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29 November 2023

We must refuse the currency of fear

Mourning is always political. The space for a form of grief that is not used to justify violence is shrinking.

By Katrina Forrester

As I write, the death toll in Gaza is estimated to be at least 15,000, including more than 6,000 children. More than 1.6 million people have been displaced. There is little water or food, and minimal fuel. Aid is starting to be delivered, but it’s too soon to know what effect recent hostage deals will have on Israeli bombardment. Sewage fills the streets. Hospitals no longer function; many of the injured will die from their wounds, if not starvation and disease. The means by which an entire society reproduces itself is being demolished. Doctors and journalists have been murdered in droves, and schools and universities destroyed: the state of Israel’s brazen disregard for international law – a defining characteristic of its occupation of Palestine – has entered new territory as it treats children and humanitarian workers as complicit with Hamas and therefore legitimate targets. Over the past weeks, as Palestinians I follow on social media have been killed along with their families, as I have watched the incubators and dialysis machines lose power, like so many I have asked myself, again and again: what are we witnessing? What have we become? How much longer can we bear watching children pulled from rubble only to be identified with a new category – WCNSF: wounded child, no surviving family – and hear healthcare workers describe this conflict, with its relentless bombing of a trapped civilian population who cannot escape, as unprecedented? How many children can be taken? These atrocities in Palestine are world-historical horrors.

They are horrors that have been committed by Jews, in the name of Jews, yet they make all Jews less safe. For diasporic Jews, they pose both a dilemma of complicity and a threat. The abhorrent terrors perpetrated by Hamas on 7 October left Israelis reeling and Jews grappling with vulnerability. They gave Jewish anxiety a concrete object of fear, but fear rapidly and inevitably became a currency to be exploited by anyone with an interest in waging war and maintaining apartheid: as it circulates, globally, into every nook and cranny of Jewish life, it is legitimising a repression of political dissent that falls heavily not only on Palestinians and those who stand in solidarity with them, but Muslims, leftist Jews and the left in general. Refusing that currency of fear is becoming harder. Cultural, political and educational institutions have become sites of repression, retaliation and the “Palestine exception” to free speech. Calls for a ceasefire – a ceasefire – are characterised as anti-Semitic, while the everyday anti-Semitism of reactionaries who support Zionism is shrugged off. A dangerous Holocaust denialism that frames Hamas as more “barbaric” than the Nazis has surfaced as part of a toolkit for dehumanising Palestinians. Jews who stand in opposition to Israel’s colonial violence and its claim to structure and underwrite Jewish experience are slandered and, in an anti-Semitic (or self-hating) move of its own, deemed inauthentic, cherem, un-Jewish: Jews who do not count. In the face of the Israeli state’s seemingly unending capacity to turn Jewish grief into mass violence, defending even a basic humanitarianism has become a radical act.

Yet there is always bravery, inspired by that of Palestinians themselves. Solidarity acts as a form of protection that multiplies courage, and many have proven themselves braver than anticipated (braver, certainly, than I am). Kids in school are walking out, activists are organising sit-ins in train stations, stall-ins on bridges and blockades of war ships; protesters in the streets are marching for peace and the justice it requires, students are occupying universities restricting their speech. The families of hostages in Israel have demanded freedom for all prisoners on both sides. Their slogan, “everyone for everyone”, disrupts the logic of hostage exchange and points to a utopian horizon beyond the inequalities of occupation.

In these acts, we see the contours of a new Jewish diasporic left – not just the proud tradition of leftists who are Jews, but something more, something that is taking shape at a moment of remarkable unity and resistance on the left in general, born of the unambiguous necessity of standing with Palestinians in Gaza and beyond. It is a movement that can hold many truths at once: that the Hamas massacres were abominable brutalities, but that nothing can justify what Israel is doing and that it should not be a requirement that we condemn one unspeakable act every time we speak of another. That this war and this siege did not begin on 7 October and that the eliminationist horrors of Jewish history have for too long been used to justify Israeli apartheid. That fear and anxiety do not cancel out guilt and responsibility. That a genocide would also be a suicide. That I can cry for the Israeli children who look so much like my own and for the Palestinian babies – and their mothers, and their fathers – who have never been given an ounce of the freedom or security my family died and survived for.

These multiple truths are not only contradictions or ambiguities facing a Jewish left; they are its strengths. In orphaned Palestinian children, many Jews see their parents or grandparents. We know that mourning must be an intergenerational project, but that mourning is always political and that the space for a form of grief that is not used to justify and enable violence and subordination is shrinking. We also know that it is nonetheless in working through grief that we might build together something new – a counter-power that has at its core two simple commitments: never again, for anyone; no one is free until everyone is free. Palestine is no exception.

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

[See also: Lessons of growing up black and Jewish]

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