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  • samchris51

"Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope."MLK

2023 only has a few days left.  If I believed that something would truly end, like a stretch of bad road or bad weather on a flight, I would be in a much more celebratory mood.    But the end of 2023 only marks the end of another revolution of the Earth around the sun.  According to NASA, the Earth revolves in orbit around the Sun in 365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes with reference to the stars, at a speed ranging from 29.29 to 30.29 km/s. The 6 hours, 9 minutes add up to about an extra day every fourth year, designated a leap year, with the extra day added as February 29th.   Nothing will change at midnight when we mark the New Year; the earth will simply begin another journey around the sun we will number it the 2024th.

This past year was another one of those years that threw me a curveball I had not anticipated and was ill-prepared for.  In fact, I am still struggling to absorb it.  The year started well. COVID anxiety seemed to be behind us, travel was possible again, and I was getting close to settling on a revised sense of self.  I greeted 2023 with a positive, optimistic outlook.  I had settled on a satisfactory revised creation story for myself and a self-identity to replace the previous version, which turned out to have been based on lies.  I now identified as a Polish Catholic Jew, an identity that integrated all aspects of myself into a satisfactory whole. 

On October 3rd, I flew to Israel with my son, his first visit there.  He would stay a week to meet as many family members as possible, and we would travel a little in the country.  I planned on staying a month and traveling more extensively.  Although this was my fifth visit to Israel, I had seen very little of the country as I had focused my time and attention on building relationships with family members.  I was very excited at the chance to bring my son to Israel and introduce him to family in the hope that he would build his own relationships with these distant cousins.  Then, October 7th happened, and everything changed. 

Being a Polish Catholic Jew set me apart in ways I had not anticipated.  There was a palpable gulf between my perspective of what had happened on that day and the subsequent Israeli response and the perspective of my cousins and members of their families.  I am still struggling with how I can build a bridge across that gulf.   

I recognized on October 7th the immensity of what had occurred.  The entire country was in shock. Hamas fighters had invaded and, for a few hours, had been in control of several Kibbutzim and Moshavim and towns along the border with Gaza.  In that time, they had literally raped, murdered, and pillaged.  Their victims were men women, and children.  They committed barbaric acts against innocent people, many of whom, ironically, were peace activists who had worked hard to develop relationships with Palestinians living in Gaza.  An additional 230 people were taken across the border to Gaza, where they would become hostages for Hamas.   A fundamental covenant between the government of Israel and its citizens had been broken; Israel was no longer a safe place for Jews, the one place they could be sure no harm would come to them.  I do not have the words with which to describe what a profound breach that represented and how deeply impacted every Israeli was.   

The Israeli government immediately declared war on Hamas, its first offensive move was to declare a complete siege of Gaza; no food, water, or fuel would enter Gaza.  Members of the Israeli government began referring to Palestinians living in Gaza as “sub-humans…animals…”  Hamas was compared to ISIS and to the Nazis.    Israel cast the war as a mission to destroy Hamas to make Israel safe for Israelis again.   The war was also framed as a war between the forces of good and the forces of evil. I found this language understandable in the context of the terrible trauma that all Israelis had just suffered.   At the same time, I was troubled by language that dehumanized “the other” in order to justify a war in which all would be permissible.  My relatives found this tone appropriate and reassuring.  And so, the gulf between us grew. 

From the beginning, I tried to find a way to hold the loss and grief of both Israelis and Palestinians.  I did not expect my relatives to be able to do the same.  As a Polish Catholic Jew, I had more emotional distance from what had happened and, therefore, was able to acknowledge the loss and grief on both sides of the conflict.  I tried to sort through my complicated feelings by posting my thoughts and feelings on my Facebook Page.  In my posts, I tried to paint a more nuanced picture of Israeli society for my readers and how the attack by Hamas had, for many, rekindled a gripping existential fear that now hovered constantly in their conscious awareness.  I tried being a compassionate witness to the suffering that was all around me in Israel.   I also wanted to acknowledge and empathize with the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza. 

I understood that for Israelis who had been so traumatized, it was impossible to empathize with the Palestinians, whom they blamed for having inflicted so much pain on them.  No one had the emotional bandwidth to separate Hamas from Palestinians.  The entire nation was operating out of their amygdala, all in fight-flight or freeze mode.  They could only see the Palestinians as the enemy, others, bad others, others to be feared and hated.  They could not recognize any humanity in the Palestinians.  As I struggled to acknowledge the humanity of the Palestinians and validated their losses and grief, I was further alienating myself from my family.

I came back to my home in Chicago at the end of October.  Disillusionment began to intrude into my experience of myself with Israel and my family.  When I first learned of having an extended family in Israel, I worried about how they would receive me, a Polish Catholic who was not a Zionist and was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.  It didn’t seem to make any difference at first.  Everyone was very welcoming. 

Before learning that I had family in Israel, I had no interest in going there.  Once I learned that I had family in Israel, I did not hesitate.  Over my four visits, I persuaded myself that cultural and political differences didn’t matter.  I could easily ignore Zionism, the issues related to the occupation of Palestinian territories, the settlements in the West Bank and the discrimination against Palestinians; these things were not in my face.  Aside from the occasional heated political discussions with one cousin, the subject simply didn’t come up.  Until it exploded, literally.  The illusion I had operated on exploded, replaced by disillusionment, the absence of illusion.  I and they had to acknowledge that the differences we had all tried to ignore could not be ignored any longer. 

