Eyal Cohen

Naivety and Nuance

The guy I buy my beer from is called Samer. I actually also buy my salt and vinegar Pringles from him. I have no idea why, but salt and vinegar flavored chips weren’t really sold in Israel when I was growing up. Now that flavor is, far and away, my favorite. This is irrelevant to the story, and perhaps the psychoanalysis of how this childhood depravation is impacting my adult life would be best left in the hands of a professional. Anyway.

Samer is from Yemen. Everything I know about Samer has come from my occasional frequenting of his little corner shop over my last four years in NYC. Samer works twelve hour shifts, six-to-six, every single night of his life. At the beginning of our relationship (and I am not using the word ‘relationship’ loosely), Samer asked me where I’m from. He asked this with the confidence of relatability. We’re both bearded brown men, and he could tell there’s a good chance I’m his kind of brown. I answered his inquiry, and since Samer knows better, he asked me where my family is originally from, and when I said my mom’s parents immigrated to Israel from Yemen, our bond was solidified. Now, whenever I pay Samer a visit, we begin our interaction by talking about onions and honey.

There’s an Arabic proverb that’s widely popular in Israel: “Yom asal; yom basal.” Many Arabic terms are pillars of Israeli discourse. Primarily, of course, swear words, which are still my preferred choice of releasing anger. This proverb translates to: “One day honey; one day onions.” Some days are good, some days are bad. I love onions more than I love honey, though, and I’d argue that and if you properly caramelize them, they actually turn sweet, but that’s beside the point and a statement that picky eating 12-year-old me would never believe he’d ever make. Anyway.

Sam’s and mine conversation always start by him asking me, “Asal or basal?” I respond truthfully about how my day has been, and I think he does too when I return the question, except his days are always asal. My days fluctuate between honey and onions based on how many people make me want to punch a wall over the course of a day, but Samer’s days are independent of any human influence. As long as He’s watching, he’ll say and point to the ceiling, I’m good.

He’s a devout Muslim, Samer, and likes talking to me about religion while he has a massive chunk of khat crammed into the right side of his lower gums. If you don’t know what khat is, it’s like the Yemenite version of chewing tobacco. It’s a staple of the culture. It gets you high.

He gets annoyed, Samer, despite the khat’s influence, when religions are placed in opposition to one another. Your god is my God, he says. We are all the same people, we come from the same progenitor, and when we die, we end up in the same heaven. The point isn’t to try to convert people in this life, it is to live in harmony until we arrive at His gates where the truth will be revealed to us. Something like that, I think. I try to avoid telling Sam that I don’t necessarily believe in any god and that I doubt we’ll find any answers after we die. We have a good thing going on, Sam and I. I don’t want to spoil it. Anyway.

Over the last few months, Samer and mine’s conversation has revolved mostly around American history and government topics. Samer has been in the US for a good few years now, and is currently in the process of obtaining his Green Card. He has to pass his US Civics Naturalization Test, so every time I stop by, I ask him three questions. How many amendments are there; how many years does a US Senator get elected for; who takes over if both the President and VP can’t govern. That kind of stuff. I’d love to see Americans try to pass.

Samer didn’t pass his last attempt; they told him he failed the written part, he said, though they were reluctant to specify what exactly he did wrong. He has another appointment coming up in December, though that, circumstantially, is subject to change.

Ever since October 7th, Samer has made a concerted effort to ask about my family’s safety. I walked in a couple of weeks ago (I was out of Pringles), and Samer asked me about “that horrible thing that happened.” I asked him if he’s referring to the hospital bombing, and he said yes, and nearly instantly our conversation became emblematic of what I find to be the worst part of all of this, which is that the focal point, the most important point, became not who died, but who did it. It is now a world where culpability is a spectacle, where we rejoice in being tragically right and find it all too easy to have narratives overshadow life. It’s a world, I feel, where we’ve become too lackadaisical with death. We live off numbers because they give us headlines and Instagram stories. Maybe we even live off of deaths—deaths we do not know.

And we don’t even have to fully get into it. Get into how the hospital bombing story is a perfect microcosm. A media debacle, an absence of critical thinking, a monetization of crisis, a tragedy of war, an aggregation and solidification of polarization, a spew of content (which I will not refer to as ‘information’) that proves to be—more than anything and borderline solely—inflammatory. The hospital story was merely two weeks ago, yet already feels like two lifetimes ago. And if you followed, live, you could see the story unfold. Maybe I shouldn’t say ‘unfold’ and instead use ‘entangle itself into a clusterfuck.’ I don’t know how your social media timelines look like, but between the Israeli accounts I engage with, the leftist liberal arts school people I know, and the US elected officials I follow, I saw nearly every possible take about the story. Every time a new piece of reporting or evidence—to whatever extent we can refer to them as reports or evidence—came out, people either paraded it or refuted it; punctuated it either with an exclamation mark or a question mark. It did not matter what the new content was; it mattered which direction you were looking at it from.

