The horror that is engulfing Israel-Palestine is beyond “processing,” beyond conception even.
Even just trying to imagine a single baby’s helpless terror short circuits the brain.
An American Experience
I had dinner out with a couple of friends the other night and we were talking about the war, the atrocities, the brutality both of the Hamas incursion and the Israeli siege.
But we enjoyed our dinner too. I had a complicated vegan salad; my friends had veggie burgers and some other goodies; we all checked in at the end: “How was your food?” “Really good!”
So we had a quintessentially American experience. The feelings we expressed over dinner — the dismay, the horror, the shared sense of helplessness and bottomless grief — were all real. And in a very real sense, we were eating those feelings as we talked.
Writing about Anything
If I’m going to write a newsletter this week, it would be avoidant of me to write about anything but this war. It’s burning in my heart. It is bringing the raw violence of the world closer to me than any other news story – whether those be reports about other distant wars (like the one in Ukraine) or school shootings or global warming burning up the planet while politicians fiddle … this is the exploding cauldron that has my stomach churning and my emotional balance upended. (And I believe I’ve got plenty of company in feeling this way.)
I have no great wisdom. All I have is a welter of thoughts and words and feelings, so those are what I’m moved to share.
The Basic Question
The only question that makes any sense at this moment is: How do I create more peace? What can I REALLY do now, be it ever so humble, in the service of peace? What? What? Anything at all? Pray? Be kinder to my neighbor? Get out on the street and protest the siege?
Of course, anything I do will be scarcely a drop in the ocean, but then I’M scarcely a drop in the ocean.
I have heard and read — and I believe — that peace has to start in my own heart, but I do not have a peaceful heart. (Do you?) Heck, there are insults I still haven’t forgiven, much less violence. It’s not that I want to go hurt or kill the people I resent, but I don’t wish them well either. If and when I think of them, I realize I wouldn’t mind hearing that they’re suffering a little. Does this mean I’m at war?
Speaking Now as a Jew
I should mention that I’m Jewish. That is, I’m a Jewish American, which is infinitely easier (I believe) than being an Israeli Jew. I’ll say more about that shortly.
To be precise, I’m not what you call a “practicing Jew.” I don’t attend synagogue or worship the God I learned about as a kid. My mother, who was a Holocaust survivor and a refugee from Berlin, didn’t believe in Him either. But she made sure we celebrated all the Jewish holidays, and she lit the candles and recited the traditional prayers (some of them anyway – the easier ones), and she insisted I go to Jewish Sunday school and also to Hebrew school on Thursday evenings so that I could eventually have a bar mitzvah (which I did).
My mom used to say, “If you ever forget you’re Jewish, someone who ISN’T Jewish will remind you some day.” It was a grim warning, and it went deep.
So my mother successfully instilled in me a powerful sense of Jewish cultural identity with no concomitant spiritual or religious beliefs. It’s what she wanted to do and she did it well. I have no regrets about it; I think it’s a good thing.
Lately, strangely, various Jewish songs from my childhood that I literally haven’t thought about in decades are running through my head, like the lovely melody called “Yerushalayim shel Zahav,” which I learned and sang at the Jewish summer camp I attended as a kid. (I’m only learning now what the words mean because I Googled it. Feel free to do the same; I’m not gonna get into it here.)
My initial reaction to the news of the Hamas attack, and the sheer ruthlessness and obscenity of it, was blood boiling rage. I heard some of it on news reports and I also got some of the information from a friend whose girlfriend’s daughter resides in Israel, and who sent her mom some texts, which her mom shared with my friend, and my friend related to me.
If you are easily unsettled, please don’t read the next paragraph. It has details. Details that I feel the world should be aware of, though I wouldn’t blame you for skipping it. Be forewarned.
Okay. First of all, from news reports, some of which you may have heard or seen yourself: Rapes. Torture. Hundreds of bodies mutilated beyond recognition. Snuff films of these barbaric acts. As for the text from Tel Aviv that my friend related to me: On a nearby kibbutz, 40 babies were either beheaded or shot in the head at point-blank range.
What I want my non-Jewish friends to understand is that this is nothing new for the Jews, as a race. The atrocities visited upon my people over the centuries in Europe, through periodic pogroms and of course the Holocaust, were similar in their extreme cruelty and breathtaking evil and hatred. And, like my ancestors of old, the victims in Israel were peaceful civilians going about their lives.
Whatever else you want to say about the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, please keep in mind that the Hamas militants’ victims were all civilians. Let’s not fudge this fact.
Some of the stupid shit people were posting on Facebook immediately after the attack – even before Israel began gearing up for the siege and even before the shocking (and yes, vastly inhumane) blockade of water, food, electricity, and fuel was imposed – made me want to tear my hair out.
A friend of mine – an intelligent, cultured, thoughtful person – actually wrote “I have compassion for the Israeli citizens. But we must understand that in the balance it has been Israel that has been the terrorists (sic).”
This was probably the most egregious example, but other people expressed similar sentiments, along the lines of, “Let’s not forget how Palestinians have suffered from the ongoing occupation. Israel is not entirely innocent in all this.”
