How Can I Fight the Fear That’s Eroding My Values?

The fear is getting to me, gnawing away at who I am and who I want to be.

I think of myself as a person with multiple identities and roles. I am a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a professional, an academic, an activist. I try to hold to a clear set of religious, philosophical and ideological commitments, forged by my religious beliefs, my Zionist convictions and my feminist sensibilities. But the violence around me pushes all those aside. These days in Jerusalem, I am only a mother, frightened for her loved ones.

“Oh, God,” I think each time breaking news tells us about another “incident.” “Please, just keep my family, my loved ones, my friends and my community safe.”

When I am afraid, it’s hard to think in complex terms.

I am pulled into false dichotomies. When I am fearful for others and for myself, it’s easy to ignore core values and think in terms of simplistic “us’s” and “them’s.” I am tempted to believe that everyone from my tribe is with me, while everyone from the other tribe wants to kill me.

And I worry that if I come to believe that, I will tolerate all sorts of unjustified responses against “them” — such as excessive force and collective punishment — because, I delude myself, those responses will keep us safe.

I might forget that a 13-year-old is a child. A dangerous child, for sure, if he is wielding a knife to kill another child, but still only 13. And while his actions are those of a murderous terrorist, he is a child who was tragically let down by the adults in his life. It would be a terrible spiritual loss if we lose our capacity to mourn for a child, no matter what his nationality and no matter how heinous his crimes have been. I worry that I might also forget that it is never a crime or an act of betrayal to hear the cries of another child’s mother, no matter what her nationality and no matter how horrific her child’s crimes have been.

From every side, I am being invited to play the zero-sum game of which side is worse. Everyone seems to be busy measuring whose virtue is bigger. A picture of an Israeli soldier giving a drink of water to a small, frightened Arab girl goes viral, and the voices around me scream: “We Jews are the good people. The Arabs are the vicious murderers.” It’s so tempting to believe that right now.

When I am afraid, I sit on a seesaw of right and wrong. Only one side — mine — can be up, and so the other side must be down. Anything more complex than that is perceived as either justifying terrorism or ignoring the occupation. But the truth, of course, is nuanced and difficult. The Palestinians have demonized Israelis for so long that they have given birth to a generation filled with bitter hatred. And we Israelis have ruled over the Palestinians for so long that we have become unaware of how awful life under occupation really is.

When I am afraid, I make bad choices. Through unbidden video auto-play, the pornographic snuff films of terrorists attacking and then being “neutralized” (our newest euphemism) appear on my Facebook feed, and like a clichéd moth to the flame, I watch them. Like everyone else around me, I am slowly becoming some sort of a “CSI,” “SVU” or “Criminal Minds” junkie, assessing the intensity of hatred, and determining whether the level of force used by security personnel was justified.

In Hebrew we say that if you were once burned by hot water, you will be afraid of cold water, too. The vicious terrorism of the scalding second intifada has left us scarred and scared. And I know that people who are scarred and scared usually make bad political decisions. So I try to acknowledge the fear and validate my feelings. And then, with the benefit of relative social privilege and years of higher education, I summon up all my abilities to make the necessary Cartesian distinctions between feeling and thinking. I separate what I experience from what I believe our policies should be.

I wish I could count on our leaders to guide us through these times, to provide us with a strong vision that will give us hope for the future. But it seems that our leaders are more interested in their political careers than in our countries’ future, so they offer us slogans rather than solutions. While I’m trying to find a balance between self-protection and rage, they are trying to entice me into the warm, fuzzy feeling of “The whole world is against us.”

I also wish I could count on my fellow tribe members in the Diaspora. But while I am desperately trying to hold on to complexity, too many of them are inviting me to play the simplistic blame game, in which either the Palestinians are hateful savages and Israel is justified in every action it takes, or the Palestinians are hapless victims and Israel is a hateful apartheid state.

I know that it’s important to accept responsibility for everything that Israel has done to bring us to this situation, while never absolving the Palestinians of their responsibility. I recognize the evils of the occupation but refuse to accept that terrorism is the inevitable and only response. And I am aware that the real test of morality is to do the right thing even when you are pulled in the other direction.

So I hug my loved ones tighter. I seek out people who seek complexity. And in the din around me and within me, I’ll try to listen to Ben Zoma, the talmudic sage who taught us: “Who is brave? The one who subdues his negative inclination.”

Eetta Prince-Gibson, the former editor in chief of The Jerusalem Report, is an award-winning journalist who lives in Jerusalem.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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