I am not entirely sure what the future holds.  I don’t know when I will return to Israel or how I will be received.  It is not my intention to cause anyone pain. Still, I cannot avoid the reality that my views on the Israeli-Hamas war, in particular, and Israeli politics in general, are painful for some of my family to accept.  They continue to feel an existential threat from Hamas from the Palestinians, and regardless of how I phrase it, my unwillingness to unconditionally support Israel is perceived as a betrayal.  As evidence of my siding with those who wish Israel and, by default, them harm. 

I can only focus on the human beings caught in this conflict.  A conflict that has lasted for about a hundred years since the first Zionists started settling in the Palestine Mandate.  My views on Israel have evolved and are much more complex than they were.  However, I still do not endorse the principal goal of Zionism: “to establish a Jewish national state in Palestine”.  I do understand how that goal was developed in response to centuries of anti-Semitic persecution in Eastern Europe.  This goal became even more critical to accomplish in the wake of the “final solution,” the Nazi plan to eliminate all Jews from Europe, which they tried to execute by bringing forth the Holocaust.   I can acknowledge that history and still disagree with the idea of any state insisting on a nationalist, racial, or religious identity, not Poland, not the US, not Israel. 

In addition, I still sympathize with the Palestinian perspective that the State of Israel was established at their expense, forcing about 750,000 Palestinians off their lands out of their homes, farms, and villages and into refugee camps.  The romantic myth of “an empty land for a people without a land” used by early Zionist leaders to encourage settlement in Palestine was a lie.  The phrase continues to resonate to this day to devalue Palestinians and imply that they do not have a history, culture, or legitimate claim to national self-determination.  Like what Russia argues about Ukraine. 

This does not mean that I am opposed to the existence of the state of Israel, as some accuse me of, but that I believe in the possibility of a non-Zionist Israel. A state where both Palestinian and Jewish Israelis can cohabit in peace and mutual respect.  In a world that insists that everyone should take sides, it is not easy to refuse to do so.  I recognize the right of Israel to exist and of its citizens to feel safe, and I also recognize the right of Palestinians to pursue a life with dignity and the expectation of just treatment.  I don’t believe that the first can only be accomplished at the expense of the second.

The current war perpetuates hatred between the two people.  In the process of trying to destroy an enemy that has committed atrocities, Israel is killing and displacing a huge portion of the population in Gaza.  In the process, it is creating a whole new generation of traumatized terrorists and ultimately undermining its efforts toward safety.

And then there is the issue of the hostages.  I can only imagine how they are managing to cope with their deteriorating circumstances and how their families live their daily lives in the nightmare they have been trapped in.   According to Haaretz the Israeli government “continues to insist that only military pressure, in the form of massive attacks and heavy bombing, coupled with restrictions on the volume of humanitarian aid, will force Hamas to agree to another prisoner exchange deal.” 

Hamas and the Israelis are now trapped in their commitment to mutual destruction by force, proving that violence driven by hate only brings forth more violence and hate.  Judaism has a rich spiritual tradition of solidarity with all who have been oppressed and of social justice activism.  I pray that Israelis re-commit to this tradition, that they reject the concept of a state founded on ethno-nationalist principles that requires a standing army to protect itself from those who object to its sense of entitlement to the lands they have lived on for centuries.   

It has taken me several days to complete this post.  In about 5 hours, the clock will mark midnight, and Chicago will welcome 2024.  I want to end on a hopeful note.  As I already stated, I was in Israel on October 7th.  One of the most impressive phenomena I witnessed was how, on a dime, the entire population came together to defend their country and support those among them who needed help.  Over 360,00 responded to the call back to active duty, including my cousin’s grandson, who had just completed his military service and was traveling in Nepal.  The civilian population mobilized to meet the needs of the survivors of the Hamas attack on the Gaza border as well as of the needs of those being displaced along the Lebanese border and to support the troops in any way they could.  I witnessed family members preparing meals for soldiers, spending time with the children of displaced families, organizing clothing drives for families who had had to flee from their destroyed communities with nothing, getting involved in the efforts to bring attention to the hostages, volunteering to harvest the produce in the fields since the labor force that would have tended to that task was now not available.  These were people of all ages: grandparents in their 80s, parents in their 50s, and grandchildren in their 20s, all with a deep commitment and love for their country, Israel.  This is awe-inspiring for me and gives me hope.

The other thing that impressed me is how quickly many Israeli Arabs and Bedouins condemned the Hamas attacks and joined their Jewish neighbors in a variety of efforts to assist the victims of the attack.  Together with Israeli Jews, they have worked hard to prevent violence between Jews and Moslems from erupting inside Israel.  Many of these individuals are the same people who have been and continue to be committed to the Peace Movement in Israel.  Standing Together is one such organization.  I would encourage all who read this piece to check out their web page, and if you are feeling generous, you might make a donation in the name of Peace in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. 

I want to close with the words of Hillel a Jewish religious leader, sage and scholar who used to say: be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them close to the Torah. 

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