Redefining tragedy: from Sderot to Newtown

When I used to tell curious Israelis I was from Connecticut, the response I generally received was “Mah? Canada?” Instead of struggling again over the inane number of similar-sounding syllables, I settled for “New York” and watched furrowed brows immediately smooth. “Ah, New York!”

On my most recent visit, the response, “Connecticut” received a wildly different response. “Connecticut? Do you live near Newtown?”

Hearing those who live a stones throw away from the Syrian border murmur and wring their hands about the danger of my inconspicuous home state is incredibly disconcerting. Before this inexplicable tragedy, I could think of no place more understated, more unobtrusive, more safe than the quiet suburban haven I knew from my childhood memories.

Newtown was the place we passed on the way to my horseback riding lessons. It was the pleasant home to neat houses with carefully manicured lawns, two cars parked in the driveway or garage – houses just far enough apart to prevent a stray baseball from breaking the neighbor’s window, neighbors just friendly enough for it not to matter. It was a place of quiet rocking chairs on white porches, and foliage that changed to magnificent shades of orange and red when summer turned to fall. With the falling leaves, the children of this quiet town were ushered back into quiet schools, patiently waiting for summer to come again.

When death did come to visit this little town, it did so in a quiet, respectful manner – tapping politely on the shoulder and edging in sidewise, apologizing all the while. Death did not intrude.

In my mind, there could be no place more different from this quiet town than the Israel we read about in the news this past December. A place where eighteen year olds walk the streets with guns slung over their shoulders as nonchalantly as backpacks. A place where bus drivers eye packages and passengers with wary stares, and a place that has earned an expected spot in the daily headlines.

But Connecticut? When does Connecticut make headlines?

The heart-breaking new association with my home in the States still makes my stomach drop. On that Friday morning when my browser was cluttered with pictures of ambulances, security personnel, and bystanders transfixed in horror, I immediately assumed there had been another attack in Israel. Another bout of missiles fire, raining down in an unearthly torrent – another pedestrian bus, another car bomb, lives splintered with flying steel.

But the headline didn’t read Sderot, and the headline didn’t read Tel-Aviv. The headline read Connecticut. My expectations floundered, and went black.

As much as it pained me to hear about the children of Sderot dutifully running into bomb-shelters when the sirens rang, alerting of incoming missile fire, it is what we, the world, had come to expect. The routine of the matter had dulled our senses to the tragedy. So near the politically volatile Gaza, what more could we expect, really? We took secret comfort in the pragmatic explanation. Israel, surrounded by unstable, violent regimes, was accustomed to violence. Prepared for violence. Capable of handling violence. So we tut-tutted and tweeted cynical remarks about the tardiness of peace – but didn’t balk when we saw the same headlines the next day.

As someone with a connection to both Israel and Connecticut, I write from a unique position. The unexpected role reversal of my two homes, brought to my attention over my recent trip to Israel, reminded me of a truth we all know but tend to forget: violence many times is no less excusable, and should be no less shocking. There is no region where violence against civilians should become an expected and accepted part of the status quo. The vile sex slavery and abduction of children in Uganda hasn’t stopped, even though the viral Kony 2012 videoand the stir it created online, have faded from our capricious consciousness. Violence in Rwanda hasn’t ceased, even though it rarely makes headlines. There is still genocide taking place in Darfur, the drug wars in Mexico rage on, and the Taliban continue their reign of terror in Afghanistan.

It’s not that we don’t care. We’re not so callous as not to care. It is more complicated than apathy. Partly, we’ve become disillusioned with the prospect of progress, the political instability of these regions so complex, deep-rooted, and seemingly beyond reach. But partly, we have grown numb to the tragedy because we have grown to expect it. This is just the way life in these lesser developed, non-Westernized parts of the world must function, we silently rationalize to ourselves when we are affronted by another egregious statistic or story. Like Edward Said posited in his famous book, Orientalism, published in 1978, dealing specifically with the Western attitude towards the Middle East, Westerners possess a “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture.”

Here in America, these types of tragedies aren’t supposed to happen. Here, in America, an event as tragic as the Newtown shootings sends the world into a frenzied unified outrage. Here in America, that’s not the way things should be.

For me, it took travelling back to Israel and experiencing the lucid irony of my reversed expectations to reexamine my definition of tragedy. Tragedy is not relegated to one specific location. The life of a child lost in some remote African village is no less tragic than the life of a child lost in Newtown, Connecticut. It took the shock of the latter to remind me that the tragedy of the former is no less potent, and no less deserving of world attention, or response.

About the Author
Hannah Dreyfus is a junior at Yeshiva University pursuing a dual degree in Journalism and Philosophy. She serves as an Editorial Intern for The Jewish Week and the Editor in Chief for the The YU Observer.