Why I’m Grieving the Loss of Both Israelis and Palestinians

The past week since the horrific terrorist attacks in Israel by Hamas and the ensuing war in Gaza have been extraordinarily difficult. As distraught as I feel, I cannot begin to fathom the shock, grief and pain of those directly affected. Yet I have been profoundly affected emotionally, both as a longtime peace activist and as an American Jew born to an Israeli parent.

As a Buddhist meditation teacher, I rarely speak about my Jewishness. I’ve yet to come to terms with the pain of my people’s history, or with the complexity of being white and Jewish in the United States. I’ve avoided entering the thicket of debates regarding Israel-Palestine, knowing how they can call up such strong emotions, stimulate profound trauma and make it harder to build community and practice across the lines that divide us.

But today my heart is breaking, out of universal values for peace, dignity, and respect, my commitment to nonviolence, the particular pain of my people, and of all those affected by these recent events.

Though I was born in the US, I hold dual citizenship here and in Israel. I grew up visiting my extended family there and—though I am not a practicing Jew—feel a strong connection to my ancestors, the land and all those who live there.

My father, who was born in what was then British Palestine, fought in the Yom Kippur war 50 years ago.  He never really recovered from losing a younger brother there. Seeing how heavily it weighed on him for the rest of his years, I shudder to think of the trauma that will echo through the generations from what has already unfolded this past week in both Israel and Gaza—and what is yet to come, if this war continues on its current path.

[Content warning: this paragraph contains violent imagery. Please choose consciously if you want to read it or skip to the next paragraph.] There are the unthinkable, horrifying ways in which Israeli civilians were targeted: grandmothers murdered in their homes, toddlers witnessing their parents shot before being kidnapped as ransom, over 200 killed at a music festival, the naked bodies of victims paraded in front of cheering crowds. And there are the devastating conditions unfolding in Gaza: hospitals under siege, unable to function or care for newborns and the elderly, innocent children killed in airstrikes, families buried under the rubble of their homes and a humanitarian crisis with dwindling access to power, food, and water.

I shudder to think of the trauma that will echo through the generations from what has already unfolded this past week in both Israel and Gaza.

The past week, daily activities like grocery shopping or visiting the playground with my son have taken on a surreal quality. I find it hard to focus, waves of grief come, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Holding our one-year-old in my arms as I put him down for a nap, my heart breaks for all those who have lost their beloveds—parents, children, siblings, friends, grandparents.

There aren’t really words for the grief of what’s unfolding. It’s okay to feel like it’s too much to hold—because it is too much to hold.

Even so, the Buddha’s teachings remind me to turn toward what is happening, and to let it be hard. Paraphrasing a good friend: it’s okay just to hurt. The pain I feel is a reflection of my deep love for this world.

When I open to suffering, I feel committed to the safety and security not only of my Israeli brothers, sisters and siblings, but also of the Palestinians as well, because we are all human.

If we can turn toward and learn to be with our own suffering, we can recognize it in others as well, and commit to reducing it. To create the conditions for peace begins with opening the heart to all we feel inside—including numbness, confusion, fear, pain, and anger.

Some who fiercely support Israel may take issue with my empathy for the Palestinians, while some who fiercely support Palestine may take issue with my condemnation of terrorist violence in the context of Israeli occupation. (Even the word occupation will stir outrage and controversy for some.) I am not in any position to judge anyone’s anger, their pain or any yearning for revenge. At the same time, I firmly believe what the Buddha, Gandhi, and Dr. King taught, and what history has borne witness to time and again: violence only begets more violence.

If we can turn toward and learn to be with our own suffering, we can recognize it in others as well, and commit to reducing it.

I feel frightened by so much of what is happening, including Israeli political leaders escalating violence, dehumanizing Palestinians (calling them “animals”) and supporting a war of annihilation. Turning toward suffering is the opposite of dehumanizing others. The moment we dehumanize another, we lose touch with our own humanity. And then, there is nothing we cannot justify. We have already seen this take place, and even now, we witness it continuing.

Many of us feel helpless. Yet both Judaism and Socially Engaged Buddhism call for us to turn contemplation into action. Take the time to breathe and practice compassion before, during and after you read the news. Reach out to your Jewish and Palestinian friends, family and loved ones. Now is the time to offer comfort, empathy, presence and tangible support, for we are overcome with pain and grief.

A wise response includes taking extraordinary care with our speech and honoring the extreme duress and anxiety so many are under—those who have already experienced great loss, those anxiously awaiting news of missing loved ones, and the disregulation so many are struggling to manage as we process scenes of violence from social media and the news. Let us consider carefully what we say and how it may affect others.

Now is also the time to stand up with courage, to come together and recollect our shared humanity. The unconscionable terrorist attacks and the ensuing war will not only bring devastating destruction; they will sow seeds of violence and animosity for generations.

A wise response includes taking extraordinary care with our speech and honoring the extreme duress and anxiety so many are under.

We who value peace must call for an immediate ceasefire from Hamas and Israel. And we must hold fast to the vision of a future that honors the dignity and humanity of all, even as the conditions for that future seem impossible in this moment.

This piece was originally published on Oren Jay Sofer’s blog, and is reprinted here with permission.

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