Damage following an Israeli airstrike on the El-Remal aera in Gaza City on October 9, 2023. Attribution: Palestinian News & Information Agency (Wafa) in contract with APAimages

Over 30,000 have been killed in Gaza since October 7th, and of these, eighty percent were women and children. This major atrocity can be compared — and these days it often is, to justify it — to the firebombing of Dresden during World War II, or the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were all needless attacks on civilian populations. It cannot be overlooked that the organizers of the Hamas attack on October 7th well knew that brutal retaliation would follow, and sought to gain costly attention for their radical cause through both the murderous attack upon Israeli civilians, and the inevitable aftermath of Israeli rage.

To address this growing nightmare, we must put this conflict in context. For decades, the Israeli right wing has funded Gaza’s radical Muslim Brotherhood faction called Hamas, which rejects a two-state solution, in order to undermine the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, which support two states. By doing so, Netanyahu and his coalition had hoped to foment a fight to the death between the right-wing revisionist Zionist camp in Israel and the right-wing Hamas camp in Palestine. Given the balance of power, it is easy to see why Israelis believe they can win this war. Yet it is a war they might win — or might lose, since merely bombing Gaza will not destroy Hamas, and their mooted invasion of Lebanon would likely spark a region-wide war. But this is not a war in a bottle. It is not limited to this region or even just to our contemporary world. Rather, this conflict, this enraged commitment to destruction from various factions, may destroy civilization for generations to come.

In February of 1944, the now-famous novelist Kurt Vonnegut, then a prisoner of war, watched the firebombing of Dresden, Germany from a prison basement. This was a series of bombing raids which over the course of three days and nights killed between 25,000 and 135,000 people, some of whom were boiled into liquid fat by the effects of incendiary bombs. Estimates vary, yet the densely-packed city of 650,000 residents, almost all of whom were women, children and elderly, plus another 100,000 refugees from the east, had no wartime industries, no military bases, and at best a rail line to the eastern front, which was easily repaired within days. Given these circumstances, and the nature of the bombing, a death toll of 100,000 is not unlikely, and both Vonnegut and a leading U.S. Army Air Force General, Ira Eaker, stated in 1965 that the death toll was 135,000 persons. Such barbarism, led by British General Arthur “Bomber” Harris, targeting and killing civilians merely to sow chaos and destruction, is comparable to the brutal and savage destruction of Magdeburg, Germany three hundred years earlier, in 1631. At that  time  20,000 inhabitants, out of a population of 25,000, were massacred by hand in one day as part of the Thirty Years War of religions in Europe. Religious wars, we are reminded, can last for generations, and their brutality knows no limits.

Like 1631 Magdeburg, Dresden in 1944 was a center of European cultural beauty and heritage dating back to the early 1700s, when it became a new cultural center.  In 1944, it was the capital of Saxony, a center of opera and the German classical music of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Two beautiful cathedrals, one Catholic and one Protestant, stood as a reminder of lasting peace after generations of religious war. It was, and in many ways still is, a true gem of western civilization that took centuries to build and develop. And yet, in a matter of days, it was nearly destroyed. 

In many ways, we have not ended the cultural brutality of World War II, even if the Allied cause was just. For rather than devote ourselves to the building of new Temples of Beauty and Grace for the coming generations and renewing our classical heritage of Judeo-Christian culture — which was the reason many of those who fought and died were willing to make such great sacrifice — we have instead embraced a radical commitment to destroy western civilization, as if some demon had tricked us to see the Beauty of our civilization as the cause of the barbarism, rather than seeing that Beauty as being the intended target for destruction. 

Many of those who stand against the Israeli bombing — and rightly so — too often fall prey to the same cynicism and arrogance towards western civilization as those who commit the atrocities. In doing so they only offer more hellish war and destruction, however ironically. 

The religious wars in Europe lasted nearly 150 years. Yet after such a prolonged period of destruction a new Europe emerged, one based on the ideas of the Florentine Renaissance, i.e., a revival of the great ideas of civilization from as far back as 2000 years prior. And from this revival sprang a new culture of statehood based on the consent of the governed, economic development through science and technology, a culture of religious tolerance and dialogue, and the inspiration to build a new kind of nation, one based on the principles of self-government.  

Today, amidst threats of war between major powers, there are those who point to the firebombing of Dresden to justify the bombing of Gaza. Such an appeal can only be seen as a measure of the decline of our culture. Instead, let the bombing of Dresden remind us that we can never forget why we fight for ideas like justice, tolerance, freedom of conviction, and statehood, whether Israeli or Palestinian, Democrat or Republican. Our civilization has endured not because it has been exploited for specific ends — for this is the treachery of ideologues — but because of our contributions, then, now and in the future, to truth and beauty for their own sake.

It is on this basis that an immediate ceasefire should be enforced by the United States. We should immediately end the weapons and artillery supply to Israel unless a ceasefire is reached, and Netanyahu is removed from the political stage for his obvious security failures, even if this requires providing legal immunity from his possible criminal convictions. The hostages must then be returned in full, and regional negotiations begun to secure these nations from the threatened outbreak of religious war and a further descent into barbarism. 

We cannot gamble with the beauty of human civilization for the sake of a few madmen, nor can we continue to indulge the cynicism which has led us to this impasse. 

Recent responses