Israel at 76

Jake Wallis Simons writes for British Friends of Israel to mark Yom Ha’atsmaut, Israeli Independence Day, 13th–14th May. He is the editor of the Jewish Chronicle and the author of “Israelophobia, the newest version of the oldest hatred and what to do about it”, out now.

In his 2000 book The Will To Live On, the American novelist Herman Wouk, who by then was eighty-five years old, recalled a conversation with David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel. “You must return here to live, this is the only place for Jews like you,” the prime minister told him. “Here you will be free.” Wouk was astounded. “Free?” he replied. “With enemy armies ringing you, with their leaders threatening to wipe out the ‘Zionist entity’, with your roads impassable after sundown – free?” Ben-Gurion retorted: “I did not say safe. I said free.”

It goes without saying that Britain is safe. But Israel, even as it marks its seventy-sixth birthday against the backdrop of the longest war it has ever endured, is free.

The chess icon Garry Kasparov recently joked on X: “What does mobilisation have in common in Russia and Israel? Long lines for flights to Tel Aviv.” But he was making a serious point. War normally produces refugees, but Hamas’s depraved rampage provoked the opposite, with the Israeli diaspora returning home en masse to join the war effort. In the face of – let’s call it what it is – inexcusable political ineptitude in Jerusalem, the volunteer ethos has taken over with free accommodation, clothing, food and supplies provided to displaced people across the country by their fellow Israelis. Videos have shown a vibrant “blitz spirit” in the Jewish state. Remarkably, polling showed that in the weeks after 7th October, levels of optimism in Israel actually increased. And the UN’s world happiness rankings showed that the Hamas atrocities and the ensuing war caused Israel to fall just one place, from fourth to fifth. (It is now behind Finland, Denmark, Iceland and Sweden. Britain is twentieth, while the United States comes twenty-third.)

The remarkable social cohesion of Israel – as explored by Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s The Genius of Israel – can only offer inspiration when it comes to healing our society here at home (or it would, if we were able to look beyond our Israelophobia). While we struggle with Islamic extremism, one of the few positive stories to emerge after 7th October has been the way in which Israel’s Arab minority has become more patriotic than ever before. Israeli Muslims, like the Instagram star Captain Ella – the most senior Muslim woman serving in the Israeli army – have been fighting in Gaza for the Israel Defence Forces. They have been taken hostage by Hamas and given their lives trying to protect their Jewish friends. The conservative Islamist political leader Mansour Abbas has showed a truly statesmanlike example, sacking one of his politicians immediately when she cast doubt on the veracity of 7th October footage. The social media celebrity Nas Daily wrote a column headlined: “I used to say I was a Palestinian Israeli. Now I’m Israeli first.” And many ordinary Israeli Arabs pulled behind their Jewish compatriots.

There are intense social tensions in Israel and it is important not to downplay the disadvantage and resentment found in many of its Arab communities. But if the Jewish state, amid all the anxiety, danger and conflict that has dogged its existence since inception, can find a national story strong enough to conjure such solidarity under stress, how can our disunited democracies, with our disenfranchised Muslim minorities, not have one? And with tensions running high and extremism flaring, how can we be safe – let alone free – without it?

Social coherence might be expected of a country at war. But even in peacetime, outside the sphere of its dysfunctional politics, the dividends of Israeli unity are apparent. The Jewish state, which enjoys similar living standards to other democracies – and similar exposure to the corrosive effects of social media – is their mirror image when it comes to the health of its society. Israel’s population is not just young, it is growing, with women commonly having four children (and juggling work around them). Its average age is more than a decade lower than Europe. Its levels of alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide and loneliness are negligible; the ultra-orthodox, among the poorest in society, suffer from almost zero crime, substance addiction, broken families or unhappiness, which accompanies poverty in every other country on Earth. Senor and Singer argue that it is Israel’s profound social coherence and solidarity that lie at the core of its miraculous social success, as well as its national pride and military fortitude.

