I’m still struggling with the constant cycle of emotions that I’ve been going through since 7 October (or really 8 October, once Yom Tov was over and I learnt the true extent of the horror): depression anxiety, despair, anger, frustration (at not being able to do anything), fear. It’s grief. I know it’s grief. Knowing what I’m grieving is harder. The dead, yes, but it feels like more. Grief for the end of a worldview that said that things were different now. The Jewish State is here to stay. Jews in the West are safe. Antisemitism is still here, but it’s a fringe phenomenon. Israel is containing Palestinian terrorism.
How wrong we were.
But more than grief, there’s betrayal. I’m not sure what has been betrayed. I already knew that Hamas is a murderous death cult, that Fatah are not committed to peace and are biding their time and trying to undermine Israel through “lawfare,” chipping away at its international credibility, that the Palestinian street, indeed, the Arab street, simply hates Jews, that the Western identity politics left sees a “Free Palestine” i.e. the destruction of Israel, as a crucial goal for anyone on the left, thanks to the doctrine of “intersectionality.” I had had my beliefs that negotiated peace was possible in the foreseeable future slowly eroded by the bloody decades after Oslo until there was nothing left.
But still, I feel betrayal. I never expected something like this to happen. I’m an anxious pessimist, but I wasted my anxiety elsewhere, particularly on the Iranian nuclear programme. I forgot that you don’t need atomic weapons to destroy a nation, you just need to destroy its soul: its self-belief and its hope.
Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tzl described the Second Intifada as an attempt by Israel’s enemies to put it in a state of “spiritual crisis” where it would lose all sense of self-belief and hope for the future. He said that when parents send their children to school in the morning not knowing if they’ll see them again in the evening, that’s a spiritual crisis. That fatally destroys all sense of meaning and hope in a person’s life, in a nation’s life.
Israelis are asking themselves how this could have happened and how they can stop it happening again. Unlike previous wars with Hamas in Gaza, a clear victory, consisting of the destruction of its terrorist infrastructure and the killing of its leaders, however difficult that may be, seems the only way to gain safety on the battlefield (no fear of imminent attack as well as a message to other enemies that Israel is as strong as ever), but also in the soul of the Jewish people. To show that we can still defend ourselves, that the sons of the Maccabees are not hiding like mice again. That is why I think it is no exaggeration to say this is an existential war for Israel’s survival. Hamas can not destroy Israel on the battlefield, but if it is left in a position to inflict more attacks like this on Israel indefinitely, Israelis will lose their self-belief and hope for the future, not to mention signalling to Hezbollah and who knows who else that it is safe to join the fray.
In the diaspora, we experience this vicariously. It’s partly a sense of brotherhood and Jewish unity and partly a sense that Israel is the front line, but we are not out of the war. Hamas intends to come for us as much as for Israeli Jews. They have never disguised this. That is one reason I believe this is turning into an existentialist conflict for the diaspora too. Here in the UK, when 100,000 people come to Trafalgar Square to protest against Israel (I don’t accept that they were “pro-Palestinian” – someone who wanted the best for Palestinians would not want them to suffer under brutal theocratic rule, would not seem so consumed with hate and anger in photos, would not call for “Jihad” or hold placards suggesting that Hamas atrocities were faked), when celebrities and the twitterati who usually signal their virtue for every tragedy say nothing, when Cambridge University Student Union plans to hold a debate calling for a mass rising across the Middle East against Israel, when the BBC can’t even bring itself to call Hamas terrorists, but instantly accepts their narrative about hospital bombing and their casualty statistics generally, then I begin to fear there is an attempt to force Jews out of the public sphere.
But, again, the shock and betrayal is hard to fully understand. Again, I knew that much of the media, particularly the left-wing media, including the supposedly impartial BBC, is biased against Israel. I knew that the hard-left and increasing numbers among the moderate left hate Israel. I knew that the world of student politics has toxic anti-Zionist and antisemitic currents. And yet, the extent of Israel and Jew hate exposed in the last three weeks has taken me by surprise.
I am fortunate that my non-Jewish friends have been supportive, but I’ve heard too many stories of people suddenly discovering that close friends support rape and murder, if it’s directed at Jews, or the right sort of Jews. My wife and I now sit on public transport pondering how many people we can see had even the slightest compassion for 1,400 dead Jews, over 200 hostages, countless rape victims; how many felt nothing and changed the channel; and how many were glad about this moment of “resistance.”
I increasingly wear a hat over my kippah. Just in case.
I don’t know where we go from here and I think anyone who says they know is deceiving themselves. I’m fortunate: I believe in God and the eternity of the Jewish people. I don’t believe in the automatic eternity of a pre-messianic Jewish state and certainly not of any diaspora community. So, I feel the fear. Then there are hostages, and the soldiers, and those in the path of the rockets… So much fear. So much betrayal.
Nevertheless, we need to hold on to hope. The future Reform rabbi, Hugo Gryn, was in one of the camps during the Holocaust with his father. Before Chanukah, his father saved his meagre margarine allowance to use it to burn as a Chanukah light. Hugo Gryn complained that this was a waste of precious food. His father responded, “A human being can go for nearly three weeks without food and you and I once went three days without water, but you can not last three minutes without hope.”
Now is a time for saving our hope in ourselves and our future wherever we can find it: in stories of heroism and bravery, in acts of kindness, in prayer and Torah study, in reflection on the history and resilience of our people. Then we can sit with the depression, the anxiety, the despair, the anger, the frustration, the fear, the grief, the betrayal. They can’t harm us, unless we lose our hope.