Opening our hearts and our eyes (Radical Torah repost)
Terra Nova

The Gaza war: so many worlds destroyed

Black humor is good for getting through a crisis. Thank God for the members of Israeli satire troupe Eretz Nehederet ("A Wonderful Country" -- read more in this 2006 New York Times article.) One of their most recent creations is the faux hiphop group X-Plain and their parodic video for "Someone Throws On You til [a rocket]", which you can watch (Hebrew and English, with subtitles) here:

(Hat tip Shahar Golan.) This is an expert parody of hip-hop videos which aim to put forth a political message. It's also a powerful critique of הסברה‎ (hasbara), "explanation" or "propaganda" which seeks to argue the case of one side. So much of what I've encountered online about this war has been hasbara -- one side trying to convince the other that their narrative is right. That we are the good guys and they are the bad guys, whoever "we" and "they" might be. That we are David and they, Goliath -- even though from where they sit, it looks the other way around.

I've been trying to figure out how to write about the crisis in Gaza. Watching it unfold has been heartbreaking. Spending last summer in Jerusalem gave me a clearer sense for how small the country is, and how interconnected. As I talk to my Israeli friends whose friends and family are called up to serve in the army in times like these, I feel afraid with them. I feel compassion as I read the stories of those who live in Sderot, who spend their days under constant fear of rocket fire. And I feel devastation as I read the stories of those who live in Gaza, whose lives have been upturned or destroyed by the war.

Ehud Olmert said recently that "The conditions have been brought about that enable us to say that the aims of the operations have been reached." [Source.] Reading this "mission accomplished," my mind boggles. What aims could the "operations" have had, to have been accomplished in this manner? It looks to me, from here, like what was achieved was a lot of bloodshed and suffering which will give rise to more bloodshed and suffering.

The BBC says that there have been thirteen Israeli deaths and 1,300+ Palestinian deaths, and that tens of thousands of Gazans are now homeless. (CNN reports 1,200+ deaths rather than 1,300 -- read more here.) Blogger Haim Weitzman (of South Jerusalem) has argued that because of the natural human tendency to value the lives of "our own" over the lives of others, statistics like these are rarely truly compelling. He writes:

We should not be surprised, then, that most Israelis are not moved by the fact that hundreds of Palestinians have been killed in their country's attack on the Gaza Strip as compared to only a handful of Israelis by Hamas rockets. Nor should we be surprised that many Palestinians are unmoved by the prospect that one of those rockets might strike a school, hospital, or supermarket and kill dozens of Israelis. If a high death toll on the other side brings peace, security, and justice to my people, most Israelis and Palestinians will tell you straight out, then it’s a price worth paying.

The mistake both sides make, the mistake that keeps the Israel-Palestine conflict going, is the assumption that death and destruction will in fact produce peace, security, and justice.

(That's from his essay Tough Love: The Moral Choices in the Gaza War.) Watzman may be right that many Israelis and Palestinians alike would argue that the death tolls are "worth it" if they lead to peace, security and justice. But from my comfortable seat here in the Diaspora, I cannot see how this bloodshed can lead to any of those things. And if the violence doesn't lead to the peace for which we all yearn, then it is horrific in the extreme.

I don't relate well to statistics. I'm a storyteller; I'm interested in people and their individual human stories. One of the most heartbreaking stories I've read is that of Izzeldin Abuelaish, a doctor from Gaza who worked in Israeli hospital Tel Hashomer and who often gave interviews on Israeli TV, who lost three of his children in an air strike on Friday. (Reuters story; in yesterday's Times, Gazan Doctor and Peace Advocate Loses 3 Daughters to Israeli Fire and Asks Why.) Here is the live news broadcast, with Dr. Abuelaish on the phone, crying out in anguish as the news anchor struggles not to weep with him (Hebrew, with English subtitles):

Medical student Rachel Pope, studying in Be'er Sheva, has these reflections on Dr. Abuelaish and his story; and there's an Israeli TV news follow-up on YouTube here in Hebrew (and one line of English) with occasional Hebrew subtitles.

In the ongoing war of narratives which overlays the flesh-and-blood war, stories like Dr. Abuelaish's are met with Voices From Sderot, with Living Under Fire: Geut's story [YouTube], with Soni Singer's one-minute video Kassam Morning. And so on. And so on. (The Global Voices Online Gaza Strip Bombings page collects links to all of GV's coverage of the Gaza War, excerpting posts from bloggers around the region and around the world. I'm particularly moved by Voices against the violence, which offers translations of several Hebrew-language posts; Eyal Gross's post excerpted there -- here in Hebrew -- is very powerful for me.) I avoid hateful rhetoric on either side. I look for simple human stories to which I can relate. Like this one:

As big sister, I accompany two of my five younger siblings to the roof of our 14-story building. We head up there whenever we can, even if people say it makes us easy targets. We climb 13 floors of stairs just to stand and look out on Gaza and breathe in 15 minutes of air before we duck inside again. "Burning City," the children call it. Columns of smoke rise from various locations in the distance changing the color of the sky and the sun. The entire landscape is transformed.

