Sarah Seltzer with her twin brother as children.
I have a twin brother who, as a kid, frequently ran around outside with a ball and his friends — usually in New York’s parks. Woe to the teachers at our Jewish day school who denied them gym or recess: they acted up extra-rambunctiously when they were cooped up. One of the cardinal lessons of my childhood was this: If you don’t let kids run around, everyone suffers. So that, in part, explains why the boys on the beach in Gaza proved my breaking point — boys who had been shut in for over a week and just wanted to kick a ball around, for a blessed few hours, and feel the air.
I was no fan of Israel’s actions in Operation Protective Edge up until that moment — in fact I was appalled by what I read in the Forward and elsewhere — but when I saw the footage of those lanky boys running on the beach, and their parents’ stricken faces when they learned their boys had fallen at the hands of Israeli shelling, I totally lost it.
They could be my family. They are my family. I see myself, my loved ones in them. So that’s what I keep saying to people when they bring up Operation Protective Edge — those boys reminded me of my brother and his pals, and sometimes me, running around with them, trying to get a good kick or two in. Some might say it is naive, and small, of me to reduce this conflict to miniscule, selfish dimensions rather than use the broad social strokes that many on both sides encourage in online discourse: this is about colonialism, imperialism, say some. This is about terrorism, say others.
Personal hatred, prejudice, antipathy and the thirst for vengeance — these common human feelings are the fuel that feeds the massive machines of terror, occupation and imperialism. And at the moment, it seems to me that a lot of the organized Jewish community — with clear exceptions — is as warped by antipathy and alienation, in the same way our leaders have long accused the Palestinians of being warped. “They don’t see us as human,” I’ve been told. But based on the Facebook posts I’m seeing, many of us don’t see them as human, either. Many of my timeline buddies are not even allowing a window, a second to mourn, so quick are they to pin the blame anywhere but at Israel’s feet. “I’m sorry for the loss of life, but…” they say. Why, why do we have to insert that “but”?
Perhaps the issue is this: to accept that Israel is utterly in the wrong here, that her government faced a moral test and flunked it with flying colors, is to accept something profoundly sad about our warped species: oppression doesn’t necessarily breed compassion. And by extension, Jews are not chosen. We are not chosen for anything except being another flawed people in a world of flawed peoples, unable to wield massive power without using that power toward brutal ends (just like everyone else, no worse but no better).
Maybe it’s easier for me, a girl who went to Israel at 16 and felt a sense of homecoming, to swallow this bitter pill after watching progressives tear each other down for a decade. Feminists can be racist. Queer people can be transphobic. Those who have been barred from spaces often feel justified excluding others. No formula exists that compels those who have suffered to be noble.
There is a brand of Judaism that declares, “It happened to us, so it shouldn’t happen to us again.” This is what I see too much of right now. Yet I’m not giving up on the idea that suffering can create fair-mindedness and justice. My version of Judaism — shared by more and more Jews — goes like this: “it happened to us, so it should never happen to anyone, ever. Especially not at our hands.”
To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza, who only yearned to run around outside and be free. It will hurt tremendously, but it might free you, too.