This Pesach, the big battles will be with our inner voices

Arguments will rage across the Seder table between different views of the right course for Israel, but the real argument will be within ourselves as we grapple with our own conflicting feelings

April 10, 2024 11:04

Is it safe to admit on the pages of the JC that some festivals in our calendar have never quite done it for me? That, in particular, it is those that involve a forced jollity that leave me, if not cold, then decidedly lukewarm? Not since childhood have I been a fan of Simchat Torah, while the fancy dress dimension of Purim always felt a bit of a strain – but now, I fear, my ambivalence about those two festivals is not mine alone.

After October 7, Simchat Torah will forever be intertwined with the memory of that day of dread, the deadliest in Israel’s history. As for Purim, I can’t say for certain that my Charedi neighbours in London N16 were not in the party mood, but it felt lower-key all round; friends in Israel say something similar, that it was a matter of going through the motions, chiefly for the sake of the children. With a war on, and hostages still captive, it just didn’t feel like the moment for dressing up and drinking till dawn.

But Pesach, which is approaching, will bring, I suspect, a different response. My guess is that Jews will seize on the chance to be with other Jews, that on some level they need it. On the Unholy podcast last month, Danny Cohen, former Director of BBC Television and executive producer of The Zone of Interest, told me and my co-host Yonit Levi that his “social world’s got smaller since October 7.” He explained that, “There’s some people I don’t want to have the conversation with because I’m fearful of what they’re going to say and it would be irreparable.” The result, he said, is that “it’s bringing us all together closer as a Jewish community. But it’s also…making our worlds feel smaller.”

That resonated with those who have grown tired of having to explain themselves, at work, on campus or online. But surrounding yourself with other Jews, even with members of your own family, doesn’t wholly solve the problem. Because we don’t all agree.

Indeed, the Seder itself has become a source of anxiety. “I have already heard from many of my congregants that they are very worried about Passover this year,” was how Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of the Central Synagogue in New York put it when she came on Unholy last week. “They’re worried about their niece and their nephew or their children who feel so differently about Israel that some of them don’t even want to come, let alone the conversation with their Uncle Morrie, who is so right wing they can’t have a conversation.’”

We all know what she means. The events of the last six months have opened up a series of faultlines between the generations, with a lot of younger Jews outraged by Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza, while many older ones still insist on defending the country from what they consider unfair condemnation.

I’d add just one thought. Those arguments don’t only rage around the family table: they also rage within us. Indeed, I think that’s one reason why this last half-year has been so hard for so many. We’re having to hold multiple and conflicting thoughts and feelings in our heads and hearts all the time.

How much easier it must be to land on one side of the binary divide – whether to denounce Israel as an evil, settler-colonialist endeavour from its inception or to see it as a permanently blameless victim, if not of murderous Hamas terrorists then of congenitally biased, essentially antisemitic global institutions, from the UN to the mainstream media. If you can look at the world through a reassuringly monochrome lens, you can tell yourself you’re 100 per cent right and everyone else is 100 per cent wrong. But not everyone can manage it – which makes times like this a struggle.

It’s hard to know where you’re meant to stand, which demo you’re meant to go to, if you think, simultaneously, that October 7 was an act of sadistic wickedness and that the killing of – according to Hamas’ figures – 33,000 Palestinians in Gaza, including so many civilians, is unconscionable. Or if you think that Hamas is an especially immoral enemy, willing, if not eager, to put Palestinians in harm’s way – by operating from schools, hospitals and mosques – and, at the same time, take seriously the evidence of, at best, a carelessness among IDF commanders in the field towards civilian life in Gaza, as demonstrated by last week’s killing of seven aid workers for World Central Kitchen, or, at worst, “intentional harm to civilians in designated ‘kill zones’”, to quote a recent report by Haaretz. Or if you reject the cynicism of South Africa bringing genocide charges against Israel at The Hague and, at the same time, see no possible justification for the panoply of restrictions and obstacles Israel imposed on the flow of aid to Gaza, including vital food and medicine, a move whose chief victim was not Hamas but ordinary men, women and children.

So yes, these arguments may well rage across Seder tables all over the world later this month. But the big battle will not be between Uncle Morrie and his niece wearing the Free Palestine badge. It will be within every Jew who can neither cut themselves off from Israel, disavowing it as so many urge them to do, nor defend it when it’s led by a rotten, far right government, the worst in the country’s history and one seemingly hell-bent on wreaking havoc in Gaza, isolating Israel and destroying its global image in the process. In that battle, the prospects of a ceasefire are as distant as ever. Sometimes it seems it will last forever.

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the Guardian and the co-host of the Unholy podcast

April 10, 2024 11:04

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