Does my grandmother get to exist?

Anthony Hodgson
5 min readDec 13, 2023

My grandmother died on Valentine’s Day, in 2017. She was 95 years old. The day of her passing always makes me think of my grandfather, who I never met, but of whom she spoke often and fondly. She lived more than 30 years after his passing, but always insisted she spoke to him every day.

I grew up with both a fear of, and cynicism about love. My family home was difficult and complicated and I experienced a lot of pain and loss at a young age. My grandmother’s home became the one solid, stable place in my life. She was always there, always welcoming, and always herself.

After she died I transcribed a number of letters she had kept, between herself and my grandfather, 70 years prior when they were first courting. I discovered that their love was difficult and complicated, despite also being pure and true. It forced me to revisit my fear and cynicism, and want to open myself up to love again.

My grandmother once volunteered for the IDF in her retirement. She has a daughter, my mother’s sister, who lives in Israel — with her children and her children’s children. My aunt has always spoken of a desire for peace. I love my aunt and my cousins and their children, and do not want them to live in fear.

My grandmother was very fond of Israel. She was not an activist, and had she been one it would not have been against Israel. But she was also fiercely committed to shared humanity and egalitarianism, and wanted all people to flourish.

If she were alive today, I think she would be deeply worried about her grandchildren and great-grandchildren in Israel. I think she would be terrified of Hamas, sensitive as she was to Israeli security. I think she would be frightened at the idea of antisemitic incidents — that is, racist attacks on Jewish people. She would probably even understand Hamas’s attacks through this lens — a characterisation I do not agree with myself.

Despite all this, if she were alive today, I do not believe she would be able to stomach the IDF’s cruel and still escalating violent campaign in Gaza. I do not believe she would sanction or support the daily murder of innocent Palestinian children. I do not believe she would accept institutions speaking in her name who did so themselves. I think she would be enormously confused and conflicted, but I am confident she would feel the pain of Gaza’s children just as she would feel the fear of her own.

Does my grandmother get to exist?

Benjamin Netanyahu says no. We are told a person cannot be Jewish, and love Jews, while disagreeing with what the Israeli government does.

This point is reinforced by all of Israel’s allies, that to criticise Israel is somehow inherently antisemitic. The US congress has already passed two resolutions on this, first implicitly and then explicitly affirming it.

Joe Biden has self-identified as a Zionist, and said that but for Israel’s existence, no Jewish person would be safe anywhere. Interestingly, this implies not only a false equivalence between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, but also an admission by the US President that he doesn’t think Jewish people are safe in the US — a strange indictment to share so openly of one’s own government.

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies also says no. This is an institutional body which claims to speak for all Jews in our country, but has never asked me how I feel, directly or indirectly. A few weeks ago I attended the online AGM for their Cape Town branch. Many leaders of the organisation spoke brazenly in support of Israel. One noted how “unfortunate” it is that South Africa’s constitution guarantees the right of protest for all. Another shared a presentation directly arguing that criticising Israel is indeed always antisemitic.

I attended this meeting with the hope of discovering some avenue for internal engagement with a Jewish community I have felt alienated from my entire life, and even more so since my grandmother’s passing. It is thanks to her that I still have some positive associations with my Jewish heritage.

But does she get to exist? Does my grandmother get to exist? Does Jewish Voice For Peace get to exist? Do the South African Jews for a Free Palestine get to exist? I am told repeatedly that my anti-Zionism is incompatible with my Judaism. It means I am not really Jewish, or at best a “self-hating Jew”.

Do Palestinian children get to exist? We know that in Gaza (and also the West Bank) children are being murdered by the IDF every day. The Israeli government says there are no innocent Palestinians, not even the children. I know this would break my grandmother’s heart, as it does mine, again, every morning when I wake up and see that it is still happening.

To be a thinking, feeling, human being

Basic critical thinking demands an acknowledgment that criticism of Israel, a definitionally ethnonationalist state, does not amount to antisemitism, which means the hatred of Jews. Most people, Jewish or non-Jewish, who criticise or oppose Israel do so explicitly on the basis of anti-racism, challenging the state of Israel’s differential treatment of individuals on the basis of their race or ethnicity. This is precisely the opposite of antisemitism.

Basic humanity demands emphatic and unreserved opposition to the murder of children, in any context, always. Whether you might call yourself a Zionist, like my grandmother, or an anti-Zionist like me, is immaterial to the question of whether you ought to oppose the murder of children, and do everything in your power to stop it from happening.

I know that many Jewish people have spent their lives navigating inherited fear, trauma and pain. I would like all Jewish people, and indeed all people everywhere, to be able to feel safe. But safety presupposes existence, so we need to start there.

Does my grandmother get to exist? Do I get to exist?

Do Palestinians get to exist with equal rights and dignity?

Do peace and justice and truth and love get to exist in the world?

If we cannot agree with two basic ethical propositions — that criticism of Israel is not antisemitism, and that the murder of children is a horror that should be vehemently opposed at all times, by everyone — then the tragic answer to all of the above questions is:

No.

Powerful people are using corrupt, incoherent ideology, to deny the existence of the very people whose protection they claim to be motivated by. Palestinians don’t get to exist. Critically minded Jews don’t get to exist. And every single person who supports and perpetuates this messaging coming out of the Israeli and US governments, is actively destroying their own humanity in the process.

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