All my life I have listened to what people will let slip when they think you are part of their we. A we is so powerful. It is the most corrupt and formidable institution on earth. Its hands are full of the crispest and most persuasive currency. Its mouth is full of received, repeating language. The we closes its ranks to protect the space inside it, where the air is different. It does not protect people. It protects its own shape. You have belonged to many of them. So have I. . . . The story of a family is always a story of complicity. It’s about not being able to choose the secrets you’ve been let in on. The question, for someone who was raised in a closed circle and then leaves it, is what is the us, and what is the them.
These words were written by Patricia Lockwood in Priestdaddy, a brilliant memoir of growing up in a Catholic family in the Midwest. And though her upbringing was so different from mine, when I read the above paragraph I sat up and thought, She’s talking about me. She’s talking about my life, the we of my family, the we of what it was to be Jewish in those days, and for many, what it’s like now.
Yesterday was Israel’s celebration of 70 years of independence. I was born there a year and a half later to parents who arrived from Holocaust Europe to Israel illegally (due to British blockade, going on to a refugee camp), and a year later were in a southern kibbutz fighting Egyptian forces in Israel’s Independence War.
It’s easy to forget now, given the superiority of their army, how vastly outnumbered Israelis were back then (almost everyone fought in the war, not just the army), under-armed, with no air force, with some 7 Arab armies vowing to annihilate them. My parents weren’t the only ones who were dumped from the boiling kettle of Holocaust Europe right into the fire of a war in 1948, with almost no military training of any kind.
No one saw an alternative.
So I grew up understanding in my bones the importance Israel had for many Jews as a refuge; in my family, Independence Day was a real holiday. It continues to have that meaning for many. Just the day before those celebrations a few German men approached Jewish men in Berlin and struck out at them with belts, yelling “Jew!”
But yesterday is also marked as the day of Naqba, Catastrophe, for Palestinians who lost their homes, villages, towns, and a way of life. So yesterday a small group of Zen Peacemakers bore witness to both: Israelis’ joyous celebration of claiming their home from thousands of years ago, and the Palestinians’ marking of Naqba.
There was also a joint memorial service honoring both Israeli and Palestinian families who lost relatives in this endless war between both nations. The government tried to erase the event by making it illegal for Palestinians to join the service, and Israel’s Supreme Court struck that decision down.
In some ways the fight is always about we. Who are we right now? Jews, Germans, Palestinians, men, women, Americans, survivors, refugees, asylum seekers? Not just one but combinations of several? And how do we maintain our local we’s, which are our history, religion, and culture, precious things after all, without the circle closing in on us, separating us from the rest of the world?
So I was deeply moved to read the words of the Israeli writer David Grossman at that memorial service, still dealing with the complex, indescribable pain of the death of his son 12 years ago in the Israel-Lebanon war. Just before receiving Israel’s highest prize for literature, he attested: It is difficult and exhausting to constantly fight against the gravity of loss.
It is difficult to separate the memory from the pain. It hurts to remember, but it is even more frightening to forget. And how easy it is, in this situation, to give in to hate, rage, and the will to avenge.
But I find that every time I am tempted by rage and hate, I immediately feel that I am losing the living contact with my son. Something there is sealed. And I came to my decision, I made my choice. And I think that those who are here this evening — made that same choice.
And I know that within the pain there is also breath, creation, doing good. That grief does not isolate but also connects and strengthens … We, Israelis and Palestinians, who in the wars between us have lost those dearer to us, perhaps, than our own lives — we are doomed to touch reality through an open wound.
Yes, an open wound, I thought. One that will never seal, never heal, one that you will remember first thing upon waking up in the morning and last thing when you go to sleep at night. But there is life there, not just death. From now on your arc will contain both life and death—viscerally, not theoretically as it is for the rest of us. It’ll ache and scratch, delivering frequent jabs to your belly, or suddenly, when you least expect it, the air will go out of the room.
Someone died, leaving you to bear witness, to live past their death. To realize, struggling and fighting every inch of the way against this knowledge, that living past their death is indeed possible. That this life will never be painless, perhaps not even happy, but still awake, alive, birthing and rebirthing again and again.