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Ghettos make me cry

For two months, the images that keep running in my head when I hear or read about Israel’s military action in Gaza are images of the leveled Warsaw Ghetto (1943) and of the destroyed city of Warsaw post the Warsaw Uprising (1944). And I weep.  I don’t seem to be able to make it stop.  I can’t stop reading or listening to the stories, nor can I stop weeping.

As a child raised in a community of Polish refugees’ stories of the Warsaw uprising were an integral part of the background of my life.  My acquaintance with the story of the Warsaw Ghetto is newer. I have a paternal uncle and great-uncle who died in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Today I can not make peace with how the descendants of the people who died fighting the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto and Warsaw uprising can bring down the same hell upon the Palestinians. 

Since October 7th the Israeli narrative is one that abdicates all responsibility for any harm that might come to anyone as a result of any action it is taking to rectify the harm done to it by the barbaric attack committed by Hamas.  Essentially, according to this narrative, the people of Gaza are responsible for the harm befalling them because they live in Gaza and in 2006, voted for a Hamas government.  Hence, they are to blame. Over 20,000 are dead Gaza is in ruins; those who survive are without adequate food, water, shelter, or the most basic of medical care.  And the party whose actions caused this won’t even acknowledge the harm it is doing.  Simply keeps repeating the refrain that they are securing the safety of their people and to do so must destroy Hamas.  The fault is Hamas’ alone for embedding themselves in the communities they should have been looking out for. That is correct and Hamas certainly does bear some of the responsibility for the horrors suffered by the Palestinians. Most Israeli Jews may not even be aware of the reality on the ground in Gaza, their media is not showing the images I am exposed to nor writing much about it except for Haaretz.

The Palestinians cannot be seen as humans who have been living in terror since October 7th, forced by the IDF to move from one place to another only to encounter similar conditions.  Israelis must not be allowed to feel any empathy toward a child covered in dust being rescued from a bombed-out house or shed a tear for a father weeping as he carried the body of a loved one in search of help.  Israelis can be legitimately outraged that the hostages who were released from Gaza told of food and water scarcity, but they are not allowed to take in the reality that the entire population of Gaza cannot get an adequate amount of food or water.  That Gazan parents must tell their hungry and thirsty children daily that there isn’t any food or water.  The Israeli medical professionals were horrified at the poor hygiene conditions the hostages were subjected to but did not comment on the conditions the Gazans are having to live with.  When do you suppose the average Gazan was able to take a shower or put on clean underwear?  Israelis can not take any of this into consideration.  Not now!  This is not the time to recognize that it is human beings who live in Gaza. This is something Israelis cannot cope with.  It could lead to Israelis asking themselves how far is it permissible to go for a just cause; what is permissible, and, mainly, what is prohibited under any circumstances.

I recognize that the events of October 7th were extremely traumatic for all of Israel.  I also acknowledge that by definition, a trauma response does not allow for any nuance; it cannot accommodate complexity, and the world becomes black or white, safe or dangerous.  I was there on October 7th, and I saw the country turn on a dime.    

Israelis are legitimately consumed by only one question: “How can we live alongside the people who planned and did this to us?”  I cannot help but wonder though, is it not time also to begin to ask, “What brings people to a point where they act this way?"  But then most Israelis have never allowed themselves to be curious about the Palestinians.  Like members of minority communities around the world Palestinians in Israel have been objects upon whom numerous stereotypes have been imposed.  The general sentiment is that they are not like “us” Israelis… they wish us harm …they cannot be trusted. 

Not much in Israeli society acknowledges the mutual interdependence between Israeli Jews and their Palestinian neighbors.  One of the saddest aspects of the Hamas’s attack was that its victims were disproportionately those parts of Israeli society that did acknowledge the deep ties between Palestinians and Israelis; communities and individuals who were forging social ties and relationships based on mutual caring and concern between Israelis and Palestinians.  For those opposed to the peace process, like Hamas and the Israeli right wing these are dangerous enemies who must be destroyed and destroyed they were.   The peace movement in Israel suffered a big blow on October 7th

