I am a Jew…so are you
Am Yisrael Chai
I have a premonition that will not leave me: as it goes with Israel so will it go with all of us. Should Israel perish, the holocaust will be upon us - Eric Hoffer
By Anonymed (an anonymous Canadian Doctor)
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I am not a Jew. I’ve been to synagogue only once. I’ve danced at just one Jewish wedding. Most of what I know about Hanukkah comes courtesy of Ross from Friends, and I wouldn’t pass a grade-school quiz about the other holidays. I met a Jewish person for the first time when I was eighteen, at university. Though he became a dear friend, his Jewishness rarely came up. Even after spending significant time with his family, my perception of what it was to be a Jew still consisted of smoked meat and the stereotype that everyone’s dad is a doctor.
I came to care deeply about Israel and the fate of the Jewish people by happenstance. I studied international relations in graduate school, but came from a science background. I thus entered my studies without formal training in political science or history or any of the “studies” which inevitably intersect with the conflict in the Middle East.
Unlike most of my academic colleagues, I had few preconceptions about the Israel question, save for one - I’d spent a lot of time with Israelis. At that time I wasn’t versed in the history of the Middle East, but I had spent a considerable amount of time in South America, and anyone who has travelled in the region knows that Israelis are everywhere.
In part due to their sheer numbers, Israeli backpackers have a reputation for being uncouth. And so I admit I was apprehensive the first time I found myself in their company. One of the people with whom I was travelling booked us on an Amazonian riverboat trip which, unbeknownst to us, also included a group of eight Israeli friends. I was one of three non-Israelis on the week-long venture into the basin, and braced myself for what I thought might be a trying few days. But as anyone who has been to Israel or spent time with Israelis can attest, they are much more than such a reputation. To a man (and woman) they were bright, self-assured, generous individuals who could converse and (more importantly) laugh in English better than most people I knew. After five minutes, I felt like family. But it’s true that they were different. Despite being of a similar age, they possessed a maturity that I did not. It was in their eyes, in the cadence of their speech. As close as we became on that trip and afterwards, I always felt uneasy. I’d experienced the feeling before (and have had it many times since) when speaking to friends and colleagues who have seen war up close. I’ve felt it when speaking to fellow physicians who have completed tours with Doctors Without Borders or Red Cross. It is a grown-up look - something like the opposite of naivete. Then at least, it was the opposite of me.
As I say, I was something of an ignoramus. One night, when I’d been drinking too much, I decided I was going to engage one of my new friends about that whole “Israel-Palestine” thing. I knew next to nothing, but alcohol is a temerity infuser, and I’m pretty sure I asked him to explain the entire thing. I don’t recall what I said exactly, but I can still picture the look on his face in response. He wasn’t angry or insulted. He smiled wryly and suggested that we not spoil the night with such things. That was the end of it.
I was embarrassed. Despite his graciousness I knew I had crossed a line. This wasn’t academic to him. He had looked past me, as those who have seen terrible things are wont to do. They are looking, if not at the devil, then at least with the knowledge that he is in the room. It is a look that only those who have had to confront the prospect of their own annihilation can summon. I didn’t know it at the time, but that look is in the eyes of every Israeli - perhaps in the eyes of every Jew.
Something about spending time with Israelis changed me. I don’t know why. I’d traveled a lot, even then, and heard the stories of many heroic peoples around the world. But they didn’t leave the same impression. And so later, in my first week of graduate school, I enrolled in a week-long “intensive course” on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The course - which required reading hundreds of pages of dense history about Moses Hess, Theodore Herzl, the history of Zionism and other things that made me feel wholly illiterate - was taught by the great Schlomo Avineri of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Too afraid to be found out as the know-nothing I was, I decided to “audit” the course instead. I went every day for eight hours and listened.
Most of my graduate education consisted of flirting with subjects about which I knew little, and trying for the life of me to learn how to think. I took a seminar about food sociology and became a vegetarian (mostly); about international law and for some reason became obsessed with how we were going to govern the moon; about philosophy and cybersecurity and African kleptocracies and the wisdom of “corporate social responsibility” (now the infamous ESG). But Israel rarely came up. Despite my Zionism-focused introduction, the question of the Jewish state was peripheral, at least formally. But not everything you learn in school is in the classroom. In the humanities in particular, it matters a lot who you learn from and who you learn with.
