Ben Kepes – 12 October 2023
I have a habit of turning any sightseeing visit into a running event. The year before COVID I took advantage of a business trip in Europe to meet up with my son who was doing a gap year in England. We headed to Israel for a few days to see family. As a family, we’ve been to Israel many times and my sons, though feeling no real religious connection or affiliation, do feel a strong familial connection with the country. The food, the language, the heat – it has an unmistakable feeling.
A favourite place of ours to visit is Masada – the hilltop fortress in the desert. For those who haven’t heard of the place, it’s quite an inspiring location. King Herod, not unlike politicians of today, was quite keen on creating edifices and so he built himself a bunch of incredible fortresses all around the country. One of these was on the top of a mountain in the middle of the desert in Southern Israel.
Around 2000 years ago, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and a small group of Jewish rebels fled south to that mountaintop of Masada. There they holed up and enjoyed the plentiful supplies that Herod had put down many years before. The Romans were however a stubborn bunch, and couldn’t abide by the fact that a small group of Jews had survived. Thus the Romans laid siege to the mountain. For three years, the Romans built a ramp up the mountain using slave labour. On the night before the Romans breached the walls, the Jews all committed suicide lest they’d be taken prisoner and enslaved to the Romans.
200 years ago, when Jews were living in the ghettos of Poland, they would cower every Easter as priests from the surrounding areas would work their congregants into a fervour with tales of blood libels and ritualistic sacrifice. These Jews would sit there meekly, as their sometimes neighbors came and murdered them in cold blood.
Only 80 years ago, and other than a few examples of resistance, Jews filed into the gas chambers having been taken there in cattle trucks. Taken from countries that they had called home for generations.
You see for Jews, antisemitism of an extreme and violent nature is something that we have grown used to. It would be easy to think for us sitting here in comfortable and apparently safe New Zealand that extremism is something that couldn’t happen to us. And yet we all remember what happened in Christchurch a few years ago. And for us Jews, we only needed to look at our TV screens a couple of nights ago to see scenes from the Sydney Opera House. Protesters burning Israeli flags and chanting “Gas the Jews.”
This perennial antisemitism is why, in 1897, Theodore Herzl convened the first-ever World Zionist Congress. Exposed to antisemitism of an insidious nature in Western Europe Herzl realized that until the Jews had a homeland of their own, they wouldn’t really be free of persecution. They would forever be reliant on the grace (or lack of) their host countries held for them.
And so in 1948, although he wasn’t alive to see it, Herzl’s dream came to pass and the State of Israel was formed. For the first time in 2000 years, Jews could actually look to a homeland.
It’s certainly not a perfect homeland. I would be the first person to admit that there have been significant missteps on a social, a cultural, a political and a human level. Let’s address the elephant in the room. I firmly believe that Israel’s handling of people in the West Bank and in the Gaza strip has left much to be desired. But none of this changes the very real fact that all around the world there are people chanting “Gas the Jews” and painting swastikas on synagogue walls.
And the one place where we have the autonomy to determine our future, and not be reliant on being hosted by others, is Israel.
As a Jew and someone whose relatives mainly live in Israel, it is incredibly distressing to see New Zealand politicians chant Hamas slogans that specifically call for the destruction of Israel. They are directly calling for the murder of myself and my family. It is, however, yet another reminder that it has only been since 1948 that the Jewish nation has had a place that they have had the autonomy to defend. Yes, it’s cost a huge price and has had unfortunate collateral damage. But scenes of Hamas militants indiscriminately murdering women and children and dancing and cheering over their bodies should be a chilling reminder to all as to why Israel has a right to defend itself.
Some units in the Israeli army have their graduation ceremonies atop Masada. At those ceremonies, graduates take an oath that “Masada shall not fall again.” Those aren’t dramatic and cliched utterances, they are a very real commitment to defend the State of Israel at all costs. Thousands of years of persecution and broken promises show there is no other option.