“People came (to social media) with pre-made ideas and put them into their binary boxes of how they want to see the political world right now.” –Noam Shuster-Eliassi
On October 7th of last year, forces of Hamas launched horrific attacks on communities in southern Israel. The savagery that has been revealed included the murder of more than 1300 people, rape, and the taking of hostages. In response the Israeli government and IDF have engaged a scorched-earth military campaign that is literally leveling Gaza, making it an uninhabitable killing zone, taking the lives of more than 25,000, many of them children, while cynically directing survivors to purported safe areas that are then subject to attack. In each of these lethal aggressions, the erasing of others is the clear goal. I join with all who demand a ceasefire in Gaza, the return of all those taken hostage to their homes in Israel, an end to the funding of the war, and the clear naming of the evil at work in the Hamas attack and then also in the widespread destruction and death-dealing to the citizens of Gaza. At the same time, I pray that we all–inside Israel/Palestine and beyond–will be beckoned to a ceasefire of the soul.
Noam Shuster-Eliassi is an Israeli comedian with a fascinating history. Her parents raised her in the community of Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom (Oasis of Peace), a village of Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel –located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv–where people choose a life together dedicated to building justice, peace, and equality. Noam worked at the UN as co-director of Interpeace, an organization dedicated to nonviolent and sustainable forms of conflict resolution and peacebuilding. Frustrated with approaches that would not dialogue with more difficult actors, she left and immersed herself in her artistic vocation, comedy. As a comedian Noam engages diverse audiences and difficult subjects and truths. She crosses boundaries. She speaks in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. For years she has been a peace activist, among those seeking an end to the occupation of Palestinian communities, and advocating for Palestinian human rights and equality. She has also continued to imagine the possibility of a “one-state solution” where everyone belongs.
In the midst of the relentlessly compounded trauma in her homeland, Noam published a powerful and emotional essay entitled “Picking Up the Pieces of Our Grief.” I would commend it to everyone.
She suggests near the outset that the article that what she is writing is for those who “have the capacity to mourn for two peoples.” These words impacted me immediately. The kind of space she is seeking to articulate and establish is for-giving space.
Noam begins: “There is an awful silence, so loud that it is numbing. It is the silence of frightened people trying to mourn while the war maniacs blast their bombs so they don’t have to hear us, or provide any answers for their failures. Behind the horrible screens of social media, I see friends abroad being so loud while my friends sit in silent grief. My soul aches for us, for the silence imposed on us, for the fear of saying very basic human things–as basic as, “Have mercy on the children of Gaza.” Government ministers have lined up every day for the past two weeks to declare, even to the families of the kidnapped: now is not the time to place blame or investigate. Be quiet. We’re at war.”
Trauma inhibits and fractures speech, even without intense outside pressures to remain silent. The horrors of human suffering do not fit well into “binary boxes.” The processing of pain is essential to individual and communal healing and the possibilities for futures not solely defined by wounds incurred. In her essay, Noam articulates deep personal and communal loss: she names the names and tells the stories of victims of the Hamas attack and their families, identifying some as longtime peace activists. “More and more names and faces we knew. So many that we stopped counting. It was overwhelming.” And she gives voice to the betrayal she beholds in the subsequent atrocities in Gaza: “Our grief has been turned into a senseless revenge campaign in a split second.” It reminds me of 9/11, the failure of our leaders to help the nation to begin to process our pain before seeking retaliation, and the multiple disasters and countless deaths that have resulted. Noam is not alone. “I am so proud of my friends who, despite losing family members in the Hamas attacks, did not lose their moral compass, immediately using their platform to say clearly: do not use this pain for revenge, or to inflict more pain–that is not a solution.” She quotes her friend Osnat, whose nephew was murdered at the music festival in Re’im: “It is like I have two rooms in my heart. One for my personal grief, and one for everyone’s grief. And I don’t want my pain to be used to cause more people grief.”
Noam’s essay takes on a psalmic quality: “Can anyone hear us?” Listen. Stop posting on Facebook, and listen. “Can I ask you something? Can you check on friends who live in Israel-Palestine before posting on social media? Because we are not OK. We are broken.” “When people experience a great deal of grief, they usually also feel shame and anger that they need to channel somewhere. People’s capacity to see beyond their wounds and pain is limited. We need recognition, compassion, solidarity, a voice.”
