Some Hope Amidst The Darkness: Perspectives From The Ground
Ever since the 7th of October, our lives have been turned upside down. The world has become a surreal, terrifying place, and it’s all any of us can do just to put one foot in front of the other and deal with whatever we have in front of us. An impossible mission, because there’s just no way to focus on anything when our whole world has imploded, we and our people are in mortal danger, we hear frequent sirens and explosions overhead, and all the media channels are filled with lies, hate, fury, and even calls for our extermination.
I’m an Israeli, and the above paragraph is something that we hold in common with the Palestinian civilians in Gaza and the West Bank. Hamas is still holding hundreds of hostages, including many women, children, babies, and elderly, thousands of us have been brutally massacred, and hundreds of thousands displaced due to the ceaseless attacks on both our southern and northern borders. Most of us have spent a lot of the past month or so sheltering from huge salvos of rockets, and it feels a bit like the Blip, like half the country has just vanished as they’ve been called up to service or engaged in taking care of the survivors and the displaced while the rest of us hold down the fort.
Life doesn’t go on during a war.
I’ve tried to write about other things, but almost nothing’s coming out. I’ve tried to disengage from social media, but there’s so much disinformation being spread, both by misinformed people I know personally, and by random strangers making up for their lack of credentials with loud and venomous voices, everyone an authority with strong opinions on topics they know absolutely nothing about, everyone having picked sides based purely on whichever echo chamber they happen to live near or have been pigeonholed into by The Algorithms of mainstream and social media.
“Do your own research” is just an innocent-sounding way to say “go get lost down a rabbithole of nonsense because our education systems completely failed to prepare us for the one-two combo of manipulated search engine results and social media platforms that are built around unhealthy engagement.”
There’s a war going on, a war that has been going on for most of a century. All the “wars” since our independence have merely been intense battles against a backdrop of a greater narrative: that of our tiny Jewish state fending off a genocide by our neighboring countries. And we’ve been — very, very slowly — winning that war. To a large degree we’ve been winning it with military might, by demonstrating time and again that we are not the same Jews that allowed themselves to be herded into the gas chambers, that we will not go out without a fight. But to an even greater extent we’ve been winning it with diplomacy, with good faith, and with outreach.
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This is in spite of the fact that the last two decades have almost exclusively seen Netanyahu and his cronies in control of the government, a political figure who would burn everything to remain in power, whose only way in to power is through fear, and whose political machinations have hurt us (Jews and Arabs alike) beyond measure, and this past year has seen huge numbers of us take to the streets because we’ve finally had enough. The settlers, the ultra-religious, the fundamentalists — that’s not us. It’s not who we are, and it’s not who we aspire to be.
For the past two decades Hamas has been in power in Gaza, and has been terrorizing both us and the Gazan population. Hamas’ chief weapon is not terror — although it’s absolutely excelled in that sphere — but rather propaganda. Everything they’ve done has been carefully and coldly calculated to trigger military responses from Israel and generate as many Palestinian casualties as possible, all in the name of delegitimizing Israel as a part of its campaign to see us destroyed. That’s not the Palestinians. That’s not who they are, and it’s not who they aspire to be.
When I immigrated to Israel, just as the second intifada broke out, I spent a few months living in student apartments with Palestinian students, and we would have long and confusing conversations that would be my first real encounter with how distinct differing narratives and ideologies could be — this was pre-Hamas taking over the Gaza strip, and the life they described to me seemed like something out of a dystopian sci-fi movie. The mentality they described to me, the stories they told, I just couldn’t empathize. I didn’t have the tools. I still don’t, to be honest, and it’s an obvious privilege to be able to say that I’d prefer not to. I simply cannot imagine living in a place so hard that when you see a rocket, you run towards it in the hopes of a better life for your family.
When I arrived here, I was a proud pacifist and considered myself a modern day hippie. I still kinda do, but after going through the second intifada, with the regular terror attacks on the news and hearing fellow students describe the horrors that they encountered, such as in the Battle of Jenin, I recognized and understood that we had no choice but to defend ourselves. When I was called up to do my mandatory service, I went willingly. For professional reasons I ended up signing additional years, and when I think about those years too hard I still find myself struggling with the perpetual dissonance of being a hippie in uniform. But there was something I learned during my service, something I became known for on my first base — The Spirit of the IDF.
When I say I learned it, I mean I learned it by heart, which started off as part of a ridiculous prank to play on our base’s discipline officer, but resulted in me truly internalizing each individual word of it, making me conscious of its impact on every single thing we did. While there will always be outliers, trigger-happy crazy people with low moral fibre whose behavior embarrasses every Israeli with a modicum of decency, the vast majority of our army operates in full accordance with these principles, and with our principles as Jews. It is an essential part of our military indoctrination, an essential part of our culture, and each and every soldier is expected to understand it and follow it. We are fighting for peace, we are fighting to preserve life, and we are fighting to preserve a way of life that would be tarnished by immoral acts.
Sabra and Shatila is a source of national shame, because that’s not how we roll. It hurt us almost as much as it hurt the victims of the massacre. It’s used as a cautionary tale, and we remember it just as we remember how the Nazis were “just following orders”. An Israeli soldier will be in far more trouble for following an illegal or morally questionable command than for insubordination. Insubordination in the face of such a command is unequivocally mandatory.
After my military service, I took a career break to study towards a Master’s degree in English Literature, and aside from developing an obsession with Shakespeare’s Sonnets, I also dived into postmodernism studies and began developing a theory of zombies.
