Andrew Wirth

Everything, Everywhere, All at Once

Reflections on the Jewish moment
Image from Netta Lieber Sheffer's: Shattered Hopes and Roads not taken
Image from Netta Lieber Sheffer's "Shattered Hopes and Roads not taken"

Travelling from Australia to Israel before Passover, my wife and I encountered four continents all telling the story of our post October 7th world. We visited family in New York, the most Jewish city outside Israel and yet the epicentre of the most hateful anti-Israel activism. We drove through gentle, rural Italy, along the way visiting cities and villages with silent, beautifully restored synagogues and dusty Jewish museums, testaments to old communities long emptied of their Jews. Dara Horn’s beloved “Dead Jews”. Many towns had old, abandoned Jewish Ghettoes and some still had a “Jew Street”. Like my parents’ and grandparents’ birth places, like countless communities across Europe, they seemed to speak directly to the fragility of the current moment.

Jews have almost always struggled somewhere in the world. When times were tough in one place there was nearly always another where things were ok. Now, in Israel, half the world’s Jews are engulfed in a bitter war. The other half, in the diaspora, are isolated and fearful. Perhaps for the first time since biblical Egypt, the entire Jewish collective is afflicted and in pain.

It is the pain of October 7 and of the hostages who remain and are dying in Hamas tunnels. It is the pain of our rediscovered vulnerability and the echoes of age-old fears. It is the anguish and uncertainty over Israel’s conduct of war and the devastation in Gaza. It is the pain of a global response that has moved beyond condemnation of the war to the rejection of Israel and to the othering of Jews.

In my home Australia, as in much of the West where jews have felt accepted and safe, anti-Israel/Zionist/Jew rhetoric dominates the media, academia, trade unions and the street. Jews are unwelcome in cultural and progressive political spaces (unless we join the chorus of hate). There have been calls to exclude Zionists – that is, to exclude me – from a university campus (named for a famous Australian Jew, Australian patriot and a Zionist) just around the corner from where I live. Because of thoughts I may or may not have.

Jews face everything from low level antipathy to Israel to frank antisemitism. We confront the heavy silence of non-Jewish friends and colleagues who don’t know what to say or choose not to say what they think. Hatred haunts the places where we work and worship. It reaches intimate spaces, with swastikas and hateful slogans scrawled on the fences and walls of our homes and schools. There have been “hit lists” of artists guilty of pro-Israel thought-crimes. There have been calls (coded or explicit) for the elimination of Israel and at the extremes, rape denial, the celebration of Hamas’ atrocities, calls to “normalise the massacre”, a US campus activist stating that “Zionists don’t deserve to live” and bullets fired at Jewish schools.

In the midst of this storm of alienation and hate, we needed to “get away from it all”. So, we escaped to Israel. Israel is suffering from war on multiple fronts with evacuated zones to the North and South and tens of thousands internally displaced. The state itself has contracted. Confidence in Israel’s capacity to protect its citizens has been shattered. Anger over the devastation in Gaza has led to Israel’s increasing international isolation. Israelis, despite their natural resilience, are struggling with their shock, grief, and uncertainty as they go about their lives. Trauma is a constant presence. All of this is compounded by dismay and anger over governmental incompetence and corruption, security failures and a deeply divided society.

We came to Israel despite all of this. We came because of it. We came to see family and friends, to express solidarity, to listen, to share community and to help in any small way. We came hoping to be nourished through connection, through being somewhere Jewish concerns are not something one struggles to explain but rather something understood and shared wordlessly. We were relieved to be somewhere where the only people screaming at Jews were other Jews.

Israel is a place that lets you know how it feels. At the airport arrival hall travellers walk past a long photographic gallery of the remaining hostages, their frames inscribed with messages of love. This is what is to be kept front of mind. We stepped out into a warm Tel Aviv evening one week after Israel was targeted by the largest missile attack in history. We saw Israelis jogging and dancing, skating and busking, surfing, shopping and playing with energy and bravado. Business as usual. Yet heartache was everywhere. Images of hostages and the demand to “Bring them home” were on street signs, in shop windows, at bus stops, on huge banners draped on apartment towers and on bumper stickers. Yellow ribbons of memory and hope adorn lapels and car door-handles. The whole of Israel is in grief. The government slogan “Together we will win” convinces no one that the nation is unified, nor that victory is nigh.

