Harriet Gimpel

I’m fine and what I’m not

I’m fine. Last Saturday, we celebrated family birthdays – a 9-year-old and a 90-year-old. A 35-year-old grandchild arrived in uniform and his 3-year-old daughter ran and jumped into his arms when he arrived. The 9-year-old, my granddaughter, on a cushioned iron-framed chair on the patio, checked to see if I’m familiar with the YouTube clips, “Two, Three, Lauuuuunnnchhhh.” Since I know it must refer to launching a missile, I wonder why she has to be familiar with it. Then we heard planes overhead. The buzz was this is the hour when you hear the air force returning to Israel – this is not the route of commercial flights.

The day before that party, we went to a brit mila (circumcision) in Jerusalem. The hosting grandparents announced the location of the nearest bomb shelter twice in two hours because the home safe room would not hold all the guests – just in case.

During the week, I listened to a Palestinian colleague from the West Bank describe, during a Zoom staff meeting, how he was forced to identify as an Israeli. Driving from one village to another, going through an IDF checkpoint the previous day, he was beaten until he agreed to say he lives in Israel. He lives in the West Bank. If you are Israeli and want him to say he lives in Israel, I do not want to live in your Israel.

Another colleague shared that his nephew had a similar experience. A week later, another Palestinian colleague told us about the threats on Facebook in Arabic coming from Jewish settlers, urging their Palestinian neighbors to evacuate, and warning of the second Nakba. Where is the police force? Oh. Minister of National Security not discouraging settler aggression.

The child in fear of the settler and the soldier gains motivation to throw stones today and retaliate tomorrow. IDF soldiers find justification for shooting. When the Palestinian child grows into a terrorist, you can understand how some of the seeds were planted. Doesn’t mean I understand the extent of evil. Doesn’t mean I want terrorists released in exchange for Israelis kidnapped on October 7. Doesn’t mean I object to this happening if that’s what it takes to bring the Israeli hostages home. Doesn’t mean I believe every Palestinian in Israeli prison is a terrorist.

As I watch the lines of Gazan refugees, women holding hands of small children with bags on their backs, men trekking under the weight of burdens on their shoulders, I hear Israeli soldiers explain the moral imperative, convinced of the good they have been told that they are doing. Is there no other way to rid the world of Hamas? Do innocent Gazans have to pay the price, many losing their lives? Even if we take the nominal measures to prevent that, an instinct for vengeance prevails in the moment. A year from now or years from now, why will these Israeli soldiers have to be haunted by these pictures and asking these questions they put aside to follow orders?

I speak often to Palestinian citizens of the State of Israel, some with relatives in Gaza, some members of Bedouin society in the Negev who have neighbors among the kidnapped and among those who lost loved ones on October 7. One friend tells me that his uncle is 87 years old and broken. Broken because he spent 60 years of his life working at nearby kibbutzim, now rubble and many of their members massacred.

My friend told me that not a person in Rahat, Israel’s largest Arab city, inhabited by Bedouins, is not depressed, mourning the death of Vivian Silver. Her body was identified weeks after she was erroneously counted as kidnapped. Rahat mourned, because she had fought tirelessly on behalf of the unrecognized Bedouin villages. Vivian was a peace activist. She sought a shared society for Israeli citizens, both Jewish and Palestinian, and she sought peaceful relations with the Palestinians in Gaza so close to her kibbutz.

This week, a friend, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who lives in central Israel, not far from me, called. She told me her son’s best friend from high school at Kfar Hayarok (a prestigious boarding school in Tel Aviv), is one of the young Druze men who fell during this war. He was a member of their household. She couldn’t bring herself to go to his funeral but was planning to go to pay her respects to his mother. My friend is also worried about her relatives in Gaza. I asked if she knows where they are now. She told me that for several days it has been impossible to reach them. I’m fine.

She told me not everybody understands like I do how she can cry over fallen Israeli soldiers and worry about Gazan relatives too. I don’t understand, too painful. She and I understand there must be a way for both peoples – Jews and Arabs – to live here. There’s room. She reminisced about frequent visits as a child with her mother to Arab towns on the West Bank now inaccessible to Israelis. She and I are Israeli, and I hope she and I will get to go together to visit towns in Palestine.

If I say, and I do, that I still believe in a world where Jews and Palestinians will live in peace, that precedes acknowledging that there are aspects of our different narratives that will never be reconciled. Somewhere in between the two clauses of the previous sentence, I hear my phone ringing. My cousin, a West Bank settler was calling. We’re different. He’s reasonable which means he is critical. He listens. I try to do the same. Sometimes the distance between our views seems infinitesimal and sometimes like a ravine of quicksand. He’s still my cousin. The last time we spoke, amidst this war, with genuine curiosity I asked why he called me. He said when he can’t take any more of his crazy, extremist neighbors, he calls someone from the delusional left – me.