This is a national spirit that used to be familiar across the West. In recent decades, however, as memories of wartime have been replaced by a surfeit of safety and we have grown fat on the spoils of the free market, we have been engaged in a project of self-sabotage. We now find ourselves more complacent, miserable, atomised and uncertain than ever before, aging fast and losing ourselves amid soaring levels of immigration. On top of all this, we are facing an ideological assault from what I have come to call the new radicalism – “woke” plus Islamism, which has been flaunting itself across our airwaves in the form of campus protests – that aims to undermine the very foundations of our culture. So we face a choice. Either we cling to the bovine acceptance of our fate that has characterised our posture so far, or we rouse ourselves from our slumber, roll up our sleeves and stand up for Israel and ourselves. Surely the latter must be preferable. Surely freedom is preferable to safety.

It is certainly true that the deleterious state of Israeli politics has caused unnecessary levels of chaos and suffering in Gaza. There have been problems with delivering aid to the Strip and an egregious lack of planning for the day after the war, adding to the nightmare on the ground. There have also undoubtedly been examples of questionable or illegal activity by some soldiers. As I argued in Israelophobia, the Jewish state is a country like any other, with its heroes and its villains. Yet the war is only raging because Hamas launched an orgy of violence inside Israel’s internationally-recognised borders, eighteen years after it withdrew from the Strip unilaterally and entirely. Without wishing to downplay fair criticism of Jerusalem, the basic morals of the situation should be straightforward: a flawed and beleaguered democracy on the one hand, a savage terrorist group on the other, and a just and defensive war in between.

Such is the power of the Israelophobic version of events, however, reinforced constantly by social media and television outlets, that all sense of proportion has been quickly jettisoned. In the rush to take the side of the Palestinians, nobody thinks to ask – and journalists never think to disclose – why the footage emerging from Gaza shows exclusively civilian casualties, giving the impression that Israel was waging war on the Palestinian people (clue: It was Hamas censorship). Nobody thinks to question the terror group’s casualty figures, even though they have been debunked by statisticians,and even though Hamas fails to distinguish between combatants and civilians. The jihadis have played very cleverly to existing prejudices, particularly on the left, and their message has been swallowed whole.

Yet if we are able to look beyond our bigotry, Israel is a place of inspiration as it continues to send its young men into battle for the sake of their families. Here is a magnificent, if messy, experiment in democracy in a region of autocracies, an audacious moonshot at self-determination by a nation downtrodden for millennia. It is an attempt to create, as Saul Bellow – who appears in Wouk’s book – described it, “both a garrison state and a cultivated society, both Spartan and Athenian. It tries to do everything, to understand everything, to make provision for everything. All resources, all faculties are strained. Unremitting thought about the world situation parallels the defence effort. These people are actively, individually involved in universal history. I don’t see how they can bear it.”

What a contrast with us here at home, who may live out our lives without ever being truly troubled by the big questions. At what point could Britain be said to no longer constitute a Christian country, and do we care? If so, what could be done about it while remaining a liberal democracy? Could our nation be said to be an “ethno-state”? Why have we killed so many thousands of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq? Does racial disparity constitute “apartheid”? What gives us a claim on this land? What gives us a right to exist? Would we rather be safe or free?

In the Genius of Israel, the authors recount how in 2011, two Stanford professors, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, decided to put their “Introduction to AI” course online. More than 150,000 people signed up, but only ten per cent completed it. In Israel, however, it was completed to the tune of eighty per cent, with “stellar success rates”. On closer inspection, it emerged that these were Israeli secondary school students who had no business taking these university-level courses in the first place. But they were using an approach called “team classroom”. As Senor and Singer explain: “It worked like this. The whole class would watch a video from the course. Next, every student would hold up a sign with one of three colours. Green meant that they understood the material well enough to teach someone else. Yellow meant that they understood, but not well enough to teach. And red meant that they didn’t understand the material at all. Then the whole class went at it with a single goal — that everyone would be able to hold up a green sign.

“Rather than one against all,” the co-authors continue, “the students had to bring their classmates over the finish line. And the system worked so well that teachers with no knowledge of the subject matter but a knack for encouraging the students could help them excel. Using the Team Classroom method, a high school Bible teacher could teach college-level physics.”

