What is the saddest part of the unceasingly heartbreaking Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
It is not Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent statements opposing peace or his racial incitement during polls on Tuesday. It is not Israelis chanting “death to Arabs” this summer or cheering from hill tops in the Negev as they watched the bombs descend on their neighbors in Gaza.
Nor is it Hamas’ promise to its followers – engrained in its founding charter – for the destruction of Israel and the deaths of Jews worldwide. It is not Abbas’ goading comments for Palestinians to defend what Jews call the Temple Mount, and Muslims, the Noble Sanctuary, with blood. It is not the vitriolic anti-Semitism that grips the Muslim world, nor the disgraceful suicide attacks aimed only at killing civilians.
No, the saddest part of this conflict is numbers. Numbers of dead, numbers of rockets, numbers of children, the number of years of occupation; numbers of bombs, and tanks, and soldiers. And even sadder is how these numbers are used.
When three boys, Naftali Fraenkel, 16 years old, Gilad Shaer, 16 years old, and Eyal Yifrach, 19 years old were kidnapped and killed last summer and when Mohammed Abu Khdeir was kidnapped in retaliation, burned alive, and left to rot in a Jerusalem forest did you stop to cry? Do you even remember their names? (I had to look them up.) Or did you use these deaths to advance your own ideology, as the leaders of Israel and Palestine, citizens of these countries, and people around the world did?
These questions have plagued me for the past year as tensions have continued to mount. Does anyone, when they hear of a death in this conflict sit for just a moment and consider this person; their dreams, their fears, their families and friends, their names, their stories?
Do Abbas or Meshal pause? Do they consider how their actions cause deaths on the other side and do they pause when their actions are successful? Or do they just see it in ideological terms, with Israeli deaths indicative of brave resistance, and Palestinian deaths further evidence of the evils of Israel? I think the latter.
Does Netanyahu pause? Does he consider how his actions cause deaths on the other side and does he pause when his actions are successful? Or does he just see it in ideological terms, with Palestinian deaths indicative of brave resistance, and Israeli deaths further evidence of the evils of Palestine? I think the latter.
Fraenkel, Shaer, and Yifrach were used by Netanyahu as an excuse for a clampdown on Hamas in the West Bank. Khdeir was used by Hamas as an excuse to fire rockets at innocents. Their deaths for our cowardly Palestinian and Israeli leaders were little more than a convenient path towards another rounds of violence and consequently even more numbers.
Does anyone recall the dead of last summer’s war or are they mere numbers used to advance ideological positions? “Pro-Palestinians” cite 500 children dead including four members of the Bakr family, shelled to death as they played soccer on the beaches of Gaza. “Pro-Israelis” cite their own losses, such as four year old Daniel Turgeman who died while playing in his living room from a Gazan mortar fired from the vicinity of an UNRWA school used as a shelter in Gaza. The irony of this war is especially painful as Israel cited Hamas firing from population centers as the reason for any civilian deaths caused and Hamas used those deaths as propaganda motivating their fighters to continue fighting, resulting in Turgeman’s and other’s deaths.
The irony becomes more painful as one realizes how connected these boys were, and how their innocence was leveraged for political gain. Growing up just miles apart these boys led impossibly different lives; yet each knew war, the fear of bombs and rockets, the sound of gunfire, and each loved soccer – the Gazan boys playing it on the beach, Turgeman seen wearing a Lionel Messi jersey in photos released after his death.
While I am ideologically supportive of the Israeli position, how could I not mourn both? Why must I use these boys, as the gutless Israeli and Palestinian leaders did, to solely advance my own ideology?
When one sees numbers that is all one can see. Think of the holocaust and how easy the number 6 million comes out of the mouth. It is just another stat without true meaning. That is why firsthand accounts and memories are so important, why Elie Wiesel’s Night is irreplaceable, why we must visit Yad Vashem, or read Anne Frank’s diary. It gives a voice to each of those six million.
Yet it seems that in this conflict there is no voice. That these numbers are only numbers. At the same time I know this is not true. I heard Naftali Fraenkel’s mother, Rachel, plead for the safe return of the son who unbeknownst to her was already dead. I see the pain enveloping the face of Palestinians in Gaza as they stare at the ruins of their homes.
I know as well that not all Israelis and Palestinians hate each other, that each can see the others loss. Rachel Fraenkel called the family of Mohammed Abu Khdeir to extend her condolences, organizations like the Parents Circle-Families Forum exist to bring together those who have lots family members, on both sides to the conflict, and there are those who support and protest for peace on both sides.
It is impossible however to hear these voices if one’s judgment is clouded by ideology. I do not profess any special ability to free myself from ideological beliefs, but every once in a while I am jolted out of my ideological slumber. Reading Night was one of those times, hearing the story of a holocaust survivor at my high school and researching my own family’s history was another, reading the letter’s of Yonatan Netanyahu, Benjamin’s brother, who died in Operation Entebbe, yet another.
Each of these experiences is a poignant reminder that these dead, these numbers, are real. Here is my proof:
“I told you that I had lost my innocence and my blind faith in the eternity of love. And that’s a pity—truly a pity, because I want to believe in it with my whole being. If I’m skeptical, it’s not about now, but about the distant future. We are separated for too long at a time for us to be bound together forever. There’s something hopeless and very sad about this feeling. You asked me about a child, and I said what I did because I’m not thinking that far ahead—because a child is the most wonderful creation and the final bond between a man and a woman (at least, that’s how I see it, or let’s say, that’s how it should be and how I’d want it to be). And I’m not thinking that far ahead because I’m not convinced it’s eternal. I only wish I could free myself of this doubt,” writes Netanyahu to his girlfriend in 1974.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed….Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never,” writes Wiesel in Night.
Most recently, during my first trip to Israel this winter on birthright I visited Mount Herzl, the cemetery in Jerusalem for Israel’s war dead. I visited the grave of Hannah Szenes, a Jew who attempted to infiltrate Nazi-occupied Hungary to fight in support of Hungarian partisans. She was beaten, tortured, and executed, but did not reveal sensitive information that could have led to the deaths of her fellow freedom fighters. At her grave we sang a Hebrew poem written by Szenes, A Walk to Caesarea: “My God, My God may these things never end: The sand and the sea, the rustle of the water, the lightning in the sky, Man’s prayer.”
Later, we heard personal stories of the soldiers who accompanied us for five days around Israel. We heard from the big, strong navy soldier Ziv who recounted with a languishing sadness his lost friend who died in an accident involving a train, and from Valery, who only recently became halachaly Jewish, who recounted with indescribable sadness and tears a friend of hers who died fighting in Gaza. We heard the story of Michael Levin, a lone-soldier who died at the age of 22 in 2006 and the story of his funeral where thousands who did not know him came to pay their respects.
This experience too jolted me out of my slumber and reminded me that this conflict is about people, not numbers. Yet still it is hard, if not impossible to imagine, let alone sympathize with, the other side and thus I empathize with those who are stuck in their ideological ways. Yet, without seeing the other side the numbers will only go up, and lives will continue to be replaced with memories and stories. We must remember that Israelis and Palestinians, though ideologically different, still have things in common no matter how small and obscured these commonalities may be.
Both sides, and their leaders, must wake up and see the other side, look past numbers, and see the lives affected. Only then can this conflict begin to be resolved.
To quote Yonatan Netanyahu once more, “How sad that we cannot achieve peace, for that is all we want at the end.”