Using Critical Hydra Theory to understand the Palestine-Israel confrontation

Posted on: January 3, 2024 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Hydra "privileging forces"

Using Critical Hydra Theory to understand the Palestine-Israel confrontation

[Updated 14 February 2024

“Silence is consent.”



As I write this we are in day 100 of the Israeli bombing and invasion of Gaza that was prompted by an attack by Hamas on Israel on October 7, 2023. To date there have been approximately 1200 Israeli and over 23,000 Palestinian deaths, among them thousands of children. Given the lack of food, water, medicine or other critical humanitarian aid, the number of deaths from disease, exposure, and hunger are dramatically on the rise.

On 29 December 2023 the Republic of South Africa submitted to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) an application initiating proceedings on the charge of genocide against the state of Israel. The application included “…provisional measures to protect the rights invoked herein from imminent and irreparable loss” and requested an immediate response from the ICJ. This comprehensive 84 page document lays out relevant details supporting the genocide charge. The ICJ is expected to act on South Africa’s application by mid-January. As of this writing, 800+ organizations and dozens of  governments worldwide have signed on in support of South Africa’s action.

For additional information on the overall situation, take a look at this ‘Thoughts on Gaza‘ GoogleDoc, updated daily.

The ‘evil trifecta’
Critical Hydra theory begins with the assumption that oppression of one group of humans by another group through the use of toxic othering is wrong. Oppression exists in many forms, and is thoroughly woven into our histories, laws, policies, and current social structures. This oppression is perpetuated by one or more of the eight privileging forces represented by the heads of the Hydra.

Colonialism is the outward expression of entitlement. Literally so, as we examine how British royalty with the titles of ‘Lords’, ‘Dukes’, ‘Princes’ and ‘Kings’ (and their wannabe next tier ‘new money’ capitalist elites) justified the rise of the ‘British Empire’ through rapacious and exploitative colonial expansionism. Entitlement is when someone feels that their ascribed status gives them the right to oppress others. Expressed by individuals, acts of entitlement are boorish and sad. Expressed in the name of nations, these acts are horrendous and have led to many genocides across the globe both down through history and just now, today in Gaza.

Perhaps the most immediately relevant heads of the Hydra include the evil trifecta of classism, colonialism, and racism. These three privileging forces are at the root of most global social problems, and especially so regarding the genocides in Gaza, Myanmar, Syria, Bosnia, the Sudan, Congo, and elsewhere.

Facilitating this evil trifecta is a devotion to unchecked neoliberalism with its flawed assumption that a market free from laws and government oversight or intervention will somehow find ways of commodifying and profiting from entrepreneurial solutions to all human needs and problems. To find the root causes of most global social ills all it takes is to ‘follow the money’ and watch the economic actions (both official and covert) of people in political, military, and corporate power, the ‘entitled.’  It was sociologist C. Wright Mills who in 1956 published The Power Elite detailing this theory, but perhaps more importantly in 1959 it was former Army General and Republican leader Dwight D. Eisenhower who warned of a ‘military industrial complex’ in his farewell speech as the outgoing President of the United States. Now, nearly 70 years later, their words seem ever more relevant.

Though some may frame it so, the situation in Gaza is not primarily about religion or ethnicity. It is about power, hegemony, and greed. And it is no surprise that the British and US elite – historically full of classist, colonialist, and racist hubris- are at the center of the history of this tragedy.

It is no surprise that the Irish have long been pro-Palestinian; they share similar histories and fates with those in Palestine; both are victims of British colonialism. The ‘troubles’ the Irish talk about are eerily parallel to the experiences of the Palestinians. Though many Irish did not support all of the terroristic acts of the IRA just like many (most?) Palestinians do not support the terroristic acts of Hamas, they understand the terrorist’s motivations and need to resist oppression. When decades of boycotts and other acts of nonviolent resistance yield little or no results, it should be no surprise more extreme measures are put on the table. Hamas and the Irish Republican Army were forged by the same forces.

A George Floyd moment?
Is this a George Floyd moment for the world regarding the lasting impacts of colonialism? Metaphorically, does Israel have its knee on the neck of Palestine with the whole world watching via social media? Here’s why I think it is. I believe that the Israeli government’s response to October 7 -the bombing and invasion of Gaza and

crackdowns in the West Bank- is increasingly  being questioned by many people in Israel, the United States and throughout the Global North. Though we all acknowledge that the situation in Gaza is ‘complex’, the basic reality is that the Palestinian people have been systematically and increasingly marginalized for several generations.

Many social progressives are following the advice of Representative John Lewis and are causing ‘good trouble’ by speaking out, organizing, and protesting. They are arguing that, yes, Israel has a right to exist but so do Palestinians, and that full citizenship rights must be established and stolen land returned.

In the United States the 2020 George Floyd incident tipped the perceptions of many white Americans. Though there were countless racially motivated murders preceding Floyd’s -Emmett Till, Rodney King, Trevon Martin, to name a few- his death was so graphic and obscene that it finally moved many white people to learn more about baked in racism and to join BLM protests. In my students here at Elon I see a real difference in perception among the white students. There is a before George Floyd and an after George Floyd appreciation for racial complexities and realities in the US. I think that this same change is happening now in the Jewish diaspora, especially in the US. Just like racism in the US has not ‘been solved’ now post George Floyd, Zionist colonialism and hyper-nationalism will not go away after this moment in time. But change is coming, and it will be led by mostly younger people who are more self aware of misinfortmation they’ve been told.

Critical Hydra Theory and the conflict
One core premise of all critical theories, including Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Critical Hydra Theory (CHT), is that no human is more human than any other human. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) argues every human has a right to freedom and dignity.

