When I was asked by the women of Imago to write something in response to the recent attack on Gaza, I was terrified. I said yes and immediately regretted it. How can I find the words to respond to the horror we’ve been witnessing? What can I add to the already vast amount of words, images, and analysis? But then again, what use is my silence?
So… I’ve been avoiding writing this response. Avoiding it by reading articles by Israelis denouncing their own government, by Americans blaming Hamas for the attacks, by the United Nations condemning Israel for bombing it’s schools and hospitals, killing and wounding many, many refugees.
I keep track of the numbers: As of today, Tuesday, August 5th, there have been 1897 Palestinians killed, over 300 of which were children. 67 Israelis killed, 3 of which were civilians. There are 1-3 hours in every day that Palestinians have electricity. And now, a 72-hour cease fire so that Israel and Hamas can attempt to broker a deal in Egypt.
But how can I, so far away, respond to this untenable situation?
Take a deep breath and jump.
I’ve been thinking a lot about anger and empathy. Is anger ever useful? Is empathy really possible?
“I’ve been really upset about Gaza”, I told a friend recently. During our proceeding discussion I found myself getting angrier and angrier. It seems so clear to me that there is no excuse for the disregard of human life that has taken place during the last 29 days in Gaza, no rationale that could possibly explain the massacre of civilians. When I hear the same old arguments about Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’, I become livid. But that anger didn’t help me make my points, it only served to alienate my friend.
But how can I not be angry? Looking at photos of children clinging to overworked paramedics, hearing stories of entire families of 25 people killed in their homes, watching the news clips about the young boys killed while playing on the beach:
As Giles Fraser, a reporter at the Guardian wrote:
“… in the midst of unimaginable suffering, the idea of calm objectivity feels like a desperate attempt to maintain some thin veneer of civilization protecting us from the total futility of it all. And when Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, comes on the radio, intoning that false, calm sympathy straight out of the PR handbook, I want to scream. And the double frustration is that screaming is generally understood to be what you do when you have lost the argument. Whereas I can’t shake the feeling that, in these circumstances, screaming is the most rational thing to do.”
I’m angry. I am angry as a human being, witnessing the slaughter of innocents. I’m angry as a Canadian that not one of our political parties are speaking out against the war crimes committed by Israel. I am angry as someone who was raised to identify as a Jew, that Israel claims to be a homeland for the Jews.
What does it even mean to be Jewish? Is it a race? A religion? A cultural heritage? What does it mean to have a “Jewish State”? I am a Jewish Canadian, but more than anything, I believe in the separation of Church and State. What would Canada be like if it implicitly valued the rights of one group of people above another group in it’s very constitution?
I believe in equal rights for every citizen. I believe in multiculturalism. When you have a country that needs to control the ethnicity of its citizens to maintain its identity, whose supposed ‘democracy’ only exists because of an illegal occupation… I want no connection with Israel! It doesn’t represent me!
Hold on… I’m getting angry.
Anger is an emotional reaction to a situation that you don’t understand and have no control over. It is a feeling of being stuck, of having been hurt, or witness hurt, without having any recourse. It is a natural human emotion. But… is anger ever useful? Or does it just alienate those who disagree with you? How can we channel anger, transform it into something… productive?
Palestinian Doctor Izelldin Abuedellah, whose daughters and niece were killed in the 2009 attack on Gaza, wrote a book called “I Shall Not Hate” in response to his loss. In it he refuses to continue the cycle of violence and hatred. He calls for justice and for the end of the occupation, but he maintains that the cycle must be broken.
Abuedellah is angry, but he refuses to let it fester. He fights to channel it, to create an opportunity to turn anger into empathy. He wrote in response to this most recent attack:
“As passionate and competent doctors we must first contain the disease. To contain it, we prescribe the violence on both sides to stop; but even violence stopping on one side will begin the containment. One thing we can prescribe is cessation of the larger violence that comes from occupation and bombing. That will also stop some of the reciprocal hatred and violence, and contain hatred on both sides. Another thing we can prescribe is resistance to hatred. The patient will have to be courageous and just, and not allow hatred to take over when she or he is exposed to violent acts.”
Resistance to hatred. Transformation of anger. Empathy.
Empathy – the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experience and emotions, the imaginative act of trying to understand.
But how can we truly empathize with something so horrific? We’ve seen the photos. We know that Gaza is a nightmare of bombed out buildings and homelessness and major health issues. We know that almost every person living there has lost a loved one. But how can we truly empathize?
Two days ago I went to my four year old sister’s dance recital. I watched as twenty four-six year olds danced, sang, acted out scenes from The Little Mermaid – the Disney version – their pink, brown, tan faces glowing with pride and joy, falling down and jumping up, swinging their tiny bodies around with abandon. And for a moment, I couldn’t breathe, imagining the children of Gaza and the immensely different reality they face.
