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Alexandria Fanjoy Silver

Crying with a Palestinian Stranger

I attended a dialogue group called Bridging the Gap recently, one focused on reducing tribalism on campus at York University. At such a volatile school, groups like this are more important than ever. The professor who moderated the discussion asked a number of the students what their reaction had been on October 7th. One of the Palestinian women said that her heart broke watching it, both for the horror of the event and as she knew what was going to happen to her people in Gaza. I caught her eye as she described this, and I felt something stir inside of me. I starkly remember my (probably, fourth or fifth) reaction when I heard about the Hamas massacre: that Gaza was going to be leveled, and everyone was going to hate us for it. Unsurprisingly, both of those things have come true. And I, like many other diaspora Jews, have become very fearful in the months since, and fear is often conveniently cloaked in anger; anger is a far simpler emotion. Where once I was more dove-ish, that philosophy was murdered that day as surely as Vivian Silver and the other peaceniks in the Gaza envelope. 

When the siege was declared, when the destruction began, all I remember was numbness. That it had finally arrived, after weeks of waiting for it. I felt almost a sense of relief; waiting on the edge of a war that you cannot escape is perhaps the only thing that can make a war worse. I remember that day very differently, I suspect, than the Palestinian woman in front of me. I suspected that she and I would not agree on a great many things. But in this moment, that seemed irrelevant. When she described her feeling of impending heartbreak for the inevitable, that was such a familiar feeling that I immediately felt my heart break for her a little bit. 

We may be on different sides of a conflict that is gordian knot-like in its intricacy, but we are also people living in a sustained period of grief. And most of all, that is what I recognized in her words and her bearing — she, too, is being broken by grief for a past that we’ve lost, a present that engenders helplessness and hopelessness, and a future that is ever more uncertain. And perhaps, for both of us, that fear often comes out as anger. She and I are both women, in an era when women’s bodies and rights are suddenly being taken from them, sometimes with impunity. The level of anxiety that engenders, particularly in the way sexual violence has manifested in this conflict, is hard to describe. She and I, when it came down to our emotional plane, may be feeling many of the same things.

Deep down, I also remember my own awareness of Gaza’s impending destruction and fear that I should have cared more than I was capable of at the time. The people of Gaza who are unaffiliated with Hamas, who did not take part in the massacre, who didn’t return hostages to their captors, are caught in the crossfire of a war that no one but Hamas wanted. Everyone knew that their suffering would be terrible. That sadness for her and her people though doesn’t take away from the fact that I see this war as a necessary evil, in that it is very necessary, but the toll it will take is heart-breaking. I mourn for her people, but I also mourn for mine. And I don’t accept the future Hamas offers: continual repeats of this pogrom, continued war, until every Jew has been scrubbed from the Middle East. And I know that any ceasefire now leaves Hamas in power to commit another atrocity and bring another war down on their peoples’ heads. 

As she talked on, the more I thought about how each group seems to react to every given situation the exact same way. It’s not just the war that puts us on different sides of a conflict. Even the way in which hate crimes are reported silo us, describing the rise of antisemitism within the context of Islamophobia and vice versa. Each of us feels that the press is restricting their version of the story or is more biased to the other, that they feel they are under threat from each other and greater society, each of us feel the more misunderstood and maligned. She and I may not agree on the validity of the others’ claims. I struggle to see the argument for equating antisemitism and Islamophobia as equal and present threats in Canadian society; one has grown exponentially, and the other has not. When you consider the relative size of each population, the amount of hateful incidents towards Muslims since October 7th pales in comparison to the scale of hatred directed at the Jews. But we are both people who are bereft and slightly broken. Canadians who are trying, and sometimes failing, to humanize someone who is both familiar and foreign. 

I hope however, we would not disagree on one fundamental thing: Hamas should not be allowed to remain in control of the Gaza Strip. They terrify their own people almost as much as they terrorize the Israelis. They indoctrinate their children to perpetuate jihad, that to be martyrs is the highest of honors. They have enriched themselves by the poverty of their people, they have doomed them to a lack of future. They refused bomb shelters for their population, but dug themselves a rabbit warren of terror tunnels and rocket launchers. It is not Hamas who pays, it is their people, every time. Gaza deserves a government who will invest into their communities instead of their destruction. And Israel deserves not to be threatened with promised genocidal pogroms. And it has the right to defend its citizens in the way any other democratic nation would. We may also agree that we will not be sorry to see the door hit Bibi on the way out. Both people deserve a future, and Hamas presents an existential threat to both. 

It was an odd experience, crying with a Palestinian stranger, recognizing the human face of suffering in the midst of all of this carnage and fear. I used to believe that we had a future side-by-side, if only leadership changed; I no longer see that happening in my lifetime. I used to believe in some shared version of humanity, something else that’s been fundamentally broken in recent months. Maybe she feels the same. For one moment in time, I felt like we could understand more of each other than I would have thought going in. That if you stripped away the identification with and anxiety for one side or the other, underneath we would be feeling much of the same. We may never have that opportunity in real life. We may never live in a time where conflict doesn’t exist between us. Right at this moment in time, I cannot imagine a future that looks brighter than it does today. But I did, for a shining moment in time, feel a connection with this stranger. And I hope, as tears rolled down my face as she described her own fears, that maybe she felt the same. 

About the Author
Dr. Alexandria Fanjoy Silver has a B.A. from Queen's University, an MA/ MA from Brandeis and a PhD from the University of Toronto (all in history and education). She lives in Toronto with her husband and three children, and works at TanenbaumCHAT as a Jewish history teacher.
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