As such, apartheid is an egregious wrong, one state systemically denying rights to one group of inhabitants while granting full rights to others. Genocide -the intentional killing of one group by a state- undeniably the most heinous and extreme violation of human rights possible- is the most profound violation of human rights. Both apartheid and genocide are wrong, and both demand response by those using any version of critical theory.

Critical Hydra Theory (CHT) encourages an interrogation of the many privileging social forces which make possible these violations of human rights, but more than that, CHT demands a response. As the founder of critical theory, Karl Marx, said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it (“Theses on Feuerbach” (1845), Thesis 11.)” Those using CHT must first seek to understand the sources and manifestations of power and privilege and to follow the lead of those who are the victims of oppression in engaging in the struggle for justice.

Key to avoid, however, is an ad hominem approach which turns the oppressed into the oppressor, as in the case of Israel, historically the victim and now the perpetrator of oppression. The struggle is against toxic othering itself, against the processes of oppression, not against any specific population. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn told us long ago,

“(T)he line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years…. If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

To underline: it is the processes of oppression which are the focus for the critical Hydra theorist. We must understand and then help to dismantle the long ossified social and political structures which justify and hence make possible various forms of oppression. This is no easy task, nor is this a short term fight for justice. Confronting toxic othering means questioning the very core of our modern global culture and being willing to deconstruct and decolonize not only our cultural institutions but our own minds as well.

The coming days and months
Tragically, the crisis in Israel and Palestine seems destined to be with us for a good deal longer. Using Critical

Hydra Theory to understand the Palestine-Israel confrontation means to be at odds with some of the people with which we interact. The US government is still sending military aid to Israel. Given that Israel has engaged in both apartheid and genocide -based on long established international law definitions- the critical Hydra theorist must condemn these actions and hence is open to having the epithet ‘antisemite’ weaponized against them.

Being anti-apartheid and anti-genocide is not ‘antisemitic,’ it is being pro-justice for all humans.  To wit, in a letter to the editor published in The New York Times on December 4, 1948 over two dozen Jewish intellectuals, among them Albert Einstein1 and Hannah Arendt, called the leaders of the newly formed state of Israel ‘fascists’ and argue that terrorist tactics were being used against the Palestinians. They cite specifically the case of the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, but that was only one of countless other villages which were then -and still today- overtaken by ‘terrorist’ forces. Tools fascists use include both apartheid and genocide. The ideology and tactics evident in 1948 can be seen today in Israel/Palestine.

Since this crisis is indeed ‘complicated’ by decades (centuries?) of

Image taken from

propaganda surrounding and justifying colonialism and acts of brazen racism and classism, we must recognize that there are many people at various stages of awareness [including me!] about the essential nature of the crisis, and hence there will be heartfelt and emotional differences of opinion as people struggle with past and present facts regarding the war (and other) international crimes being committed in the West Bank and Gaza.

That both antisemitism and Islamophobia are on the rise is an indication that too many people ignorantly gravitate toward ethnocentrism and racism: demonizing the other. Both are wrong minded and support oppression, and both are contrary to humanistic efforts to recognize human rights for all.

In the coming days and months there is a danger that versions of racism -dehumanizing the ‘other’- will become virulent, but it is the responsibility of the critical Hydra theorist to call out any and all ad hominem attacks. Just as we must call out Israeli officials dehumanization of Palestinians, we must as vigorously reject all dehumanization of Israeli citizens and Jewish people. The critical Hydra theorist is aggressively anti-antisemitic. Toxic othering against any legitimately recognized religious, ethnic, or cultural group is antithetical to the principles of CHT.

Identifying and then researching and interrogating all the privileging forces represented on the heads of the Hydra is a necessary step in addressing social issues. Ones advocacy and activism must be intersectional and include a steadfast interrogation of all privileging forces. A critical Hydra theorist is against all forms of toxic othering and thus supports the struggles of those who are victims of these oppression. Just as the critical Hydra theorist is aggressively anti-antisemitic, they are also anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-heteronormativity/anti- queer discrimination, anti-colonialism/paternalism, anti-classism, anti-ableism, anti-ageism, and anti-anthropocentrism. Key to remaining true to the overall goal of CHT -i.e., fighting the process of oppression- is to be vigilant in listening to the voices of the oppressed and having the courage to call out any action or rhetoric that dehumanizes their oppressor.

Progress toward a more just world for all must be motivated by a love of humans and humanity. To move toward justice we need to tap into the positive emotions of love and compassion, not the negative emotions of hate and fear. Moving forward toward the goal of a more just world will take resolve, courage, compassion, and a keen awareness of all of the privileging forces represented by the heads of the Hydra.

1In April of 1948 Albert Einstein was asked by Shepard Rifkin, Executive Director of the American Friends of the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, to help raise funds for Lohamei Herut Yisrael (also know as LEHI or the Stern Gang after its founder Avraham Stern. In his terse response Einstein capitalizes the word “Terrorist” and refers to those in this organization as “…mislead and criminal.”

Here is the text of the letter:

Mr. Shepard Rifkin
American Friends of the Fighters
for the Freedom of Israel
149 Second Ave.
New York 3,N.Y.

Dear Sir:

When a real and final catastrophe should befall us in Palestine the first responsible for it would be the British and the second responsible for it the Terrorist organizations build up from our own ranks.

I am not willing to see anybody associated with those misled and criminal people.

Sincerely yours,

(Signed, ‘A. Einstein’)

Albert Einstein


Buy the Book
The above essay is the first in what will become a series of new chapters for the planned Third Edition of Confronting Toxic Othering: Understanding and Taming the Hydra. You can purchase the Second Edition here. All royalties go to support education initiatives for refugees in Bangladesh and beyond.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

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