We Cannot Cross Until We Carry Each Other

How can we publicly grieve the death and suffering of Israelis without these feelings being politically metabolized against Palestinians ?

Arielle Angel

This has been the hardest week we’ve ever had to weather as a staff at Jewish Currents. Events are moving so fast that there seems no hope of apprehending any of it fully, of saying the thing that will feel right for the moment which is already gone. With great effort, we finish a section of our explainer only for new information to surface and invalidate it. And it’s not just about the facts. Feelings and positions are in flux. There are political questions and fault lines that have been simmering under the surface in our organization—in the Jewish left, and I suspect the left generally—exploding to the fore, gumming up the works at a time when urgency feels paramount. Staff members are periodically bursting into tears, fighting with their families or with their friends, running on fitful sleep. A contributor’s son is a hostage. A contributor in Gaza texts: “Still alive. They are bombing everywhere. Nowhere is safe.”

Most of our internal disagreements center on the correct container for our grief. Our staff is not unlike the rest of the Jewish world in that many of us are only a matter of degrees from someone who died or was taken hostage. How can we publicly grieve the death and suffering of Israelis without these feelings being politically metabolized against Palestinians?

We have good reason to worry about this: As Israelis count their dead, politicians in Israel and the US call for Palestinian blood in direct, genocidal language. “We are fighting human animals and we will act accordingly,” said Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant yesterday. “Finish them, Netanyahu,” said former Ambassador to the United Nations and Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley. “Neutraliz[e] the terrorists,” said Democratic senator John Fetterman. Jews share memes about the highest number of Jewish casualties since the Holocaust, not bothering to ask who, right now, is being ethnically cleansed, or how many massacres of this size Gaza has seen in the last dozen years. This language deploys the bombs that fall on Gazans from the sky, leveling whole neighborhoods, wiping out families without warning, huddled in their homes because they have nowhere to flee. “There are body parts scattered everywhere. There are still people missing,” one man north of Gaza City told CNN. “We’re still looking for our brothers, our children. It’s like we’re stuck living in a nightmare.” We will likely soon see this genocidal impulse spread, as the Israeli government hands out automatic weapons to West Bank settlers, many of whom were already armed eliminationists. In this way, Jewish grief is routed back into the violence of a merciless system of Palestinian subjugation that reigns from the river to the sea. It is mobilized by US politicians who support Benjamin Netanyahu and his extremist government, which has intensified Palestinian death and displacement and disappeared any hope of a diplomatic solution. It is marshaled to drum up support for sending weapons to Israel, even as we know that, as Haggai Mattar wrote in +972 Magazine, “there is no military solution to Israel’s problem with Gaza, nor to the resistance that naturally emerges as a response to violent apartheid.”

We can’t let our grief be bent to these purposes, but it’s not clear where else to put it. Anyone who has been working in this space knows that our movements are not prepared to manage the emotional and political fallout. We watch as Jewish people and groups we thought we had pulled into our struggle, or at least begun to move politically, suddenly close ranks, profess support for the IDF, retreat into despair. Already complex and fragile relationships between Palestinian and left-wing Jewish activists—as well as factions within both of these groups—are being challenged as we struggle to derive the same meaning from the images coming across our screens. Friends and colleagues on all sides find themselves hurt by one another’s public reactions, or by their silence. A veteran anti-Zionist activist I spoke to wondered if a “chasm” was opening up between Palestinian and Jewish activists, especially as the current moment has made visible diaspora Jews’ tangible connections to that place and those people that are, inconveniently, not just the stuff of Israeli propaganda. Over the weekend, many avowed anti-Zionist Jews found they could not join solidarity protests because they needed something the protests could not provide: a space to grieve the Israeli dead, to struggle with their own place in the coming political process. It is a situation none of us have ever before confronted in earnest, amid a long history of vastly disproportionate death tolls. And now, when we need it most, we find ourselves struggling with a lack of emotional and political vocabulary.

On October 7th, my own feelings fluctuated wildly. My first feeling was fear. To listen closely to the genocidal language of this Israeli government over the past year has been to live in terror of the day they would find the excuse to pursue it. Writing in n+1, Jewish Currents contributing editor David Klion recounts the words of a campus activist in the wake of 9/11: “They’re already dead,” he’d said on the day Bush declared war on Iraqis, their fates sealed. I felt these words in my body, sobbing loudly in front of the screen. There were also bursts, very early on, of awe. I watched the image of the bulldozer destroying the Gaza fence again and again and cried tears of hope. I watched Palestinian teenagers seemingly out joyriding in a place half a mile away that they’d never been; a Gazan blogger suddenly reporting from Israel. But these images were quickly joined by others—the image of a woman’s body, mostly naked and bent unnaturally in the back of a truck; rooms full of families lying in piles, the walls spattered in blood. I wanted desperately to keep these images separate—to hold close the liberatory metaphor and banish the violent reality. By the time I began to accept that these were pictures of the same event, I was distraught, and contending with a rising alienation from those who did not seem to share my grief, especially as the scope of the massacre came into view.

