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 Israel-Hamas war started: People are dying. Be humble.

I struggle in this diverse CUNY world I have thrown myself into because 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 (growing up, for me, in a deeply devout, religious Chassidic home, with deep leanings and love for the land of Israel as a Jewish homeland) is sliding, slipping away, until we wonder what the relative truth value of anything might be.

We look at ourselves in the mirror and wonder if we are even there, if all we know is sliding away, the ease and comfort of in-groupness that we have always had access to is gone and in the emptiness, when I reach down to feel for the dependable core of myself, the part I knew to always be there in its dependable ways, I am gasping for air as my hand hits nothing? What is there? Is anything there? Anything real? 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, 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. 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 play in perpetuating a pattern that is at the core of so much hurt and pain to begin with.

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, my body shook. Who hasn’t cried on the NYC subway? It’s the most convenient place to cry. But this wasn’t a tear streaming down my face, an innocent, sweet silent cry, it was a loud wracked cry that was way beyond my control. I couldn’t stop it. 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. No one wants you to do this, and you know that.

Being in grad school has probably been the single hardest thing I have ever done in my life. No one is happy or comfortable with difference, but, somehow, absolute difference is something we can contend with: fine, my loved ones say, you want out of a life of religion and being in this community? That breaks our hearts, but we can tolerate that. But you want us to see you as a person, one amongst us, while making different decisions and sometimes thinking different things?! Impossible. That is asking too much of us. People don’t know how to do that. Unless we can name the difference as “she is sick,” or “she is sinning,” or perhaps even “she is poisoned.” Being told that you are psychologically ill, sinning, or drinking poisonous water from all the people you know, love, and care about should be devastating enough to make you turn around the way you came and go back to the safety of the Brooklyn brownstone you grew up in with cousins, and siblings, and nieces and nephews––a myriad of them with love in such abundance, I can cry thinking about it. 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. If the mental solution I come up with is to say that I am outside of the politicized discourse, one full of anger and hate––isn’t that a cop-out too? We will always be somewhat implicated, somewhat biased, somewhat leaning. 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 reality, I am quickly learning, is much too complicated for that. And getting away from politicized discourse? Perhaps impossible. Whatever we might think of the state of the bureaucratic state and the modern world, it is here. Now what are we going to do about it?

I worry because, when I can be honest, I see myself repeating patterns that I know from my own lived experience as being dangerous and hurtful. Patterns of ridiculous notions and definitions of in-group, right and wrong, good and bad guys. And then, we don’t share our thoughts, because we are afraid of being judged, or thought of as stupid, or for using the wrong terms when we try to communicate. Because we are afraid and not because we are presumptuous. Because we are afraid that if we were to put out what we really think in what sometimes feels like the pained echo chamber of academic-speak we will be humiliated. But what of that fear? Is it just too empty? Too desolate. Too divided? Or can we say that there is hope? Something real and tangible in this world that we can know and touch and be inside of.

If we are to be smart and thoughtful and focused on what and how we can contribute to the world in ways that are kind and human, we have to do this absolutely scary, frightening, hair-raising, skin-tingly thing and talk. Starting with myself. Talk. Try. Believe that the people around us are good enough to listen and hear and try to learn from one another. Believe that if we are here, there is a reason and what are we going to do with it? Believe in the collective humanity we are all a part of.

Yes war because of the hostages, and no war because of the death count. Hamas is a terrorist organization, but Israel is a colonist state. Israel has the right to defend itself, but Palestinians are not allowed to collect rainwater. We are watching another holocaust happen, but then I get confused about who the oppressor and oppressed are in this scenario, because I swear to you that there are people who will take opposite stances with absolute confidence in their thoughts and feelings. I don’t profess to know anything. I can’t have an opinion on this issue when I know so little. 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 listen. 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 go crazy, or experience body-wracking sobs on the NYC subway. But we can, so we must. Because we are human, because being human is frightening, 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”, to be quite frightening. I wonder if this is what a 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.

I don’t pretend not to have a bias. I do. I yearn for Israel as a Jewish homeland so much it almost hurts. But sometimes, I close my eyes at night and wonder about the 25-year-old Muslim girl, lying in her bed, her cozy blanket wrapped around her body, who has shed as many tears and has had as many terror dreams and disturbed sleep since the war started as I do. But more importantly, who loves and yearns for the land in the Middle East with the same deep yearning for something we cannot touch, but feel in every part of our bodies, hearts, and minds. I wonder what the world feels like for her. What of the 25-year-old girl sitting in Gaza, over her dead sibling’s body? Her dead child’s body? What of the Israeli mother begging Hamas to take her captive, to reunite with her 8- and 14-year-old daughters so she can change her younger daughter’s bandage, she scraped her knee on October 6th. Please, she begged, come kidnap me.

Climbing out of this notion of politicized discourse is probably impossible. But can we try? Can we try and talk and discuss not at, as Bell Hooks says, but with? Not with ourselves outside of the concept we are discussing, but with ourselves at the center of it in a wretched honesty that chills us to our cores, but makes us so deeply human, you could cry. Tears that communicate something we never thought even existed, but that is so big and real you can’t breathe without inhaling some of it in or exhaling some of it out.

Sometimes I shake and wish for an out of the darkness that I can’t seem to rid myself of. But other times I believe that 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 all I know for certain is that I am a bad guy if I don’t try to do better at talking and communicating. I keep playing over and over the words a wonderful professor shared with me: “I teach a lot of mixed (Jewish and Muslim) classes,” she said, “these days I just want to get them into the same space and to see if we can talk about the weather.” Let’s have more questions than we have answers, and take a moment and pause from the terrified, trauma-based reactions we are having and communicate in the marvelous way we are all capable of.

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