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  1. Ideas
29 November 2023

Jews in the diaspora must resist the inhumanity being done by Israel in our name

Jewish history in the 20th century testifies that suffering is a meagre moral teacher – but we learn its lessons anyway.

By Sam Adler-Bell

Since the brutal Hamas attack on 7 October, and the onset of Israel’s genocidal retaliation, I have thought often of my grandfather, who died in 2020. Jewish mourners tell each other, “May their memory be a blessing.” But I’m probably not alone in experiencing the memory of certain loved ones as a mixed blessing, an irksome comfort, like a pain between the shoulder blades, reminding you every morning – with a strangely bittersweet nostalgia – of all the blissful days you’ve endured it before. What I have been unable to stop thinking about, through these awful days, are the arguments I would be having with my grandfather if he were still alive.

I find myself getting angry, fiercely so, at the things I imagine he would say: about Israel’s unfettered right to defend herself, about the suffering we endured to acquire that right, about my own naive soft-heartedness, my insulting ingratitude towards him and our ancestors, who had to become hard and realistic to bequeath a world “safe for the Jews”. (So much for that, Grandpa, I hear myself responding, ruefully.)

Perversely, in imagining this interminable argument, which we maintained for more than a decade before his death, I find myself missing him terribly and wishing, so much, he were alive to annoy me to exhaustion. Many Jews must know this experience: in which bonds of love are sustained through painful, tempestuous argument, when the only alternative to acrimony is estrangement, absence, loss.

And I suspect that many Jewish leftists of my generation have experienced a relationship like this, in which our blooming awareness of Israel’s criminality, our opposition to the authorising myths of Zionism, was forged in a crucible of wounded attachment. The importance of such a bond, or its breaking, in the formation of our convictions gives a volatile, personal cast to our participation in Palestinian solidarity. Its oedipal dimensions can be an impediment or a motivation, lead to periodic myopia, to narcissism or over-sensitivity, to febrile but unreliable militancy, to admirable, undiminishing dedication.

I have observed manifestations of this complex inheritance in my peers, and in myself, in the past few weeks. I have found myself feeling fear, guilt, confusion, and a sense of betrayal charged with the resentments of childhood; blaming myself for things that I can’t control, unburdening myself of responsibility for things that I might. Those afflicted by such hang-ups are not owed forbearance by their allies; it is morally perverse to fixate on Jewish feelings amid this hasty project of Palestinian extermination. But it won’t do, for the Jewish left, to pretend it isn’t there. Familial bonds, like history, are given. The Zionism I despise most is my grandfather’s Zionism; I am thrust into a fervid argument with it that I didn’t choose, but that I am bound – by love and anger – to prosecute and, hopefully, win.

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When the full dimensions of Hamas’s atrocities in southern Israel came into view, I did not find it difficult to mourn, even as I immediately contemplated the terrors to come. My grandfather often spoke of his decision to make a life in New York City, rather than among the kibbutzim, as a failure of nerve. That I have no family in Israel seems an accident of history, surely not a moral inflection sturdy enough to bestow non-complicity or indifference. I don’t believe Jews in the diaspora are especially culpable for Israel’s present crimes, and I resent the occasional implication that we are, but that conviction only survives if Jews in the diaspora refuse enlistment in Israel’s moral blackmail, if we resist the inhumanity being done in our name.

Jewish history in the 20th century testifies to this: that suffering is a meagre moral teacher; but we learn its lessons anyway. It is the bleakest of historical ironies that a people hounded from country to country, and eventually into camps, by the pestilence of nationalism should seize on nationalism as our saviour, our birth right, our vengeance. The question for the Jewish left today, as it was in 1945, is this: what can be done with anguish, with the feeling of being persecuted for an attachment to identity, to a history and even to a family, other than inflicting the same anguish on others. The year 1948 was a shameful answer to that question, a world historic mistake; thus far 2023 has been, too. But everywhere that the call rings out among Jews — not in our name — the seeds of a different answer are sowed.

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

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