The Gordian Knot

Where does any story begin? When does his-story begin? When someone (often the dominant force), records events as if they were a true and accurate account of how things unfolded? These days history is also being recorded by the vanquished, the marginalized, and the victimized.  Where we choose to begin a story often sets the slant on how that story is told. It’s not a neutral business, the telling of stories or the reference to history.

Why do I even mention this? Because there is yet another round of escalated violence and bloodshed in the Middle East right now. The Hamas story may begin at the Nakba when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians (750,000) were forced off lands on which they had lived for generations by the Jews in their newly minted country ‘won’ by war in 1948. Lands that Palestinians had worked as farmers and tenant farmers for generations. Homes and businesses in towns that had been in the family for generations. It may begin with the UN mandated ‘right of return’ which the new State of Israel chose not to honor, nor compensate the Palestinians for the land that they had taken. It may well have begun before that, as far back as early 20thcentury with the large increase of Jewish immigration into Palestine.

For Israelis the story might have started in 1917 when the British, who were the colonial power administrating Palestine from the end of WW1 until 1947, pledged their support for Palestine to become a Jewish State through the writing of the ‘Belfort Proclamation’. For many Jews, the story and their claim to that land dates back 2,000 years. It might be embedded in some bizarre sense of Jewish ‘specialness’ which has prevailed, despite all evidence to the contrary. For most Palestinians the land claim dates back equally in time. Yet for many centuries there was a colonial power occupying those lands, a power other than the peoples who actually lived there.

On Oct the 7th there was a massacre perpetrated against Israeli citizens, with particular barbarity enacted against girls and women, even against babies. A few days later and now at the time of my writing, two long months in, it is unrelenting bombing by Israeli forces supposedly against Hamas, but the victims are predominantly civilians, women, children and old folks, now all living without water, food or power and being bombed to smithereens. 80% of the population have now been displaced and are without basic resources. However, even prior to these most recent eruptions of horrible violence, there was no peace. Just an uneasy, barely suppressed stasis, which the Israelis were willing to tolerate but which has been increasingly intolerable for the citizens of Gaza and indeed for most Palestinians.

How do I begin to feel into this. Where does this story begin? Depends on who tells it. But however you tell it, the barbaric massacre, rape, mutilation and kidnapping of Israeli men, women and children on Oct the 7th is inexcusable. The viciousness of the Israeli response feels equally inexcusable. However, to add moral complexity, both sides tell stories that make a strong case for excusing the inexcusable.

Everyone is taking sides, vehemently. I usually take sides. I usually love to come down on one side or another, but his time I cannot. Instead of taking a side I’m looking at both sides and see how the actions of each are perpetuating the ongoing cycle of violence, distrust and hatred. It has been some decades since I studied the history of that region, so I picked up a book, a rather dry neutral book, to refresh the origins of this seeming unsolvable crisis. In between the fury and trauma response on both sides of the border are the regular people who are caught in the cross hairs. The same people who voted for both Netanyahu and Hamas, each governing entity who appear intractable and highly motivated to both generate and perpetrate this current round of conflict. How far back do we have to go to begin to understand how complex the land claims made by both sides, the distrust and the hatred, even though Jews and Arabs had lived for generations on that land in relative harmony before there was talk and action aimed at a Nation State for the Jews.

My nephew whose brilliant mind and sense of humor, well-watered by his Irish upbringing, is a professor in ethno-criminology at a University in Dublin, Ireland. He looks at the arc of history and at societies through a broad lens that does not shy from seeing the patterns of place and the movements of culture. He commented to his mom, my sister, looking down at his newborn son snuggled in his arms, “We have known 70 years of peace. They will know 70 years of war.”

In the two short years since he made that comment there have been multiple wars that have broken out, the most impactful, for us in the Western hemisphere being the Ukraine/Russian war and now the latest Israel/Hamas war. It’s hard to know if this latest conflict can even be called a war even through Israel declared it as such. But since most of the damage is being inflicted on an unarmed civilian population, firstly by a murderous Jihadist group and then by a highly sophisticated military army and airforce, it’s hard to know if that constitutes a war or a blind ‘trauma response’, an attempt at elimination, then retaliation. Many call it a genocide which I didn’t want to believe was even a possibility at the onset, but with every passing week, as the death tolls of women and children just mount beyond belief, it is looking more and more like exactly that. If this was occurring in the US in proportion to the relative populations, it would be as if 500,000 children had been killed. That is 1/2 a million children.

