Let us be, to grieve, rage, weep

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The writer is an FT contributing editor. His latest book is ‘Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations’

Confronted with enormity: murdered infants, abducted grandmothers, slaughtered villagers, lusty chants of “gas the Jews” at the Free Palestine demonstration in Sydney, mere words feel like weak carriers of so much horror and sorrow. Journalistic bloviation on the cause of this and the effect of that seems an indecency, at least until the bodies are gathered and returned to families. So context me no contexts, analyse me no analyses, suspend your partially informed diagnoses; leave off your strenuous efforts at even-handedness. Let us be, to grieve, rage, weep; say the mourners’ kaddish.

Perhaps images, then, not words? Of terrified young people who in a trice went from dancing to frantic running in a futile attempt to escape the spray of bullets; of a kibbutz dog shot as it emerged from a house (that must have helped Free Palestine); a young woman with bloody marks staining her sweatpants as she is bundled away by captors; a knife lying on a sofa in the kibbutz Be’eri, where 10 per cent of the population were killed; or visual evidence of “resistance” like the video of Mor Bayder’s murdered grandmother uploaded by her killers to Mor’s Facebook page.

Sympathy, for the moment, abounds, for as the writer Dara Horn pointed out in the title of her unsparing book of essays, People Love Dead Jews; living ones, especially should we have the temerity to defend ourselves, not so much. There is, rightly, sympathy too for the Palestinians of Gaza who are also victims and prisoners of Hamas and do not deserve to be punished for the wickedness perpetrated by their fanatical tyrants, nor for the delusion that the deaths of Jewish families will make Israel disappear.

We do not disappear. But we do suffer. The great Columbia University historian Salo Wittmayer Baron spent his career inveighing against the fatalism of what he called “the lachrymose conception” of Jewish history. I myself have made an effort to go with the positive: to celebrate the poetry, music, religious and secular literature of the diaspora; to think about Jewish history with the human smoke of Auschwitz blown away by time and education.

But this now seems an idle hope. From reports all over the world in the days following the massacres last weekend, it is obvious that the spectacle of dead Jews can still excite, rather than restrain, antisemitism.

Apparently it still needs saying that Zionism is not the cause, but the consequence, of perennial, dehumanising, antisemitism. The massacre of Jews not only long predates Zionism but is a constant fact of diaspora existence. Jews were attacked and exterminated in both the Muslim and Christian medieval worlds: six thousand butchered in Fez in 1033; thousands more in Almoravid Granada in 1066; the entire community of York in 1190. A friend of mine, currently in Spain, tells me almost all of the rarefied intellectuals she has encountered have been adamant that the victims were to blame, which, given the murder of thousands of Jews in 1391, is a bit rich.

Nor was this persecution really about religion. Survivors who converted were, for all their professions of Christian faith, still tortured and burnt alive by an Inquisition suspicious that their blood was too impure for salvation. So Jews have been murdered for being too separate and murdered for being not separate enough. They were killed in vast numbers by Cossacks in 1648; by Russian pogroms in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1899 an anti-Dreyfusard journal asked its readers what they would like to do with Jews. The responses were enthusiastic and ingenious: use them as targets for new artillery, turn them into dog food and, needless to say, gas them.

In the face of lethal peril, help has been conditional. Children were rescued by the Kindertransport on condition of being separated from their parents, many of whom they would never see again. A conference on “refugees” was held in Bermuda in 1943, when the Final Solution was known, basically on condition the word “Jew” was never mentioned. It was this lose/lose situation that moved Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, prophetic about a coming annihilation, to insist that in the end Jews must count only on themselves for their protection.

That core Zionist article of faith collapsed last Saturday, not least because of the Netanyahu government’s obstinate refusal to listen to Israel’s security chiefs, who warned him that the safety of the country was being imperilled by policies that were dangerously divisive. Whatever the immediate unity of the country, his days as prime minister are numbered and his legacy will forever be this catastrophe. But that inevitable departure will not staunch the tears, bring back the dead or heal the trauma. And should there be a ground invasion, innocent Palestinian and Jewish lives will pay a terrible price, not that Hamas cares about either.

But Israel will survive, revive. If only because, even in this dreadful extremity, one text from Deuteronomy, 30. 19 lies at the indefatigably beating heart of Jewish history:

I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, a blessing and a curse: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.


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