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1 December 2023

The left fails to appreciate competing loyalties

Cooperation between Palestinian and Jewish Israelis is the only model for a peaceful future.

By Keith Kahn-Harris

Being a Jew on the left right now feels like being torn apart.

I work for two British Jewish communal organisations and I’ve been involved in the Jewish community all my life. These are dark times and I share the worry that, sooner or later, the growing wave of anti-Semitic incidents in this country will have deadly consequences. I’ve also spent significant time in Israel, I speak Hebrew and have family and friends in the country. I am mourning those who were killed on 7 October and I am desperate for Hamas’s Israeli hostages to be returned unharmed.

Yet while I can share these feelings of loss and trepidation with much of the UK Jewish community, I also feel like an interloper. I am constantly fretting that if I make one false step – one ill-advised tweet or blog post – I will be cast out.

My fears may or may not be justified but I still feel the need to be cagey about what I believe. Suffice it to say that I am prepared to at least give a hearing to critiques of Israel and of Zionism that are taboo to much of my community. And I cannot help but feel that the huge suffering in Gaza will not lead anywhere good for anyone.

This will seem pathetically weak stuff to pro-Palestinian activists, including to Jewish ones. There is, after all, a significant bloc on the Jewish left that has demonstrated against the war. While some are militant anti-Zionists who have made common cause with some very dubious characters, many others are simply Jews who can’t stand to see the death toll rising in Gaza. That’s also true of the many non-Jews I know who are far from militant and for whom the situation is so intolerable they are compelled to protest.

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Yet I cannot simply melt into this world, even if I wasn’t worried about my place in the mainstream Jewish community. There are just too many elements in the Palestine solidarity movement that I cannot reconcile myself to. I cannot see Hamas as anything other than intolerable. The widespread indifference to the atrocities it carried out on 7 October – and, in particular, to the horrific ordeal that the hostages and their families are still experiencing – means I must hold myself back.

But doing so means that I also feel in danger of being cast out from progressive circles. The constant injunction to “speak out” against Israel makes me worry that I will be classed as gutless at best and complicit at worse. There is little appreciation on the left of how to juggle competing loyalties and commitments.

What I am sure about: I refuse to resolve this tension.

The relationship between Jews and the left has always been something of a psychodrama; Gaza is just the latest episode. Too often, the tension is resolved by throwing one’s lot in with one “side” or other. Tortured left-wing Jews have become everything from born-again neo-conservatives to scourges of pretty much anything Jewish.

That won’t happen to me. I see myself as part of the Jewish people and refuse to break off my connection with any part of it. I see myself as left-wing because I believe a better world is possible and one cannot simply trust in liberal incrementalism to bring that world about. At times like these it’s difficult to reconcile these twin convictions, but what else am I supposed to do?

Sometimes hope stems from those being backed into a corner, with no option but to stand and fight. I know that this is how many pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel activists see the current situation, but for me, one of the only hopeful aspects in this crisis is how progressive politics in Israel has responded. Organisations such as Standing Together have managed to bring together Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel in order that the violence and hate doesn’t spread further.

There is barely concealed contempt for (or simply silence about) Palestinian citizens of Israel in parts of the Palestinian solidarity movement and it’s true that their comparatively better circumstances do not negate the crimes of occupation. Yet when Palestinian citizens of Israel cooperate with Jews within Israeli civil society organisations, they provide pretty much the only model there is for a peaceful future for two peoples living between that infamous river and that notorious sea. Cooperation here can also provide a basis from which to push back against the far-right in Israel and to join with Palestinians in the West Bank against the threat of ethnic cleansing.

For Gaza though, I’m not sure I have any hope right now. For Jewish leftists who, like me, are disinclined to suppress their concerns and throw their lot in with any of the players in this war, maybe all we have to offer is a blunt recognition that there are places and times in history when things are absolutely fucked.

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

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