Mail Call: spaces between the thoughts

spaces between the thoughts

[This is an email excerpt from our friend Emily Gendler Zisette regarding Gaza.]

Yesterday Israeli troops entered Gaza in an official ground invasion. My sanity can no longer afford to remain silent.

There are American peace organizations yelling that Israel is guilty of war crimes and is a terrorist state, Jewish peace organizations screaming that we must speak out (but not too loud) (or very, very loud) against Israel’s actions while still maintaining our support for the country, and there are even surprise visits from Jewish Israel advocacy groups shouting that we must stand up and stay strong defending Israel.

Questioning the role of an American Jew I question if there is one. Many people are quick to say that because I don’t live in the region known as Israel, don’t endure daily Israeli life, and won’t have to live with the consequences of the decisions made in the region I don’t have a right to intervene, even by way of opinion.

Regardless of my identity as a Jew, I am a resident of this earth, and as a living, breathing human being it is not only my right, but my obligation to stand up and speak out against injustice; as a resident of this earth and as a living, breathing human being it is not only my right but my obligation to refuse to close my eyes and shut my ears to the actions of the Israeli government that I can’t seem to find words for. As a resident of this earth and as a living, breathing human being it is not only my right but my obligation to stand up and speak out FOR human life, FOR human rights, FOR peace, FOR justice, FOR TRUTH.

Have you ever screamed silently? If you have I think you know what I am attempting to give voice to. The shaking and scratching that runs deep into the bone marrow and wails louder than sound but is stranger to the ears. I scream, and have been screaming: LISTEN. And, if you can imagine what a receiving scream might sound like, a scream that is really the act of listening, then maybe you too understand why I struggle with words.

While I say that I stand up and speak out, that I sit down, shut up, and listen REGARDLESS OF my identity as a Jew, I also stand up, speak out, sit down, shut up, and listen BECAUSE OF my identity as a Jew — my history, heritage, traditions, education, and values.

From what I know, according to Jewish law, if a Jew is confronted with saving human life even if it means breaking Jewish law a Jew must choose human life. Human life is above Jewish law. Human life, this life, our present life on earth, is one of the highest, if not THE highest, values. Please, someone correct me if I’m wrong.

This means ALL lives. So how, we ask, can Israel be acting in the name of Judaism? These are not new questions. But I am beginning to think I will never live without them.

So when I feel, I feel as a Jew, and when I’m angry with Israel I’m angry as a Jew. Israel and I are both blanketed by an identity I sometimes fear it has poisoned. So when I stand up and speak out, when I sit down, shut up and listen I do so as a Jew, and I do it loud so you know that the Israeli military and the Israeli popular politicians and the reported Israeli opinion is not the only Jewish voice.

And while I don’t think I could ever say I am uninfluenced by this identity, I do know what drives me to stand up, speak out, sit down, shut up, and listen is my compassion for life, love of peace, and determination for justice. I am angry and outraged and deeply saddened as a PERSON, not as a Jew. (And yet, of course, I am a Jew.) Life is life. One life or 413, Jewish or Muslim, man or woman, child or parent — life is life.

I stand in solidarity with Palestinians just as I would stand in solidarity with any other peoples who were trapped, occupied, controlled, oppressed and ignored. I am sure many of you have asked this, but I ask it again: If the treatment of and situation for Palestinian people were happening anywhere else in the world to any other group of people, would it be tolerated? I have not attempted to suppress my anger towards Israel because I know it connects me to my moral compass.

I ask: How can you ____ especially when ____?

I try to hold them all — my anger; yours; hers; his; theirs; ours. I’m trying to hold an understanding of the immense pressure put on the Israeli government; I’m trying to hold the actions of fear; I’m trying to hold the actions of desperation; I’m trying to hold that I don’t LIVE THERE so I DON’T KNOW; I’m trying to hold; I’m trying to hold but it’s slipping and maybe we keep on fighting because we haven’t learned how to juggle; we are so dependent on edges.

