Grief Enough for All: Fragments from Time in Israel and Palestine
Predictably, the world has flown apart after October 7th, as tribalism in both directions is driven by escalating emotions. When I post neutral accounts of horrific events on both “sides” of the divide, someone always interprets what I have done as partisanship on my part — as if I am adhering to one or the other “position” in the conflict when I am simply showing that news is underway; that someone somewhere is getting hurt or dying.
So of course, since I promised on my deathbed that if I was allowed to live, I would write what I was most afraid to write, I must complete this essay, though everyone seems to be telling me not to do so.
There is no way, I feel, for a writer to take a position on what is happening, that is simplistic or two-dimensional, though the algorithms on social media, and corrupt leaders on all sides, want us to do just that.
The tragedy is a deeply intertwined one. Media accounts from one “side” or the other ask you to look at narratives or images as if only one set of truths is taking place. And people are screaming at each other as if only one set of truths can be true.
But in any given conflict area, there are a million places one might look at any moment, and see a multitude of injuries, deaths, fear, and great injustices felt, among people on all sides of a divide.
One can’t — I can’t, anyway — from the safety of America, lecture those recently and still under attack in Israel, or those facing attack in Gaza.
The only way for me personally to react to the conflict with any integrity is to hold up a mirror to fragments of my own memory and reflect the broken, enmeshed, entangled, impossible nature of this history and this conflict — and to observe these fragments with a prayer that some kind of history moving toward some kind of peace might become somehow less impossible.
I don’t know a lot of reporters who have lived in Israel as civilians, as I have, and who have also travelled through the Palestinian Territories, as well as through other countries in the Muslim world.
What I learned is that there is grief enough for all.
I was a six-year-old in Jerusalem in 1968-9, when my father brought us to live in Israel for a year; he had a Sabbatical, and he wanted to teach us about our Jewish heritage. I remember three months of not having any idea what was going on around me in class — since I was put right in with Hebrew-speaking classmates — and then, almost on a specific day, the structure of the Hebrew language coalesced in my consciousness in a multidimensional way, and I found myself suddenly bilingual.
I remember my young mother warning me with unusual severity not to pick up bright toys in the playgrounds, because terrorists had recently disguised explosives as toys. This was the first time my parents had ever warned me of anything serious, and I remember being baffled that anyone would want to hurt a child.
I remember the golden sun on Rehov HaRav Berlin — the warm smell of the pine trees in our apartment’s dusty garden; and the feel of the golden Jerusalem stone, also warm, with which everything at that time was built, in what was called the New — that is, the Israeli —- part of the city. (The “Old City” is mostly Muslim, but it also has Jewish and Christian quarters, and it is enclosed behind 16th-century Ottoman-era walls.)
I recall burying our two light-blue budgerigars, dead from the heat, in a tissue box, underneath one of the green-scented trees.
There were old people everywhere, at that time, who still wore their 1940s-style European clothing in this 1960s, Middle Eastern context: old men in heavy dark jackets, with belted trousers —though they had yielded to the new country’s climate by donning white undershirts beneath their jackets. The old women from Europe wore floral dresses, and dark shoes with straps. When you went inside their homes, you would see the mechanical shades drawn against the sun, and heavy wooden furniture, and lace doilies under plates of cookies, and lacy antimacassars on the top edges of fuzzy upholstered chairs. You would feel grief as still and heavy as a shadow.
These elders spoke in heavily German- or Yiddish-accented Hebrew. They often had tattoos of numbers on their arms.
A child would glimpse the tattoos when the elder moved a pot of tea in his or her home, or when the old gentleman who ran the candy store at the end of our street reached up for a jar of chocolate-coated marshmallows on a high shelf.
My mother explained later, in a hushed tone, what the tattoos meant, and again I wondered that the world, into which I had been born so recently, was so cruel. And why, I wondered, had the people to whom I understood that I belonged, been targeted in this way? How was that possible?
