My people are once again at the sharp end of history

Our parents told us no one would protect the Jews but the Jews. We have been brutally reminded of their wisdom

November 10, 2023
A vigil in Parliament Square for the people kidnapped and killed by Hamas. Image: Vuk Valcic / Alamy Stock Photo
A vigil in Parliament Square for the people kidnapped and killed by Hamas. Image: Vuk Valcic / Alamy Stock Photo

My parents, products of the flight from turn-of-the-century eastern European pogroms, brought up their children to believe that the world was a dark place for Jews, where antisemitism was a permanent condition; trust no-one but your own kind, there is no safety outside of the embrace of your own community. Zionism is the future: Israel is more than a bolthole, it is a land of suntans, oranges and freedom. We derided this ghetto mentality and came of age in the radicalism of the sixties and seventies—campus politics, anti-war demonstrations, feminism, gay rights, Rock against Racism, anti-apartheid: the values of the secular Enlightenment expressed in a lapel full of badges. We were daughters of the revolution escaping from our parents’ mind-ghettos into the fresh air of secular reason and radical change. But family is family, it turns out. You’d be hard pressed to find a Jew in Britain who doesn’t have relatives in Israel.

After the massacre and hostage-taking on the kibbutzim of southern Israel and the horror that befell the kids partying at a weekend rave, I messaged my cousin in Kfar Saba, a town near Tel Aviv. She met and married an Iraqi-born Israeli lawyer while at university in England; they have a son called up for reserve duty. Her husband wrote back, “The grief here is unbearable. The compassion towards the victims and their families is overwhelming. So we are fighting. Again. With our sons and daughters. Not because there is any hope for this godforsaken land, but only since violence is the only language spoken here.”

Since the massacre, my nephew, a survivor of the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, has been standing outside his London synagogue in a high-vis jacket on security duty, protecting his seven-year-old daughter who is inside attending cheder, Jewish Sunday school, where she is learning a Hebrew song whose words translate as “The whole world is a narrow bridge, but don’t be afraid.” Another cousin rang me from her home in France profonde asking if I was safe in London, and did I need a bolthole in the French countryside? I laughed. A couple of days later a mob stormed Dagestan airport in search of Jewish passengers.

Two sickening feelings. The horror of the atrocity in Israel, and the response of the far-right Netanyahu coalition to cut off life support to Gaza, food, water, power, a terrible vengeance and almost certainly a war crime, some say amounting to genocide. Faced with the collective rage of the Israeli population, to save his own skin politically Netanyahu vowed to destroy Hamas. The Jewish community in the diaspora is not cut from one piece of cloth; it includes religious fundamentalists and anti-Zionists described to me once as “Jews who are Jewish only for the purpose of signing petitions against Israel.” In the muddle of the middle are many British Jews who wouldn’t cast a vote for Netanyahu, even if they were eligible to do so. How do you eradicate an organisation embedded in a civilian population without enormous loss of innocent life? And who is going to be asked to carry out this act of vengeance? My cousin’s reservist son.

Since the massacre in southern Israel, British Jews have mounted a series of vigils calling for the return of the hostages, who also could have been my relatives. They have sought to keep their existence alive by putting up posters of their faces in public places; the youngest hostage is thought to be 10 months old. It’s not a pro-war act—nor is it in support of the Israeli government despite the presence of flags, as a Palestinian flag is not a marker for Hamas—but few people outside the Jewish community have joined them. Their numbers have not been matched by the huge swell of support for the ceasefire marches where vocal concern for the fate of the hostages or against the slaughter of Israeli lives feels singularly absent. A statement appeared in my social media feeds signed by Artists for Palestine UK. Signed by actors Tilda Swinton, Charles Dance and Maxine Peake, directors Mike Leigh and Dominic Cooke and writers Marina Warner and Gillian Slovo, it begins, “We are witnessing a crime and a catastrophe,” but not to Israelis. A boilerplate slab of prose mentions “condemning every act of violence against civilians and any infringement of international law whoever perpetrates them,” but who or what they might be referring to remains unsaid. We thought their anger was about the horror of war, about children losing their lives under the collapsed ruins of their home, families unable to wash or access medical attention for their wounds, or shot to death eating breakfast on a kibbutz. What were the signatories thinking? Why couldn’t they bring themselves to speak out in concrete language about the murder of Israeli civilians? Must support for the resistance be unequivocal, any statement of empathy for its victims disloyalty to the cause? Is it possible to straddle the two camps? No.

The hostages have endured a second vanishing. Those still alive have become ghosts already, in the form of torn fragments of paper, the thousands of posters calling for their return often ripped down within hours. This mass insistence on making the hostages disappear is baffling. It is to deny that Jews can, in this day and age, be victims. Too white, too colonialist, too powerful. It has turned Israel-Palestine into a zero-sum game, us or them, the darkest manifestation of which tends towards genocide. There’s enough of that in the territory already. Netanyahu, who has assembled a coalition of partners who were once pariahs, has made it clear that he will never permit a Palestinian state. Hamas for its part has declared it will carry out its atrocities time and again until the coloniser is defeated. Slogans arguing for decolonisation of an illegitimate state—with less of the contested ambiguity of “from the river to the sea”—gather force on the marches. 

Where this leaves British Jews on the left, who oppose the occupation and want a two-state solution, is on that narrow bridge in my great-niece’s Hebrew song. Time and again, we have to say that we don’t elect the Israeli government, that we are not responsible for its acts, while still living with its consequences, a conundrum for which there is no good answer. Nor can we provide a political strategy that squares the contradiction between the Israeli right’s maximalism and Hamas’ nihilism. Maybe the conflict is insoluble. When my sister and I talked at the weekend about our fearful upbringing which we thought we had so successfully escaped, my non-Jewish brother-in-law, a historian and lifelong socialist, remarked that we had no idea how much antisemitism persisted because we didn’t hear it to our face. Once again, we agreed, we’re at the sharp end of history.