(So writes Safa Joudeh at the group blog Lamentations - Gaza.) I've been seeking out the words of those who are willing to acknowledge that there are real people on both sides of the story, and real suffering. Sderot blogger Nomika Zion writes:

I am afraid of the Qassam rockets. Since the current war started I have hardly dared to go beyond the bounds of our street. But I am much more afraid of the inflammatory and monolithic public and media discourse that is impossible to penetrate. It scares me when a friend from the "Other Voice" is verbally attacked by other residents of Sderot while being interviewed and expressing a critical opinion about the war, and afterwards gets anonymous phone calls and is afraid to return to his car for fear that something will happen to him. It scares me that the other voice is such a small one and that it's so hard to express it from here.

(That's from War diary from Sderot. The "Other Voice" she references is Other Voice / קול אחר, "citizens of the Sderot region and the Gaza region...interested in finding creative ways of hearing a new voice from the region and for promoting hope and non-violent actions for the benefit of the locals who live here in Sderot and in the Gaza Strip.")

It's easy to find heartbreaking stories. It's easy to find stories which support one's own point of view about what's "really" going on there and who's really to blame. But that takes me back to the satirical video with which I began this post. The situation looks different depending on how you tell the story and how far back you go, and both sides are engaged in an information war which will continue despite the cease-fire. And there's the difficult truth that for people on each side, the suffering of the other may seem "worth it" if it puts an end to, or at least extracts some vengeance for, the suffering of one's own. I don't believe things work that way, but that's a negative assertion no one can prove or disprove.

Rabbi Brian Walt of Rabbis for Human Rights has posted Reflections on a Visit to Sderot and the War in Gaza. He writes:

As a rabbi deeply committed to the security of Israel, to the prophetic vision on which Israel is founded, and to the centrality of justice, compassion and peace in Judaism, I believe that this war is nothing less than a disaster. It is a disaster for the residents of Sderot, for the people of Israel and for all who care about Judaism and the Jewish values of compassion and justice. How will this war bring Israel security? For three weeks Israel's army has sown hatred that endangers Israel's long-term security. How many suicide bombers and guerillas have been created by the suffering on the Palestinian side? And why is there so little empathy for the suffering of the Palestinians? What about the Jewish teaching that one who kills a single human being kills a whole world, and that all human beings are created in the image of God?

(That teaching comes from Talmud. Find it here, in Hebrew and in English: Sanhedrin 4:5.) The Rishonim -- the early medieval commentators -- noted that the context for this teaching is a discussion of why Adam was created alone: in order that God might show that from a single progenitor, a diversity of humanity could arise. As different as we are, we were minted from the same die. We are chips off the same block. We are facets of the same gem. We are all reflections of God.

My tradition teaches that killing another person is tantamount to destroying a world. If that is so, then how can I respond to the reality that the death toll in this war has included a baker's dozen of Israelis and twelve hundred or thirteen hundred Palestinians? Each death is a world destroyed... and yet the scale of the suffering in Gaza leaves me breathless and sick.

Maybe the difference between a death on "our side" and a death on "their side" is that we tend to feel more connected to the other people we count as "us"...which is an argument for why all of "us" must learn to feel more connected to all of "them." Otherwise how will this horrific reality ever change?

The hardest part of my summer abroad was the weary, heartbroken fatigue I sometimes felt after engaging with the matsav, "the situation." I couldn't figure out what to do with the disjunction between the sweetness I experienced in Jerusalem and the bitterness I experienced in my forays into the West Bank. Sometimes it seemed to me that the entire region has PTSD and that the cycle of violence becomes more deeply entrenched every year. Watching the Gaza War unfold from afar has reminded me how that felt. I believe there is a moral imperative not to despair, but I don't know how to face this with my customary openness and gratitude.

I worry about what this war, and the policies which accompany it, are doing to the souls of the Israelis tasked with doing this work. (Some, of course, refuse to serve. The Shministim, conscientious objectors who refuse to join the army at the end of twelfth grade, are jailed; learn more about them by scrolling down on this page.) I worry about the damage done to the souls of Jews worldwide when Jews are responsible for the kind of death and destruction we've seen in "Operation Cast Lead." And I worry that with every escalation, we move closer to a point of no return when making peace will be truly impossible.

It's hard to know what to hope for. Peace, obviously, but through what means, and at what cost? How is peace possible when there is such a horrific history of abuse on all sides? My prayers are with all who are wounded, and all who are fearful, and all who suffer in the aftermath of the fighting. May the Source of Peace bring peace to all who mourn, and comfort to all who are bereaved. And may the day come speedily and soon when we are truly able to see one another as reflections of the same Creator -- when we recoil from killing one another because no one can bear to think of spilling another drop of our shared human blood on the earth.

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