With some Oct. 7 hostages released while most hostages are still cruelly left behind—the meaning of gratefulness feels conflicted and under attack.
Someone in the media said about the hostages who came home, “I have never been so happy to see people whom I have never met before.”
For this same reason, I feel grateful. Gratitude, in many ways and in many contexts, is what gives life meaning. It comes from the acknowledgement that life is filled with goodness and beauty—which we fulfill largely through reciprocal human relationality.
But the destructiveness of Hamas and of Israel hate threatens our basic bonds of gratitude. It shatters the sense of security both in Israel and for people who love Israel here in Canada and in other countries.
I was born in Israel about ten years after my great-grandmother, Alice Braun (1892-September 26, 1965) died on the eve of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year. Her son Tuvia (born Tibor), my grandfather’s brother, waited to tell the news of her death until the next day so as not to disrupt a celebration that took place in Kibbutz Ma’abarot on the eve of the holiday.
When I read an obituary to Alice written by a friend, I was struck by the fact that her friend highlighted the following as Alice’s blessing—that Alice, who came from Hungary, had lived to see a sovereign Jewish state.
When I first read the obituary many years ago, I felt a measure of distance. The establishment of a Jewish state as a woman’s key personal fulfillment did not resonate with my individualism. In addition to being self-centered, perhaps I had come to take the existence of the Jewish state for granted. Also, many of us in Israel were marinated in self-criticism and self-doubt—and perhaps in some cases wished that our grandparents or great-grandparents had immigrated to North America, a place that I tended to idealize, instead.
Before World War II, many people in Hungary and in other places where the Jews often enjoyed relatively high levels of safety and socio-economic wellbeing compared to more pogrom-prone countries discouraged their children from becoming Zionist. But Alice and my great-grandfather David were among those who educated their children, my grandfather and his siblings, from an early age to go to the British mandate of Palestine as young adults, which they did in the 1930s. David and Alice stayed in Hungary, like many people who likely felt too old or established in their countries to move. During the brutal murder of Hungarian Jews in the Holocaust, Alice and David were among those who were rescued on the Kastner train. After the war, they came to Israel. Today, in light of the recent manifestations of Jew hate, I feel that I would likely be able to relate to their attraction to Zionism in pre-World-War-II Hungary on a deeper level.
In today’s North America, just as many people carelessly articulate the term “colonialism” to demonize Zionism as an inherently oppressive movement, I seem to have a sense of Alice and David as people who may have correctly sensed that their soon-to-be-lost prosperity and deep connection to Hungary as citizens of that country could not secure the safety—physical, emotional or spiritual—of their children.
In the coming years and decades ahead of us, the English-speaking world, Europe and other places where Jewish people live will be put to the test—will our eyes be open to understand that Israel hate is masked Jew hate and a threat to humanity as a whole—or will we recreate the latent or overt hate that caused some Jewish people before World War II to become ardent Zionists?
The early Zionists were no doubt influenced by colonial ideas and naively believed that the prosperity and progress that they brought to the land would be peacefully embraced by the local Arab people (it was in fact embraced by many of them—but the Palestinian leadership too often made destructive choices). Despite their blind spots, the determination of the early Zionists and those who followed has created a rich harvest—a wonderfully flawed, diverse and vibrant country that does what it can to hold on to humane principles while often being forced to fight tragic wars.
In 2005, when Israel unilaterally left Gaza, the move involved the forced removal of Jewish people who built settlements around Gaza after 1967. According to some accounts, greenhouses left behind by the settlers were looted, destroyed and burnt by some people from Gaza. It is possible that some settlers dismantled green houses before leaving, but the policy of Israel and the IDF was to leave the greenhouses intact, with instructions on how to operate them and with the hope that they would help to facilitate prosperity. The destruction of greenhouses was an omen of worse things to come in the womb of time:
On October 7, the kibbutzim attacked were not post-1967 settlements. They had been in Israel since the early days, and many of their residents were staunchly left wing—people quite similar in their worldview to my great-grandparents Alice and David and to my grandparents.
My grandmother Hannah, who married my grandfather Saul (born Andor), Alice and David’s son, was so dedicated to agricultural work that her fellow Kibbutz members nicknamed her “Hannah the Fallah” (borrowing the Arab word for an agricultural labourer).
Today, it is not only human life on the border of Gaza that has come under threat. Agriculture—a symbol of Zionism—has also been devastated, with crops rotting in the aftermath of the pogrom.
Israeli volunteers, their love for the land reinvigorated, have been helping to heal Israel’s productive land.
A Times of Israel article reports that “the putrid stench that greeted [volunteers] from 6,000 square meters (roughly 65,000 square feet) of bell peppers rotting on their vines was testimony to the extent of the loss resulting from Hamas’s onslaught.”
