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I’ve spent my life since October 7th receding from reality, living in the back of my mind and forcing my body through daily tasks like an automaton. I frequently collapse into bed at the end of the day and realize I haven’t eaten. I’ve struggled to find an appropriate outlet to accommodate the enormity of my grief, the only thing I’m certain I feel, and I severely doubt that such an outlet exists. I wish, as Jewish Currents editor Arielle Angel does in her excellent October 12th letter published therein, that we could build one, but I recognize that this is not the priority right now. It couldn’t be.
At the time of writing, Israeli forces have killed over 8,000 people in Gaza since October 7th, including over 3,000 children. In a territory of just over two million people, this is somewhere around one out of every 260 residents. Per the United Nations, more than 1.4 million Gazans have been displaced since the current round of fighting began, well over half of the Gaza Strip’s population; additionally, more than 30% of housing units in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed. Israel has cut off Gaza’s water, food, electricity, and fuel. The Israeli-American Holocaust and genocide studies scholar Raz Segal called Israel’s actions in Gaza “a textbook case of genocide” in a Jewish Currents article published on October 13th. On October 15th, more than 800 international law, conflict studies, and genocide scholars (including two excellent Reed professors) signed on to a statement published in Third World Approaches to International Law Review conveying a similar warning. Meanwhile, as Segal writes in a more recent Guardian article, Israeli officials are exploiting the memory of the Holocaust to justify their massacre of Palestinians by construing them as Nazis. The worst of Israel’s violence is likely yet to come, as its long-expected ground invasion of Gaza commences.
Pause. Read Palestinian writer Hala Alyan’s excellent poem, “Naturalized.”
“That number is a first word, a nickname, a birthday song in June.”
Can you even try to comprehend the depth of the tragedy of 8,000 people murdered in three weeks, with more dying by the minute? Of 1.4 million people displaced from their homes, themselves mostly Nakba survivors and their descendants? And at least as importantly, can you make sure you treat the 2.1 million people still alive in Gaza as people when they’re alive? Can you answer to them for your own complicity, when your tax dollars fund the bombs dropping on them, when the news outlets you write for participate in their discursive elimination, when your institutions invest in apartheid, when your employers take Israeli security contracts?
A former colleague from a Jewish progressive organization reports that a friend, and that friend’s children, were killed in the attack by Palestinian armed groups on October 7th. An Israeli-American leftist activist with ties to the West Bank Palestinian community of Masafer Yatta, where I know people, died shielding others. A graduate of the high school where many of my friends went and where I took the ACT was killed in action. A relative of a current anti-Zionist comrade is held hostage.
I have struggled to find an appropriate way to grieve publicly, but I know that my friends’ friends did not die for this genocide to be executed on their behalf. Some of them were Palestine solidarity activists, some of them were soldiers of the longest-lasting, most brutal occupation in the modern world; in the settler-colonial context there is a fundamental continuity between even these opposites. What matters, though, is that the people being killed in their names right now do not need to die, and more people will die, on and on, unless the occupation ends. In the past decade and a half up to October 7th, 95% of casualties of Israeli-Palestinian violence were Palestinian. The root cause of all violence in Palestine is the ongoing colonial dispossession of Palestinians, and as long as Palestinians do not consign themselves to die quietly like the noble victims endemic to the Western imaginary, there will be resistance in all possible forms, including some very grotesque ones. Pointing this out is not a call to equalize the death tolls, but a recognition of the unequal nature of the socio-political reality on the ground and a call to ensure that nobody else needs to die.
A call to ensure that nobody else needs to die is a call to end the siege on Gaza, to let the refugees back and erase the borders, to free all the prisoners and close the prisons, to dismantle the checkpoints and surveillance infrastructure and tanks and nuclear warheads that keep settlers dominant over Palestinians, and to create the conditions for a just peace. It is inevitable that as part of this process we will have more people to mourn for because power is freely surrendered nowhere. But the best thing any of us can do is channel our grief, love, and rage into an even more steadfast commitment to collective liberation.
The highest priority in Jewish ethics is pikuach nefesh, the preservation of human life. In the oft-repeated words of Hillel the Elder, “Whosoever destroys one soul, it is as though he had destroyed the entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved the entire world.” There are many worlds to mourn. None of them are more worldly than any others. And there are so many more worlds to save.
As Palestinian-American literary scholar Saree Makdisi argues in a recent n+1 article, anyone who truly finds violence abhorrent “must stop the hideous system of racial segregation, dispossession, occupation, and apartheid that has disfigured and tormented Palestine since 1948”, rather than retreating back into the Western liberal discourse that treats Palestinians’ experiences and responses to colonialism as beyond all representation. I have been involved in various forms of Jewish-Palestinian solidarity activism since 2020. From my place of safety, I have watched too many people die in that time. Though the path is evidently fraught, I remain committed to a world where nobody is oppressed and nobody is an oppressor, and therefore one where nobody has to die for freedom – their own or someone else’s. To mildly exploit another Hillel quote, the rest is commentary.
I highly encourage everyone reading this to engage with Reed Students for Justice in Palestine (I am not writing as a representative of this group). From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free in our lifetimes.