Nine days after the Hamas massacre in Israel on October 7, a two-word slogan is graffitied opposite my children’s school in California: “Fuck Israel.” A huge masked rat was painted next to it, draped in a Palestinian flag. Parents call the school, which immediately calls the police, and the words are erased but the rat remains.
“Why leave the rat?” someone asks in the Hebrew-speaking parents group on WhatsApp.
“A Palestinian rat?” queries one parent.
“Everything should be erased,” says another mother.
“Call the police,” says a third mother.
Then comes a different kind of message, asking what the problem is with the Palestinian flag. After all, it’s not a Hamas flag. It’s not violent or racist, and erasing it sends the message that all Arabs are terrorists – which is itself a racist message. Maybe we should check ourselves? It is a long message and I deliberately won’t quote from it verbatim, but this sums up its main idea.
The message is not about the masked rat at all, but asks how liberal we ourselves are. It makes me think about what is happening at San Diego State University, where I’m a guest poet this semester through the Murray Galinson San Diego-Israel Initiative.
Just this week, a huge conference was held in the central auditorium where hundreds of students representing all kinds of departments explained heard – in a liberal way – why Israel is guilty of war crimes and creates fake news, and why Hamas is an organization of freedom fighters. Anyone who tried to influence prevent the nature of the event from taking place was told it’s impossible to prevent freedom of speech.
A second conference, at which I was invited to participate, presented different aspects about what is happening right now. At the university’s behest, for security reasons it was not actually held on campus: it felt as if, In view of the threats against Israelis, the university cannot guarantee the full security of supporters of Israel.
Outside the university, in San Diego itself, there was a massive demonstration in support of the Palestinians. It traversed the city and en route they attacked an Israeli family that happened to be passing by.
Like the protests held in San Francisco, New York, Warsaw and London (each of which had tens to hundreds of thousands in attendance), here too all the concepts turned to mush: “Free Palestine” means erasing the State of Israel and therefore means supporting Hamas.
A pro-Israel event was also held. It was held at the Jewish community center on the city’s outskirts, not in a public space, not on the street, not in front of anyone, and yet it was held at high risk and under heavy security. Of course, everyone knew who the dangerous side was at these demonstrations and which side was in danger. This does not make them change their minds about what is happening in the Middle East.
I don’t like being an Israeli in California right now. I sometimes feel lost: there are so many of them and so few of us. Sometimes I feel an existential threat. I’m frightened to say where I come from. I’m frightened that someone will hear my children speaking Hebrew in the street. Most of the time, I’m helpless, because how do you even begin to explain? I talk with people who couldn’t have no idea where find Israel Is on the map yet their whose opinion on it is unshakable. How do you persuade the persuaded?
It turns out that my experience at the university is the tip of the iceberg of many years in which these ideas have spread unhindered on U.S. campuses. Simply put: It’s a never-ending thought loop in which a university declares that it supports freedom of speech, and seeks to be a free space for unlimited speech about each and every ideas and concepts. This includes speech about terrorism and to talk about freedom fighters who massacre others. Everything happens in an ostensibly intellectual and academic way, but in truth it is incredibly unbalanced.
If the massacre had taken place here, I don’t think it would have happened like this. But a massacre of Israelis is apparently a distant, imperceptible concept. It turns out that it is possible to support it and it is possible to believe in it, and even acceptable to organize a university panel and bring these ideas before hundreds of students.
It’s unbelievable how much effort has been made here to justify the largest massacre in Western society in the last 100 years.
I keep scratching my head: Do these people understand that the freedom their university imagines is not the freedom Hamas openly talks about? In other words, salvation redemption through purification of the land and death to anyone who interferes with its values, including the Americans.
But what really pains me is that, ultimately, I grieve alone. I turn inward or to other Israelis. Other Ppeople say to me “Happy Tuesday!” as if everything is normal. Except for a few kind people in my department and the wonderful people at the initiative who brought me here, no one is interested in thise terrible tearing of the heart. Pain hasis always been a lonely place, but it became even more so here.
I venture out into the street and in front of me is the municipality’s campaign with its slogan of “zero waste.” The supermarket sells products under a “cruelty-free” label. Americans loves absolute values.
Hollywood has believed in absolute love for years. And it seems that for herethem, the world is always all or nothing. Good or bad. Cruel or kindhearted. I wonder now how they so confused good and bad that most liberals warmly hug massacring terrorists? How is it that, again, that the Jews are the ones at risk?
Here I meet trans people who support Hamas, because for them Hamas is a natural partner in the battle for body and gender freedom.
I meet environmental activists for whom Hamas is a partner in the steadfast war against the windmills of the West and global warming.
I even meet Jews and ex-Israelis for whom Hamas is an ideological partner against the occupation.
All of them have one thing in common: they all imagine Hamas in a way that is convenient and appropriate for them.
They do not let the facts confuse them.
They do not listen to what Hamas says about itself. They dismiss the massacre from their minds.
They support with all their might and money an organization that would happily exterminate them if it could.
I once heard the term “progressive troll.” Now I know what they look like.
“Troll” is a misleading word, because it suggests that this is a handful of crazy people. I now know there are millions of them out there.
If we go back for a moment to the masked rat opposite my kids’ school, at this point in the conversation I feel something similar is happening among the school’s Hebrew-speaking parents and that their as most of them are politically correctness might lead them also , they could stiltol embrace people who just a few weeks ago had slaughtered us with anything that came to hand.
I therefore intervene in the conversation and explain that this was is not a Palestinian flag. It was is a rat masked like the terrorists who infiltrated Israel in the name of “liberating” Palestine. Just like those who entered homes and shot children in their beds. This is direct support in the face of terrorism, and you do not need a rat to draw a flag – you can simply draw a flag.
