Saturday, February 24

Where to from here?

“How are you?”, my Jewish friend asked. My response was much the same as it has been since Oct 07, especially with fellow Jews: “You know. Coping. You?” It’s almost two months on and we’re still just coping.

First it was the shock of terrorists crossing over the border, into Israeli villages. Then it was the disgust of hearing and seeing civilians murdered at bus stops and in their bomb shelters. Then there were horror stories of rape and slaughter of hundreds of young people at a music festival; and the chilling images of kidnapped civilians; dead bodies paraded through Gaza to cheering crowds; abhorrent stories of tortured families, parents and children burned alive… and Israeli forensic pathologists are still trying to identify human remains.

And while we were trying to process the shock, comprehend the horrors, and grieve the worst massacre of Jews in a single day since the Holocaust, the echoes of the past rang louder still: there were those who took to social media to deny the Hamas atrocities and, worse, those who justified them as some sort of “decolonising resistance”.

It wasn’t confined to online, either. Even before Israel had started a serious counter-offensive, there were protests in the streets like we’ve seen for no other conflict or atrocity. They weren’t calling for an end to Hamas or for the return of hostages. Chants of “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and “globalise the intifada” were some of the tamer rhetoric;  “Gas the Jews” and “there is only one solution” were some of the more explicit.

Politicians at podiums condemned Israel, compared the IDF to Hamas, told us we needed to consider the barbaric rape and torture in “context”, and spoke of wanting to expel the Israeli ambassador. 

Muslim leaders contributed to the hatefest. I sent a copy of the Islamic Women’s Council statement on the conflict to a Muslim friend of mine, and he agreed it was egregious for not condemning Hamas. I wept when he told me he couldn’t say that publicly because his friends, family, and community largely supported the Oct 07 attacks; and the repercussions of him speaking out would be too much.

Groups that have nothing to do with politics or religion or international relations – doctors, entertainers, workers’ unions – drafted letters that largely ignored the Hamas-led slaughter and kidnapping, stridently condemned Israel and demanded a ceasefire without even a word about the 250 Israeli hostages – not even the babies.

They may have ignored or downplayed the Hamas-led barbarism, but they let everyone know how terrible the reports and images from Gaza were. No one can deny that. Babies, children, elderly bodies; destruction and devastation. War is terrible. I wish it was never necessary. I wish Gaza was the Singapore of the Mediterranean and her people were able to earn a future alongside, rather than hoping for a world without, a Jewish nation. I wish Gaza’s rulers had invested in building up rather than building tunnels; in fuelling trade rather than rockets; in teaching tolerance rather than indoctrinating hate; and I wish that people claiming to be progressive didn’t support it all.

The ‘progressive’ world seems either against us or quiet. More than ever in my lifetime.

We Jews are a tiny minority and we don’t agree on much, but Israel is one of the most agreed upon issues because there is a legal, historical, and religious foundation for it. Why do so many others actively deny our indigeneity? How should we compete with the mobs? Isn’t this just more reason for having self determination in our indigenous land – for Zionism?

My friend and I continued our conversation; much of it about what we were seeing and hearing. At one point she exclaimed, almost in defeat, “It’s all so unbelievable”. “No, it’s not” I replied, a little more terse than I had expected or meant. “It’s not unbelievable at all to anyone who has had half an eye open to the past decades. It isn’t unbelievable, but it is overwhelming”.

Whole books have been written about the media and academic “industry of lies”: how Israel has been demonised by journalists and academics with modern-day blood libels and “big lies”; there is an entire organisation dedicated to documenting how NGOs have turned from legitimate causes to demonising Israel; screeds have been published about the bullying of Israel at the United Nations and the hijacking of its committees to single out the Jew among the nations for disproportionate opprobrium; and countless commentators have written about the double standards Israel is held to by worldwide leaders when it comes to protecting her civilians from terror.

The 2014 Gaza war was somewhat of a precursor to the latest events. I recall protests in Auckland at which an ISIS flag was worn, swastikas were paraded, “Stone the Zionists” was chanted in Arabic; the Israeli and American flags were burned; and a man yelled to camera “bash the Jews, cut their f**n heads off”. I recall our Human Rights Commission choosing to ignore that inciting rant and our government not clearly condemning Hamas. I recall the imbalance in the media – including a Kiwi journalist parachuted into the strip who could find no evidence of Hamas rockets being fired from civilian areas. More honest journalists who know they will not return say they don’t show such footage for fear of reprisals from Hamas.

So the writing has been on the wall for a long time.

I guess no one expected the same level of moral inversion to occur after Oct 07 because no one could really believe the depravity of the Hamas-led attacks. Elderly women raped so hard their pelvises were broken; babies put into ovens while their parents were physically tortured and forced to watch; too many other stories also still haunt me, and I haven’t even volunteered to watch any of the uncensored footage of the barbaric acts gleefully captured by the terrorists’ gopro cameras.

Nevertheless, it seems the more horrific the acts against Israelis, the more motivated some of our society are to deny or justify it.