We arrived just before Passover, when the story of our liberation from slavery in Egypt is retold each year. The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzraim, which is also understood to mean “narrow place”, a place of physical constraint, of psychological and spiritual limitation. We read “In each and every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Mitzraim”. In our comfortable, “sophisticated” diasporic lives this injunction is interpreted abstractly, metaphorically. We work hard to feel it. Passover has to be reinterpreted as the challenge of personal, psychological and spiritual growth or an opportunity to think about climate change and indigenous rights. This year, with our challenges so concrete, with a diminished state and the Jewish world closing in, little effort was needed to feel ourselves back in Mitzraim.

We spent the Saturday evening prior to Passover at Tel Aviv’s “Hostage Square” in the Tel Aviv Museum forecourt. For months, families of hostages have gathered each week after Shabbat to remember their loved ones, to read each name aloud, crying out and demanding their urgent return. This year the searing pain of families of the 133 hostages still in Egypt, sorry Gaza, cast a pall over the upcoming festival of freedom. The traditional greeting of Chag Pesach Sameach (Happy Passover celebration) was mocked in posters in which the words Chag (celebration) and Sameach (happy) were crossed out. Many seders across the country were to have an empty chair this year to mark the absence of those in captivity.

Some days later we marked the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day with friends in Jerusalem, in a “Zikaron ba Salon” (Remembrance in the lounge). In intimate events in private homes, families and friends gather to recount stories of loss and of survival. We shared stories of our parents’ experiences (yes, we are that generation) and struggled with the recent tragic losses in Israel and the recrudescence of hate around the world. It seems antisemitism just needed to catch its breath after the Holocaust. Once again Jews are confronted with the vulnerability and contingency of Jewish life, not just in the diaspora but in the state we thought may offer some protection. We are again a tiny minority, again facing mob hatred.

Remembrance Day is a solemn event, honouring soldiers who have fallen in Israel’s defence and mourning victims of terrorism. On a warm, tranquil Tel Aviv evening we joined the many thousands for the communal event in the parklands by the Yarkon river. There was a silence, solemnity, even a kind of sanctity in this evening of speeches, of prayers, stories of lives lost shared by loving, grieving families. And sad, sad songs. Never before has such an annual increment of loss been added to the toll of victims of terrorism, all in one day. A count that has been maintained to a person, since Israel’s war of independence 76 years ago.

The eve of Independence Day commences immediately at the end of Remembrance Day. It is usually a transition from sorrow to the joy of Israel’s founding, marked with ceremony and celebration. This year, with most Israelis no more than one degree of separation from recent loss, it was an evening of reflection on the cost of Jewish independence, on the meaning of independence for a state that cannot protect her citizens and with government considered illegitimate by half the country. Families of hostages created sombre alternatives to official events, dousing rather than lighting ceremonial torches, and many had not the heart to mark the moment at all. We spent the next day with family at a traditional Independence Day barbecue or “Mangal” (ironically from the Arabic Manqal). It was lovely to reconnect at a family gathering and so moving to share in the challenges and pain just below the surface of the festivities. This experience of family and friends, of strong, loving, creative and hard-working people struggling with their new reality was something we encountered again and again.

We visited the Tel Aviv Museum of Art early in our stay but there was no solace to be found in beauty, just more anguish. In the forecourt, renamed “Hostage Square”, were dozens of installations dedicated to the hostages; a giant heart locked in a cage, a set dining table with an empty chair for each hostage, a “tunnel” evoking the conditions of captivity. In a large hall inside was a curated collection of images entitled “Shemini Atzeret”, the Jewish holiday that fell on the 7th of October last year. A circle of stark and cryptic images, each connected to one word of a poem by Tadeusz Rosewicz, an imaginary conversation between a mother and son.

