In the ruins of Jenin, an old friend of mine is digging bodies out of the rubble where Israeli bulldozers have flattened houses, burying people alive. She describes the scene to me: Blackened, maggot-ridden corpses are displayed to anguished relatives for identification. A teenage girl unearths an infant’s arm and wonders what to do with it. A Palestinian father cries over the dark smears of flesh that were once his two little daughters.
Another friend, a Jew, leaves a distressed message on my cellphone: “I’m in downtown Washington, D.C. There’s a huge pro-Israel rally going on. I don’t understand it. How can Jews support this? I know you must have something inspirational to say. Send me what you write.”
She doesn’t know that for weeks I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to write about the situation. I’m overwhelmed with accounts of the atrocities. Yet I am also haunted by images of bodies shattered at a Seder meal or at a cafe, of a Passover drenched in blood. I’m frightened and saddened by the real resurgence of anti-Semitism, by swastikas carried in peace marches, synagogues attacked.
A third friend, a deeply spiritual woman and longtime ecofeminist ally, sends me a copy of a letter she wrote to President Bush titled “Standing Firmly with Israel.”
In no way can I stand with her. And yet I cannot simply stand against her, either.
I cannot stand with an Israel that tortures prisoners, an Israel that has mounted a restrictive and dehumanizing occupation, that assassinates rival political leaders as a matter of policy, that has cut down ancient olive groves to destroy the livelihood of the Palestinians, that is daily committing war crimes, refusing medical care to the wounded, firing on journalists and peace demonstrators, bombing civilians, destroying homes. Nor can I stand in the bloody remains of the Seder meal, nor among the corpses in the cafe. Yet to say, “Both sides are wrong; both sides should give up violence,” is to ignore the reality that one side, the Israeli side, is the fourth-largest military power in the world. That the suicide bombers are a direct response to a brutal occupation that has made life untenable for the Palestinians. That, for more than fifty years, the State of Israel has failed to guard the Palestinians’ rights, aspirations, and hopes for independence.
On the one hand, it is incomprehensible to me that my friend could stand with such a regime; that a Jewish community composed of people I know to be caring, compassionate, and good can stand behind the tanks, the bombs, the brutality. On the other hand, I understand quite well the wrenching emotional journey that many Jews must make to admit the reality of what Israel is doing. No other issue is so painful and sad for those of us who grew up saving our pennies to plant trees in the Galil; who, snowbound in blizzards, celebrated the New Year of the Trees when the almonds blossomed in the Judean hills; who ended every Seder with the prayer “Next year in Jerusalem.”
I am a Jew who has spent her adult life as a voice for a different religion, a blatant Pagan whose spirituality is attuned to the Goddess of Regeneration, not the God of my fathers. To Orthodox Jews, I’m a heretic, which gives me a certain freedom to say what I think. I was born into, raised in, and acculturated by the postwar Jewish community, but I have not been immersed in that world for many years. I speak from the margins of the community, but I am still a Jew, and the view from the edge can sometimes be clearer than that from the center.
The San Francisco Chronicle runs a front-page story about a school in Gaza where Palestinian children are taught to hate Jews. I have no reason to doubt the truth of the story, although I question why the paper ran it with no balancing report about, for example, the International Solidarity Movement, a group of Palestinians and Jews who together risk their lives in nonviolent interventions for peace.
The Chronicle story causes me to look back at what I was taught in ten-plus years of Jewish education, including a summer spent on a kibbutz as a teenager. We never chanted, “Kill the Arabs.” We were never told in so many words, “Hate them.” Rather, we learned a more subtle discounting, a not-seeing, as if the Palestinians were not full human beings but a minor obstacle to the fulfillment of a dream, something to be moved aside, that didn’t really count.
We were taught to be proud of the brave Zionist settlers and pioneers, the idealistic youth who fled the ghettos and pogroms of Europe to build a “new” land. And I am proud, still, of their experiments in new ways of living, their awareness of women’s rights, their courage in leaving home and family to escape oppression. But I understand now that they did not come to an empty place, and that they were not capable of truly seeing the people who were on the land. They came out of a Europe that held an unshakable belief in its own cultural and racial superiority and had for centuries been appropriating the lands of darker peoples. They came as the settlers came to the so-called New World, saying, “This land is ours by right. God gave it to us.” The Palestinians who lived there were an impediment. And so began the long litany of justifications: that the land didn’t really belong to them, but to the Turks or to the British; that they weren’t doing anything with it, had not made the desert bloom nor drained the swamps; and above all, that they hated us, were raised to hate us with an irrational, implacable, and unchangeable malice.
