On Israel and Gaza

The first draft of this essay was really dark. Which makes sense, because what is happening is beyond words. The tragedy is beyond what, I think, humanity is supposed to bear. And while it’s not happening to me, like all of you, I feel it.

The first draft of this was dark. Pessimistic and without hope. And we have to make room for that discourse, the hopeless sort. We can’t glaze over it. It’s frustrating and soul-crushing to see the images that we’re seeing, to hear the reports, to see so many people without their loved ones and without their homes.

I didn’t publish that draft and chose to write again because two weeks have gone by and I think I can contribute in a different way.

What we saw on October 7, 2023 was horrific. Innocent, everyday Israelis killed, their homes burned, and their loved ones kidnapped. This is not what they deserved. Wherever you stand on one of Earth’s longest-running conflicts, I hope we can agree—that happening to us or to those we love would be a complete and utter nightmare. I also sincerely want the hostages to be returned home—safe, sound, and alive. And a part of me fears that their lives are being taken for granted by those in power.

When war breaks out, civilians are seen by those in power as pawns, pieces on a chess board in a zero-sum game where living, breathing people are all stand-ins for the enemy. Like toy soldiers. But, the everyday, ordinary people of Gaza are not toys, they are not pawns, they are not pieces on a chess board. They have lives, dreams, hopes, disappointments, and families who love them. It’s been heart-wrenching to see so many innocent people killed in Gaza. Just when you think this world couldn’t be more cruel, it digs its heels deeper.

To be clear, Hamas are not freedom fighters. There are many actual Palestinian freedom fighters out there who are worthy of great admiration—real activists and organizers who have been fighting for Palestinian self-determination and liberty. Hamas ain’t it.

When a country’s citizens are attacked, a response is needed and natural. But, while I am no military expert, there has to be another way than what is currently happening, one that limits civilian casualties as much as possible. Everyday people in Gaza have nothing to do with Hamas. Especially the children. Gaza has one of the youngest populations in the world. Many of those who have died are children. What have they done to deserve this? The answer—the only answer—is nothing.

The loss of so much life is a deep, deep stain. Should thousands of innocent people pay with their lives for what extremists have done? The cycle of pain and violence spurs on as we speak, one that could last for decades to come. There has to be another way.

They say there are no winners in war. Some say that to shrug off the fact that “casualties are inevitable”, mass death just comes with the territory. Others say it to point out that there-are-no-winners-in-war. None.

In moments of high conflict, generalizations and assumptions run rampant, and diversity is often lost from public discourse. I’m encouraged by the fact that there are, and always have been, Jewish folks who have protested against corruption in Israel and who have built bridges with their Arab neighbors. There are Israelis who protest against the occupation of Palestine and who are working towards a peaceful resolution to this painful, age-old conflict. These facts are getting lost. And the rise in antisemitism worldwide is disturbing. Additionally, the demonization of everyday people in Gaza and Palestinians in general is alarming, dehumanizing, inaccurate, incredibly dangerous, and deeply unfair. Likewise, the rise in anti-Arab/Islamophobia is alarming. Palestinians are real, living people like you and me who do not want to see anyone get hurt. Don’t conflate everyday Palestinians with extremists and don’t see them as less deserving of peace, safety, and love.

Last week, I was in a Lyft on the way to dinner. The driver had NPR on. Like many of you, there are points in the day in which I feel like I can’t take any more of the news, so I prepared to put my headphones in and listen to anything else. Yes, the story was about the Israel-Hamas war, but I was pleasantly surprised. It was an interview with local, interfaith faith leaders who have already been doing the work: Rabbi Susan Shankman of the Washington Hebrew Congregation and Hurunnessa Fariad, who is the Director of Outreach at the Multi-faith Neighbors Network. They have been doing interfaith community building for years and are close friends.

On air, they spoke of peace-building. “The real relationships are when we actually are able to have those conversations not in order to convince the other person that you’re right, but to sit and to hold space and to recognize that our ultimate goal is peace,” said Rabbi Shankman. And in response, Fariad said, “I think that is so key in the work that people do as peace builders. If you cannot do that, this is not the line of work for you.” They have been holding interfaith prayer meetings for all those impacted by the ongoing war, raising funds, and helping youth navigate their feelings and have constructive conversations with others (and to combat antisemitism and Islamophobic/anti-Arab sentiments). They also have have an interfaith podcast together called “Sister Act“, along with Dr. Sabrina Dent, Director of the BJC Center for Faith, Justice and Reconciliation , which I am excited to start listening to. What they’re doing is one of countless examples of ordinary people working towards solutions and solidarity across religious and ethnic lines.

I’ve said it twice and I’ll say it again, the first draft of this essay was dark. And it’s not that I don’t feel that way sometimes, but I’ve taken a few days to reflect, and decided to bring these feelings with me, along with a few other sentiments along the way. Including the scariest one, a feeling that’s light, but can be the heaviest to get off the ground.

Writer Roxane Gay has an essay called “The Case Against Hope“, published in The New York Times in 2019. It reflects on America’s never-ending political ineptness in the face of tragedy after tragedy, police brutality, mass shootings, and other it-would-never-happen-here prospects that have become our reality. “I don’t traffic in hope,” she writes. “Realism is more my ministry than is unbridled optimism. Hope is too ineffable and far too elusive. Hope allows us to leave what is possible in the hands of others.”

Hope, she argues, is a passive thing. I hope someone rescues me, I hope someone rescues us (I mean, that would be nice). But waiting and hoping takes the power out of our hands.

I’m not naive. I know that with how the world’s set up right now, governments have the most power, not its citizens. Even saying “its citizens” implies something that sounds lovely, but isn’t entirely true—that governments fully belong to the people.

But we do have some influence. And we have to capitalize on all the influence we’ve got. And the more we do that, the more that influence will expand. This is where possibility walks through the door.

“…But instead of thinking about hope, I want to continue thinking about possibility,” Gay continues in her essay. “When we hope, we have no control over what may come to pass. We put all our trust and energy into the whims of fate. We abdicate responsibility. We allow ourselves to be complacent. We are all just people living our lives as best we can, aren’t we? It is easy to feel helpless. It is much harder to make ourselves uncomfortable imagining the impossible to be possible. But we can do that. We can act, even in the smallest of ways.”

I don’t have any sway with Congress or any stakeholder who will resolve what’s going on in the Middle East—or in any other part of the world, for that matter. But what I can offer is glimmers of possibility through storytelling. Two nights ago, I went to an event that really opened my eyes and gave me a great sense of possibility concerning this conflict. I will write about this soon.

More broadly, I want to share information about people who are working towards peace, people who are using their voices to express themselves, to express their people, and to make a difference.

If you’d like to donate to relief work in Gaza , this is a great organization to consider. And if you’d like to contact your representatives about this issue, here is how to find their contact information (you’d be speaking to a member of their staff or leaving a voice message, it sounds scary but it’s brief and you’ll feel good that you made your opinions known).

Also, if you want to read more of Roxane Gay’s work (she’s one of my absolute favorite writers), here is a list of her work for The New York Times and she recently published a collection of essays in book form that I’m working my way through (this is not sponsored, I’m just an enthusiastic fan).

Stay tuned for more stories on all sorts of things. And welcome back.

Thank you for reading.

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