Israel claims the destruction as ‘collateral damage’ fighting an opponent who hides within a civilian population. By any standard that seems like a hard and unlikely pill to swallow given that so far, the Israelis are reportedly dropping 2,000 pound bombs on Gaza, in very densely populated urban areas. Even the US (and they are not known for being a peace loving nation) in an attempt to minimize civilian deaths while fighting in Iraq used 500 pound bombs. One quarter of the strength, but still powerful enough to do immense damage and loss of life.

But by whatever name, this latest and worst round of Israeli-Hamas violence is personal to me given that I am Jewish. 99.80% Ashkenazi Jewish. Given that I was inspired by the notion of Israel as a younger idealistic woman whose parents had a strong Zionistic bias, a sister who lived for many years in Israel and tended wounded soldiers after the Yom Kippur war, and given that I come from a formerly larger German Jewish family who were either murdered during the holocaust or were scattered to many far-flung unlikely corners.

I support Israel’s right to exist, yet abhor her ongoing and systematic encroachment and occupation of Palestinian lands since 1947, all in the name of supposed national security. I despise the hard right stance the Israeli government has taken and enacted over these last two (and more) decades and like many others, am sickened by Netanyahu, his hawkish government, the ever more rabid settler movement, and am particularly disturbed by Israeli policies and practices in relation to the non-Jewish Israeli and non- Jewish non-Israeli population. This latest and most violent round of massacre in both Israel and Gaza feels close. It is too close for me to be able to go into either denial or look the other way and pretend that it is not my concern, nor can I brush off the massive and very real rise of antisemitism and anti-Muslim sentiment that has arisen as a byproduct of this (maybe) inevitable but atrocious war.

Antisemitic sentiment spiked significantly during the Trump years in the USA. It felt as though it had been semi dormant, just waiting in the wings for the door of permission to open. It spiked again after the Hamas attack, before even one single Israeli bomb was dropped. This was a true shock to me. It made me feel like this strangely naïve creature that didn’t really want to see and accept that antisemitism was really a thing. The fact that huge swaths of the population were willing to openly hate Jews, before Israel had even began to retaliate the massacre, and that people were willing to openly hate Jews because of how the Israeli government was responding, told me volumes. Apparently, antisemitism is a real thing and people equate Jews with being pro-Israeli policies, even though that is certainly not my case, nor many others.  As if Jews and the policies of the Israeli government are utterly equivalent. As if Palestinians and Hamas are utterly equivalent. There was a 400% rise in antisemitic speech or action in America alone since the Hamas attacks. We will not speak of the many who danced in the streets at the death and mutilation of the Israelis on Oct the 7th, and the many attacks on Muslims and hate speech and actions.

Given that, I have been forced to form my own sense out of the non-sense occurring for over 75 years, on both sides of this long conflict. But here’s the thing, it all does make sense given the history of both Palestinian and Jewish peoples in that territory. What feels tragic is that both have elected governing bodies who are radical and are for their own reasons propagating and increasing the temperature and the hatred.

What doesn’t make sense to me is that the world opinion did not come out more in horror at the rape, mutilation and massacre that Hamas perpetrated on Oct the 7th, that Women’s organizations, human rights organizations did not come out virulently to condemn the rape and sexual violence perpetrated that day. What doesn’t make sense is how Israel is choosing to retaliate: killing and maiming massive amounts of ordinary people while, I would surmise many of the Hamas leadership and soldiers are out of the fray, in their miles of tunnels with supplies to outlast a war, or hidden in plain sight among a civilian population.

This fresh rise of overt virulent antisemitism and antimuslim sentiment adds more heat to a conflict and a planet that is already burning. It also throws millions of us (Muslims and Jews) back into the place of unsafety and tribal reactivity. When a person or a people have a strong ‘trauma’ history and that button gets pushed, then all sense evaporates and there is only gut defensive/ reactive/aggressive response. This is how we animals are hard wired and that has not changed much in millions of years of evolution.

This is a hard time to be a Jew. Damned on both sides of the equation. If you understand the Israeli’s reactive trauma overresponse (even if you don’t approve), you are accused of being against Palestinian rights, you are accused of condoning genocide. If you understand how deeply fucked over the Palestinian people have been, by the Israelis, the British before them, the Egyptians, as well as by their own governing bodies, then you are accused of being antisemitic. It is hard time to be a Jew, even though many Jews the world over are coming out to say, ‘Never again, for anyone’.

