I wrote last month about Israel. As some of you may know, I don’t normally talk that much about Israel. I wouldn’t normally write about that country again. But writing about anything else at the present moment seems impossible.
My basic position — which is to set my stall against the idea that Jewish identity, and antisemitism, must be defined primarily by whatever’s happening in the Middle East — has not changed. I still think that an assumption of any homegrown ethnic community having complicity in the actions of a faraway country is a racist one, and one that would not be imposed by progressives on any other minority not living in that country. I think it now more than ever in fact, when antisemitism in the UK has risen to somewhere off the chart, where a mob in Dagestan attacked an airport hoping to lynch Jews arriving from Israel, and Jews everywhere are living under a constant sense of dread and race déjà vu. But I was moved, after the October 7 massacre, to go on BBC’s Newscast and speak about what had happened, because my emotional response to that day overwhelmed my normal sense of disengagement. That response isn’t to do with Israel specifically — it’s to do with Jews. With the long historical chamber in which the actions of that day ring only one echo: pogrom.
I felt connected, in a way that I don’t always, to Israelis, because the manner in which they were butchered spoke to me of our shared terrible history. And also: it’s hard to keep insisting on a clear line between Israelis and Jews when that nuance isn’t being so recognised by, y’know, Hamas, or by mobs chanting Gas The Jews.
Immediately after the attacks, there seemed to be some acceptance that there is a distinction between political violence, operating as a means to an end, and the dehumanising, triumphant, celebratory, senseless violence of Hamas. For a moment, the online cognitive biases were shaken, although obviously there were many, even directly after the attacks, who were keen to contextualise, without worrying too much about how far contextualisation shades into justification. And then the tiny, unusual window of sympathy briefly extended to Israel slammed shut, well before wider Jewish shock and dismay and fear could be processed. Most of the conversation is now about Israel’s response, and most of it is condemnation.
I understand that condemnation. I agree the killing has to stop. But meanwhile, a week is a long time in geopolitics, and a month, it turns out, is an era so long ago that it seems many of those posting or marching or flag-waving or justifying calls for global Intifada cannot apparently remember exactly what happened on October 7. My opinion is — and I give it, by the way, with the caveat that I’m someone who deconstructs the antisemitic mindset, not someone versed in Middle East history, or diplomacy, or military imperatives, or how much Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies have screwed any chance of peace — a ceasefire and a two-state solution would be good, but I don’t know how you negotiate that with pogrom perpetrators. That’s all I got: because I’m a writer and comedian, and, unlike many commentators online, providing simple answers to impossibly difficult historical conflicts based on binary positions of good and evil isn’t my wheelhouse.
This is my wheelhouse. Before all this happened, I was going to write about my time at Sydney Jewish Writers Festival. I went to this back in August, which now seems like about 100 years ago.
It was a great week, with lots of fascinating events. Some funny stuff happened. I went swimming with Alex Ryvchin, the CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, assuming he would be, like Jews are supposed to be, a nerd, or old and bearded, but he turned out to be ridiculously handsome and ripped, which made me look like, next to him, Methuselah; I appeared on a panel about Jewish comedy where the woman who runs the very funny jewishmemesonly account on Instagram revealed that I basically know only about three Hebrew words; and I arrived an hour late to a Friday night dinner attended by every big Macher in Sydney, which I didn’t realise was in my honour.
For a while, I considered still writing that piece, not least because every article in this newspaper since October 7 has been about Israel and antisemitism and I thought it might be good to strike a lighter note. But then I remembered that — in a vignette that seems emblematic of the failure and fragility of high culture, indeed of civilisation itself — the aforementioned mob chanting "Gas The Jews" were filmed doing so on the steps of Sydney Opera House. The wonderful Miriam Hechtman, a director of the festival, texted me to say they would not be able to host the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival now, as it would be too dangerous.
Which is what makes it hard to write a light-hearted piece. And why this newspaper has ended up with another one about Israel.