That’s Really Young: Meditations on Peace From an Israeli-American
The Israel-Hamas conflict from the perspective of an Israeli-American.
Reading Time: 5 minutes
A few weeks ago, on a sunny Saturday in early October, I awoke to my mother cracking open the door to my bedroom. “Motek,” she whispered in shaky Hebrew, “something’s happened.”
Still groggy and a little irked at the disruption of my precious sleep, I pulled the covers over my head, blocking out the sunlight from my window. That phrase, “something’s happened,” would normally have made me anxious enough to listen, but in that moment, all was blocked out for five more seconds of sleep.
“Motek,” she said again, this time surer and louder. I jolted slightly and sat up in bed, trying to focus my eyes, which had grown unsteady with tiredness. “Israel’s been invaded. Everyone we know is fine as of now, but I thought you ought to know.”
I nodded rapidly and rushed over to my phone to Google the invasion she was talking about—whatever it was—and pulled up the first article. It mentioned the abduction and murders of people, some still teenagers, during the Nova music festival.
“Mom, have you seen this?” I asked, showing her the article on my phone. “What is it?”
“Oh, I know all about that. It’s really awful. Those teenagers, the ones they say were abducted in the article? Some of them were friends of your older cousins,” she explained.
“It says here they’re 19, Mom.”
“Sounds about right; your cousin’s 18.”
“No, I didn’t think you were wrong, it’s just… that’s really young.”
“Younger than your brother, even.”
This has been my reality for the past few weeks as an Israeli-American with family in Israel—reading a news story, feeling appalled, and then realizing my family was inches away from having their names in that story, from becoming a statistic. It’s terrifying and saddening, but it’s also not what people think it is, having family in Israel right now. It’s not what people think it is because everyone assumes I’m angry. They walk on eggshells when discussing the conflict around me, scared that their opinion might set me off, as though I’m a bomb that could explode at any moment.
The thing is, I’m not angry: not at the people of Israel, the people of Palestine, or anyone. People assume that since my family is endangered by Hamas, I am mad at the people of the country Hamas originated from, but that’s just not the case. Since I was little, my community in New York City has pegged my country and culture as the “wrong” one, depicting it as some missile-throwing terrorist organization. But when I think of Israel, I have always just thought of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. They are just people to me, not terrorists or extremists. And sure, the country of Israel has terrorist groups within it, but those groups don't define the people of Israel. We have some terrible, violent people in America too, but that doesn’t mean that all Americans should be perceived as terrible and violent. So when people started calling Palestinians terrorists and extremists simply because Hamas originated in their country, I instead thought of the Palestinians as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Like my family in Israel, they’re just normal people in a country that happens to have some bad people within it.
It’s always been important to me to separate the idea of a country, or its governing party, from the people living inside it; they’re completely different things. Take Israel, for example: when we think of Israel right now, we think of a war zone, a place full of soldiers getting hurt and hurting others. But in Israel, not too far from said soldiers, my seven-year-old cousin is playing with her Barbies and baking chocolate chip cookies. I can’t hate a sweet little kid like that, so why should I hate Palestine, a country full of seven-year-olds just like my cousin? It just doesn’t make sense.
So, as appalled as I am by the violence in Israel, I have been even more appalled by the undeserved hatred directed toward both sides. I will never stop feeling sickened by the extremist riots on both sides, each claiming that the other “deserved” their casualties; no person “deserves” to be harmed, and yet some of my peers have been posting that the victims “had it coming.” It is traumatizing enough to watch the violence unfold, but it’s even worse when my peers seem to support it, often without factual basis. In the weeks following the initial attack, I’ve seen hate speech pop up everywhere, from the anonymous Stuy Confessions Facebook account to personal Instagram stories. One such post even included a crudely drawn cartoon of an Israeli soldier, grinning while pointing his gun at a soldier who is seemingly from Palestine. The Israeli soldier looks in the mirror and sees himself, but with a swastika emblazoned on his sleeve. He continues to grin as the caption reads “The irony of becoming what you once hated.” This has proven to be even more hurtful to an Israeli-American like myself than seeing the headlines about Israel every morning.
Due to the knowledge that people within our communities despise us for the Israeli government’s actions, Israeli-Americans often don’t feel secure in formerly safe spaces. One of my friends called me after the initial attack in October, asking me whether I thought it was safe for him to go to synagogue that day.
“Have you heard about what’s happening in Israel right now? Is your family all right?” he asked, his cat hissing at him in the background.
“Yeah, I did, and they’re all right, thanks for asking. My little cousins are a little scared but they’ll be fine.”
“Oh, I’m sorry about that. Hey, I’ve gotta ask you, do you think I should go to synagogue today?”
“Sure, why not, if you want to? I mean the service is long, but—”
“No, I want to go, of course! But there have been all sorts of anti-Israel demonstrations, even some at Columbia, and I just don’t wanna see that, you know?”
“Yeah. Hey, Columbia the university, right? So there could be, like, 18-year-old Israeli students out there watching?”
“That’s only a year older than me. That’s really young.”
“Yeah, it is.”
In Israel, Palestine, and here in New York City, users on social media perpetuate the misconception that violence and spiteful words are okay if they think a person “deserves it.” By doing this in front of impressionable young people, they have effectively taught hate speech as a first language. Whatever visions we may have of other people, distorted by bias or not, it’s vitally important that we never celebrate anyone’s suffering or cheer on someone’s loss. If we continue to do this, we will not only create a world where hate is the norm, but will also perpetuate a cycle of fear, spite, and violence, passing on these patterns to future generations.