I think back to my Palestinian housemates often, and I think that my experience trying and failing to understand them helped push me towards my fascination with ideologies. That, and reading James Hillman’s Re-Visioning Psychology. I strongly feel that teaching our children how different the “immutable laws of the universe” can be for different people is critical to our potential success as a species, and that not teaching this to our children is nothing short of criminal. Here, I recently explained it to my son. If a seven year-old can get it, I’m pretty confident we’re all capable of understanding this.
For a number of reasons — one of them being how disillusioned I had become with the political situation — I left the country, returning just over a year and a half ago after a decade spent living in Canada and South Africa. While outside of the situation, I have had innumerable in-depth conversations with people about the situation in Israel, Jews and gentiles alike, pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian alike, and I’ve always been bothered by how opinionated people are when they have no understanding of what’s actually happening here. When they come from different worlds and don’t have the facts, nor the tools to interpret them. When they form their own ideas about what’s really happening based on simplified narratives, and then yell those ideas at anyone who doesn’t agree with them.
Case in point: one of the most validating and reaffirming of these conversations I ever had was in Montréal with a Palestinian refugee. I was telling an idiot-troll teenager off for yelling anti-Israel slogans at me, and this older gentleman just happened to be standing within earshot. When he heard what I was saying, he jumped in to stand with me, and we joked afterwards about how ridiculous it was that for us to have a civilized conversation we had to meet outside of the region.
In any event, I must defer to Mosab Hassan Yousef, otherwise known as “The Green Prince” or “Son of Hamas”: this is a man who was born and raised into the Palestinian experience, into the Hamas experience, and he can make this point far better than I.
I’ve often talked about how much potential for good there is over here, in spite of all the awful stuff. How regardless of what Iran (Hamas and Hezbollah) and the Israeli governments have been up to, there exist grassroots organizations trying to build bridges between our peoples. That most Palestinians just want to live good lives, and have been suffering greatly under the oppression of their so-called leaders while being told that Jews are to blame for all their sorrows. I’ve talked about how Israel is absolutely partially responsible for their sorrows, but not out of any kind of malicious intent, rather because we just haven’t figured out how to solve the problem of terrorism without force (hint: trading land for peace doesn’t work).
Let me take this opportunity to say that if you were born and raised in the west — in Europe, or the Americas — you do not understand middle-eastern mentality. As in, you do not understand how to understand what someone is saying, even when they are saying it directly to your face. You do not understand what people are doing, even when they are doing it right in front of you.
There are things here that make no sense to western sensibilities, and they are not what they seem.
Israelis, as members of a western democracy, tend to think in more familiar ways, even though most of the population comes from wildly different backgrounds. This is true regardless of whether we’re talking about Jews or Arabs. The Arabs from the surrounding countries? No less. We live in different worlds, we speak different languages and dialects, we play by different rules. The things that make us laugh and cry are not the same, the things that make us affectionate or angry are not the same. I’ve lived a good chunk of my life here, and I’ve integrated pretty thoroughly, and there are still many mysteries that I have yet to untangle.
Now that I’ve gotten my rambling preamble out the way, I feel I’ve made a strong enough case for the optimism that inspired me to write this article in the first place.
For pretty much everyone here in Israel, the massacre of October 7th plunged us into a hellish nightmare and it’s difficult to say how and if at all we’ll ever fully recover from it. Whole families and communities have been decimated, all generations scarred, and as a tiny population almost everyone has been directly affected or knows people who have been directly affected. But at the same time, there’s been an enormous shift in the political landscape, and for the first time, possibly ever, we have reached a broad consensus on what we want and what we have to do to get it.
We want peace. We want out of this terrible status quo. We want to move forward. We want to find real solutions.
Excising the cancer of Hamas from the Palestinian territories is not an act of vengeance, it’s a crucial step towards enabling everyone here to heal. And to follow along with the appropriate cancer metaphor, the chemotherapy that’s necessary is doing a lot of regrettable harm to the healthier cells that the cancer has embedded itself within.
For many years I’ve talked about the partners for peace that we do have on the other side of the Gazan border, but it’s been impossible to quantify how real that is because Hamas considers any talk of peace with Israel as traitorous, stamping it out with utmost cruelty.
All over the media these days, there are concerns that us fighting Hamas, a fight that by their design must engender and maximize civilian casualties, will only generate more hatred.
More hatred than Hamas’ children’s programming? I doubt it.
And this leads to the first ray of light that inspired this article. This is an Israeli who speaks Arabic, meeting with Palestinians who have escaped to Europe to interview them about their experiences and their hopes and desires.
Here’s another one, a Palestinian from the West Bank speaking out anonymously about Hamas, the war, and the international attention and hypocrisy.
I managed to write all of the above without ever having encountered the Whispered in Gaza series, which popped up in one of my feeds while I was trying to put together a constructive conclusion.
Listen to these Palestinian voices. Tell me there’s no room for hope that when the horrors of the current operations are over, we may finally silence the echoes of the violence that have been ringing in all our ears for far too long.
We are currently faced with an opportunity, in my opinion an obligation, to help these people, both physically and psychologically, escape from tragic circumstances far beyond our and their control. If we can somehow help facilitate their empowerment as human beings, perhaps things can be better for all of us.
Maybe we’ll be the first generation of Israelis to keep our promise to our children, that their generation won’t have to fight.
May we see peace in our time, for all the people of our region.