Time Hastens, my time is up
What should I take with me to the other shore
So is that it mother?
Yes son, that’s it
So that’s all
That’s all
So, this is a life
Yes, all of it

The museum featured an evocative artwork, Netta Lieber Sheffer’s “Shattered Hopes and Roads not taken”. It presents a series of large-scale black and white images, boats suspended in space each bearing one of our diverse diasporic “tribes”, Bundists, assimilated academics, Jewish women, traditional religionists, Jews of the East and others. The centrepiece is a map of the world depicting national responses to our history of exclusion, expulsions and exterminations. Territorial dreams, schemes and fantasies. Uganda, Argentina, Alaska (recalling Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union) even the obscure Grand Island plan in New York. The dream ultimately came to be (or is perhaps, yet fully to be) embodied in Zionism and the state of Israel. Lieber Sheffer’s political work of art invites the viewer to ponder whether that was the right historical choice.

For most Jews the answer is relatively simple. We think of Zionism as an organic response to our history – to the cost, and sometimes impossibility, of Jewish diasporic life. It is a liberation movement embodying the aspiration for freedom, safety, and rootedness in homeland. It is for Jews what Martin Luther King’s “promised land” was, and what Black Lives Matter is, for Black Americans. It is what land rights and treaty are to Indigenous Australians and indeed, what Palestinian nationalism is for the Palestinians.

Painfully, the world seems violently to reject this understanding. Global movements have gone beyond critique of the current war to the condemnation of the Jewish national project. Once upon a time, a time closer to the genocide of Jews, the world community understood the Jewish “dream” within the framework of competing national aspirations. Now, with the Jewish dream a reality and the Palestinian dream unfulfilled, the conflict has been reimagined as one of coloniser versus indigene, white versus black, oppressor versus oppressed. Israel has been reduced to a handful of labels, “settler-colonial”, “apartheid” and “genocidal”. It is as though history’s greatest evils have been squeezed out, purified and poured into the collective imagining of Israel. It has become impossible to discuss the actual events in Israel-Palestine without slipping into flawed analogies.

For the “campus generation” who see only the suffering of Palestinians, Jewish vulnerability is ancient history and Jewish connection to the land of Israel is a myth. In the new Passover story, Palestinians are the “slaves” and Jews the new, powerful Pharaohs. Zionism, a Jewish response to racism, oppression and genocide, has come to be seen as nothing other than the embodiment of those evils, as so eloquently expressed by Howard Jacobson. It is sad, but perhaps understandable, that such large sections of society are inclined towards uncritical acceptance of this simple narrative. For Palestinians, and the broader Arab and Muslim communities, antipathy to Zionism may be an expression of personal loss or communal loyalty. Many Indigenous communities and people of colour have come to map their own struggles onto Israel-Palestine. For many “progressives” in the West, including some well-intentioned but ill-informed students on our campuses, anti-Israel campaigning may offer a way dealing with their own sense of historical guilt, at little personal cost.

Into this fraught political landscape have exploded the events in Gaza. The whole world is confronted by the death and devastation of the war. Israel faces an impossible set of moral challenges fighting in Gaza and is being judged by the world for failing to do the impossible, criticised without regard for standards achieved by any other nation in an existential war. Being in Israel at this time makes the contrasting media coverage of events so stark. While Israeli media do not focus on harms suffered in Gaza, Western media have failed monumentally to represent the scope of challenges faced by Israel. October 7th has been erased from memory as have the broader threats facing Israel. Despite this, I am at a loss to know what to make of the death of so many thousands of Palestinian non-combatants. It feels empty talking about rules of engagement, human shields and proportionality or the unreliability of Hamas’ casualty figures. On the other hand the allegation of genocide seems like a cruel political strategy. The International Court of Justice, charged with dispassionately and methodically examining the allegation has not established that genocide is occurring. To quote Joan O’Donoghue, ex-president of the ICJ “…I’m correcting something that’s often said in the media. (the Court) did not decide that the claim of genocide was plausible.” If anti-Israel interests eventually manage to squeeze Israel’s actions into some technical definition of Genocide, they remain a universe away from the historical events that gave birth to the concept.

