Harriet Gimpel

Negotiating the Questions

The questions are there all the time. There are events that make them harder to avoid – or make it more difficult to rationalize an affirmative answer. Can you rely on your government to protect you? It’s a double daggered sword. It’s always a question of citizens’ privileges juxtaposed with obligations. For an American, it’s the JFK line – not asking what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. For Israelis, there’s the line attributed to Trumpeldor: it’s good to die for your country, and the prevalent argument to the contrary – it’s good to live for your country. Somewhere there is a seesaw, like a scale for heavy weights and lighter weight. You decide when you push, and you go up. Someone on the other side of the pivotal spot decides to push and pulls you down.

Information on a seesaw swings.  There are children in Israel from whom facts about children in other parts of Israel can artfully, easily be withheld. Children kidnapped from their homes on a Saturday morning, if not murdered or witnessing the murder of their parents. There are children who experienced it or know their neighbors did and those just old enough throughout Israel from whom you cannot hide the truth. What answers do you have for them? What are the answers for the children who ask about the amorphous things not totally explained to them?

My 6-year-old granddaughter was checking my WhatsApp chats on Friday looking for her mom’s picture to send her a voice message. She came across a video while scrolling through my office group chat. Before pressing on the arrow, she asked what it’s about. I tried to modify my instinctive shriek as the words escaped, “You can’t watch that.” I calm my tone and say in a casual tone, “It’s just not for children. It’s about the war. It’s not for me either.” I turn to Haim and tell him she almost opened a clip of us bombing Gaza and homes disappearing in a boom. Following the earthquakes in Turkey two years ago, this child, absorbing whatever she did from the news, spent months in fear, asking if her home, with the 5 floors above her could topple with her in it. Telling her not to worry about such things was about as honest as telling a child not to fear being kidnapped, that no Gazan is going to come into their home after burning their next-door neighbors alive in their home. With greater  honesty, I try to find every way to show her pictures of Palestinian friends, citizens of Israel, friends, because that is a marginalized concept bordering on inconceivable in prevalent perceptions perpetuated among and by Jewish Israelis.

The reel I forbid her from seeing from Gaza ran in the background of my mind throughout the week, while I worked, or while I suppressed it amidst the escapism of a Netflix series. Suppressed, and a message comes from Haim’s reliable source that the IDF is still “not releasing the news.” Quick interpretation by any Israeli: not all the families have been notified yet. This past week, the rest of the sentence was that “20 IDF soldiers were killed.” By morning, the news of 21 soldiers killed the day before in Gaza was announced.

The following morning, listening to my usual morning radio program, I realize they are interviewing a mother who lost her son in this war. I decide it’s too painful to listen. It will linger in my mind. I switch stations, “Two anti-tank RPGs hit…” I switched to a music station. Of course, they are playing music usually played on Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror, the common practice of the past 114 days. The evening news promo warns us that returned hostages will report on brutal acts of rape they witnessed, or heard in captivity because they seek the way to shock the government into doing everything possible to bring the remaining 136 hostages home now. The reel in my head of the destruction of innocent life in Gaza comes back into the front frames in my mind without filters – a friend’s elderly aunt fleeing from one sight to another and data showing 800 people killed from another bomb because… because it’s a war. Justified because they got Hamas fighters at the same time? Was there no option of surgical precision? Does it only work in Lebanon?

Just release 3000 Palestinian prisoners in Israel in exchange for our hostages in Gaza. The next song on the radio, about our victory, with that chorus, “You can’t beat me so quickly.” My inner self whispers in response, “But you are, you are, winning slowly, slowly, tearing us apart.” The leaders we can’t believe, who can’t protect us.

Maybe it’s a childish delusion in most places that your country will protect you under any circumstances. In this case, the government failing the people, disregarding blatant indications that a day like October 7 was imminent, resulted in the scenarios now facing us: 136 (or is it only 132) hostages still in Gaza. The religious commandment of pidyon shvuyim (redemption of captives) is intricately interwoven in the values of Israeli society. Somewhat ironically it appears the government ministers least inclined towards any compromise for a hostage return are religious extremists, equally extreme in advocating for continued warfare, for demonization of Palestinians, unwilling to leave room for hope of future reconciliation of any kind – and convinced that every Palestinian prisoner in Israel we release is the next Sinwar. Hamas is the terrorist organization. We are supposed to be a bona fide nation and should bring back our citizens held hostage.

Another topic of discussion avoided at another family Friday night dinner – because the children don’t need to hear it all. Friday night dinner takes on the semblance of any Friday night dinner.

Our oldest granddaughter, the 4th grader, brought a friend. Good reason for Haim to amuse the grandchildren with his magic tricks again. At least, one person in the audience would be perplexed, until he conceded to show her that his thumb was covered by a plastic demi-thumb hiding the disappearing swatch of red fabric. Somewhere in the process, the 6-year-old, true to form, managed to get her hands on the thumb covering, waiting to see when her grandfather would notice. Her bestie cousin, the 7-year-old calls me aside and whispers the current fate of the cloth to me. I think for a second, ask a question of clarification and decide that we can keep this secret together, no harm done.

The next morning, marveling over the personalities of our five granddaughters and how they connect, and complement each other, I told Haim about that discussion. His gut reaction, a question, “she’s a squealer?” I thought for a second, because it hadn’t felt that way in the moment, and then I understood. “No,” I said, “she’s a 7-year-old turning to an adult, asking for help negotiating the moral dilemma.” Is it a harmless practical joke that she’s entitled to enjoy as the confidant privy to the act, or is it a violation of some code of dos and don’ts? Another tacit question in confidence: what are the dos and don’ts of squealing? She asked to add another color to the palette brightening her way through the gray areas. Maybe it was pink or midnight blue bleeding into the white, blending into the black and making it gray.

They went home, and we had the news to face again. Blending white into black with shades of other colors – little to brighten the way. It’s gray.

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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