I have not attempted to suppress my anger towards Israel because I know it connects me to my moral compass. Yet my anger does not exist without a penetrating questioning of the service of anger. I scream and yell and then I hear the “other side” screaming and yelling and soon I can’t hear what we’re saying it all just sounds like screaming and yelling. I think I’m right just as fiercely as you think you’re right and you think I’m wrong and just as fiercely as I think you’re wrong. Each “side” spits reasons — I can’t even hear them sometimes I just see the spitting.

It’s like our reactions are predestined. I’m just playing this role he is just playing his role we all are just playing our roles and thus we all are blind.

There are so many sides they form into a slippery circle without a surface to cling to.

We speak so much of hope and I question if hope can exist without an attempt to understanding. If I can’t hold understanding, can I hold peace?

And I wonder when “holding both” is a political game; when “holding both” disguises violence, when “holding both” excuses the inexcusable? Are there situations that call for irrefutable standpoints of what is right and wrong? Is this such a situation? Who can decide this? How is it decided? Are there situations that call for irrefutable standpoints of what is right and wrong?


Is this such a situation?


And while I will put my stakes of “right” and “wrong” in the dirt I choose, what does it mean if I can’t listen to the stakes that aren’t in my dirt? And this dirt is not distinguished by geography; it is distinguished by ideology, which has never known a crisp border.

When I read the articles sometimes it feels like I’m reading about a fight on the playground over a kickball. Only now our kickballs are lives and bombs.

When I spoke this to one of my mentors he reminded me that in situations on playgrounds and with kickballs a teacher or parent steps in and intervenes. Who is the parent, who is the teacher? (Who are the children?)

What is the role of intervention? What is my role? What is yours? Who decides? While I believe it is not my business to decide your (Palestine/Israel) laws, it is my business to challenge your injustice, to challenge injustice.

Privilege is steeped in the very ink of these letters. While I question the service of “picking sides,” sometimes wallowing in the ridiculousness of the concept, I question the privilege in not picking sides. While I question the consequences of answers, I question the privilege of questioning; I question the privilege of questioning.

What does it mean to be sitting here in this comfortable room, in relative safety without an immediate threat on my life, writing about a “situation” that doesn’t involve me?

What happens when privilege silences the voice for peace?

(Since when is safety a privilege and not a Right?)

And can I hold my lack of involvement while also holding my inherent ties, not as a Jew, but as a human of this earth? If we fail to recognize how we are tied to both the oppressor and the oppressed, and to their children and grandchildren, well, that is why they continue to make love and that is why people continue to die. We are involved; choose your reason (there are many). And yet what does my involvement look like?

I am realizing more and more how complex this situation is as I attempt to write about it. With each letter that unfolds another is revealed; each thought uncovers another. I am beginning to see so many “sides” they feel like one of those rubber-band balls wedged at the base of my throat. The only sound you can hear is an almost silent “eek.”

The other day I met with my great Aunt and we found ourselves sharing stories. I hadn’t seen her since her latest trip to Israel and we shared love and laughs together for our family Itzy, Rivkah, Yitzhar, Hanaleh, Dinah, Irit, Bat-El, Ari, Uri, and many others.

Something tells me I can’t love these memories; something felt ugly sharing them.

I have family in Israel and they are soldiers of present and past, cheese makers, sheep milkers, almond tree farmers, stray cat feeders and collectors, social workers, school teachers, I-don’t-care-what-you-say-I’m-going-to-work-despite-the-rockets-from-Lebanon-and-songs-of-sirens talkers, NGO organizers, bomb-making engineers, little girls who pee in the garden, potters, whisky-lovers, shakshuka cookers, coffee drinkers, cigarette smokers, cigarette smoke haters, care-takers, story tellers, Holocaust survivors, hard workers, schnitzel eaters, film producers and computer addicts; moms, dads, sisters, brothers, grandparents, cousins — my cousins.

I remember these are real people.

I think of Gilad Shalit. I think of the sign that reads his name upon the entrance to my family’s community. I think of his house next door to Itzy’s and Rivkah’s home that was my own for weeks.

I remember that these are real people.

