Stunned by What I See
A Late Awakening
“…the worst of war is the fear and suspicion and the awful expression in all the eyes you meet…as if they had pulled down the shutters over their minds and hearts and were peering out at you, ready to leap if you make one gesture or say one word they do not understand instantly. It frightens me…it’s the skulking about, and the lying. It’s what war does to the mind and the heart, and you can’t separate these two..”—Katherine Anne Porter, Pale Horse, Pale Rider
I would say that the worst of war is bodies blown apart, for after all it is bodies that house hearts and minds—but still Porter’s lines are a poignant description of what war can do to a civilian population far from the front when people are stunned by what they are hearing and told what to believe, which may be what they want to believe and perhaps used to believe—yet unable to square what they are told and want to believe and used to believe with what they are seeing.
I have been shaken, actually stunned by the events in Gaza. That is a feeling shared, no doubt, by millions: the sheer horror of what has happened, starting on Oct. 7 and continuing up through right this minute has been sickening and terrifying, deep almost beyond comprehension.
That may seem a hyperbolic statement given the horrors of my life-time which include but are certainly not limited to, the Vietnam war, 9/11, the Iraq war, the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, the racist lynchings and mass shootings here in the U.S., and the war in Ukraine. If I don’t mention every horror of the last 60+ years, it is because I’ve lost track of them. I’ve lost track because horrors on a mass scale occur so relentlessly that they have come to strike me as an inevitable by-product of human nature, about which political/economic systems can do only so much.
Even in this mind-set, in which I have become beastfully inured to news of violent horror inflicted on my fellow beings, I am stunned by what has gone on in Israel (on Oct. 7th) and in Gaza (for nearly three months). I am also shaken because up until now, I have been sympathetic to Israel, almost by default. I think many, possibly most Americans of my generation feel or have felt this way; our collective feelings have been a big part of why the United States has been such a staunch (or remorseless, depending on your point of view) supporter of Israel. For the first time in my life my feelings have changed in a way that has shaken the foundation—or at least a foundation—of my world view.
For people of my generation it may not be necessary to explain why I have strongly defaulted towards goodwill for Israel; for younger people, I mean under the age of 40, it might be. Most essentially, the Holocaust is more real even for WASPS of my generation than I suspect it is for those that followed. My father fought in WWII. I have had friends whose relatives survived the camps or did not. I have met survivors. I read the Diary of Anne Frank at age 11, and in the ensuing years, learned more about the Holocaust in depth and detail, including the historical ghettoization and mass murder experienced by Jews throughout Europe—really, the whole world—for centuries. It was right around this time that I also learned about the relatively new State of Israel. It is unsurprising that, given all that I’d learned at that point (and all that I didn’t know), that the idea of such a place was an unalloyed, inspiring good. I remember reading/hearing about the Six-Day War when I was 13 and feeling such admiration that it amounted to a kind of love. In my young mind, it was a triumph over bullies on an epic scale—not only those in the Middle East, but all the anti-semites in the world: the Jews were saying no more I loved them for it. I had learned so much about anti-semitism—and damn, there was a lot to learn—that it did not occur to me that something other than that might be at play.
As I grew older, I held onto these feelings even as the real-world knowledge they were based on stayed at the teenage level. This was in part because at the age of 15 I ran away from home, starting a chain of predictable chaos and years of hand-to-mouth living that wasn’t conducive to education. I paid some attention to world events, but my attention was shallow. I had political opinions: I was for Affirmative Action and the ratification of the ERA. I was outraged over Apartheid in South Africa and racism at home. I had these opinions because I read and heard about these subjects. I don’t recall reading or hearing anything critical about Israel re: Palestine until the 80s when I moved to New York and began reading The Village Voice. I did read the articles with a pro-Palestine slant. But I didn’t really take them in. I couldn’t: my loyalty to the shining ideal of Israel formed in my youth was too strong.
I wasn’t dumb enough to think that Israel was pure; I grasped that like other nations Israel was at times violent and unjust. I still believed the state to be a great symbolic and practical good as a safe haven for Jews and a symbol that the world couldn’t shit on them any more. I think I believed that in part because I wanted to. I had by then come to the world-view that horrors were an inevitable part of life and when you feel that way, you secretly want to believe that something intrinsically good exists somewhere—and a small country across the ocean that you don’t know much about makes an ideal ideal.
Like most Americans I was horrified by the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7th; I understood that Israel had to respond with strength. But as the thousands upon thousands of deaths went (go) on and on, as everyday I heard and saw the anguished screams of families and children in hospitals, in their homes, on the streets in the rubble that had been their homes, while statements were made about targeted strikes with AI-assisted equipment—something broke. I began to seek more information, in books, essays, videos and conversation. What I found was unbearable and enraging.