The word for this sliding-off of the glance, this not-seeing, is racism. Less blatant, perhaps, than chanting, “Kill, kill!” but with the same insidious results.
Yet simply to condemn Zionism as racism without acknowledging the centuries of anti-Semitism that preceded it is to absolve others who have blood on their hands. Worse, it is to support the Jew-haters and fascists who are emerging into the open again. Israel has indeed served the interests of the Western powers in subjugating the Arab world. But Israel also arose out of an oppressed people’s dream of liberation. To discount that oppression, to deny the strength and beauty of the dream, is to miss the full tragedy of what is happening now. Unless we understand the dream, we cannot truly comprehend the nightmare.
I know what Israel meant to my family in the fifties. My parents were still reeling from the revelations about the gas chambers and the ovens, still searching for news of lost relatives. Israel was restitution for all the losses of the Holocaust. It restored some meaning and hope to a world utterly shattered by evil. It was proof that Jews were not just passive victims but actors on the stage of history, capable of fighting back, of taking charge of our own destiny. It was the one safe place, a refuge in a hostile world. And for some, it was the answer to the question “How can I believe in a God who allows such things to happen?”
To acknowledge the truth of what Israel is doing now is to face a grief so deep and overwhelming that it seems to suck away all hope. It is to gasp again in the gas chambers, to cover our faces with ashes from the ovens and know that there is no redemption, no silver lining, no happy ending, no good and noble thing that emerged to give dignity to these deaths. There is only the terrible cycle of victims becoming victimizers, of the abused perpetuating abuse. It is to look down and see the whip in our own hands, the jackboots on our own feet. It is true that the Israelis have not built extermination camps. It is true, although not immediately relevant, that other countries in the world are guilty of oppression. But it is also true that to attempt to erase a people, to destroy their culture, livelihood, and pride, is genocide.
At a justice-for-Palestine rally, a wan young woman, looking depressed, wanders through the crowd carrying a sign that says: “My father survived Auschwitz. His parents didn’t. Orphaned, he fled to Israel.” Part of the horror of Jenin and places like it lies in her father’s new kinship to the teenage boy dug alive out of the rubble of his house, in which his parents and brothers and sisters now lie dead. That kinship is a dark mirror revealing how easily we become what we most despise. All we need is to feel threatened, and to let that fear define our enemy as less than fully human, and the horrors of hell are unleashed. We must remember that the Nazis played on the Germans’ sense of deprivation and loss after World War I. We must admit that our own victimization has not elevated us to some realm of eternal purity and innocence. We can grow beyond the propaganda we were taught and the myths of our childhood and the comfort of our chosenness and see the Palestinians as the full human beings that they are — even if to do so requires us to walk out into the wilderness again with no hope of a promised land to guide us.
For if we admit the Palestinians’ full humanity, if we admire their knowledge and appreciate their culture and cherish their children, then all the justifications of conquest fall away. No God, no superior virtue, no inherent right has granted us dominion. We have the land because we were able to take it. And while that admission might seem to threaten Israel’s very right to exist, it is not nearly as much of a threat as clinging to the justifications and rationalizations that prevent us from seeing the Other as fully human. For full human beings, placed in a situation of utter despair, may turn to suicide bombs and retribution. Full human beings, humiliated beyond belief, may seek revenge. But full human beings are not mere mindless agents of hate. Given hope and dignity and a future to live for, full human beings will tend to choose life. And full human beings can be reasoned with, bargained with, made peace with.
Since writing the above, I have gone to Palestine as a member of the International Solidarity Movement. “Which side’s story do you believe in order to create peace there?” a friend wrote when I came back. I have no answer, only my own story:
I am in the Balata refugee camp in occupied Palestine, where the Israeli Defense Forces have rounded up four thousand men, leaving the camp to the women and children. The men offered no resistance. The camp is deathly quiet. All the shops are shuttered, all the windows closed. People hide in their homes. The quiet is shattered by sporadic bursts of gunfire and explosions.
All day I have encountered soldiers who look as if they could be my brother or my cousins or the sons I never had, so young they are barely more than boys with guns. I have stood with the terrified camp inhabitants as the soldiers searched their houses. I have walked the sick and wounded, who are afraid to be on the streets alone, to the UN clinic.
Earlier in the evening, eight of my friends were arrested. It is now nearly dark, and Jessica, Melissa, and I could be caught at any moment. We are hurrying through the streets, worried, looking for a place to spend the night. We need to be indoors before the curfew. “Go into any house,” we’ve been told. “Anyone will be glad to take you in.” But we feel a bit shy.
