Harriet Gimpel

Language and Disengagement

When you learn to read a language, you learn to hear it more accurately, you become sensitized to the sounds of silent letters. There are people who learn to speak languages they never learn to read or write. I understand that’s how it works for acquiring language, your first language. But, when learning another language, I need to know how to read it. This connects to languages I don’t speak, yet when I see the written word, I might decipher the word, possibly the tone, or the point – or gravely misinterpret it.

The nuances of language and the encounter with them when people share a common language that is not their common language adds dimensions to interpretation. That is what happens when Israelis (like me) and Palestinians meet in English by Zoom. You ask what the other meant. Were you understood or misunderstood? If the melody were different, would the palabras be differently interpreted?

Today I read a newspaper report on Gaza. By association, I recalled that last week I did a Google search for data about the voices of Palestinian and Israeli women in influential spaces in the public discourse in their respective societies.

Naturally, being Israeli, it was easier for me to identify precisely what I needed about Israeli women. Despite the absence of Israeli women in the war cabinet and severe underrepresentation in the current government, their potential influence and role in civil society is familiar to me. I have some degree of familiarity with traditional and cultural differences in these spheres among Arab Palestinian women citizens of Israel compared to Jewish women in Israel, and some familiarity, but less, with respect to Arab Palestinian women in the West Bank.

Google provided different sources for different search word combinations from different angles. Twice, I got results that piqued my interest, even if off-topic. I stopped short of that click to open the source. One reason: the source was a UN report. Notably, on-topic, I did use UN reports as a source. Second reason: piqued my interest, but I just don’t have the emotional bandwidth for reading this kind of UN take on Israeli roles in victimizing Palestinians. Doesn’t mean I don’t get the concept, doesn’t even mean that I invalidate that narrative.

As Israelis, as Jews, we have a victim narrative piece in the jigsaw puzzle of who we are too. Just saying. But delving deeper and wider to contextualize the UN data, that would require yet another stretch of emotional bandwidth.

Today, I read a story in Ha’aretz, my go-to news outlet in Hebrew. The news is news and will include reports you won’t find in the other leading Israeli news outlets. The op-eds lean left of center. Today, I read one story sharing voices of young adults, young parents, from Gaza. The subject: Death.

I read it. I get it. War. Death. A war story.

When it’s the Ukraine, I feel helpless. I could write to politicians.

When it’s Gaza, I feel another kind of helplessness. When humanitarian aid is brought to Gaza and Hamas prevents it from reaching the people of Gaza, I feel another kind of helplessness. When I see 50 million shekels – in shekels and dollars – that Israeli soldiers have found in Gaza since October 7, money marked for terrorism, against Israel, and to entice terrorists, I feel another kind of helplessness. Trauma.

I continue watching news, knowing all four major Israeli television channels are covering the same items. Explanations follow about locating stashes of cash this past week.

Another report, same channel, same language showing Nukhba (the name of Hamas’s military unit) weapons from October 7. Left in the field, collected by Israel’s military booty unit. The soldier accompanying the reporter used gloves when touching pieces he wanted the camera to capture. The reporter inquired if the gloves were to avoid being contaminated. The Israeli soldier explained: the gloves are to protect DNA on the weapons. To identify bodies. It’s likely that next week or the week after, new puzzle pieces will fit into place. Another name will be announced on the news. The name of another Israeli missing since October 7 added to the list of those no longer among the living – certified.

Will I get through the week looking at the necklace and the pin that I wear every single day calling for the release of the Israeli hostages #BringThemHome without letting my thoughts lead me away from that demand to images in my mind of their physical and emotional circumstances, those still alive. I feel another kind of helplessness.

We talk about Israeli children’s fears of being taken hostage since October 7. We talk less about fears of each and every one of us. Every Israeli I know, just as s/he was anywhere in Israel, or abroad, on Saturday, October 7 – Shabbat and Simchat Torah – s/he could have gone for the weekend to visit at a kibbutz or town by the Gaza border. Any one of us could have been kidnapped. Traumatizing thought.

I choose to avoid and then succumb to a compelling headline in the press or on TV. I choose to empathize with the other, but I know the limits of the pain I can contain and the space I need to give it. When someone can’t understand that I find it difficult to make space for them.

I recall relationships, caring for someone despite the fact that they invalidate, reduce at best, and cancel at most, the essence of who you are. When I recognized that as the character of any relationship I was ever in, I was out. (Between my divorce 30 years ago and meeting Haim nine years ago, I had my share of such experiences.)

When I choose to read about the other, about Gazan victims of Hamas, that is my choice. It’s part of what I need to learn the language of these times.

I listen. When a Palestinian colleague speaks to me about the other, the Gazan victims of Hamas – and of Israel, I choose to listen. That is part of what I need to learn a language.

When a Palestinian speaks to me, invalidating my trauma, I struggle. I understand the words. I understand narratives of trauma. Quantitative comparative analysis of the texts – written or spoken – are off the grid. Ineffective measure for the common language. But when the other, attempts to reduce the trauma of my people, I disengage.

Harriet Gimpel, March 2, 2024

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.
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