I remember my mother arriving home one afternoon in February 1969, in shock, her eyes wide, her face pale, her curly, then-black hair seeming almost electrified. My distraught father tried to downplay in front of the children what had happened to her. She had been about to enter the “SuperSol”, the local supermarket, and a terrorist bomb had exploded, killing two Hebrew University students inside and wounding nine shoppers. As I remember this, she described the glass shattering outward before her face.
I thought how close I came to having lost her.
I remember a family who were proprietors of a well-stocked shop in the Old City; a distinguished Muslim family that had lived for generations in that part of Jerusalem. They were friends of my parents’. When I went into the Old City’s fragrant alleyways with my mother and father, we always looked forward to dropping in to visit them. The shop was spacious, and dark in its lofty corners. It was piled high with stacks of colorful embroidered dresses, and white keffiyehs; with baskets of red- and saffron-colored spices, and with heaps of packets of vanilla-scented halvah; with blue-glass beads to ward off the evil eye, and with carved olivewood souvenirs for Christian pilgrims; and with all manner of other treasures.
I recall sitting on a tooled-leather pouf while my handsome, bearded father talked to the patriarch of the family, and my lovely mom, in her trendy, bare-shouldered, color-block dresses, chatted away with the mother — a woman a bit older than she, who for her part wore a long embroidered dress and a headscarf. No one seemed bothered by the cultural differences.
We looked forward to the delicious amber tea with springs of fresh mint, heavily sweetened, for which the father would always call when we stopped by; it was brought in by a boy magically swinging the steaming, filigreed silver teapot and cups from a long-handled tray, without spilling a drop.
I did not understand why we were all enemies, or how that had come to be.
When I was twelve, in 1973, we returned to Israel again, for another year. This time my father was teaching at Hebrew University, and we lived in a modern flat on Rehov Tshernechovsky. I entered sixth grade, at least this time able from the start to communicate with my classmates.
In October 6, the Yom Kippur War broke out.
My brother and I were in our flat; our mom had not yet arrived the country and our father was at the front, reporting on events. A babysitter was looking after us until our father could return; but the sitter had stepped out.
A powerful siren sounded — there was a sudden urgent knocking at the door — and the neighbors dragged my brother and me to the basement bomb shelter. All of the newer Jerusalem apartment buildings had these shelters. Our building’s was dark and damp, and it was very frightening to be there, sitting on benches against the walls along with all of the building’s inhabitants, tensely waiting for we knew not what.
I was old enough to understand now what it meant that we were at war. Preteens like those in my class — indeed everyone — was enlisted in the war effort. We helped to pile sandbags in our school to absorb the possible impact of bombs, and we taped duct tape across the school’s plate -glass windows in a checkerboard pattern, to keep the glass from injuring us too much if it shattered.
Teenagers were taking over postal routes because the postmen were at the front.
My girlfriend Gina and I listened for hours to a quickly-released hit LP — Songs from the Yom Kippur War — whose melodies were instantly everywhere. They were emotional, patriotic songs. “Letter to Mother.” “The Last War.”
At every hour, on the hour, you would hear – even on city buses – the radio update: “Kan kol Israel miyerushalaim.” “Here is the Voice of Israel, from Jerusalem.” Then the war bulletins would be read out to apprehensive listeners.
I was moved by being part of the war effort, which stirred us all and which immediately united the country. I bonded with Israel with a passionate love that year, and was absorbed into a friend group — a “hevreh” — and experienced friendships that changed my life. Life as a near-teenager in Jerusalem in the early 1970s was uplifting, intensely social, deeply affecting.
We learned about the boatloads of Holocaust refugees who had no where else to go until they were admitted to Palestine; we learned about the Irgun — a Zionist paramilitary organization active in Mandate Palestine — as heroes. We learned about the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 as a glorious day of independence, when Jews, tortured for millennia worldwide, at last had a refuge to call our own, and we at last could build up what we learned about as being our land. We learned about feats of agriculture and industry that had turned the nation into a modern powerhouse.
