“So…the question is…do you think you can do a rewrite on this? Same reporting of the event, but with a completely new angle or slant that makes the settlers appear less extreme. Your bottom line–the point of them being ‘people’ is a good one, but still a negative residure of fanaticism is strongly left. Can we erase that?”
This was an email I received from an editor for a site I was working for about 8 years ago when I was starting out as a writer. It was the first place I had ever officially written for, and I was desperate to keep my writing career alive.
I was doing what I had only dreamed about just two years earlier, in college. Writing on the front lines. Exploring whole new adventures I never dreamed of. And, most fascinating to me, covering these people I had never understood, heard so much about as an American, but hadn’t actually met.
One of the most memorable moments for me was a speech I gave during a pro-Israel rally in the center of the Arizona State University campus. I stood on the stage, Israeli flags draped behind me, my friends surrounding me.
In front of me, I couldn’t help but notice a group of Muslim students glaring at me. Anger in their eyes. Maybe hate, but certainly anger.
I stood up, and I told my story. It was about my grandmother, whose family had lived for generations in Israel/Palestine/whatever it happened to be called at the time. My grandmother knew Arabic because she lived among the Arabs that lived there (this was before they were called Palestinians). Her parents, her family, was close with their Arab neighbors.
But there were also the raids. Regular raids on the town my grandmother lived in when she as a child. Looking for Jews to slaughter.
As I told this story, the eyes of the Muslim students narrowed. More anger.
But my grandmother’s family survived for one reason, and one reason only. Her Arab neighbors. They would take my grandmother and her family into their home and hide them. Protect them.
As I stood before the hostile crowd I declared something from my heart, something that has always stayed with me: “I would not be alive if it wasn’t for Palestinians.”
My hope, I explained, was that we would grow together as a people beyond the raiders, the dividers, and find a united front that believed in peace above all.
I looked back at the Muslims. Their arms had moved to their sides, no longer crossed. Their eyes were softer. Maybe I hadn’t changed their minds, but I had said something that they didn’t expect.
And, inside of myself, I knew that I had tapped into something true. Something that went beyond politics, right and wrong, black and white. Into a reality that is more complicated. It was the human story that changed things, that told the story both of vicious killers committed to killing my family, and the brave people who protected them. A story that can only be told by people who are open to seeing just how complicated life can be.
It was a vision that I quickly lost.
There was a part of me that seemed to always waver between two extremes, as much as I fought it. The year of that speech, I had vaulted to become the head of our pro-Israel organization on campus, preparing to start a career of advocating for Israel.
But almost as soon as that happened, depression took over my life, and I dropped everything I seemed to care about.
When I came out of it, I was your typical liberal, fighting-against-the-occupation, screaming against the Gaza wall, shocked by asymmetric warfare, college student.
But part of me, through all this, in the ups and downs, was screaming to go back to the story of my grandmother, to knowing that things were more complicated than they seemed. At first, it seemed like my visit to Israel would change things. It almost did.
The moment that marks it for me was what I decided to do when I received that email.
“So…the question is…do you think you can do a rewrite on this?”
The piece this email was referring to described a recent visit to Beit Hashalom (a huge home that settlers had bought from Palestinians, that was now being threatened to get evacuated by the Israeli government) was an attempt to show how my experience had complicated my previous views of what I believed. That it was no longer a simple decision to go full liberal, to hate settlements, to see them as occupiers. They were people. And their decisions were complicated. And they deserved to be written about as such.
But in that particular piece, I had also written about how I had seen a (very small) group of the settlers walk into the Palestinian area of Hebron in order to harass the residents. How some screamed at soldiers for no reason.
I was starting to tap into the complicated story of Israel. I was starting to tap back into the experience of my grandmother.
But then that email came in. Writing about Israel (specifically settlers), at least on this website, was not a matter of being complicated. It was not a matter of opening up about a personal struggle. It was a matter of black-and-white support. It was a matter of politics.
