In the weeks since the barbaric Hamas attack of October 7, I’ve made a point of speaking to my Jewish friends in the UK and America, to make sure I’m hearing their voices as well as those of my friends and colleagues in Malaysia and the Gulf, the overwhelming majority of whom are Muslim, Arab or both.
The other day I talked to a Jewish friend who personally knew some of the Israelis who were murdered by Hamas. Wasn’t he worried, I asked, about how worldwide opinion is increasingly hardening against Israel over its cruelly punitive actions in Gaza, which have resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent children?
“We have no alternative but to annihilate Hamas,” he told me. “The feeling is: people hate us anyway. If they hate us even more after this, we can live with that.”
That was a disturbing statement on many levels. But on one, I think it was just wrong. For if Israel becomes almost completely isolated over the ruination it is visiting on Gaza, I worry that it may risk undermining the foundations on which its existence depends.
Let me explain. If you grew up in the West in the 1970s and 80s, as I did, support for Israel was widespread. Many saw Israelis as a hardy, heroic people who had conducted daring operations, such as the hostage rescue at Entebbe airport in 1976, and practised a kind of “socialism that works” at a time when social democracy was greatly admired in Europe. They could make peace, too, as they did with Egypt at the Camp David Accords in 1978.
In the UK, a multitude of celebrated figures across public life were Jewish – not the same as being Israeli of course – many beloved, like Yehudi Menuhin, whose rendition of the Beethoven Violin Concerto was the first LP record I ever bought. Observant Christians – there were far more of them in Britain back then – felt the Jewish people were the descendants of ancient biblical tribes whose home had been returned to them. Rarely was a mention of occupation made.
The Palestinians, on the other hand, were less understood and more associated by western politicians and media with terrorism. The images of the attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics by Black September and the hijacking of the Achille Lauro ocean liner by the Palestinian Liberation Front in 1985 rang in the minds of many. I can still remember watching a TV news report about how an elderly Jewish American man in a wheelchair, Leon Klinghoffer, was murdered and thrown overboard. By this point I had become aware that the situation was more complex. My family had lived in Riyadh, and the PLO had an office nearby. Clearly, there were legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people. Even so, I recall that when I went to a talk by Afif Safieh, the Palestinian delegate to the UK, as a student in 1990, it still felt like a mildly transgressive act.
It's all very different today. For younger people just beginning to learn about Palestine and Israel, there will appear nothing remotely heroic about the devastating pictures and reports coming out of Gaza. Israel has been a very poor advert for democracy for a long time, and the system could have no worse poster boy than the inflammatory prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, whom nearly 80 per cent of his compatriots want to resign, according to a recent poll. The country’s leadership doesn’t want a negotiated peace, or not according to Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter, who told a TV channel over the weekend: “We are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba”; and not according to the settler leader interviewed by the New Yorker, who stated that “the borders of the homeland for the Jews are the Euphrates in the east and the Nile in the southwest”.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of sympathetic Palestinian voices being heard since October 7, and others like the Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef, whose two interviews with Piers Morgan have racked up tens of millions of views on YouTube. When Youssef points out that some Palestinians wear keys around their necks – keys to the houses they lost in 1948 during the establishment of the State of Israel – many younger people will think: "Why on earth should they not have the right to return to their properties?" Morally, that right is hard to dispute; but its enactment would threaten the existence of the State of Israel as it is currently constituted.
This not to claim that the histories of the two peoples are not highly complicated and contested. It is to point out that the overwhelming impression for many younger people will be of Israel inflicting terrible suffering on the Palestinians; and those same people are now hearing far more about the dispossession of the Palestinians than my generation did.
Also crucial to this difference of perception and sympathy, I believe, is the sense of proximity to the Second World War and the Holocaust. It wasn’t just that TV in the West was full of films and programmes about the war when my generation was growing up there. Our grandfathers fought in it; some of them were among the liberators of the death camps. The tragedy of the Jewish people was very tangible because it was linked to people we knew deeply, and it happened at a time to which we could relate. That gave Israel an iron support, an unshakeable foundation constructed of the moral certitude that this must never happen again.
To young people today, however, the war is as distant timewise from them as the First World War was to my classmates – a historical event, the bitter tail end of the long 19th century. It's not that they think the Holocaust doesn't matter. But they are highly unlikely to have grown up knowing people who were affected by it, still less had the chance to visit a survivor regularly, as I did in my 20s.
So there's a tremendous amount of unquestioned support that Israel cannot take for granted any more. The fact that its current actions are alienating much of the world truly matters, as the Jewish people – perhaps the most persecuted ethnic group in the history of humanity – really do need to feel secure and protected.
We know that Mr Netanyahu's policies undermined Israel's safety at home before October 7. What I fear is that his brutal response to the Hamas atrocities is doing more than anyone else could to undermine its safety and longevity abroad.