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  1. Ideas
1 December 2023

There is little tolerance in Israel for dissenting feelings

Political beliefs are one thing, but to cry for friends in Gaza or pray for all slain children is now seen as unacceptable.

By Haggai Matar

Six weeks after the Hamas-led massacre in southern Israel, I find that I understand that horrid, shocking, unjustifiable attack much better than I did in the first couple of weeks. Not just because of the hundreds of testimonies, videos and reports that educated me about the facts of the ferocious attack. Not just because of the heartbreak, which I have felt time and again as I learned about the loss that friends and acquaintances suffered that day, and the torment of friends whose relatives – young children without their families – are held captive in Gaza by Hamas. Nor even just because of the fear and the existential dread instilled within me in response to the attack, my government’s complete failure to stop it and offer its citizens security, and the threat of regional war.

I understand it better because I see how my own society, including dear friends, is so willing to justify a different massacre, carried out by our army against the people of Gaza, excusing it by saying that “we have no other option”. If this is true of many Jewish Israelis, whose nation suffered this one utterly devastating and brutal blow, how could one fail to understand that decades of occupation, siege, oppression, death and destruction would lead some Palestinians to launch, participate or support the massacre of 7 October? How could one not see that by killing thousands of people, hundreds of entire families, forcing hundreds of thousands into homelessness through unimaginable destruction and cutting off basic supplies to more than two million people, we are recreating and deepening the legitimacy people in Gaza see in doing the same to us?

To make such a comparison, or even simply to recognise the fact that thousands of innocent Palestinians have been killed by Israel and that our country is responsible for the humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip, is something many in my society would currently define as treason. The Israeli police surely thinks so, judging by about 200 arrests of mostly Palestinian but also Jewish citizens who have been trying to hold vigils calling for a ceasefire, or simply to post online messages of solidarity with the people of Gaza. As my colleague Meron Rapoport, an editor of Local Call, put it to me recently, usually we on the Jewish left are only dissenting against the majority of our society through our political beliefs – but now we are dissenting in our emotions, and there is much less tolerance for dissenting feelings, especially in a time of war. You are not “supposed” to cry for your friends in Gaza who lost their entire families in Israeli bombings the way you cry for your friends in the Israeli south who lost their families in the Hamas attack.

It is indeed a lonely place to be right now. There are not that many of us, Jewish and Palestinian leftists, friends as well as partners in the movement to ensure the end of Israeli apartheid, and the beginning of an age of justice, freedom and security for everyone who calls this land between the river and the sea home. In normal days, we can form alliances and broader coalitions pushing for change, but right now, recognising each other’s suffering, each other’s grief, each other’s fear, is something that is becoming difficult in the world outside our bubble of shared resistance. Seeing the tragedy brought upon the people in Gaza, and insisting on remembering the decades of failed Israeli attempts to gain security for itself through ever escalating brutality towards Palestinians and robbing them of their security, is something most Jewish Israelis cannot tolerate.

About a week into the war my colleague Israel Frey participated in a ceremony in which, being an observing man, he said a prayer for the memory of all slain children. When a video documenting the prayer went viral, a right-wing mob attacked his house, shooting fireworks at his windows, forcing him to escape with his family under police protection and find a temporary safe house to live in. Even as rockets from Gaza, Yemen and Lebanon keep being fired into Israel, some reaching my city of Tel Aviv, I am much more afraid of my own neighbours finding out exactly what I think of the war. There is no Iron Dome missile that could intercept that threat.

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Still, when it comes to the question of being Jewish on the left these days, I find answers in what it has always meant to be on the left. Without discarding the particular nature of our national community and the role this plays in our own identities, I know we have to transcend those boundaries and to join others in a struggle for our shared humanity and for true equality. As the great Rosa Luxemburg taught us, it is either that or barbarism. The past two months have painfully shown was what the second option looks like.

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

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