The war over here: How are we supposed to get through this?

Until October 7 2023, Jews in the UK and elsewhere in the Diaspora had got used to a particular pattern of conflict.
Gaza would erupt. There would be Israeli causalities, there would be even more Palestinian casualties. Some would be fighters, more would be civilians. There would be demos across the world. There would be an uptick in antisemitic incidents. Jews would – according to taste – show solidarity with Israel, with Palestine, with the beleaguered Israeli left, with the peacemakers or with the warmongers. We would reserve our greatest anger and abusiveness for our fellow Jews.
Then there would be some kind of ceasefire, maybe a prisoner swap. And we would carry on, bruised but unbowed. The campaigns and organisations that were born in one round of violence would be ready for the next round of violence.
None of this will work this time – if it ever ‘worked’ at all. And that isn’t just because the atrocity on 7 October was unprecedented or that the Israeli response is also on a different magnitude. What’s different is that, for all the pressure for a ceasefire, this isn’t going to end anytime soon. And we are not prepared for that.
The current hostilities have been going on for nearly a month. Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009), the next most bloody Gaza war, only lasted three weeks. If the IDF were to be ordered to pull out of Gaza (they won’t) it would take days to extricate themselves. To achieve any kind of degradation of Hamas (and some of us are sceptical whether this is even possible) it will take weeks at best, with thousands more Palestinian deaths and an undetermined number of Israeli causalities. This is before we even consider the possibility of a ‘second front’ with Hezbollah…
So, as Jews, this is our reality for the foreseeable future. However unified or divided we might be about Israel, we do share this: Pretty much every Jew I know is finding this hard to bear, and for some (families of hostages for example) it is a living nightmare.
How do we survive this? I have been thinking about my grandparents lately. They were born in the UK and were spared the horrors of the Holocaust. Yet they still had to endure the Second World War as British Jews, knowing at least something of what awaited them if the Nazis won. How did they get through it? Actually, I wonder at how any civilians (let alone soldiers) survived the mental torture of a total war that lasted six years. What was it like to be helpless, at home, perhaps with a family member in the army who you haven’t seen for months, waiting for what might happen next?
Well not everyone did survive it, mentally and physically. My grandmother and her three sisters made a pact at the time to not have children. Her breaking of the pact led to years of family tension. That was just one family and is hardly the worst story around.
For the most part, ‘survival’ just meant putting one foot in front of the other. Yet there is one thing where, compared to us, they had a major advantage…
My grandparents couldn’t doomscroll. They had the news on the wireless and in the paper, both censored. They also had rumours and letters. But however desperate they might have been to know what was going on, they had to live with very limited access to facts. I’m sure that this lack of information was sometimes maddening, but it did make it possible at least to find respite from world events.
We do not have that ‘luxury’. Or at least I and most of the Jews I know don’t. We are on our phones and browsers and Whatsapp groups constantly, There is no respite. There is precious little filter. And we have no means of judging what is truly important from what is ephemeral.
Not only is the war always with us, it is also much more intimate than my grandparent’s war. I’m not talking about concern for family or friends in Israel or in Palestine, although this is difficult enough to deal with. I’m talking about the sense that the war is here, with us in (in my case) North London. Everywhere there are opinions and conflicts. The ‘main’ conflict ‘over there’ has seeded a myriad battles ‘over here’, Starmerites battle Corbynites, the BBC is assaulted by everyone, and on social media it’s pretty much all against all. We are living this war too. And while we Jews are unlikely to be killed in the UK (although we can’t rule it out) we can still be assaulted in different ways, and that includes by other Jews.
We Diaspora Jews don’t have experience of a long war in Israel from which there is no respite. My fear is that all of the ways that different kinds of Diaspora Jews have come to deal with conflict in Israel, won’t be fit for purpose here. The way that Jews from across the spectrum have dealt with post-2000s wars is with a flurry of activity, a burst of organising, a letter-writing sprint, a posting frenzy. How are we supposed to do that for an indefinite period?
One of my worries is that, since the war is taking up most of our bandwidth, we risk making Jewish life reducible to this. Burnout from this mode of Jewish existence risks becoming burnout from Jewishness itself. What will be left after months of fretting, organising and arguing? I fear we will lose sight of the everyday reality of Jewish life – the synagogue quiz suppers, the visits to shiva houses where you don’t know the actual mourners, the pub visits where everyone drinks diet coke. Or perhaps they will continue in their outward form but their content will be one of anxiety.
I could end this with some pious words about unplugging, self-care and the like. But I am completely unable to follow such strictures myself. Or perhaps I could end by telling us Diaspora Jews to get over ourselves – we aren’t the ones in the firing line (and in any case Gazans have it much worse). But I am no less susceptible to making this conflict all about me than anyone else.
There is one way in which I do have something to teach though. I work for 2 Jewish organisations. Those organisations still have to do the usual things they do: staff meetings, budget discussions and the like. For Jewish communal professionals, everyday Jewish life must go on and this can be comforting. Whether we work in Jewish organisations or not, we shouldn’t devote our entire existence to the war. We should still be invested in the parochial squabbles of our community. In a big war, we should remember to be small people too.
About the Author
Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist and writer, based in London.
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