Disclaimer: What I have written below does not belong on this website. It is highly personal, and has absolutely nothing to do with film. I have nothing to say on the matter that has not been said already by those more informed and well-spoken. I write for selfish reasons in an attempt to unburden myself from this immense grief, and to perhaps unburden others who feel as I do.
Last night was the first of Hanukkah, marking two months since October 7th, since 1,200 Israelis were killed by Hamas amidst a brutal attack of violence and inhumanity. During this time, I have experienced more emotional torment from the ensuing conflict than any world event in 25 years. The cause of my highly emotional reaction stems from my (somewhat) unique cultural and ideological positioning, a position that casts me as a victim, a villain, and a traitor all at once.
Relatively, my connection to Israel is minor. My Jewish family has its history in Eastern Europe, and ended up in Canada by way of South Africa. I do have some family, distant cousins and the like, who live in Israel. My mother lived on a kibbutz for a year in the 1980's, while my sisters and I have participated in Birthright, a program that gives Jewish young people the opportunity to visit and explore Israel for free. While there, I had the chance to reunite with a dear friend, who I had met in Canada while she was an exchange student, and her new husband. Since then, they have had two beautiful children who I hope to meet someday. They live now on a kibbutz in the north of the country. Amongst all this turmoil, it is the knowledge of their safety that serves as one of my few comforts.
Obviously, how many times I have been to Israel does not make me any more or less Jewish. In my essay "On The Nose", I discussed my relationship with my Jewish heritage in regards to my physical appearance, notably that my features and last name are decidedly more "Celtic" than semitic. Few could successfully make the argument that one's physical appearance, or even one's last name, is a legitimate indicator of one's identity. Jews come in all shapes and sizes, from different backgrounds and cultures. I have known for some time that my beliefs often stray from the consensus of the Jewish diaspora. When I was on my Birthright trip, I tried to be conscious of what they weren't telling us about what was going on around us, though I generally kept my thoughts to myself. There were even moments when I was swept up by the ceremony, when I was surrounded by the pious at the Western Wall, with friends at the beaches in Tel Aviv, and alone in the Old City of Jaffa.
There would of course be moments where I couldn't keep my big mouth shut. We were asked, in one of our morning discussion groups, if marrying a Jewish person was a value we held. Everybody said yes. Everybody, that is, except myself and two other girls with non-Jewish fathers. I was particularly outspoken on the matter, expressing my belief that the tradition of staying within one's own "kind" when it comes to love is a dangerous mentality that brings out the worst in humanity. This resulted in a brief, friendly discussion, nothing that stayed in anyone's mind past the hour. I was there, after all, to find a connection to my Jewish roots, to convince myself, and perhaps others, that my Jewishness was not up for discussion. Since October 7th, however, I have learned that many in the Jewish community view my identity as a Jew as dependant on my political beliefs, specifically based on my allegiance (or lack thereof) to Israel.
When the reality of what happened on October 7th started to become clear, I experienced feelings of loss on a mass scale. Truthfully, I can't recall ever having seen such gruesome, graphic imagery of violence and destruction. In particular, I am haunted by a video of 25-year old Noa Argamani, who cried "Don't kill me!" as Hamas terrorists kidnapped her on a motorbike. Later, I watched an interview with her father Yakov as he shed tears and pleaded for his daughter's return. This was the first time I cried during this conflict, but it would not be the last. Noa, who turned 26 in captivity, is still a hostage, along with over 130 others. While I know for a fact that my devastation would exist regardless of where Noa, the other hostages, and the 1,200 Hamas murder victims were from, the fact that they are Jewish has made the pain personal.
This is when my grief began. For a few days afterward, I held onto something like pride, perhaps even support (for a moment) of Israel. My period of mourning, however, was not only extended by the subsequent actions of Israel, but amplified to the most extreme degree I have ever experienced. The conclusion of my grief, (that is, some form of acceptance that could allow me to move beyond my devastation) was taken from me. I almost cannot believe what I am seeing play out before me. I can't quite wrap my head around the sheer amount of death and suffering that has befallen the people of Gaza. I cannot put myself in the shoes of someone who thinks that this okay, that this is a justified response to what happened to Israel. The degree to which this has affected me, and so many other young people, can naturally be understood as a consequence of social media that places these images in front of our eyes at an alarming rate and vividness. I have asked my parents to refrain from watching news about the war on TV when I am home. I am not trying to stay ignorant. I am not trying to pretend it isn't happening. I cannot pretend. I just can't take it anymore. I can't see parents cradling their dead children's bodies fifteen minutes before I go to bed. I can't look at the sunken eyes of a child pulled from the rubble and head to work. That any of us who are invested in this conflict are able to go on as usual, that we are even able to sit up our desks and compose emails, is either a triumph of resilience or a clear indication that we have seen too much. I am tempted to agree with the latter.
I knew that Israel would retaliate with extreme prejudice. I can understand how an Israeli citizen, whose very home was invaded and whose own family, friends, and countryman had been slaughtered, could support the initial retaliation. I try not blame them, or hold the citizens of Israel at fault. Theirs is a situation I am grateful to be far removed from. All I can feel is a result of what I know, and over the past two months I have known horror. As the retaliation escalated to a level never before seen in the twenty-first century (I am hardly an expert of warfare and military tactics) and as these images were so frequently broadcast in real time, any initial sense of support I once had dissolved. What I was seeing done to the Palestinian people was so abhorant, so indefensible, that I started to feel a sense of shame, a shame that brings me pain to admit. I still follow many of the people I went on my Birthright trip with, and all of them, without fail, have shown unequivocal support of Israel. It wasn't my contrary stance that brought me shame, but the fact that the people committing these acts of violence were in anyway like me. A muffled, but irritating voice in my head told me that this was my fault. This is a Jewish state. You are a Jew. They are doing this for you. This is your fault. All logic tells me this is not true. Just because Israel claims to represent me does not mean I accept their representation. And yet, that tangled knot in my stomach has never totally untied itself.
