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29 November 2023

The innocent are innocent, whichever side of the Hamas-Israel war they are on

I am an Israeli that knows you can’t defeat an ideology with brute force – there must be a better option.

By Alona Ferber

Hamas’s massacre on 7 October and the ensuing war in Gaza have taken over life with a totality. There is daily reality here in London – childcare, work, the flat – and then there is the knowledge of what is happening somewhere I both love and long for and feel deeply conflicted about. I am an Israeli aching for home and terrified of the future. I am a British Jew caught between Israel’s retaliation, responses to Israel, and responses to Jews themselves. 

Stefan Zweig, the Jewish pacifist who saw everything he knew disappear in his lifetime, wrote of the invention of the telegraph that “the world has been different since it has been possible to know simultaneously in Paris what is happening at the same moment in Amsterdam, Moscow, Naples, and Lisbon”. What would Zweig have made of the internet? The Twitter warfare of Hamas and the IDF in former Gaza operations seems almost quaint by comparison with what the world has witnessed since that Saturday in southern Israel. Violence is shrunk down into digestible units, rectangles of sound and image that flatten hurt into nothing, hardening the hearts of observers.

Some have their world-view reinforced by algorithm. Some, who don’t know what to believe, pick a side and stay there, comfortably. Israeli friends who once might have gestured to peace or Palestinian rights say they have seen the truth: it’s us or them.

Since that day, the war has continued in brutality, disinformation and pain. There are things I have tried to hold on to, cloying terms that I must believe with sincerity, such as “radical empathy” and “moral clarity”. I keep returning to basic principles. Having watched news broadcasts or read endless comment about how certain things didn’t happen, or were possibly even deserved, I have found my mind wandering to dark places. Maybe we are legitimate targets, my children and I. Or, maybe the denialists are right, somehow. But then, I drag my mind back towards the light.

The removal of the posters of hostages has been one of the most difficult things. Somewhere, in New York I think, someone smeared shit on a poster of a kidnapped Israeli child. The defacement of the posters is a meme made real. How much are those who deface these posters influenced by footage of other people doing just that? The world seems a cold place, where people lack empathy for the suffering of innocents. And this lack of empathy implies that there are no innocents.

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Zweig met Theodore Herzl, the founding ideologue of the Zionist movement, when he was a young writer in pre-First World War Vienna. After the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906), Zweig wrote in his memoir The World of Yesterday, Herzl had “anticipated all of [the] tragic significance of [the fate of the Jews] at a time when it hardly seemed a serious matter”. After 7 October not all the world agreed that this tragic fate had resurfaced, even though some Jews felt targeted, even outside Israel. And now, with the resurgence of a populist right in Argentina, the Netherlands, maybe in America, could we once again be in a moment where, as Zweig described it, the Jews’ “eternal ostracism” is plain for all to see?

In the past six weeks, the present has rhymed with the past. The current Gaza war is the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is the fact of it not being over, of Israelis needing to face up to this and act on it, via radical empathy and moral clarity. On the global left, people call for Israel to cease fire. There are accusations of genocide. There are no calls for Hamas to cease fire or release civilian hostages, or even allow the Red Cross to visit them. Some Jews on the left are isolated with their pain and fear, the Israeli left certainly so. But surely it is ideas of the Israeli left that offer hope for life without violence and an end to the occupation: either two states for two peoples, or (more recent, and further to the left) one state of all its citizens, with equal rights. 

This is the sixth Israeli operation against Hamas since 2008. The past six weeks have been a lesson in the madness of repetition. Surely Hamas wanted this? Surely it was a trap (one that Israel jumped right into)? The world watches horrified as yet more families are wiped out, children pulled from rubble. Their hearts harden further to the suffering of Israeli children growing up under rocket fire, or taken from their homes, their parents murdered, to Gaza. This has to be a basic principle: the innocent are innocent, whichever side they are on, their pain an unconscionable price to pay for any victory.

In the past six weeks, wise people have repeated basic truths: you can’t defeat an ideology with brute force, and there must be a better option for Palestinians and Israelis than this. There is nowhere else for any of us to go.

This article is part of the series What It Means to Be Jewish Now.

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