Karen Michaeli

Thoughts from the Abyss

An anti-Israel protestor holds a sign depicting a Hamas paraglider and the slogan "From the River to the Sea", which calls for the death of all Israelis.
An anti-Israel protestor holds a sign depicting a Hamas paraglider and the slogan "From the River to the Sea", which calls for the death of all Israelis.

My cousin and I are together in D.C. for a few days; our family is in Israel. Being so far away during this time isn’t easy, but we have each other. Many other Israeli families in the U.S. reach for each other to cry and worry together. We watch “The Whole Story” on CNN about the terror attack on the Supernova music festival. The documentary combines video from survivors’ phones as well as parts of Hamas videos; it is wrenching to watch but we force ourselves.

As I watch I think about my friend’s 22-year old daughter Libby who was at the festival. She was murdered while trying to turn her car around, after not being able to enter Kibbutz Be’eri because it had already been infiltrated by terrorists. My friend’s and his family’s broken hearts beat in my ears.

I think about the Hamas video my daughter told me about, which has haunted me since: one of the elderly hostages is smiling, and many assume it is because she doesn’t understand what is happening. I want to hold her and tell her that none of us understand. Her granddaughter has since shared that she smiles because she is brave, and this information is so humbling I am overwhelmed. Then comes the thought about the babies and toddlers, whom I can’t bear to think about for more than a fraction of a second before I shake my head to sweep the thought away, sick with guilt about sweeping it away.

Other thoughts later, social media crackling static. Comments crafted to convey disaffected cynicism. They want us to know that they aren’t taking the terror attack (or much of anything) too seriously.

“Critical Support for anyone’s noble struggles against imperialism & fascism Including Hamas but that’s me”

“Not a pacifist but that’s not my style. I get why Hamas exists. I wish people actually gave a damn why terrorist groups form. That would require self reflection”

“I mean those people are actually illegal settlers, when we talk about overthrowing settler colonialism did we think it would be with a please and thank you?

The cavalier “not my style” burns my eyes.

The “from the river to the sea” rallies that sprang up barely a breath after news of the attack. The denials that the babies were beheaded, and was it actually forty babies or fewer, and of course they weren’t incinerated alive, surely it must have been after, and Israel is making all this up because Jews are a devious, manipulative people…except that part isn’t said explicitly because nobody wants to be discredited by the “antisemitic” label because, they assert, they are Anti-Zionist Not Antisemitic.

I think about the trollish laugh reactions and accusations of “Israeli war crimes” on the picture of the Shabbat table for the hostages, and about the people who “like” those comments. A fleeting fantasy: the commenters and likers are punished Willy Wonka style for their arrogance and suddenly find themselves sitting together with the Holocaust survivor from the CNN documentary as she watches the Hamas video documenting the torture of her grandson. Horrified, they sit with her in her apartment as she watches.

I think about the formal statements from various organizations and local governments including the one read by my city’s mayor at the last city council meeting, all pallid obligatory nothings two weeks late that squeamishly omit the words “Hamas’ atrocities in Israel” or fail to mention Israel at all. I am comforted to recall the speech by the mayor of New York, an unequivocal and moving statement of support; the words of a friend.

And again as so often, I think about the fearful isolation endured by Jewish students, including our daughter. Antisemitism is openly expressed now on college campuses and while it’s useful to know where people standpeople you had thought were decent humansit is also disillusioning and frightening. Friendships lost. A threatening letter from dorm RAs at an East Coast liberal arts college to students, warning that there will be “no space, no consideration, and no support for Zionists.” A professor at a prestigious West Coast university asks Jewish students in the class to identify themselves, then orders them to stand in the corner. Student newspapers publish anti-Israel manifestos, one in particular in the Boston area endorsing the Boston Mapping Project. A time warp to multiple moments in history, the Komsomol and brownshirts.

I think about the invisibility of Arab Israelis: friends and neighbors of Jewish Israelis, equally vulnerable to terrorists, so many of them among the heroes who saved lives during the terror. They are an inconvenient fact for the anti-Israel throng who frame their narrative as Israeli vs. Arab even though all are Israeli and stand together as such, never more than at this moment.

I read this today:

“It has now been verified by British, French, and U.S. reporters and intelligence, amongst others, that Hamas committed the following atrocities: 

  • Mass sexual violence so brutal it broke women’s pelvises – ranging from little girls to grandmothers 
  • Tying families up and burning them alive 
  • Beheading babies and chopping off people’s limbs 
  • Beating people’s faces in with axes 
  • Massacring entire families 

The list continues, but I need to stop here before I make myself sick. These were intimate acts of violence committed up close. The terrorists had to look into tearful eyes and listen to screams; they had to look at the crying children they were murdering.

I think about the particular timing of the rallies; why at this moment? If the demonstrators know what Hamas did, these events across the U.S. are all the more chilling.

It is a bewildering paradox that when Israel is attacked, antisemitism around the world rises. The grotesque acts by Hamas perpetrated on the bodies of the very young, the very old, and the disabled, juxtaposed with the casual Jew-hatred of self-described progressives in the West, reminds me of this post from Iowa Rabbi Michael Gilboa, which I now read aloud to my cousin when the documentary is over:

For decades I have felt guided by the Confucian philosopher Mencius’ assertion about the fundamental goodness of human nature. Mencius argues:

“Why do I say all human beings have a heart which cannot stand to see the suffering of others? Even nowadays, if an infant were about to fall into a well, anyone would be upset and concerned.”

He goes on to construct his entire philosophy from this claim of human goodness, based on his assertion that every human being would be upset to see a baby about to come to harm. He knew personally that humans are capable of great evil, but he believed that there is a core of goodness at the heart of all people.

I have never felt the impulse to reexamine this assumption as strongly as I do today. I am at a loss for words. Beyond words, I feel like my heart is lost, grasping desperately for some memory of feeling that could offer a context for what we are going through now. My heart simply lacks those memories, and I am numbed by my own inability to explain these horrible feelings. As a Jew and a rabbi I turn to our people’s history to provide some context, but everything I see is so dark. I want some hope to hold on to but I know that I am going to have to spend some time in this abyss.

This abyss is the visceral understanding that darkness surrounds us, and everything old is new again. Hate for our people is perennial and sometimes it is dormant, and we forget for a while. A friend wrote to me: “in one of these cyclic repetitions of apathy regarding the inhumane treatment of Jewish bodies, will we ever not be alone? Will there ever be a time when enough non-Jews stand up to protect us?” Until then, we survive because of Ahavat Israel, the awareness that we are networked beings like redwood trees with broad root systems that provide stability. Like the redwoods, we don’t survive alone but in tribes. Our memory is several millennia long and the imperative of these days of horror is to reconnect to our roots, and remember.

About the Author
Karen Michaeli is a U.S. born Israeli-American who is active in her Iowa Jewish community. She has a background in nonprofit management, social work, and business, and is passionate about Jewish advocacy, community partnerships, social entrepreneurship, anti-antisemitism education, and humanitarian causes and projects.
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