Grief Guides Us to the Path of Empathy: Distraught Reflections on the Trauma of Israel and Gaza

To affirm the obvious, the past week has been an emotional cocktail of grief, shock, horror, fear, anger, and confusion from the current, grotesque wave of brutality in Israel-Palestine. I and many people in my circles are proximate to Jewish Israelis whose voices of profound pain are cacophonous in our newsfeeds and correspondence. Some of us have relatives, friends, and acquaintances who have been killed or are missing. I, myself, fear the worst for the son of dear friends in West Jerusalem who is injured and in Hamas captivity in Gaza. There is wisdom in sitting with those feelings of grief, pain, and fear, pausing before subjecting them to an intellectualization which may be a pretext to suppress them. 

There is also wisdom in reflecting on our feelings, especially on intense feelings of grief, pain, loss, and fear. Grief can lead to empathy and solidarity, but it can also lead to dehumanization and abuse. The latter is, tragically, the more common human tradition and the prevailing custom in the U.S. and Israel-Palestine. The same structures that make suffering in this world more visible and available for empathy, such as social media, also have a distorting effect, making the suffering on our timeline more real than the suffering of those from whom we have been isolated. 

The Rabbis challenge us to practice such reflection in a famous midrash on the beginning of the Book of Lamentations/Eikha, the elegies for the murder, displacement, home invasion, and exile of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. Rabbi Abbahu notes that the haunting word Eikha/איכה, the anguished cry — “Alas!” or “How could it be?!” — which opens Lamentations, shares identical spelling with an unusual word from the beginning of the Torah, God’s question to the primordial human, in hiding from God after violating the prohibition on eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. God asks Adam, Ayekka/איכה: Where are you? (Midrash Eikha Rabbah, Introduction: 4). The only difference between Eikha and Ayekkaאֵיכָה and אַיֶּכָּה, is the vowels, which are not written in the Biblical text, but have to be filled in by the interpretive reader. The midrash conflates these two words, teaching that our lamentation implies a Divine question. Lurking in the letters of our grief and horror at what has happened to us is the question we are always being asked: Where are you in this destruction? Who are you going to be? The destruction of Jerusalem reverberates with Adam and Eve’s banishment from ‘Eden. Our particular experiences of trauma connect us to patterns of such trauma throughout human experience. 

The horror and trauma of the Hamas massacre on communities of south-central Israel are inextricably linked in Jewish time with the beginning of the Torah, the book of Bereishit/Genesis and its powerful themes of violence and trauma. The emotional interplay of Eikha/Ayekka colors perhaps the most traumatic story in Genesis, the Binding of Isaac (chapter 22), when Abraham came with millimeters of slaughtering his favorite son, Isaac, on his perception of God’s command. How does Isaac process his trauma?

Isaac’s whereabouts are a mystery; he disappears after his life is spared. On the way up the mountain, the Torah emphasizes that Abraham and Isaac “walked together” (Genesis 22:6, 8). On the way down, after the narrowly averted slaughter, “Abraham returned to his servants and they walked together” (Genesis 22:19). Where did Isaac go? The next time we see him is two chapters later, when he returns to meet his spouse, Rebecca. “Isaac, meanwhile, had come back from the vicinity of Be’er-lahai-ro’i” (24:62). Where is Be’er-lahai-ro’i? It was the place where, years earlier, God spoke to and supported Isaac’s frightened and pregnant step-mother, Hagar, after she fled from Sarah and Abraham’s abuse. The Rabbis infer that this must be the place Hagar and Ishma’el returned to and settled years later, when Abraham banished them with meager bread and water after perceiving Ishma’el mistreating Isaac. Isaac, the favored son, the empowered son, on whose behalf Ishma’el and Hagar were abused and exiled, experiences unfathomable trauma but does not try to compete with Hagar and Ishma’el for who has suffered more. Having experienced trauma resonant with theirs, he goes to them, identifies with them, and builds solidarity with them. 

This reconciliation was not fleeting. After Abraham dies, Isaac and Ishma’el bury him together (25:8-9), and “Isaac settled at Be’er-lahai-ro’i” (25:11): he cast his lot long-term with Hagar and Ishma’el, who had been abused, displaced, and dispossessed for years, whose trauma had not been averted. Isaac’s trauma on Mt. Moriah orients him to see Ishma’el in ways he hadn’t seen him before. Ishma’el wasn’t just his cruel tormenter: he was a person, a brother, who had been dispossessed — on Isaac’s behalf! — abused, exiled, nearly starved to death. Isaac’s trauma doesn’t prevent him from seeing Ishma’el’s trauma; it helps him understand what was in front of his eyes all along. Isaac heard the Ayekka within his cries of Eikha and he responded.

