“I have some hard news.”
I gulped for air. There’d been so much already, but this was a direct, official phone call.
“Your home room-student Yonatan’s mother and little sister have been shot by a terrorist. The sister has died, the mother probably will too. We will gather everyone for an assembly. You will need to talk with the students and be there for them.”
I don’t remember if I said anything.
I don’t remember my way to work, but it involved two different buses that I knew might explode on the way. Others had. I had a special way of sitting that was a kind of bracing for it. I made it without incident, walked past the security gates and into the school. I remember gathering outside, the entire tenth grade which had about six different classes of forty students each, they were outside the assembly hall, I remember it was hot outside. They were hugging each other and crying. A few were vomiting. I only remember what I saw, not what I was thinking or feeling. Yonatan was there. At least that’s how I remember it. I remember seeing his face. I remember him saying what happened and that he looked uncomfortable for all the attention around him. His dad had been out for groceries when it happened, or he would have been dead too. What do you say to your favourite 15 year old - a smirky, sarcastic-but-sweet English-class favourite who always had thoughtful answers and had just the right dose of class clown – What do you say to him now? I can’t even remotely remember. I know we gathered in the assembly hall and I know the principal spoke and I know it had something to do with being there for Yonatan and trying to stay strong.
I remember that we didn’t stay the rest of the day because the funeral was going to happen right away, by then the mother had been pronounced dead, and they were organising rides and a bus for us to go. I know I didn’t want to go and that I knew I had to. I rode with one of the other English teachers. I can’t remember if we spoke in the car or not.
I remember being at the funeral. I remember not knowing what to do. I remember that I stayed off to the side because it seemed like close friends and family should be the ones gathered around the two grave pits. Not me. I remember the sound of Yonatan crying rising to my ears above all the other noise and that it was a kind of crying I had never heard before and that would stay with me forever. I remember that some people off to the side were holding banners with political slogans that were about revenge, not peace, no, not revenge but that the only way to end this was with power. Zero tolerance. And that I wished they wouldn’t because this boy had just lost his mother and kid sister and his father and another sibling and Yonatan were falling apart and hugging each other and wailing and this wasn’t the right time to wave a banner.
There was a lot that came before that, and still more that came after it.
But I could no longer sit in my apartment, and the entire world around me grew darker and darker. No place felt safe, as the explosions had been happening in café, buses, and now even supermarkets and with this, the latest, even the apartment didn’t feel safe. At night I could hear the sounds of the nearby village getting bombed. I woke up to the sound of a nearby explosion – a car bomb? A bus? If there was more than one siren it meant that something big happened.
My students were handing in their English tests with “Death to the Arabs” written at the top and I was trying desperately to come up with ways to convince them that this wasn’t the right response. But over the weekend a group of their pals had been blown to smithereens while hanging out downtown. I tried. I really tried. We were all so lost. They were allowed to have cell phones and have them on in case there was an emergency. Every hour the news came on and we waited to hear if there’d been another explosion, or if they identified more dead.
I could no longer guide them. Everything I said felt empty. Only one sweet girl in one of my classes stayed Left wing. She loved the protest songs I brought in with my guitar to use them as English lessons. And when Israeli Independence Day came round that year and flags were out in the streets, I could no longer stand the sight of them. And when the wall started to get built, I left. I had the option. I had a Canadian passport. I saw where it was going and I left. With an insane amount of guilt toward the people who didn’t have that option.
I landed in Montreal among a peer group that was decidedly Pro-Palestinian, and were decidedly my type of people. I bought books from the anarchist book fair, informed myself of a narrative I only half-knew before, and completely unraveled. I knew I had a lot of learning to do, but I also could tell that some of the literature was too one-sided, had full-on falsehoods in it at times, and was not peaceful in its rhetoric in the least. I searched high and low for any analysis that took both narratives into account. I had nightmares almost every night and was still disproportionally anxious on public transit and in crowds. I got a job teaching Hebrew and Judaic studies at a secular Zionist school. I wondered how the hell I was going to teach some love for the country I still loved but do it in a way that was part of a peace curriculum? A critical-thinking curriculum. Every ounce of my intellect went to try to figure this out.
We had at least two bomb-threats to the school while I was there, having to evacuate room-fulls of elementary school students. What the fuck was I supposed to explain to a bunch of eight-year-olds in Montreal about why someone wanted to bomb them.
I am not asking for pity. There are bombs falling as I type and I am safe and sound in Winnipeg. The Palestinian plight has been profoundly worse than the Israeli one for a very long time. It is a human rights crisis and has been for a long time. There are elements within its population that are not helping, that’s for damn sure. But the bombs that are dropping are Israeli bombs. That’s for damn sure too.
I have been wanting to say something concise and definitive about peace but I keep tripping up and getting tangled. To be a humanist while you are in direct danger is really fucking hard, but it’s the only way forward out of this mess. To try to hold love for the beautiful and heroic aspects of one of the most dysfunctional stories in history – to try to reconcile the irreconcilable within your own blood and bones – to stand up and say our narrative isn’t a false one, but it is an incomplete one… when to accommodate the other narrative has proven, so far, dangerous and deadly - but to negate it is even more dangerous and deadly - what is peace? It is not peace if it is only one side that gets some quiet for a while. It is hard to breathe like this.
But it is harder to breathe now in Gaza. And has been this whole time. And plenty of Israelis and Jews know that. And plenty of Israelis and Jews have been condemning the actions of the Israeli government and military for a long time now. Just not enough to make enough of a difference.
It feels insanely self-indulgent to be telling you any of this, as if my story is important to know while things are burning. But it’s literally the only thing I can offer with any authenticity and I feel as powerless as I always do to stop the bigger forces at hand. So I will tell it start to finish, in its disjointed and fragmented ways. This is what I’m working on now, the story of my political identity-creation, and it’s undoing. I don’t know how the story will end yet. I type here in Winnipeg, as the bombs continue to fly. Everything feels wrong.