From a narrow metal staircase, a young woman with a beautiful smile beckons us. “Welcome, welcome!” Her name is Samar, and she gives us refuge in the three small rooms that house her family: her mother, big-bodied and sad; her small nieces and nephews; and her sister-in-law Hanin, round-faced and pale and six months pregnant. We sit on overstuffed couches, and the women serve us tea. Pine paneling adds warmth to the concrete walls, and porcelain birds and artificial flowers decorate a ledge. The ceilings are painted with simple geometric designs. These women have poured love and care into their home, and it feels like a sanctuary. Outside we can hear sporadic shooting, the deep boom of houses being blown up by the soldiers. But here in these rooms, we are safe — at least, as safe as we can be in this place. “Inshallah” (“God willing”) follows every statement of good fortune here, every commitment to a plan.
“Yahoud!” the women say when they hear explosions. It is the Arabic word for Jew, and the word used for the soldiers of the invading army. It is also a word of warning and alarm: “Yahoud!” Don’t go down that alley, out into that street.
But no one invades our refuge this night. Around us, young men prowl with guns, houses explode, lives are shattered, but here we sit in an intimate world of women. Hanin brushes my hair and ties it back to control its wildness. We try to talk about our lives. I show them pictures of my family, my garden, my step-granddaughter. I think they understand that I am my husband’s third wife. I’m not sure they understand that those wives are sequential, not concurrent, but maybe they do. The women of this camp are educated, sophisticated. Many are professionals: teachers, nurses, students — when the occupation allows them to go to school.
“Are you Christian?” Hanin asks us at the end of the evening.
Melissa, Jessica, and I look at one another. All of us are Jewish, and we’re not sure what the reaction will be if we admit it. Finally, Jessica speaks for us.
“Jewish,” she says.
The women don’t understand the word. We try several variations, but in the end we are forced to be blunt: “Yahoud.”
“Yahoud!” Hanin says. She gives a little surprised laugh, looks at the other women. “Beautiful!”
And that is all. Her hospitality to us is undiminished. She shows me the shower, dresses me in her own flowered nightgown and robe, and puts me in the empty side of the double bed she shares with her husband, who has been arrested by the Yahoud. Two of the children sleep with us. Ahmed, the four-year-old boy, snuggles next to me. He sleeps fiercely, kicking and thrashing in his dreams. Each time an explosion rumbles, he hurls himself into my arms.
I can’t sleep at all. How have I come, at an age when I should be home making plum jam and doll clothes for my grandchildren, to be cradling a little Palestinian boy whose sleep is shattered by gunshots and shells? I lie here amazed at the trust that has been granted me, the enemy, allowed to sleep with the children. At this moment, it seems to me that there are indeed powers greater than the guns I hear all around: the power of Hanin’s trust, the compassionate power that overcomes prejudice and hate.
One night later, Melissa, Jessica, and I go back to Hanin’s house just as dark is falling. Neta, an Israeli Jew and one of the founders of the ISM, is with us. We have narrowly escaped a troop of soldiers, but no sooner do we arrive than the soldiers come to the door. At least they have come to the door: All day long Israeli soldiers have been breaking through people’s walls, knocking holes in the concrete with sledgehammers, bursting into rooms full of terrified people to search or, worse, to use the house as a thoroughfare, a hidden route through the camp. We have been in houses turned into surreal freeways, with directions spray-painted on the walls, where there is no sanctuary because all night long soldiers are passing back and forth.
We come forward to meet these soldiers, to talk with them, and to witness what they will do. One of them wears owlish glasses. He knows Jessica and Melissa: they have had a long conversation with him beside his tank. He is uncomfortable with his role.
Ahmed, the little boy, is frightened of the soldiers. He points at them and cries and screams. We try to comfort him, to carry him into another room, but he won’t go. He is terrified, but he can’t bear to leave their sight.
“Take off your helmet,” Jessica tells the soldiers. “Shake hands with him. Show him you’re a human being. Help him not to be so afraid.”
The owlish soldier takes off his helmet, holds out his hand. Ahmed’s sobs subside. The soldiers file upstairs to search. Samar and Ahmed follow them. When they get there, Samar holds the little boy up to the owlish soldier’s face and tells him to give the soldier a kiss. She doesn’t want Ahmed to be afraid, to hate. The little boy kisses the soldier, and the soldier kisses him back and hands him a small Palestinian flag.
