Stunned gatherings of Jews in cities around the world sing their nation’s anthem, the Hatikvah, as if it were a prayer for survival. Large gatherings of Palestinians and their supporters chant their mantra ‘from the river to the sea’ as if they believed this would solve their collective problems. Neither has the power to end a war.
On the 7th October Jews in southern Israel were revisited by the horrors of the Holocaust. Within hours, the Palestinians of the Gaza strip once again found their cities from Gaza in the north to Khan Yunis in the south and their surroundings being subjected to relentless bombing of ever-increasing intensity. The Jews ran to their shelters, the Palestinians ran for their lives. The catalyst that ignites each miserable episode of this decades old saga is foreign sponsored terrorism. Just as the memory of the Nazi Holocaust inflicted a wound in the brain tissue of every Jew, and the Nakba is etched on the memory of every Palestinian, so too will be the memory of 7th October, for generations to come.
We Jews have had many enemies intent on our destruction and we have outlived them all. While there are many among us who detest our current Israeli political leadership and even blame them for the fact we are at war, having started, the war must be prosecuted and must come to its end with Israeli victory.
Israel knows full well that losing a war with the cacophony of terrorist organisations surrounding it will mean the destruction of the State. Last week’s events have demonstrated to the world that such destruction would unleash a new holocaust on a scale outstripping that of World War II. For people of good will on both sides – and there are people of good will on both sides – it must seem that they are trying to build a bridge over a tsunami. If, as I have done, you view one of the many video streams published by Hamas of their indescribable brutality on entering Israel on October 7th, it would seem the tsunami is unstoppable. What would you say to the surviving family – if any survived – of a teenage girl, first tormented in front of her entire kibbutz, then set on fire with petrol and then filmed writhing in agony as the flames grew stronger until after what seems like an eternity, she finally died. How would you console the surviving families – if any survived – of the forty babies and toddlers who were killed publicly by decapitation in just one of the invaded settlements? How can you think of peace when you have seen a family of babies, toddlers, children and parents bound together with wire and set ablaze and filmed in triumph until all that remained was their chard remains? But we know we will have to find the strength to rise above even this bestiality just as we did the Nazi Holocaust and work towards the day when peace and harmony exists between Jews and Arabs around the world.
This is only the third time in my life that governments all over the world have rushed to lend their support to Israel when she was attacked. Why? Because in 1967 and 1973 there was real concern that Israel might not survive. Despite Israel’s current bluster about their ‘inevitable victory’ and a fatally weakened Netanyahu’s attempts to raise Israel’s moral, in our hearts and minds Israel’s future is uncertain. It is the safe haven for Jews and if it becomes unable to defend its citizens, the State would face an existential threat to its existence that would spread like cancer as a threat to Jews all over the world.
The rush to judgement by the world’s media, the world’s Arabs and their unquestioning supporters in every land, every university, everywhere, when the hospital in Gaza had an explosion in its car park is perhaps the second most frightening aspect of what has happened thus far. Even the BBC, well known for its Arab bias and its inability to call Hamas ‘terrorists’ rather than the feeble description ‘militants’, satisfied themselves that the explosion was very unlikely to have been the work of Israel. But more than 24 hours later and so many around the world still choose to believe it was Israel. Countless millions of people would rather believe the same terrorist organization as committed the atrocities on October 7th rather than believe Jews. Wake up world!! The atrocities have been proudly claimed by Hamas. The same Hamas that rules the Palestinians in Gaza. The same Hamas who uses Palestinians as human shields. The same Hamas that runs the hospitals in Gaza. The same Hamas who call themselves the Gaza Ministry of Health. The same Hamas whose figures of the number of Palestinians killed in the conflict are reported daily and believed world-wide. For Palestinians this war is a further reminder, if such a reminder was ever necessary, that once Israel is stung by their terrorist masters, it will be the Palestinian human shields who will die in their thousands before the guns fall silent.
Israel exists on a small strip of land the size of Wales, surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea and territories that are often home to organizations intent on its destruction. Each time Jews lash out and fight for their survival against the terrorists, it results in untold misery for Palestinians. Israel strikes the terrorists despite knowing that the consequential deaths of tens or hundreds or even thousands of Palestinians, be they in Gaza or South Lebanon, or on the West Bank, will achieve nothing more than buy a few years of relative quiet. While those who lead Hamas and those who carried out their atrocities last week must be done away with just as the Nazi leadership was decimated by the allies at Nurnberg, we also know that killing the Hamas leadership and foot soldiers will not kill their ideology, just as killing the Nazis has done nothing to prevent the birth of a new generation of far-right politicians around the world still pursuing elements of Nazi ideology.
