Adam Penkin

The Absurdity of War

These last few months I’ve been really having trouble putting what I’m feeling into words. This is especially odd for me as I have always been very verbose. Absurdity always defies verbalisation. And it is absurd, this war-torn period, in which everybody has an opinion and nobody has a clue.

About a year ago I met a Palestinian girl outside the Cambridge Union (the world’s oldest debate society) who said she wanted to talk to me. We met, a few days later, for fish and chips and she told me about how she saw a future for our countries. Her family was from Lebanon but they identify as Palestinian and she wanted to try and talk to me, and other Israelis, about the future. She felt we could find common ground. I reached out to other Israelis I’d met in the city regarding an Israel/Palestine social engagement and was met with a general lack of enthusiasm. I was disappointed in what appeared to me, at the time, to be apathy.

Recently I visited a Palestine society “teach in” hosted in one of the University lecture halls. I was surprised to find the room packed to burst, far more than for any lecture I’d ever been to, but quickly realised I shouldn’t have been. The “teach in” was a compilation of the worst pieces of propaganda they could find, involving references to the “horrible” Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. No mention was made of Israel having fought alongside Lebanese troops, but more shockingly, no mention was made to the events of 10/7. To my disappointment the girl I’d met, who came to me to talk about peace, stood before the crowded hall and called for the cleansing of the Jews from the region, alongside the other panelists. Somehow the events of 10/7 had warmed her, and the rest of the (50% muslim, 50% humanities students by the looks of it) group to the merits of violence. I was painfully aware of how incredibly outnumbered I was in a room of people calling for violence. I never thought I’d be afraid to be lynched in a Cambridge lecture theatre. I kept my mouth shut. A feeling of absurdity began to foment.

The term ended and I had the privilege to join my friend for his wedding in New York. Much to his fiancé’s chagrin, he’d flown back to Israel only a month before to fight, and had just returned to make the save-the-date they’d published before the war broke out. It was a beautiful venue, and he looked so smart in his tuxedo. As I arrived I spotted four guys I knew; For a couple of days his commander had released some of his best friends from his team, allowing them to use the tickets they’d purchased long in advance to join him on the special day. The sense of absurdity enveloped me again. I knew these guys from my service. They are the best of the best from an elite team fighting on the very front lines in the North of the country. The sharp nature of their transition, from vest and helmet to tux and tie, stunned me. I can only imagine what it must have felt like for them. They were in good spirits, but there was an edge that undercut their humour. I knew it well — it was the laughter of group that chose humour in absence of any other option.

In a further twist I realised, in a way, these past few months had been as painful for me as for them. I had the privilege to mourn, to cry, to consider things in perspective and grieve at the reality. When the war ends, their pain will dwarf mine incomparably. In war none of this is practical. I would come to see this again in a month when I met with my own team and heard their stories. These boys were allowed no time to grieve. Their smiles reflected the struggle of choosing what they saw as their only option — to fight. For a moment I envied their cavalier strength, and then my envy turned to pity. I’m familiar with the face they wore with their fancy dress — it’s one I used to wear for my mother when she worried.

The next day I travelled with them to the airport. I had to return to my studies and them to Lebanon. As they packed I watched one playing with the iPad he’d bought at the Apple store. He explained to me that he’d made the purchase in cash to avoid the crazy tariffs Israel put on imported products. I burst out laughing, I couldn’t help it. The absurdity of the situation overwhelmed me. Here was a man ready to die for his country, but not willing to pay sales tax. His actions, upon reflection, are both ridiculous and deeply sane. We live in the modern world, where armed conflict and violent slaughter have no place. Our priorities reflect this, and then clash, when war is forced upon us. Israelis have been trying to build lives in the modern world with one foot shackled to ancient hatred.

This is not a two sided argument. Salaam Fayaad, a Palestinian politician created the Third Way Palestinian political party that encouraged Palestinians to grow culturally and economically in spite of the occupation, in order to modernise and engage with the Israelis as equals. His Third Way party receives no popular support. The Palestinians do not want to live in the modern world. Like much of the Middle East they are stuck in the past, glorifying Arab conquest and justice by the sword.

This is the absurdity of 10/7. It is an act out of the past, out of touch with modernity. Had the Palestinians accepted a state in 1948 this conflict could still rage in the offices, and back rooms, and the debate floor of the UN, the way the civilised world intends to resolve its problems. But this simple truth is difficult to see from the outside in. The hyper intellectualisation of the world is a blessing that comes with a curse: Those that live with the privilege to not be exposed to armed conflict do not understand its significance. Words have become just words carrying none of the force of the acts they refer to.

This is apparent in the rhetoric that followed 10/7. Slogans like “decolonisation was never going to be peaceful” sound like calls for justice to one totally unacquainted with the horrors of violence. The term genocide has been stretched and moulded in a manner that is wholly divorced from reality: Tamar Shamir, a Palestinian peace activist as quoted by the New York Times, says it well: ‘“This is a difficult word for me,” Shamir says. The bombing of Gaza is a disaster, she told me, “but it’s not genocide. Genocide is when you design a plan to destroy everybody.”’ She understands the severity of the accusation levied at the Jews, and the underlying antisemitic implications: The Jews are like the Nazis, they are comparable to their worst oppressors.

In contrast, the UN defines genocide as follows: “In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. In part intends to be “inclusive” but actually it is disingenuous. How small is a part? The estimate 20,000 Gazan deaths represents 3% of Palestinian population, and that is only those in the West Bank and Gaza. It is less than 2% of the Palestinian population worldwide. By contrast the Holocaust is estimated to have killed 66% of European Jews, and 33% of Jews worldwide. These events are incomparable to anybody with a sense of scale. By stretching the definite you allow Jews to be condemned for engaging in a war that has fewer casualties than any neighbouring conflicts in the region. Furthermore, the UN definition refers to intent, as opposed to success. Despite the popular narrative this is far more damning for Hamas than Israel: If Israel wanted to destroy the Palestinians entirely they could. If Hamas could destroy Israel entirely, they would. Seeing the obvious degradation of language for political aims only makes my head spin further. I feel like I’m losing my grip on reality, it’s all so absurd, and I’ve even had the words I want to use stolen from me.

This kind of confusion only persists in absence of experience. Israelis don’t have the privilege of this kind of ignorance. We know full well what violence is.
I used to call myself a left wing Israeli because I recognised the power disparity between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Now I can’t see who holds power. Israelis can’t end this conflict, even if they wanted to. The absurdity of this war has been twisting my mind around itself but it shouldn’t be. Violence is the norm for history, not the exception. It is only our modernity that allows us to be shocked. It was only 80 years ago that my family experienced similar violent hatred in Europe. This absurdity, the disconnect between expectation and reality, is the result of us trying to pull ourselves from the depths of history, but history carries weight and perhaps we are not yet strong enough.

About the Author
An international Jew that came to make a home in Israel. Now back overseas studying philosophy and feeling a stronger connection to the land than before I left.
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