of us of late. Which makes it all the more important that we do not let it win.

As I write this, Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza is underway, with all the horrors for Gazans that it brings. The day it began, the IDF blocked all communications, cutting off power and internet in Gaza so we couldn’t hear or see the extent of the atrocities. Nothing in this alleged strategy to eliminate Hamas suggests the lives of the hostages or of Palestinian civilians have been given a second thought. With over 9000 Gazans dead, and Hamas leaders in Qatar and their tunnels still relatively untouched, it’s hard to accept that this invasion serves a purpose beyond bloody, indiscriminate revenge—or, in the worst case, a second Nakba. I feel sick watching Bibi and Hamas drag the world into the abyss, with the US courting global catastrophe by lighting billions on fire to prolong an unwinnable armed conflict.

For Palestinians, the existential threat is immediate and ongoing, as people in Gaza cannot escape the bombs and now, the tanks. In the West Bank, there are horrifying reports of prisoners being tortured, and fundamentalist settlers armed by the state continuing to expel Palestinians from their land, and pogrom their villages; in East Jerusalem, the state continues demolishing Palestinian homes. Every day there are stories of entire families killed in Gaza while trying to flee south following the IDF’s forced evacuation order, many of them with nowhere to go. Meanwhile, air strikes have only escalated. The IDF has already confirmed it has hit 11,000 targets, many of which were civilian buildings. Most recently, and horrifically, they bombed Gaza’s largest refugee camp, two days in a row, killing over 100 people. There are so many dead, hospitals and morgues have run out of space, and Gazans are stuck burying bodies in mass graves. 

What do these atrocities solve? Who does this free or make safe? Certainly not Israelis, who overwhelmingly blame Netanyahu’s policies for leaving them vulnerable to attack, as whatever tenuous sense of security they had was pulled out from underneath them, and all the gains they’d made regionally evaporated overnight. And certainly not Palestinians, who have suffered decades of occupation and statelessness with no end in sight, only to experience the disruption of a status quo that was already killing them: Over 200 Palestinians were killed by the IDF and militant settlers in 2023 even before the war began. The threats and conditions facing each are not the same, but at base, they share an existential fear that their people won’t survive to see the aftermath of this conflict. And even if they do, how much of their humanity will remain?

It’s especially disturbing watching Israeli officials declare holy wars, and talk of wiping Gazans out, flattening them, or forcibly expelling them. Jews have been on the receiving end of all the above many times over, and it’s sickening knowing it’s being inflicted on Palestinians in my name. They heard Hamas leaders boast about cleansing the land of Jews and are itching to outdo them: Over 2 million people, half of them minors, remain stuck without food, water, fuel, or shelter in a high-density death trap as bombs rain down, including along the very evacuation routes that were allegedly to take Palestinians to safety.

As Hamas’ atrocities beget Israeli atrocities, the absolute worst people are benefitting from the suffering and chaos. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are taking advantage of the chaos and using Palestinian pain for their own political ends. Iran’s proxies in Yemen and Lebanon keep threatening to expand the war. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling BJP party is using Israel as vindication of their own Islamophobic ethnonationalism. It’s easier for corrupt authoritarians to entrench power, hollow out institutions, and silence people in times of crisis. It also doesn’t help that Netanyahu knows people want his head when this war is over—naturally, he just announced the second phase of the war would be a long one. It’s an open secret that Netanyahu and Hamas have fed off one another for years, neither wanting a two-state solution to succeed. We’re seeing the results of their efforts now, and why it’s disastrous to empower authoritarians who promise the illusion of security with a dose of repression. With the illusion gone, repression has skyrocketed.

Meanwhile, Arab leaders, most of whom had previously normalized relations with Israel, are facing populist rage and discontent at home. This seems by design: Israel was about to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia for the first time when Hamas attacked, and now weeks later, Jordan has recalled its ambassador. Diplomacy deteriorated early on when Egypt, Jordan, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas canceled a summit with US President Joe Biden over horrifying—but to this day, disputed—reports, first blaming Israel, then Islamic Jihad, for the October 17 bombing of Al Ahli hospital, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. It was a pressure cooker moment in a pressure cooker conflict, an outpouring waiting for a vessel. Unverified headlines about the incident led to angry protests outside Israeli embassies; Hezbollah calling for a global day of jihad; the burning of synagogues in Berlin, Tunis, and Spain; and continued violence in the West Bank. 

Palestinian scholar Iyar el-Baghdadi tweeted about the hospital blast, and the furor it inspired, “This is no longer about a specific hospital and what happened there. The news [was] a watershed moment for a lot of pent up anger about a million things, bottled up for a long time, to explode. Confirming or debunking won’t help. This is no longer about facts but about psychology.” The readiness of so many to believe the worst about each other, to blame entire peoples for the cynical actions of criminal, extremist leadership, to oversimplify a complex conflict, parrot violent propaganda and disinformation, and harass anyone calling for us to find our shared humanity is jarring. If anything, we’ve become disillusioned with each other.