One of the early conversations I had was with a Jewish woman who expressed outrage at the Hamas slaughter and then said “But who in hell throws a dance party two miles outside a concentration camp?” I argued with her. I said “I doubt Israelis think of it that way. I imagine they just think, “that’s where the Palestinians live. Like we think "that’s the black neighborhood. Its not great but—” She said, “Oh no. It’s not comparable. And they know better. They all have to serve in the army and they know what goes on.” And she referred me to an Israeli dissident organization called Breaking the Silence which provides a platform for former Israeli soldiers to make public the vicious routine abuse of Palestinians.
I didn’t look it up right away, I think partly because her emotional vehemence somehow made me think she might be exaggerating something that was bad, but not that bad. Actually it was worse. When I did look I was disgusted. I was enraged. I felt even more that way after reading a book by Nathan Thrall (an American journalist based in Jerusalem) titled A Day in the Life of Abed Salama about the horrific deaths of six Palestinian kindergarteners in a bus accident that happened due to grotesque inequality and negligence, a true story that lays bare, in appalling detail, the cruelty that Palestinians have been subjected to on a daily basis for years.
One of the best pieces I read on the subject was written by Rachel Kushner in 2016 for the NY Times; it describes life in the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem, “depicted in the international media as the most dangerous place in Jerusalem, a crucible of crime, jihad and trash fires,” where people pay taxes to the Israeli state but get no services for them. Kushner’s far more nuanced description reveals a community of extremely angry, desperate but still loving and hopeful people, particularly a family whose young daughter was severely burned and crippled by the same bus catastrophe that Thrall writes about.
During this time of searching and reading, I recalled another conversation I’d had years before (in the early aughts, the time of the second Intifada) with a Jewish guy, a man my age who lost grandparents in the Holocaust: he compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the way Nazis treated Jews. I actually blew up at him, saying in effect Oh stop it! Even if Israel is wrong and is acting brutally, Palestinians have provoked them over time, they’ve been in conflict for years, it was initially a matter of survival. The Jews in Germany were law-abiding citizens who did nothing wrong and who were tortured and killed. Which is true, albeit weirdly ironic that I should be saying that to him. But, after looking at Breaking the Silence, after reading A Day in the Life of Abed Salama, I understand why he said that.
Indeed my feelings of anger and disillusion are so great that I am afraid of tipping over into a binary opposite of idealism about Israel and, basically, demonizing it. I do not want this. I am aware that although I know more than I did, I still don’t know enough about the history which is profound. I am aware that I don’t know what it would be like to be born into a tiny country right next to a territory whose elected governing body has made it their stated mission (Hamas charter, 1988, updated in 2017) to destroy you. I am also aware that if I was a liberal, anti-occupation young Israeli, and someone invited me to a rave two miles from Gaza, I would likely go. It would not occur to me that I was dancing just outside what anyone might define as a “concentration camp” because to me the situation would just be “what it is.” Even if I did not like what it was, it would not occur to me that my abstinence from dancing in that spot would change anything for Palestinians.
It is remarkable what can become normal for people and, practically speaking, acceptable even if one protests. The people (including me) who sincerely marched in Iraq war protests and wrote or spoke against it publicly nonetheless continued to live in this country and pay taxes that supported that war. During the Trump years, people who expressed dismay over the border policy of separating children from their parents would sometimes say “this isn’t who we are,” words which struck me as absurd; plainly, it was/is at least part of who we are. I don’t think I am describing straight hypocrisy. Very few people, no matter how strong-minded, are capable of completely going against the entire structure of their society or leaving their home country. The Israeli activists (Breaking the Silence) I’ve mentioned here are doing more than most people would, and they are not alone.
I don’t think that I am going to learn anything that will make the decades-long suffering and mass civilian death in Gaza acceptable or understandable to me. I want to remember that, under the circumstances, for some Israelis to resist the cruelty to and dehumanization of the people under Hamas’ governance is heroic. I want even more to remember the heroism of Palestinian civilians living for generations under conditions we would find impossibly brutal. I am thinking of the people depicted in Nathan Thrall’s book who, at the site of the bus accident he describes, got out of their cars and went into the burning bus, risking their lives to rescue children while Israeli soldiers at a nearby checkpoint refused to help. (Indeed, one of the rescuers was beaten by the soldiers when he expressed anger at their indifference.) I am thinking of the people featured in Rachel Kushner’s essay, treated like “human animals” who nonetheless maintained their goodness and divine spirit. I am thinking of Gazans I’ve seen on news media, who, having just barely survived the total destruction of their neighborhood, their family, their world, immediately worked to move huge slabs of broken concrete on top of smashed houses, trying to save the people crying for help underneath: heroes.
