As I write this, it has been more than a month since the Hamas attacks in southern Israel and the war in Israel and Gaza continues to rage. I have spent the past month mostly speaking to people who are (fill in what you are feeling…) confused, enraged, depressed, beset, overwhelmed, outraged, despairing.
South Africans, (the glimmer of sunshine of the Springboks aside) have been swamped with videos, petitions and marches to add to their already heavy load of political and economic burdens. Teenagers in schools and students on campuses are being asked to take a side. To stand for Palestine or stand for Israel. Standing for peace is not an option. Jews who have never visited Israel in their lives are being asked to defend its government. Muslims are assumed to have supported the rape of women, murder of babies and capturing of civilians on 7 October.
“Facts” are shouted, “proof” is posted. “Now we know … now it is clear and undeniable”. The news media is not to be trusted — it doesn’t matter which “side” you are on, the media supports the other — the news media is twisted and biased and corrupted by the power, money and influence of (the other side that is not yours).
It is clear that there is no safe space to speak about Israel and Palestine. Apparently, you either believe that the bloodshed is caused by terrorists who want to kill Jews and obliterate the Jewish state or by a settler colonial apartheid empire intent on genocide.
Any reference to suffering is countered with evidence of more suffering. What you are feeling is not anything like what they are feeling. What I am hearing loudest of all is, “I have zero tolerance for your pain.”
All pain is pain, all trauma is trauma. Those who were killed, raped and abducted have families, communities that are suffering now. The young soldiers sent into war to kill or be killed have families, communities — pain. The citizens of Gaza and the West Bank are under attack — suffering. Jews, Muslims, anyone with a heart the world over is in pain. We are all in pain. And instead of comfort, instead of leadership towards solutions, we find anger, verbal and violent acts of Jew and Muslim hatred, friendships ended, trust broken and alliances shattered. And living as we do here in South Africa, this is only a small taste of what Israelis and Palestinians live with every day.
Where to turn? What to do? How can I respond to these calls for revenge, these cries for justice? What can I do to change this situation, given that more powerful leaders have consistently failed to do so?
Perhaps I can suggest that the best way to respond right now is to stop shouting and listen. To hear and understand the pain of others. And yet there are no “safe spaces” to speak and listen in. So we need to create them. Not to debate or persuade. To listen. Reach out to your neighbour, colleague, schoolfriend who is not you, and may not think like you or consume the same media that you do. Find out how they are doing, ask how they are feeling given what is going on and how they are managing. And hopefully, they will ask the same from you.
I was struck by these words written in the most brutal of times, and resonating profoundly now. Etty Hillesum was a young Jewish woman in Amsterdam when Hitler was closing in. Her diary, Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life — the Diaries, 1941-1943 and Letters from Westerbork, were published posthumously. She wrote:
“Ought we not, from time to time, open ourselves up to cosmic sadness? Your sorrow must become an integral part of yourself. You mustn’t run away from it, but bear it like an adult… Give your sorrow all the space and shelter in yourself that is its due, for if everyone bears their grief honestly and courageously, the sorrow that now fills the world will abate. But if you do not clear a decent shelter for your sorrow, and instead reserve most of the space inside you for hatred and thoughts of revenge — from which new sorrows will be born for others — then sorrow will never cease in this world and will multiply.”
As we sit with our sorrows, can we make every effort to not multiply them? Stop shouting and listen. Find small ways that you can bring kindness and comfort into our battered world. While we cannot control global events, we can make an impact right here, right now. Do it and keep doing it. DM
Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War