Since the outbreak of the war, I find myself explaining very simple concepts to people.
No, Palestine is not Hamas.
No, Palestine is not a country you can simply “talk” to. Gaza is controlled by a terrorist organization.
Yes, a sick barbaric massacre is terrorism.
No, Israelis are not the Israeli government; you have to distinguish between them.
Yes, just like Americans are not Congress.
Yes, you are allowed to criticize Israeli government policy. I also do that.
No, you are not allowed to forsake the blood of every Israeli because of the Israeli government. That is antisemitism.
People here like to imagine a different Hamas. This reminds me that, until two weeks ago, I liked to imagine a different America. I remember that when we arrived here a few months ago, my breath was taken away by the beauty – the oceansea, the palm trees, the desert cacti – and I began to think constantly of my grandfather’s family, that when he made aliya have settled at the heals of Hollywood. . What if, instead of immigrating to Kibbutz Kinneret, Grandpa Yaakov settled in the Hollywood Hills with the rest of them? What kind of childhood could we have had here? Who would we be without the suspicious objects, the rockets, the fear, my father’s terrible injury in the war? Would I be less anxious, less tense? Maybe I would have surfed in the ocean. Maybe I wouldn’t feel the existential dread all the time. One time I really cried from everything that could have been but wasn’t. But that was my imagination. My imagined America.
There’s a slogan currently on Instagram that says “Your Jewish friends are NOTnot OK,” perhaps in order to explain that Jews also have an emotional connection to Israel. When I ask my Jewish friends, they admit that they have never been as afraid as they are now. Some only leave home when they have to: for work, shopping. They hear the hate speech at the university, and sometimes also at the office. Someone painted swastikas in several public restrooms.
“Isn’t that how you grew up?” I ask them. They explain that, no, they grew up without fear.
On the other hand, they also always closed themselves off within the community: Jewish schools, Jewish summer camps, sometimes even Jewish institutions of higher education. Assimilated, but only to a degree. Always a minority.
My imagined America changes now in retrospect. How did my grandparents’ family live here all these years? How, after a totally different life for 120 years, do we meet here now, Israelis and Jews, at this historic moment, and we all share the same fear, the same sense that we’ve all been neglected blood may be spilled?
Talking to Jews comes easy to me, but talking with my students is the real challenge. Because they receive invitations to pro-Palestinian demonstrations, and the university logo is on the invitation. Because they participate in panels to boycott Israel, even if they were not invited, simply because the panels offer an extra credit in their are a mandatory part of the course! Because they hear that everything coming out of Israel is always fake. Because they get their news from social media and influencers. Because they form an opinion in 30 seconds without checking the facts. Because they love three-word, and sometimes two-word, slogans.
In the morning, before I enter the classroom, I almost cancel the class. I know that Muslim activists enter these classes and cause chaos. And even without them, I have no idea how I will talk with my students. I’ve never dealt with hasbara [Israeli public diplomacy]. When I saw videos from all kinds of propagandists with data, dates and facts – my jaw dropped to the floor. What are my chances with a whole class like this, now?
When I enter the class, my voice trembles. I tell the students that each week we bring in our hearts and souls – after all, it is a poetry workshop, and I want to tell them about my heart and soul.
I tell them that I’m sad; the sadness pours out of me like porridge from a pot. I’m also very scared. I feel that I’m a target for anyone who disagrees with my government. I explain to them that I come from a very small people, which has been persecuted throughout history. That I bear inside with me the persecution of my great-grandmother. And now I cannot sleep at night worrying for myself here and my family there. I tell them that my Facebook feed looks like a cemetery (words I adopted from Israeli filmmaker Uri Bar-On, who is also teaching here with me). That Israelis are connected by invisible umbilical cords to one another, and when something horrifying, terrifying, happens to us – as far as we’re concerned, it happens to each of us personally. I’m not even sure I can stay until the end of the class.
In response, not one of my students says a word about Israel and Palestine, about policy. They do not speak with accusations or reproaches; they do not sound at all like at the violent extrimist university panels.
Instead, they begin to discuss how they’re doing. Some of them are also sad and scared! Others are completely unaffected by what’s going on. One student recounts how she cleaned the bones of an ancient goat in her archaeology class, and I’m so happy that, for a moment, she is transporting me to a space where there is refinement and research and ancient goats.
In my second class, someone brings me cookies. When I say that I have a gluten intolerance, they all begin to rummage in their bags and offer me what they had packed for themselves that morning: granola bars, vegetables, even two hard-boiled eggs with cheese. They really want me to eat. Like my grandmother wanted me to eat. It feels as if they’re trying to change the alchemy of sadness in my body.
An Israeli friend here tells me that we are lost, the Americans do not “feel” us. They’re unable to feel sorry for us. To feel our pain. Some are antisemites.
I don’t know what I think about that. I also don’t know how many people here are antisemites, and I feel that I know nothing. But I did learn this week that when I talk to my students through emotion, they answer me with emotion. When I don’t try to persuade them about anything, they don’t try persuade me about anything. And that connecting from the heart is stronger than any slogan or viral post on Instagram.
I’m reminded now of an Iranian girl I once met in India. I was surprised at the time how smart, sensitive and funny she was. We spent several days together at a hostel, walked around a bit, and that was it. I don’t even remember her name. But to this day, when people say “Iran,” I remember her as well, and immediately a different space opens up within me, beyond the anger or fear.
It’s not hasbara. It’s a small thing. There are more rats and masks and trolls to fight out there. But maybe when my students hear the word “Israel,” even in years to come, they will think of me. I imagine this now. I imagine this now and go on.