Contemporary Peace Research and Practice By Lisa Schirch  |  17 October, 2023

Scaling the Wall of Grief in Israel and Palestine

Image: Generated by Midjourney AI

The prophets told us "Everyone neath their vine and fig tree shall live in peace and unafraid."

They implied "When all do not have a vine or fig tree, there will not be peace and there will be fear." The prophets were not justifying violence. They were explaining it.

Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Many eyes are weeping, blinded with tears. It is trauma that blinds us. The trauma on both sides builds a wall of grief. We cannot see over that wall to the humanity of the other side.  

Over the last week, at first, my Facebook feed filled with my Israeli friends posting photos of their friends who were murdered by Hamas, of entire Jewish families massacred, kidnapped, and missing mothers, daughters, and children.  Then my feed filled with photos of Palestinians killed by Israeli strikes. Entire families. Entire apartment buildings. A targeted children’s hospital and mosque. Trauma is building a wall higher and higher making it more and more difficult to see the humanity of the side or any possible solution.

Stories are Grappling Hooks

Scaling the wall of grief requires us to understand history. But not just one side’s story. Stories of the intertwined history of European Christians, Jews, and Palestinian Muslims and Christians are grappling hooks to help us begin to scale this wall.

One post I saw on Facebook came from Kibbutz Yad Mordechai where I visited in 2017. I remember this village well. The kibbutz  (a Jewish cooperative farm) is named after the first commander of the Jewish Fighting Organization in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The Nazis murdered their families and neighbors in Poland. They escaped to Palestine and built a village in the 1930s.

After the 1947 UN Partition Resolution, which attempted to create both a Palestinian state and an Israeli state, five Arab countries invaded the region to stop the loss of Palestinian land and prevent the creation of the state of Israel. In the 1948 war, Egyptian tanks attacked the kibbutz Yad Mordechai, terrorizing the Jews who had just escaped Nazi Poland.

But at the same time, the Palestinian villages near Yad Mordechai were "erased" in 1948. Palestinians living in villages and farms with large orchards were sent to live in the concentration camp now known as Gaza. 75 years later, these 2 million Palestinians living in Gaza remember the names and places of the villages of their parents and grandparents. Hamas militants are the children of families pushed out of these same villages and farms near Kibbutz Yad Mordechai that they attacked this weekend.

Yad Mordechai made an impression on me. Christian antisemitism fueled the Nazis and the Holocaust who killed their parents and neighbors in Warsaw. Now, in 2023, the community of Yad Mordechai has evacuated because of Hamas missiles and the murders and kidnappings of so many Israelis in surrounding kibbutzim and towns.

European Christians are part of this story. We are not just outsiders. The people of Yad Mordechai deserve to live in a community where they do not have to fear brutal massacres that echo the Holocaust.

The story of this tragedy does not begin in 2023. It also does not begin 50 years ago in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, or the 1948 Nakba, or catastrophe for Palestinians. We must first unravel this intertwined history of suffering to comprehend a way out of it.

This intertwined story of suffering gives us a way of gripping onto the slippery logic of revenge.

The Slippery, Blinding Logic of Revenge and Collective Punishment

Facebook is now filled with people posting photos of flags: Israeli flags and Palestinian flags, as if there were only two sides and the conflict is “us against them.” On both sides, people dehumanize and set the stage for more violence. These flags build the wall higher and higher, making it harder to grow the vine and fig trees for all people in this region.

Palestinians face a situation where over time since 1948 they have been pushed out of their homes and farms by Jews fleeing antisemitism and wanting finally to live in a Jewish state that will protect Jews. Palestinians have suffered for the crimes of European Christians, who continue today to be complicit in this cycle of violence.

In the last 100 years, approximately 100,000 Palestinians have died from violence, with many more dying from poverty and lack of access to healthcare and jobs. With the growth of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the expansion of the occupation, and the daily humiliation and repression, some Palestinians feel that there is no other option but violence. If we want peace for all, there have to be options for Palestinians to end the ongoing violence against them.

For Israelis who experience this attack by Hamas on the anniversary of the surprise attack by Arab countries against Israel on the holy day of Yom Kippur in 1973, the Hamas massacre is another reminder that despite the immense power of the Israeli military, they cannot live under a vine and fig tree with peace and safety.

The logic of collective punishment is blinding. Hamas targeted Jewish civilians assuming that all Jews are responsible for the loss of Palestinian homes and lives. And now Israeli forces bomb Palestinian homes assuming all Palestinians are responsible for the loss of Jewish Israeli families. For Jews who have not yet recovered their population numbers since the Holocaust of over 6 million human beings, the loss of 1200 Israelis last weekend is not only tragic. It feels like the continuation of the Holocaust.

Collective punishment by either side takes the lives of innocent Israelis and innocent Palestinians. It was wrong for Hamas to kill over a thousand Israelis. And it is wrong for Israel to kill even more innocent Palestinians inside Gaza in retaliation. Both extremist sides justify killing the other as "necessary" to "send a message" that it won't be tolerated.

The strategy of collective punishment of both sides only generates more rage, more trauma, and more commitment to fight by both sides. Raz Segal, professor of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies, documents why Israeli carpet bombing of Gaza is, in all legal manner, “A Textbook Case of Genocide.”  Weaponizing grief and trauma from the Jewish Holocaust cannot lead to another Holocaust. When we all joined in saying “Never Again” we meant never again would the world sit by and watch a genocide without speaking out against it.

Carving Space in the Sea of Grief

What can we do?  Most of the media and the US government offer a binary and ahistorical justification for the genocidal revenge now taking place in Gaza. The US government urges us to take sides with the Israeli far-right government. 

An alleged State Department memo on Friday calls diplomats to resist calls for peace or a ceasefire from the public and the UN. Many in the public offer a similar binary; stand with one side with a flag and not with the people grieving on all sides or on the side of peace.

We must part the Sea of Grief and lead people out of the wasteland of hate. We do this by creating space for voices in this wilderness.

We can protect the space for people to express care and concern about the trauma, grief, and loss of human life.

We can hold the space for grieving for those too traumatized to advocate for peace.

We can build a space for upholding the human dignity of all people suffering from an intertwined history of violence and repression by some Europeans toward Jews and by some Israelis toward Palestinians.

We can carve out a space for those who are able to express moral outrage at the war crimes on both sides.

We can forge a space for those able to articulate a way to a way forward. There is a better way. For now, the only political settlement that addresses the interests of all sides is called Two States, One Homeland, or "A Land for All." It is an unconventional proposal, designed by innovative Israelis and Palestinians.

The two large circles in the centre of this diagram are where we should put our focus. These groups have more to gain from joining together and putting an end to the extremist groups that drag the rest of the country into war.

Hamas is not democratically elected. Hamas oppresses and is hated by many Palestinians; it does not represent all Palestinians. Over the last year, we have also seen hundreds of thousands of Israelis protest against the far-right Israeli government. It was elected, but a majority oppose Netanyahu.

The violence will end when the occupation ends and there is justice, democracy, and a land for all people and when the world can work against antisemitism without working against Palestinian human rights.

The prophets were right. Everyone needs a vine and fig tree.


Related articles

Director's statement: The Hamas-Israel Conflict (3-minute read)


Lisa Schirch is is Senior Research Fellow for the Toda Peace Institute where she directs the Institute’s “Social Media, Technology and Peacebuilding” programme. Dr Schirch is Richard G. Starmann Sr. Chair and Professor of the Practice at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies in the Keough School of Global Affairs.