10 October 2023

The necessity of Israel


I went to see Golda on Sunday. We’d chosen the day last week. Just an ordinary weekend trip to the cinema.

But on Sunday it was anything but ordinary, because it was the day after Saturday – the most barbaric and deliberate attack on Jews since the Holocaust, in which (as I write) the number of those murdered stands at 800, with 2,315 wounded and at least 100 held hostage in Gaza.

Golda is the story of Israeli prime minister Golda Meir during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when Israel was attacked by Arab armies led by Egypt and Syria. It was days, perhaps hours, from defeat – and the end of Israel that would have followed. Boy oh boy, did we chose a day to see that film.

This weekend did not pose an existential threat to Israel, but it has shaken it – and the Jewish diaspora – to the core. For Israelis, security has, for understandable reasons, always been their main concern: in daily life, in politics, in culture – in just about everything. And while those of us who do not live in Israel have different concerns in our daily lives, Israel’s security is the emotional foundation on which we rely.

I repeatedly tell anyone who asks that being a Jew in Britain today puts me in the cohort of the luckiest Jews who have ever lived. We are not merely tolerated, we are part of the fabric of society. Yes, there are problems – antisemitism is at a high, and there are always shocking incidents – but overall the garden is rosy indeed. At no point in our history – well, in the past 2,000 years – have Jews been able to say with certainty that we are safe. History suggests that even when we think we are enmeshed and safe, something or someone will upend that safety. Just think of the Jews of Vienna at the turn of the 20th century.

My grandmother used to keep a packed suitcase in her bedroom. I always thought she was slightly mad to do so, and mocked her for it as a boy. Until I grew up, read some history and realised that she was being entirely logical. Even if I don’t have an actual suitcase, the idea that I might have to flee at some distant, unimaginable but possible point in the future –  which Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party made it all too plausible in the here and now – is buried somewhere in my psyche, as it is in every Jew with any conception of history.

The tragedy of the Jews is that until 1948 a packed suitcase made little difference. We could run, as it were, but we couldn’t hide. We would have to stop somewhere – and we were entirely dependent on the willingness of somewhere else to say ‘come in’. And, as the Jews found out when Hitler came to power, there were very few countries willing to say that.

Israel has changed what it means to be Jewish. I – we – might indeed have to flee. But now there is somewhere to welcome us – our historic home, Israel.

I am British. And I hate heat. But the knowledge that Israel exists, and that it is there for me, is a gift that I will always be grateful for. When Israel is under attack, part of me is under attack, too. I feel it emotionally and, yes, physically. Like the rest of the Diaspora, these past few days have been unbearable.

Seeing the barbarism – the bestiality – has been truly shocking. I don’t know how it will change me or my fellow Jews, or what it will bring for Israelis, but I know we are now in a different world. A world where, thank heavens, Israel exists. But a world where everything feels different.

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Stephen Pollard is editor-at-large of the Jewish Chronicle.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.