The sad truth, really, is that there are those out there who, should their side be rendered culpable for death, would rejoice. There are those—and I am not pointing to any side, and can only hope you aren’t either—who feel joy when they see bloodshed. There are those whose ideology leads them to believe that the most heinous brutality humanity can inflict actually makes the world a better place.

But we don’t have to fully get into it. (Though we probably should and I probably kinda did.)

I was sent an article the other day. The article was actually a response to another op-ed. If you don’t know what an op-ed is, it’s that thing that a college dude who shows up to his seminar once a month contributes as he walks into class half an hour late with Beats headphones around his neck: It’s the articulation of an opinion that’s supposed to be an insightful take but very rarely lives up to the billing (sort of like what I write, except probably less funny [to me]).

I will summarize the back-and-forth of these op-eds as succinctly as I possibly can. Just know that I’ll be using some labels as the authors used them, which don’t have definite definitions under normal circumstances, let alone in the fucking madhouse of a world we live in now. Quotes are direct. It goes like this:

The original op-ed was a plea to create a “more humane left.” A leftist sector that condemns Hamas’s terror, grieves with Israeli casualties, and rejects the impending “exterminationist” military retaliation that will cost countless Palestinian lives. The response to this (the article I was sent first) argued that it is a “hideous fact” that the state of Israel, as it always does, will “transmute grief into violence.” There is no better time to commit “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing” than in times of national grief, and the original op-ed’s take that grief can be de-politicized is inherently flawed. Grief, the response said, has turned “Jews, of all people, into genocidaires.”

That was pretty much it. I don’t know if that made any sense for you. I hope it sort of did. I am, perhaps, being slightly reductive of each piece’s full context, but I’m happy to share the links with you if you’re interested. Now.

I read the response first. That’s what was sent to me initially (by an American, I should note). My immediate qualms and reservations were about: the incredibly dangerous and detrimental generalizing arguments (“Jews are genocidaires”), the inflammatory looseness with words (“ethnic cleansing”), the complete disregard of the Arab world’s historical role in cultivating Palestinian and Jewish populations in their lands (happy to break this down with you if you want), and the blind spots this writer (an American Jew from an elitist academic background) has. However, there was something there that I agreed with. There was a point. I believe that somewhere muddled into this op-ed was the writer’s hope that violence, on both ends, stops, and that’s the part I agreed with. More violence, regardless of where it stems from, will only ever—ever—lead to more violence. That’s not what this writer said word for word, but it existed somewhere, and that made me value his essay despite the deep-rooted issues I had with it.

I forwarded that article to two of my Israeli friends whose opinion I’ll value till the day I leave this planet and reach Samer’s God’s gates. Both said the article made them want to punch a wall. And I completely understood why. That’s not me trying to sit on the fence or pander to the people I love (shoutout A&D, I love you a lot a lot). That’s me recognizing nuance, positionality, and blind spots. I don’t know either of the op-ed’s authors personally, but I know that they’re both PhD candidates at some of the most prestigious educational institutions in the US (and both, I’m almost positive, grew up in America). And that renders their positionality problematic.

If you didn’t grow up in Israel, if you didn’t have to take a gas mask to school when you were in second grade because of a threat of a nuclear attack, if you weren’t handed a weapon at the age of 18 and told to stand a post, if you didn’t go to Auschwitz and Dachau and Majdanek as a part of your eleventh grade school trip schedule, and, most importantly, if you didn’t see October 7th unfold in front of your eyes and on the land you live in, you may have the luxury to write about atrocities through a critical lens. I feel like I want to repeat that. You may have the luxury to write about atrocities through a critical lens.

There’s a classic Jewish poem that every child in Israel learns in middle school, which opens with the culturally canonic: “My heart is in the East while I am at the edge of the West.” I bring that line up because it leads us into the logical flaw inherent into everything I just said: my problematic positionality.

My positionality offers me the luxury to write about atrocities from afar. My positionality means that I hear October 7th testaments in my native tongue, yet have to rely on subtitles to learn what it’s like to dig through rubble on the other side. My positionality leads me to stand on the outskirts of protestors who may consider me an enemy, opposer, or occupier, yet never feel threatened for a second. My positionality gives me the privilege to sit on a fence and criticize those who pick sides in unwavering manners. My positionality causes tears to literally stream down my cheeks when I see one toddler hold the hand of another whose grandparents have been murdered, while feeling, no matter how hard I try, merely a pinch of the heart when another toddler, on the other side, mourns the loss of their parent. There will always, unfortunately, be some sort of gap between pain that is recognized and pain that is relatable.

