Some years ago, my wife and I lost ourselves in the backstreets of Marrakesh. The middle-aged man we approached in a dusty square kindly gave us directions, but when he offered to accompany us to our hotel, I assured him, politely, that this was unnecessary. He insisted and I resisted. Suddenly, jabbing his finger, he demanded, “are you a Jew?” To my wife’s consternation and, I admit, my own, I squared up to him: “And if I am?” I am not a fighting man. Had we come to blows, he doubtless would have overcome me very quickly. But somehow that didn’t happen and we walked away, relieved but shaken.
I suspect that almost every Jew has had a similar experience at least once in their life, a moment when they are challenged, not for deeds or words, but solely because of their racial or religious identity. And that, in the bloodiest terms possible, is what happened on 7 October in the one place where we thought it could not, in the Jewish homeland.
I stood up to the man in Marrakesh because, though I have never identified as a Jew, I will not accept that to be one is to invite insult. An assimilated secularist like me knows he’s a Jew when someone bigger and stronger tells him he is. That is how my grandparents, who thought of themselves as German patriots, discovered that those who deported them from their home in Bavaria to their deaths in Latvia regarded them as nothing more than verminous Jews.
So, there you are: I’m Jewish. I have no choice. And because I’m Jewish, friends have been sending me messages of sympathy since that day of massacres. Actually, I don’t have close family in Israel. I’ve only been there twice and didn’t feel at home. Why should I? I was born and raised in Britain. But that doesn’t mean that Israel is not important to me.
It’s been depressing to chart, from my safe distance, the rightward drift of Israeli politics. But I also understand how the people of a tiny nation, surrounded by enemies, have had little choice but to develop a culture of aggressive self-reliance. Its options have narrowed still further as, with every war of self-defence, progressive opinion has hardened against Israel. Those former friends who have abandoned what was once a model socialist state must share responsibility for Israel’s current government and its abhorrent policies.
So let me make clear that I am also a Zionist, though neither because I believe that Israel is the Holy Land, nor that Jews have an inalienable claim over the land. It’s because 40 members of my family were murdered in the Holocaust. It’s because, for a thousand years before then, Jews had been the victims of prejudice and persecution throughout Europe and beyond. Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, reeling from the naked anti-Semitism revealed by the Dreyfus affair, argued that the case for a Jewish homeland was founded in neither faith nor nationalism, but simply on the need for Jews to have a place in which they could live in peace and security. The “propelling force”, he wrote as men, women and children were being butchered in the pogroms of Czarist Russia, was “the misery of the Jews”.
In fact, Herzl was prepared to consider sanctuaries other than Palestine, including, for example, Cyprus. The British toyed with the idea of Uganda; Eichmann favoured Madagascar and Heydrich the Arctic before they concluded that the Jews should not live anywhere at all. But here’s the point: wherever Jews were to settle, or be settled, an existing population would be displaced and justifiably aggrieved. When a Labour MP proposed that peace in the Middle East could be secured by deporting Israelis to the American Midwest, did she really believe that others would not have had to make way for them, that they would be welcomed?
I am a Zionist, not, as those who substitute slogans for reasoned debate declaim, because I’m a supporter of apartheid or a neo-colonialist, but simply because I cannot concede that the Jews, alone among peoples, should be denied their own liberation and their own land. Since the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, Jews have paid a heavy price in blood and tears for their dispossession and statelessness. If any people can claim to be the victims of imperialism, they can.
But whatever our starting points, we have to get beyond the all-or-nothing polarity of this conflict, the false equivalences, the whataboutery, the visceral hatred. Whether Gandhi said it is contested, but Tevye the Milkman in Fiddler on the Roof certainly did: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. That way the whole world will be blind and toothless.”
So I don’t want to impugn the motives of those who declare themselves anti-Zionists or anti-Israel, though perhaps some at least should reflect on Anthony Julius’s observation that in making Israel a pariah state, they have also made it “the Jew among nations”. Nor do I seek to convert campaigners from one cause to the other. Rather, I want to appeal for the reassertion of reason, understanding and compromise which acknowledges the traumas, the rights and, above all, the humanity of all sides in this terrible conflict.
I am not blind to the misdeeds of some of Israel’s supporters. But when I hear demonstrators chanting the mantra “from the river to the sea”, I wonder whether they fully understand what they’re calling for. When I see protestors carrying placards expressing solidarity with Hamas, I wonder whether they really think its savagery has advanced the Palestinian cause. When I see young people on the streets of London and elsewhere tearing down flyers bearing the images of kidnapped Israelis and throwing them into the gutter, I wonder whether, for them, Jewish lives matter.
They should understand that most Jews so keenly feel the trauma of 7 October and its aftermath, not because they support the Netanyahu government or the fundamentalist West Bank settlers, nor because they want revenge against the Palestinians of Gaza, but because, like everyone else, we want to be accepted – and because those dreadful events remind us that still, after everything we have been through, we are not – that even in the one place where we thought we could determine our own future, we cannot. As Herzl also wrote, “if we could only be left in peace… But I think that we shall not be left in peace”. He was so shatteringly right. And he still is.
So now, many Jews dread what is happening and what is coming, as well as what has so recently passed. We dread that innocent Palestinians are suffering and we dread that the Israeli government will seek not just to neutralise Hamas but also to exact revenge. We dread that Israel will lose more sympathy and more friends. We dread that the conflict will escalate. We dread that anti-Semitism will become yet more widespread and more vicious in the places in which we live. We dread that, when we express those fears, those who should have remained our allies and protectors will claim that we are playing the anti-Semitism card or “weaponising” the Holocaust.
It is the most tragic of ironies that, as anti-Semitism in Europe, in the US, in the Muslim and Arab worlds – in Dagestan – intensifies, the case for Israel becomes stronger still and the more threatened and isolated Israel becomes, the more Jews on the left, as elsewhere on the political spectrum, feel we have to defend it, even as we despair of its present, odious government.
Once more, we are caught in a trap. If Israel calls a halt to its operations in Gaza, Palestinian lives will be spared. But if it fails to destroy Hamas, there will be more massacres of Israelis. If only this awful dilemma and the circumstances which led up to it could trigger the realisation that we simply can’t go on like this, that sooner or later an equitable and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, between Israel and its neighbours, and between Jews and non-Jews, must be made. It’s a distant hope. But it might be brought that bit closer if those who condemn Israel, Zionists, and, yes, Jews, could temper their outrage with a little understanding about how we came to be where we are and how we might get where we need to be.
Peter Bradley is a former Labour MP and author of The Last Train – A Family History of the Final Solution, published last year by HarperNorth