But as confusing as it is to be a Jew, it is surely infinitely harder to be either a Palestinian, or an Israeli.

My mother used to say when either of her two children were in the depth of some fray or another, “Two wrongs do not make a right.” We are living in times of trying to squeeze a ‘right’ from multiple ‘wrongs’. It is certainly easier to fall on one side, overly outraged and often underinformed, to point blaming fingers as to who has the moral high ground, which side is ‘right’ which just augments the tragedy, but is so much easier than holding the informed multi layered complexity of the many sides simultaneously.

I have taken solace in such brilliant minds as Ezra Klein, Sam Harris, Jason Stanley, Gabor Mate, Robi Damelin, Sharon Brous and numerous others far more learned in their history, their wide angled perspective who are far more considered than I, who are commenting on both the war and the implications of it for those directly and those indirectly involved. But we are all directly involved, our humanity, our compassion, our capacity to hold complexity is being tested and stretched.

We humans are capable of such a vast range of behavior, more than any other species, we are the best and the worst, we are capable of massive acts of courage and ingenuity but often incapable of learning from past errors. Often incapable of learning from history, and regrettably, Israel’s young history is replete with disproportionate over reaction against its detractors, and its enemies, which has not yielded any sustained or increased security. Just temporary suppression and what feels like an unsustainable future.

I do not have an answer to any of it. None at all.

So far, it seems that no one does, since both sides are and have been so traumatized by the other, so entrenched by their own positions that there is little, or no leeway to meet, especially given their current leaderships and given the deep long standing understandable animosity.  It all seems so bewilderingly complex. As if everything that needs to change is dependent on other things that also have to change, but ultimately, each of us has to be willing to change too. To not be so fast jumping into fixed positions or righteous postures. To find ways within ourselves not be determined merely by our reactive responses. Yet even when we are not in the war zone, not in the direct fray, we have difficulty doing even that. What hope is there for those in the direct line of fire to make responsive rather than merely reactive knee jerk trauma decisions?

Jews have suffered so much persecution through the millennium, yet as a people have not inquired deeply enough as to why we may have attracted that treatment, again and again. Yet precisely because we have suffered hatred and violence, I irrationally (maybe), idealistically (surely), hoped that Jews (even those in Israel) would be kinder, more spacious, wiser, less prone to mere reaction. But we are human and behave like any animal when we are hurt: retaliatorily, violently, vengefully. While it grieves me, I understand how that is happening. How would I behave if my kin had been a target in that Oct the 7th massacre, kidnapped, raped or mutilated? I too may well  pick up a gun and go marching off to settle the score, even though I understand that this score has been at least 100 years (and more) in the making. How am I to sort out such a deep gordian knot of complex feeling. I can’t. That is why I have to go another way for myself and those who may feel as I do.

I will have to find the place within that allows my heart to break in disappointment of my people, shame for the actions of my people, sympathy for my people, to break in sympathy for all those suffering loss and hurt, the people and children in Gaza, the suffering of the occupied people of the West Bank, the violence and helplessness on both sides of the border. I will have to resist the temptation to condemn even though I really cannot condone, any of it. Allow myself to feel helpless, humble, raw and sad. If I can bear to sit in that discomfort without jumping into the righteous fire, maybe, just maybe my heart may crack open in compassion for all parties. Then I might be able to go through my day with a kinder more open spacious heart. That may be the best I can do. That may be my rebellious act against a generational ‘trauma’ response that might further inflame the red-hot world we all inhabit at this time in history.

I am reminded of one of my favorite teaching stories of all time which I may already have written about, but it does bear repeating. A rabbi instructing his class of Bar Mitzvah boys tells them, “Boys, God is so great that he takes the teachings and puts them on the hearts of the children.” One particularly precocious child pipes up, “But Rabbi, if God is so great, why does he not take the teachings and put them in the hearts of the children?” The Rabbi ponders for a moment, then replies, “Ari” he says, “that is your job, to live a life that breaks your heart wide open so the teachings can fall in.”

We may not save ourselves, our loved ones, the animals, the oceans or the degrading ecosystems, the suffering millions, by being broken hearted or open hearted. Still, I think it is our sacred job to allow ourselves to feel and comprehend our true place in the ‘family of things’. We humans are neither too big nor too small. We stand in the middle range of the cosmic size of all things. We are the Goldilocks species, just the right size, with actions that are often just so wrong. Whether we make it or don’t, we get to love and dare to love, so our actions come from the truest place within us, knowing all the while how precious it is to be alive, because one day we will not be.