Bodies of Palestinians killed by Israeli bombs outside al-Shifa hospital, Gaza, 10/12/2023

Before the Next Bullet

by Aron Wander, Hebrew College rabbinical student living in Jerusalem

For the past week and a half, I’ve been wishing things would go back to “normal”: back before Hamas’ horrific violence, before they slaughtered whole families, before I could hear the sound of jets above every five minutes carrying bombs to Gaza, before the bombs in Gaza, before so many dead children all over this land, before hostages suffering in Gaza, before Israel cut off food to millions of Palestinians, before, before, before…

And if I, who haven’t suffered anything during this war except the fear of a handful of rockets overhead, reliably shot down by the iron dome, wish things would go back to normal, how much more so must the Israeli families whose lives have been irrevocably shattered, the hostages languishing in horrific captivity, the fleeing Gazans counting their ever-mounting dead and their bombed-out homes, the Palestinians in the West Bank suffering a new wave of
settler attacks — how much more so must they all wish things would go back to the way they were only a week and a half ago.

But it was the world as it was before that brought us to today. It was in that world — the “before times” — that Hamas was planning this horrific massacre, even if we didn’t know it. It was in that world that the occupation was grinding on, Israeli civilians were being killed, Palestinian civilians were being killed, Palestinian homes were being demolished, Gazans were under siege, Israeli teenagers were being drafted into manning checkpoints and roadblocks across
the West Bank, and settlers were running rampant across Palestinian villages. None of this is, God forbid, to justify Hamas’ violence, or Israel’s violent response, or any of the violence in the past week: it is just to note that all of that violence was already all there, in that old world, waiting to burst forth at any moment, “peering through the window, gazing through the lattice” (Song of
Songs 2:9).

And now, that old world has brought us to one even more terrifying and brutal: Hamas’ unbelievably cruel, unjustifiable violence; the reckless, massive bombardment of Gaza and the inhumane denial of food and water to civilians; hostages suffering Hamas’ cruelty; Israeli troops, some of them dear friends of mine, massed on the Gaza border and defending the northern border with Lebanon; the promise of a ground invasion that will kill thousands of civilians and hundreds of soldiers; the possibility of Hezbollah firing indiscriminately at Israeli cities and provoking an Israeli and US bombing of southern Lebanon; the fear of a regional war with no end in sight.

We stand here now, with one foot in hell and the other marching to join it.

The apocalyptic Jewish tradition predicts that the Messiah will come precisely in a moment of absolute catastrophe: “When the Messiah approaches […] the Galilee shall be destroyed, and the Gavlan will be desolate” (M. Sotah 9:15). For the rabbis, such a statement must have held out hope in the midst of crisis: it promised that all of their suffering served some redemptive purpose.

I do not believe there is anything redemptive about this suffering. I do not believe that things must get worse before they get better, or that chaos will inevitably lead to utopia. In all likelihood, this catastrophe will only lead to ones far greater and terrible yet to come.

But perhaps there is another, deeper way of reading the rabbis: that it is precisely in the midst of horrific destruction, with the promise of further horrors on the way, that we must imagine another world. Now, before the next bomb, the next bullet, the next brutality and the thousand brutalities it spawns — now, before we blot out those possible futures that may yet live.

What we do now will reverberate for generations. Israelis are mourning the vicious slaughter of a thousand friends and family by Hamas; Gazans are mourning thousands of people killed by Israeli airstrikes and fleeing by the hundreds of thousands. If Israel invades, killing many more thousands of civilians, how much more future violence will be planted?

There will be no peace and safety for Palestinians or Israelis without peace and safety for the other. There will be no security without equality, without an end to the occupation, violence against Israeli and Palestinian civilians, home demolitions, land theft, terrorism, air strikes, forced displacement. Hamas’s violence has already set back by decades the dim prospects for peace and solidarity long battered by the occupation; how many more decades will a ground invasion set them back further?

In a day or two, things may look even worse. I pray that they do not. But even if we awake to a world more terrible than this one, I still believe that it would be an unforgiveable sin to despair. The philosopher William James often wrote that certain possibilities are only open to us if we begin by believing they are possible, even without evidence. I do not have any evidence to prove that a just,
egalitarian future for Israelis and Palestinians is possible, but if we forfeit our belief in it, it will be foreclosed irrevocably. Despair is a death sentence. Let us choose life, so that we may live.

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