The heaviness that descended on the Jewish world on October 7 has still not lifted, and not only because the war in Gaza that followed was so awful to watch from afar.

The scale and method of the Hamas killing spree dragged us all back into a Jewish past that we believed we had left behind for ever. When we see Jews being hunted in their houses and in forests and fields, captured at gunpoint and taken against their will, hiding silently in secret rooms while gunmen search their homes, these are not novel experiences. They are familiar family tales from times and places buried deep in our collective memory.

And, crucially, this history of persecution is not specifically Israeli but Jewish, dating back well before the creation of Israel in 1948. It was Jews, not Israelis, who were murdered in the Russian pogroms our great-grandparents fled, exterminated by the Nazis at Babi Yar, slaughtered in York’s Clifford Tower in 1190, and massacred in the Rhineland a century before that. These historic Jewish traumas are shared by all Jews, everywhere, including those who do not care much for Israel, and we all made the connection. “I was like Anne Frank,” said one survivor of the Be’eri massacre who hid from the Hamas gunmen. “It was a pogrom. Like going back to the Kishinev pogrom.” This is part of our history, and for a day our history became reality once again.

Sometimes it’s in the details that the loudest echoes are heard. In a pogrom in Pohrebyshche, a small town in central Ukraine, 375 Jews were slaughtered in August 1919 in a matter of hours. “They looted, raped and killed,” the chairman of the Pohrebyshche Jewish community said afterwards. “They didn’t want just what we owned. They wanted our souls. They dragged people up from their cellars and down from their attics in order to kill them. They spared neither young nor old.”

Russian pogromists, Leon Trotsky wrote, can “throw an old woman out of a third-floor window together with a grand piano, he can smash a chair against a baby’s head, rape a little girl while the entire crowd looks on, hammer a nail into a living human body… He exterminates whole families, he pours petrol over a house, transforms it into a mass of flames, and if anyone attempts to escape, he finishes him off with a cudgel”.

Just like in Kibbutz Be’eri.

None of this has any bearing on whether Israel’s response was justified, proportionate or lawful. Those are questions for a different book. Rather, it is that it revealed something profound, and largely unrecognised, about Israel’s role as a psychological anchor for many Jews around the world. Friends who usually wear their Jewish identity lightly or are ambivalent towards Israel were just as affected by the massacre, if not more so, than those I knew would be outraged by it. It wasn’t only Israel’s physical security that was breached that day: it stirred our deepest fears for Jewish safety everywhere if the demons of the past awake once again. The Times columnist Juliet Samuel wrote of her fear that Israel “is going to collapse, I thought, and I was surprised by how much it terrified me. With Israel gone, who would protect us Jews in Europe if we needed it?” This may not appear rational – it us up to our own governments to protect us, after all – but it is how a lot of Jews felt, because it’s a story we’ve seen so often before, and it usually doesn’t end well. The massacre of October 7 will now take its place in this sad, bloody history, another painful bruise on the soul of the Jewish people, but with one, darkly ironic, twist: the whole point of Israel, the great promise of Zionism, was that massacres of defenceless Jews on such a scale would never again be conceivable. Not in these numbers, with this ease and brutality. And then it happened anyway, in exactly the place it was supposed to be impossible. In a way, all Jewish life since the Holocaust has been an ongoing project of rebuilding and reconstituting a stable, credible version of Jewish existence, an endless exercise in hope over experience.

The State of Israel, born just three short years after the Shoah, has been the vehicle for this project of Jewish rebirth. What else, realistically, could have performed that role amidst the ashes? In 1946 the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), tasked with working out what to do with hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors languishing in displaced persons camps in Europe, surveyed 19,000 Jewish refugees to ask them where they wanted to be resettled. All but 300 named Palestine, then under British colonial control, as their first choice; almost all also put Palestine as their second choice. Staggeringly, when they were told they could not name Palestine twice, a quarter answered “crematorium” as their alternative.

For most Holocaust survivors in Europe, betrayed by their own countries, condemned for extermination, often with no personal possessions or homes to go back to, and few other countries willing to welcome them in, Israel was the only option. This practical reality was mirrored by the psychological and emotional choice of the wider Jewish world. I don’t know whether the Jewish people would have survived as a coherent whole after the Shoah had Israel not been created so soon afterwards. But I do know that Israel has been integral to that coherence ever since. This Jewish support for Zionism wasn’t, and isn’t, a colonial plot; just a belief in the concept of a Jewish future.

