OPINION: Death begets death begets death, until the cycle breaks

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OPINION: Death begets death begets death, until the cycle breaks

'I understood Israel’s pride in making the desert bloom, but cannot understand why, in order to do so, it must also make it burn'

Smoke rise after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City
Smoke rise after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City

I have been asked twice in my life if my surname is Jewish. The first was when I was covering a congressional election in Louisiana for the Guardian – by David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan “Woolf,” he said. “Is that a Jewish name?” It is, I replied. “What do you think about Israel,” he asked. I said, “I don’t think about it very much.”

The second time was two weeks later, by an IDF soldier. I was flying out of Ben-Gurion at 6am and was late for my flight. “Woolf,” he said. “Is that a Jewish name?”

It’s a common experience for a diaspora Jew visiting the Holy Land. What he was getting at was: why had I not exercised the right offered to all Jews worldwide to join the Zionist project? To serve in the Israeli army. To do my duty.

It was that second time that angered me most. I am proud to be a British Jew. I grew up in Golders Green. I was barmitzvahed at Alyth Synagogue. My grandfather fought Mosely’s fascists at Cable Street and then the Nazis in the British Royal Artillery. Don’t get me wrong. I understand the desire for a homeland. I feel it too. But when I think about my own birthright, it is as an exile from eastern Europe, not Egypt. I yearn for the shtetl, not the desert.

This is going to get me in trouble. This whole piece is. But. Israel created a pressure-cooker in Gaza. A ghetto. Made Palestinians second-class citizens. That in no way excuses the monstrous crimes of Hamas.

Still, I always loved Passover. The ritual telling of the escape from bondage in Egypt is told in my favourite way: through food. Charoset, the mortar of the pyramids. The saltwater of our tears. The horseradish in Hillel’s sandwich is bitter, but the experience is sweet. This is my faith; my religion. The telling of stories. We remember. To that soldier at the airport though, I am, without my consent, part of a war. It doesn’t matter that, to me, those we recall at Passover are a people – not a land. Why must so many die for a metaphor?

The mindset of Masada looms large. The point is being made that Jews are murdered, kicked out of everywhere, eventually. Perhaps – some say inevitably – that will be true again. Antisemitic graffiti is spreading. As a journalist, I cover the rise of neo-Nazism. Now, I see anti-Israel protests and antisemitic rhetoric blending even closer together. That, people say, shows why we need this state. These missiles. These tanks. I understand that. I feel the fear too.

This is going to get me in trouble. This whole piece is. But. Israel created a pressure-cooker in Gaza. A ghetto. Made Palestinians second-class citizens. That in no way excuses the monstrous crimes of Hamas. But the historical undermining of more moderate Palestinian leadership by Netanyahu and other right-wing figures made it, perhaps, inevitable. The crushing of Palestinians, whose claim to their own ancestral land never struck me as illegitimate, has been relentless. The cynicism of the settler movement, which made peace impossible by forcing change in the “facts on the ground,” is repellent. Now thousands of civilians on both sides are dead.

The thing that makes me proudest to be a Jew is the Talmudic principle of pikuach nefesh. That the saving of a human life takes precedence over biblical law. Mati Goldstein, commander of the mission to rescue victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, encapsulated that ideal. “We did everything to save lives, despite Shabbat,” he said. “People asked, ‘Why are you here? There are no Jews here,’ but we are here because the Torah orders us to save lives… We are desecrating Shabbat with pride.” That is my Judaism.

Nicky Woolf

Israel’s current government is the most hardline it’s ever been. “There is a time for peace and a time for war. Now is a time for war,” said Benny Gantz, the opposition leader who has joined the emergency coalition. Galit Distel Atbaryan, an Israeli lawmaker – former minister, with bitter irony, of public diplomacy – called for Israel to “erase all of Gaza from the face of the earth.” Launching what he described as a “complete siege” of Gaza, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said “We are fighting against human animals,” adding “Gaza won’t return to what it was before. We will eliminate everything.”

I am locked in a hellish quandary. I want two irreconcilable things: to distance myself from a nationalistic militarism that disgusts me – but also, since it is in my name and my ancestors’, founded in the memory of smoke and ash, to hold Israel to an unrealistic, unfair higher standard. It is self-indulgent; shameful, in a way, to make this about me – narcissistic; rooted, even, in an anti-Semitic framework that wants to make Jew and Zionist the same. But sometimes when talking about Israel, even here, I say “we” and other times “they.” I am aware this is untenable. But I can’t stop it.

The deployment of overwhelming military force cannot make right Hamas’s terrorist atrocity. Frankly, nothing can. And nothing will. More: it plays into their hands. Those who use civilians as human shields need their opponents to take the bait. It is a trap. That it is in response to horror cannot excuse more horror. The killing of civilians doesn’t make anyone safer.

We Jews are not free from oppression just because we now have the means and, horribly, the apparent will, to oppress others.

I understood Israel’s pride in making the desert bloom, but cannot understand why, in order to do so, it must also make it burn.

“There is no solution,” Ben-Gurion said back in in 1919. Maybe he was right. Death begets death begets death. Until this cycle is broken – and I have no idea by who, or how – all that’s left is despair.

  • Nicky Woolf is a journalist and podcaster. His latest shows are the Audible original series Finding Q, and The Sound: Mystery of Havana Syndrome.
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