I think of my one my Cantor’s best friends, a Palestinian doctor who lives in Gaza and teaches sex education and AIDS prevention (AIDS is a serious crisis in Gaza) despite cultural resistance. They stood together, arm in arm, singing Palestinian and Israeli peace songs, 100 feet away from where Yitzhak Rabin was shot. My Cantor has been trying to call him every day many times a day on all of his three phones since last Saturday and has not yet been able to get through.

I remember these are real people.

And I think of Yuval, the Israeli man I once loved. I think of the rough, green, tzahal-branded army hat that lays buried along with your kisses somewhere in my room; the “prize” that I kept as some sort of “token.” Does it still smell as bad as your armpits? I see you on the border of Gaza in the same uniform and gun that greeted the white flowing pants and green silk shirt at those flowered gates of Kibbutz Hazorea and I know you would rather be by yourself exploring virgin caves, eating fresh figs and wading in your secret ponds. I wonder if Palestinian children are collecting your body parts. Is it possible for you to kill? I feel nauseous while I cry. I cry.

I remember these are real people.

This is not simple.

I marched yesterday shouting “Free, free Palestine” and then went home to email my family asking if Bat-El and Uri were alright; have they been deployed to Gaza?

We grew up singing “Go ahead and be a Zionist…” and yesterday we sang “Zionism is terrorism!”

I also grew up in Synagogue singing and, with instruction from my Cantor, signing: “Not by might, and not by power, by Spirit alone, We shall live in Peace…”

I met with this Cantor the other day, he is a dear friend of mine, a core mentor in my life, and beautiful person committed to peace, a passionate activist. I once described him as “the fiercest idealist I know.”

I returned from his office and wrote:

“I took a break from the headlines only to see them in your face.

What does it mean when the one you used to go to for hope now searches for it in you?

Your glossy picture has turned matte and you don’t have to tell me you’re tired for me to see it.

I see it.

And this tired come from a place only war knows how to touch. This tired can only be kissed by blood, seduced by fear, and fucked by injustice.

You are tired.

I see it.

And, for me, this has nothing to do with you. Your dull eyes don’t tell me you’ve burnt out; the way they sink into your face doesn’t tell me you’re now a skeptic. They almost blend into your crying skin that hangs down low, a wilting face that doesn’t read the death of your idealism, it reads the reasons your idealism has died.

We sat at your table and I didn’t ask you questions you didn’t answer.

I found the hope inside me as I searched for it for you. I would have never known my hope existed if you hadn’t silenced yours.”

Sometimes I wonder if hope pulls us away from reality.

I will never let go of hope, but how does hope contribute to comfort and how does comfort, our comfort, contribute to disillusionment and contribute to death?

I have found myself utterly baffled. Please explain to me the accepted logic that violence will stop violence. Violence will stop violence. Violence will stop violence???

Today during the protest I could not scream “Intifada” and words of “we will fight back harder” with the crowd. I know too many people who have known too many people who have died because of those words. I cry “why violence?” but if I was in Gaza, would I have a choice?

And what does this — all this and any of this — mean when I walk down the street to protest and I see homeless people sleeping against buildings with billion dollar chandeliers and hundred dollar entrance fees; when the state government cuts funding for Fedal Alcohol Syndrome clinics, leaving my mom jobless, me and my family without medical benefits, and dozens of parents and children without resources; when popular songs on the radio sing “beat her like a cop”; when my uncle comments, over buffalo wings and “the game,” that “LGBTQI people” are “confused”; when my family all watches TV in separate rooms; and when this migraine won’t leave my right, sometimes left, eye?

I wonder what we are serving if we remain silent even in our own communities.

I return to my feminist framework to remember there is a larger system at play — a belief system and acceptance of the right to dominate over another; an obsession with bigger is better; you hit me I’ll hit you harder.

A belief system and acceptance of dominance.

Pray for peace, pray as deeply as you know how. Pray as deep as the well of our tears, as deep as my sadness knows anger and as deep as my anger knows love. As deep as justice and truth search for each other. And I’m not talking about the praying to god. I’m talking about the praying that occurs when you reach deep into your bones and feel something with everything you have and don’t have, and everything you know and don’t know.


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