Through the thick, almost impermeable blanket of censorship imposed by the Israeli army, a few haunting images emerge from Gaza. As a citizen of Israel I have become used to these images; hordes of young men frantically running the desolated streets carrying the limp bodies of their compatriots, mothers bellowing in anguish over the loss of their beloveds; the ominous sirens, resonating through hollow neighborhoods and the silence that ensues. The rubble, garbage, and piles of shredded metal, crumbled concrete and filth that blend into the scenery as if part of a chaotic design; but above all, the images of pain, that piercing gaze of injustice and loss.
I have grown accustomed to these images as inevitable, if not warranted outcomes of war. Through my carefully regimented prism of information, I observed the horrors inflicted onto my neighbors and remained indifferent. For years, through childhood and military service, I questioned nothing—not the actions of my government nor the moral aptitude of my leaders. I accepted all measures as security measures, necessary and pragmatic, as I looked on my brothers with the eyes of a predator—strategic and cunning.
I was guilty then, as many of my peers are today, of chronic, and almost sickening, apathy. With my sense of compassion rendered naïve, and my moral compass pointing in every direction but toward its user, I slowly matured. Like my father before me and his father before him, I delved into the accepted story, blissfully embracing our nation, our land, our morals and responsibilities. With little doubt and ever less resistance I was empowered to follow.
Had I stayed on this course I would have emerged a patriot, fighting for land and country, praising valor and the glory of war. It seems the path towards patriotism is heavy with clichés and false adages and has managed to bind thinkers much greater than me. With great compassion I look back at those I left behind and dream of illumination; with great sorrow I look inside myself and see much of their view still embedded within.
With mixed emotions I recall the path I have taken—a journey that has complicated the manner in which I view myself. Whether through guidance or chance, I stumbled across a slight hub of skepticism somewhere along the way, which, in a roundabout manner, led me halfway around the globe. Like many lost souls in this world, it took me about a decade, five thousand miles of ocean, numerous friends lost, and many nights sleep surrendered to contemplation to separate self from country; ethos from popular truisms; as the inner voice, the one left to mature independently, slowly came forth.
Although my nebulous past is still looming, I now see myself with surprising clarity and am both pleased and tormented by the findings. I am a proud Jewish, Israeli man; a thinker, a lover, a son and a brother, I carry both pride and guilt before me and dare not render them inconsequential for all that I am stems from my past. All that is good in my people and their ideologies still lay within me. A wisdom and vision engraved in my heart. Yet with the potentially good comes inherit conflict. I find it increasingly difficult to defend the actions of my country, to fend off those who would name us inhumane, barbaric, and obtuse. Israel lives within me, and criticism towards the state is internalized with the force of a nation desperate for reconciliation. With progress made and milestones reached I develop as a man, and simultaneously, am filled with notions of hypocrisy and demur. I view the nonchalance in which the fates of our brothers are determined and shutter with disbelief. How can a people proclaimed chosen inflict suffering they spent the past half-century passionately condemning? In an ironic and almost unbelievable twist the horrors of the Holocaust have both acted as a national reminder of our scared past, and as the prime, underlining rationalization concerning the implementation of similar injustices. I am disappointed by how far we have steered from our path and bewildered by the methods we chose to partake. The question must be posed: have we become our oppressors?
In light of recent events and increasing global criticism regarding Israel's invasion of Gaza, I am, somewhat paradoxically propelled to defend my country. I cannot do this on a political level, nor can I advocate the ethical validity behind the killing of innocent people. As I sit here removed, I have become aware that my arsenal of defense has been depleted and overused; no cliché, axiom, or witty argument will blind the world of apparent injustice and wrongdoing.
Thus, I am left with a plea: understand us! Understand our history and know that we have been raised in the shadow of war and militarism; understand that the entire educational system in Israel is geared towards military service, perpetuating valor, honorable death, sacrifice and war folklore in the most subtle, yet effective manner. Understand that we all have relatives who died in combat; understand that we all have witnessed more funerals than weddings. From early on we are taught that the land is holly and therefore worth defending. We are taught about the opposition as an evil, primal front; devils from the East out to destroy us. We laugh about our moral superiority and innate righteousness as we define ourselves through the ones we despise. Our people prescribe to overused propaganda with limitless zeal and empathy; such is the mindset of a soldier. Understand that our Generals, Politicians, Rabbis and even Pacifists have all, at one point, worn a uniform. Understand that with the militarization of a people comes the abolition of true deliberation for in a strategic environment consequences are always overshadowed by procedure and objectives. Finally, understand that although we are wary of war what truly frightens us is the prospect of peace for in a world devoid of conflict we are without identity.
And now, as the tanks retreat from the streets of Gaza I sit here once again removed, haunted by other images to which I also have grown accustomed. I view Israel’s finest making their way back from combat, wrapped in Blue and White, Star of David close to their hearts, marching with pride singing victoriously, exuding confidence achieved only through blindness, unaware of the catastrophe left in their wake. I see these images with overwhelming ambivalence; every caption deepening a rift in my heart established long ago, every pose enhancing my own disappointment.
With hollow dreams I face my people knowing we now speak in different tongues; knowing my words might be reduced to the rants of a leftist fanatic. Yet there are thousands like me; scattered, in exile living this conflict from afar, with intensity and passion undiminished. Sustained by our ideals and encumbered by our desertion, the streets of Gaza lay before us every day, the rolling of the tanks tremble in our ears, the cannons shatter our concentrations, and the cries distort reality. Like the people of Israel and Palestine, our identity is rooted in war and loss. My heart goes out to my countrymen abroad and to all living out altercations geographically distant—I know the burden you endure.
Finally, the burden I speak of is not easily managed, yet it is also not entirely negative. It is the burden of kings and true thinkers, the burden of those who dare to believe. It is the burden of those who are not afraid to stain a predetermined story, it is a burden entangled with vision and hope. As mirrors show our ambivalent selves do not deny your reflection; our voice is valuable for it reflects a truth not easily found. We carry the burden and pride of our nation comprehensively and with honor, let us not disrespect ourselves by remaining silent, for perhaps through the same guidance or chance that dislodged us we might now contribute; let us speak out and share with the world all we know. Let us never be quiet again!
Avi Criden is an El Cerrito resident.