Recognition. Compassion. Solidarity. A voice. Here is a curriculum for love and peacebuilding in devastating circumstances. It will be the most challenging of hard work. But it holds the kind of promise that no violent “solution” will. No one will be “erased.” (1) This is a call for recognition of two populations: their humanity; their histories; their loves and the substance of their lives; the injustices endured; their needs for tending and the righting of wrongs; their articulated hopes for the future and the honoring of their full humanity (2) The people need com-passion: “being-with” the suffering of both peoples, and allowing the deep suffering that each has endured to touch us in ways that leave us vulnerable. Can we agree that the murder of anyone’s children is completely unacceptable? Can we open ourselves vulnerably to the legacies of Holocaust and Nakba? To experiences of fear and oppression? (3) We must explore what it might mean to be in solidarity with both peoples in this violent wilderness, manifesting a willingness to find out what shapes and expressions that might take. When Noam left the UN job she (publicly assessed as left-wing) was frustrated that proposed solutions did not include dialogue with the settlers of the far right. (4) A key need is acknowledgement that the lives of the people themselves, across boundaries of separation, is the ‘context’. And it is their voices–not ours–that are most important.
“Admitting how deep our pain is–the lonely people who have space to mourn and care for two peoples–is too heavy to bear,” Noam writes. Yet they do. And they intercede for us. Her words remind me of Dr. King: “Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak.” It is much more than speaking against an injustice or for a position, important as they might be. We are talking about the agony of testimony, the commitment to love and the depths it can penetrate.
I suspect that this, as with all for-giveness, is part of an emerging “way of being.” When Noam had to return from her fellowship in the United States (at Harvard Divinity School, in the Religion, Conflict and Peace Initiative!) because of the onset of COVID, she also contracted COVID. Her own struggle with isolation prompted her to ask herself, “I wonder how Palestinians survive all these years of closures and restrictions of liberty.” Later, when she and others who were COVID-positive were housed together by the government in a Jerusalem hotel , the mix of Jews, Palestinians, Muslims, and Christians led to remarkable experiences of fledgling community and discovery of one another. It is like a living, breathing parable.
Noam’s piece, and this post, primarily address people in places like the United States. I want to suggest that we who live outside Israel and Palestine can seek to discover, and further establish, the kind of space within ourselves to which Noam and her friend Osnat witness. As a Christian, I would assert that we are equipped in faith for this kind of inner-work which will then infuse our witness. The life of Jesus shines bright light for us. In the Christian Scriptures there is a vivid scene in John Chapter 14, where Jesus is facing his arrest and crucifixion and the frightened disciples are struggling so mightily with what it all means, that Jesus comforts them: “In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” Like the rooms in Osnat’s heart. Jesus is talking about a life-filled future beyond the darkness they are living. He will breathe the creative Spirit into them.
In an interview with Baratunde Thurston, Noam talks about the bewilderment she and others felt in the wake of the initial attacks when they read their social media: ” We’re trying to understand who’s kidnapped, who’s dead, who’s injured, who’s missing? And within minutes, hours, I’m starting to get influencers and political whatevers putting “context” into something when we don’t even know what’s happening yet. A lot of the people who were kidnapped and murdered are the context. Israeli Jews have been working to end the occupation, working on Palestinian human rights, and all these Americans are pounding our heads with “context.” So imagine while you’re bleeding, people are offering you “context.” That was just very, very painful.” I recall that a colleague who engages important justice work here in the States posted on October 7th, “Free Palestine!” I winced, even more as some other colleagues concurred. While one could certainly argue that an armed response to the continued occupation of Palestinians and the stranglehold on Gaza was likely or inevitable at some point, this was not a development to celebrate, but rather to grieve deeply. In ensuing days and weeks, Jewish friends with whom we had united publicly in response to the Tree of Life synagogue massacre and rising antisemitism in the US were articulating their own horror, grief, and fear, asking for solidarity. Some began to lament what they perceived as the silence of friends. In the wake of the Israeli government’s murderous response, there was far more protest. I have known Palestinians Christians living in West Bank communities who continue to suffer occupation and who grieve for Gaza. In Bethlehem, a Christian church displayed a nativity of Jesus in the rubble. There must be ample room in my heart for everyone.
I call this post “Risking Expanded Heart Space” because it is indeed risky. It means crossing boundaries for conversations and relationship building, it will mean humanizing those we have labeled and listening deeply to their stories. This need not mean surrendering passion for justice or our deep love for particular people . . . it will mean having room in our hearts for more than limited loves. It will mean that the filters with which we receive and interpret the world will be reconfigured. It will mean having our investments held to the light of the gospel. It is disarmament; yes, a ceasefire of the soul. It means harder work. In the immediate, people of different minds can join together to work for ceasefire and support efforts for trauma healing and justice building that do not exclude anyone. For having whatever we offer include agape toward all, love and response for all who are suffering, and a willingness for ourselves to be transformed along with the world and its injustice. Listening is essential, then listening some more. Can we hear them?