I’m writing this to continue the conversation regarding Rachel Corrie and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
My Israeli family (all my paternal relatives) came to Israel in 1951 from Baghdad, which for centuries before was home to one of the world’s largest Jewish communities. They left with nothing. Reaching Israel, they were sprayed with DDT (by government workers recovering from one of the largest genocides ever) and taken to a transit camp carrying less than they’d left with. Today, my aunts, uncles and cousins have a greater diversity of religiosity and sociopolitical standpoints than I even know.
Here I want to write about what happened after visiting my family in Israel in the winter of 2008-2009, just as the conflict known to many as Operation Cast Lead was starting. As an aside, I’m aware that even basic terminology surrounding this event and its overarching conflict is controversial and usually polarizing— but I’m doing the best I can, writing with the perspective that right now, for me to engage in any meaningful conversation surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I am enemy to one person and a traitor to another. I’m okay with that.
Back to 2009. My family in Israel reassured me we were safe— at two hours’ drive from Gaza. However, I couldn’t help but stress when I returned to Duke’s campus, where Palestine supporters were rallying. How could I help but feel resentment toward people who were demonizing those I care about, vilifying Israeli soldiers as the worst people imaginable? (Most members of my family have served, and I would have, too, had I grown up there.)
I wanted to engage productively on campus and went to an Israel support group meeting. Someone suggested we produce a statement condemning Hamas, then ask the Muslim Students Association (MSA) to jointly sign. I raised my hand, “Perhaps we can write it alongside MSA members to make sure their grievances are also acknowledged?” Wrong words. “I can’t believe you—my family in Be’er Sheva is at risk of missile attacks right now.” I was speechless. Then another, “You’re saying that Hamas and Israel have moral equivalency—false.” I’d never even heard of moral equivalency, but stayed quiet. I really just felt that we can rationalize but never justify the loss of innocents. I carpooled with an Israeli couple back to West and we talked quietly en route. Before I left, the guy said, gently and as a matter of fact, “Here we can say this and that, but for Israel it’s a matter of survival; anyone surrounded like Israel must choose between life and death.”
To channel my confusion I did one of the best things I’ve ever done for my own personal growth. Some friends and I initiated an Israeli-Palestinian discussion forum. Five to 15 people joined every Friday night for dinner. We had some of the most intense and insightful dialogues I’ve heard surrounding this topic.
First, a core few of us were already friends. Even in heated discussions, Palestinians weren’t given the dehumanizing label of Jew-hating terrorists, and Israelis weren’t given the sickening branding of evil genocidal conquerors. We cared for each other and enjoyed the conversations, so we spoke and listened as non-judgmentally as we could. (We did come up with the most hilarious, off-color humor I have ever heard, which had tension-dissolving effects far beyond any diplomatic engagement I know of. But I will steer away from that here.) No need to beat around the bush, fawning over how many of us shared roots in Abrahamic faiths.
Second, we had a gist of what was immediately possible. We weren’t disappointed when, by 1 a.m., we weren’t always in agreement on what the problem was. And most of us were basically Americans. Some had family over there, but we weren’t about to move back tomorrow even if we could. We were stakeholders more than most people, but less directly than the people we love over there. Yes, the U.S. has its role, but we know that any real improvement will come from the hot spots and not my couch. We could work on healing ourselves.
The forum lasted all semester. It didn’t change the fact that I have patriotic Israeli family members, but it tempered the polarization of my perspective. It also helped me empathize with friends I was estranged from before I even got to know them. The truth revealed was not gray but a lucid mess, filled with blood, trauma, fear, resentment and outrage. I learned that no set of facts can heal an emotional and societal wound; we’re not going to debate our way to an absence of hostility or oppressive behaviors—something that even (or especially?) the so-called educated seem to miss as our voices echo in the distant halls of ivory towers.
Perhaps the biggest benefit I gained is a working development of non-judgment. It is one of the privileges of not growing up in the thick of it that I need fewer defenses than someone in Sderot or Gaza, and that I can care for family in Israel as well as friends’ families in the West Bank.
There must be a way we can talk about this without being hijacked by our own fear, anger, guilt and resentment— which this conflict breeds in spades. If there’s any naivety here, let it be of faith. And if there’s any fire, let it be of compassion.
Trinity ’09, Fuqua ’10