Today is October 105, 2023.
In most places on the planet, it’s January 12, 2024. But here in Israel, October has never ended. We have been stuck in the month of Shabbat Shachorah (Black Sabbath).
I woke up early that morning, planning to take a short hike to see the white squills that were suddenly in bloom, their bold, tall stalks pushing out of the summer ground to declare that autumn was here. Later, I planned to join the Saturday-night protests for democracy, as hundreds of thousands of Israelis had been doing for 38 consecutive weeks. But by 6:30 a.m., we had begun to understand that horrible things that we had thought could not happen were indeed happening.
Until October 7, we feared for the future of our democracy. But when Hamas brutally flooded into Israel, gleefully slaughtering more than 1,200 people, wounding more than 3,000, and kidnapping more than 250 civilians, including breastfeeding infants and infirm elderly, to Gaza, we began to fear for our individual and collective existence as Israelis and Jews.
The State of Israel was founded, among many other reasons, so that Jews would never again be passive victims, so that we could live as a people in safety. Now, again, we live in a constant sense of dread and insecurity. The state’s institutions, headed by authoritarian politicians who care only for their own futures, and complacent military leaders who were unable or unwilling to see past their own narrow, arrogant assumptions failed us. Jews were slaughtered, torched and raped in their own homes. Unbidden and unwelcome, inherited memories of the terror of the Holocaust forced themselves on me.
The squills have long dried up, and winter rains have brought some green to the hills. Like the seasons, I’d like to move on.
But there are still about 136 hostages left in Gaza. Recently, the UK Daily Mail published pictures of four teenage girls who were taken hostage, alongside “before” pictures provided by the families. In the before pictures, the girls are smiling, posing for the camera, looking hopeful, as if gazing into their futures. In the pictures released by Hamas, their eyes are hollow, and their faces are bruised and bloodied. Hostages who have been released say that the women have been sexually abused.
Hamas hasn’t released the pictures of the infants, the small children. One of them marked his first birthday in Gaza this week. Every child should celebrate their first birthday surrounded by love, not surrounded by terrorists in dark tunnels or in the midst of death and destruction.
News broadcasts are aired hourly, and I wait to exhale, hoping not to hear the two dreaded Hebrew words Hutar l’pirsum (released for publication) the public announcement (always broadcast only after the families have been notified) that soldiers have been killed in battle. When I do hear those words, furtively, guiltily, I hope that I don’t recognize the names, even though I know that someone else certainly does.
More than 200,000 people are still displaced within Israel, evacuated to avoid the rockets that, several times a day, every day, Hamas continues to fire in the south and Hezbollah in the north. War in the north seems more imminent every minute.
Hamas is evil and must be destroyed so that we, Gazans and Israelis, can live. But what does wiping Hamas out really mean, in practical, realistic terms? And how do we wipe out Hamas without killing even more innocent Gazan civilians?
Tens of thousands of Gazans have already died, and who knows how many more will die even before the seasons change? I gulp for air, so that I can care, but I don’t have a lot of emotional bandwidth these days. I also refuse to join the chorus of the self-appointed pro-Israelis who are so certain, as a well-known Jewish novelist wrote on Facebook, that “There are no innocents in Gaza. They [Gazans] supported, they poisoned the minds of their children, who are going to be murderers.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it very clear that he intends to use the trauma and anger we’ve all felt since October 7 for his own political goals. I have no doubt that he is willing to sacrifice our well-being and our lives to keep himself out of jail and in power. I believe that the battle lines he draws are designed to protect himself, first and foremost. He and his government have failed in peace and failed in war, and they need to go. Now.
I have looked for support and solace in the feminist and human rights communities that claim to support justice and human dignity for all. But those who vocally criticize Israel for violations of international law have ignored the violations committed against Jews. The UN and other international agencies, so quick to rightly criticize Israel for violations of international law, have ignored the violations committed against Jews, including the ongoing holding of the hostages (which the UN itself defines a war crime).
They claim to believe women, but have ignored the reports of gender-based violence on October 7. Some, especially among Jewish activists, are busy with their own virtue-signaling as they demand proof and evidence that they would never demand from any other group. Why is it so hard for them to realize that rape is a crime of war, even if the women raped are citizens of a country you don’t approve of?
It’s winter here now. The air is crisp and cold, but I am stuck in October, abandoned by my government and by those I once thought of as fellow human rights activists.
And what support can I find among those who continue to proclaim that the Hamas attack was inevitable and even morally justified, as if the murder of infants is a way to fuel a struggle for liberation from occupation? I refuse to be part of the racism of lowered expectations—as if Palestinians cannot be expected to conduct their justified struggle in any justifiable way.
Yet, in the midst of the dread, the fear, the grief, the rage, there is a like-minded community made up of Jews and Arabs who struggle to hold on to simple truths. One violation of human rights does not negate or justify another violation, because all human rights are universal. It is possible, even imperative, to care for the other as you care for your own, because all life is precious. Compassion is not zero-sum.
None of our leaders, on either side, have provided us any long-term answers other than hatred and aggression. None of them are capable of suggesting a plan that will allow both peoples to be safe in our homes from tunnels below and from airplanes and missiles above.
So it’s up to us, here in this region. And we are working on it, in small working groups, in town hall meetings. Soon it will be spring, and the almond trees will bloom, as they do. And maybe we can all slowly, gingerly, fearfully, but still deliberately, move on to a new season.