People are Dying; be Humble. And Wondering Who the Bad Guy Is

By Devorah Leah Paltiel

People are dying. Be humble. That’s what my friend posted on Instagram and it’s the only worthy post I have seen since the war started: People are dying. Be humble.

I started an Israel- Palestine fact sheet about two weeks ago. The noise was too much and too loud and I thought facts might help. I put facts that I knew, and facts that I didn’t. Facts that hurt me. Facts that I celebrated. All the while, people are dying; be humble. I play it again and again, over and over in my head. Why must I celebrate facts that I put on a fact sheet? Why must I mourn facts that I put on a fact sheet? People are dying; be humble. Can’t I start from that knowledge base and work from there? Why must half the world love the other half, but hate the other? The more important question for myself, I am coming to realize, is what role I myself play in perpetuating patterns of tribalism and hate.

Seeing and being with people who think differently than me hurts. So deeply and exquisitely. Not because of them––although that is the easiest way to parse it––but because of myself. Hearing things we don’t know in intimate ways makes us, forces us, to hold ourselves in more honest ways. Reaching deep down into the parts of myself and my body that I never reach for, trying to come up with something, something to hold onto into the desolation and emptiness that the world sometimes feels when people are dying and what we thought we always knew is sliding, slipping away, until we wonder what the relative truth value of anything might be. What is there? Is anything there? Anything real? People are dying. Be humble.

Last week, I found myself sobbing the whole way home from school on the NYC subway, back to my veritable shtetl of alleged like-minded Chassidic family and friends. I cried so hard, that my body shook. And I wondered to myself: Devorah Leah, what are you doing? If this hurts you too much, if this is too scary – you don’t have to do this. Being in grad school has been the single hardest thing I have ever done in my life. No one is happy or comfortable with differences, and doing something different than I was raised to do, different from what my family and friends do hurts in about a million ways. Last night, as I sobbed my whole train ride home, I asked myself again and again: what are you doing Devorah Leah? What are you doing Devorah Leah?

I ask myself that still, as the next day dawns, gray and ugly, 46 days since the war started, typing this article as I sit in my office wondering and worrying about the state of the world. I always thought that purity of the mind and heart, the wanting to try, the wanting to do good and right in the eyes of G-d and those around us would be enough. But, the reality, I am quickly learning, is much too complicated for that. I worry because, when I can be honest, I see myself repeating patterns I know from my own lived experience as being dangerous and hurtful. Patterns of ridiculous notions and definitions of in-group and out-group, right and wrong, good guys and bad guys.

I am so very afraid that if I were to ask, question, and contribute to what sometimes feels like the pained echo chamber of academic-speak I would be bullied, humiliated, and assumed to be a baby killer (people are dying; be humble!). But what of this fear? Are matters in the world, and therefore matters at the Graduate Center, too divided? Too desolate. Too fractured and disjointed? Or can we perhaps say that there is hope? Hope that we ourselves and the individuals around us are human enough to talk, listen, and try to learn from one another. Believe that if we are here, in this space together, there is a reason and that we can do something with it. Believe, most of all, in the collective humanity we are all a part of.

My fact sheet is short. My insight and wisdom into political decisions and their ramifications are small, but what I am saying, asking, begging, and pleading of myself and the collective consciousness of the people I am with is to try and think this through, and listen to each other. To try and walk in solidarity. We are afraid. I am afraid. Because knowing something as absolute is what gives us safety and security in this world. And it is much easier to hold onto that than anything else. Otherwise, we will look in the mirror and start doubting the reflection we are looking at. It is a sure way to experience body-wracking sobs on the NYC subway. But we can, so we must. Because we are human and because being human is frightening, and yet the single most amazing thing I can imagine doing in this life is somehow climbing out of this paralyzing level of fear into communication with others.

I found the article that was posted on the CUNY Advocate website: A response to “Teaching Amidst Turmoil”, which claimed that there is only one side, one right to this issue, to be quite frightening. I wonder if this is what zero-sum logic looks like in practice: The time for thinking has ended because we are certain about what we are looking at. I wonder how that makes sense as a framework for an academic environment, such as the GC. Mostly, I wonder how this is a human response to the tragedy unfolding before us.

It is striking to me that each side, to validate their experience, feels the need to undermine, and show certainty about the absolute evil and wrong of the other side to the greatest extent possible. There are vested interests in many directions for this war to be happening. The bottom line though is that people, in both communities, are not thinking about this war nearly as critically as they should be. The fear and rage at difference are quickly turning into hate, and it is scary to be part of a community that is engaging in such mimetic thinking.

We are so busy hating and experiencing fear that we seem to have lost our ability to have subjectivity and a reflective experience of the world. How can we think critically about anything if we don’t include our role, our part, and our person, in the issue we are thinking about? Is there a way to elevate and transform the discussion and move ourselves to the center of it with a wretched honesty that chills us to our cores, but makes us so deeply human?

I can only continue to hope and wish for a humanity that is more concerned with the other than getting stuck in the fear that keeps us apart. Are there good guys and bad guys? Of that I am certain. Is the notion of good guy and bad guy itself one of the most complicated, most painfully complicated dialectics in the whole world? Of that, I am certain, too. But what I know for certain that matters for us is that I, we, are “bad guys” if we don’t elevate the discussions we are having to one that is focused on solidarity, rather than hate.

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