In my case, fate would have it that the two people closest to me during that time cared a great deal about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and for very different reasons). One was a woman who, though even whiter than me, had studied Arabic in the Middle East. She had no ethnic or cultural attachment to the region, but she loved it, and spent many of her best years living in Egypt, Oman, Yemen, and other white-lady paradises. She, as you might guess, thought Israel was evil. She taught me about the “Nakba”, about Sabra and Shatila, about land left and checkpoints and the importance of the mantra, “no justice, no peace.”
The other woman (it was always women in graduate school, even a decade ago) was Jewish and became something more than a friend. She was everything I now associate with diaspora Jews (and Jewish women in particular) - smart, resilient, determined, and direct. She was sensitive, but in a way that only the strong can be. She was better than me, and I loved her for it. But while she wore her Jewish identity with pride, she never pushed her beliefs on me, even when it was probably obvious that my other source on the conflict was aggressively, um, “pro-Palestinian.” I never really knew the details of what she thought about the situation, but I knew Israel mattered a great deal. Shortly before our relationship ended, she gave me a book for my birthday. She didn’t say what it was about. She just told me it was a story she loved - that it meant something to her and she thought it might mean something to me. The book was Exodus by Leon Uris. She was right.
The seeds were planted, but even with all the exposure to others’ opinions about the conflict, I still didn’t have my own convictions about whether or not one side was the clear moral actor. I still thought of it in the abstract - as a tragedy - with good points “on both sides” and plenty of blame to go around. As is often the case when one’s mind is changed, it was events (or at least moments in time) and not my meager reasoning powers that clarified the matter and brought into stark relief the moral chasm between Israel and her enemies. Specifically, I witnessed the cancerous conjoining of the Western Left with Islamic fundamentalism - the so-called “Red-Green” alliance.
The first event was war. In 2009, Israel responded to months of constant rocket barrages from the newly-minted Hamas government with Operation Cast Lead. Israel had retaliated and preempted its genocidal neighbours many times before, but this was the first war in newly-independent and un-occupied Gaza. Even with what I now know is a biased media and an academic environment predisposed to rank Jew-hatred, it was still impossible not to notice the disparities on display. As always, much was made of Israel’s military superiority and its “disproportionate” response, but the obvious and undeniable imbalance was a moral one. One party cared deeply about innocent civilians - their own and the enemy’s - and one did not. One party lamented every innocent life lost as collateral damage, while the other routinely sacrificed its own children for the cameras - a tactic morbidly referred to as “dead baby strategy” (a term which has now taken on a grotesque new significance).
The second event was my introduction to the “Red” aspect of the alliance - which is to say, I listened to what progressives in my graduate classes said about Israel and the Palestinians during that time. It was then that I first learned about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement (BDS), about “Israeli apartheid week” (which always had the same grotesque poster with an Israeli chopper bearing down on an innocent Palestinian child), and about Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (now immortalized as a meme adjacent “chickens for KFC”). I started to notice the venom in peoples’ voices whenever the Jewish state was brought up.
The sickness that is leftist “anti-Zionism” was especially driven home by a trip to the most fitting of places: Germany. Towards the end of my graduate school tenure, I was part of a group of researchers invited to present at a symposium in Berlin. This was not a serious conference, but it was a free trip to Europe and, because our hosts were connected, provided access to all sorts of political “briefings”, cultural events, a talk at the Canadian embassy, and various other accouterments. One of our haute couture guides was a well-known architect - young and haughty in that way Germans tend to be. While touring an historic theater, one of my colleagues asked if photos of the exhibits and inner workings were permitted. Our guide reassured us in a mocking tone: “Don’t worry, this isn’t Israel.” Compared to recent events, that’s pretty tame as far as antisemitic rhetoric goes, but it was quite something to hear a smug German leftist scoff as though Israel were the state with the morally dubious history. “I wonder why Israel was necessary,” a Jewish colleague of mine muttered under her breath. Exactly right, and she shouldn’t have muttered. I shouldn’t have been silent entirely.
