There are few things less appealing than the tribalism which erupts whenever Israel goes to war. Roughly speaking, if you are Right-wing (especially in America), then Israel is a force for good – it is merely defending itself against an evil, terrorist attacker that would wipe it from the face of the earth. If you are Left-wing (especially in Britain), then Gaza is the world’s biggest open-air prison camp: Hamas’s rockets are simply the Gazans’ desperate response to poverty and the blockade.
There doesn’t seem to be much of a centre ground – one that recognises that there are genuine grievances on both sides. But that’s where a small minority tries to argue it’s case. It’s baffling, frankly, that there aren’t more of us.
First, you have to understand that there is a narrative which most Israelis subscribe to – and it goes something like this: “As Jews, we cannot rely on the world to defend us, because – within living memory – were were nearly annihilated. The world did not save us then, and it will not save us from our enemies now.”
Five years ago, I visited Israel with a group of student journalists. It was shortly after Operation Cast Lead – another war in Gaza – and was the week that Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister. (We were taken to his victory party, though it was very low-key because he thought he had lost.)
What struck me most was that, in the aftermath of that war, the narrative was even stronger. Israelis, I realised, seemed to think about the Holocaust almost on a daily basis. They looked at Hamas, and saw the ghost of the Nazi concentration camp guard. This wasn’t their excuse for the war, or a reasoned argument about it. It was just a fact. And once you fully appreciate it, it is not easily dismissed.
Having said that, Israelis do not live in fear every second of every day. I visited the southern Israeli town of Sderot, where air raid sirens frequently sound to warn of incoming rockets. It is very close to the border with Gaza.
But I asked a local man – an Ethiopian Jew, as it happens – what is the greatest worry for you as a resident of here? “The roof of the synagogue needs repairing,” he said. Goodness, I replied. Was it hit by a rocket? “No,” he said, shaking his head. “But when it rains the roof leaks.”
In other words, only a few weeks after a major war nearby, and with Hamas rockets continuing to land, this man was more concerned about a bit of local repair work. He may as well have been talking about potholes.
When the current round of fighting ends, I would be fascinated to ask a Gazan the same question: “What is the greatest worry for you as a local resident?” I suspect the answer would be a little different.
For the rest of Will Heaven’s Notebook, buy this week’s print edition of The Catholic Herald – paper out on Friday. Try our Catholic Herald 6 issues for £6 special appetiser deal.
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