I’ve really struggled to find words this month to articulate the depth of pain and horror that we are witnessing in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I feel a responsibility and desire to name the atrocities and to stand against the onslaught against humanity, but everything that I write seems pithy and insincere. Not only because I don’t know what to say, but because I’m hyper-aware that I don’t know enough about the history behind the decades-long conflicts to say anything meaningful. I also recognize what a privilege that is.
I was eleven when I first became aware of the conflicts through Lynn Reid Banks’ book, One More River. I loved that book and re-read it many times. Through those pages, I was introduced to social responsibility and collectivism; the atrocities of war and the peculiarity of maintaining a semblance of everyday life amid horror; and that it’s possible to fall in love with people who are different. I remember asking my dad if there really had been a 6-day war between Israel and Arab nations, what the differences were between the Bible, the Torah, the Quran, and the Tao Te Ching (道德經), and – most importantly for me at the time – why were they all written by old men? But that’s a story for another day.
Right now, I’m aware that when I feel uninformed and ignorant, I get curious about the topic. I’ve spent the past couple of weeks gathering resources to share with others who may feel the same. I know that we have both Jewish and Arab members within our community who hold vastly different views on what is happening in their spiritual and physical homelands, as well as those who don’t belong to either culture who also hold strong and polarized opinions. I’m not here to argue either way. I’m also not offering a “let’s focus on humanity on both sides” stance. I’m here to acknowledge that I am ignorant and am learning and I see the pain and devastation. I’m here to say that I have students, friends, and colleagues who are in Israel whom I am desperately worried about. In my social circle, we have already heard of friends’ relatives who have died or gone missing. This is no time for sticking our heads in the sand and hoping it will fade away with the next news cycle like so many times before.
When I struggle to find my own words, I find it helpful to read the words from others. This poem touched me deeply and I want to share it with you.
by Elana Bell*
Once in a village that is burning
because a village is always somewhere burning
And if you do not look because it is not your village
it is still your village
In that village is a hollow child
You drown when he looks at you with his black, black eyes
And if you do not cry because he is not your child
he is still your child
All the animals that could run away have run away
The trapped ones make an orchestra of their hunger
The houses are ruin Nothing grows in the garden
The grandfather’s grave is there A small stone
under the shade of a charred oak Who will brush off the dead
leaves Who will call his name for morning prayer
Where will they — the ones who slept in this house and ate from this dirt — ?
For me, it’s the final line that is the most haunting. The aching uncertainty hangs heavily in the unfinished, unanswered question.
Where do you turn when you have no words? Want more education on this complex topic? Here is a link to a Google doc that I’ve been updating with links to various articles and resources that I have found useful in my own continued education on the subject. I’m sharing in case you might find them helpful too.
*Elana Bell is a Brooklyn-based poet, educator, and facilitator of sacred rituals. She is the author of two books of poetry: Mother Country (BOA Editions in 2020) and Eyes, Stones (LSU Press 2012). The following poem is from Eyes, Stones, a collection that was inspired by interviews conducted in Israel, the Palestinian territories, and America. Listen to Elana Bell perform the poem here.