Rebecca Bardach

Ending our lives together – or choosing life together

The three hostages mistakenly killed by IDF soldiers December 15, 2023 (photos courtesy of The Hostages and Missing Persons Families Forum headquarters).
The three hostages mistakenly killed by IDF soldiers December 15, 2023 (photos courtesy of The Hostages and Missing Persons Families Forum headquarters).

The mind spins trying to absorb the story of the three hostages whom IDF soldiers mistakenly shot as they fled the darkness of captivity for the light of freedom. After surviving 70 days in Hamas captivity Yotam Haim, Samar Talalka and Alon Lulu Shamriz had an opportunity to flee. They calculated the risks, took precautions, rolled the dice and ran. And in the midst of the battle zone IDF soldiers mistook them for a threat, shot and killed them.

Many words and condolences have followed, always in words too paltry to hold the horrifying grief of it all. But Ata Abu Madighem, the mayor of Rahat, the Bedouin town where Samar Talalka was from, may have put it best: “Such bitter news: Bedouins and Jews were taken hostage together, managed to flee together in an effort to continue their lives – and ended their lives together in this very tragic event.”

This is our shared tragedy. And not just this horrifying end to Yotam, Samar and Alon’s desperate gamble for freedom. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians wished to become intertwined in each other’s lives in the way that history has brought us together. But here we are. Our stories of being enemies in war are robust, compelling and plentiful. Now it’s time for the stories of how we learned to live our lives together.

Too many Palestinians perceive Israelis as colonizers who can simply return to wherever they, or their parents, grandparents or great-(great-great…) grandparents, might have come from; those dozens of countries throughout the world that too often spit them out in rivers of blood so many years ago. As though this is realistic. And too many Jews believe the Palestinians will either succumb to Israeli rule, or pick up and move to one the 22 surrounding Arab countries or some other distant land. As though this is realistic.

The reality is that whatever each believes about the legitimacy of the other’s presence, roots or sense of nationhood, neither will leave. Individuals might. But our collectives will not just walk away, cede everything or simply disappear.

So we hold each other hostage to our collective delusions, and keep battling it out. Convinced that the other is not legitimate. Convinced that the other has primary blame for our mutual misery. Finding it easier to give into the magnetic pull of apathy, despair or ideology.

But our two peoples will remain in relationship. Whatever we do to each other. And whatever all sorts of people around the globe who have decided to pick one side against the other believe. Zero-sum thinking has become part of the problem.

“Time is running out,” cry the hostage families, shouting it to the ends of the earth, shouting it to the heavens.

“The time is running out to save all of us,” warned Rachel Goldberg, mother of Hersh Goldberg-Polin who has been held hostage since October 7, when she pleaded for help at the United Nations. That was Day 18 since this began. Today is Day 76. The pain of this shredding the heart again and again with each day that passes. I see this up close as Hersh and his family are our cousins, but the hostages are now part of the Israeli soul, their stories everyone’s stories, their pain everyone’s pain.

And now there are 129 hostages, and even of that number we know that some are already dead, their souls free even as their bodies are still in captivity. Even as I write that number 129 – and now as you read it – it needs to be checked. Because, if for a blessed few days not so long ago Hamas and Israel agreed to pause the fighting, and each day, after excruciating hours and hesitations, we would learn the names of a few more hostages who had been released and see the photos and clips of their return to the land of the living, now it seems as though we hear more and more stories of those hostages who are no longer among the living.

One day I am sure there will be powerful movies, art and tales made of this dramatic story. Tragedy offers such moving material. But for those of us in the flesh and blood of living this, it is neither a movie, news story nor TikTok clip.

This story has exhausted itself. It is time for a new chapter in our national stories. We need to get to the part about how we overcome the tragedy of our origins and the conflict which has since dragged us all through the decades. That part when the Jews and Arabs and Palestinians and Israelis, and all those people from the halls of governments and streets of cities around the world who claim to care so much about the wellbeing of one side or the other, devoted their abundant resources, passion and creativity to learning to live together and share this sliver of land we all call home.

Trust me. The stories are there. It’s true, the dramatic efforts of Oslo and various negotiations haven’t gotten us there yet, for all sorts of reasons. But if peace writ large hasn’t worked, there are still plenty of people who have figured out how to live together at the human scale of daily life. The café co-workers who take your order and serve up your coffee with a flourish. The growing number of high tech professionals and academics and business employees who find themselves working alongside each other. The hospital staff who manage, together, to keep us one of the healthier nations in the world. The neighbors in mixed cities and side-by-side towns, and the customers and the staff behind the counter when you go to the mall. The small but growing number of teachers who work at schools in each other’s communities. The civil society organizations wholly dedicated to creating an equal shared society. Even some politicians and policymakers offer a few heroic examples of policies improved and budgets expanded, though not nearly enough.

Much of this is within Israel between citizens, Jewish and Arab Palestinian, and, yes, there are a plethora of problems that exist in every realm of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship that must be addressed. But it’s a mistake to dismiss the achievements for what they are and their examples for what they offer. Too many of us are leery of talking about an eventual resolution to the conflict. But while we sink ever-deeper into our understandable fear and trauma, the extremists, both Palestinian and Israeli, are eagerly marching us toward ever-greater catastrophe. And we are letting them take us there.

Since our leaders lack the courage to change course, I’m afraid that it’s up to us ordinary, wounded, grieving people who wish, or know, it could be otherwise. We will have to find our voices and start to tell a different story. Not one we make up, though some imagination will be needed. But the story we already live in different ways, albeit still too imperfectly, day in and out. And the better one we must choose to create going forward, in which safety, fairness and dignity guide the way we structure society and live our lives.

Otherwise, as the mayor of Rahat said about Yotam, Samar and Alon, we will – all of us – continue to be hostages together, fleeing together in an effort to continue our lives, and ending our lives together in tragedy.

About the Author
Rebecca Bardach is a writer and practitioner in building Jewish-Arab shared society in Israel, with experience in migration, conflict and development issues, and integrating policy, practice and people-oriented perspectives. She is a Schusterman Senior Fellow and holds an MPA in Public Policy and International Development from NYU. She lives in Jerusalem with her family.
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