“I have anti-Zionist Jewish friends who are rightfully scared,” writer and reporter Hebh Jamal wrote in a recent Mondoweiss article. She observes how, despite all their sympathy for Palestinian suffering, this may be the first moment such allies are tasting the fear—and the state of mourning—that has been real for Palestinians for decades. She has also lost someone this week—a cousin, 20 years old. “I do not rejoice over death. I rejoice over the possibility to live,” she writes, and as such “I cannot condemn the militants if I believe even for a second that there might be a possibility of all of this finally coming to an end.” Hebh describes the sense of possibility that many Palestinians have felt in these events, as they have disturbed—perhaps only momentarily, it remains to be seen—the dominant paradigm in which they are condemned to die waiting for their freedom, as so many other nonviolent avenues to liberation have been punished or ignored. Her reaction appears common to so many of the Palestinians I know and trust that I must try to feel my way into it.

As I watched people online debate the models of anti-colonial struggle, raising comparisons to Algeria and North America and South Africa, I found myself returning to the foundational Jewish liberation myth: the Exodus. It was hard not to think about the moment in the Passover seder when we lessen the wine in our full cups with our pinkies as we recite the plagues. This ritual has materialized as an indispensable touchstone, insisting that to hold onto our humanity we must grieve all violence, even against the oppressor.

But I also thought of the plagues themselves, particularly the final one, the slaying of the first born—children, adults, the elderly. It seems that hiding in our liberation myth is a recognition that violence will visit the oppressor society indiscriminately. I know that I have many friends, and that Currents has many readers, who are asking themselves how they can be part of a left that seems to treat Israeli deaths as a necessary, if not desirable, part of Palestinian liberation. But what Exodus reminds us is that the dehumanization that is required to oppress and occupy another people always dehumanizes the oppressor in turn. For people who feel like their pain is being devalued, it’s because it is; and that devaluation is itself a hallmark of the cycle of the diminishing value of human life. As the abolitionist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore has said, “Where life is precious, life is precious.” We are seeing the ways that Jews as the agents of apartheid will not be spared—even those of us who have devoted our lives to the work of ending it. (I am thinking of Hayim Katsman, zichrono l’vracha, killed by Hamas, an activist against the expulsion of the West Bank community of Masafer Yatta, and Vivian Silver, a hostage in Gaza, who is known to many of its residents as the person they meet at the Erez Crossing who advocates for and facilitates their transfers to Israeli hospitals for treatment.)

That question of how we recuperate this humanity is ultimately an organizing question. People have repeated over and over again over the last few days that you “cannot tell Palestinians how to resist.” To me, it seems there is a very literal dimension to this axiom: They are not asking. Part of what has made the experience of this event feel so different from the status quo—and so different to Palestinians and Jews—comes from the fact that Palestinians were undeniably the actors, for once, not the acted upon. The protagonists of the story. I consider it an enormous failure of our movements that we have not been able to build a vehicle for that kind of reversal in any other way thus far. Our Jewish movements for Palestine were not powerful enough to stop other Jews from gunning down Palestinians in peaceful marches at the Gazan border fence, or to keep Palestinians from being fired, harassed, and sued for speaking the truth about their experience or—God forbid—advocating the nonviolent tactic of boycott. And now, we do not have a shared struggle able to credibly respond to these massacres of Israelis and Palestinians. With all of the work that many Jews and Palestinians have done to reach toward each other over the years, I believe at heart it is this failure that is now driving us apart. There is no formidable political formation that I know of that can hold the political subjectivity of both Jews and Palestinians in this moment without simply attempting to assimilate one into the other. No place where Jews and Palestinians who agree on the basics of Palestinian liberation—right of return, equality, and reparations—are poised to turn the synthesis of these two subjectivities into a coherent strategy.

One of the most terrible things about this event is the sense of its inevitability. The violence of apartheid and colonialism begets more violence. Many people have struggled with the straightjacket of this inevitability, straining to articulate that its recognition does not mean its embrace. I am reminding myself that it was from Palestinians, many of them writing and speaking in these pages, that I learned to think of Palestine as a site of possibility—a place where the very idea of the nation-state, which has so harmed both peoples, could be remade or destroyed entirely. And it was Palestinians who opened my thinking to multiple visions of sharing the land. On the left, I hope we do not mistake the inevitability of the violence for an inescapable limit on our work or the quality of our thought. Even if our dreams for better have failed, they must accompany us through this moment to the other side. We need to imagine a movement for liberation better even than the Exodus—an exodus where neither people has to leave. Where people stay to pick up the pieces, rearranging themselves not just as Jews or Palestinians but as antifascists and workers and artists. I want what Puerto Rican Jewish poet and activist Aurora Levins Morales describes in her poem “Red Sea”:

We cannot cross until we carry each other,
all of us refugees, all of us prophets.
No more taking turns on history’s wheel,
trying to collect old debts no-one can pay.
The sea will not open that way.

This time that country
is what we promise each other,
our rage pressed cheek to cheek
until tears flood the space between,
until there are no enemies left,
because this time no one will be left to drown
and all of us must be chosen.
This time it’s all of us or none.

Arielle Angel is the editor-in-chief of Jewish Currents - article published in Jewish Currents magazine