The only way to kill Hamas evil is to separate Hamas from its oxygen, separate the leadership from the people they enslave. Israel must offer the people another tangible way of achieving the Palestinian dream of freedom which Hamas, Hezbollah and the rest claim they will be able to present them with through the destruction of Israel. If Hamas’s murderous grip on their human Palestinian shield in Gaza is an example of their idea of freedom for Palestinians, destroying Israel will do nothing but make the lot of the Palestinians far worse. Ordinary Palestinians who want a life of peace and progress for their children are no less hostages of Hamas in Gaza than are the two hundred Israelis and foreign nationals taken from the border settlements at the start of this war. But we must not forget that because of Netanyahu’s policies, the two and a half million Palestinians in Gaza, while hostages of Hamas, remain prisoners of Israel.
There will be no peace in Israel until Jews respect Palestinians and Palestinians respect Jews and each respects fully the other’s human rights. Neither Jews nor Palestinians have a monopoly on love, hope and aspirations for themselves and their children. We are equals. Despite this common ground we are all trapped in a devastating cycle of despair. There will be no peace in Israel until Jews come to the realization that the Nakba was and is real – it is the tragedy that drives Palestinian aspirations, just as every event from Dreyfus to the Holocaust drove Jews to the establishment of the State of Israel. Thankfully for the Palestinians the Nakba affected far fewer people than the Holocaust but nevertheless it justifiably drive Palestinian aspirations.
Early Zionist philosophy was very direct in insisting that the native people of the land between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean must not be dispossessed through the establishment of a Jewish State. Yet, upwards of 750,000 were. For whatever reason, they were. Israel and Palestine can trade their versions of history as ‘the reason’ – but they were. It’s time for all of us to get over the history – they were! Now let’s find a way forward that doesn’t involve killing each other and our children.
Both Jews and Palestinians DO have legitimate claims to land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. We can argue as to whether biblical text enshrines for the Jews a right to the land just as we can argue about how recently Palestinians were an identifiable group and whether they have ever been self-governing in a defined geographic area. But how will that help? There is nothing to be gained by either side arguing that their claim is superior to the other’s. There is no point in trying to rewrite their own or the other side’s history. Jews and Palestinians have a very long road ahead of them if they are to arrive in peace in the land of milk and honey. If we don’t start sorting this mess out by acknowledging each other’s version of history exists and working with the facts on the ground, we’ll not lift ourselves out of the cycle of violence. The suffering of the past is over and cannot be undone. This needs to be acknowledged and most importantly, we need to start now laying the groundwork to prevent suffering in the future.
This week, with battle lines drawn, commentators and politicians are asking “and what about the day after the war is over?” as if acknowledging in desperation that we are in a futile war after which nothing much will change. History will repeat itself time and time again unless we take a longer view. If we define our aspirations for the future we may be able to end the war by taking steps in the right direction. How about hoping for a strong Israel and a strong Palestine, in federation? Two nations at peace with each other. Two peoples respecting and supporting each other. Two economies working together with partners in the region, starting with the signatories to the Abraham Accords. How about working towards a Middle Eastern Economic Community to rival the European version?
Is any of this possible? Some might argue that 75 years on from Israeli Independence and the Palestinian Nakba, nothing has changed, and nothing can change. This is not so. Lots can and will change with common aspirations and much goodwill. We have the most unimaginable and vivid example. Remember the Holocaust which ended just before I was born. I’m now an old man and I sometimes pinch myself in disbelief that there is a German ambassador in Tel Aviv and an Israeli in Berlin. There are the strongest of cultural, scientific, commercial, security and personal links between the two countries. Last Sunday, the Brandenburg Gate that once stood as a symbol of Nazi strength was lit up in the colors of the flag of the Jewish State of Israel. And the first Head of State to visit an embattled Israel this week was not the American President. It was the Chancellor of Germany.
It’s taken a generation. We Jews had to overcome fears of which some of us old folk still retain remnants. But we had hope. The national anthem that has been on the lips of so many in response to the October 7th immeasurable tragedy – Hatikvah – means The Hope. We must all hang onto the hope of better times to come and not allow ourselves to be dragged into another cycle of vehemence and viciousness. History will judge us by the viability and success of the new reality we forge. But one thing seems clear to me. For seventy-five years we have systematically deprived Palestinians of hope. If this was our strategy for peace it was misguided and doomed to failure. We need to change our attitude, change our approach, end the occupation and work in partnership with those who want to come on a new journey with us towards a new Israel and a new Palestine. Then, perhaps, at the end of another generation our descendants will all be able to look back and acknowledge they have achieved the aspirations of two peoples, each descended from one of Abraham’s sons, and two flags will fly over Jerusalem with pride.