Guest columnist Sarena Neyman: Losing my tribe over Gaza

Mohammad Shouman carries the body of his daughter, Masa, who was killed in an Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, during her funeral in Rafah, southern Gaza, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Mohammad Shouman carries the body of his daughter, Masa, who was killed in an Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, during her funeral in Rafah, southern Gaza, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair) Fatima Shbair

By SARENA NEYMAN

Published: 01-25-2024 11:11 AM

For me, being Jewish was never about religion or Zionism. My Holocaust survivor parents sent me to Jewish day schools and Zionist summer camps, but none of that stuck. I haven’t set foot in a synagogue for decades and have always been critical of Israeli politics.

But up till now, I still retained a strong Jewish identity and felt a bond with other Jews because of what I perceived we shared: a commitment to a key tenet of Judaism — that one’s role in life is to make the world a better place. Not that all Jews were social workers or social justice warriors, but I was proud that so many of us were willing to speak up and act against all oppression, not just our own.

But since Oct. 7 so much has changed. Hamas’ sadistic attacks were calculated to trigger a sense of helplessness and shame, and to provoke a vengeful military overreaction. This is precisely what happened, quickly turning international sympathy into horror and aversion.

It’s been painful to watch so many American Jews call out their detractors as antisemites and insist that “context” is a dirty word, unwilling to acknowledge that 75 years of misery imposed by Israel on Gaza played any role in fostering Hamas. They deny the devastating impact of unrelenting carpet bombing and are enraged that Israel is being accused of genocide.

But in less than 100 days, the Israel Defense Force’s scorched-earth offensive has killed 24,000, injured over 60,000, displaced 85% of the population, and destroyed countless hospitals, schools, roads, religious sites, stores and agricultural lands. People are dying from disease and starvation, suffocating under the rubble. They have no food, water, sanitation, medicine or anesthesia. If this is not genocide, it’s certainly too close for my comfort.

In an earlier essay, I wrote about how disturbing it was to hear some of my former high school classmates voice the quote attributed to Golda Meir: “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. But we can never forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.” Journalist Michelle Goldberg, in her recent New York Times op-ed, “America Must Face Up to Israel’s Extremism,” condemns this sentiment that “positions Israel as the victim even when it’s doing the killing.” But at least, she says, “it suggests a tortured ambivalence about meting out violence.”

Now, however, writes Goldberg, even this ambivalence has disappeared. I see this reflected in my own social media feed, which is filled with complaints that Jews are being unfairly singled out for what other nations have always done during wartime to defend themselves.

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Others write it off as Israel’s bad PR. “It’s awful. They make us look like baby-killers.” How did we become so willing to dehumanize the death of innocents?

When political commentator Van Jones appeared at the D.C. March for Israel rally in November to take a stand against anti-Jewish bigotry, his call for an end to the bombing was met with heckling and booing.

There will be no cease-fire, Benjamin Netanyahu says, until Hamas is eliminated. But eradicating Hamas is not a realistic goal. The death of so many innocent Palestinians has only increased support for this terrorist group. Not ending the war actually places Jews in greater danger. Israelis are now more vulnerable to attack from Iran than they have ever been before. And the rise of global antisemitism in response to this murderous war has made it more dangerous to be Jewish everywhere else.

Since writing my first essay on this subject, so many Jews have approached me to tell me they share my views but will only express them in private. A Jewish friend who is a therapist told me she wasn’t sure how much longer she could remain silent, but she chose not to say anything out of respect for the many friends in her circle she felt had experienced a form of PTSD from the events of Oct. 7.

Her viewpoint — that the trauma of the Hamas atrocities reopened deep psychic historic wounds, generating blind rage — is the only way I can start to understand why so many of my fellow Jews are unwilling to recognize Israel is no longer the victim in this war, and in fact has become the transgressor.

Over the past few months, my high school classmates have been meeting to plan our coming 50th reunion that I had been looking forward to attending. But now I’m having second thoughts. How will I feel standing alone as the rest of the group unites in their calls of Am Yisroel Chai, the rallying cry of support for the state of Israel.

I worry that I may not be able to restrain myself from speaking up. I worry more that I won’t have the guts to.

Sarena Neyman is a grant writer who lives in Leverett.