WHERE AM I LIVING?

On Saturday night I spoke to both my sister and brother in Jerusalem as they awaited a drone and missile attack from Iran. Drones had already been launched, with a long travel time, and my sister told me it felt strange to lie in bed expecting drones, each with lots of explosives, to arrive and drop down. These weren’t coming from the south, as did the rockets from Hamas, they’d be coming from the northeast, which meant Jordan and into Jerusalem.

My brother informed me that he heard they were anticipating missiles as well, with pinpoint precision, though they were expected to be aimed at military installations rather than civilians or basic infrastructure. When you’re lying in bed waiting for all this to happen, that reassurance means bupkes.

Their expectations turned out to be correct. Just an hour later he texted: “Sirens.” There were lots of explosions in the air.

“Where am I living?” my sister exclaimed on the phone.

I also couldn’t sleep. I imagined her lying alone in her bedroom, in her apartment, waiting for heavy dynamite to be dropped on her building, or a missile to hit her street, the entire city. I could hear the anxiety level, the rush of fear for her family. When the sirens go off, there are 90 seconds to get to a shelter and she didn’t have one close enough. Children and animals are terrified; babies cry.

The military makes reassuring sounds, reminds everyone there are defenses, but in a basic way there aren’t. Inside the heart beats: I’m a human being, I’m scared, what will happen to me?

Two oceans away, I knew there was nothing I could do about it. My home and bedroom were safe, but the people I cared about weren’t. Like them, I couldn’t sleep.

Sometimes that’s called empathy. When it’s your family, people say it’s only natural to feel their pain. After all, you’re so close.

Several hours later, still unable to sleep, the thought flashed in my mind: “Where am I living?” How about: I am living in a country that has been doing this to hundreds of thousands of others over almost 6 months, using drones, missiles and heavy-duty bombs dropped by planes and helicopters. And Gaza has no anti-aircraft equipment, no Iron Dome missiles to shoot them down before they kill and cause damage. Even sirens don’t work given how much Israel has jammed their systems electronically. One moment a Palestinian family is sitting in a room eating breakfast, the next moment everyone is gone.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this since Saturday night. I thought of my mixed feelings for the bestselling book, White Fragility, in which the author takes to task white women who cry or who indulge in other emotional responses, as if to say: We have no patience for those of you who feel bad about racism, those of you overwhelmed by emotional reactions. Racism is a fact and nothing will help but your becoming an anti-racism activist. If not, Ibram Kendi wrote, you’re promoting racism.

I know that empathy often becomes drama. I’ve heard enough people wallow in self-condemnation and guilt, mistaking sympathy for sentiment and reactivity for action. The self can co-opt everything and make it all about the self; I’ve seen that many times.

But I’m not ready to discount empathy. I’m not ready to feel traitorous because I carry a dual narrative here, when I should really stand for only one thing and bang the door shut on everything else.

Eric Wemple, at The Washington Post, wrote an excellent article about the implosion that took place in the digital magazine Guernica after it published, then retracted an article written by Joanna Chen, an English-Israeli activist, a translator of both Arabic and Hebrew who refused to serve in the Israeli army and who continues to go to checkpoints to pick up sick Palestinian children to bring to pediatric hospitals in Israel.

Chen wrote: “It is not easy to tread the line of empathy, to feel a passion for both sides.” You can read her article here. They published it, faced anger from their staff, retracted it, also faced anger, and didn’t publish anything for a while. Reminiscent of the silence we often take shelter in, thinking it’s the safest place to be.

A staff member of the magazine wrote that everyone working there agreed on a shared vision of fighting imperialism, colonialism and racism, and Chen’s article didn’t meet those criteria.

I, for one, feel that you can be all for a stop to the fighting and bombing, bring massive amounts of food and water into Gaza and release hostages, without trying to fit the situation into various western progressive templates of isms mentioned above, most of which I don’t find relevant to the history and complexities of that part of the world.

But more important, I’m not ready to eschew the power of empathy in favor of some concepts that demand to be the only lens through which to see anything. I back any agreement enabling both people to live with sovereignty and dignity—not because of concepts, but because, simply, the land belongs to them both and they have nowhere to go.

That’s it, bottom line. Practical all the way

Each side has its view, which can open doors to the wide world or become an isolating, delusional bubble. Horror is horror regardless of where in the equation you put it. I can weigh it more heavily on one side than the other, and I do; what Israel has done in Gaza is unconscionable. But woe unto all of us if we can’t imagine what it’s like to lie holding young, terrified children while missiles and drones explode in the air—regardless of who does this to whom. Woe unto us if we’ve lost the ability to feel the other’s pain.

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