In Times of Uncertainty We Need More Humanity

By Rabbi Will Berkovitz, Schocken Family CEO

Our world has transformed, and it feels like our humanity has been hijacked by extremists. Everything is off its axis. People are not thinking clearly. These are very painful and difficult days with no easy answers or simple solutions. It is a time of uncertainty.

Many in our community have different perspectives on the war between Israel and Hamas. The conflict fills me with dread and sadness for the loss of innocent lives, for those being held hostage by Hamas, and for all the people living in fear – Israeli and Palestinian. We must never turn a blind eye toward human suffering.

I recently returned from Israel. I walked through the rubble of Kibbutz Be’eri with a survivor of the massacre, her face haunted; bullet holes strafing the walls, doors blown off safe rooms, charred and silent remains of once noisy homes; on the outside walls of the Kibbutz there were posters of the victims hanging above twisted metal and children’s toys. It is a testament to the horrific manifestation of an unchecked extremist ideology. I saw the destroyed buildings of northern Gaza – machine gun fire in the distance, artillery bone-rattlingly close. Smoke hovering over the desolate landscape.

In Israel, I spoke with parents who lost children. Children who lost parents. Hundreds of thousands of people internally displaced with nowhere to return. I had no idea of the scale and range of the Hamas attack, the brutality, or the magnitude of the destruction until I was standing in it. There is an existential concern about the future.

I came home to the United States deeply humbled by the stinging awareness of my limited understanding of what it would be like to live under constant threat of annihilation from so many directions. And the absurdity and arrogance of those who pretend to understand cultures and worlds quite different from our own.

Of the many reflections on my time in Israel, several things have stuck with me that echo what I hear from many in the Seattle Jewish community.

For many Jewish people, there is a profound sense of being under attack, misunderstood, and alone, as critique of the Israeli government too easily slides into antisemitism. In this war, history is being written in the present tense. There are those who attempt to erase the truth because it does not fit a narrative that makes us comfortable. October 7th was a fabrication. The erasure of the victims. The denial of the Hamas brutality. The minimizing of the horrors. The abuse of language. Reality is under assault.

Grief seems to be the only common thread uniting us all and that grief comes out through the prism of human emotion depending on where you stand – anger, sadness, denial, confusion. Everyone is trying to make meaning out of the trauma they experienced and are continuing to experience. We must work through the trauma and suffering and not spiral in an eddy of horrors.

Recently I was invited to a conversation between two young women, one Israeli and one Palestinian. They explained how they have worked to maintain their relationship through this war and how they are viewed by their respective communities. They spoke about the need to listen with compassion and the pushback they receive for talking about shared humanity. The host mentioned that some people did not accept his invitation to attend the conversation and listen. It is indicative of this moment – an unwillingness to listen to anything that challenges our thinking.

Maybe it is too soon for reflection, but it is definitely too easy to speak with righteous indignation, to speak without humility or even basic recognition that we live on the other side of the planet. TikTok is not reality. Ignorance is confused for insight – indoctrination for education. Many of us consistently endure people speaking with a profound lack of understanding of the complex history of this region or even a basic knowledge of the Jewish people.

We have become complacent to a climate of hostility and threat in the name of free speech. Creating a culture of fear justified as activism.

At a time when we should be striving to listen and learn, far too many are making vengeful declarations and passing meaningless resolutions that only succeed in cleaving our community into an “us” and a “them.” Kids are asked in their schools, “Are you on team Israel or team Palestine” as though this were some dystopian spectator sport. We should all be weeping and in mourning. We are stealing another generation of their innocence.

It is in this environment, I have been troubled by the lack of nuance and curiosity. People would rather cling to simplistic narratives…an inability to hold multiple truths – that both innocent Israelis and innocent Palestinians are suffering. It is reasonable to feel conflicted, but not reasonable to be willfully blind.

When I see people tear down posters of hostages, I see an erasure of the humanity of Israelis. Similarly, ignoring the images coming out of Gaza as the region teeters on the brink of famine, does not make it less real. When I witness people try to engage in good faith conversations and come out dismissed or demonized, I cannot help but call this antisemitism.

There seem to be far more people preferring to harden their hearts over risking true vulnerability. Posters and graffiti read, “death to Zionists.” It may as well say, “Death to Jews.”  Instead of being appalled, too many shrug or try to justify what is not justifiable. I heard a sad joke recently… “A Zionist Jew and an Anti-Zionist Jew walk into a bar. The bartender says, ‘We don’t serve Jews.’”

I regret those chanting in the streets cannot see the hatred in some of their eyes. Those teaching one-dimensional versions of reality cannot hear the pain and confusion in their students’ voices. And those with a blind ideology cannot experience the increasingly hostile environment they are creating for their neighbors in our own communities.

I refuse to live in a simple dualistic world that does not exist and has never existed. Slogans and propaganda are easy, but they are not reality. We want to believe we are pure and blameless when the truth is we all have blood on our hands. To believe otherwise is a fantasy.

I have been struggling to live in this complexity during an incredibly confusing time. Despite the comfort of binary thinking, I am striving to stay open and curious to the experiences, views, and truths of those around me even when that is challenging…especially when it is challenging. I fight against my worst instincts and admit I do not always succeed…even in writing this. The internal struggle is always the most difficult. But this doesn’t mean neutrality.

Those of us in the middle who live in the complex world of reality need to start using our voices and start marginalizing the extremes before it is too late. We need to call out the toxic voices that normalize antisemitic rhetoric. We cannot be silent and let the fringes continue to dominate the conversation, no matter who they claim to speak for. We have to call upon our politicians, civic leaders, neighbors and coworkers to speak out. And stand against those who attempt to erase, dehumanize, or strive to turn people into caricatures. To stay silent risks dehumanizing us all.

What we need now is more humanity, more curiosity, and less certainty.

My great hope is we will work to appreciate the reality of multiple narratives even when our views differ. This is incredibly challenging work. But doing the work of building and sustaining our relationships is the only thing that will bring about a better future for everyone.

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