This is the moment to end this story, on a high note of hope, to let it be a story of how simple human contact, a child’s kiss, can for a moment overcome oppression and hate. But the story doesn’t end here.
The soldiers order us all into one room and close the door. Then they search the house. We can hear banging and crashing and loud thuds. I try to think of something to sing, to distract us and to keep the children’s spirits up, but I cannot think of anything. My voice won’t work. Neta teaches me a silly children’s song in Arabic: “The train comes, the train goes. / The train is full of sugar and tea.” The children are delighted. Hanin and I drum on the tables. The soldiers are still throwing things around in the other room. Ahmed begins to dance. He smiles and swings his hips and makes us all laugh.
When the soldiers finally leave, we emerge to assess the damage. Everything has been thrown into a huge pile on the floor: pictures ripped off the walls, clothes pulled out of the closets. The couches have been overturned and their bottoms torn off. The wood paneling is full of holes. Bags of grain have been emptied into the sink. Broken glass and china cover the floor.
We are a house full of women: we know how to restore order. Melissa sweeps; Jessica tries to corral the barefoot children until we can get the glass up. I help Hanin clear a path in the bedroom, folding her absent husband’s clothes, hanging up her own things, finding the secret sexy underwear the soldiers have obviously examined.
When the house is back together, Hanin and Samar cook. The grandmother is having a high-blood-pressure attack. We lay her down on the couch and bring her a pillow. I sit down, utterly exhausted, as the women serve us a meal. A few china birds are back on the ledge. The artificial flowers have reappeared. Some of the loose boards of the paneling have been pushed back. Once again, somehow, the house feels like a safe haven.
“You are amazing,” I tell Hanin. “You’re six months pregnant, it’s your house that has just been trashed, and you’re able to stand there cooking for all of us.”
Hanin shrugs. “For us, this is normal.”
And again, this is where I would like to end this story, celebrating the resilience of these women, full of faith in their power to resume their lives again and again.
But the story doesn’t end here, either.
On the third night, Melissa and Jessica go back to stay with Hanin and her family — “our family,” we now call them. I am staying with another family that has asked for support. I sleep in my clothes, boots ready. I get a call: the soldiers have returned to Hanin’s house.
Again, they lock everyone in one room. Again, they search. This time, the soldier who kissed the boy is not with them. They have an intelligence report that tells them there is something to find. They rip the paneling off the walls. They knock holes in the tiles and the concrete beneath. They smash and destroy, and when they are done, they piss on the mess they have left.
Nothing has been found, but something has been lost. The sanctuary is destroyed, the house turned into a junkyard. No one kisses these soldiers; no one sings.
When Hanin emerges and sees what they have done, she goes into shock. She is resilient and strong, but this assault has gone beyond “normal.” She hyperventilates, her pulse racing and thready. She could lose the baby.
Jessica, who is trained as a street medic, informs the soldiers that Hanin needs immediate medical care. The soldiers are reluctant. “We’ll be done soon,” they say. But one is a paramedic, and Melissa and Jessica are able to make him see the seriousness of the situation. He allows the two of them to violate curfew and run through the dark streets to the clinic. They come back with two nurses, who somehow get Hanin and the family into an ambulance and take them to the hospital.
The outcome could have been worse. Because Jessica and Melissa were there, Hanin and the baby survive. That is, after all, why we’ve come: to make things not quite as bad as they would have been otherwise.
I go back to say goodbye to Hanin, who has returned from the hospital. She is looking dull, depressed. Something inside her is broken, and I don’t know if it can ever be repaired. Her resilience is gone; her eyes have lost their light. She writes down her name and phone number for me, writes, “Hanin love you.”
This is not a story of some grand atrocity. It is a story about “normal” life, about what it’s like to live every day under a relentless assault on your sense of safety.
“Which side’s story do you believe in order to create peace there?” my friend writes. I have no answer. Every story goes on too long and turns nasty. A boy whose dreams are disturbed by gunfire kisses a soldier. A soldier kisses a boy, and then destroys his home. Or maybe he simply stands by in silence, that same silence too many of us have kept for too long. If there is to be peace, there must first be a vast breaking of silence, an uproar.
I write as an admitted heretic, yet it’s clear to me that the orthodoxies of all three great religions — along with atheists, pragmatists, and secularists of many political persuasions — are embroiled in a blasphemy that far outweighs any amount of naked dancing around a bonfire. They are united in the worship of the God of Force.
