I have been thinking about grief and, this time, I cannot credit Joan Didion.
Believe me, I have tried to celebrate beautiful fall light and the exquisiteness of gummy candy in Jerusalem’s markets. I have tried to take a momentary breathing break from thinking about the paradoxes. I live above Burgers Bar and embrace privileged-world-problems like “my apartment smells like hamburgers.” I read New York Times articles like this, which epitomize privileged-world-problems, and then ponder the closest location of macarons or cupcakes. In the airiness of macarons, I find a bubble. A woman who has lived in the Middle East for a while told me that without the bubble, I will not survive.
And yet, I cannot evade the big questions and it seems Jerusalem asks them continuously. I arrived here to find the country wrapped up in the story of Gilad Shalit. Shalit was taken hostage by Hamas militants when he was serving as an Israeli Defense Forces combat soldier in 2006. In October, Israel released 1,027 Palestinian prisoner in exchange for Shalit’s return. The questions began. Slate asked, almost cynically: “Israel traded 1,000 Palestinians for one soldier. Is that the going rate?” This week’s NYT Magazine examines the negotiations and hurdles behind the exchange. It is this constant weighing that weighs on me: the value of one life relative to another.
When NYT Jerusalem Bureau Chief Ethan Bronner sought to decipher why Israel would exchange 1,027 Palestinians for Gilad Shalit, he shed light on a particular aspect of Israeli psyche: “When Israelis say they view the sieged soldier, Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit, as their own son, they mean it,” he writes. He speaks of a “melding of private and public spheres.” Public opinion analyst Dahlia Sheindlin echoes this sentiment in +972, as she reflects on Shalit’s transition from an IDF soldier to a captive, and back to his military uniform after his release: “I felt a painful irony: For over five years, Noam and Aviva Shalit made him [Gilad] into everyone’s son and that’s how they got him released; then the state made him back into a soldier — which is how he got captured.”
One May morning during my senior year at Harvard, my friends and I decided to take a walk through Mount Auburn cemetery, America’s first garden, landscaped cemetery. Someone suggested that we picnic there, only to face the question: Is this really a suitable place for that? A friend ventured: “There is something very soothing about being in the presence of these people, even after they have passed away.”
A few weeks ago, shorly after Shalit’s release, I was standing at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. Mount Herzl, also known as Mount of Remembrance, is the national cemetery of Israel and the burial site for the war dead. Despite the red roses in bloom and the soft light through the trees, there was nothing soothing about this remembrance. The head stones reminded me that the majority of the war dead were younger than me: 19 years old, died in combat during the Lebanon war. 20 years old, died during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
There is a Jewish tradition of leaving stones on graves to signify that remembrance is a process and that building monuments for the deceased is not a finished product. On some graves, families have planted cotton. On others, an American flag or a red British phone booth suggest that the deceased was an immigrant who died in battle. There are letters, poems, messages scribbled or painted on rocks. Parents, friends and current soldiers stop at the graves of people they may have never known. Mt. Herzl is a solemn place, a living warning against the consequences of war, but also a national monument: Remembrance, here, is a collective act.
My own heart is extending empathy in contradictory directions. When I shared how somber and moving my experience at Mt. Herzl had been, a former colleague chastised me: “These soldiers killed people too!” The political message of memorials, monuments and processes of remembrance — from the Vietnam war memorial in Washington, DC to Holocaust memorials worldwide — does not evade me. I had not left Mt. Herzl without thinking of the Palestinian grief narrative. There is something tiring, maddening and ludicrous about having to constantly offset emotions here. As a conflict professional, writer and photographer, balance is important, as is consciousness of one’s own biases. Does that mean I need to deny my grief in the moment? My joy at Shalit’s mother welcoming her son home? And does my empathy for the mothers of fallen soldiers and delight for the mother of a returned captive need to cancel out my grief for the mothers of the 19, and 20 and 22-year-olds who will never come home again? I do not want to hear the political “but…” this time – my heart simply needs to sit with the grief and tragedy of the human story, regardless of which side of the security barrier it is coming from.
Feminists often say the personal is political. In the Middle East, I am learning that the political is personal too. I am not moved by Gilad, by the mothers, and by the graves because I do not understand the politics or because I ignore them. I am moved because I refuse to separate the human story from the politics. That is where ‘extending empathy in contradictory directions’ comes in: Human stories of injustice unfold side by side here. This land harbors parallel narratives of pain. In a beautiful reflection on gender roles in the Middle East, a friend recently wrote about what she insightfully dubbed “the obnoxious truth of “it’s complicated.”
Luckily, unlike the policy-making, empathy can afford to be contradictory, as can compassion. I can continue to unearth life stories, and I can embrace being mesmerized, appalled, and hopeful in the same day. Compassion does not need to choose a side.