My positionality has led me to see and to hear.

I’ve seen: Bloodlust, bloodshed, an absence of empathy, an evaporation of humanity, misinformation, the deflection of blame, ignorance, elitist thinking, and out-of-touch opinions. I’ve seen narratives propagated thanks to three taps of an iPhone screen and zero seconds of critical thinking. I’ve seen people align themselves on the side of the weak while disregarding the explicit calls for hate, for more terror, echoed on that side. I’ve seen running water be used as a way to mock, belittle, and dehumanize; I’ve seen that dehumanization render violence more palatable. I’ve seen trauma, rage, a disregard for life, and aggrandizing, inflammatory generalizations. I’ve seen loss, mostly. The loss of life. The loss of love. The inexplicable loss of a life you loved.

I’ve heard. Jokes about investing in real estate in Gaza, quips about penthouses that come with built-in underground tunnels. I’ve heard how much joy terror—under the guise of ‘resistance’—brings people. Not just any simple joy, but an exhilaration. An exhilaration reserved for the very best and very brightest society has to offer, an exhilaration reserved, of course, for Ivy League professors in Upstate New York. I’ve seen jubilation on faces as they prepare to be interviewed by Sky News, a jubilation reserved for hearing news that people you know nothing about, people whose only crime was being born, are dead. I’ve heard, too, the fear. The fear of sending a child to school. The grief of having been the parent of a six-year-old Muslim child in Illinois. And the subsequent logical anger that fear leads to.

I saw and heard about a mass shooting in Maine, and I immediately wondered whether it had to do with the war, and if it did, which side was responsible, and that made me hate myself, and the world I wound up in, because, again, I instinctively went to who did it, and not the 18 lives and families that will never see the world the same way again. I saw and heard that the shooting had nothing to do with the war, and was just your normal, casual, usual, typical, routine, common, standard, run of the mill, everyday mass shooting. Just another lackadaisical interaction with death, another headline and narrative I have the luxury to look at through a critical lens.

My intention, which will be ironic after everything I just said and the fact that this is a personal essay, is not to make this about me. I guess that in an effort to elucidate the point I’m hoping to make, I’m trying to clarify where I’m coming from. I’m trying to explain that I’m seeing and hearing those who argue critically, those who argue emotionally, and those who argue ignorantly, and that I’ve now found myself arguing critically, emotionally, and ignorantly. Perhaps that makes me the Jack of all trades, perhaps the master of none. Most likely, I’d guess, somewhere in between. My heart is in the East, my mind is in the West, and I’m simultaneously nowhere and all over the fucking place.

What I hope my elucidated point will be is that I hear it, and I see it, and I’m here to tell you that it will never work. Violence will never work. Your violence, to whatever extent you have it in you, will never work. You may get away with it for a day, a week, 300 years. But it will fail. Maybe that’s too naïve and cliché a take for aloof, out-of-touch academics to make, which is why they resort to making it behind the guise of theory and historical precedents and political stances. Maybe that’s too feeble a take for furious, existentially scared and scarred citizens to make, which is why they are willing to widen the scope of the violence they accept. Maybe it’s an argument that only a silly privileged boy sitting on a silly privileged fence typing on a silly privileged keyboard can make.

Maybe if I felt a bullet, in a physical or familial way, I’d change my mind. Maybe. I’d like to hope—Samer would say pray—that I’ll never know a bullet that way. I’d also like to hope—should I find myself in that tragic spot—that my mind, and my heart, wouldn’t change.

I have three (quick) final points, then back to Samer, then we’re done. If you’ve stuck this out with me so far, I am eternally grateful.

One. If you woke up to the sounds of alarms on October 7th, if you saw with your own eyes—on Twitter and Telegram and WhatsApp and Facebook—the onslaught, the torn limbs, the mutilated bodies, the charred remains, you will never unsee and you will never forget. I’m telling you this with the confidence of a guy who really loves salt and vinegar Pringles (as in: this won’t be a hot take): What happened on October 7th will have generational ideological implications on every Jewish person in Israel (it will also, it should be noted, generationally alter the lives of 2 million Arab Israeli citizens). The next generation will be raised by people who lived a day they consider to be a modern day holocaust. I do not say this is a positive thing, nor do I say it as a negative. I’m just stating what I believe is true: In the least hyperbolic and cliché way I can say this, October 7th traumatized a nation. This trauma, sadly, too, is resulting in a loss of empathy. People will never be able to shake their fear and anger, move past the threat imposed on the land they live in; the people they belong to. And as we reach this juncture where people render this moment in time a battle for their mere existence in the world, more actions—no matter how violent—become justified and rationalized.

