From pogrom to blood libel
One day in October (13 days later)
At my local supermarket last Friday, six days after Hamas slaughtered more than 1400 Israelis in the country’s south, an Orthodox Jewish woman approached me, and asked:
“Are you Jewish?”
Such encounters are common in what’s affectionately called Melbourne’s “Jewish ghetto.” Judaism is not a proselytising religion; its missionaries only target fellow Jews they perceive adrift from the faith, which means I’m regularly stopped and asked if I’m Jewish and if I’d like to recite a prayer for the Sabbath or for such-and-such a festival.
On this day, six days after the day that changed everything, the Orthodox woman was offering me two tea light candles for the coming Sabbath eve; candles are a regular Friday night ritual, but on this particular Sabbath they would serve the dual function of memorialising Israel’s slain. I can’t remember what I said, only my clenched teeth and barely suppressed rage. I told her I did not see the point of these candles. Then I apologised, saying I understood she was religiously observant, but I did not want the candles.
“It is okay,” she said lovingly. “Do you have family over there?”
“Yes,” I said. “But they’re all family over there, aren’t they?”
As I walked towards the supermarket exit, I heard her call after me.
Like many Jewish atheists, I still light candles on Friday night and recite a Shabbat prayer; a ritual that makes everyone feel good because it’s — cue the song from Fiddler on the Roof — tra-di-tion! Last week, Home Affairs Minister, Clare O’Neil, expressed sympathy for an Australian victim of the massacre, Galit Carbone, a grandmother and former librarian, murdered in her home at Kibbutz Be’eri. She said:
“We’ve got brothers and sisters of the Jewish religion around our country who are suffering greatly from what is a brutal, violent, abhorrent and completely unjustified act of terrorism against their country and their citizens.”
The last thing I should be doing is nitpicking a full-throated declaration of support especially when it comes from someone broadly on the left. Still, I was slightly irritated at the phrase “of the Jewish religion,” for while “the Jewish religion” is of course a thing — the lady in the supermarket a case in point — Jewishness is not exclusively, or even predominantly, a religion. To define Jewishness as a religion implies that being Jewish is a choice. No DNA test will show up “Muslim.” But were I to do a test my genetic heritage would be revealed as emphatically “Ashkenazy Jewish.”
Of course, were a DNA test to show I’m only, say, 50 per cent Jewish my mother would have some explaining to do. If she wasn’t dead, that is — a fact that since her passing a decade ago has caused me daily sorrow, until October 7. On that day I was relieved she was gone. My father is still here, aged 95. His parents had converted to Catholicism; this did not save him from deportation to the death camps from which his mother and grandmother never returned. Of October 7 he said:
“Why did I live to see this day?”
O’Neil, the Home Affairs Minister, was right, on the other hand, when she referred to Jewish “brothers and sisters” suffering because of terrorism “in their country.” Like I said to the lady in the supermarket, the butchered in Israel are “all family.”
It is Jewish tradition to light candles for our familial dead. Last Friday I did not want to light candles for the dead Jews of October 7. There are too many of them, for one thing, though it’s not just about numbers.
An ABC journalist reporting on the massacre was lashed for expressing scepticism about eye-witness accounts in the Israeli press, since confirmed by Israeli authorities, that Hamas had decapitated babies, and then curated them like some macabre art installation. “The story about the babies is bullshit,” he said in a text, later deleted, to other journalists reporting on the atrocities. Babies charred, shot, sliced up — all that was apparently credible, but at “beheaded babies,” the journo’s bullshit detector went off.
But in a perverse kind of way, I’m with him. As every reporter knows, details tell a story. Terror in Israel is sadly nothing new; I bear the psychic wounds of past atrocities. But the story this time, for me and for many Jews, is that the whole point of Israel’s creation was to ensure that Jews would never again need to play dead in a ditch as bodies piled up around them, or be raped, or brutalised in their old age, or have their dead spat on, or bear witness to the execution of their children, or feel relieved that their children were executed rather than taken away — “it’s a blessing” said the father of a slaughtered 8 year-old girl — or have their heavily pregnant belly carved open and their foetus murdered.
I wasn’t interested in candles for dead Jews. I wanted revenge.
My physical home is Melbourne, Australia, yet as Michael Gawenda, author of My Life as a Jew, wrote in his Substack last week, “I have lived these days in Melbourne and in Israel.” The other day, driving past Caulfield Park, in the heart of the ghetto, I saw Israeli flags attached to a quartet of poles, as if marking territory.
Last week Joe Biden asserted that Israel “has a right and a duty” to defend itself, a sentiment widely endorsed after the pogrom, albeit one destined to come under pressure given the vulnerability of civilians in the densely-populated strip. Even before the explosion at the Al Ahli Arab Hospital, initially reported as an “Israeli strike,” one cable news network had a death tally with scores, as if the war was a sporting match, with the winner — the Palestinians — never in doubt.