I have known loss. In 2005 my little brother, Luke Tobias Lushington Greenblatt drowned while he was on a camping trip in Northern Ontario. He was 15 years old. It was the most devastating thing that has ever happened to me and to my family. Words are inadequate, but they’re all I have to communicate. It was unfair. I was angry. But can I empathize “better” because of this experience?
When Luke died, there was no one to blame. No malevolent force upon which to focus my anger. His death was accidental, and he died doing something he loved. The anger I felt was general, anger at the world, at the injustice of circumstance, fate, life. What would it be like to have someone kill someone I love? What would that anger be? I can try to imagine, but the truth is… I can’t. It’s too horrible. I turn off my computer. Shut down the windows filled with stories, arguments, justification, and cries for peace. I close my eyes, and go to sleep. I will finish this tomorrow, I say over and over again.
Perhaps here is where I should be ‘balanced’. Perhaps I should speak of the families of the 67 Israelis who died, of the communities that live in fear of the rockets. But… I can’t. There is no such thing as balance in this conflict. There cannot be when Israel is the occupier and the Palestinian Territories are occupied, under siege and attacked with the most sophisticated weapons, supplied and supported by the United States. (The last link is a pretty darkly funny clip from John Stewart called “We can’t be Israel’s Rehab Sponsor and it’s Drug Dealer”).
But I feel empathy for the citizens of Israel who are born into a country that relies upon an illegal occupation to exist. A country whose citizens must choose between military service and breaking the law. And I wonder what I’d do? Would I fight? Or would I refuse like this Israeli woman did, in 2012.
I do feel for both the people of Israel and Palestine whose lives are inextricably linked through pain and trauma, living a cycle of violence that seemingly has no end. Playing out roles that are based on a tribalism that has lost all meaning. Jew. Muslim. Palestinian. Israeli. Words that separate people so they can kill each other. Words that only contain the meaning we give them. The reality being that we are all people with mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers. We are all a product of our circumstance.
And we all share this reoccurring nightmare.
I was raised as a secular Jew in Canada, practicing our ‘religion’ when we felt like it, celebrating our own versions of Passover and Hanukah as a way to mark our history, claim an identity– it was fun but fluid – my parents were artists above all. We spoke of Israel in a critical way from as long as I can remember, and yet I was drawn to it, curious about this place that claimed to be a land for the Jews – was it a land for me? In February 2009, right after the first attack on Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, I went on Birthright and then stayed in the West Bank for two months as a volunteer, teaching drama to children in Nablus and the surrounding villages and refugee camps. I’d been scared to go, watching the bombs rain down on Gaza that December and January. But people told me not to worry. The violence was contained to that small piece of land; everyone in Israel and the West Bank was completely ‘safe’.
After I came back I wrote a play about my time in Israel and the West Bank and during the winter when I produced it in 2012 there was another attack. Again the world watched helplessly as Gazans were killed in their homes, as they fled, and in the United Nations Schools where they fled to find safety.
And now, in the summer of 2014, it is happening again. And I wonder, are we getting desensitized to it? The global consensus is more critical, perhaps – Rihanna is tweeting about it. But somehow it is continuing, as if there is no way to stop it. The number of dead is the largest yet. This attack was the longest. The resistance by the Israeli army (and the majority of the Israeli people) to criticism seems the strongest it’s ever been. It is happening again, and although we are outraged by the loss of life, we cannot stop the carnage.
And from where I sit in Canada, far away and ‘safe’, reading the news, feeling angry, trying to empathize, to imagine what it might be like, trying to find the words to write this post… from where I sit I wonder about the power of words. There are so many words floating around the internet, articles, blogs, facebook posts. What do they do??
And then, a friend posts this, and I stop wondering and listen.
The words of Rafeef Ziadah, a Canadian Palestinian Refugee living in London, call out to be heard. And I understand the importance of names.
The last lines stay with me
“For Hadeel, please give me one moment of silence.
No, for Hadeel please give me one moment of sincere resistance so you can hold on to the last bit of your dignity. For Hadeel.”
But what is sincere resistance? What can we do, so far away?
Rafeef Ziadah has an answer for that in her recent article in the Guardian: Boycott. Boycott products from illegal Israeli settlements, boycott Soda Stream and Sabra Hummus, and boycott wine from the Golan Heights. It helped with South Africa, and I believe it can help now. At least it’s something to do as Israel and Hamas meet in Cairo once again. As the people of Gaza once again pick up the shattered pieces of their lives after the last 29 days, the last 6 years.
It is no longer feasible to maintain the status quo. As a Jewish Canadian Human Being Citizen of the World I cannot be silent because, if circumstances were different, I could have been a Gazan. Because there is no difference between a Jew and a Palestinian. Because I refuse to value one group of people’s lives over another.
So for all of us, for all our humanities, let’s have a moment of sincere resistance.