Growing up as a secular American Jew, the number one principle impressed upon me by my mother and grandmother was the commitment to caring for others. This is how I choose to actualize the traditional Jewish identity as the “chosen people” – a people chosen by a greater power, or just self-volunteered, to put the wellbeing of the world first.
To be human is to feel for one another. Not just to sympathize, but to empathize – we read reports of war and we see ourselves or our loved ones there, lacking food and clean water and being bombarded with rockets with no way to flee. We feel alongside them. At its most barebones, this is what it means, to me, to be a Jew. We hold not just our own pain, but the pain of the world.
As the first century sage, Hillel famously put it: “If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?” (Pirkey Avot 1:14)
This teaching is more relevant now than ever – here’s how I’ve been understanding it.
“If I am not for me, who will be for me?”
It has been almost a month since the worst massacre of Jews since the Shoah (Holocaust), enacted by the terrorist group Hamas against Israeli Jews, Arabs, and almost 200 foreign nationals visiting or living in Israel. I use this comparison because for me, and for millions of other Jews, the fear and fury wrought by this disaster is familiar to us. It’s engrained within our bodies, passed down from ancestors who survived pogroms and displacement and a genocide from which our tribe still hasn’t recovered. In response to these collective traumas, people tend to retreat and lash out in different ways to ensure their survival.
In the past, I have placed Jews intentionally behind other marginalized groups seeking equality – believing that self-sacrificing activism would spare me from antisemitism. I can no longer allow the safety of my upbringing, as an assimilated American Jew, to blind myself to the reality of Jews across the world who do not have such a privilege. No one else will advocate for me, or for the Jewish people, if we do not first champion our own needs. I am proudly Jewish, and proudly a Zionist – I believe wholeheartedly in the right of the Jewish tribe to self-determination and safety in our homeland. Alongside preserving my people’s safety, I wholeheartedly believe in the right of the Palestinian people to the same.
“And when I am for myself alone, what am I?”
I commit to holding space for myself and my people to mourn, first and foremost, and I refuse to let the awful pain and trauma prevent me from holding space for Palestinian pain, too. I have enough compassion inside me, still, to do both. For some days after the massacre, I thought my well of empathy had been scraped dry. I saw the tragic numbers of civilian death being reported from Gaza, and all I saw on the back of my eyelids were the Jewish lives brutally cut short by Hamas’ attack.
Connecting with other Jews was what allowed me to realize that I was still capable of holding love and compassion for people outside my tribe. Being able to mourn publicly and share the fear that was governing every facet of my existence was enough to be able to understand again that Palestinians were feeling the same way. We are both people of the Levant, and more importantly, we are both human. Outside of the vocal minorities on both sides, seeking continual war, death, and destruction, there are two peoples who simply demand safety, access to basic needs, and sovereignty.
“And if not now, when?”
The unspeakable horrors inflicted on Israel by Hamas, and the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the besieged Gaza City, represent a cyclical pattern of violence that has been developing for centuries. It also represents a chance to do better – to reaffirm our commitment, as Jews and citizens of the world, to holding humanity sacred. As the news cycle changes over and the attention of the West wanes, I pledge to stay present.
Ultimately, although my soul is in Eretz Yisrael (The Land of Israel), my body is 5,800 miles away on Goucher’s campus. As tensions on campus grow, as a microcosm of the conflict in the Levant, the same fear-based reactions I see in the global Jewry – retreating or lashing out – I see in my peers, and in myself.
The belief in the sanctity of human life is not a uniquely Jewish one. I believe, truly, that the vast majority of Goucher’s community ultimately have the same hope: peace, safety, and self-determination for all inhabitants of the Levant. In the frenzy of an active war, there is little we can do from campus. What we can do – what I commit to doing – is listening, even when someone’s opinions contradict my own. Learning from all sides, recognizing propaganda for what it is and never presuming my own expertise. To love and mourn and fight for the safety of Palestinians as I do my own tribe. Most importantly, to always hold their humanity alongside my own.
By Em Klein-Luce
* Disclaimer: This piece was published as a student’s op-ed submission. The Quindecim is a space for all students within the Goucher community to express their views and beliefs. These pieces are released in the name of journalistic integrity and not in an attempt to antagonize or reflect the institution of Goucher as a whole.