It doesn’t matter where the bomb came from. It was dropped from a precision-guided drone. It boarded a bus strapped to a guy’s chest under his clothes. Either way, you approach afterward, it is surreally silent, despite the wailing sirens and the moans and calls for help. You get closer, the world becomes more topsy-turvy, the buildings and street don’t look like normal. They’re shredded and pockmarked by shrapnel. Closer still, and you see trickles of blood running down the sidewalk. Over there, is a severed forearm. Elsewhere, indeterminate flesh. It doesn’t matter who bombed you when that was your arm, your flesh. It doesn’t matter whether they wanted to kill you, or just considered you acceptable “collateral damage”, when they killed you.
Stop it. Stop blowing people up. Stop saying it’s justified. Stop saying your way is more moral than theirs, or at least tell that to the people we blew up.
Here is a story I’ve told myself for a long time; the facts are as true as I can recall, and the structure is something I have given them, probably as a well-developed coping mechanism. (This is a story from the second intifada; if that sort of thing is hard for you to read sometimes, you might choose not to read this. I make that choice sometimes, sometimes it’s a good one.)
Here is the first version, that I have told myself and others for several years.
I was volunteering with Magen David Adom in Jerusalem in 2004. The alarm went off in the station; without knowing what it was we all knew it meant a mass casualty incident. We ran for the ambulances, and started putting on multiple layers of latex gloves to make it easier to change gloves between patients. There were not enough flak jackets, but the driver gave me one, perhaps because I was the youngest, and female; rescuers had been targeted in the past by second bombs. My heart was racing, and I was numb. When we got to Derech Aza (Gaza Street), the street was unrecognizable, and what had happened to the people was unrecognizable. There was a feeling of helplessness, anything I could do was very very little. (I felt guilty about this for a long time.) When we were done we got back on the ambulance. I was still numb. I called my parents and told them, calmly, that I was ok. A friend said, over and over, “we need to bomb Jenin, every time this happens we need to carpet bomb Jenin,” and I the numbness began to yield to horror because I know knew exactly what it meant, to the most minute detail, to blow up a place, to blow up human beings. This is a feeling I’ve stayed loyal to ever since, if there is anything I believe above all, it is that I am opposed to blowing up human beings.
This was a comforting version of the story; it contained a measure of meaning, and allowed me to believe I was significantly different from my friend and those who agreed with him.
I recently remembered an older version of this story; it was the story I told myself for several months after the bombing.
My heart was racing and I was numb. We were in the back of the ambulance on the way back to the station after the bombing. My friend, a good and generous person, said, over and over, “we need to bomb Jenin, we can give them an hour warning to evacuate the city, and then we need to carpet bomb Jenin every time this happens, until they stop doing this,” and I was overwhelmed by a sense of horror, because I had seen in good people, people like me, the willingness to inflict the horror we had just seen. I believed for a period of time that human beings were awful. I said something alone these lines to my friend’s brother, and he said that was a terrible thing to say about humanity. Whatever.
Two teachers (outside of my medical studies) have now told me “the line between good and evil runs through every human heart” and I realized that there is a third version of the story, that I told myself briefly, and then placed aside, finding it too hard to hold at the time.
Together with several other North American teenagers, I came to Jerusalem in 2004 to volunteer as an EMT with Magen David Adom. We all had specifically requested to live in Jerusalem, and we all knew the suicide bombing situation. We were in some way, I think, motivated by that situation, and driven by a desire to not stand by from across the ocean but to actually help. None of us, I think, could imagine what it actually would be like. When the bombing happened we responded to it, and did the best we could. None of us thought we had done enough, none of us could have done enough. None of us knew how to respond to what we had seen, and there was no real answer. My friend said one thing in the ambulance, and I said another, but I don’t even understand what made up the difference, we were all careening emotionally all over the place. How can I say there was any real difference between my friend and myself? We were balanced on a knife edge, an incomprehensible situation, and we fell out as we did. I called my friend back home, and I was crying so hard she thought I was laughing. I told her, “it’s like slaughterhouse five, there is nothing to say after a massacre, just the sound of the chirping of the birds.”