But even as I was moved by the patriotism around me, and fiercely loved “the nation” — “Haaretz” — I wondered a bit at what I was not learning. We learned English and Spanish as extracurricular languages, for instance, but not Arabic.
We went to Yad VaShem, the Holocaust memorial, on field trips, and to see the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum, and we looked at Roman ruins and Crusader ruins and Saracen ruins. We did not learn about the now-vanished Arab villages, or about the songs, artwork, or religious texts, of the people who lived among us and also near us on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, who were known as Palestinians.
Indeed, most of my friends had never met a Palestinian.
I kept returning in the summers of the 1970s, to see my friends and stay with their families. We were normal teens — slow-dancing to “Wild World” and the BeeGees in the neighborhood bomb shelters, now, conveniently for us, re-used as adolescent hangouts; swimming at the local pool, and tanning by oiling ourselves with baby oil (in the days before SPF); heading into Downtown Jerusalem for one-lira felafel, hot and crunchy, served up in paper pouches; shopping at the one department store; flirting and playing and gossiping.
My friends enjoyed every minute of their teen years; they seemed to focus harder than did my American friends, on being as happy as they could be, and as carefree as possible for the present. Was this because they all knew that their military service, and maybe more wars ahead, loomed?
But behind this normality, nothing was normal; terror attacks punctuated Israeli life in our teenage years and continued to create havoc.
In December of 1973, Palestinian terrorists killed 31 people in a Rome airport and hijacked a plane. But the attacks did not end.
“Apr 11, 1974 – Kiryat Shemona, Israel | 18 killed, 8 of whom were children, by PFLP terrorists who detonated their explosives during a failed rescue attempt by Israeli authorities.
May 15, 1974 – Maalot, Israel
27 killed, 21 of whom were children, and 78 wounded by PFLP terrorists in a school, after an unsuccessful rescue attempt.
Mar 5, 1975 – Tel Aviv, Israel
Terrorists take over the Savoy hotel; 4 people are killed.
Jul 4, 1975 – Jerusalem, Israel
14 killed and 80 injured in Zion Square bombing attack, in which the bomb was hidden in a refrigerator.
Jun 27, 1976 – Entebbe, Uganda
An Air France airliner was hijacked by a joint German/PFLP terrorist group, which diverted the flight to Entebbe airport. About 258 passengers and crew were held hostage until all non-Israeli passengers were released. On July 4th, Israeli commandos flew to Uganda and rescued the remaining hostages. All terrorists were killed, as well as 3 passengers and operation leader Lieutenant-Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu.”
By the late 1970s, when we took a bus into town and a Palestinian man or woman would board, the air around him or her would thicken with fear.
I thought how tragic it was that this was the case — that terror attacks had led to this — because it had now became frightening to get to know, to be physically close to, the Palestinians who lived around and among us.
One summer, I went on a junket to Israel with a group of Americans. We stayed in a Northern kibbutz — Gesher HaZiv — that grew bananas and other produce. A thriving Arab village — Al-Zeeb — had once existed adjacent to the kibbutz, I was told. It was almost completely gone now.
Nonetheless, Palestinian workers came — from somewhere — to assist with the more strenuous agricultural tasks. They arrived and left every day. We students were not introduced to them, we did not get to speak to them, and their story was never told to us, even as we were immersed by our program that summer in the details of our own story. Their world, the reality of them, even their labor itself, was glimpsed by us fleetingly – they remained unnamed; a shadow reality.
I have always wanted to know all sides.
I knew by the time I was a young adult, that I had heard only one side of a very complicated story.
At nineteen, I was a sophomore at Yale. I received a Mellon fellowship, to go to Israel and Palestine and study children’s art about war.
