A few weeks ago I spent two intense days with a group of educators mostly from North America, who had come to Israel in order to meet those affected by the October 7th attack. Funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, and created by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Jewish Education Project, these two days were overwhelmingly powerful. After meeting with survivors, internal refugees, rescuers, teachers, bereaved, and families of hostages, I was left with a few conclusions. It’s not like me. I prefer to live along the both-and axis, but I’m currently gripped with a desire to make distinctions.
1. There are no words
Many folks here return to the same phrase: “There are no words.”
Together with people’s faith in humanity, so we have lost faith in words. It may no longer be possible to translate North American English phrases into Hebrew.
We will need to re-understand what is a “micro-aggression”, now that so many of us have just born witness to extreme and terrifying aggression. Aggression used to be associated with something pre-violent. Shouting, threatening. While a micro-aggression was something that often needed to be pointed out to be noticed. But now that Hamas aggression has been shown to be so huge, so overwhelming, what is a micro-aggression now? Bearing in mind the aggression of Hamas, a micro of that feels like at least a punch in the face.
Can we even use the word “trigger warning” with Israelis? Even the words “trigger warning” need a trigger warning. And who wants to be reminded of a gun, when caring for others’ mental health? Besides, there are so many words in Israel that threaten to become triggers, that all of life will soon need a warning. “Trigger warning: The following text might include words such as child, baby, home, morning, party…”
Trigger warning: The following text might include words such as child, baby, home, morning, party…
2. The switch from Know Hope to no hope
Two differentiations that mean nothing and mean everything.
- Most Israelis thought Hamas was a national liberation movement that was comfortable in using terror tactics to achieve their goal of Palestinian sovereignty. Now many of us are coming to realize it is the opposite: That Hamas is a Jihadist terror organization that is comfortable in using the rhetoric of national liberation. This is what has led most of us to understand that while there are available solutions or compromises to a national liberation struggle, there are no compromise solutions to be found with Jihadists intent on our annihilation.
- I force myself to watch videos emerging from Gaza. Bodies of babies mutilated by bombs, together with their grieving desperate families. I used to ask myself, for these Gazan families, what is the difference between this dead child, and the Israeli child mutilated and murdered by a Hamas terrorist? In some underworld of horror, isn’t a dead child a dead child? But now I think I recognize one clear dividing line. It offers me some dark clarity, though no comfort. For Gazans bereaved by the IDF assault from land, sea, and air, they will hate their enemy. They will never trust Israelis or Jews. For Israeli survivors of Hamas atrocities committed by proud delighted murderers who broadcast their monstrosities to the world, they did not meet an enemy, they met a monster in human clothing. And so they did not only lose faith in peace, they lost faith in humanity itself.
3. Making room for pain
In Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind” he posited that “care” or compassion is a universal moral trait. Though I doubt he goes so far, sometimes the corollary of this understanding is that therefore to lack compassion, not to care, is immoral and wrong.
Much has been said of how Israelis have “no room” for the pain of others. It is said that the dull reverberation of sadness and loss since October 7th has made us impervious to the suffering of Gazan civilians. To those with a close relationship with Israelis, this seems if not legitimate, then certainly self-evident. To those without such a relationship, this indifference to the suffering of Gazans seems cruel at best, and barbarous at worst.
Compassion for suffering on both sides, while knowing that each side blames the other for their suffering, is not easy. After meeting the lost souls of the destroyed kibbutznikim, and hearing the nobility and agony of a man whose daughter and son-in-law were murdered in front of their child, I wept, cut open to the core. Everything I heard the following day brought tears to my eyes. And then on arriving home after the tour I reverted to my self-enforced diet – I searched out reports from Gaza. Images and videos of limp, bloodied babies held by mourning parents. I wept once more.
I’m not raising myself up as some saint or agony junkie. I just want to say that while it is possible to hold open one’s heart for all who are suffering, it is also incredibly bad for one’s mental health. I’m a total wreck. If you keep your heart open for all, I fear that in the end the heart falls apart completely. This is my way of saying that I think it makes sense that most people notice the suffering of others less than their own – because we need to keep living.
So for those who are empathizing deeply with their own who suffer, I personally drop any expectation that they deeply empathize with all who suffer. It feels too much for one heart to hold. And here I particularly empathize with Zionist Jews in the Diaspora, whose hearts are with Israelis and whose media is not.
I particularly empathize with Zionist Jews in the Diaspora, whose hearts are with Israelis and whose media is not.
However for those who find themselves emotionally a step or two apart, for those who – we might say – have compassion without the passion? Both for cerebral critics of Israel and for cerebral critics of Hamas – compassion can and should be applied universally. Too often the cerebral critic of Israel will find only compassion for the Palestinian, and will ignore, pass over, or at worst deny that Israelis are in pain. And vice versa. I can’t find a justification for this.
- You can’t “discuss” denial
I had been conducting a quiet private “healthy argument” with a folk singer beloved to me, who had been posting a great deal of anti-Israel rhetoric. I’d been following all the rules of For the Sake of Argument, I’d been more of a gatherer than a hunter, I’d acknowledged some of his critique, I’d done a little bit of yes-but. However on my return home from the trip, I’d seen he’d once again shared an “article” telling the “real story” of what happened on October 7th. (Spoiler: The “real story” is that Israel kind of did it…) I couldn’t hold back. In writing, I screamed and swore at him. I lost all patience and went on the attack. I ended the discourse having reached two conclusions: First, there is no room for a healthy argument with an October 7th denier. There may be room for a debate (aiming to convince or debunk), but a healthy argument (we grow in learning new perspectives) is ridiculous if not impossible. Second, there is a humiliation involved in fighting the deniers, and I find it hard to differentiate them from Holocaust deniers. Their “difficulty” in believing the atrocities happened seems to come from very similar motivations.
I look back on these four realizations about Words, Hope, Pain, and Denial. The words seem to swirl around these days, connecting and separating in ever more complex circles. Words of Hope, painful words, denial of hope, hope within pain, pain denied. Like autumnal leaves swept up into the air by a violent gust of wind, they are far from reach right now. Who knows where they will land.