Israel and Gaza

January 2, 2009

I’ve been watching the news over the last week in a state of depression, as I normally do when Israel is in the news. The internet is full of commentators arguing the case for both sides and I can’t bring myself to say much on the topic of the bombardment of Gaza, at least in terms of the rights and wrongs of this particular episode in the long and bloody history of the region.

In the past I’ve often found myself defending Israel, not because I think she is right, but because the people attacking Israel aren’t really interested in a rational debate, or in justice for Palestinians, but in attacking Israel at all costs. Of course, in certain cases, it’s hard or almost impossible to defend Israel. When you see photos of Palestinian kids covered in blood, being pulled out of the wreckage, it seems inappropriate to say anything that sounds like a justification. Of course the political context around the bombings is complex, but I hoped that Israel was better than that. If peace is going to be acheived, Israel must show some mercy as well as strength. You don’t get anywhere by randomly killing innocent people.

The news is saddening for a number of reasons. On a human level, it’s horrific to see innocent civilians being killed – a grieving parent is a grieving parent, no matter what set of circumstances lead to the death – and on a wider political level it’s depressing because it gives fuel to the millions of people out there who despise Israel and believe it has no right to exist. And of course, it gives a carte-blanche to the growing number of individuals who see Israel as the perfect excuse for some good, old-fashioned Jew bashing.

I’m not so paranoid that I mistake all criticism of Israel as anti-semitism, but I do know that for a lot of people Israel = Judaism and that makes Jews worldwide a legitimate target. Just this week a gang rampaged through Golders Green attacking Jewish businesses. And there will be those who would justify such attacks by talking of the deep rage that exists thanks to the injustices perpetrated by Israel. Of course, no-one would think that persecution of gays in Iran would justify attacking Muslims in London, or that the atrocities in Darfur mean that Arabs in Manchester are fair game, but a lot of people seem to think that Israel’s actions make Jews a fair target, whether they live in Israel or Illinois or Islington. I suspect that if Jews are attacked, there will be a number of newspapers that will publicly condemn the attacks, but will explain them away by linking them to Israel and Palestine.

As a Jew, my relationship with Israel is complex. There are plenty of Jews who defend Israel at all costs. And there are also plenty of Jews desperate to wash their hands of Israel at all costs. I sit in neither camp. I believe Israel has a right to exist, I believe that Israel is singled out for criticism that is disproportionate to its crimes (Ugandan rebels just hacked to death 500 people in Congo and I don’t see protesters camping outside the Ugandan embassy, or leading poets composing verses lamenting their deaths), and I believe that many critics of Israel have no interest in anything other than its destruction. But I also believe that Israel is capable of making mistakes, that she turns to violence too quickly, and that she is too quick to assume she has the moral high ground with regards to the Palestinians. No nation is above criticism and Israel is no different.

There seems to be a consensus in certain areas of the press, whereby Jews are accepted as long as they do the honourable thing and disown Israel. But Israel is a part of my identity as a Jew. I will happily criticise Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, or question the values of Israel’s leaders, but I will not accept the bait of damning Israel. A Muslim can criticise Pakistan or Sudan without disputing those nations’ their right to exist as Islamic states, and a Jew can criticise Israel but defend her right to exist.

For the future of Israelis and Palestinians, I hope that over the coming decades there can be a lasting peace, with two nations living side by side in some kind of harmony (unlikely as it seems right now). And as a Jew, I hope that criticism of Israel is proportionate, and not an excuse to fall back on centuries of repressed anti-semitism, in which Jews are the scapegoats for the world’s ills.



  1. I’ve decided that 2009 will be the year that I finally sort out this whole mess. If you look at a map of Wales you’ll notice that there’s pretty much nothing in between North and South in the shape of civilisation. If Israel wants to re-locate to Mid-Wales I will welcome them with open arms. It’s the only sensible peaceful option.

  2. I believe Israel has a right to exist, I believe that Israel is singled out for criticism that is disproportionate to its crimes (Ugandan rebels just hacked to death 500 people in Congo and I don’t see protesters camping outside the Ugandan embassy, or leading poets composing verses lamenting their deaths)

    Surely you’re saying that we ought to pay more attention to Ugandan atrocities, not less to Israeli ones? Because it seems to me that protesting outside of embassies and writing poems is not exactly disproportionate in relation to what’s going on in Gaza. You may also want to consider the extent in which Arabs (and Muslims more specifically, but the two categories are of course curiously interchangeable) are also scapegoats for the world’s ills at the moment. Which doesn’t make antisemitism any less odious or justifiable, of course, but helps explain why that particular conflict is seen as more nevralgic than others.

    During a Tienanmen square vigil outside a Chinese consulate in Milan in 1991 I had the dubious privilege of hearing a Chinese diplomat make various claims about the disproportionate criticism against his own country. He stated among other things that, relative to the population of the two countries, 100 students in China (he reckoned that was the tally, bless his soul) equalled one protester killed in Italy, and who would even get out of bed for something like that? We should, I think, refrain from seeking equivalences of this sort, or go looking for the forgotten genocides of this world whenever a kindred nation or people engages in a crime against humanity. And I say that with a keen sense of how my own people used the “worse crimes” committed by the Nazi as historical misdirection to a shamefully great effect.

  3. Giovanni, I agree with much of what you say. I am sure that there are plenty of protesters who genuinely want peace and justice for the Palestinians, but unfortunately there are also a lot of people who aren’t protesting for Palestinians, but against Israel. And it’s not that I think there should be a pecking order for genocides, in which Israel can always pull rank on other nations, it’s more that I am genuinely puzzled as to why thousands will flock to an anti-Israel protest, but the same people seem indifferent towards wholesale slaughter in Zimbabwe. And bewilderment often leads me to saddening conclusions.

    At the same time as the marches across Europe, there was a peace march in Tel Aviv. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs gathered in their thousands to protest the invasion of Gaza. They held up placards and signs calling for an end to violence on both sides, and for a dialogue that would lead to peace. There was, I think, a recognition that both Israel and the Palestinians have fuelled years or hatred and violence and that both sides were at fault. That is a protest that I would be happy to attend.

    When I watched the coverage of the protests in London, I saw no hope. I saw no-one demanding peace. I saw no-one demanding that not only should Israel withdraw from Gaza but that Hamas should recognise Israel, stop shelling her on a daily basis and stop sanctioning suicide bombs against civilians. I saw only signs saying that Israel was a terrorist state, that it was guilty of genocide, and images equating the Star of David with a Swastika. I saw no attempt to look for solutions, or to bring an end to the endless cycles of violence, I saw only hatred.

  4. When I watched the coverage of the protests in London, I saw no hope. I saw no-one demanding peace.

    I am reluctant to judge demonstrations by their media coverage, although undoubtedly you saw what you saw. I was alarmed – and it brought back echoes of personal involvement in such marches – by the third comment from the top (by DuncanB) here.

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