This is the hard part: how can I say we were so different than the bomber? Of course we were different from him, in a significant and crucial way. What I don’t know is if any of us, in a different world, would end up all that different from him. All I know about him is that he walked across the hills from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, boarded the number 19 bus, and blew up himself and everyone around him. I don’t know what led to his action, and my horror and revulsion hasn’t lessened over time. If I believe anything, I believe that I oppose with all my strength and life, what he did.
But the seeds of what he did are more common than we like to think, I saw them in my friends, and even, a little, in myself. Another detail I leave out: there was a second bombing two weeks later, I had gotten stuck the night before on a bus driving through fog and gotten home at three in the morning, and I overslept my shift and missed responding to it. That evening I walked to the corner on Emek Refaim street, where a makeshift memorial of candles had been set up. The teenage son of a woman I knew had been on that bus on his way to school, and she had buried him that afternoon. I saw in myself the horror, even more helplessness than the previous time, helplessness to save her son, to save anyone, and I also saw in myself destructive rage. I see these seeds in everyone who says “there are no civilians in Gaza,” or “maybe Palestinians should resume violent resistance.” These are people who are good and loving that I am speaking about, every one of them is conscientious and generous. The line between good and evil doesn’t run between us, dividing us; it is a thread that runs through all of us.
“Thank you for what you said earlier,” said the Doctor travelling with us, as we got off the bus in Jerusalem. I was confused for a moment, then I remembered he was referring to the scene outside of maarat ha-makhpela, the tomb of the patriarchs in Hevron. And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hevron, and Abraham came to mourn for her.
Our guide, Mahmoud, had brought us as far the entrance to the synagogue portion of the building, and told us that he could go no further- he had once asked if he could but they did not let him. Twenty steps or so down the path, the soldiers came back and stopped us. Mahmoud spoke with them in Hebrew on behalf of the group. At one point, he identified us as a group of tourists, which included both Jews and non-Jews. At this point the soldiers said that anyone who was Jewish could present their documents and would be allowed to enter. I wondered how he had known that a few of us were Jewish.
Mahmoud presented this offer to us in English. Of our group of about forty, I was one of three Jews. I hesitated for a second, then barely knowing what I was doing, or maybe knowing exactly what I was doing, I ran up to Mahmoud and to the doctor. “I think we’re travelling as a group, as friends, and I’m one of the Jewish students here, and I don’t think some of us should go where others aren’t allowed.” The other two Jews nodded in agreement from where they stood. So we walked back to the mosque entrance. I wondered if I was allowed in there. I wondered if they would ask if we were Jewish, and if so, if this would be a dumb place to admit it. But no one asked anything except that us women don hooded cloaks, that gave us the appearance of extras from the set of Hogwarts, and that we remove our shoes. Remove your shoes from your feet, for the ground where you stand is holy.
I could read enough Arabic to identify the tombs- Sarah by the entrance, Rebecca and Isaac side by side in the middle.
The front of the room- with its calendars, religious calligraphy, and bookshelves with jumbles of crumbling books painting with gold leaf reminded me more of synagogues than I expected, so much so that I picked up a book to confirm that the writing on the spine was in fact Arabic and not Hebrew. Mahmoud pointed out a bullet hole in the wall- it was from the Baruch Goldstein massacre, he said. The past isn’t gone, it isn’t even past.
A short story: there is a soup kitchen near the mosque entrance, because Abraham is called “al-khalil” in Arabic, “the friendly one,” and kindness to strangers is one of his attributes. They say that no one is ever hungry in Hevron; I don’t know if it is true. The root of the Hebrew name is also “friendship.”
I was jumpy on this trip. I wasn’t worried about violence as our group looked sufficiently international and non-Jewish. I was jumpy because of my own internal conflicts. I don’t want to have a “side”. I don’t want to ever see things as “us” versus “them”, especially not when “us” means Jews, and “them” means Palestinians. At the same time, I share a religion/ethnicity, though not a nationality, with one group of people there. And I don’t understand how they reached the point that they did, but the behavior of settlers in Hevron is regularly horrifying, as is the behavior of the soldiers assigned to guard them (often to the soldiers themselves, as one can see in the testimonials of soldiers from Breaking the Silence.) I don’t know how many settlers in Hevron who would not consider me a traitor, a self-hating Jew because of how frequently I run my mouth on the subjects of coexistence. The proportion of followers of Kahane is high among the settlers of Hevron, some of his followers have included left-wing Jews among their assassination targets, which, I guess if you look at it right, is sort of an honor.
