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Opinion

Talking across the divide

08 Jan 2024 7 minute read
Photo Bartolomiej Pietrzyk

Jasmine Donahaye

After I read the news on Saturday the 7th of October, I checked with my family. My brother, his children, my aunts, uncle and cousins were all safe in central Israel, though some were under rocket barrage.

But other members of my family – second cousins who lived in Kibbutz Be’eri near the border with Gaza – were unaccounted for. For a long time that day my family didn’t know if they were alive.

Later it emerged that they had spent eighteen hours held hostage in the kibbutz before the army at last regained control. Kibbutz Be’eri was the site of atrocities, including massacre, torture, rape and mutilation.

As news began to emerge of what had happened, and was happening, I was in no doubt about the military response that would come. Nor was I in any doubt that it would be worse than any of Israel’s previous military assaults on Gaza.

It was already beginning.

Upsurge in violence

Usually during an upsurge in violence, I call a friend of mine from Gaza who lives in Switzerland. I’d passed through Zurich just three days earlier, and hadn’t had time to see him. Now I regretted that rush.

When I messaged him to say I was thinking of him and his family, and ‘hoping (as always – and always in vain) that this could be a turning point rather than total catastrophe’, I wasn’t sure he would respond. But he did.

Despite the worsening catastrophe in Gaza, and the dire circumstances of his family, we have talked frequently since then. In fact, he is one of very few people with whom I have felt able to talk freely during these three months of extraordinary violence.

In the days following the Hamas attack on Israel, Welsh broadcast media repeatedly contacted me to ask if I would be willing to come on this or that programme to comment.

Quite apart from objecting to the sometimes explicit requests for me to give my views ‘as a Jew’, I didn’t have views. I had only feelings – raw, awful feelings.

Overwhelmed

When I am overwhelmed and confused, I usually turn to writing to try to work out what I think and what I feel. If I sort that confusion out, and achieve distance from it, sometimes it can seem useful to share it. This time writing has not helped.

I achieve no detachment from my confusion. What I’ve written has remained incoherent and essentially private: writing to try to communicate with myself, rather than writing that can communicate with others.

In my continuing silence as a writer, the clamour of slogans intrudes like a kind of tinnitus. The voices, signs and memes proclaiming sentiments such as ‘silence is acquiescence’; ‘if you’re not with us you’re with the enemy’; and the variants of the misattributed phrase ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’ exhort everyone to take a position, make a statement, join a side.

I suppose such binary slogans offer a welcome kind of simplicity in the face of terrible acts, but they certainly don’t offer any achievable solutions, nor sort out any of my confusion.

My confusion isn’t new, though the scale of it is. It’s something I explored in my memoir, Losing Israel, which was published eight years ago.

All my extended family is Israeli, and all bar a handful currently live in Israel. My mother, born in 1941 under the colonial British Mandate for Palestine, has family roots in nineteenth-century Ottoman Palestine. The story of her family, like that of many Israeli Jews, does not fit the ahistorical narratives about Israel and Palestine that are increasingly popular at either end of the political spectrum.

Conflicting narratives

In Losing Israel, I looked at these conflicting narratives through the filter of my own family history. Although the book was out of date as soon as it was published in 2015 (as is probably the case with most writing on Israel/Palestine), its central concern feels current, and more urgent than ever: the challenge of grappling with mutually exclusive accounts of the past and the present.

At the moment, attempts to look at that complexity is misread as apologetics or complicity. Perhaps in some cases people do cite complexity as a defence against having to deal with the reality of complexity. But nuance is not always ambivalence, and acknowledging contradiction is not always a moral failure.

I think it is the acknowledgement of that complexity that enables me and my friend from Gaza to talk at all. Indeed it is in large part what makes these conversations worth having. It is grievous to have to state that to acknowledge difference and seek to understand it is not to agree with it.

Yet in the atmosphere of the public shouting match that has been going on since October it is necessary to state it. In such a polarised discourse, heated by so much rage and despair, the priority is to urgently advance one ‘correct’ understanding, and to delegitimise anything – and anyone – that deviates from it. Inevitably the result is dehumanisation of one group by the other – which really entails the dehumanisation of both.

Three months into the war on Gaza, I still don’t have anything useful to write about ‘the situation’ because I find that I am still reacting – reacting to events, or reacting to others’ reactions to events. The dismay, grief, disbelief and dread I feel means that I am not yet capable of reflection.

Despair

Even so, despite what has happened and will happen, despite horror and despair, so far my friend and I have been able to talk. In part that’s possible because of a trust built on years of talking through difficult experiences, and wars, and contradictory versions of the past and the present; in part perhaps it’s because it gives us both a small lift of hope.

It certainly gives me hope to be able to talk with him across that divide. It gives me hope that even though we understand things in profoundly different ways, we seem able to see one another not as dehumanised representatives but as individuals and equals – as fellow human beings.

Resolving conflict, whether interpersonal or international, has to rest on acknowledging the humanity of the other, and the equal legitimacy of the other’s story, the other’s experience, or there can be no sustainable resolution. That entails grappling with complexity, rather than taking refuge in binary ways of thinking, or demanding allegiances, as though the war were a football match.

The resolution of conflict is difficult work, and involves difficult conversations that change all who take part in them. It’s hard to have that kind of conversation in public, when exploring any kind of uncertainty is so unwelcome, and so quickly co-opted, judged and condemned.

But I am confident that such conversations are happening in private. Those private conversations give me hope that some connections can survive this terrible, hopeless violence. If there is to be any solution that allows the possibility of future peace, those connections need to be nurtured, and those conversations across either/or divides need to be allowed public space to grow and thrive.

Jasmine Donahaye’s latest book is Birdsplaining: A Natural History


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Josh Senyak
Josh Senyak
1 month ago

Thank you Jasmine for finding words that express what so many of us haven’t known how to say.

Joe Todd
Joe Todd
1 month ago

Finally someone brave enough to articulate the dilemmas and go beyond the binary.

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