The God of Force says that violence is the ultimate answer to every dilemma, the resolution of every conflict, the only thing “they” understand. The God of Force makes appearances in the Old and New Testaments, the Koran, and other scriptures, both sacred and secular. The God of Force licenses his agents to kill, unleashes the holy war, the jihad, the crusade, the inquisition. The God of Force says, “Go unto the land and kill all the inhabitants thereof.”
I’m a polytheist. I recognize many gods. They are deeply interconnected, but each has its own flavor, character, and name. One advantage of being a polytheist is that you can acknowledge that bloodthirsty and cruel powers exist and still turn resolutely away from them. When one god tells you to commit some horrific atrocity, you can go to another for a second opinion. But monotheism is, of course, the heart and essence of Judaism, as it is of Islam and Christianity. I submit that the God of Force is incompatible with the one God. For if God is one, she or he must by definition be God of all, not of any one people exclusively. And if he calls a people chosen, he does it in the same spirit in which my partner confides to each of his four daughters that she is his favorite.
The current situation is a call for both human beings and our notion of God to evolve. Judaism has always had within it a tradition of wrestling with God, as Jacob did with the angel. To see God as fixed and rigid and unchanging is indeed to worship a graven image.
We are commanded not to make images of God because our human imaginations are limited and will only reproduce our own faults and lacks and prejudices. God the General, God the Ruler, God the King, God the Distributor of Real Estate, God the Avenger, God Who Favors One People above All Others — all these may in reality be that very idol, the truncated image we are told to turn away from. The worst heresy of all may be to limit our conception of God.
Judaism can march in lockstep with the Israeli authorities deeper into the domain of force. Israel could conceivably exterminate the Palestinians utterly. (That is the trend of the current policies.) Indeed, nothing less will crush the Palestinians’ aspirations for independence and freedom. A Jewish community that supported such a “final solution” would lose its soul and any claim to moral authority. An Israel that carried out genocide would be no fit homeland for any person of conscience. And genocide would not bring security to Israel: it would simply inflame the hatred of the entire Arab world and take away the rest of the world’s support. That road is likely to lead straight to the fulfillment of Christian prophecies of apocalypse.
One of the agonies of the current crisis is that nobody seems to have much hope of resolving it. We can see where the road leads, but we don’t know how to step off it. “If only the Palestinians would practice nonviolence and embrace the principles of Gandhi and King,” some of my Jewish allies say. But I find myself thinking, Wouldn’t it be quicker if a Gandhi or King appeared among the Israeli leadership? Are they not in an even better position to change this situation?
If the Israeli leadership were to abandon the idea that force will resolve this conflict, the solution would become stunningly clear: The Palestinians need their own state. And it needs to be a viable, coherent state with the potential for prosperity and beauty, not a few scraps of unwanted land the Israelis have decided to discard. A Palestine of milk and honey, of bread and roses, of the vine and the fig tree, of olive groves and red anemones, of health clinics and universities, of a new renaissance of Arabic culture, science, learning, and art. Anything less will be an eternally festering sore, and there will be no peace.
A flourishing and happy Palestine would be Israel’s best security measure, and might even become her closest trading partner. Such a Palestine would offer its youth a better future than becoming human bombs. It is in Israel’s best interest to be surrounded by friends instead of enemies, and therefore to foster the creation of the Palestinian state. And while such a friendship might seem impossible at the moment, consider the friendly relations between the U.S. and our former deadly enemies Germany and Japan.
The grip of the God of Force is strong — so strong that, even though we can clearly see the solution, we may despair of actually bringing it about. To pry loose that grip, we need to use all the tools of political activism: writing letters, making phone calls, demonstrating, practicing nonviolent civil disobedience, and even joining the peace witnesses on the front lines.
On a spiritual level, we can look into the dark mirror that reveals our own prejudices and reject them. We can believe that the “force of intelligent, embodied love,” as feminist theologian Carol Christ describes the Goddess, is indeed stronger than stupid, disembodied hate.
One last Pagan heresy: we can prod a sluggish God into producing a miracle or two by performing our actions with conscious, focused intention. As a spell for peace, make peace with someone with whom you think you can’t make peace. Notice what resistance arises even at the thought, how you build your case against your enemy, how you marshal your defenses and ready your weapons. Note what it takes to give them up, what you must sacrifice, and what you will gain.
Author’s note: In April 2003 Rachel Corrie, an ISM volunteer, was killed by an Israeli bulldozer operator while she was trying to stop home demolitions in Rafah. Since then, two more volunteers, Brian Avery and Tom Hurdall, have been shot by Israeli soldiers. Other members of the ISM have been arrested and deported, and the group has been officially banned from Gaza.
Parts of this essay originally appeared in Whole Life Times.