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Harriet Gimpel

Not in Cairo, Don’t Know My Way Home

Responsibility to Criticize

In the morning, I look at my phone with my first cup of coffee and check the temperature. Instead of showing my actual home location, I see Cairo. It happens less now. But since October 7, we all know the army has interfered with GPS. An hour drive north of here, there were times when Israelis found their reported locations to be Beirut. No Waze in Haifa – it’s been a thing. Bottom line – calculating the best way home is complicated.

I am sure about a few things. Peace, like equality, is a value and actions can be measured in terms of their success in targeting those values. Conflicting interests can interfere. It’s like the classic game of balances between freedom and liberty when one is at the expense of the other. It means there are times when it is better not to ask the question and to live with the gray areas. I see no alternative in politics. That does not relieve us of the social responsibility to criticize society and politics – I see no other way to demand my society be its best version of itself.

In a workplace (mine) that boasts its non-political essence while every fiber of that is loaded with political implications, one examines what is worth asking and what is not, what are the battles worth fighting, and what is insufferable to your integrity.

So, I did it! I framed the question professionally: If I were asked by a potential funder if the Palestinians in our organization are included in the 16% in the latest survey by Khalil Shikaki who condemn the events of October 7, how would they propose that I respond. The response echoed by several Palestinian colleagues was that all the Palestinians in our organization condemn violence of any kind against civilians.

Flashback. Thirty years ago, February 1994, Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. I needed clarity then, as I do now, about people who I presume to know where they stand on certain basic, fundamental issues. I called my cousin, a religious settler on the West Bank, and asked him what he thought about what happened that morning. His reaction provided my immediate relief – he was offended that I felt the need to ask. I should know him well enough to know he could only condemn this act.

Back to the present. One colleague proposed arranging a meeting for me with Palestinian members and staff just for the purpose of discussing this. I expressed appreciation for the offer. Yet, another colleague reiterated the first response. At that point, I succumbed to the compulsion to ask about the sensitive issue of all times in this organization – soldiers. I even understand the tacit agreement to generally skirt around the sensitivity. But I could not resist – were soldiers not supposed to protect civilians attacked by Hamas on October 7? Implicit: It’s ok to attack Israeli soldiers?

My Palestinian colleagues reminded me again of the threatening, incessant reality of their lives in the West Bank since October 7. One woman explained that she couldn’t leave her home or let her kids go out that day because of the extremist settlers outside and military incursions. I get it: I would not wish anyone to be subject to the threats and attacks of settlers which the current government of Israel overlooks. It is not a surprise to anyone that I believe the IDF has an easy hand on the trigger. Still, I know I need our soldiers to protect us.

I have a responsibility to be critical. I commented on the fine line of military activity that may be avoidable vs. what is needed for our protection. One Palestinian colleague, uncontested by other Palestinian colleagues, commented that Hamas doesn’t exist in the West Bank. Silence. Indeed, the absurdity doesn’t warrant a response. The message trickles deeper into my soul with each passing day.

On the one hand, I understand that there are Israeli and Palestinian members of this organization who have a shared vision for decades and have developed deep interpersonal friendships. I am sure it is fragile, but unique, and a source of hope, grounding for them, and their source of inspiration as they transcend the reality around us. It must be upsetting to them, that an employee who only recently joined them insists on reminding them of how delicate the fabric is – yet maybe my skepticism helps reinforce their belief that their way is the only way. I don’t question that we must reach the destination, but the GPS is less reliable than usual. I am reminded that my obligation is to demand that my society, Israeli society, is the best it can be. It is far from that.

I feel helpless and angry about the humanitarian aid situation in Gaza. Time to ask a Palestinian citizen of Israel, a friend and activist, about the best way to donate through credible channels to aid for innocent Gazans. Another modest donation to help innocent starving civilians somewhere in the world – this time, right here, Gaza.

It takes minimal imagination to understand, rational or not, how Palestinians in the West Bank live in paralyzing fear that what is occurring in Gaza could happen to them.

Rational or not, not, I have flashes of fear that what happened on October 7, the end of Sukkot, six months ago, could happen somewhere else in Israel in April, at the end of Passover. Not impossible. Not at all likely. Not rational.

Time for a call to a friend in Haifa, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, to commiserate about the situation. I don’t need reminding, but she raises the issue of how our government has abandoned the Israeli hostages in Gaza. Something is rotten. We know it. Including our tax money that goes to the ultra-Orthodox haredi yeshivas unconditional on those young men sharing the national burden of army service. That is, until Monday. This could be Netanyahu’s downfall.

It’s time for another donation to the headquarters of the families demanding the release of their loved ones, Israeli hostages in Gaza. Netanyahu has managed to wreak havoc in that headquarters as he has done to Israeli society – to serve his interests, to remain in power.

Israeli society needs to be fixed. Soldiers bravely serving their country, defending its citizens, in combat units doing justifiable acts, yet still taking lives, or seeing their fellow soldiers fall or lose limbs by their side. The foreseeable degree of post-trauma for a generation of young parents and parents-to-be, is our mandate for demanding that our society be the best it can be.

It is my responsibility to criticize, to ask again and again for a plan for peace for the so-called day after, to demand that we bring that day sooner, not later, and to demand that values of equality for all citizens are a matter of common practice in my country. I should refrain from asking Palestinian partners to this amorphous idea of peace to tell me explicitly if they condemn the acts of October 7, until I do a lot more to demand of my society, Israeli society to aspire to the highest standards of justice, values of peace and equality, as suited to a regime that presumes to be a democracy.

Harriet Gimpel, March 30, 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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