This is not a piece about what I think of the war — what I think is unremarkable; Israel has a right to self defence and simultaneously an obligation to avoid harming civilians. Instead, this piece is my contribution to an established literary genre, at least in the progressive media, that we might call, How Jews Feel. We can also find many pieces from Palestinians describing how they feel but those pieces are different, they’re usually legitimate lamentations about Palestinian suffering and alleged indifference to Palestinian suffering.
The How Jews Feel genre, on the other hand, usually involves declamations of Jewish empathy for the Palestinian Other. Stories, for example, about an Israeli Holocaust survivor, or a former Israeli soldier, rejecting the case for Israeli retaliation. Columns headlined, “Do you stand with Israel or Palestine? I’m Jewish, and I stand with both.”
Even Howard Jacobson, in a Guardian piece attacking the political left for victim-blaming over October 7, opens with an anecdote of him watching a TV report from the Middle East in which parents are mourning their dead children.
“Alone, at my weakest, I let my own tears flow. They are a Jew’s tears but they are all I have.
And these are Gazans I am weeping for.”
Jacobson was writing before the blast at the Gaza hospital.
Michael Gawenda, in the piece I mentioned earlier, backed calls for Israel to protect civilian life and to work to relieve the humanitarian crisis but concluded: “I do not pretend, not now and not yet, to feel the sort of pain and fear for the people of Gaza that I feel for those slaughtered Jews ..”
Michael’s views are very similar to mine. But I doubt I’ll ever feel the sort of pain and fear for the people of Gaza that I feel for the slaughtered, deported and terrified Israeli Jews for the simple reason that the Jews are my brothers and sisters, and the people of Gaza are not. Such familial instincts are natural, surely? So natural, I’d suggest, that when it comes to other global conflicts we don’t see, or expect to see, the same workshopping of empathy from one side that we see, and expect to see, from Jews when Israel goes to war.
This is how many of Melbourne’s Jews experienced the aftermath of October 7, a day fast receding from public consciousness. We rang each other and screamed and cried. We reached out to relatives and friends in Israel. We waited for non-Jewish friends to reach out to us to express their sympathy and sorrow. Some did; many did not. “Even my oldest friend who I met at 12 in high school hasn’t called,” one heartbroken Jew told me. We waited for the people forever emoting on social media about one social justice cause or another to express momentary outrage for the charred babies, the raped women, the wheelchair-bound Holocaust survivor wrenched from her home yet again.
At one Jewish school students were advised not to wear their uniforms and to avoid public transport. In the Jewish ghetto, with the Israeli flags at Caulfield Park, we closed in on ourselves.
For my part, I affected normalcy, sending breezy emails as if everything was pretty normal, as if I wasn’t a broken person, broken because of the pogrom and more than that because of the undercurrent of Jew hatred it exposed.
Arguably the most pernicious kind of anti-Semitism comes not from Islamists or neo-Nazis but from “good” people. Such people regard Israel’s human rights abuses as especially heinous because Jews of all people should be sensitive to the Other’s suffering. Some of the loudest Jews of all people moralisers are themselves Jews.
For instance, Jordy Silverstein, a senior research fellow at Melbourne University’s law school, told a pro-Palestine rally on October 10:
“I’m the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors raised on stories of suffering genocide, trauma and loss and I refuse to be part of a culture and politics that says that it is okay to perpetrate these harms on another people.”
Do we hear people sermonising to, say, repressive post-colonial regimes that they of all people, with their history of suffering, should know not to oppress minorities? On the contrary: the contemporary intellectual left excuses violence perpetrated by blacks or indigenous peoples as the inevitable consequence of colonialism — victims, according to this rigid logic, can never be victimisers. Which may explain “Queers for Palestine” a group cheerfully present at pro-Palestine rallies around the globe; perhaps they genuinely don’t realise that given the chance Hamas would throw them off tall buildings. Incidentally, Judith Butler, the high priestess of queer theory, challenges us to go beyond — you guessed it — the binary of simply condemning or approving the Hamas massacre urging “a deeper understanding of the political formations and the complex history of violence in the region.”
To take a stab, then, at a “deeper understanding” of the “political formations” blah-blah, to follow the you of all people reasoning to its logical conclusion. Israel is forced to a moral standard that’s directly inverse to the Nazis’ depravity; the Nazis were singularly evil therefore the Jewish state is obliged to be singularly good, morally unassailable. In falling short of this impossible standard, Jews — oops, Israelis — are accused of betraying their ancestors murdered in the Holocaust, and are therefore deemed to be no better than the Nazis were, indeed they’re now practically Nazis themselves, which means the West, especially the Western left, can let go of Holocaust guilt and designate Jews as the most oppressive of all white oppressors. (Never mind that most Israeli Jews are Sephardic and therefore brown.)
Am I making sense?
Or am I in urgent need of sleep?
Either way, it’s clear that for some on the intellectual left demonising Israeli Jews has become the measure of moral virtue. And the more depraved the crimes against Israelis, the more that’s seen as proof the victims were monstrous all along.