Here is what I wanted to tell all those people, though I couldn’t quite find the words two or three weeks ago:
You simply cannot SAY this right NOW — not in the immediate aftermath of such soul-crushing violence. This is not the time to take out your historical scales and try to weigh who has dealt more pain to whom over the last few decades (or even centuries).
Because when you do that, it’s a lot like saying, “Well, you guys kind of deserve it, in a way. I mean, I don’t agree with what Hamas did, but it’s understandable, under the circumstances.”
That’s certainly how it lands with me.
And then you wonder why Jews go crazy and get all tribal on your ass (like they’re doing now in Gaza).
Another friend of mine posted the following message/meme on Facebook. Contained within a Jewish star, these words: “First they came for LGBTQ and I stood up, because love is love. Then they came for immigrants and I stood up, because families belong together. Then they came for the Black community and I stood up, because Black Lives Matter. Then they came for me, but I stood alone, because I am a Jew.”
I understand the feeling. I think my mom would resonate with it, though it’s not really true. Tens of thousands of Jews were saved during the Holocaust by non-Jewish Germans and other Europeans who hid them in their basements or attics, at enormous peril to themselves. The Danish people in particular went to great lengths to protect their Jewish citizens from the Nazis.
I confess that I cleave to some ghost of a myth that Jews are inherently decent, more so than other groupings of people. (Forgive me. Or don’t forgive me. Whatever.)
I want to say that Jews may kill but they don’t rape. They don’t shoot babies. They don’t make snuff films to glorify their violence. Jews are not THAT depraved. And it matters!
Then again, Jews do inflict death by thirst and hunger on thousands of babies. Jews rain down bombs on helpless civilians, including hundreds of thousands of children. I know I know I know.
I know that there is so much more to say too about the hellscape that is now Gaza.
So much to say.
If Gaza has been an open-air prison for decades, is it possible that the Israelis have been somehow collectively re-enacting the trauma of their own historical ghettoization and oppression? Is that something people do? A friend of mine recently paraphrased the spiritual teacher Thomas Hubl as saying that violence is what a person does when they are (unconsciously) trying to discharge the trauma they carry in their own body onto someone else’s body. Makes sense.
The current Israeli president, Isaac Herzog, apparently taking a page from the Nazis, has opined that there are “no innocent Gazans.” Among his other shocking statements of late, he has asserted that “It is not true, this rhetoric about civilians not being aware …They could have risen up. They could have fought against that evil regime.”
The evil regime, of course, being Hamas. But I have read – and I believe – that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud government has been indirectly propping up Hamas for years, allowing financial support to flow to Hamas from Qatar, in order to disrupt any potential unity and coordination between the Gazan Palestinians and the Palestinians in the West Bank who live under the rule of the secular Palestinian Authority. The idea is that, keeping the Palestinians at odds with each other, there could never be a viable two-state solution.
In fact, I think maybe Netanyahu and his crew want the exact same thing Hamas does. Historical vindication. Complete, unconditional victory. Utter decimation of the “enemy” population. Fulfillment of a magnificent destiny that is their BIRTHRIGHT, bequeathed to them by an omnipotent “father” God.
(People must have had some seriously fucked-up fathers, dating way back to antiquity.)
Okay, Let’s Talk about History for Just a Second
I don’t really want to go down this rabbit hole. This newsletter is way too long already. I’m not even sure Susan will be willing to mock it up and send it out.
But I guess I have to at least say something about the history of Palestine and Israel. The popular narrative now is that the British or the UN or whoever just stomped right in and plopped the Jewish state down where Palestinian Arabs had been living for generations, and evicted them. It’s not that simple. Jews were there too all along. And the original United Nations partition plan WAS a two-state solution. I could go on and on. Not to sound like Donald Trump, but there have been plenty of injustices and “fine people” on both sides, and I personally learned a lot simply by reading the Wikipedia article on the history of Israel, which I recommend highly.
In fact, as luck would have it, just today the New York Times came out with this excellent historical review of the events of 1948. It’s a fascinating 41-minute interview, which you can listen to (or read if you like), with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief David Shipler. This is as unbiased and succinct an account as I imagine we’ll ever get to hear of what really happened at the birth of the nation of Israel.
Still Speaking as a Jew
But see, this is one of the things that has long bugged the shit out of me, as a liberal Jewish American, listening to so many of my leftist friends categorically ally themselves with the Palestinian people while casting Israel as the singular unequivocal villain in the conflict, when THEY THEMSELVES – I mean my American friends – are living on BLATANTLY STOLEN LAND, case closed, open and shut, no ambiguity whatsoever! Unlike the Jews in Israel, the European colonizers had no historical claim at all to this land we now call America.
How might our politicians and police forces and military units respond to an organized movement of Native American “terrorists” (or “activists” depending on your point of view) shooting rockets into our cities and suicide bombing our marketplaces and buses whilst demanding the right of return to their stolen and pillaged ancestral, sacred lands?