The final upshift came from direct exposure to the Green part of the alliance - that is, the vat of genocidal antisemitism that is the Muslim world. Where Jews are concerned, travelling in any majority Muslim country is like visiting 15th Century Spain. Gad Saad once joked about the ease of “playing” six degrees of “kill the Jews.” Even in the west, it never takes all six. In the “moderate” parts of the Muslim world, it might take three. In the touchier ones, the person in front of you (very likely bringing you sweets and endless tiny cups of tea) would very likely rejoice if every Jew were wiped off the face of the earth. In some places, like Iran, it’s overt. In others, it’s under the surface, but only barely. It’s still thick in the air. As Medhi Hasan, Al Jazeera reporter turned MSNBC Islamist apologist, once wrote in a rare and shockingly candid piece for the New Statesman, “Antisemitism is our dirty little secret.” Well, it was never a secret to those who have been paying attention. And now it is no secret to anyone but the most ignorant and blinkered. Make no mistake, Jew-hatred in the Muslim world - be it in Tehran or Toronto - is deeply ingrained. Children drink it with their mother’s milk, after which it is absorbed into their bones.
Which brings us to the atrocities of October 7. Obviously Israel was surprised tactically, but Israelis themselves oughtn’t have been surprised by the moral obscenities inflicted on their people, shocking as they were. For years, Hamas had been telling them, and the rest of the world, that their aim - their raisin d’être - was genocide. Given that Israel’s “moderate” negotiating partners sent suicide bombers into bakeries and buses, what else could one think except that, given the chance, Hamas would do precisely what they did.
Israel has now been shaken of any illusions. As for the West, the jubilation with which the slaughter of innocent Jews was greeted should not have been surprising here either. As the great Mark Steyn once said of 9/11: the thousands filling the streets in Western cities to chant their support for unadulterated barbarism isn’t an indication that things have changed, but rather a reminder of how much has already changed. Israel was too complacent, but their error in judgment was one of scope and scale, not ignorance. Unlike the Israelis, Westerners (especially Canadians) have been under the illusion that Islam is a religion of peace and that Israel is culpable, if not entirely responsible, for much of the extremism coming out of the Muslim world. This was never the case, and behaving otherwise has cost us dearly.
It remains to be seen whether Canadians can navigate this moral non-conundrum. For so long we have been told our own country is committing genocide. Who are we to talk? There are many questions, but the biggest one is going to be, does Canada have a will to survive as a moral nation? Equivocating about what took place in Israel on October 7th, and subsequently on the streets of our cities, is a point of no return. You don’t get to come back from being confused about who the bad guy is in this instance.
In response to Israel’s third incursion into Gaza in 2014, again in response to indiscriminate missile barrages, philosopher Sam Harris concluded his comments on the obvious moral discrepancy between Israel and her enemies by stating: “We are all living in Israel, it’s just that some of us don’t know it yet.” Quite right, and if you don’t know now, you never will. It’s all plain to see.
It is well known that in the midst of the horror of the Second World War, many brave Danes chose to don the yellow Star of David in solidarity with the Jews of Europe. Solidarity like that is arguably needed now more than any time since. Israel can take care of itself, but we must not allow the Jews in our midst to live in fear, or the many Jew-haters among us to distort the moral calculus (which they started doing before the bodies were counted).
The next few months are going to be brutal and tragic. Many will die as a consequence of Hamas’ barbarism, Palestinian rejectionism, and Arab and Muslim antisemitism more broadly. Far be it for me to tell Israel how to deal with this impossible situation. I hope they maintain the moral high ground they so clearly hold. But I also hope they win, and win decisively. If securing release of Israeli hostages and obtaining Hamas’ unconditional surrender necessitates extraordinary measures, I am hesitant to pretend I know a more moral way forward.
This is one of the few times in my life I’ve found it hard to sit on the sidelines in comfort (the other being the heroic resistance to ISIS by the Kurds). Israel has called up something like 300,000 reservists (for perspective, Canada’s entire army is about 100,000) in preparation for an inevitable ground invasion of Gaza. The US is moving a second carrier into the area, presumably to deter Hezbollah. But what can I do? I’m not even putting my name to this tirade I’m inflicting on everyone.
Well, it’s not much, but I have put forth my name, and if they need doctors, I will go. Tell me when and where, and I will go. I am not brave, but this I will do. If they don’t need me, I will settle for telling every single person I know about the moral realities of the situation. I will wear my “Israel” sweater until it frays from use. From this day forward, I am no longer just an admirer of the most unlikely and remarkable country on earth. Until justice is done and Israel lives in peace, I am an Israeli. And until the Jewish people are no longer hunted, I am a Jew as well. And you, if you care about truth, about freedom, about justice, about human rights - about western civilization itself - then so are you. Am Yisrael Chai.
Thanks for reading. For more from this author, read The Jordan Peterson Centre for Commissars Who Can’t Read Good
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