The Australian Greens, a party focused on social justice and human rights, sought to turn a parliamentary motion of support for the Israeli victims into a condemnation of Israeli “war crimes.”
Meanwhile, at the world’s prestigious universities people were celebrating — celebrating — as a glorious act of resistance the slaying of the elderly, of entire families, of babies in their cots, of young peaceniks at a rave. “It was exhilarating,” said Russell Rickford, a history professor at Cornell University in the US.
“Settlers are not civilians,” said Yale Professor Zareena Grewal, dismissing any moral dilemma as a category error. In fact, “Israelis are pigs,” said Mika Tosca, associate professor at the School of Art Institute of Chicago, on social media. “Irredeemable excrement. May they rot in hell.” (She later apologised.)
Sydney University’s senior lecturer Nick Riemer, also branch president of the academic union, the NTEU, decided the immediate aftermath of October 7 was a good time to revive a petition for a full academic boycott of Israel. “No progressive should feel the need to publicly condemn any choices by the Palestinian resistance,” he worried needlessly on X. “All of us are Hamas,” cried student protestors at UNC Chapel Hill, America’s first public university, and by its own description, “one of the world’s leading research universities.” At Ivy League Harvard more than 30 student groups posted an open letter declaring Israel “entirely responsible” for Hamas’s atrocities. Those women who were raped? Apparently, they were asking for it.
And what of the university administrators? They’re likewise forever broadcasting solidarity and therapeutic concern in respect of this or that group — Ukrainians, LGBTQs, BLMs. Then, the other day at the University of Washington in Seattle, a Jewish young woman cried to a professor during a pro-Hamas rally — which had been advertised with a flyer depicting a Hamas paraglider — “How are you allowing this?”
After years of policing micro-aggressions and scholarship deemed “harmful” to minority groups, universities decided now was a good time to rediscover their commitment to free speech and academic freedom. In this world, asserting that biological sex is real can see you accused of promoting “genocide.” But promote literal genocide and so long as the desired victims are Jews — oops, Israelis — the academic hierarchy thoughtfully strokes its chin.
As for the other side of the debate, the Israeli side — well, there really isn’t one, according to the 400 journalists who signed the Do Better on Palestine petition during the last Gaza conflict two years ago, urging reporters to avoid “tired narratives” in the form of “both siderism” that “equates the victims of a military occupation with its instigators.” The drafters helpfully included a summary of the 2021 war that failed to mention the event that had triggered it, namely Hamas firing rockets at Israel. In fact the petition didn’t mention Hamas at all; far from rejecting “both siderism” reporting, the petitioners deny the other side even exists. The reader is left with the impression the Netanyahu government unleashed against the Palestinians for the hell of it.
Why am I bringing up this petition now? Apart from idle curiosity about how the journalists who signed it might have reported October 7 given their stated contempt for the Israeli perspective, the suggestion the Israeli government would, in the absence of military provocation, unleash on Palestinian civilians has echoes of the anti-Semitic medieval blood libel trope. And that’s also true of the current accusation that Israel targeted the Gaza hospital. At the time of writing, Israel, the US government and independent security experts had tentatively concluded the hospital was hit by an Islamic Jihad rocket that misfired.
The allegation that Israel had hit the hospital not by accident but deliberately, with reckless disregard for civilian life, in the full knowledge this was a hospital crammed with civilians is, again, reminiscent of the trope of Jewish bloodlust. Were too many people too ready to believe the claim because they were already convinced of Israel’s depravity?
The Palestinian deaths — the numbers are contested — are tragic regardless, but the suggestion they were premeditated is highly inflammatory in an already febrile environment. Yet even after the allegations were seriously undermined some media was still treating them as fact.
“Nothing justifies such a shocking attack on patients .. and the people seeking shelter in the hospital,” wrote Medecins Sans Frontieres Australia executive director in the Nine papers. Nothing indeed.
Three Europeans have been murdered by suspected jihadis since October 7. In a sickening attack in Chicago, a six year-old Palestinian boy was stabbed to death in an alleged hate crime. Since the Gaza hospital attack, a synagogue in Berlin was firebombed. Hezbollah called for “a day of unprecedented anger.” Biden’s visit to Israel was almost derailed.
Public sympathy for Israel is already waning; as I always expected it would.
Among the 203 hostages held by Hamas are 11 migrant workers from Thailand alone. They too are victims of Jew hatred; and so I feel that they too are family.
Last Friday night I did not say the Shabbat prayer. There was only one prayer, one concession, I was prepared to give the bloke in the sky. It was a prayer for the Israel Defence Force, for the beautiful young people who may soon be fighting to bring home the hostages, or their bodies, fighting to preserve the Jewish homeland.
I read out the prayer from the text on my phone.
“He Who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” the prayer begins, “may He bless the fighters of the Israel Defence Forces who stand guard .. from the border of the Lebanon to the desert of Egypt, and from the Great Sea unto the approach of the Aravah, on the land, in the air, and on the sea.”
“For it is the Lord your God, Who goes with you to battle your enemies for you to save you.”
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