The war has triggered a global backlash as dissent is quashed, and antisemitic and Islamaphobic hate crimes rise dramatically. Anti-war protestors have been arrested around the world, including in Israel, the US, UK, Germany, France, Egypt, and Bahrain. In Chicago, a Palestinian American boy, Wadea Al-Fayoume, was killed by his landlord. In Dagestan, a mob stormed the airport looking for Jewish passengers. Synagogues around the globe have been defaced, Jewish and Muslim university students harassed. Palestinian Israelis have been arrested for liking social media posts, and families of hostages have been harassed for demanding a ceasefire and prisoner swap. Calls ranging from pauses to peace talks and an immediate ceasefire, no matter who they’re from, have largely been ignored by the people who most need to hear them. 

Also on the chopping block: international humanitarian law. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Putin’s impunity for war crimes in Syria was a turning point for the international system, a pure display of might makes right. Now, Russia, China, and Iran are watching as the West actively funds and arms war crimes in Gaza. Drawing tons of criticism, the US has not laid down any red lines for Israel, like conditioning funding or weapons deliveries upon them not being used against Palestinian civilians; as well as vetoing multiple UN Security Council resolutions calling for a humanitarian pause or ceasefire. What good are the Geneva and Genocide Conventions when they can be vetoed into oblivion? Who actually ends up before the International Criminal Court? When the moral authority and legitimacy of legal institutions are gone, rule of law goes with them. This emboldens bad actors to do their worst, just because they can.

As I’ve watched the last couple weeks unfold, I’ve sought out voices of compassion and reason, for informed people who, even as they grieve, still speak with moral clarity and a sense of our shared humanity. They do exist—they’re primarily Arab and Jewish—but they’re outnumbered by masses of uninformed people publicly stumbling through this, and far too many racist posts, statements, and signs justifying the ethnic cleansing of one side or the other. Even outside of reporting on Al Ahli, Western media coverage has been a mess, reminding many of 9/11: Muslim TV anchors sidelined; Palestinian commentators canceled; unverified, sensationalist reports spread; internal dissent silenced. Social media, especially Twitter—once a vital source for verifying breaking news—is rampant with antisemitism, Islamophobia, and disinformation: violent propaganda, bloody videos, memed history, unchecked rage, and nihilistic, binary thinking. In short, we are collectively struggling to cope with a spiraling situation. 

In all of this, many have gotten bogged down in ranking people’s suffering. It’s difficult but necessary to accept that cyclical violence, institutional collapse, and mass atrocities can happen anywhere, and have happened everywhere at some point in history, that no people are solely oppressors or oppressed, or bleed differently than any other. We’re all capable of electing dictators, of succumbing to reactionary short-term thinking. We’re also all capable of putting even the most egregious grievances aside, of caring more about being at peace than vengeance, and accepting that our safety and freedom depends on the safety and freedom of our neighbors.

Explanations for the current global crises are not an exercise in judgment or morality, especially when it comes to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Explanations, at their best, seek to understand the human condition, and how history and life experience affect people’s subjective, emotional truth. Making sense of those myths, traumas, beliefs—often impervious to logic or reality—is critical to understanding what shapes and motivates people, and states, to behave the way they do. We’re stuck with people as they are, not as we want them to be. You can’t understand disillusionment without knowing the illusions that preceded it. 

October 7 and all that has followed uprooted several stubborn myths, for better and for worse. As Amjad Iraqi wrote for +972, a psychological barrier broke with Hamas’ assault:

“Israel’s mass protest movement…has consciously kept the Palestinian question off its agenda. Apart from a small bloc of anti-occupation protesters, most [Israelis] still clung to the illusion that the current structures of permanent rule could deliver safety for Israelis and remain compatible with their claim to democracy. That bubble has now irreparably burst. But Israelis, who have been shifting politically rightward for years, are far from questioning or recalculating their commitment to iron rule.”

It was obvious to me, especially after a troubling visit to the military courts in the West Bank over a decade ago, that the occupation was rotting Israeli institutions from within, and that rule of law and democracy couldn’t exist with parallel, unequal systems. It felt frankly delusional to think the Israeli state could repress Palestinians in the West Bank under one system, keep Gaza isolated with another, and systemically discriminate against Arab Israelis, all without the militarization and repression of Palestinian rights eventually extending to Jewish Israelis, too. But people believe what they believe.

Endless cycles of violence, democratic backsliding, and threats of institutional collapse make for scary times—and I, for one, am terrified of what’s to come. What does it look like when the bubble bursts? What fills the vacuum? The answer is rarely anything good. Idealogues are especially prone to nihilism, and the horseshoe theory, that the far-right and far-left meet at the extremes, has become a truism. The points of a horseshoe don’t actually touch, though. What the extremes share is the void: “Death to Arabs” and “Kill the Jews.” 