This Jewish reaction to the October 7 massacre exposed how much Israel provides not only a pragmatic safety net for many Jews, a life raft we can all leap to in times of crisis, but an emotional one too. Israel’s existence is the buttress for global Jewish self-confidence, the foundation on which we build our British, American, French or Australian Jewish lives. This is what Hamas violated on that terrible October day.

Sermons of hate

Two days after the massacre, more than 45 British Muslim activists, leaders and preachers who described themselves as “leading members of the British Muslim community” published a joint statement affirming ‘the right to armed struggle … We reject the use of the word “terrorism” to describe Palestinian acts of resistance.’ Their message was echoed in dozens of mosque sermons up and down the country. In Oldham, an imam was alleged to have preached, “God rid us of the Jews, the usurpers, oppressors and aggressors.” In Northampton, the call was apparently for the “usurping Jews” to be destroyed: “Count them and kill them, don’t let any of them survive … Make them war booty for the Muslims.” In a mosque in Bradford, a preacher reportedly claimed that many of the reports of the October 7 attack were false, and then asked, “Why do we see these lies? Because it has been the trend of the Jews to lie time and time again about what the Muslims are doing in Palestine and in particular Gaza.”

An ever-smouldering fire

Tellingly, the worst week for antisemitic incidents in the UK was the week following the October 7 massacre – well before Israel’s response had reached its peak. This was not people seeing distressing images of dead Palestinian children and taking out their anger on Jews. It’s possible to follow the thought process by which that happens, not to justify or excuse it, of course, but in an “it’s wrong, but you can see why it happens” kind of way. If that was the case, then the worst period for antisemitic attacks ought to have been after Israel sent its forces into Gaza, or when the fighting reached Palestinian hospitals and images of Palestinian suffering filled our newspapers, TV screens and social media feeds. This time, though, the opposite happened: the harassment and abuse of Jews around the world began as soon as news spread that Hamas had attacked Israel.

It wasn’t images of dead Palestinians that sparked this outburst of anti-Jewish hatred; it was images of dead Jews. Hating Jews, and acting out that hatred by attacking them, is an emotional act, not a rational one. This is a fire that is always smouldering, a latent prejudice that resides within our culture and society, always ready to be rekindled.

Weaponised words

If the only thing that had happened after October 7 was a bunch of demonstrations supporting the Palestinians and condemning Israel, I wouldn’t be writing about it in a book about antisemitism. Instead, “Free Palestine” became the cri de guerre for antisemites, a rhetorical weapon used to strike fear into Jews in Western cities; the left-wing equivalent of “Heil Hitler”, in this specific usage. It shouldn’t be this way: “Free Palestine” is just a phrase, an aspiration for freedom, that needn’t intimidate anyone. But this was the slogan spraypainted onto the walls and windows of the Jewish student accommodation at Leeds University, as it was onto synagogues in Porto and Madrid, and the railway bridges that sit atop Golders Green, the best-known Jewish neighbourhood in Britain. In the UK, over 10 per cent of all antisemitic hate incidents in 2023 involved “Free Palestine” being shouted, tweeted or scrawled at or on Jewish people, buildings or synagogues, just because they were Jewish. In one case a teenage schoolboy in London was put up against a wall, punched in the face and told to say “Free Palestine”.

There was even a staff member at a trampolining centre who shouted “Free Palestine” over the Tannoy because a bunch of Jewish kids were bouncing around having fun, and she seemingly couldn’t cope with the sight of ordinary Jews doing ordinary things.

This, more than anything, is where any conflation between anti-Israel speech and antisemitism resides. I suppose it would be surprising if a global movement to condemn the world’s only Jewish state as a unique transgressor of all moral and human values didn’t attract at least some people who dislike Jews. I’m sure a lot of the people on those huge demonstrations just want the war to end. But for others, this isn’t about improving the lives of Palestinians but about saving humanity from the fearsome, malevolent Jewish power that antisemites have always fantasised about. This doesn’t do the Palestinian cause any favours. The people shouting “Free Palestine” at Jewish kids in London aren’t going to free a single Palestinian from Israel, but then that isn’t the point. “Our cause is not to establish a Palestinian state, but to dismantle Israel,” tweeted Professor David Miller in 2023. I wish it were not so. I desperately want to believe there can be a movement for Palestinian rights that does not bring with it these waves of antisemitism, but that would require effort and restraint on the part of the people leading it, and so far that seems to be absent.

Whatever the reason, it’s obvious that the anti-Israel movement has an antisemitism problem, even though most of the people in it fervently believe they are opposing racism.

Source » thejc