Harriet Gimpel

Subject to the Media, and Social Media

More nights ahead of interrupted sleep – terrifying images of others’ experiences. That is my conclusion. I can juggle degrees of emotional self-control from the steady ground beneath my feet in my safe space. Updating my observations. No new insights.

Yesterday, I got to go to an after-school, Friday birthday party for the kids in a 4th grade class north of Tel Aviv. Our granddaughter hurried ahead as I carried a cake and bag of snacks. A few mothers shared their mixed feelings about sending their kids to school that morning with the end of the ceasefire. While they spoke, the kids chose balloons by color from a bag. One mother tied them on a long ribbon. After that was tied to a tree and a lamppost, the mothers took the kids to the nearest bomb shelter. In this part of the country, air raids are infrequent, but when playing in the park on swings and climbing across bars and ropes, a kid has to keep it in mind. If there is an air raid alarm later, I’ll follow the kids. For the drill, I stayed behind, holding back the tears. The kids take it in stride. They know they need to know the bomb shelter’s location while celebrating birthdays in a park.

Later in the day, I related the anecdote, apologizing for letting it disturb me, if I align it with the plight of Gazan children surely far from being able to celebrate any occasion. Yet not comparing is not a lack of compassion. It is separation, it is walking a parallel, yet incomparable treadmill, wondering if they might meet on the horizon.

Trade in humanitarian aid. Further comment comes too close to endless questions of both sides’ historical decisions, political moves, interpretations, alliances, betrayals, and denial, and I let those questions pierce my vertebrae, and vacate space for other questions.

The best and the worst of political intentions are wrapped in degrees of helplessness. Personal intentions are surely similar. Intentions are shaken like white dust in a transparent water-filled paperweight. Some granules fall into unforeseeable cracks and touch a soul. Some land like salt on eternally open wounds. Discussions, or exchanges of emotion-laden text messages in professional WhatsApp groups pull apart my heart and soul. It hurts. It seems it comes with blame. Regardless, the pain of the other assumes its rightful presence.

The blame will always be indefensible. Even accidents happen in a context that is anything but accidental. Sometimes, cultural differences bring one side to blame and the other to activate shock absorbers to brace the emotional brakes. There are moments when meeting deadlines consumes my attention.

Regardless, blaming is practiced amidst an imbalance where equivalency is irrelevant. We are taught to make the list of this vs. that before we learn the futility of the exercise – before we fail to align one item precisely with another. I feel the pain of both sides, yet I know well, which side is my side. Therefore, I know I have to question my side. I have to question the credibility of my news sources. I have to question information in my feed and incoming text messages from people on the other side. Contextual cultural differences or programming by different learning processes filling our splintered shared encounters – us, whoever we are, with our diversity – and them whoever they are with their diversity. Can I expect those closest to me beyond the fissures to ask the same questions I expect on my side? Can irreconcilable narratives streamline into one channel towards a secure reality?

The heart skipped a beat with the cessation yesterday of the daily pulse of returning hostages. Confirmed notices of murdered hostages combined with psychological warfare by Hamas declaring the unconfirmed deaths of the red heads, 10-month-old Kfir, his four-year-old brother, Ariel, and their mother, Shiri. We already witnessed one returned hostage reported dead by Hamas before her return.

The return of hostages, pulse by pulse, reports of their conditions and allusions to the abuses yet to be disclosed mix, like dark watercolors seeping across the page, with the stories of those who escaped captivity or death by some gesture of fate. Mothers and children returned without their fathers.

A moment of joy crosses the television screen as one family is shown reuniting, and a moment of despair follows as the same family, or another family by its side awaits its loved ones remaining in captivity. Expectations that their loved ones may be on the list to be released tomorrow are dismissed, because for tomorrow there is no list.

Health professionals speaking to the media protect the privacy of the returned hostages, divulging isolated details of their experiences. Stories by witnesses, reports by professionals who saw the corpses, and footage of rape from October 7 raise unasked questions. Which stories will only be revealed following years of processing?

Like the last drops of moisture wrung out of the rag on the kitchen counter, questions about concentric circles of damages seep out. I become dysfunctional for hours when I think of a colleague, a Palestinian nurse on the West Bank removing bodies after an IDF attack or observing a 9-year-old boy in Jenin shot to death by the IDF, and the war is in Gaza. An absurd collaboration between Israel and the Palestinian Authority prevents further escalation on the West Bank.

The last pulse to date of released hostages included a 17-year-old Arab Bedouin citizen of Israel, a girl who simply wanted to go to work with her father, and she did, on October 7. Israeli, but Muslim, did Hamas spare her their worst treatment? The public doesn’t need to know. I don’t need to know. I think of cultural differences within Israeli society. A friend who lives among Bedouin society commented, “Whatever happened to her in captivity, I hope society will not be cruel to her.”

During our family Friday night dinner yesterday, discussion turned to the skins of the baked potatoes. This innocent subject took a turn when one of the adults explained to our 9-year-old granddaughter that during the Holocaust people subsisted on potato skins. That might be as daunting, or not, as any description of wars and historical events in other times or other places, that children and adults alike discuss, with varying degrees of empathy and distance. On the surface, like the potato skins themselves, this was a statement she is old enough to digest. But she reminded us in not so many words, how frequently the Holocaust, rightfully, or not, is a frame of reference in Israel’s public discourse since October 7. She reminded us that we crossed the line of her 9-year-old emotional preparedness, “I don’t need to hear these stories in the evening. I’ll have nightmares.” She understands other children’s lives are nightmares.

Moments later, I turned my head to the television in the living room. Who turned it off? The 9-year-old. At first, not thinking, I asked for the news to be turned on again. The 6-year-old was curled-up on the sofa, wrapped in her blankie and absorbed in a YouTube clip on somebody’s phone. The 2-year-old was busy trying to get her fingers into my wine glass. The 9-year-old objected to the news appearing again on the screen. My mistake. But the adults agreed she could go to another room. I followed her. She began watching re-runs of a popular comedy series.

When she was 5, one of her mother’s best friends lost her father in a terrorist attack on his car. A month later, her mother’s friend was interviewed on the evening news. That 5-year-old, in the dark, with me sitting on the edge of her bed, caught a glance of the familiar face on television and heard enough to ask me if someone killed her baby. I comforted her fears with a cushioned version of the truth. Two weeks ago, I asked her what she knows about this war – and she has asked me about names and phrases she has heard: Sinwar, Hamas, Palestinian Authority, Gaza. She told me that since the war began her mom said she’s not allowed to post on Instagram. I get it. She bought girl’s haircare products when I took her to the mall last week. Inappropriate for Israeli Instagram accounts right now.

Yesterday, I wanted to share an Instagram post on my Threads account, social media variations of each other. The origin of the post was from Ha’aretz newspaper, about rapes by Hamas on October 7 – not graphic descriptions, but references to statistics that will never be completed because not all of the mutilated corpses could tell the story, and other such data. I attempted to share. The message on my screen informed me that I was now blocked for 10 days for attempting to post information detrimental to the community. Indeed.

Harriet Gimpel  December 2, 2023

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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