Like any supremacist ideology, both are inherently anti-democratic. But people choosing between a meaningless life of suffering, and a life of suffering, but for a cause, will always choose the latter. In Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature, Svetlana Alexievich documented the collapse of the USSR through oral histories of everyday people as they experienced it. There are romantics and cynics, intelligentsia and party flacks, peasants and city dwellers, many with mixed feelings about both communism and capitalism, but all having suffered under each. 

In her introduction, “Remarks from an Accomplice,” Alexievich describes growing up as a believer in communism: “Disillusionment came later.” She writes about how people reacted to the archives opening after perestroika, when regular people finally began learning about the vast crimes committed by the Communist Party—that their heroes were mass murderers, and their neighbors and relatives their executioners.

“People read newspapers and magazines and sat in stunned silence,” she writes. “They were overcome with unspeakable horror. How were we supposed to live with this? Many greeted the truth as an enemy. And freedom as well.” Why was truth the enemy? As one interviewee put it, “Why didn’t we put Stalin on trial? I’ll tell you why…In order to condemn Stalin, you’d have to condemn your friends and relatives along with him.” 

One woman, whose teenage son died by suicide, remembers screaming at her own mother, “What did we hear from you our whole lives? Throw yourself under a tank, go down in an airplane for your Motherland. Heroic death.” I see the obvious echos here of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; but I’m also reminded of Breaking the Silence, an organization of IDF veterans devoted to exposing the violent reality of the occupation. The issue of complicity, especially in atrocity, is at the heart of so much of the hand-wringing we’re seeing today in Gaza, and how people have responded to it. Who are the victims, and who are the perpetrators? As with all things, it depends who you ask and how far back you want to go. Two stateless people were pitted against each other by imperial and regional powers playing dispossession dominos, leaving enough valid grievances to last many lifetimes. The unfortunate truth is that Jewish people’s right to self-determination ultimately came at Palestinians’ expense, and the establishment of a Palestinian state coexisting alongside Israel is the best shot we have at rectifying this and undermining groups like Hamas and their successors. The conflict wasn’t always so lopsided, but insofar as Palestinians today are concerned, nuclear-armed, US-backed Israel has become Goliath.  

This has created an enormous rupture in the identity of Jews around the world, for whom the existential threat feels perennial, who are scared of going to synagogue while watching masses of people gather against Israel, most of whom are protesting for a ceasefire and Palestinian human rights, but a significant portion of whom blame all Jews for Israeli atrocities in Gaza, and think Netanyahu speaks for us all. No matter our politics, we’re haunted by the knowledge that as the violence wears on, more and more people out there wish the Nazis had finished the job. 

None of this excuses flattening Gaza or ethnically cleansing Palestine of Palestinians. I do still believe that Jewish people need a homeland, one country that won’t expel us; I literally wouldn’t exist but for Israel providing refuge to stateless Jews. But I also don’t believe that right is exclusive, or that it trumps the rights of Palestinians to the same things. I deeply resent the implication that my refusal to support the genocidal policies of a foreign autocrat makes me an antisemite, a supporter of terrorism, or less Jewish. Quite the opposite: I believe and have watched the current government’s vengeful, reckless, overreaching policies make Jews everywhere more of a target.

So what do we do about all this? As people process the loss of their old beliefs, they’re faced with the option of hardening into something more extreme, or freeing themselves from old constraints and reimagining a better future. It’s a choice between hope or revenge. But reimagining requires a shared reality, a rejection of bigotry, and people who seek complexity, not propaganda. It requires empathy, and an ability to see each other’s humanity, especially when we’re afraid. It requires choosing leaders who don’t want to see the world burn. 

There are people all over the world already doing the work to end cycles of violence, who know that as bad as things get, they could always be worse. In Israel, Standing Together is a grassroots peace movement led by Jewish and Palestinian Israelis standing courageously against the tide of war. I recently attended a Storytelling Summit hosted by Futures Without Violence at the Courage Museum in San Francisco. The museum, which opens in 2025, is built on the belief, backed by science, that when we hear each others’ stories, and see each other as people, we empathize. That as social creatures, we’re built to connect and be in community. That this is how we heal ourselves.

The good news is that this healing is possible. But it can only begin from a place of safety, something too many have not been guaranteed. It’s up to us to demand human rights, rule of law, and freedom and democracy for all, and to push for policies that strengthen them. Because as disillusioned as I am with the institutions meant to deliver these aspirations, I still believe in people. I understand that violence comes from a place of despair, and that hope is a precursor to peace. Even knowing what I know, I choose to be hopeful, to use my voice and what power I have to push for people everywhere to live boring lives, free from violence. It’s the only way forward for all of us.