The doctor’s son was one of our guides, and he had lived in Hevron for two months with a team of Christian observers, documenting the random yet routine friskings, harassment, and arrests by soldiers. He told us stories from his time there, and it was clear to me that he had come to love the Palestinians there, and was mostly horrified by the soldiers and settlers he had encountered there, that in principle he believed he should love them, but he could not internalize it.
I don’t mean to single him out, I often get jumpy around international activists, in a way that I don’t around Palestinian activists. I worry that my people are invisible to them- our fears, our dreams, our humanity. I worry they can’t see further than a soldier’s helmet, to look into peoples’ eyes, I worry that they conflate the settlers in Hevron with all Israelis. I worry when they say “oh, I have a side here,” when I have seen Israeli and Palestinian activists, who have so much more at stake, and have endured so much more, who have overcome that sort of thinking, when I believe that overcoming that sort of thinking is the only thing that might ever make a difference here.
And then I chide myself for that jumpiness. Many of them are doing a lot more than I am to document and prevent human rights abuses. It’s often at a certain amount of personal cost, and they often start to carry personal baggage. I know a little something about carrying the weight of things you’ve seen. I know I have my own blind spots. I squirm away from the doctor’s son’s stories, and have to remind myself that they jibe fairly well with the testimonies of IDF veterans collected by Breaking the Silence, that I have no reason to doubt him. Maybe just recognizing our blind spots is a good start.
I ask the doctor’s son how it is for him being back in Hevron. He says it is hard, his stomach has been twisted up in knots all day. I nod in recognition. I know something about that too, Derech Aza in Jerusalem used to do that to me, but that was years ago and last time I was there I was ok.
Maybe I talk about that too much. Sometimes I don’t know how not to talk about it. I probably would have the same views that I have now if I hadn’t been there in the bombing’s immediate aftermath. But just as a tattoo or a piercing modifies the body, there are things that modify the soul, and what I believe is burned into me with fire.
As trauma, scars, and emotional baggage go around here in Israel and Palestine, I got off easy.
I don’t remember how it came up, but someone asked me at dinner how I stopped being a Zionist. I told him that I did not consider myself anti-Zionist, but that my attachment to the land was personal, not governmental. I told him my views in general took form when staring at blood and death, and the moment I knew that I didn’t wish it on anyone. He said that my perspective was pretty cool. I notice that my hands are shaking.
Also at dinner, a classmate raised the possibility that only violent resistance would change things. I hadn’t really been part of that conversation, but I jumped in, and said that it was the worst thing that could happen, the second intifada had decimated what remained of the Israeli left, had created another traumatized generation. I don’t know why I made a utilitarian argument; it wouldn’t matter to me if I thought a violent third intifada would end the occupation. Maybe I have my own blind spot here, if so I don’t think I can change it.
There were three Jews today in Hevron who did not behave as soldiers or as settlers. Three Jews refused the privileged status the city offered us. We weren’t the first to do so, or the last. A tree fell in a forest. Did it make a sound?
On the bus, I apologized to my classmate who had made the violence comment for jumping down his throat. He told me he didn’t really support violent resistance, he raised it as more of a thought experiment, because he didn’t know what would end the occupation. I didn’t like this theoretical violence, because at the end of the day it is not theoretical people with shrapnel wounds, or theoretical burnt flesh and a stream of blood trickling down the pavement, and this is true in Jerusalem, and it is true in Jenin and in Gaza. It is not theoretical families who are bereaved, in Ashkelon, or in Hevron. So I pushed him on this line of argument a little further, I made my classic pitch, by which I mean deeply held belief that as future doctors, we have to transcend sides, because we have to be ready to fight to save the life of any patient who comes into the hospital, even if we consider them our worst enemy. Otherwise, how are we different from that which we claim to hate?
