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Why Are We Being So Awful?
We are hurting and we don't know what to do.
Yesterday, a friend of mine with whom I almost completely agree about politics, shared a blog post he’d done explaining some of the complex histories and contexts of the Israel-Gaza war.
Before I even clicked the link, my first, instinctual reaction was I wonder what he got wrong.
Even more absurdly, I actually felt a little outraged. That’s wrong, I thought to myself, even though I hadn’t read a word. And even though, for all I know, the post is brilliant and I don’t disagree with any of it. (Here it is, if you’re curious.)
Why are we like this? Why are so many of us so ready to assume the worst about everyone else, to use the most extreme and violent language to describe one another, to resort to verbal and even physical violence for the slightest deviation from rightness, the slightest rhetorical mistake?
Because we’re hurt and helpless.
Whether we’re Jews still in shock over the massacres of October 7, or whether we’re watching videos of innocent Palestinians being bombed into oblivion, this war is horrible, and it is very, very close to many of us.
And while there is a lot that concerned Americans can do, from reaching out to the grieving to protesting in various ways, the reality is that there’s more we cannot do. We are hurt, and to a great extent, we are helpless.
This situation reminds me of one of the most formative articles I’ve ever read, which was published by The Onion two weeks after 9/11: “Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake.”
“Feeling helpless in the wake of the horrible Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed thousands,” the article began, “Christine Pearson baked a cake and decorated it like an American flag Monday. ‘I had to do something to force myself away from the TV,’ said Pearson, 33, carefully laying rows of strawberry slices on the white-fudge-frosting-covered cake. ‘All of those people. Those poor people. I don't know what else to do.’”
If only our responses were as benign as baking a cake.
No, we are lashing out at whoever we can, wherever we have the opportunity. We are doxxing pro-Palestine protesters and vandalizing synagogues. We are tearing down posters, and threatening people who tear down posters. Online, we are screaming on social media, where algorithms reward the most upsetting, extreme, and eyeball-grabbing posts, but we are also fighting in once-joyous online spaces: every semi-liberal Jewish listserv and WhatsApp I know has been torn apart, for example, and many have now banned all discussion of the war.
On the street, on college campuses, and even in their homes, Jews, Muslims, and activists of all stripes are being attacked both verbally and physically, which would be a nice irony if it weren’t also a massive escalation in hate crimes by antisemites and Islamophobes alike.
Meanwhile, many activists seem hell-bent on choosing the most incendiary rhetoric and imagery available to them. This includes, on the left, clearly inapplicable, incendiary terms like “genocide” being hurled at anyone who even ambivalently supports the war against Hamas, and, on the right, outrageous callousness to Palestinian life, to the point where even mentioning the suffering of Palestinians is a call to be condemned, heckled, or banished.
Lest I appear as some wise judge of other people’s foibles, let me quickly cop to plenty of raw emotion and questionable behavior myself. I am often messy, regularly infuriated, and still in some kind of grief process that often bubbles up as uncontrollable rage. (Yes, me the meditation teacher.) I’m hardly immune from emotional reactivity.
Indeed, just a few days ago, a friend linked to a statement that she liked – please, God, no more statements – and because it was slightly to the left of my own view, I went into a depressive spiral, feeling betrayed, unseen, alone, and isolated. This spiraled into despair and rage that lasted for over a day. (Ask my husband – this is an understatement, not an exaggeration.) All this from one friend recommending a single statement, one straw breaking this brittle camel’s back.
We are in a profoundly nasty moment, and though my personal emotional suffering matters not one iota compared with what a Palestinian in Gaza or a mourner in Israel is experiencing, I can report that I don’t remember anything like this in contentious moments of the past.
Can we do better? I don’t know. Just as the roots of the conflict are deep, so are the roots of our polarization. Jews, especially progressive ones, have just watched the largest massacre of Jewish people since the Holocaust go unremarked-upon or even cheered by the same “allies” with whom we have marched for decades – allies who, within one week, pivoted to accusing the Jewish state of genocide. Meanwhile, progressives in solidarity with Palestine are watching as the United States funds and applauds a military campaign that is killing thousands of innocent people – and with Jewish organizations shouting antisemitism every time an activist tries to protest that fact or even call for a ceasefire (which, for the record, is obviously not antisemitic). These are not wounds that will simply go away.
Personally, what’s worked for me has been to stay broken-hearted, instead of enraged. And there, I have found community. My people are the other broken-hearted people, the ambivalent people. I have friends who are supportive of the military operation, friends who have been arrested for opposing it, Zionist friends and anti-Zionist friends. But our political differences are secondary. What’s primary is that we feel the agony of this moment and abhor the surety of slogans and self-righteousness.
From that emotional source, I’ve found, has come an aversion to the extreme language that is so prevalent right now, from the dehumanization of Palestinians on the right to the “river to the sea” language on the Left. (Yes, that phrase may be meant as some peaceful, aspirational hope, but for over fifty years it has been a call to militarily annihilate Israel, including by Hamas. That is genocide, and to use such vague language in intolerable.)
And I’ve formed an intense distrust of anyone who has simple answers and blame for only one side. There is no simple solution to this conflict, and both sides have plenty of tragedies. Both sides have people responsible for this tragedy, and more innocent people caught in the middle of it. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t stand up for what we believe in. But we can stay true to our moral values without preaching them like fundamentalists.
We’re being awful to each other because we’re hurting. I wonder, in the moment before pain ferments into rage, if there might be a chance for compassion to emerge.
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Meanwhile, I do have something to celebrate:
I’m quite excited that my first book of fiction is soon to be published. I’ll share more about it in this newsletter soon, but in the meantime here’s the link to register for the free online launch event. And here’s a link to the book page on my website where you can find out more about this bizarre little creation of mine, and pre-order a copy. My publisher is setting up book tour dates now, so please be in touch with me if you’d like to arrange one.