The ICJ’s welcome disclaimer has come months too late and is irrelevant to activists who have embraced the label of Genocide as a political weapon. They did so prior to Israel’s response military response last year and indeed have been using the term for years alongside “colonial, supremacist, apartheid, racist”. If Israel can be labelled genocidal, then expressions of concern for the safety of Israel’s citizens, or support for their right to self-defence and self-determination, can be misrepresented as an endorsement of Genocide. Only in such an environment could Ilhan Omar get away with the cynical comment that US Jewish students should be protected from on campus hate, “…whether they’re pro-genocide or anti-genocide…”

The historical, ideological and linguistic “capture” of the Israel-Palestine discourse leaves little room for nuance or debate and has gradually eliminated Jewish and Israeli perspectives from public discourse. Perhaps the deepest thread of pain in this diminishing Jewish world, in the political silencing of Jews, is the erasure of the human and emotional reality of current Jewish and Israeli experience. To question hegemonic political views (I had to use the word at least once) in the current climate requires intellectual curiosity. It requires an open mind, imagination and courage. Above all it requires the empathy of human understanding.

Sadly, empathy is precisely the target of an essay, “On Zionist Feelings”, by Australian academic and Palestinian advocate Randa Abdel-Fattah. I chanced upon this piece early in our trip and it has lingered, embodying something insidious. Abdel-Fattah claims that Jewish grief and anger over Hamas’ murder, rape and kidnapping, distress over diasporic experiences of exclusion and antisemitism, are just “emotional fragility”, “Zionist political anxieties” and “…a rhetorical shield to deflect from the reality of Palestinian genocide.” This is a dehumanising negation of the Jewish emotional world and a trivialisation of Jewish lived experience. It is intended to kill empathy and discourage engagement with Jewish and Zionist perspectives. Would it be accepted if directed at any other vulnerable minority? What makes the essay so disturbing is her prominence and embrace within the Australian progressive community, as evidence by her selection as a judge on the New South Wales multicultural award.

Abdel-Fattah claims that this is all just aimed at “Jewish Zionists”. The distinction between (good) Jews who publicly disavow Israel and Zionists is convenient for anti-Zionists, but entirely false. Most Australian, US and UK Jews have deep concerns for Israel, whether or not they self-define as Zionists, and many have family or friends in Israel, the state in which half their co-religionists live. Abdel-Fattah claims it is only Zionist “strategists” who “sit in the corridors of power” who try to blur the line between Zionism’s “…White European Jewish supremacist political ideology” and the “Abrahamic religion of Judaism”.

Not only is this historically inaccurate (Zionism is a response to exclusion from European society and half of Jewish Israelis are not White ) but this human rights advocate seems comfortable to echo tropes of the powerful, manipulative, back-room Jew so often heard in anti-Israel and antisemitic circles. Only recently, Jenny Leong, a state representative of the Australian Greens Party, spoke publicly of “…the Jewish Lobby and the Zionist Lobby infiltrating” with their “Tentacles” (she later apologised).

In the current political climate, to support Jewish safety and self-determination in Israel is a thought crime. Indeed, any suggestion there may be historical and ethical complexities of Israel-Palestine is a thought crime. Jews have long been accused of weaponising charges of antisemitism to shield Israel from criticism. Now, this accusation has itself been weaponised to shield any anti-Israel rhetoric from critical evaluation and to silence emotional responses to any action, no matter how heinous.


Israel, the idea, has expanded to fill the world, while real Jews and Jewish communities are being corralled into smaller and smaller political and emotional spaces. There are many, like Abdel-Fattah, working to confine us in this impoverished landscape, devoid of history and humanity. While the hateful voices of advocates, activists and academics may not reflect the views of the “silent majority” these views seem to be permeating more and more into the political center. I fear that is what I will find when I return home.

It is hard not to struggle with the sheer weight of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment everywhere from international bodies to the city square to the street just around the corner. The universe seems to be saying there is no right answer to Lieber Sheffer’s lingering question. The global Jewish community is experiencing “Everything, Everywhere, All at once”. It is a frightening “back to Egypt” moment.