I have a side. It’s the human being in front of me, whoever it is. Bullshit, you probably say, and you’re right. But I’m trying. Will you try with me?
“Look to the helpers” Mr. Rogers says,
And to where do the helpers look,
When the job is done the numbness stays
And what they saw remains on their retinas
And the smell of burning remains
And someone says “I smelled metal burning” and you say
“that wasn’t metal.”
To where do the helpers look?
To the mountains, where there is no help.
To the moon that shines oblivious of what’s below.
They don’t find help, their blessing is
That time continues on inexorably.
And the sun will shine tomorrow on their skin,
and the next day,
the waning moon peeks through occluding trees
and clear air.
And the cattails will sway loyally like soldiers,
purple-tinged under the streetlamp.
The siren caught me by surprise. I was walking around downtown Eilat with three of my friends and classmates, looking for a place to have dinner, when the siren began to wail, a softer, more plaintive sound than the sirens we heard when rockets were coming. People around us stopped walking and bowed their heads. My friends and I realized was was happening, and also stopped walking and stood in silence.
The sun had gone down, marking the beginning of Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s memorial day. I was on my way to a vacation in Petra, Jordan with my friends. (I highly recommend Talie Lewis’s excellent recent posts on both the similarly-observed Holocaust Remebrance Day, and MSIH students’ tendency to travel.) Yom HaZikaron remembers both fallen soldiers and victims of terror attacks, and not being Israeli, I had not expected to have much to remember.
But as I stood there silently, memories began to come back. I volunteered with Magen David Adom in Jerusalem back in 2004, when terror attacks were ever-present. I stood and remembered the patients I had tried to help, and those who had been beyond help. I did not know their names and could not remember their faces. One man, I later learned, was a journalist, fighting against the culture of silence that surrounded the abuse of children in his religious community. Another was the seventeen-year old son of a woman I knew, on his way to school.
This moment of silence brought to mind another day of memorial that I had once observed. While working at a clinic for the homeless in Washington, DC, the staff held a ceremony on the day on the winter solstice and the longest night of the year, to remember the people who had died while homeless in the previous year. The doctors and nurses took turns reading the list of names for the homeless in DC. After each ten names, the reader said “for these we pray” or “these we remember” and we sat there in silence for a moment. Occasionally there was a gasp of surprise as someone learned for the first time that a patient of theirs had passed away.
Both within the context of our Healer’s Art elective, and outside of it, conversations have taken place here at MSIH about the idea that doctors should maintain a professional distance or detachment from their patients, so as to avoid burn-out.
My thought is that there is strength in caring, strength in mourning, and strength in these ceremonies. They reinforce our empathy and our compassion. They touch on what makes us humans rather than automatons. And so, as I study here at MSIH to become a doctor, I hope to continue to care for, to remember, and to mourn, the patients whose lives touch mine, even if only briefly.
I lived in Jerusalem for three months during the second intifada, and then I lived In Beer Sheva for a month, which I thought would be quieter. But also there I did not manage to avoid coming face to face with its violence.
A man from the West Bank had crossed into Israel, and tried to wrestle a gun from a soldier near Beer Sheva’s central bus station. When that failed, he fled and hailed a taxi, and proceeded to stab the driver in the chest.
It’s almost exactly nine years later, and I mostly remember how much blood there was and how the man’s eyes rolled wild and unseeing from the pain as we evacuated him to the emergency room of Soroka University Medical Center.
During this time period I remember people saying “if only the Palestinians would protest non-violently, then we could give them a state.” I suspect I said it too, and I would have meant it.
It’s through this lens, and with a sense of elation, that I read the news this morning of a new tent-protest-settlement-village of Bab-al-Shams in the E-1 area east of Jerusalem.
I don’t know anyone involved, but the way things go in this part of the world, I suspect that many of them have also seen too much blood and too much pain, and are still committed to a non-violent struggle.
I guess I just want to say that I am with them. I admire their strengt. I support them. I wish them success in forging a new path in this land, and in establishing the State of Palestine.