Between the birthday party table with the emptied plates from the barbecue and the swings in the yard, last Saturday, I stood near the 35-year-old soldier, wondering why, knowing why, he had to leave his wife and kids for the last 40 days or more. Talking to his father, me and a cousin, in-between sentences, before continuing with his stories, he warned that the next part was not for the weak-hearted, pausing to allow me to politely walk away. I knew I should. I knew I wouldn’t.

He proceeded to describe interrogations of Hamas terrorists who participated in the massacre on October 7, and the treatment they received. In one moment, your body contracts and shrinks. You remind yourself what we know these barbaric, monstrous terrorists did. There is video footage. He tells how one of them reported the number (I can’t even repeat it) he raped, the number of them corpses. Too late to walk away.

Daily, when I drive home or to the office after my morning swim, I hear the new public service message on national radio. Something about seeking help, as circumstances may lead people to increased alcohol intake or other substances as they try to calm their fears and anxieties. I’m fine. I cry. I have an obligation to function and fight the forces pulling me down. I am fortunate. I’m fine.

I’m the messenger. Our 3-year-old granddaughter wants me to pick her up and take her to Grandpop Haim. I see the 3-year-old daughter of the soldier and ask her what happened to her hairband. This is how I know I’m fine.

Later in the week, Haim and I met at his daughter Hofit’s home after work. She invited some of her 4th grade daughter’s classmates to come over after school. They put together snack packs with supportive messages to be delivered to children evacuated from kibbutzim. Hofit reminds the kids that the recipients are living in hotels, but not exactly having a fun, family vacation. One boy asks if the children have parents. I wonder which broadcast he saw, or what conversation he overheard.

A few days later, again at Hofit’s place in the afternoon, I had to join a Zoom call for work. Our 6-year-old granddaughter suggested I use her bedroom. As an added incentive to take that option, she reminded me that her bedroom is their safe room, “This way, if there’s an air raid siren, you won’t have to run to another room.”

And me, I’m just fine. The day before there was a siren while I was driving home from work. That’s a drill we all know for years.

As I write, we are amidst the temporary ceasefire and gradual release of 50 Israeli hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, one pulse at a time. The first day was delayed. We went to sleep knowing that, and the next night, I was unable to sleep, anxious if this would be delayed yet again, wondering how the families of the hostages withstand the anxiety.

The week before, my relatives, a family of 5, from Kibbutz Or Haner that borders on Sderot, came to visit. They evacuated on October 7 and after a night with family in Ashdod, went with their community to one of the hotels designated for evacuated families. They needed a breather. They came for dinner on a Tuesday. Hofit came with the rest of her family. Her 6-year-old overheard that the army is using the kibbutz. She had been there to visit in the summer. Now she wanted to know why the army is there, but the families had to leave. Measuring my words, I said, “They had a lot of sirens.” She logically asked if they don’t have a safe room in their house. I had to smile and admit, “They do, but they have a lot more sirens than you do in Raanana, so it’s better for them to be at a hotel until the war ends.”

At another Zoom staff meeting with Palestinian colleagues, an Israeli commented on the anti-Semitism around the world. A Palestinian interrupted her to ask for an example. I walked out of the room. I drank some water. I stayed out of the room. My Israeli colleagues unanimously felt the question was offensive Later that day, I texted the woman who asked the question to say I wanted to talk to her. We managed to speak the following evening. I know she would not have explained her question in the same way if I had said it troubled me while we were all in the meeting. Her explanation reminded me that sharing personal stories builds personal connections.

At the next staff meeting, a Palestinian man matter-of-factly commented that we now know that the Nova party casualties were caused by IDF attacks. Of course, the Palestinian Authority is planting seeds for its narrative. Is it really too much for me to expect him to question and challenge truths they are told, to think critically?

No, I’m not delusional. As I say with resolve that I understand that the cycle will never end. There may be intervals of peace, but the differing narratives of each side victimized by the other will perpetuate vengeance for eternity. My latest revelation. But it can’t be. There must be a two-state solution ensuring security for all. I will have to read another inspiring op-ed or commentary about a new initiative for peace that will inevitably emerge from this colossal tragedy. It’s just that I have always wanted the version where diplomatic efforts would achieve it without another and another and another round of warfare and loss of lives, without another round of terrorists blowing up Israelis on buses or stabbing them at bus stops, or innocent Palestinians suffering at the hands of Israelis, or the perpetrators of attacks upon Israelis… wait, I know Palestinians and Israelis suffer and proportionality is an ineffective concept, and I can’t go on trying to balance this equation.

I’m fine. And what I am not is delusional.

— Harriet Gimpel, November 25, 2023

About the Author
Born and raised in Philadelphia, earned a B.A. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University in 1980, followed by an M.A. in Political Science from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Harriet has worked in the non-profit world throughout her career. She is a freelance translator and editor, writes poetry in Hebrew and essays in English, and continues to work for NGOs committed to human rights and democracy.