The past is now the present

I have finally lived on this earth during an actual pogrom—one that brought to life in sickening detail the stories I had read as a child.

The site of ​​the music festival and party five days after hundreds of Israelis were killed and kidnapped by Hamas terrorists who infiltrated Israel through the border with the Gaza Strip, Oct. 12, 2023. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90.
The site of ​​the music festival and party five days after hundreds of Israelis were killed and kidnapped by Hamas terrorists who infiltrated Israel through the border with the Gaza Strip, Oct. 12, 2023. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

When I was a child, my racing, impatient young mind could never focus during weekly visits to synagogue in London, my birthplace, as my father and the congregants who sat in our section might well remember. As a means of shutting me up, I was handed a pile of books, mostly about Jewish history, which I would read avidly while the service was underway. That reading amounted, at a tender age, to my first introduction to antisemitism as both an ideology and a political movement.

I remember feeling deeply unsettled by the episodes of persecution that would manifest in these pages—Crusaders massacring Jews in England and France, Spanish Inquisitors invading Jewish homes in search of Jews celebrating Shabbat, Chmielnicki’s Cossacks butchering and brutalizing entire Jewish villages, Arab peasants slitting the throats of Jews in Hebron—as I listened at the same time to the chazzan’s sing-song tone, along with the familiar sounds of the city stirring on a Saturday morning that would float in through the open windows. What I read seemed profoundly abnormal. What I saw and heard around me seemed all too normal, mundane even.

And so I would ponder to myself, what kind of Jew am I? Am I a lucky Jew, to have been born in this era, and not 100, 200, 500 years ago? Sometimes, I would even ask myself if I was a real Jew if I hadn’t undergone the trials and tribulations and painful existential challenges faced by my ancestors.

Those questions have followed me throughout my adult life. And then, last weekend, I achieved some clarity.

I say “achieved,” but perhaps that’s the wrong word in these circumstances. It took the bestial massacre perpetrated by Hamas and Palestinian death squads who invaded communities in southern Israel—indiscriminately murdering, raping and kidnapping hundreds of Jews—to give me a fleeting sense of what is must have been like to have been a Jew in past centuries.

There are two reasons underlying that realization. First, the nature of the violence: as I scrolled through the images of weeping, bloodied teenagers and desperate parents, the smiling family portraits representing two or three generations cruelly wiped out in one fell swoop, the bewildered, fear-drenched text messages begging for help, my mind settled—as was the case, I soon discovered, with many of my fellow Jews—on the word: pogrom.

For this was indeed a pogrom.

Finally, I had been alive on this earth during an actual pogrom—one that brought to life in sickening detail the stories I had read as a child! Of course, I was familiar with the many terrorist attacks during my lifetime: the slaughter of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972; the devastating bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires in 1994; the suicide attack against the Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem in 2001, just one month before 9/11. But as ghastly as these were, they were modern events, recognizable from other, non-Israeli contexts, too. What we witnessed last weekend was the kind of violence—frenzied, intimate and utterly dehumanizing—which again, is not restricted to Jewish victims, but which past generations of Jews knew far better than most.

The second reason behind my realization was more personal. I quickly became aware of my own connection to some of the victims through messages from friends and family members. Relatives in Israel informing me of an older friend’s grandson losing his life while on active duty with the Israel Defense Forces. Uncertainty over the fate of a girl who’d hung out with my younger son and some of his friends during their year abroad in Israel last year, and who’d gone to the desert rave that ended in a murderous orgy of rape and killing. A buddy in New York City who was driving to a shiva upstate to commemorate a young man and his 11-month-old niece executed by the Hamas terrorists in front of their family at Kibbutz Be’eri, and who snapped a photo of snarling demonstrators waving “Free Palestine” placards on his way there. 

And I am not the only one. That’s the point. I haven’t talked to a single Jew over the last week who doesn’t have a personal connection to a life snuffed out by these depraved acts of violence. It’s all of us—or at least it feels like it’s all of us. We have been touched by the bloodshed and that touch has left an indelible mark on our consciousness.

There are many policy issues I could have addressed this week. The two-facedness of the European Union, which condemns the atrocities but balks at the notion of freezing aid to the Palestinians. Or the practical ways in which Western countries should be aiding their Israeli ally; as Volker Beck, the head of the German-Israeli Society, memorably put it: “Instead of just hoisting Israeli flags or covering airplanes with blue and white foil, one should ask whether and what help Israel specifically needs and wants.” Or the increasingly globalized role of Iran and its terror-supporting military, from supplying attack drones used by Russian forces to murder Ukrainian civilians to financing and arming Hezbollah in Lebanon so that they can do much the same to Israelis. And I will do so.

But this week, the weight of history and memory is too overwhelming to circumvent. It is the past, and the way that past is manifesting in our present, that is front and center. In the screams of the victims, in their pleas for help, in the face of searing images of the dead and the raped and the kidnapped—so many of them our precious children—we also encounter the ordeals of our grandparents and their forebears.

So, for now, we try to heal these wounds and we rally, without fear or apology, behind the IDF in its quest to destroy Hamas and all of its infrastructure. And if Israel’s fighting women and men are successful, perhaps, maybe, conceivably, the rest of the world will express not just understanding but gratitude as well.

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