The War on Jewishness and Our Response

Hamas killed a lot more than 1,200 people on 7 October and destroyed many more lives than those of the hostages, the survivors of rape, their families and the families of the murdered. What they destroyed, or tried to destroy, consciously or unconsciously, was a substantial part of what it means to be Jewish. I list the concepts in no particular order.

  1. Compassion. According to the Talmud, Jews are defined by compassion, to the extent that a Jew without compassion may have his or her Jewish identity questioned. The war that has been forced upon Israel and, by extension, the Jewish people, is designed to erode our compassion, by mobilising Palestinian civilians as human shields. I believe the war is justified and necessary according to the principle of self-defence, and so do most Israelis and diaspora Jews. However, Hamas is aware that compassion is a muscle that can wither from lack of use. By forcing us to kill their children, they hope to erode our ability to feel compassion for the vulnerable.
  2. Peace. Peace is the ultimate goal of Jewish history, the final request in our main prayers and, according to the Talmud, the only vessel capable of holding other blessings (health, prosperity), without which they are useless. Hamas is trying to push peace from our consciousness. When two-thirds of Gazans, and three-quarters of all Palestinians, still support the 7 October attacks, despite their consequences, the hope of peace seems painfully distant. Israelis are preparing for a long war. So are diaspora Jews, psychologically if not literally. Peace seems an impossible dream right now.
  3. Family. Jewish family is the cornerstone of the Jewish community and Jewish continuity. As someone who was once an “older single,” I can testify to the pain and exclusion felt by someone excluded from this (which needs to change, but that’s a topic for another time). If Hamas can poison the Jewish family, they will be well on the way to destroying Jewish identity and the Jewish people. Since 7 October, seeing babies, particularly Jewish babies, seems bittersweet. I worry what will happen to them, I think of other babies murdered, I slip dangerously close to despair. Similarly, marital love, the foundation of the Jewish home, seems, on some level, poisoned by the brutality introduced to the concept of what should be consensual, intimate and mutually pleasurable by the Hamas rapists on 7 October. As the rabbis said in the wake of the brutal Hadrianic persecutions by the Romans, by rights we should forbid Jewish marriage and procreation and let the Jewish people die out. How can we expel the poison in our homes?
  4. Shabbat and Yom Tov. By attacking on a Shabbat that coincided with Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, Hamas struck a blow at the concept of “sacred time” that structures the Jewish calendar on both a weekly and an annual cycle. They sought to undermine the sacred time where Jews are physically refreshed and refocused on spiritual goals, when we gather together both to pray and to rejoice. Choosing Simchat Torah, one of the most joyful festivals and one where we focus on the Torah as the constitution of the Jewish people and the ketubah of our “marriage” to God, as their target was an attempt to expunge the idea of joy from our holiest days, aiming to bring grief and misery into every subsequent Shabbat and Yom Tov in a matter analogous to the “Goebbels Calendar” of the Holocaust, where massacres were planned for Yom Tovim.
  5. A light to the nations. Finally, the scale of the massacre and the perceived Israeli weakness acted as a signal for powerful Jew hate across the world, on a scale unseen in previous Gaza conflicts. This has made connection and friendship with non-Jews hazardous. Aside from the risk of experiencing hate directly, there is the nagging doubt as to whether the non-Jew I am talking to hates me or my people. Did they protest for “Free Palestine”? Do they want an “Intifada until victory”? Like many diaspora Jews, I am scared to show my Jewish identity in public and feel uncomfortable on public transport. Yet how can Jews fulfil the core concepts of being a “a light to the nations” or “God’s witnesses” if we are too scared to connect with others and if the Israeli army’s attempts to fight a war observing human rights against an enemy who desecrates them is falsely maligned in the media?

Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tzl spoke of the “spiritual crisis” caused by terrorism during the Second Intifada. He meant the constant state of fear and loss of hope, but now the crisis has penetrated to the core of what it means to be Jewish.

Just as the Israeli army is going on the offensive, so must those of us not in the army, whether in Israel or the diaspora, go on the offensive. The only way to survive is to proactively throw ourselves into the things that our enemies would destroy.

