Life & Culture

How Hamas and its apologists made me a true Zionist

My relationship with Israel prior to October 7 was complicated. But when I visited soon after, I found myself falling in love with the Jewish state


Until October 7, my relationship with Israel was an ambivalent one. To me, Israel was like your slightly embarrassing uncle. He was family, and I was glad he existed, but I didn’t want to hang out with him, and I didn’t appreciate a lot of the things he did. I merely tolerated him.

That all changed when Hamas launched its murderous assault, killing 1,200 people – including one of my relatives – and kidnapping 200 others. Suddenly, like many diaspora Jews, I felt personally attacked – a visceral reaction that is hard to articulate, but which I can only describe as a re-ignition of a Jewish collective consciousness spanning centuries of persecution and pogroms. This was an existential threat, and it altered my relationship with Israel overnight.

So when, as a journalist, I was offered the chance to visit post-October 7 Israel, on a trip with the Jerusalem Press Club (JPC), I jumped at the chance. I hadn’t been to the country for over a quarter of a century, and I wanted see for myself how the Israel I remembered had transformed, and how it was coping both with its trauma and the war raging in Gaza. It was also a personal journey; would I now love the place in a way that I hadn’t before?

My childhood was steeped in Zionism. I went to a Jewish primary school, where we fundraised for Israel, planting trees, and where, in 1979, I sang with the school choir at Wembley Conference centre to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, alongside several Israeli artists. A United Synagogue kid, I belonged to Bnei Akiva and then to the youth group FZY, with which I made almost every Jewish 16-year-old’s rite of passage Israel tour. At 18, I took part in a Union of Jewish Students’ leadership training week, in Jerusalem.

There were also several holidays to Israel: visiting family in Haifa, Netanya, Jerusalem and Eilat; touring the historical sites, and swimming in the Mediterranean. But my overriding memory from these vacations is getting sunstroke, and hallucinating and vomiting in a hotel room. A fair-skinned Ashkenazi, I was not cut out for the Middle-Eastern sun (as antisemites, with no understanding of genetics, or history, now like to point out on social media).

On all my visits, both as a child and as a young adult, I found Israel too hot and frantic, the people too brusque and prickly, the sensibility too oriental for my western European tastes. While many of my former primary school classmates made aliyah, I was a soft Zionist, glad Israel existed – I even wrote an article defining and defending Zionism in my university newspaper, where the students’ union was affiliated with the PLO – yet I had absolutely no desire or intention ever to live there. But I am 53 now, and Israel isn’t so young any more either, the world no longer so patient or supportive. Pro-Palestinian protesters now march in their thousands every weekend, and the streets of east London, where I live, are lined with Palestinian flags, which reappear almost as soon as they are removed.

Thus, when I arrive in Jerusalem, on a sunny mid-May Sunday evening, it is immediately comforting to see the streets lined instead with Israeli flags. After October 7, I flew one from my home. I took it down when passersby repeatedly shouted abuse.

Minutes later, I get my first taste of what it’s like to be in a country at war and on high alert. As I stroll nonchalantly down the street, near the Montefiore windmill, a voice screams out, “Get back! Don’t walk this way!” It’s then that my tourist-tinted glasses come off, as I notice the van and the man in full bomb-disposal gear at the bus stop ahead of me. He holds some sort of screwdriver and is attending to a rucksack that someone has left on the seat. Fortunately, it’s a false alarm, and the van soon drives off, but it’s an unsettling experience.

The hotel I am staying in is full of “refugees” from the north, evacuated from their homes because of Hezbollah rockets. Thousands of people have been dispersed, and they are resident in every Jerusalem hotel. The northern border has been largely abandoned, except by the Bedouins and the Druze, who refuse to leave. A planned trip to Kiryat Shmona has to be cancelled because it is simply too dangerous.

In Hurfeish, I talk with a Druze leader, named Shakib Shanan, who is a former Knesset member, his son killed by terrorists in Jerusalem in 2017. Just two weeks after, Hurfeish is heavily shelled, with 11 people injured. Apparently, the sirens didn’t work. A few days later, when I travel to Galilee to talk to some of the evacuees, the scrambled GPS signal tells me I am in central Beirut.

When I visit Kfar Aza, one of the kibbutzim devastated by Hamas, near the Gaza border, I am told to wear a flak jacket and a helmet. Fighter planes roar overhead, artillery shells explode in the distance, and smoke can be seen coming from Jabalia. Personal security is on everyone’s minds; the Israelis I meet tell me that there has been a huge rise in the number of people applying for guns to protect themselves.

This is a country not just at war with its enemies, Hamas and Hezbollah, but also with itself. There are anti-government protests virtually every day of my stay, stopping the traffic. An Israeli photographer tells me, incredulously, about his college friend, a conscientious objector, who calls the IDF “Nazis”, even after they rescued him from a Hamas ambush on October 7. Like the UK, Israel has its share of extremists, both right and left.

The hostage families I meet are incensed and exasperated by Netanyahu and his failure to return their loved ones after so many months. Photos of the hostages are plastered everywhere, not just in Tel Aviv’s Hostages’ Square, but also at Ben Gurion Airport and on the streets of Jerusalem. Here, unlike in London, nobody tears them down, and that makes me feel I am among friends.

Everyone I encounter in Israel has been affected by October 7, whether it is personally – with relatives or friends killed or captured, or stories of heroic survival and rescue – or economically. Tourism and agriculture have been decimated. But some industries, such as the tech sector and medicine, are thriving. On the helipad at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, exuberant Dr Eyal Hashavia, vice chief of trauma surgery at the Sourasky Medical Centre, tells me almost miraculous stories of soldiers being helicoptered in from Gaza with horrendous injuries – one who came in with his bowels in his hands – who are then patched up and sent home. I meet another soldier who lost part of his skull in an explosion, which has since been replaced with a 3D-printed implant, like something from a Terminator movie. Hashavia says there have been zero fatalities among soldiers admitted to the hospital, with patients taken into surgery within two minutes 40 seconds of landing on the roof – a speed record. Israel’s hospitals now have the lowest mortality rates for combat injuries in the world, just 6.3 per cent. The Gaza war is driving medical innovation.

As I talk to Israelis, it slowly dawns on me that what I once took for prickliness and brusqueness is, in fact, a mental and physical resilience, a stoicism borne of living with constant threat. They refuse to allow themselves to be weak, or to be seen to be weak, and they have no self-pity. In fact, it’s the diaspora Jews they feel sorry for because we are facing antisemitism.

Over the five days of my trip, I find myself beginning to fall in love with Israel and its people. An evening trip to the Kotel stirs something in me, something not quite religious but certainly spiritual. I love the vibe of Tel Aviv, but not its humidity, and I am overcome by the beauty of Galilee. But I still can’t imagine living here (although I’m very glad I could if I needed to). I want to come back again soon though, and I would like to bring my partner and my eight-year-old daughter, whose Jewish identity was awakened by October 7 and its aftermath.

Israel is no longer my embarrassing uncle.

Now, if you’ll excuse the change of gender, she is more like a sister.

She still does things that annoy me, and we are different, but I am proud to be seen with her, and I will defend her against anyone who bullies or berates her (though not her government).

Hamas and those who support it have made me a true Zionist.

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