I was on a Zoom call being updated by local Jewish communal leaders and one of the only living Holocaust survivors in New Zealand asked to speak. Eloquently, he thanked everyone who was working so hard (almost entirely voluntarily!) and then added words to the effect of “the ‘never’ in ‘never again’ seems to be disappearing”.

My wife and I had already had some discussions about the possibility that the assaults, threats, desecrations, online hate, etc turned worse. Between ourselves, we played the old Jewish game of “Would they hide us in their attic?”. We committed to getting a passport ready for our 2 month old. Just in case.

But could it really get that bad? Are we just being paranoid?

Possibly. Though, the lack of any counterspeech from national leaders has been deafening, especially when contrasted with some other democracies. There were politicians chanting with the anti-Israel mobs – chants that are for the erasure of Israel and widely understood as a call to genocide. There were politicians who refused to condemn Hamas or even call them terrorists. And there has been little in the way of condemning any of the hate – not even from our Human Rights Commission, legislatively required to encourage harmonious relations.

“If only”, my wife and I would say, “we were in Australia – where the deputy Prime Minister turned up to a synagogue in solidarity and where state premiers proudly condemned the worst of the antisemitic incidents”. Wouldn’t it feel better to be a Jew in Germany – ironic, right? – where the Vice Chancellor (who happens to be a Green Party member) gave the most wonderful and powerful speech?

Maybe. Maybe the grass is greener on the other side of our border. But the Jews in Australia and Germany – that we know and that we hear of – don’t seem to be having a much easier time. “Gas the Jews” was chanted in Sydney. A synagogue in Berlin was firebombed. Our kin don’t feel safe anywhere.

Or, we’ve asked, “Might it just be better to move to Israel?” After all, friends there have been asking how we are! And dealing with constant rockets – especially with the warning systems, bunkers, and iron dome technology – is probably easier than watching society fall apart like we read in our history books. A startling, sick failure of leaders to speak out – forget about the Middle East, to speak out even about assaults and vandalism and genocidal chants in our country. The implicit message in such omissions is understood at a visceral level. Something is completely off in the political and moral tone of the body politic, academy, and media.

Are we just being paranoid?

Maybe. Maybe when the dust settles, things will go back to a new normal, as they did post-COVID. It can’t be exactly the same. We will still have the CCTV we installed and the extra locks on the doors. We will have lost some ‘friends’ and gained new allies. We will never forget the silence of those who could or should have been against the terror and the local antisemitism, and weren’t.

What about next time? Hamas may be defeated – let’s hope that happens – but Iran has Hezbollah in the north to activate. And the Houthis a bit further away, who might obtain even more sophisticated weapons. Could a group worse than Hamas emerge from the rubble of Gaza? What if Iran gets too close to their nuclear weapon? The Middle East is a volatile region.

Regardless of any ICC trial proceedings or outcomes, regardless of political maneuvering in Israel, regardless of whether the Saudi deal is done or if all the Abraham Accords fold; Israel will still be the Jew among the nations. There is no hint that Oct 07 will change the voting pattern of democratic allies; no suggestion that funding to the UN schools that glorify the murder of Jews will stop [our new Foreign Minister was happy to fund them the last time he held office]; not even a whiff of sanctions on Iran for their proxy war.

The West is weak and lost.

So, where to from here?

Without a change in leadership – from government to the academy to journalism to civil society – I don’t see much hope. Adults need to stand up and act like adults or the perversity will continue.

I don’t know how the arc of history will bend us. The trajectory doesn’t look good, though.

Oct 07 was another litmus test for the Western, democratic, liberal world and we don’t seem to have passed with flying colours.

On the other hand, as the Jewish optimist says, it could get worse.

The most ominous comment was from a Māori lecturer who suggested to his class that there might be attacks like Oct 07 in New Zealand “if we don’t see more genuine attempts toward equity”.

An alternative to the continuation of perversity is a populist revolt. That isn’t good for us, either. Those who see the threats to our democratic principles and stand against terror must be given options beyond the purely reactionary.

Some light in the darkness has been moral allies, who in the face of a wall of racist denial and abuse spoke truth, facts, and defence – not just for Jews but for our shared liberal, democratic values. Some politicians have stood up to the racism here and they must be thanked, especially those who did so when it wasn’t politically convenient. Many Christian friends continue to be most supportive in so many ways. Friends and colleagues have checked in and shown concern. And even some random fellow Kiwis have found my contact details and expressed solidarity.

I’m grateful my children are too young to understand the present. I hope to explain it to them one day as a distant memory and as another warning of history for what could have been.

In the meantime, we know which friends we will feel comfortable calling if we need some attic space. We continue to cope. And we have ordered our son’s passport. Just in case.

Our people’s history has also shown us that hope without action is meaningless. So we will continue to urge leaders to lead. We will continue to call out the hate. We will continue to remind everyone of why the Hamas-Israel war is a semi-micro example of the macro battle between barbarism and imperfect democracy.

And we continue to hope – for peace, for understanding, for a better future for us all. After all, that is the story of the Jewish people. The Israeli national anthem is Hatikva, literally “the hope”. Almost every Jewish festival can be summarised with “They tried to exterminate us; we survived; let’s eat”. We survive.

Am Yisrael Chai.

Author