By JAMIE MICHAELS (Ed. note: Jamie’s submission arrived one day before the ceasefire between Gaza and Israel took effect.)
I begin by expressing my deep sorrow for the Jews and Arabs who have been killed in the last few weeks of escalating violence.
As Hamas rockets rain down on Israel and Israeli airstrikes pummel Gaza civilians race for shelter. At comparable speeds commentators around the globe sprint for Twitter.
Amateur activists and historians (and I use the words ‘activist’ and ‘historian’ in the loosest possible sense here) have flooded social media with infographics, half-truths, and inflammatory statements. In response, people who care deeply about Israelis and Palestinians have found themselves locked into a cold war of public relations. Advocates parade statistics, anecdotes, and histories into the spotlight like well-trained circus animals. Although impressed by the feats of strength and agility, I’ve always found the circus depressing. With everyone so fixated on getting time in the spotlight, it can be difficult for us to remember the importance of listening.
On May the 12th Saeed Mousa was driving to the beach. The Arab Israeli father of four was planning on taking in the night air by the water. He was accosted in traffic by an incensed mob of Jewish supremacists, who identified him as an Arab and surrounded his vehicle with the intent to do harm. Mousa attempted to flee. He was hemmed in by traffic, dragged from his car and beaten mercilessly. Israeli Broadcaster Kan 11 captured the lynching in real time. Mousa was beaten senseless by his fellow citizens. They continued to bludgeon him as he lay unresponsive on the road. Before the camera cuts away, one fundamentalist can be seen repeatedly striking Mousa’s motionless body with the Israeli flag.
The history shared between Israelis and Palestinians is one of cyclical traumas. Both come from brutalized nations. The ongoing media war creates a dangerous temptation to compare our losses. To make the case for who has suffered more. I would never ask anyone to minimize their lived experience of suffering. However, if this conflict is to end, we’ll need to hold space for the suffering of others without competing for the dubious distinction of whose suffering is more righteous. We cannot compare the pain of mothers who have lost children. No ideological gymnastics can justify a lynching. When we dehumanize loss, we dehumanize both those who have undergone these losses and ourselves. Psychologists have long understood that individuals and groups who have their suffering minimized react with anger and high-risk behaviours. This doesn’t excuse anyone from the violence they enact. However, it does present civil society with a seam through which they can address the continued re-traumatization of Israelis and Palestinians. The first step to tolerance is recognizing each other’s suffering.
Saeed Mousa survived the vicious, racially motivated attack on his life. Following his treatment at the Ichilov Hospital, Mousa delivered a rare moment of optimism in a region where it is all too often is in short supply, stating, “We’re all human beings. We’re all [going to continue] living together, a long-time.” Mousa recognized that a great injustice has been committed against him. This hasn’t stopped his pleas for tolerance and coexistence. Jewish and Israeli Arabs too will need to recognize the injustices committed in their name. We can and should decry every instance of Jewish extremism loudly and publicly as a unilateral action. We do so here without qualification. Long after the rockets stop falling Israeli Jews and Arabs will live together as citizens. We shouldn’t need vigilante attacks to remind us that the social fabric is made of delicate material.
Each time we don’t acknowledge and name injustice as it unfolds, we risk tearing this fabric further. Listening to stories of trauma from outside our community in a time of conflict is a radical act. It doesn’t require that we minimize our own trauma or ignore the injustices committed against us. It does require that we set aside a social media war that is undoubtedly exacerbating tensions. We must create a space to listen, and when necessary state loudly and unequivocally that we hear. In a gentler world this listening would take place in a Middle East blessed by safety and security. Paradoxically, the Middle East we have now is the one that needs listening the most. We can start by listening to Saeed Moussa. Jews and Arabs will be “living together, a long-time.” Let’s make a serious effort to hear each other. Jamie Michaels is an SSHRC Doctoral Fellow and Killam Laureate at the University of Calgary where he researches Israeli-Palestinian history.