I've been calling my friends and family in Israel a lot more since the war broke out -- indeed, I've probably phoned my brother more times in the past four weeks than I have in the 20 years since I left Israel to live in New York.
Aug 13: The second day of the 1st cease-fire honored by both sides. I call Roy, my brother.
O: How's it going?
R: Ah, boring, you know, no sirens no shelters... (He sounds cheerful.)
O: I feel a relief, don't you?
R: Eh, I've kept myself out of it. (His voice has the Israeli sing-song blasé quality). It's Mom who is feeling dramatically better since the cease-fire; she took it very hard this time; she's been very depressed.
Indeed my usually cool-tempered mother has told me that she's been sobbing every day at the sight of the dead and wounded in Gaza. My parents were born during the British Mandate that colonized Palestine and were kids when Israel declared independence in 1948. They breathed in the idealism of early Zionism, as well as the communal injunctions to remember the evil of the Nazis yet disavow the history of Jewish victimhood. The New Israeli was a fighting and victorious national hero, the image of the traumatized Holocaust survivor an unacceptable reminder of what needed to be put behind. The only family figures I heard about in detail were my dad's aunt and uncle, the brave 'Partisans' (resistance fighters in the Russian forests, who fought the Nazis but were not part of the Russian army). The relatives who'd been killed in the gas chambers were never referred to by name; they were "the ones who were wiped", as was the common expression. It was as if there were no individual victims and mourners, yet the Nation is on guard. My mother would sometimes recall her experience in elementary school in the mid-40s, during the tail end of WWII. Orphans would arrive and join the classrooms, but the other kids would never ask them questions. My mother was particularly preoccupied with one girl who would occasionally burst into tears and have to be removed from the classroom. "But what did I know?" she'd hastily add, after telling me this story. "Maybe she had a stomach ache?"
So why now, more than half a century later, is my mother sitting in front of the news and "crying like a baby," as she says? Something about this particular war -- rockets everywhere, tunnels, and the number of Palestinian civilians dead -- seems to have pierced the Israeli dissociation from both the suffering on the other side of the wall -- the trauma of the Palestinian people -- and the depth of the murderous rage that has accumulated against Israel. The reactions to these realizations are very complex.
What also seems to have been further exposed is the secret tunnel between Auschwitz and Gaza. No, I do not mean that the Israelis are like Nazis; I do not know a single Israeli who wishes to annihilate the Palestinians; this is a war over territory, not race. I am referring to the unconscious memories of fear, vulnerability, and dehumanization, carried over from the Holocaust -- and the fantasies of revenge and guilt -- that color the psychic realty of modern Israelis.
Roy: I've been pretty detached.
O: Oh. Any kids killed today? I do not mean it as a provocation; I'm merely trying to determine what universe we are in today.
R: No. (There's a shift in his voice; he's suddenly tense.)
There is a pause, and I imagine a vacuum in his mind rapidly filling with the images that have driven my mother to tears.
R: It's not what you think, you know. Have you seen the interviews with those mothers? They think their sons become martyrs if they die.
I feel instant rage -- but I want to remain compassionate, I'm not living there, he is. I keep my voice as calm as possible.
O: Do you mean Palestinian parents are not devastated if their child is killed?
R: You really don't get it! They are different. Death does not mean the same thing to them. The next day they go on television, stating they are proud. Can you imagine doing that?
Now my supposedly detached brother is shrieking. What's happening? Have I lost him? Has he, too, become blind to the complexity of it all? I want to say something sarcastic like "Hey, didn't we grow up on Trumpeldor's famous line 'It's good to die for my country'?" but I stop myself. These days I've come to recognize how little I really understand about the forces operating in this small region, so I try to observe instead of react. I allow a forbidden thought to unfold: Maybe he's right? Maybe I'm the one making false assumptions? What do I know about being a Palestinian parent, or being an Arab who's lived under occupation for generations? In a way, it would be such a relief to imagine that they're not broken with grief and horror for their loved ones. Maybe that picture of the father running with his wounded daughter, the picture that kept me up all night, means something that I can't comprehend? Oh please, let that be true. But then the other picture, the one where you could only glimpse a tiny dead hand, floats to mind. There is no way I can avoid knowing -- and no way to retreat from shame.
O: Do you really think a Palestinian mother is not torn apart if her child is killed? I can't let it go.
R: Then why would they say they're proud of their son, and happy he is now a martyr? (His voice sounds desperate, he's clinging to his own words.) No! Why would they let the Hamas spit rockets from right under their own children? They offer their own kids as human shields! The Hamas is a culture of death... We weep for our dead, they celebrate it. We weep for their dead and they still celebrate it.
Roy's hair was Barbie straight like mine when he joined the army in 1984 and was sent to Lebanon. He was 18. He came back with a curly Afro and an injured gaze, bluer than time. We don't speak of what he did and saw. I do know that his best friend disintegrated under pressure and used his M-16 to shoot himself in the belly right in front of Roy. Roy now lives on a little farm 30 minutes from Tel Aviv. He and his wife sent their son to an experimental integrative Arab-Jewish school. The school recently closed down, unable to contain the escalating hostilities between the parents.
O: Roy, tell me one thing, honestly: How much do you believe in what you're telling me?
Roy cannot answer. None of us can speak about the ways we each fall apart every day watching the news. How do you face being accountable for the death of children? Many "mantras" are called in to stop the mind from thinking, to stop the images from haunting: opinions, blame, explanations, solutions -- they're all platitudes.