Two. Events that have unfolded, on the other side, since October 7th, and all events which have preceded that day, are also traumatizing a nation. These tragedies, too, will have generational affects. These people, too, may never be able to shake their fear and anger, move past the threat imposed on the land they live in; the people they belong to. I know less about this side, but I’m trying to recognize the reality—this unreal, absurd reality. I’m trying to have that pain be not only recognized, but relatable. The next generation on that side, too, will be raised by people who saw things that cannot be unseen. Things that you and me, from the comfort of our keyboards and phone screens, may never see, which renders our judgement not necessarily flawed, but lacking. Or, perhaps, unnecessary.

Three. October 7th, and the ripples it has created globally, are reshaping the world. October 7th can be thought of as a demarcating line, the past of which: revisited and relitigated; the future: personalized and radicalized. People are marching, people are signing letters, people are sharing, people are hanging posters, people are ripping posters, people are filming, people are having knee-jerk reactions, people are insisting on the stake they claimed, people are giving their opinion without having to pass some form of Civics Naturalization Test, people are having the luxury to do whatever the fuck it is they feel is right to do without having to deal with any of the repercussions. People everywhere are taking a stance, people are conflating issues, people everywhere are picking a side according to what they believe is true, just, and right. People aren’t dedicating time, nuance, and critical thinking to what they believe to be true, just, and right. People all over the world are taking matters into their own hands, somehow making the story about themselves in an attempt to advocate for others. People are asking for liberation while supporting oppressive militias; people are advocating for a peaceful existence while advocating for violent action; people are chanting for a river of freedom while drowning in a sea of ignorance. People are speaking when they should listen. People are choosing to stay in echo chambers when we all, I believe, would be better off seeking dialogue.

It’d be naïve of me to ask for nuance, but, in my defense, I told you that’s what I’d be doing in the title. And it’s not that I necessarily think that asking for nuance is the right thing to do. Maybe I’m wrong and this is the time to detach ourselves from any emotion and examine the situation with the aloofness of an academic mind from Chicago. Maybe this is the time to throw critical thinking out the window and act viscerally and violently. Maybe this truly is an existential matter that does away with any form of nuance. Maybe this is the time to abolish the entire system. Maybe this is the time to double down on who you are. Maybe it is any of these things. Maybe, but I don’t think so. A middle ground seems untenable these day, a figment of imagination. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to find one. There are people out there, on either side, I believe, who want a middle ground. And a middle ground can be anything—it could be as simple as the counter of a little corner shop in New York City.

I googled Samer’s name when I started writing this, as I wanted to ensure I’m spelling it correctly. Wikipedia taught me that the name literally means: “Informal friendly talk or chat to pass the night; one to whom you speak; congregation of those who spend the evening in pleasant conversation.” This feels so perfectly scripted that it could almost only be attributed to divine intervention. Except, of course, yeah. Anyway.

I saw a take on social media that claimed that if a Chinese person wants to communicate with a person from Hungary, they need to learn how to speak Hungarian. Similarly, if you want to be able to communicate with those who speak in violence, you must learn to speak in violence. That, in my humble opinion (which is the least humble thing one can say), will get you nowhere. Not ‘nowhere,’ actually, but back to the same tragic place, somewhere down the line.

We have to be nuanced about the intention, the accusation, the carriers of blame. We must try to debate in an open-minded way: in a way that recognizes that there is more to be gained from being contemplative and attentive than there is from being defensive and aggressive; in a way that keeps in mind the question of whether we’re trying to make a point to the other side, or to ourselves; in a way that’s receptive.

Maybe you’d say that there is no middle ground, that the world is fucked up beyond repair, and that it’s too late to change the mind of the indoctrinated. Every piece of evidence over the last month indicates that that’s true, and that the idea of a middle ground is lost. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

I’m naïve, and I’m idealistic, and I’m missing critical nuances that I can’t see from where I’m standing. But I’d still love to spend an evening with you—whoever you are—in a pleasant conversation that seeks harmony. Who knows, maybe we’d even come up with a way to make this world a little bit sweeter. As sweet as honey, even. Or, at least, as some caramelized onions.

About the Author
Eyal Cohen is a nonfiction writer based in New York City. Born in Israel, he was recruited to play soccer in undergrad in Florida, after which he moved to NYC for his MFA in writing from Columbia University. He’s currently shopping his memoir / cultural criticism hybrid: A book-length essay about how men understand, withhold, and externalize love.
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