  1. Compassion. Our response to Hamas is to remember that, “If we start by being kind to the cruel, we will end by being cruel to the kind.” Instead, now is the time to give to our Jewish brothers and sisters in whatever way we can. This will depend on where we are; there are obviously a lot more practical things to do for the survivors, soldiers and internally displaced in Israel than elsewhere. However, compassion does not have to be directed at those affected by 7 October and the war. The Jewish community had Jews who were poor, sick or otherwise in need of help of one kind or another before 7 October and they still need help. Support a food bank, visit the sick at a hospital, see what your local synagogue is organising and needs help with. There are many options and there is bound to be a task that needs your skill set.
  2. Peace. We spent thirty years trying to make peace with people who, in retrospect, never stopped hating us and wishing for our deaths. In the process, we neglected each other, allowing divides between religious and secular, right and left, Orthodox and Progressive, to grow into massive canyons. There are substantive differences in values and outlook between these groups and we aren’t going to be able to pretend there aren’t. But what we can do is mentally tell ourselves that we are siblings, we only have each other in this world, we have to find a way to live together or we will certainly all die together. That begins with a conscious decision to listen empathetically. Not to automatically agree with everything (that’s hardly the Jewish way!), but to listen with empathy and compassion and not with anger or hate.
  3. Family. We need to recommit to the Jewish family: marriage and children, but also compassion and peace. A Jewish family is built on shalom bayit, domestic harmony.[1] Again, this does not mean never arguing, but listening to each other empathetically and sacrificing for each other. It means spending time together without screens, enjoying each other’s presence. Which brings me to…
  4. Shabbat and Yom Tov. As an Orthodox Jew, I honestly would not recommend anyone to rush into full halakhic (Jewish law) acceptance. In my experience, too much too fast leads to overload and rejection. And, as a realist, I don’t see everyone embracing halakhah any time soon. But I think all Jews can benefit from increasing their involvement with our holy times. It is Jewish practice that gives depth to Jewish identity and, as Ahad Ha’am said, more than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews. It is a point of national communion, a time when Jews worldwide are focused on the same thing, one day out of seven. Indeed, it is a time when Jews are connected to other Jews across time, throughout three thousand years of Jewish history. Sacred time that lends itself to introspection, to Torah study (another thing that should not be the sole possession of “religious” Jews), to individual and to communal prayer and to family time. It is a time to pause and contemplate, to be thankful for what we have. To remember we are defined by who we are and not by what we do and certainly not by who hates us. Whether you are already shomer Shabbat or whether it is just another day to you, think of one small thing you could do to enhance this time and mindfully connect with other Jews.
  5. A light to the nations. This was once important to my understanding of Judaism, but I don’t know what to do with it at the moment. I do believe that we are a light to the nations right now, in our behaviour towards each other and in the IDF’s behaviour in Gaza, trying to avoid civilian casualties as much as possible while Hamas seek to maximise them. If the world won’t see that, it isn’t our fault. But we can, as much as possible, try not to let our anger and frustration get the better of us and spill out into negative behaviour to others. Remember that ultimately some things are not in our hands.

Now is the time for those of us who are fortunate not to be literally on the front line to be able to deepen our commitment to our Jewish identities and lives, to ensure that Hamas’ aim of destroying Jewishness and Judaism can never succeed.

A final thought: despite everything, lately I have moments that I can only describe as joy, or “rightness.” There are moments when things seem to “fit” somehow, not in the world, but in my life. Rabbi Lord Sacks, in his essay on Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) in his introduction to the Sukkot machzor (festival prayerbook) speaks of joy not being the same as happiness, but coming from a sense of “doing the right thing.” Kohelet sees joy as coming not from wealth and conspicuous consumption or sleeping around, but from monogamous love, honest work and an ethical, God-fearing life. I see it as similar to Viktor Frankl’s sense of meaning, quoting Nietzsche that, “He who has a why to live can endure any how.”

Right now I have the why, even if I can’t put it into words. The why is in my Jewish practice and my Jewish family (literal family and metaphorical), in seeing myself as part of a community of Jews extended across both space (the whole world) and time (three thousand years). Paradoxically, the hatred directed at Jews, Judaism and the Jewish state right now makes me more confident in my Jewish, frum and  Zionist identity. As I said, I can’t really put it into words, but it’s a sense of, if the people who support murder, rape, torture, infanticide and hostage taking are against Jewishness, Judaism and Israel, then those things must be worth holding on to. And I am holding on to them, so I am doing what is right for me right now. And that is joy.

[1] Unfortunately, domestic abuse is not unknown in our community and it needs to be stressed that if a relationship is harmful, whether physically, emotionally or sexually, the concept of pikuach nefesh, the protection of life, if necessary by ending the relationship, takes precedence over shalom bayit. Shalom bayit NEVER means placing yourself or other family members in danger or feeling reduced to a non-person who is expected to sacrifice everything for someone else’s needs. If you aren’t sure whether this applies to you, please speak to someone with experience of abusive relationships such as an abuse hotline.

About the Author
Daniel Saunders is an office administrator, proofreader and copy editor living in London with his wife. He has a BA in Modern History from the University of Oxford and an MA in Library and Information Management. He blogs about Judaism, Israel and antisemitism at Living Jewishly
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