It’s hard to go about life as usual without pausing to think about what is happening in the Middle East. In case anyone’s been under a rock: After decades of tension between Israel and Palestine with intermittent fighting, a Hamas attack in the Western Negev desert near the Gaza/Israel border on Oct. 7 took some 1,200 lives and 200 hostages.
This has been followed by a U.S.-backed Israeli offensive in Gaza in which more than 15,500 Palestinians have been killed so far. The World Health Organization warns that thousands of others are at risk of illness or death from hunger, dehydration or communicable diseases.
I’m not going to discuss proportionality as, in my view, even one civilian death is more than I’d like to see, and the numbers ultimately speak for themselves. What I do want to talk about is the binary way in which we talk about war at the risk of oversimplifying the people and the players involved. In doing so, I acknowledge that there is likely no way to write a piece that will not upset someone. We’ve seen this in our sister-weeklies.
I’ve experienced it in my reporting, as a woman called me out for the inclusion of the perspective of a Palestinian woman who categorized Hamas as militant fighters who called only for an immediate ceasefire and without more explicitly condemning the group and the perspective of an Israeli-Jewish-American who was critical of the U.S.-backed Israeli response.
As I’ve watched and listened to how the war-at-hand is being described by U.S. and world leaders, mainstream media and everyday people, I’m struck by how overly simplistic, all-or-nothing, black-and-white and either-or we and our rhetoric have become. The truth, I would argue, is nuanced and nonbinary.
The struggle for a resolution is complicated, be it a two-state solution, an aspirational one-state harmonious place where both Palestinians and Israelis co-exist with each other and enjoy full rights and freedom, or a solution that hasn’t yet been realized. But the struggle itself is not so different or separate from struggles we as Americans see and experience every day, like homelessness, addiction, incarceration, food insecurity and access to adequate healthcare coverage.
As I pay attention to how narratives are curated and presented to the world, I keep thinking back to something said to me by Maurice Byrd, a counselor who works with people living in encampments struggling with addiction, while I was covering a session on loving people with addictions during September’s Oakland Psychedelic Conference.
Byrd said that to make progress on any front—be it systemically responding to the epidemic of homelessness or dependency, the carceral system or war—we must do away with our binary ways of thinking and speaking.
Betty Reid Soskin, 102, who retired from being a park ranger at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front museum in Richmond two years ago, said each time I interviewed her that we live in a “both-and” world where multiple truths exist.
In her 80s, Betty—who prefers to go by only her first name—invited herself to the table where the history of “Rosies” was being written. She wanted to make sure the stories of mostly white Rosies were accompanied by the narratives of people like her—Black women who were subjected to Jim Crow laws and segregation and whose career prospects were limited to service and agricultural work.
As Betty explained it, when we accept the world as a place where multiple coexisting and conflicting truths exist, we can begin to see the humanity in each other. And, by contrast, when we choose to view the world or any issue, policy or solution through a simple, either-or, black-or-white approach, we’ll invariably miss something.
Can we simultaneously push for a ceasefire and acknowledge that the actions of Hamas on Oct. 7 correlated with the deaths of 1,200 people and 200 people taken hostage, and the subsequent actions of the Israeli government have correlated with 15,500 deaths, while also challenging both antisemitism and Islamophobia? Can one be critical of the actions of a state and still be an ally to the people who live in the state?
Gabi Kirk, an Oakland resident on the cusp of finishing her geography doctoral dissertation on the same land that is central to this war, says that the answer is yes. Kirk is strongly rooted in her faith as a Jewish woman. She grew up going to Hebrew camp and is raising her baby in the same faith tradition.
Kirk also supports a ceasefire and finds it both troubling and alarming that people like her who are simultaneously strong in their Jewish identities and firm in their opposition to the current military interventions are being labeled antisemitic. Kirk is committed to challenging both forms of oppression in tandem, and she argues it’s necessary to do so.
“In the United States both Islamophobia and antisemitism come out of the colonization of the New World and out of the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain,” Kirk says. “And anyone who went to U.S. elementary school knows a particular version of what happened in 1492. Columbus sailed the ocean blue and ‘discovered’ America. And so, the colonization and genocide of Native Americans in the Americas coincided with the formation of racism in Europe. That racism was against Jews and Muslims together.”
Kirk adds, “You can’t understand antisemitism without understanding Islamophobia and vice versa. Islamophobia is a form of racism that has had state backing since 9/11. Whenever we combat the ideas that Muslims are not really from here or that they are threats to the state, we are also combating older allegations of Jews that said that they were not loyal to the state, that they shouldn’t be here. We need to combat both forms of racism.”
Can one oppose Zionism and not be labeled antisemitic? This is complicated, as U.S. lawmakers have passed resolutions equating the two, which have resulted in headlines stating that those who didn’t vote in favor of the resolution don’t believe that one group of people has the right to exist.
By this line of reasoning, anyone who’s ever protested an action or policy in the United States could be labeled unpatriotic. And yet, as a place that celebrates our First Amendment rights of having freedom of speech, the utopian ideals of folks like Betty Reid Soskin would suggest that we can be both patriotic and critical.
Before one decides for sure how they feel, one must first understand what the “Z” word means. I say this because in informally polling colleagues, acquaintances, friends and family, most indicate that they’re still trying to wrap their heads around what Zionism is. That’s why I asked Kirk to define it.
“If you asked me when I was a child growing up in a Jewish community in the Bay, I would have said it meant support for a Jewish state,” Kirk says. “A more academic, historically grounded definition is national aspirations for Jewish people as a whole to have sovereignty and self-determination in the historic lands of Palestine, which is also considered the historic lands of Israel.”
She continues, “It’s been understood that the only way for Jews to hold sovereign power is through a demographic majority and state structures in the land that is now called Israel. To maintain a demographic majority, which says there needs to be more Jews than non-Jews in the area, that can only be enforced through violence.”
In the spirit of doing diligence, I also asked Kirk to define anti-Zionism.
“Anti-Zionism is a criticism of a state structure and a state ideology that maintains itself through direct and indirect violence,” she says. Kirk adds that when Jewish people like herself call for a ceasefire, they’re offering a political statement that happens to be aligned with the values of the Jewish faith even if they’re critical of the state of Israel’s actions carried out with backing from the United States.
“Calling for a ceasefire is a political statement that says that the current violence being enacted against Palestinians and also being enacted against Israelis cannot be solved through military might,” Kirk says. “Antisemitism will not be eliminated or solved through military night. The ceasefire is to say from our Jewish values that all lives are precious and sacred and that to save a life is to save the world. The call for a ceasefire is to protect the sanctity of human life so that the political conversations and deliberations can come through to have lasting peace.”
Regardless of where one stands on the issues of Zionism, peace, war, Palestine or Israel, the things we might all be able to agree on are that while the solution is undoubtedly complicated, Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs applies to everyone, whether they are American, Israeli, Palestinian or otherwise. In the future, I imagine scholars and history teachers might invite students to ponder why leaders didn’t employ the lens of Betty Reid Soskin so that a more complete story could be told.