The people who I follow on instagram from my Birthright days continue to post things that I wholeheartedly disagree with. From unconditional support of Israel, to total disregard of Palestinian lives, to misguided claims of anti-semitism. In particular, I have been told by many of these and other pro-Israel supporters that as a Jewish woman in North America I ought to be scared for my life. I am not afraid, I never have been. These same people tend to conveniently ignore the fact that a six year old Palestinian-American boy was fatally stabbed in the streets of Chicago, that three Palestinian university students were shot in Vermont, one of whom is now paralyzed. I have seen the antisemitic graffiti, I have heard the reprehensible (infrequent) support of Hamas at pro-Palestinian rallies. One of my acquaintances continues to share misinformation claiming that Hamas is a benevolent organization that treated hostages "well", and whose acts of violence were exaggerated. There are those who continue to deny the brutality committed by Hamas on October 7th, particularly towards women. Still, I cannot possibly see myself as the vulnerable one in this situation when entire families are currently being annihilated. Palestinians in Gaza are quite literally living every moment like it's their last, and I should be afraid? Why, I ask, do we choose to be victims, when we could be heroes? When we could think for ourselves and speak for those without a voice?
I am not the type to pick fights online. They are fruitless, and generally do the opposite of what you aim to achieve. I follow those I disagree with as a tool of awareness, of understanding, and in some cases, as a chance to learn. There was one instance, however, when I could not remain silent. A fellow Birthright participant reposted a video of an Israeli man admonishing Pro-Palestinian Jews as supporters of Hamas, and as "Kapos" (Jews who were had roles of supervision in concentration camps and often exerted physical abuse on other prisoners). This is the worst thing a Jew can call another. I reached out to explain myself, to say that my support of Palestine was not anti-Jewish but rather a condemnation of violence against all people. I suggested, perhaps to his horror, that Israel was fallible. He replied that I was betraying Israel. What he meant, as I understand it, is that I am betraying Jews.
A similar sentiment is held by Avi Mayer, editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post, who writes: "Anti-Zionist Jews are not representative of the Jewish community and they don’t speak in its name. They are as Jewish as the Westboro Baptist Church is Christian. While they may still technically be Jewish due to their parentage or conversion, while they may lead superficially Jewish lives, we can no longer consider them part of Klal Yisrael." and "They are against us. . .We need to view them as lost to our people and treat them as such."
This is not my inner-voice or anxiety telling me that I do not belong. Not something I can disregard as self-consciousness. The community is telling me that I don't belong, telling me that my ancestors and my blood are not enough.
There is an anger in me, a sort of anachronistic regret, that it had to come to this. That 75 years ago, the Jewish people who emerged from the greatest tragedy in our history went on to inflict violence and displacement on another population. I understand wholeheartedly why the creation of a Jewish state was an attractive solution at this time. Many seem to dismiss the fact European Jews who went to Israel after the Holocaust literally had nowhere else to go, and that the promise of a nation dedicated to their protection was like a gift from God. I ask anyone who questions the connection Jews have to this land to educate themselves about the history of Jewish displacement. There is a reason why every year at Passover we say "Next year in Jerusalem". I understand the Jews in the Arab world who had no choice but to leave their own homes under threat of persecution. Sometimes, my imagination gets the best of me. I imagine Jewish people from all walks of life living together in this land, this fertile earth brimming with echoes of history and life, caring for themselves and each other. And in this fantasy, I imagine Palestinians as their neighbours living amongst them, treated with the respect they deserve. I imagine those displaced by the Nakba living safely and securely in their ancestral homeland. My historic connection to a place does not override the rights of those living there presently. When I think of Zionism, of Jewish unity and safety, this is the image that comes to mind. But it doesn't exist, so I continue to grieve. There is no Jew alive whose family history is not built on trauma, on displacement, on persecution. How this has not led to a greater level of empathy for those unlike us I cannot fully understand. Perhaps, instead, it has hardened our hearts.
Since the conflict has started, my sisters and I have begun wearing our Star of David necklaces daily. I bought mine in the Old City of Jerusalem in 2018. In the past, I have worn mine with irregularity, as a simple accessory to add elegance to an outfit. It's a pretty little thing; gold, with a cubic zirconia stone in the middle. Why, I have tried to determine, have I chosen to wear this now? Is it for attention? Is it to start conversation? Is it to show a sense of pride, or to look for one? The answer likely sits somewhere in the middle. As I currently experience a highly personal crisis of identity, I give myself permission to wear this symbol, to tell Jews who might question my identity that it I am one who gets to decide what I am. In Hebrew, the symbol is known as the Magen David, translated literally as the Shield of David. In someways, that is how I see it, as a form of protection, not from others, but my own self-doubt.
A few weeks ago, while working in Downtown Vancouver, a large group of Muslims from various backgrounds gathered to march for Palestinian liberty. Before they did this, they prayed together. It was a transfixing, almost therapeutic sight to behold. I felt, while on the verge of tears, envy at their solidarity. I saw young women my age acting with absolute certainty, with no fear of going against their community. Later, a Jewish colleague expressed fear at wearing her Star of David in public. I reassured her that there was no reason to be afraid. The call to prayer, I said, offered the only sign of hope I had seen in weeks.
“The very bad men come from the class of those who have power. And yet in that very class there may arise good men, and worthy of all admiration they are, for where there is great power to do wrong, to live and to die justly is a hard thing, and greatly to be praised, and few there are who attain to this.”