Israel marks its seventy-sixth birthday. Not a neat number, it must be said, like fifty or even seventy-five, but one that feels appropriate for the times. It draws us to a moment of significance that is little off-centre, a little askance, to suit a country still reeling after it was knocked off its axis last October, a country still unsure of its survival.

If “I told you so” moments commonly constitute some small triumph, the one delivered by October 2023 brought only despair and dread. My book was published on 7th September, precisely a month before Israel’s southern defences collapsed and its enemies went on a rampage of murder, rape and mutilation that was unparalleled since the Holocaust. That day and the months that followed provided a relentless stream of evidence for the analysis I had laid out. How I wished that I had been wrong.

Since 7th October, Jews have been forced to acknowledge that the lessons of history which we hoped had been learnt had not been learnt at all. They had only disrupted the traditional unfolding of the hatred. It wasn’t just the Nazi years that were revived on 7th October. In Baghdad in 1941, bodies were mutilated; in Kishinev in 1903, babies were torn to pieces by the mob; in 1834, in the mystical city of Safed in northern Palestine, women were stripped and raped; in the Iberian Peninsula in 1391, Jews were butchered in their thousands; in York in 1290, Jews were burned alive in Clifford’s Tower. It most of these cases, the slow progress of everyday bigotry had climaxed in an orgy of violence. In 2023, however, an orgy of violence gave way to the emergence of everyday bigotry.

Around the world, many Jews now face graffiti on their schools, homes and places of worship – a slogan about Gaza was scrawled outside my house – and weekly marches calling for their eradication. On a cultural level, the spread of the new antisemitism has continued apace, beginning in the elite institutions and among the youth and seeping outwards from there, in a mechanism foretold in Israelophobia. A recent poll in the United States found that two-thirds of young people saw Jews as “oppressors” and thought they should be treated as such. And what do we do about oppressors? The core mechanism of antisemitism is that demonisation demands destruction. If the Jews of the Nazi imagination were malign by their very nature, it was natural to endorse the harsh but urgent project of exterminating them. If the Jews of Medieval Europe had killed Christ, it was natural to drive them out, murder them or convert them under torture. Likewise, if the Jews are unable to help themselves from indulging their natural taste for genocide, ethnic cleansing, white supremacy, colonialism, occupation, apartheid and revelling in the blood of children – if they are repeating what the Nazis did to them – they forfeit their right to a homeland. They forfeit their right to go about their lives free from bullying. They forfeit their right to exist.

That Israelophobia is the newest face of the oldest hatred can no longer be reasonably doubted. After 7th October, those who are most concerned with displaying their virtue have been the most abominable; but the capacity of antisemitism to masquerade as a virtue has always been one of its hallmarks. None of the perpetrators of the past considered that they were in the wrong. They believed they were erasing moral corruption for the good of the world. Similarly, it does not seem likely that the Hamas savages, who filmed their crimes on GoPros and exulted to their parents on the phones of their victims, felt any guilt. I suppose it is possible that the western liberals who make excuses for the atrocities; who hold the “occupation” responsible, despite Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005; who refuse to assimilate Hamas’s obvious gameplan – to massacre Jews then hide behind babies while beckoning the television cameras – into their reckoning that laid the blame at the door of the Jews; who harbour selective outrage when it comes to rape, experienced the occasional prick of shame in their hearts, as did many ordinary Germans. But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps they remain so convinced of the supposed virtue of their opposition to Israel that their moral degradation, seen so clearly by the rest of us, remains obscure to them. Either way, if they have felt the pang of conscience at all, it has evidently been easily repressed.

The very people who build their identities around #MeToo and #believewomen and #silenceisviolence, who hyperventilate at the sin of misgendering, who can detect a microaggression at twenty paces, who require trigger warnings for performances of Romeo and Juliet, who see racism everywhere, have suddenly developed a stomach for such things, have suddenly been able to cite “the context”. As Howard Jacobson put it: “It would seem that a massacre is not small enough to be a worry.”