It was easy enough to collect Israeli children’s artwork, which I did in my old elementary school. Their work was about peace, peace, peace. Understandably, the kids longed incessantly for peace. Doves and olive branches were constant themes. But even that generation of schoolchildren, just like my own in the previous decade, was not encountering any reality of Palestinian children; was not learning any shared language with which even to have a conversation; was not being taught any kind of parallel history — not that it had to be taught as the history — but simply as a history — actually to build up a possible practice of interpersonal peace, whatever that might possibly some day look like.
There were no Israeli-Palestinian contacts at all in their daily lives, just as there had been almost none in ours a generation before. There were still no cross-cultural sports teams, art projects, theatre groups. No visiting dignitaries came to the school to share other stories than the ones we knew. In the absence of encountering any real humans on the other “side”, peace was longed for — but it was necessarily distant and abstract. They knew of no Palestinian poets or entrepreneurs or musicians or inventors. The only Palestinians about whom they consistently heard were terrorists.
Of course, the same abstraction was true on the other “side.”
I crossed, dear reader, into the West Bank, alone, at nineteen.
There I found local dignitaries, who, surprisingly to me, were so eager to speak with anyone from the outside world, that they made time for a random US college sophomore.
I asked for children’s art about war, and I got it.
The Palestinian kids’ art was consistently made up of scary images of Israel as a scimitar dripping blood, or as a tyrant, or as a massive boot stepping on victimized women and children; as a bringer of every kind of horror.
The images on both “sides” seemed inorganic to me; they seem to have been presented to the kids by adults and they both felt equally abstract.
Exactly like the Israeli schoolchildren, the Palestinian schoolchildren on the West Bank had no Israeli friends, had never played soccer with Israeli children or been to their houses for lunch, or met their Israeli parents; they had never been taught by Jewish teachers or been attended to when ill by Jewish nurses. The only Israelis whom they saw or encountered were armed soldiers.
Exactly parallel to the one-sided history that the Israeli children learned that erased the Palestinian perspective — what Palestinians knew as the Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948 — the Palestinian children learned only a mirror version, in which there was no Ottoman Empire, and no British Mandate, and no Arab absentee landlords, but only a Jewish-led catastrophe of 1948, even though the events that had swept up both populations, leaving one group landless and cast out of their homes as refugees, the other landed but embattled, were preceded and precipitated by a cataclysmic and multi-national geopolitical mess. (This linked essay is a fairly neutral and thorough description of the events leading up to and surrounding 1948).
The Irgun and Haganah, as I noted, were taught to us as having been heroes who daringly formed a new nation to house us, the world’s dispossessed; to them, the same group was being taught as having been a group of violent terrorists, who helped to drive between 500,000 and 700,000 Palestinians off of their land.
Decades later, I found that both groups took as given that the other “side” was intractably, innately murderous and filled with hate toward one’s own “side”. Not just the leaders, not just the politicians — (and please do not take this essay out of context, I am not forgiving Hamas’ grotesque atrocities or Netanyahu’s displacements of or harms to civilians) — but each “side” is also taught that the man or woman our child in the street is innately murderous toward the “other side”.
In my travels, I for one, speaking humbly, have not found that to be true.
Both groups were and are taught that the enmity between us is eternal and has gone back millennia. This also is not true. Neither group is taught that there have been periods — including during the Golden Age of Spain, and in parts of the Holy Land in the early 20th century — when Jews, Muslims and Christians have lived together either gloriously productively as in the case of the former, or mostly peacefully, as in the case of the latter.
In the West Bank, when I travelled there at 19, there were, I was surprised to find, many long-established, august institutions, such as research centers, libraries and hospitals; at least one elegant pre-1948 hotel; beautiful shady gardens, ancient churches as well as mosques, restaurants and cafes, and bustling small cities. This was all a surprise to me because — we on the Israeli side, at that time, never ever went there; the area had been represented to me as being like that inscription on ancient maps: “Here be monsters.”
But mostly I found welcome, and rich civilization, and kindness, and people who reminded me almost exactly of — my own people.
