Benjamin Birely

Confessions of a Leftist: Grappling With the Post-Oct. 7 Reality

Protest in Jerusalem, 5/7/2023. Photo belongs to the author.

We’re a month and half out from Hamas’ horrific attack on Israeli civilians on Oct. 7 and pro-peace circles here in Israel are experiencing another wave of profound grief as Vivian Silver’s remains have been identified. Until Monday night, it was believed she was being held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, but like hundreds of others, the 74-year-old warrior for peace, equality and coexistence was murdered in her home in Be’eri on the morning of Simchat Torah.

Just three days after she participated in a joint Palestinian-Israeli peace event at the Dead Sea, organized by Women Wage Peace which she co-founded. Those who had the privilege of knowing or meeting Vivian remember her optimism, infectious positivity, creativity and deep commitment to the Kibbutz Movement and peace activism.

Israeli society has forever changed since the brutal attack that took Vivian’s life and that of so many others; 1,200 Israelis… friends, brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, and children.

No turning point since the First Lebanon War, or perhaps the founding of the state in 1948, has and will continue to so definitively change the Israeli political and societal landscape.

Including — and especially — the left.

30 July 2011. Photo Credit: Hanay. This image is from Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

When I arrived in Israel at 20 in 2011, I came with a working-class background, a mix of American liberalism and libertarianism, a strong empathy for (and identification with) the underdog and a heavy dose of idealism. It was particularly that idealism that made my entry into Israeli left-wing circles so fraught.

Summer of 2011 was a magical time for a 20-year-old oleh. The 2011 social justice protests defined my entrance into Israeli society. Nothing could have been more inspirational for a young American whose generation was defined by Obama’s “Yes we can!” than thousands of Israelis filling the streets of Tel Aviv chanting “The people demand social justice!”.  Nothing could have been more exciting for me at the time than learning Hebrew at the protests — every sign had a new word, a new phrase.

On September 3, 2011, almost a half a million Israelis hit the streets across the country, a whopping 300,000 in Kikar Rabin.

Kikar Rabin, September 3, 2011. Photo Credit: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

I’ll never forget that balmy evening.

This was my Israel, I thought. 

However, I quickly found myself rattled by the non-, post-, and anti-Zionist positions and worldview of many Israeli leftists I was getting to know. The first Palestinian/Arab-Israeli friends I made during this period especially challenged my ideas and perspectives. For the first time, I was really seeing “the other”. My liberal Zionism couldn’t keep up, it no longer offered a framework in which I could understand or relate to the reality around me. My fellow American Zionist olim seemed increasingly naive, out-of-touch and simply unaware. 

It was my time in the IDF as a lone soldier, however, that sealed the deal so to speak. I wasn’t a combat soldier but I experienced up-close the inner workings of the kafkaesque bureaucracy we run in the West Bank and the blockade on Gaza.

The occupation wasn’t a theoretical or political question anymore. I was watching first-hand the bureaucratic incompetence, the negligence, the anarchy, the mistreatment of Palestinians.

Even if one wholeheartedly believes that Israel was right not to annex the West Bank while building over 100 Israeli civilian towns and communities throughout it… objectively, no one can claim that it’s run well — or along any kind of liberal or humanistic principles.

Well, not anyone who actually knows or cares.

Jerusalem day marchers in Muslim Quarter, Jerusalem Day 2023. Photo belongs to the author.

It was also at this time that I got to know the Israeli right-wing mainstream that for years has sought to exert a kind of exclusivity on Zionism and Israeli patriotism; a world that still gives me mental and spiritual whiplash. Not for its espousal of traditionally “right-wing” ideas or positions — e.g., opposing the establishment of a Palestinian state that will sponsor terrorism against Israeli civilians, free-market economic reforms, a strong emphasis on Jewish identity — but rather for the toxic alliance of religious neo-Zionist messianism, Kahanism and some forms of Mizrahi identity politics that seethe with old wounds, hatred and desire for revenge against an “elite” to which, somehow, I suddenly belonged.

Likud lawmaker David Amsalem rails against the “Ashkenazi elite” at the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 13, 2023. (Twitter video screenshot: Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

I quickly learned that there’s no place secular and/or liberal Ashkenazi Jews are more fiercely hated than in Israel.

Fast forward a decade, several life-changing relationships with Palestinians and extensive time spent in Palestinian cities and villages, my relationship with the Israeli left and my Palestinian counterparts is far more ambivalent.

At numerous points seeing “the other” became only seeing “the other”. Supporting Palestinians and being in solidarity with them sometimes meant muting my Jewish identity (especially the traditional and religious elements), willfully ignoring blatant Palestinian incitement, and being expected to play the role of “colonial” settler standing with “the natives”.

Oct. 7 has brought us this on steroids.

The communities horrifically attacked, ransacked and destroyed by Hamas terrorists and the mob of Gazan men who tagged along, were full of Israeli liberals and leftists. No one cared if they had worked for pro-peace NGOs or similar efforts before torching their homes. The Nova Music Festival that was brutally besieged was full of young, idealistic secular Israelis. No one asked them their ideology, politics or ideals before murdering, torturing or kidnapping them. 

And, as many of us have watched in profound disappointment over not only the past month, neither do many on “the global left” either. Liberals, progressives, and leftists from Berkeley to Napoli have united in seeing all Israelis as “colonizers” and oppressors. In a worldview profoundly shaped by post-colonialism and postmodern identity politics, Fanon is king and resistance “by any means” is the game.

Put simply, any of us, any Israeli, any Jew is a target simply for existing, because when you’re a “colonizer” your mere existence is an act of violence to which the “colonized” can and should “resist”.

For many like me, as we mourn the tragic loss of those Israelis murdered on Oct. 7, live with the horrific reality of the 240 hostages still being held in Gaza by Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and a few influential Gazan families, and worry about our friends, colleagues and family in the army or on reserve duty, we’re grappling with the added layers of political exile.

Many of those who allegedly share our liberal and progressive values across the world genuinely don’t care about our lives. Some of us had already realized this over the last decade but we’ll never forget this past month.

Meanwhile, the Israeli right couldn’t resent us more. Those who think Israeli leftists will suddenly turn into right-wingers or say “wow Ben Gvir was right” aren’t living in reality. And they’re definitely not reading the flood of comments and messages I’ve received on social media over the last month telling me I should have been killed on Oct. 7 or that the leftists who were “got what they deserved” for being “traitors”.

But, most tragically, it’s never been more uncertain if there’s really a substantial “partner” for any kind of coexistence in the Palestinian national movement.

The Israeli left and its diaspora supporters who refuse to relegate themselves to the ridiculous and untenable role of the token “Jewish ally for Palestine” or “Jew against the occupation”, is faced with a crisis that it can and must survive.

We’re no longer living in the pre-Oct. 7 world and the old approaches to solidarity, coexistence and peace that emerged from the ruins of the Second Intifada are no longer relevant.

Those of us young enough to do so must stop and rethink it all.

About the Author
Benjamin made aliyah in 2011 and lives in Jerusalem. Over the past decade he served as a lone soldier, completed a B.A. and M.A. in Ancient History at Tel Aviv University, and worked in Israel's tech industry. He will begin his PhD in Fall 2024. See his account HolyLandSpeaks on TikTok and Instagram.
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