The horror of the Simchat Torah massacre is massive. Hamas committed war crimes. This legal designation translates into accountability the enormity of the violence and human trauma. We must mourn the murdered souls, work for the safe return of hostages, and care, in body and in spirit, for the injured. These feelings of grief, fear, and trauma are educational. Our cries of Eikha imply Ayekka. These feelings point us to their mirror image, their template, which has been before our eyes for decades in the experiences of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli Defense Forces. 

We are rightly horrified by Hamas’s mass murder of non-combatant civilians. According to the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, in the last 23 years, prior to this Hamas attack, Israel has killed at least 4918 Palestinian noncombatant civilians, and probably many more. Israeli soldiers have testified that in certain operations, such as the 2014 Operation Protective Edge, they were instructed to kill indiscriminately, without regard to civilian-combatant distinctions protected by law. Days ago, justifying the Israeli bombardment and likely ground invasion of Gaza, the centrist Israeli President Isaac Herzog publicly stated that no one in Gaza should be considered a civilian: since Gazans have not staged a coup to oust Hamas, they must be supporters. If all Gazans are Hamas combatants, including the half of the population who are minors, then surely we couldn’t object to Palestinians seeing reserve soldiers and even children in a state with a compulsory draft to a citizen army as enemy combatants. The inhumanity is dizzying. Is “civilian” just another word for “people to whom I’m connected”? Outrage at Hamas’s targeting of civilians cannot lead to justification of an exponentially greater targeting of civilians. 

More than anything, we have been rightly horrified by Hamas’s gruesome murder of children. That horror should also guide us to untapped empathy, as we hear ourselves: killing children is horrific and unjustifiable. Since 2000 and before this week, Israel has killed at least 2,270 Palestinian children and possibly many more. During that same period, Israel has arrested/kidnapped/taken hostage 10,000 children, often torturing them. In fact, for the past several Congresses, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) has introduced legislation (H.R. 2407) prohibiting American funding contributing to the military detention of children in any country, including Israel. The American Jewish organizations now rightly outraged about attacks on children have not been champions of this bill, to say the least. All of us shaken by Hamas’s attacks on children have drawn a moral red line around children; it should be basic to our politics to oppose Israeli attacks on children and support HR 2407. Do we care about children or just our children? 

Every trauma that Hamas perpetrated, Israel has perpetrated on Palestinians in greater scope from 1948 to the present, including massacres of villages (e.g., Dir Yassein, Tantura, and more). This recognition has been a hard pill for me to swallow over the years and I see how challenging it is for others to swallow it in the context of an American empire that turns geopolitics and war into sport, with only binary options of good guys and bad guys. The widening of our perception stimulated by our trauma should not lead us, God forbid, to cynically justify brutality and war crimes. Our horror and trauma are righteous. Hamas builds roads away from human liberation, not toward it. Our trauma must lead to the hard acknowledgement that, as harshly as we rightly view Hamas and its actions, Palestinians have as much or more reason to view the Israeli army as a terrorist body. It still makes me cringe to type that sentence: I know, like, and love many hundreds of people who have been IDF soldiers. I don’t think of them as bad people or terrorists, but I can’t honestly avoid the conclusion about the IDF as a whole to which my grief points me. I can’t expect others to attend to my trauma if I don’t attend to theirs. When I resist the urge to look away from the history and present, I see that the Israeli state has and continues to subject the Palestinian people to absolutely catastrophic atrocities. 

There are atrocities around the world today and have been throughout my life. In most times and places, I have not paid much attention, beyond, tsking, “that’s terrible.” I have been agitated, traumatized, and politicized when victims of atrocities have been in my circles. Through Isaac, the Torah charges us to reach through our trauma toward empathy, to notice, recognize, witness, and even feel the pain of those we haven’t noticed before, even those who have harmed us, as Isaac experienced harm by Ishma’el. The pain and trauma of this week are real, and the horror is palpable. Eikha! The only path through is the path of ever-widening spheres of empathy, of perceiving the trails of trauma that have led to this moment and the dark days likely before us. Ayekka? Right now, our grief and trauma are being directed to war crimes on a colossal scale: mass murder of civilians and children, population transfer, ethnic cleansing. It does not have to be this way. May our trauma neither freeze nor narrow us, but broaden our empathy and radicalize us to end this Catastrophe of occupation, apartheid, terror, and killing.

In loving memory of my family and friends who have been killed in this history…and of all the others, whose stories have been made proximate to me and whose stories I have to reach to hear, may their memories be for blessing.

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