Rachel Tzvia Back

We must disenthrall ourselves

If we do not, Israel will stay bonded to violence, remaining a nation and a people that live by the sword, forever killing and being killed
Noa Argamani, 26, seen in an undated Hamas propaganda film released on January 14, 2024. Argamani was taken captive during Hamas's October 7 massacres, and has been held in Gaza since. (Screenshot)
Noa Argamani, 26, seen in an undated Hamas propaganda film released on January 14, 2024. Argamani was taken captive during Hamas's October 7 massacres, and has been held in Gaza since. (Screenshot)

On December 1, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln sent a long message to Congress articulating the need to finally move forward with issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. A year and a half into the Civil War, officially emancipating all those still held in slavery in the United States was still seen as a contested subject. In the now famous closing remarks of his address, one can hear clearly how Lincoln is pushing against anticipated resistance, asserting the urgent necessity to break free from enchaining thought patterns of the past.

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present,” writes Lincoln. “The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise – with the occasion. …we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

We must disenthrall ourselves.

For many weeks now, this phrase has been reverberating in my mind. I speak it to myself throughout these dark days, as each news broadcast threatens renewed killing in Rafah, as Palestinians pack suitcases and carts once again desperately seeking safety somewhere else, and as the Israeli hostages rot in Gaza captivity, many of them perhaps already dead.

The “we” to which I belong is the Israeli people. To what has this “we” been enthralled? The most obvious answer, the most destructive thought pattern holding us in its bonds for many decades now, is the militaristic framing of our existence. Only military might will keep us safe, only force can bring quiet, we have been repeatedly told. Only a continuing occupation of the Palestinian people and of Palestinian lands will safeguard our existence in Israel. Only blockades and checkpoints, targeted assassinations and missile attacks will keep our children alive.

Many of us have always known the obscene falsities of all these assertions. Many of us have always known that violence begets nothing but more violence, and hatred begets nothing but more hatred. And many of us have expanded our notion of “we,” joining forces with friends and activists abroad, to speak this knowledge as clearly as we know how and fight for change.

But what we have conveyed less clearly to our friends and comrades living outside Israel is what has happened to our individual and communal efforts to disenthrall ourselves from our own dangerous nationalistic paradigms since October 7th. Since Hamas’s massacre of Israeli citizens that day, Israel has been frozen in time. The government and almost all the news outlets have collaborated in keeping the people entrenched in the trauma of that day. There is not a single nighttime newscast that doesn’t devote at least one item to retelling a story of that day, in all its horror and heartbreak — stories of loss and terror, of extreme helplessness and individual heroism.

That 128 Israelis are still being held hostage — their fate and conditions unknown, their families and friends living a seven-month nightmare of unimaginable dread — accentuates the feeling of the entire country being suspended in the moment of their abduction. That over 150,000 Israeli citizens remain internally displaced, evacuated from their destroyed villages in the south and evacuated from the northern border cities and towns that are even now being bombed daily by Hezbollah, locks the nation in this endless now of despair.

Our warmongering government, led by a prime minister committed only to his own political survival and allowing himself to be controlled by fascist and messianic ministers, has capitalized on this despair and fear. We are back in the thralls of ancient paradigms of existential danger. We must rise up (we are told and retold) to kill the one who comes to kill us. There is no humanity on the other side. They are all evil, we are all good. Gaza must be leveled to the ground. The killing of many thousands of innocent Palestinians is inconsequential, and not a single image of their extreme suffering will be shown on the nighttime news. Only when all of Gaza is a literal wasteland, dust and ruins, only then will our lives return to normal.

We must disenthrall ourselves, now more than ever.

As the times are extreme, so must be our efforts to counter not only the horrors of the day but also the poisonous thought paradigms that have permeated our society from the start.

