The Gaza war has unveiled my displaced status. Most of my American friends seem helpless in the face of my predicament, yet some are provoked in ways that are mysterious to me.
Not thirty minutes into his visit, my friend Pete, who isn't Jewish and he has never been to the Middle East, is screaming at me.
P: Yeah, but what do you have to say about the case of disproportionate numbers of deaths in Gaza versus Israel? O: It is horrific..., I mean, I am not quite sure how the Israelis are supposed to fight this war -- Hamas are sending rockets from right under these civilians, but... P: Oh, come on! Those rockets, they're nothing but psychological warfare.
Everyone seems so impatient, wanting the right answer, while I can't have a straight thought. I try to conjure up the voice of my friend Amanda, an American rabbi who despite her progressive values is much less ambivalent than I am about Israel's "right to defend itself."
O: Go tell that to my friends who are too scared to leave their kids alone for one minute because of these rockets. Go tell my friends whose 18-year-old sons are soldiers crawling through the terror-tunnels to detonate them. Try telling them its psychological warfare! Pete seems to want to shake me. Who am I to him?
Pete is shooting a documentary about an orphanage for girls in Honduras; there is a much slimmer chance for a kid to make it to adulthood in Honduras than in Gaza, yet Pete is furious at Israel, at me. My dad just emailed me a photograph of a demonstrator in Canada holding a banner: "There's a humanitarian crisis in Kurdistan but nobody cares because they can't blame Israel." Why is Pete completely deaf to the Israeli experience? And how does he come to have such certain opinions about a situation I find so impossibly complex? Amanda, the rabbi, would say: "Anti-Semitism, it's been there for centuries, way before the Arab-Israeli conflict."
Sometimes I think it's really the reverse, that the idealized Jew has infiltrated the non-Jewish psyche as well, and no one can stand the Jew failing to transcend the profanely human. Maybe Pete needs me to acknowledge that it's an unfair fight, that Israel is hitting its enemy way too hard?
O: Of course I am mortified with the number of Palestinian dead! I know they've been held under siege, in dehumanized conditions, and it's now become a death trap.
But no, this is actually of no interest to Pete. He is on fire:
P: Israel is a bully. The entire country is operating from a totally cynical, arrogant place. They all want a more brutal ground invasion. Sadly, I think you understand very little about what goes on in that region.
I pause. No, if Pete had spent one week in Israel he'd know it has nothing to do with cynicism and arrogance and all to do with fear and guilt. What I can't do is articulate to Pete the degree to which I just can't stand it, being part of an occupying force that causes such suffering to others; how I become a caged animal inside myself, wishing for Israel to thrive whilst trying to imagine the Palestinians' predicament. Israelis do not reveal that level of inner torment to "the outside world." Instead I still try to walk some line in between, a line that does not really exist for me.
O: Did you hear the recorded conversation between the fighter pilots heading to target a Hamas rocket launching pad buried right under someone's home? But when they approached the target one of the pilots thought he might have spotted a kid. That time they moved on, but can you imagine being in the pilots' position? P: I'm disappointed. You guys are supposed to know better, especially after the Holocaust.
The Gaza-Auschwitz tunnel -- it seems like we are still working through WWII and the Holocaust. Is Pete saying we've reached the wrong conclusion? We were victims, yet we failed to learn not to victimize others. It's not that I don't relate to that humane vision of Zionism, but I can't take it, not from him. I find Pete fiercely deaf to the complexity of the Israeli crisis.
O: Pete, do you really think the main lesson we came out of the Holocaust with is tolerance?! How about survival? How about: We traveled to the edge of humanity--and never again?
Pete mutters something about Israel resembling the Nazis. Really? I can feel my exhaustion; all my defenses are up. I can't talk anymore. I don't want to ever have another conversation with Pete about Israel. Pete gets to be disgusted with Israel and walk away. It's a bad movie he is watching, while I am stuck in it.
I do not have a position to conclude with. I continue to switch among conflicting identifications like a kaleidoscope. The Palestinians' plight confronts us with a double challenge: facing the repressed memory of our own dehumanization, vulnerability, and our betrayal by the world, and perhaps even worse, the contemporary reality of ourselves as aggressors. There is so much that we share with our Palestinian neighbors, that I want to believe we have not lost the capacity for mutual recognition. During the last Intifada I was in such distress that I fantasized about "sending back" my Israeli passport and just using my American one. With this war, I've been wondering if there could ever come a point when an entire country just declared itself unfit? I know I am not the only one to wonder if Zionism has failed as a social experiment, the ethical compromises too big and too far from the spirit with which the movement started. Recently a new dread has crept up in me: They will never forgive us. It's ruined. Perhaps our diasporic identity was better? But I can't have this thought for long before my grandparents' ghosts rush in to chastise me: Do you not remember Auschwitz? There's nowhere to go. I wish I didn't remember, I wish I were free to just be a sovereign individual. Free of my history, free of others' projections, and, more importantly, free not to pass on these historical errands to my children.
I need to talk to my Palestinian neighbours. There is no other conversation that holds any hope. I am trying hard to hold on to the vision that one day we will exchange keys: the key to her grandfather's confiscated Palestinian house with the key to my granfather's confiscated Polish house. We can call it quits and work on urban planning. I want to imagine the possibility of an existence in which national symbols and ideology lose their formative powers, so that some space can open between collective history and private life. A space in which we can return to recognizing each other's humanity.