Rather than unite behind a beleaguered democracy on the front line in the war on jihadism, these people have blamed the Jews for their own massacre, warning them that to mount a defence against such unvarnished evil – as other democracies have done against Islamic State or the Third Reich – would make them guilty of crimes against humanity. When is collateral damage not collateral damage? When it’s the Jews doing the killing. While other democracies wage war, the Jews wage genocide. In London, New York and elsewhere, mobs took to the street even before Israeli jets were in the skies. What were these people demonstrating against? The Israelis had done nothing but get themselves slaughtered. That first day lifted the mask. Appallingly, the activists were demonstrating for something: Jewish destruction.

As the months went by and demands for the genocide of Jews rang out weekly across our cities, it became clear that at the core of the protests were those who glorified an act of depravity refashioned as anti-colonial resistance. (When Hamas mutilated corpses, butchered babies and toyed with severed heads, it was a reaction to Jewish oppression. When they committed bestial sexual violence, they had been pushed to it by imperialism. Anyway, who could guarantee that the footage had not been fabricated?) Thousands of apparently well-meaning progressive moderates were prepared to turn a blind eye to blood-curdling chants and placards simply because their political identities were at stake. Tens of thousands saw Gazans suffering on television, wanted an end to the killing and thought it likely that the Jews were to blame. What’s that term again? Ah, yes. Unconscious bias.

The Hamas pogroms and what followed around the world have made it impossible to deny the dominance of Israelophobia on the political left. In November, I received a message from an old university friend with whom I had lost touch almost ten years before. “I’m sorry for de-friending you on Facebook,” she wrote. “When you went to work for right wing media, I thought you’d gone off the rails. I’m eating my words now. The left – which is where I’ve always positioned myself – has become extremist, not to mention, apparently, bloodthirsty? I basically bowed out a year or so ago on the issue of women’s and children’s rights vs. the trans mob but outright support for the brutal annihilation of Israel is a new fucking low. Feeling extremely isolated right now.” She was speaking for many. At the Jewish Chronicle, the newspaper I edit, we had an idea to run a feature about the non-Jewish voices who had stuck up for Israel in the media. We could not think of any on the left.

The most eye-popping example of progressive Israelophobia came in December when the principals of America’s three most esteemed universities, Harvard, UPenn and MIT, were unable to condemn calls for the genocide of Jews without reaching for “the context”. The shame they brought upon their institutions was laid bare by an AI-generated video in which the question was exchanged for one about demands for the genocide of black, gay or Muslim people. What context could there be for demanding the extermination of Africans? What context for the murder of trans people? There could be no clearer illustration of the double standards of antisemitism. The fact that progressives have become gripped by the oldest bigotry, cloaked in its newest guise of Israelophobia, can no longer be sensibly denied.

The three academics were not alone in excusing the inexcusable by citing “the context”. António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, did the same, arguing that the butchering of babies “did not happen in a vacuum”, which many felt was a justification by implication. In this way, he drew lurid attention to the Israelophobia that has long dominated at the UN, which I had highlighted in my book. On 8th October, before the blood was dry in southern Israel, the Security Council met but was unable to reach a consensus condemning Hamas’s “heinous terrorist attacks”, so no statement was released. Despite further sessions, more than two weeks later, there had still been no condemnation; it wasn’t until 15th November that a resolution was finally adopted, and this called for “urgent and extended humanitarian pauses” and the release of hostages, but did not mention the 7th October atrocities.

Similarly, it took eight weeks of silence for UN Women, the organisation’s women’s rights body, to condemn Hamas’s sexual hyper-violence, and even then, its statement led with “regret” over hostilities in Gaza. Of course, resolutions demanding a ceasefire – code for calling upon Jews to lay down their weapons until they are exterminated – have been rigorously pursued. To readers of Israelophobia, none of this would have been surprising. As the 1960s Israeli diplomat Abba Eban once remarked: “If Algeria introduced a resolution declaring that the Earth was flat and that Israel had flattened it, it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13, with 26 abstentions.”

