On Jewish identity

  • Themes: Terrorism

The scale of the Hamas attack of 7 October is a reminder of a universal lesson all Jews come to realise: that to be a Jew is to be hated.

The Last March sculpture by Nathan Rapoport.
The Last March sculpture by Nathan Rapoport. Credit: Keith Levit / Alamy Stock Photo

Identity is irrational but that doesn’t make it unreal. I am a Jew. I’m not a believer, don’t belong to a synagogue. I married out of the community. But I am a Jew. I fast on Yom Kippur and say Kaddish for my parents. When in Israel for work, the only time I go, I try to get to the Wall to pray and ask forgiveness of a God I am sure does not exist.

Nothing, however, takes me deeper into this irrational, inescapable ethno-religious identity than extreme violence against the Jewish state. The unprecedented 72-hour Hamas rampage through southern Israel was a forceful reminder of something lying near the core of my Jewish identity: to be a Jew is to know that you will be hated, not by everyone, but always, somewhere in the world, someone will hate you.

I learned this the very first time I was called a ‘dirty Jew’ in school. I was eight years old and my father taught me it was part of being Jewish. History reinforces my father’s lesson.

A simple question: what were you doing five years ago? Do you have a sense of five years as a unit of time? Good. Five years before I was born Auschwitz was in operation. This fact cannot help but shape a person. I am a lucky Jew. I have no direct relatives who were immolated in the Holocaust. That does not mean no loss.

In 2018, I went to Ukraine to make a BBC World Service programme about reviving Jewish life there. Both sides of my father’s family trace their roots to what is today Ukraine, although when they left my grandfather’s part of modern Ukraine was in the Russian Empire and my grandmother’s, Galicia, was Austro-Hungarian. Since the latter empire was diligent in its record-keeping, I was able to trace the birthplace of my grandmother and go for a visit. It was a majority Jewish town where not one single Jew survived. The women were sent to Bełzec death camp. The shtetl on its outskirts where she had been raised, Pobych, was the site of a forced labour camp for men. One day they were all marched into a forest and shot.

Knowing these things happened so recently in time shapes my identity as a Jew, but no identity is more malleable, more subject to change than Jewish identity.

A decade ago, the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit published a memoir called My Promised Land and he did a couple of talks at London’s Jewish Book Week. I interviewed him at one and began by saying: ‘I am a Jewish-American, the people in the audience would primarily call themselves British Jews. We are hyphenates but you are an Israeli, you are not a hyphenate. Your native language is Hebrew, you have worn the uniform of the Jewish State. Do you have a different sense of your Jewishness?’

Shavit is only a few years younger than I am. When I was six and starting Hebrew School I raised money to plant a tree in Israel. Maybe it shaded him at sometime in his childhood or when he was at university or serving as a paratrooper in the IDF.

All of those experiences made him an Israeli but how did they affect his Jewishness? How did it relate to my experience of being a Jew. In recent years as Israeli society drifted rightward, and became casually accepting of the Occupation while becoming the eastern Mediterranean’s main outpost of American consumerism I began to think that perhaps, now Israeli’s were also hyphenates, not superior to diaspora Jews, just another group of Jews in another part of the world.

I made notes for an essay that I knew would not be published, puzzling out what it meant to be Jewish in the twenty-first century, in lives lived on three continents, at a time when Jews were more secure than they had been ever since Solomon was building the Temple in Jerusalem.

I made programmes for the BBC on Jewish identity and to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, the conflict that did more to shape modern Israeli identity than any other until the Hamas assault that began 50 years and a day later.

The audacity of the attack and the scale of casualties has shaken me out of such casual intellectual exercises. It has taken me back to the lessons my father and history have taught me: to be a Jew is to be hated. That is a universal lesson all Jews know.

Nothing can demonstrate this more than the rampaging, nihilistic Hamas murder spree that began at sunrise early on 7 October and, as I write, is known to have killed 900 people in Israel, the worst single act of hatred against Jews since the Second World War.

That was Hamas’s goal: kill Jews.

When Anwar Sadat launched the Egyptian Army across the Suez Canal into Sinai in 1973 he had a genuine geopolitical objective: to force Israel to negotiate the return of territory and, as a secondary objective, restore national pride in Egypt. He achieved both. Hamas’ only objective is to bring death and sow fear. Perhaps the Hamas leadership thinks they can make Israelis so afraid they will leave and go back to where they came from. There is no interest in negotiating a division of the land, there is no interest in any geopolitical objective.

Here they make a category error. The Jews are a people, Israel is a nation. Israel was created by the same historical forces that have created nations since civilisation began. A group of people, out of necessity, either famine or war or economic need, seize somebody else’s land. They settle it, defend it, deepen roots in it. Previous populations are displaced or they become subsumed into the new state. Since the Second World War this process has happened very rarely. It is a difficult to observe through modern eyes. It is even more difficult to accept when the group creating the new nation is a people you hate.

And those modern eyes are everywhere. In the 2019 flare-up between Hamas and Israel, as mindless Jew-hatred shaped demonstrations of pro-Palestinian solidarity in Britain, I found myself playing the role of my father. My daughter came home from her Church of England secondary school where about a third of the students are actually Muslim (an example of England’s changing identity) having heard raw Jew-hatred for the first time in her life. She had yet to develop her Jewish identity but understood that this hatred was in some way directed against me. I had to explain to my daughter that being hated is part of being Jewish and one had to accept it, rise above it, be prepared to fight it.

I had to explain to my daughter that being hated is part of being Jewish and one had to accept it because anti-semitism is a subset of racism and racism is a subset of stupidity and stupidity is part of the human condition.

It is a sad part of Jewish identity – Jewish-American or British-Jew or Jewish-Israeli – that this knowledge must be passed down from generation to generation. As I said, at the beginning: Identity is irrational but that doesn’t make it unreal or less painful.


Michael Goldfarb