And although I fought it at first, I ultimately decided to do as I was asked. I modified what I wrote. The ending, where I reflected on the complicated road I had taken turned from personal to political. I supported the settlers 100%. I was an unquestioning, unflailing supporter of Israel.
And it was all because I wanted to get published.
What fascinated me as time went on was how much this change in point of view in my writing started to change how I actually thought. The more I wrote pro-Israel pieces, the more I actually became pro-Israel.
There was something incredible about being a warrior for a cause. I’d get support from so many people. The commenters on the site. The friends I shared it with in America. My editors.
I had chosen a camp, and now the question how much I would introspect, but how much I would fight for my position.
In retrospect, the experience taught me something powerful. When a person smiles, they can actually make themselves happy. When a person says things they don’t believe to themselves over and over again, they actually start to eventually believe it (think affirmations).
And, apparently, when a person writes something enough, they can very quickly start to believe it.
The truth is that I was probably going in that direction anyway. The complicated feelings I was discussing were very real (which is most likely how I was able to rationalize my decision).
My experience visiting and writing about Sderot, the city where rockets have rained on them daily for years, changed how I saw the conflict in Gaza.
My experience visiting the soldiers risking their lives on the front lines of Gaza, going to a funeral for the first soldier killed, visiting injured soldiers in the hospital, transformed forever how I would look at war. Seeing how many settlers were more hippies than warriors gave me a human view of people I had never seen as human.
And my experience during my second visit to Beit Hashalom, when the Israeli government evacuated the activists who had camped out in the home. Where I watched as they dragged hundreds of screaming and crying settlers from the building. Where I got beaten myself because the soldiers thought I was a settler. Where I tried to avoid the Palestinian neighbors nearby throwing huge stones at us from their homes in an attempt to kill anyone that happened to be too close. Where I saw soldiers crying because they couldn’t believe what the Israeli government was making them do.
There was no way I would witness all that without a change in perspective.
Yes, I was going in that direction. But not to the same destination. The destination my mind, my heart, was going was one where politics couldn’t touch.
A place where I could love the settlers because I saw them as complicated, as human, not as a monolithic entity determined to drive Palestinians into the sea, nor as a monolithically moral group. It was their humanity and diversity I found fascinating, not the politics that surrounded them.
A place where I supported the war in Gaza for no reason other than I had visited the people in Sderot and seen the rockets rain down with my own eyes before there was ever any actual action taken from the government.
So many more places, places that came from thought, introspection, and experience.
But the destination was changed, and it was my fault. The destination became approval, group acceptance, and falling into line.
I eventually found the destination I was meant to arrive at. But it took many years, and it didn’t need to. That’s the shame in it all. I went on a detour when I could have taken the straight road.
But the experience, like any mistake, like any life detour, ended up becoming a new fuel.
Now, that email stays with me, and all that resulted. The lie I lived. I won’t forget it.
It’s what drove me to fight to put up an ad in the New York Times that fought against their biased reporting that was focused simply on telling the facts that they hadn’t reported. An attempt to show that it was they who were political, not the ones who funded the campaign.
It’s what drove me to return to the settlements and to tell their story in a series of videos but without an agenda of politics. Where I was criticized both for simply trying to depict them as humans and for not working hard enough to push the pro-Israel agenda.
But more importantly, it’s what drives me in every piece I write, every project I do, from now on.
We are surrounded by agenda-pushers. By people who sell themselves as actually being religious, or human-rights crusaders, or advocates for this or that cause. But they are just politicians cloaked in the garments of whatever cause they’re pushing. Salespeople. Club members.
They confuse us because they are the people whose beliefs we may agree with. Just as I agreed, on some level, with my editor. And because, obviously, they are human in so many other ways.
But when someone becomes a blind-thinker in any area, even if it’s one we happen to agree with, they are not just trying to sell something: they are selling themselves. The part of them that makes them human. A blind person who is walking in the correct direction is still blind.
I gave up my humanity when I made that decision to change my writing. And I hope I’ve regained it, on some level, since then. When this life is over, I’ll ask my grandmother what she thinks.