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Israel Hamas WarOpinionIsrael

My sense of collective and personal belonging has been shaken

I believe in the Jewish peoples’ right to self-determination - but I am ashamed of what the Israeli government is doing.
Michelle Lesh
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a head split apart

Illustration: TJI

Published: 13 May 2024

Last updated: 13 May 2024

Since October 7, I feel pain and despair. I am a Zionist in mourning. I hold my breath momentarily, constantly. I have heard people say that the only response that feels right is to scream. But I don’t want to scream. I want to find my feet, to stand on solid ground and know my place in the world.

My connection to Israel/Palestine – formed largely by a family history that goes back many generations before the establishment of the state – has long been at the core of my sense of that world. For many years that connection has been a complex mixture of pride, shame, pain and, always, of love. Now all I feel is pain, layer after layer after layer.

Almost everyone in the world seems to have a strong opinion about October 7 and Israel’s response to it. There is a growing consensus that those events changed the world and that it is impossible for Jews to think and feel about Israel as they had done before. Yet, social media and political trends have made serious, truthful, debate almost impossible. Self-righteousness, rage, and unacknowledged bias drench the space of discourse, drowning distinctions that need to be made.

It might seem precious to lament the loss of those distinctions in the face of the horror. Without them, however, there can be no insightful discussion of the political dimensions of the situation or of the role of international law – of what names we should give to the crimes allegedly committed by Hamas and Israel. No discussion of what should count as genocide, for example. That matters profoundly to me as an international lawyer.

For years Israel has been a pariah state in the eyes of Western progressives. Now millions of ordinary people in almost every corner of the world have joined them. For me, it is terrible to be compelled to acknowledge that justice is on their side. A loyal critic of Israel’s past conduct in Gaza, I never dreamed it could come to this.

My abiding love for Israel, even now, makes me ashamed that most of its citizens support what it is committing.

The prosecution of the war has been consistent with the words spoken at its beginning by Israel’s civilian and military leaders. It has expressed fury, grief and the desire for vengeance so brutal that more children, families, journalists and aid workers have been killed in this war than in any of the preceding wars, and with chilling contempt for its victims.

The same contempt has been shown by settlers, often supported by members the IDF, in their attempts to rid the West Bank of Palestinians. Even a former Head of the Shin Bet said that the present government and the war, “is a horrible and terrible reality that will constantly continue to destroy Israeli society”.

The Israeli-American psychoanalyst Eyal Rozmarin argues that the coin of belonging has three sides. The first two are obvious. The third, forsaking your belonging and departing from your community, can feel like treachery to those you consider your people, those who gave you a place in the world.  A friend lamented: “It’s hard to see people with whom who you think you belong say things that are so far from what you think about the situation.” Another layer of pain.

I am one of many Jews whose sense of collective and personal belonging has been shaken, but I have not ceased to be a Zionist. I believe in the Jewish peoples’ need of, and right to, self-determination. I am ashamed of what the Israeli government is doing, not only in the name of its citizens, but of all Jews. My abiding love for Israel, even now, makes me ashamed that most of its citizens support what it is committing.

I am dismayed by the fact that the intergenerational trauma that the evil of October 7 rightly awakened in Jews throughout the world should have made so many of them look at what Israel was doing in Gaza with eyes only half opened, at best. I am not ashamed of being a Jew and I never will be.

I do not believe that it was inevitable that Zionism would eventually come to this. I take comfort in the many what ifs of Israel’s history, of the many times when different roads may have been taken. I find solace in the genuine idealism of past Zionists – my family amongst them – which was not out of touch with reality.

Even then, however, the idealism had to be supported by towering voices of conscience: Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt and Yeshayahu Leibowitz. There are such voices today. I find inspiration in the fact that some of the people most directly affected – those who survived the massacre and those whose family members were killed or taken hostage into Gaza, have resisted being overtaken by revenge: Maoz Inon, Noga Friedman, Rachel Goldberg, Avi Dabush, Yonatan Zeigen, Ziv Stahl. Peace activists like Ibrahim Abu Ahmad and Amira Mohammed, Alon-Lee Green and Sally Abed.

These may seem like only a handful of names, but when did movements to recover justice and decency from cynicism and despair begin with lists much longer?


  • Avatar of leon slonim

    leon slonim26 May at 11:05 am

    We must recognise our place in truth and humanity to stand up and be counted.

  • Avatar of fiona.kelmann

    fiona.kelmann18 May at 04:02 am

    You have encapsulated in words what I too feel. Thank you.

  • Avatar of Jacqui

    Jacqui14 May at 12:08 pm

    You have echoed many of my thoughts & my deep pain. Thank you

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