By Eric Bliman
I hope this piece doesn’t seem too self-serving; it’s my attempt to make sense of what I’ve been thinking and feeling this month. Like most people, I’ve been saddened, shocked, outraged, and horrified by what’s happened in the past eight days, both in Israel and in Gaza, and this situation is likely to get worse in the days to come. But what’s been hard for me to process – and is the reason why I’ve refrained from making knee-jerk responses about it – is the reaction I’ve seen from some U.S. friends, acquaintances, and public figures on the left, who write or share others’ posts on social media which, implicitly and even explicitly, state something to the effect of “If you say that you have issues with how Israel is defending itself, you are either a de facto anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew.” This sort of rhetoric has ingrained itself in the imagination of the U.S. right wing for years, and now to see people I’ve come to love and respect for their brilliance and empathy echoing those sentiments is a sign of how volatile this moment in history is.
This foolish, oversimplified “you’re with us or against us” binary doesn’t come from nowhere. Most of us probably recognize it from the many recent and years-old speeches of politicians like Netanyahu and his fellow hardliners in the Knesset. All hardliners and bullies use it. Such figures have used this rhetoric for years to defend an indefensible web of policies, which in this case have uprooted thousands of Palestinians from their homes, made their ability to find work that offers a living wage impossible, and severely restricted their movement and their ability to worship. All in the name of defense and a fragile peace that applies to some but not all citizens. For years, many folks have been warning that such brutal policies would inevitably lead to violence.
I’m no stranger to anti-Semitism. I’m Jewish, my roots are in Pittsburgh, where my mother and father still live, and my dad hails from Squirrel Hill, which is now known by people not from the area only as the site of the Tree of Life massacre. It’s a beautiful community, full of hills peppered and shaded by tall old sycamores and a thriving arts and literature scene, with good bars and good music, and everyone should visit it. I’ve personally experienced both micro and macro-aggressions of anti-Semitism my whole life, and during the previous administration my fears, stress, and generational trauma were at a fever pitch for most of those four years, stemming from the words and actions of our former president, which far too many of our fellow citizens echoed giddily.
I’d like to add that my father’s side of the family hails from a country that no longer exists called Galicia, which now makes up parts of Poland and Ukraine. One fear that I have about this current war is that it may distract us from similar atrocities in Ukraine, which needs our help and sympathy to continue if they are to face down a much more well-armed and well-funded threat from Putin and Russia, and prevent a disaster for democracy in Europe and around the world.
Hamas should be dismantled and deplatformed. I take this as a given that most of us can agree on regardless of our feelings about who is more at fault, or what cause led to what effect. As long as we play that old “Who started it?” game or engage in the “Whose actions are worst?” debate, we lose sight of the fact that civilians who had nothing to do with the violence are dying, caught in the crosshairs. Innocent Israelis. Innocent Palestinians. Lives have been/are being destroyed, and generations of new extremists are being born, ensuring that the cycle of violence continues. And who benefits from that violence if not those whose identities, incomes, and careers are built on it? It’s worth pointing out that Netanyahu’s former support for Hamas (not public support, but reported by several papers of record in Israel) and his opposition to a Palestinian state enabled Hamas to fill the power vacuum formerly filled by Abbas, and become what they are today. It’s also worth pointing out that the history of the region is like this: full of contradictions, hypocrisies, and unintended consequences so Byzantine it would take a lifetime to unravel them.
Hamas’ founding documents call for the removal of all Jews from the region. And we’ve seen that this terrorist group will stoop to any level to achieve those aims, including the worst sort of barbarity imaginable. Hamas’ brutality is the clearest example of anti-Semitism we’ve seen
since the Tree of Life massacre and the most devastating loss of Jewish life since the Holocaust. For such actions, Hamas should be destroyed, yet how that destruction happens matters. And those who say it doesn’t matter, or that no one should be permitted to call out human rights violations when militaries and governments commit them, are, as Orwell predicted, aligning themselves with hardliners who draw few or no distinctions between civilians and the military-political complex. Of course, Hamas is not all Palestinians. Palestine is not a monolith. Neither are the Jewish people, here or abroad. Our diversities of lifestyle, belief, and thought are what makes us beautiful, what makes our societies stronger, and what helps us overcome moments like this.
I worry that those who parrot Netanyahu are in danger of losing sight of our common humanity. Saying that someone is anti-Semitic who offers any hint of disagreement with or criticism of the Israeli government’s policies or actions is a logical fallacy. It runs counter to the evidence we see with our own eyes, and it makes our ability to hold a civil discourse impossible, which is a necessary ingredient for any long-lasting resolution to violence.
While I’m writing this, I’m all too aware that Israelis and others are being held hostage and are likely being tortured horribly by Hamas in Gaza, thousands of Palestinians with no means of travel have been told to flee the north of Gaza (how, and to go where exactly?), and Israeli tanks and troops are massed along the border preparing for invasion. I’m also aware that the people of Ukraine are still living under siege. My sympathies are with all of the innocent people who didn’t ask to be caught in the crossfire.
Including those who do and do not share my ancestry. I hope that whatever happens next means decreased suffering for all innocents, and paves the way for a two-state solution, and I’m hopeful that’s the advice Biden is doling out to Netanyahu loudly and forcefully behind the scenes. If that makes me a self-hating Jew, to paraphrase Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, very well then, I’m going to hell.
(Of course, as I was taught, we Jews don’t believe in hell, unless you count what we do to each other on earth as an analogue for it.)
Editor’s note: Eric Bliman is an instructor of English, composition, and creative writing at Penn State Harrisburg.
A former journalist, he worked with Gazette 2.0 Editor and Publisher Sonja Reis at the Carnegie Signal-Item and Bridgeville-Area News offices in the late 1990s. At the time, their shared editor was the late Bob Pastin, a Rocks boy through and through.
Of note, although Bliman famously caused Reis to faceplant during an office chair race in the former Carnegie Mall area, she has since forgiven him. His writing has only gotten better over the years and she thinks he might want to submit opinion pieces like this to the Patriot-News or PennLive.com.