A stirring account posted on Facebook may be roughly translated as follows (this is a slightly edited and redacted Google translation of the Hebrew original):
“Uprooting pepper bushes whose fruits could not be picked before they rotted—a whole greenhouse of them. 15 dunams. In the heat, some of us without gloves. . . . Two full buses, some of us women over 70. Our backs are killing us; our hands are full of callus. One of the hardest and most stinky jobs! (Imagine a rotten pepper crashing on your head, and a liquid mixture of hot and rotten pepper running down your neck and into your shirt. Even after washing, I nearly fainted from the stench that accompanied me like that throughout the day. Luckily, everyone was in the same boat).
And yet, people sweat and smile, complain and laugh. We insisted on finishing the whole greenhouse even though the bus was already waiting for us to return home. And we are done. The farmer couldn’t believe it. In the beginning, I didn’t expect that we would finish everything. He had tears in his eyes. And this—this is what brings us here week after week. The same people come again and bring new friends with them. Because we understand that we are not just picking. It’s not just for the “experience.” We are doing something different here. One of the volunteers defined it: revival. Our country needs nothing less than rebuilding. To repair, to restore, to grow, to educate, to build.
We will not give up our country. With all the anger about our country—the frustration, the disappointment, and the hard questions—Israel is still ours, and we belong to Israel.
And we want to make Israel better this time—more deserving of its people. A country that loves people and loves peace. And we will. We will do good.”
By confronting the rotten harvest with love and hands-on idealism, Israeli volunteers are reigniting a sense of hope and gratitude.
Here in North America, we must confront our own rotten harvest. We must acknowledge that some of the ideas that we planted in universities and other elite places have not produced a fruitful harvest but have rather spewed forth Israel hate and other problematic ideas, simplistically labelling some people as “oppressors” and others as “oppressed” without sufficient humanizing nuance.
Farmers cannot sell a rotten harvest. Neither should academics.
If I had a dollar for each time I heard Judith Butler’s name mentioned with reverence in academic talks or publications, I could buy myself a cashmere turtleneck sweater. But recently, this influential Jewish thinker has found it fit to mischaracterize the tragic war into which Israel has been forced as a genocide. Her words are an affront to those of us who care greatly about the loss of innocent human lives in Gaza but who understand that Israel must fight a war to prevent much greater atrocities—and that it is doing so within the laws of war (and war is always bad).
If you understand Hebrew, in the following video Ronit Ishai provides an erudite critique of Butler’s hypocrisy, intellectual laziness and inflated self-importance when it comes to Israel (a subject that seems to make too many academics forget about the importance of nuanced analysis):
In a less well-known corner of the academic hothouse, Laura Mullen, Kenan Chair of the Humanities in the English and creative writing department of Wake Forest University, North Carolina, decided to post the following on X (Twitter) in the aftermath of October 7:
“So it’s kind of a Duh, but if you turn me out of my house, plow my olive groves under and confine what’s left of my family to the small impoverished state you run as an open-air prison, I could be tempted to shoot up your dance party, yeah, even knowing you will scorch the Earth.”
Since then, following the negative response to what she had hoped would be appreciated as “raw” and “poetic,” Mullen resigned for “personal reasons” but reported feeling “thrown to the wolves.” So were many people in the south of Israel on October 7.
To turn our rotten harvest into fertile soil, the academia will have to do better than idealizations of olive trees and demonizations of Israel—implicitly depicting Israelis as deserving of murder, rape, kidnapping and torture.
As Israel is working to learn the lessons form October 7, there has been much talk of how false conceptions (the Hamas is deterred!) have led people in positions of power to ignore clear warnings from those charged with the observation of empirical reality around the fence and who understood that the Hamas may have been preparing an attack.
When your own observations, learning and thinking challenge authoritarian blindless backed by prestige, your words on this planet will not fall as seeds on fertile ground. This is true in all fields of knowledge. My father, Oded Bar-On, who is an independent thinker in physics, has written about how the reluctance to recognize parts of physics that are not yet widely known leads to the conception of the “expanding universe”—and how the belief in the strong force leads to unnecessary complication in the description of sub-atomic reality. The scientific method, as opposed to scientific “politics,” requires an examination of proposals that cast doubt on the correctness of accepted assumptions—and in particular it requires the testing of predictions. A true theory puts to the test predictions that can be used to disprove or confirm the theory. These are all very well-known principles that authoritative blindness tends to ignore. https://www.periodicphysics.com/
In any field of knowledge or human endeavour, conceptual blindness does harm. The truth, it seems, is important as long as it does not conflict with “more important” things such as career or the tendency to follow dogma or group think.
The manifestations of Israel hate in the West that have followed October 7 indicate rot that cannot be ignored if our intellectual culture and integrity is to once again flourish.