One of my early conversations about the destruction of Gaza was with a US-based Iranian journalist; I used the word “complicated” to describe it and she quickly rejoined “People keep saying that but there’s nothing complicated about it. It’s simple. What’s happening is evil.” This sentiment was echoed by other people I’ve known who have been to Palestine, I mean years ago: that anyone could see the cruelty inflicted by the Israeli state. I agree with my Iranian friend about what is being done to Gaza; I don’t think you need sophisticated knowledge to recognize the mass killing of children as a catastrophic evil. But I still think that how it came about is complicated and must be looked at to the extent possible.
In this spirit I want to share the deep, remarkably sane and illuminating essay by Masha Gessen that ran in the New Yorker on Dec. 9th titled In The Shadow of the Holocaust.
The essay has been widely read and commented on, sometimes angrily; Gessen (a Russian-born Jew with forebears who died in the Holocaust) lost at least one speaking engagement and very nearly had a prize revoked (ironically, the Hannah Arendt prize) because they wrote it. But I link to it here because although a lot of people read the essay, not everyone has and I think everyone should. To start with, the piece explains something I have been confused by, that is, how criticism of Israel has become conflated with anti-semitism, even though many Jews have long opposed Israel’s policies. Gessen describes how an intergovernmental agency originating in Sweden and now based in Germany (The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) codified the connection with the best intentions possible, to stop anti-semitism from ever gaining real traction again. Gessen describes how influential this codification has been globally; they also describe some of the strange results: “There are now dozens of antisemitism commissioners throughout Germany. They have no single job description or legal framework for their work, but much of it appears to consist of publicly shaming those they see as antisemitic, often for “desingularizing the Holocaust” or for criticizing Israel. Hardly any of these commissioners are Jewish. Indeed, the proportion of Jews among their targets is certainly higher.”
Gessen is masterful at describing how truly moral endeavors, when wedded to narrow political goals expressed in rigid language can become dogma which can then become a cover, even a weapon in service to goals opposite those intended; they at one point describe how a German right-wing, actually anti-semitic party (the AfD) was able to “use the spectre of antisemitism” as “a perfect, cynically wielded political instrument, both a ticket to the political mainstream and a weapon that can be used against Muslim immigrants.” Gessen describes repeated instances of such convoluted interplay between actual authoritarian evil and strategies that evoke it to a variety of ends; this is not confined to Germany. As noted in this interview with Gessen, the U.S. Congress recently passed a nonbinding resolution that considers expressions of anti-Zionism to be the same as anti-semitism.
Gessen also writes about something else unknown to me, the Biblical “legend of Amalek,” which supports the deeply felt idea that Jews occupy a “singular place in history,” and that they can only survive if “they act as though annihilation were imminent”—an idea I find both paranoid and understandable given what has been done to Jews. On this point, I don’t want to summarize; I can only urge you to read the essay or even re-read it.
It is true that I am ill-informed on many of the subjects addressed by Gessen’s piece and therefore unable to evaluate everything they are saying. But having read their other work (particularly The Brothers and The Man With No Face as well as various essays) I am inclined to trust them by which I mean to trust that their imperative is to discover as much truth as is humanly possible as opposed to a fixed agenda. I also trust the tone of the essay which is supremely measured; it is extraordinary to me that it made people angry enough to consider revoking a prize and to actually revoke a speaking engagement. Indeed it was this response to the essay that made me think of the K.A. Porter quote at the start of this essay, the “fear and suspicion” it describes.
Given that I am relatively ill-informed I hesitated to write this piece. (I say relatively because I think I am at this point better informed than many or even most Americans.) As an individual with zero influence in the political realm my opinion doesn’t matter. But I’m not alone in changing my mind about this, “this” being unqualified acceptance and military support of Israel. I think this change of mind is shared and growing. It isn’t going to be enough to ameliorate this present horror or—as I would wish—to stop our government from supporting what Israel is doing now. But still, a small change can grow. And I think that to speak it amplifies it and makes more room for its expression.
To be clear, I think Israel has “the right to exist,” to the extent that any nation has that “right,” scare quotes because the phrase has always struck me as odd, “right” according to who or what? If whoever granted that right to nations revoked it because of the commission of mass killing + war time atrocities, the United States would’ve lost it long ago—indeed, I’m not sure how many nations would have the right to exist if that were the standard. So yes Israel has the right to exist. But they don’t have a right to our support no matter what.
When I showed a draft of this piece to a friend she said she thought that, given how high emotions are running, that I should very carefully consider what I was trying to accomplish. She asked “Do you think this is going to save a single Palestinian life?” Of course the answer was “no.” But then I asked her if she thought what Masha Gessen wrote, which is many times more powerful and influential than what I am writing here, would save a single life. She paused at length. I said that I didn’t think it would either, not by itself—but that it was still important. None of us is by ourselves, and I do believe that if enough people write and speak that it can eventually move the massive machinery of the state and thus save lives and honor those lost. It is not impossible. It has happened before.