Living and working as a Jew in Gaza (2011 – 2015), I did not change sides. I saw the futility of the sides. With an extraordinary team and a niece in Israel, I was surrounded by smart, loving young adults. None of them wanted to raise their children in a bloody cul de sac. The music of their hope was contrapuntal.
I am not Gazan, and I do not speak for Gaza. I write about it because it is hidden and distorted. Two million human beings are endangered behind that wall.
We have to transform our understanding of the conflict. We have to re-think and resolve it.
Growing up in Canada, the non-Jewish kids would sometimes ask, “If Canada goes to war with Israel, who will you fight for?” I didn’t get it. Canada would not go to war with Christianity, so why should it fight Judaism? Israel was my religion, more accessible than the one in books.
In 1988, while I was visiting Jerusalem, the stone-throwing Intefadeh brought my religion crashing into my politics. What made it worthwhile for young men to confront an army with nothing more than stones in their hands? I was not prepared to understand. I backed away from the whole, intransigent mess of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and put my religion on hold.
I moved to New Zealand, and began to work with civilians affected by war (see the bio tab).
Twenty-three years later, in mid-2011, I was asked to move to Gaza. I went for secular, professional reasons. But I’d never had a team like my Gaza team: graduate degrees, life-loving, as coherent as villagers who know they will live together for a long time – and creative and stuck, living still lives in an entropic world. They introduced me to aspiring, professional Gaza; a whole, complex society.
I had been told that Gaza was a flat plain of hatred. Instead, here was a miniature world that held the whole spectrum of humanity, professions and arts, education, suffering, resentment, love and rage.
What am I going to believe, everything I’ve always been told or the world in front of my eyes?
Gaza’s stateless vulnerability resonated with me as a Jew, because statelessness was the problem statement of Zionism. When one colleague received a permit, we drove to Jerusalem and her eyes filled with tears at the sight of the golden Dome of the Rock. How could I doubt that we loved the same place?
I developed a pronoun disorder. When the IDF fired missiles into my team’s neighbourhoods, “we” increasingly fired at “us”. I am not Gazan, which in Arabic sounds like Ghaza-wi, but I was becoming Gaza-we. Gaza had begun to alter my understanding of us, we, the parties and the landscape of this conflict. I began to study all of us by rechargeable lantern after the lights failed. Within the walls of Gaza, I discovered Judaism through its Prophetic ethic, while I encountered Israel through its exercise of power.
On the first night of the 2012 war, when they realized that I had not (yet) been evacuated, members of my team instantly offered to leave their families, pick me up, and bring me to their homes. They maintained their own strength and courage by caring for each other. I had no qualms about choosing to remain and work in Gaza through the 2014 war. Demonized and walled-in, Gaza was unprotected and its civilians had no escape from the onslaught. I was a member of UNRWA’s Central Operations team, opening shelters for 293,000 displaced Gazans. The shelter schools – that’s another story. I think of them as fifty days from the end of the world.
On the day that the IDF obliterated the homes of 92,000 Palestinians in Shuja’iyya, I felt the ground tremble. A felt a fabric tearing as Israel left me.
I lived one more year in the shock of Gaza. In Palestine, where Israel is the Occupying Power, I wholeheartedly protest its presence in someone else’s country. When I crossed into Israel, I could not be at ease knowing that people’s rights and life prospects were ethnically determined. How could a Jewish state espouse such illiberal values?
That is one question for my blog. It’s easy to disavow the illiberal and military policies of Israel, but what is the responsibility of a non-Israeli Jew to / for a state that acts in our name?
I came home to New Zealand in September, 2015, and reconstructed my way of being a Jew. I love my religion. I learned to chant from the Torah and celebrated my Bat Mitzvah. Judaism lives in our law, and it walks with our daily actions. It stands with endangered people and seeks justice. It buttresses the international laws which condemn any violence aimed at civilians. It is disgraced by the walls around Gaza, and by the conduct of the Occupation. Silence is an enabler, and I do not acquiesce to the present path.
That is my second question here, and it is not a particularly Jewish question. What must good people do, to resolve this conflict and, urgently, protect the people of Gaza?
Adding Adjectives to Gaza
The walls around Gaza pretend to confine a single enemy object. In fact, they conceal a society. Two million people, half of them youth or children, and most of them non-combatants, are trapped by the blockade.
Their concealment is dangerous as well as wrong. The wall implies that Gaza is interchangeable with Hamas, a single object to be managed through deprivation and violence. The wall hides humanity while the rhetoric describes Gaza as a demon, not a community of humans like us. When we stop recognizing Gaza as a neighbourhood like our own, we tolerate violence that we would not tolerate at home.
And then Gaza slips off the agenda. Increasingly, I read about the prospect of solutions for the West Bank. Gaza is gone.
Hamas is not Gaza, and Gaza is not Hamas.
I want to challenge others – as Gaza challenged me – to cross the lines and remember the people. Transpose their lives onto yours, because pain is not tribal. It is human. Place your child, your sister, yourself, behind that wall. We have to add adjectives to our paltry understand of Gaza. The wall denies Gazans the rights, protections and capacities that all humans share, including the capacity to resolve conflict.
What is Contrapuntal?
One cluster of organizational voices speaks for New Zealand’s Jewish community. Across the spectrum, another cluster of voices protests for Palestinians. I want to invite debate in the unrepresented space between them. When I speak or write about Gaza, I find that it prompts curiosity, goodwill, discomfort, indignation, and helplessness. People find it hard to talk about Gaza, so I try to frame my discussion in the language of human rights, civilian protections, legal accountabities, and international solutions. Rights equalize us, because we all have people to protect.
Peple don’t know what to do about Gaza, from this far away. The leaders who would be needed to make peace presently prefer the risks of war to the risks of solutions. I think we can do plenty, as individuals and as a small country, to shift that balance of risks. New Zealand has something to bring to this issue. We are welcome in the world. We are peaceable, and tenacious once we bite into an issue. Through our Treaty work-in-progress, we have a multi-dimensional understanding of peoples’ attachment to place.
What use is a blog? I don’t know. The fact that no one of us can finish this job does not relieve our responsibility to act. Politics has failed. Violence fails. The Occupation fails to secure anyone, and the wars fail to deter anyone. We – the greater ‘we’ of all postal codes – people are what remains. We have to re-think and we have to resolve.