Ilene Prusher is an award-winning journalist and novelist who covered Israel from the ground for 15 years for The Christian Science Monitor, Time, Haaretz, Moment and other publications. She returned to the states with her Israeli husband and two children in 2015 and now teaches journalism at Florida Atlantic University. During her time covering the Middle East, Prusher says she went to “practically every inch” of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. As the violence in Gaza and Israel continues into a second week, Moment speaks to her about the social risks of empathy in a time of war, the dangers of a framework of “moral equivalence,” and the pain of seeing this cycle of violence continue.
When we interviewed you during the 2014 incursion into Gaza, we asked how your kids were holding up. And you answered that they were too young to know what’s going on. Seven years later, I want to ask the same question. Now my kids are nine and ten and a half, and my son in particular is an avid follower of the news and politics. But the news is upsetting for my daughter, so we try not to watch too much. Because they go to a Jewish day school, the kids are being exposed to a variety of views; for example, there are a lot of people who believe “they’re terrorists and they hate us,” but my kids also know that their mom has some Palestinian friends, whom we’ve had many visits with over the years. So my kids are aware that they’re somehow out of sync with their peers. When I saw that planes had to be diverted because there are so many missiles flying through the air, and we’re supposed to be flying to Israel in less than two months, I didn’t want them to panic. I don’t know that we’ve gotten as deeply into what’s really happening there as we should. At what age should you start using a term like “occupation” with your children? Can they be taught to hold that simultaneously with the feeling that Israel has a right to exist?
Do you feel this conflict is different from previous ones in any way? I went to Israel in 1993 for an internship, so I covered the Oslo Accords and their aftermath, which was a very exciting time. I remember Shimon Peres used to say things like, “We’ve reached the point of no return” on the two-state solution, and there was this idea that things can only move forward. And it turned out that was wrong. That forward movement stopped because of the Rabin assassination.
Back when the Accords were signed, I felt like I had the answers, that I had something I really believed in. Now I’m not sure what to believe in or even what to argue for. We’ll get to a ceasefire, and then what? Hamas is still in control of Gaza. I don’t think either Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is rushing to the negotiating table. So I’m almost praying for a new generation of leadership, but I don’t know when that will arise. In Israel, we just saw four elections in two years, and the Palestinian issue was hardly on the agenda. It was as if there wasn’t really a Palestinian issue anymore.
How do you walk the line between despair or dismay and being desensitized? Sometimes I feel as if living in the shadow of violence when you are an Israeli or a Palestinian is like a dance that you know well. And you might not dance it for a while, but you don’t forget how it goes. You don’t forget the friends with the stories of running into the crowded bomb shelter, or stairway, or safe room. And for people who have small kids, as I did during that last war, you wonder: Can I lift both of these kids who weigh 40 pounds apiece and run down three flights of stairs? One time when the siren went off I just stayed in the bedroom and prayed because my husband was out, and I couldn’t carry both kids down three flights of steps in the 15 seconds that I needed to do it in. It was hard.
One time I posted on Facebook something along the lines of, “I’m rushing off to the shelter, but I’m thinking about how there’s a mother somewhere in Gaza just like me and she doesn’t have a shelter to run to.” And that really pissed off some of my friends in Israel, people who you think would have very enlightened politics. If you’re a Jewish or Israeli writer who sees it as your duty and your privilege to also tell part of the Palestinian story, you almost need an Iron Dome for your ego, for your emotional well-being. People are not above using terms like “Arab lover” and “traitor.”
What does the term “moral equivalence” mean to you? People who use the term “moral equivalence,” who criticize others for making a moral equivalence, are ipso facto saying that one side has the moral high ground. And I don’t think that view takes into consideration historical realities and Palestinian life under occupation.
For example, I wrote a story about two mothers who lost their sons, and I thought, “Who can’t empathize with a mother who lost her son? That should be a human window into this awful conflict.” And a friend read it and said, “I really didn’t like your story.” And I said, “Well, what didn’t you like about it? Did it bother you how much it humanizes them when you see these really sad parents and the kids’ empty bedrooms?” And he said, “Yeah, I didn’t like that. I didn’t like a story that would play on my emotions.” That was how he said it, like, “You’re trying to make me feel empathy for them and portray them as kind of likable and human, and I don’t want that right now.”
This was toward the tail end of the second intifada when there were all the suicide bombings. And when you’re under attack, it’s a lot easier to process if you think you’re on the right side of the conflict and of history; they’re wrong and they just hate us, and they’re terrorists, and they’re evil. And as a journalist, you have to say, “Okay, some people are not going to like my story and I’m just going to have to live with it.” Your job as a journalist is to keep bringing the stories that will not allow people to forget about the other side’s humanity. And it’s hard because not everybody has the appetite for that when you’re on the verge of a war.
Are you ever tempted to relinquish this nuance? I’ve been pretty much everywhere in Gaza, in Israel, in the West Bank over the years, and so I feel like I really do see the humanity of everyone there. But at the same time I also have to acknowledge I’m Jewish, and I’ve attached myself in some ways to the Israeli story by marrying an Israeli. After spending about 15 years of my life in Israel, I can’t pretend to be an outsider. When I look at the people for whom it’s so easy, supporting just one side and saying “stand with Israel,” part of me admires them and even has an envy of this almost pure narrative, which doesn’t really include the fullness of history, or humanity, or reality, but it works for people. That’s their truth, and in some ways I think life would have been simpler if I had stuck with that, and had stuck with the Zionism I was introduced to when I first studied in Israel while in college.
But I can’t unsee what I saw, I can’t unhear what I heard. I can’t not have seen what life is really like in Gaza or the West Bank, or what people go through when they get up at three in the morning to go wait in line at a checkpoint trying to get to a job at a factory in Israel to feed their families.
What kind of criticism do you get, and how do you handle it? I wrote a story for Time during the 2014 war in Gaza. And I got an email from someone whom I liked a lot on a personal level, who was so upset that I talked about the war and I didn’t mention the three teenage boys who had been kidnapped and killed, which was part of the initial cycle of violence that led to the war. Though that was a trigger, it was not the whole story of the war by any means. But to this person it was unbelievable that I didn’t mention that and didn’t mention the exact number of rockets that they sent at Israel yesterday.
On those days, I think that you have to write a good reflection of your reporting, what you’re hearing, what you’re seeing, and not worry about the fact that lots of people are not going to be fond of what you write. But actually, in some ways I find it harder here in Florida than I did over there. I think when you’re there, people know that you’re in the thick of it and you’re kind of an expert. But once you’re in America, there’s even more pressure not to criticize anything that’s happening in Israel. I remember when I was leaving, in 2015, someone said to me, “Be really careful what you write about Israel and what you say about Israel once you’re over there in America. Don’t give people any reason to not like us.” It was almost like, “Go out and be an ambassador.” And I would quietly remind myself, some people are on this earth to be ambassadors, and some of us are on this earth to be truth-tellers and journalists.
The truth can hurt, but it can also help, and it can heal—and that truth matters. You are not going to fix your problems by avoiding them. You have to go into the belly of the beast. To make sense of them, you have to go through them.