As the columnist Bret Stephens wrote in the New York Times a month after the atrocities, for Jews, every day is now 8th October. It can be hard to recall the world of 6th October with any vividness: it feels like a million years ago. Looking back at the opening of my book, which was written at the end of that old period, it is revealing in new ways. The first chapter describes the rallies that took place in London in 2021, when 256 Palestinians lost their lives in a clash between Hamas and Israel. We have since seen the same scenes on steroids. How measures of trauma have changed, and how quickly! Nonetheless, the 2021 example retains its power; if 180,000 people turned out to protest Israel in Hyde Park after such a relatively small number of deaths, especially while far bigger wars raged in Syria and Yemen, that proved my point even more conclusively. On the other hand, in October 2023, the situation was even more clear-cut. Hamas targeted Israelis living firmly within their internationally-recognised borders. Many of them were peace activists who learned Arabic so that they could ferry their ailing Gazan neighbours to hospital in Israel, or who had planned to fly kites for peace on the afternoon of the day they were killed. The anti-Israel rallies around the world precipitated by these murders could not be plausibly ascribed to anything other than Israelophobia.

George Orwell observed that “one of the marks of antisemitism is an ability to believe stories that could not possibly be true”. Once again, this rule has been confirmed with depressing conclusiveness since the October atrocities. Disturbingly, the viral strain of Holocaust denial has found a new expression in burgeoning Hamas massacre denial. The Palestinian killers filmed themselves committing their crimes and shared the footage wantonly. How much more evidence do you need? But denial is never about the evidence. It is about piling humiliation upon the Jews by casting doubt on their suffering. The antisemite, an old saying goes, accuses a Jew of theft merely for the pleasure of seeing him turn out his pockets.

Other more subtle lies are now commonplace. Take the notion that Gaza was an “open-air prison camp”, used so often to excuse the Hamas savagery. How could people seriously believe that Gaza had been a sealed territory for decades while also criticising Israel for no longer providing extra water, food and fuel into the Strip? How could they at once demand that Israel resume deliveries of lorryloads of aid and condemn the Jewish state for keeping Gazans in a state of starvation for years?

Let us look at the facts. Israel withdrew from Gaza unilaterally in 2005, leaving the Palestinians the keys to their kibbutzim (which were then destroyed in Israelophobic rage). Even after Hamas took over the Strip and used all its resources for the construction of terror infrastructure, Israel continued to provide humanitarian goods and services. There was a military blockade, of course, and the reason for that was made grimly clear in October. But Israel allowed tens of thousands of Gazans to enter its territory daily to work, in the belief that the influx of money into the failing economy of the Strip would create a measure of stability and reduce the chances of aggression. Among those Palestinians who took advantage of Israeli generosity were spies gathering intelligence that was used on 7th October. One of the most sobering stories to have emerged was of two photographers, one Israeli and the other Gazan, who put on joint exhibitions. It later emerged that the Palestinian had used his counterpart’s pictures of her home to create a map of her kibbutz that was used by the Hamas butchers. We know now that whatever the Jewish state does will not release it from the grip of the hate mob. It could kill zero civilians and still be criticised (indeed, this happened in Jenin in July 2023, when an operation that killed only jihadi combatants, some of whom were seventeen, led a BBC newsreader to assert that Israel was “happy to kill children”).

Menachem Begin, the founder of Likud and a former prime minister of Israel, said: “I am not a Jew with trembling knees. I am a proud Jew with 3,700 years of civilised history. Nobody came to our aid when we were dying in the gas chambers and ovens. Nobody came to our aid when we were striving to create our country. We paid for it. We fought for it. We died for it. We will stand by our principles. We will defend them. And, when necessary, we will die for them again.” This may be true for Israelis. But the appetite for the Jews is never sated by swallowing the Jews. The mobs marching on the streets seek the demise of the Jewish people simply as the most prominent expressions of western liberal values. They have attacked the monuments and flags of Britain, the United States and other democracies while also calling for the deaths of Jews. In the weeks after the attacks, many Israelis said to me: “We will get through this. But how are you?” This is our problem. The wave of subversion that is rising from within democratic societies is one that threatens to subsume us all in time. That is why Israelophobia matters. If we are to return any measure of sanity to the debate, and if we are to save our societies from themselves, we must stand up for Israel. And in so doing, we must find in ourselves the answer to the question of whether it is better to be safe or to be free.

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Israelophobia: The Newest Version of the Oldest Hatred and What To Do About It by Jake Wallis Simons is an essential history of how antisemitism morphed into Israelophobia. It was described by the Telegraph as a “timely and important” book.

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