I am a Jew in London, watching from afar what is happening to close friends and family in Israel. Where do I stand? I am outside, trying to follow what is happening over there. I am in a city and fearful of the chants on the streets here. I am caught up in these dark times, but uncertain of my place to comment on what is unfolding there and here. I keep returning to the story of Moshe’s death, the Torah portion that was read in Israel on that fateful Simchat Torah 7 October, and outside of Israel we read it on 8 October. We who stand outside always seem to be lagging behind. In the biblical narrative Moshe stands outside of the land and gives his final blessing to the people. Worried for their future, he prays for their protection and security.
What do I, a Jew in London, have to say to those who are over there? I stand humbled by their stories of grief and survival, co-operation. Listening to their pain. I can join them in their shock at what happened and dread for what might be. But their anger at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the government comes from those who have to live with all the possibilities of what might come next. They know the cost of having Hamas as a threat on the doorstep.
In London I am not detached from what is unfolding. Antisemitic attacks are on the rise and we don’t feel safe to show our Jewishness publicly. I am wary. It is hard to stand in a mixed crowd, not knowing who to stand with. I read posts on social media, bitterly checking if the person has posted compassion, anything at all, about the hostages or Israeli loss of life. Perhaps others are looking to see if I acknowledge the tragic loss of Palestinian life? To paraphrase Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, it’s as if human rights is a team sport with spectators and opposing chants. My side against yours. Where do you stand? With us or against us? Lazy slogans betray a simplistic refusal to learn the history of the region.
The line “know before who you stand” is traditionally a meditation for prayer. It’s a challenge to be intentional and humble. Know your place with respect to ‘The Other’. How close we are from a situation affects us. With grief, it’s vital to know one’s place: comfort those at the centre, be supported by those further away. With Israel and Gaza, those in the centre need to be heard, even though their voices are being choked by emotion. And there are others who are standing outside, but have deep personal connections to the region. They have loved ones whose lives are at risk. These voices also have something to say and are deeply affected by events.
And then there are those who are completely on the outside. I gently ask them to understand where they stand and be humble in their strident calls for what should happen. They are risking nothing if a ceasefire happens before Hamas’s threat to Israeli life is removed. They are not going to be without if humanitarian aid doesn’t get through. Compassion for another’s pain is a starting point, but solidarity with one side is not a path to peace if it erases the other. If the ultimate end game is for peace, then compassion and care must be open to find ways to stand, and live, together.
So where am I standing, and who am I standing with? I am in a hazy place of not knowing where the centre actually is. Here, antisemitism fills me with dread and fear. There a war is raging and I am emotionally involved. I stand before my loved ones, sending messages… thinking of you… hope all will be home safe and soon… can’t imagine… tell me how you are… may there be calm… may there be peace… may nothing make you afraid… do what you can to be safe… sending love… love… and I stand before the outsiders, asking them to also witness this pain and to listen to those who have everything to lose.
By Jacqueline Nicholls
Jacqueline Nicholls is a fine artist, award-winning visual poet and Jewish educator. jacquelinenicholls.com