Tragedy in Israel

Photo: Horacio Villalobos/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
October 10, 2023

I’ve started writing this letter many times before deleting it and starting over, in part because, as I noted to Peter Hamby when we recorded our Powers That Be podcast last night, saying anything about Israel-Palestine is a recipe for getting yelled at. But mostly, it’s because I feel that there is so much to say and also nothing to say at all. Still, I’m going to try. I hope you stick with me to the end, because this is messy and thorny and doesn’t lend itself to short, pithy slogans.

I want to start by saying that, like for so many Jews in the world, this is deeply, deeply personal for me. This isn’t just because I have friends and relatives in Israel, though I do. (Ironically, many of them are from Moscow: they just fled the war there 18 months ago.) Like so many modern Jews, I am alive because so many of my grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on up the chain, managed to escape annihilation just in time. Scores and scores didn’t. They haunt my family. And I’m not just talking about the Holocaust, but pogroms, the Crusades, the Khmelnitsky revolt in Ukraine, the antisemitic violence launched against Jewish communities all across Europe because someone owed money to a Jew or it was a Christian holiday or because hey, someone was just in the mood to lock some Jews in a synagogue and set it on fire. 

We’ve been driven to near extinction in Europe many times, and the Holocaust was just the latest salvo. Most Ashkenazi Jews are descended from just 350 people because of a population bottleneck that occurred about a thousand years ago, and it wasn’t for happy reasons. And by the way, the reason we were in Christian Europe to begin with—where every country and kingdom would take turns expelling us—is because, in the first and second centuries A.D., the Romans slaughtered us and kicked us out of the place we were originally from, Judea, and then renamed it Palaestina. After the slaughter, the Romans brought 100,000 Jewish slaves from there to ancient Rome, where they were forced to build some of the monuments tourists flock to see today. And still, there was a small but continuous presence in what is now Israel-Palestine from then until now.