A couple of months in Israel have been just long enough to enter into the surreal reality of day-to-day life “normality” in a country sitting on a volcano with a tsunami on the horizon. The time has been rich with conversation and shared intimacies, learning and work, burdened by war and grief, by history and big politics. My time in Israel will sadly end a little after Shavuot, the last of the many days of communal reflection in Israel since Passover.

On Shavuot we celebrated the giving and receiving of the Torah with a traditional Tikun Leil Shavuot, staying up all night to learn, to atone for the original generation who, according to the midrash, “slept in” and missed the moment. Oops! This year, our teachers on Shavuot were looking for meaning, comfort and strength in our traditions, exploring Jewish textual responses to loss and grief, conceptions of peace and justice, and the meaning of a “Nation that stands alone”. I walked to the Western Wall at 4 am, a bit drunk with sleep deprivation, to see the famous Shavuot pre-dawn service along with tens of thousands of ultra-orthodox Jews. I felt both entirely out of place and strangely at home.

Israel is in a dark place politically, in pain, divided and with an impoverished leadership. Despite all of that, the last few months here have reinforced my belief that this dark place is not the heart of the nation. There have been inspirational moments witnessing the community mobilising in response to disaster, an army of volunteers stepping up when government fails practically. It is a powerfully engaged citizenry that still has the spirit to take to the streets when the government fails morally.

There are still, small voices of grass roots connection. A day prior to the divisive Jerusalem day “Flag March” I joined an interfaith event with Jews, Muslims and Christians who walked from the center of West Jerusalem to the gates of the Old City to speak, sing and pray together for understanding and peace. Small in number but a spark of something hopeful. It is ironic that such contacts are occuring here at the epicenter of the conflict, while in my home town and around the world, activists promote hate and “anti-normalisation”.

As I write this, sitting in an Aroma café, I saw a Palestinian woman approach a seated group to ask if she could borrow an unused chair for a friend. A man shouted at her and waved her away. I was shocked, hoping I’d misunderstood the exchange. I approached her to offer my chair and as did two other Israelis who apologised for the rudeness she had experienced. When eventually the pain of October and its aftermath slowly, slowly subside, there will need to be a reconciliation in Israel-Palestine. Whatever political outcome takes shape, it will have to be predicated on recognising the political rights and humanity of both groups. It will have to be the precise opposite of the Abdel-Fattah’s cold heartedness. It has been inspirational and therapeutic to have been accompanied these last months (and for many years prior) by the words of thinkers like Michael Walzer, Moshe Halbertal, Yossi Klein ha Levi and David Hartman who share their efforts to navigate moral dimensions of the conflict.

A few days ago, I watched the live stream of the return of four of the hostages. It was emotionally so powerful to see them reunited with family, a moment of heart swelling personal and national celebration in an otherwise very dark time. News readers were in tears. I was in tears watching video of a lifeguard announcing over the PA news of the rescue to a crowded Tel Aviv beach. The crowd erupted with joy. It was as though their own children, brothers or sisters had just returned home. Walking through the local neighbourhood later that afternoon I couldn’t help but stop a young orthodox couple pushing a pram; I just had to share the joy, news that observant Jews would otherwise not have heard till later in the day. I learned later that this spontaneous sharing of news between secular and observant Jews had occurred across all across Israel. The country, just for a moment, behaved like a family.

It is difficult time to hold our space and for Jewish voices not to be overwhelmed by sheer strength of numbers. I try to remember that the loud global mob is an expression of power, of numbers, not of truth. This moment challenges those of us who care for Israel to reengage with the ethical principles at the heart of Zionism and to reflect on what energises our commitment to the broader Jewish “project”. That energy just might be love.

About the Author
Andrew is a medical specialist working in Australia. He is a regular visitor to Israel and a member of an egalitarian shul in Melbourne. He is married and has three sons. He occasionally suffers from thought bubbles that transmogrify into written form.