Now we must free ourselves from positions of ethnocentric superiority that inevitably lead to the dehumanizing of whoever is not us. Now we must free ourselves from self-righteousness and our eternal self-positioning as victims. Now we must free ourselves from historical narratives that eradicate the other’s historical narrative. We must disenthrall ourselves from the strange and terrible cult of death we’ve created in the sanctification of our dead soldiers and of their bereaved families. Above all, and most urgently, we must free ourselves from the glorification of military might. If we do not, we will stay bonded to violence, remaining forever a nation and a people that live by the sword, forever killing and forever being killed.

I make this plea now, to us, in what is for most Israelis our darkest moment. The darkness comes from knowing ourselves as held captive to the far right-wing government in power. It’s hard to understand how such a collection of criminals, fanatics, messianics, bigots, power-lusting bullies and cowards have become our representative body. Making decisions that hold so many lives in the balance, they have failed us at every turn. And at the helm is the prime minister who seems to have no red lines in what he will do to hold on to power. Though many thousands of us have been protesting for many years to remove Netanyahu from office, we have failed. Hence, the pressure currently exerted by the US is welcome and necessary. At the abyss’s edge, we seem unable to save ourselves on our own.

And to the protesters around the world who have been conflating being pro-Palestinian with being anti-Israeli (that zero-sum formulation), you too must disenthrall yourselves. Israeli government policies are abhorrent; Israel and Israelis, however, cannot be defined through the narrow prism of their (our) government policies. (Of course, this is true of nations and their peoples throughout the world). If the objective is truly to move us all closer to a just resolution in this region, I urge you to disenthrall yourselves from your own sometimes violent, often simplistically binary rhetoric. I urge you to disenthrall yourselves from narratives that cast all of Israel, and all Israelis, as evil, as occupiers, as illegitimate. No progress and no change will come from such a position.

Here, toward the end of this piece, I offer a brief portrait of one Israeli citizen who has been disenthralled from the start. I am speaking of Yaakov Argamani, father to Noa Argamani. 26-year-old Noa, the only child of Yaakov and his wife Liora (originally Li Chunhong), was taken hostage from the Nova music festival on October 7th. The videos of her being carried away on a motorcycle, desperately stretching out her arms toward her boyfriend, also being dragged away, were among the first images to circulate that day. Her beautiful face is contorted in terror; she is crying out, “Don’t kill me!”

On October 17th, 10 days after his daughter’s abduction, Yaakov Argamani was interviewed in one of the weekend newspapers. The country was still in extreme shock, barely functioning; a terrible desire for vengeance was the only consistent tone of the day. Argamani, however, spoke otherwise. To the interviewer’s query, how is he managing, Argamani explains that “All of me is focused on what is happening to Noa, and when will Noa return… When will Noa return?” His anguish reverberates in every word he speaks. But even there in the throes of this anguish, Argamani refuses a position of exceptionalism and refuses violence as a solution.

Thus, to the interviewer’s next question asking him what he expects the Israeli government to do, Argamani says the following: “They should do everything they can, these are our children. …. But let’s be honest: in Gaza too there are families mourning their children. There too there are fathers worried about their children. There too there are dead. What will more people killed achieve? They too are suffering, as are we. It’s the feeling of a mother, the feeling of a father, of parents, of siblings, of grandparents. Please, understand the feeling…”

Seven and a half months later, Noa is still in captivity. Noa’s mother, terminally ill with cancer, has begged to see her daughter one last time. Yaakov Argamani continues to give interviews, always speaking softly and always with a simple nobility of spirit that most of us can only strive toward.

Freeing ourselves from what has fettered us, we must all say clearly: Ceasefire now. Return all the hostages now. Rebuild devastated Gaza now. End the occupation now. Find the partner with whom to build peace and secure safety for all. There are two peoples indigenous to this land; both of these people deserve the rights of freedom, safety and self-determination/

We must disenthrall ourselves from anything and anyone that sees violence as an answer — and then, perhaps, we shall save ourselves.

About the Author
Rachel Tzvia Back is a poet, translator and professor of literature. She lives in the Galilee, where her great great great grandfather settled in the 1830s.
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