I’m just saying (speaking as a Jew), just think about that a little before you get all righteous and worked up on behalf of Palestine.
I mean, generally speaking. I’m not talking about what’s happening in Gaza right this second. With respect to that … I have no words. So is this the wrong time for me to be making these points? Am I guilty of the very insensitivity I’ve been accusing some of my non-Jewish Facebook friends of? Maybe so, but … to finish up here … a couple more observations:
In his January, 2002 State of the Union speech, President George W. Bush singled out the states of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as the world’s “axis of evil.” Many people deemed this unhelpful, perhaps even dangerous.
There was an email that went around shortly after the speech, based on a satirical essay someone had penned in response to Bush’s “axis of evil” framing. The email went viral; I received it from multiple friends. The gist was that other dictatorships and torture states and oppressive regimes of all stripes were jealous that they were not “included” in Bush’s “axis.” So China, Libya, and Syria had formed the “Axis of Just as Evil,” while Somalia, Uganda, and Myanmar dubbed themselves the “Axis of Occasionally Evil” and so on.
The ultimate punchline to this viral “comedic” email was: “Israel, meanwhile, insisted it didn’t want to join any Axis, but privately, world leaders said that’s only because no one asked them.”
I deemed this anti-Semitic humor.
Last point. Again, harkening back to the post 9/11 period, America launched an air assault on Afghanistan shortly after Al Queda had attacked us. It was a deadly, and utterly symbolic, attack. We struck Kabul and surrounding villages. Anyone with a brain (not to mention our intelligence services) could have predicted that bin Laden and his guys were already gone, out of there, encamped somewhere in mountain caves bordering Pakistan.
But our country seemed to need it. “America Strikes Back” trumpeted the lettering across the CNN screen.
I felt as if I was hearing my whole crazed, newly fear-stricken country breathe a collective sigh of relief, saying: “Ah. So we’re NOT just going to take this shit! Now I feel a little better.”
Thousands of Afghan civilians, villagers, and tribespeople died under our bombs – all for the purpose, essentially, of a little American catharsis.
And did ANYONE in our country even make a peep of protest about THAT?
My point, in case it isn’t obvious, is that liberal Americans reflexively hold Israel to a stricter ethical standard than we hold ourselves.
Other Jews Speak in Other Voices
Thousands of American Jews have been protesting the brutality of the Gaza siege and demanding an immediate ceasefire. They are out on the streets. Many are organized under the banner of Not In Our Name.
Perhaps I should join them. I share their abhorrence of what Israel is inflicting on Gaza right now. (Not to mention that this is exactly how Hamas wanted Israel to react … but I digress.)
But I’m not moved to chant and march in the streets at this time. Partly that’s because, as a comfortable and (apparently) safe American Jew, I simply don’t feel it’s my place to dictate to Israel or Israelis what they should do, no matter how strongly I feel. I’ve never even been to Israel.
But even more saliently, for me, participating in a demonstration right now would feel like some weird kind of virtue signaling, as if, because I’m an American Jew, I’m supposed to apologize for Israel to all our non-Jewish American witnesses, or as if I have some “responsibility” as a Jew to send out into the world my little message about how I feel … which I think is crap.
Exactly whom would I be sending that message to? To whom must I prove that I am opposed to hundreds of thousands of innocent babies and children dying of thirst and starvation and hundreds of thousands of peaceful civilians seeing their neighborhoods blasted to rubble? My non-Jewish fellow Americans? The Palestinians far away?
Everyone is so busy signaling signaling signaling.
Then again, I guess it’s good that NION is doing what they do. Someone has to make some noise. What if everyone were just quietly navel gazing and “feeling their feelings” like me? What signal would that send?
Another American Experience
Speaking of signaling, there’s a guy on Facebook who’s driving me nuts lately. (This is where I’m fighting the war. Facebook. A nice safe comfortable American war zone. A rhetorical war zone. A virtual war zone.)
Anyway, this dude … I scarcely know him from Adam in real life, but he’s one of hundreds of “friends” I’ve collected from brief meetings in various places, people to whom I am now “connected” via Facebook. And he’s been posting memes that I find offensively simplistic and slogan-ish.
Every time I see this guy’s posts – and I don’t know exactly why Facebook is taking such evil glee in feeding them to me so prolifically – I get irritated and angry and triggered. And I wonder, if I “unfriend” him, is that a move for or against peace? Is it a mature act of self-love or an expression of hostility?
And is this “moral dilemma” even worth mentioning?
Possibly not, but that’s okay. I’m not embarrassed. I work with what I have.
Over and Out
The question remains: If I really want peace on Earth, how should I behave?
Somebody whom I respect says it’s vital to feel, find, and express joy too when we can, at this time. That it’s essential to the cause, whatever the cause is. Sanity. Peace.
But to me that’s just another belief. And I don’t know what to believe. My heart lets me enjoy what it enjoys. These days I don’t even necessarily trust my heart. My mind is skeptical of my heart. But my heart is the only guide I have. (My mind is a friend but not a guide.)
I’m glad my heart still wants to be happy. I hope yours does too. Peace. Over and out.