The Palestinian civil society leaders whom I met were educated and hungry for education; erudite and literary; and gracious. I know that this was not the whole story, and that this did not account for a corrupt and violent political leadership, just as the delightful Israelis one meets on the street are not the same as the sometimes brutal political leaders who also have their own agendas; but I came away feeling that these two peoples, on the grassroots, human level – were not so different.
I also saw, though, that peace could not take root under those circumstances, in part because each population was kept so assiduously away from the other by their respective leadership, and because each group was besieged continually with lies and propaganda demonizing the ordinary people in the other group, who were represented always as being the evil “other.”
At last I was taken to a West Bank refugee camp. I am sure critics will say that this visit was scripted, and that is no doubt true — just as the Zionist program from my kibbutz-centered summer trip, was scripted. But I never forgot what I saw and felt.
I was taken into a teeming camp. I do not remember which one it was. It was so crowded, it was almost difficult to move.
I was taken into the home of a family; it was a desperately poor shack. I do not recall how it was heated or lit, but it was cold and uncomfortable and dark and close. There were pitifully few objects in the home, and many ill-looking, miserably-dressed children, and a mom and a teenager, a boy not much younger than I was then.
The mother described, through a translator, how her parents had been forced to flee their home and land, which had been in a farming village. I was shown the ornate iron keys to their homes that people in the camp still kept. I was shown leases to land.
The grief in the mother’s voice was alive.
Her family had been in living in this camp for thirty-five years.
More than the trauma of their exile, though, and more than the duress of their poverty, was something I felt in that camp that I have never felt before or since. As palpably as if it were a solid wall, time in that refugee camp had stopped.
The human beings in that camp lived every day up against the immobilization of time. It was as if we were living in two dimensions, and the loss of the third dimension brought with it absolute hopelessness; absolute despair and suffocation: because the third dimension was the dimension of a future, and there was no dimension of a future there.
That trip changed me. I did not become a zealot for either “side.” I was just sad.
I took a step back from my life and from my contacts in Israel/Palestine, after that journey.
As F Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” At least I now understood that there were multiple stories of origin, all of them equally true to those who told them and heard them.
Nonetheless — or as a result of seeing this — it all seemed so intractable.
Years later, at an event which brought Palestinian and Jewish thought leaders together (that still happened in the early 2000s), I could not help tearing up when a Palestinian-American businessman, who looked exactly like the Jewish-American businessmen there too (and indeed who looked exactly like some of my own uncles) described his childhood in Haifa: “When I was a teenager, we left our home; because there was no future for me there.” It was the story of so many in my family, in our own past, as well.
I don’t have any answers. I have exactly no answers. But I can say that I understand the great love, the great longing, that paradoxically unites these deeply hostile enemy peoples.
The honeysuckle spilling over the walls of Jerusalem, generating clouds of sweetness.
The shadows from the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The white, white light, where you feel closer to God than you do anywhere else in the world. People go mad from it — from the divinity in the very air – with a madness that is called “Jerusalem Syndrome.”
The sacred Wailing Wall and sacred Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; the tightly bounded neighborhood where three great religions meet.
We never forgot Zion. Every year at Passover we say, “By next year in Jerusalem.”
“They” never forgot the Holy Land.
No one forgets the Holy Land.
Can it ever have peace?
Perhaps when we find some way to refuse to be propagandized, to step away from easy tribalism, and to start simply by trying to tolerate, painfully, the hearing of one another’s stories.
As a friend who does mediation between people who despise each other once explained: “Listening does not mean agreeing.”
What is sure is that tribalism and hysteria worldwide will just create more violence, just as more violence itself will always create more violence.
As someone I met, who was from the region, said yesterday: “There are no “sides.” There are only women and children.”
What is sure is that perhaps not peace, but perhaps — perhaps — the precursor to peace, is only possible when, around the world, we stop screaming for the “other’”s annihilation — we refuse the easy step of damning the “other” to perdition — and we finally turn to look into one another’s faces.
One of our country’s most important freedoms is that of free speech.
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