But back to my original question who were these people who came across the Gaza border and committed such heinous acts?  Is it possible that a human being in touch with their emotions, present in the moment, would be able to enter a kibbutz and murder civilians – children, the elderly, men, and women?  I do not believe so; I believe that only someone so disconnected from their own human emotions due to their history of trauma is capable of such actions.  Someone whose trauma is mired in shame that tells them that their victimization makes them weak and must be avenged and only that way can their strength and humanity be restored.  This is the greatest lie of all.  But one that is very seductive, and so Gaza is bombed and flattened so that all that is left is one stone on top of another.  And now we compare the suffering of those massacred by Hamas in Israel and of Palestinians in Gaza as to which is more heinous or less heinous, without taking into account that this suffering will last generations, and will lead to complete despair among thousands of people.

Another one of history’s ironies is that Israel, which was established in part out of the West’s colossal sense of guilt following the Holocaust—a last-ditch act of contrition in a desperate attempt to give the Jews a safe haven.  The original sin was that of trying to atone for the Holocaust by giving the Jews a piece of land that others had inhabited for hundreds of years. In classic colonial style, there was no consultation with the people of the area, and now Israel is behaving as an oppressive colonial power.  

In 1963 Hanah Arendt, while reporting on the Eichmann trial, came up with the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe that evil was “born in the gutter, … utter shallowness.”  There was no “radical evil” that could be preempted through the use of force as the prosecution argued in the case against Eichmann, thus rendering Jews safe.  Arendt also objected to the version of Jews as always having a well-justified fear of annihilation.  A people who can survive only if they act as though annihilation were imminent.  Netanyahu has been the most recent exponent of this narrative in the wake of the Hamas attack.

Israelis and Palestinians have much shared history; both have been used in a much larger geopolitical game.  Unfortunately, from the earliest days of Israel’s founding, the comparison of displaced Palestinians to displaced Jews has presented itself, only to be dismissed.  Jews took up arms in 1948 to claim land that was offered to them by a United Nations decision to partition what had been British-controlled Palestine. The Palestinians, supported by surrounding Arab states, did not accept the partition and Israel’s declaration of independence. Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Transjordan invaded the proto-Israeli state, starting what Israel now calls the War of Independence. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled the fighting. Those who did not were driven out of their villages by Israeli forces. Most of them have never been able to return. The Palestinians remember 1948 as the Nakba, a word that means “catastrophe” in Arabic, just as Shoah means “catastrophe” in Hebrew. That the comparison is unavoidable has compelled many Israelis to assert that, unlike the Jews, Palestinians brought their catastrophe on themselves, and the conflict continues to the present, only becoming more brutal and claiming more lives. Israelis have a complicated relationship with victimhood. Only they are often willing to embrace the label for themselves they cannot empathize with the victimization of others. I will have to leave that discussion for another posting.

For the last seventeen years, Gaza has been a hyper densely populated, impoverished, walled-in compound where only a tiny fraction of the population had the right to leave for even a short amount of time—in other words, a ghetto like a Jewish ghetto in an Eastern European country occupied by Nazi Germany, like the Warsaw Ghetto. In the two months since Hamas attacked Israel, all Gazans have suffered from the barely interrupted onslaught of Israeli forces. About 20,000 have died. According to several international organizations, Gaza is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis that includes famine. Is Gaza now a ghetto which about to be liquidated?

I acknowledge a fundamental difference between the Nazi ghettos and the Israeli.  The Nazis claimed that ghettos were necessary to protect non-Jews from diseases spread by Jews.  The Nazi claim had no basis in reality.   Israel has claimed that the isolation of Gaza, like the wall in the West Bank, is required to protect Israelis from terrorist attacks carried out by Palestinians.  The Israeli claim does stem from actual and repeated acts of violence.  Yet both claims propose that an occupying authority can choose to isolate, immiserate—and now, mortally endanger—an entire population of people in the name of protecting its own.

Maybe instead of erasing the historical traumas that haunt them, Jews and Palestinians should come together in solidarity because they were (and are) both victims of hierarchical political systems that require an oppressed and an oppressor to survive. 

This is a picture of Warsaw after the uprising in 1944. Germany was determined to erase the city from the map of Europe.

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