This year, I fasted on Tisha b’Av, a Jewish day of mourning for the destruction of both Jewish temples in Jerusalem. In commemoration, on the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, Jews fast and read the book of Lamentations, which describes the poverty, violence, and alienation that come with destruction and disenfranchisement.
I don’t often fast, but as the day approached, fasting seemed the intellectually, spiritually honest thing to do. The ongoing violence in Gaza and Israel supplies many losses to grieve: Loss of civilians and soldiers, loss of infrastructure, loss of safe public spaces. Racist violence in Israeli streets and racist pronouncements in news and social media alienate and endanger us.
I know less and less what to say. So I ritually grieved. Grief is not a substitute for speaking; it does not anoint silence with sanctity. As the holy day approached, I mentioned my lamentations to a friend, who replied, “But you’re on the wrong side, aren’t you?”
This seems to be a refrain these days. Critical journalists, thinkers, and activists are maligned as traitors by the Israeli right (and center), accused of complicity with Hamas’s threat to their people and Europe’s malice to their nation. Conversely, those who defend the Israeli government’s actions are accused of moral complacency and callousness in the face of civilian death and destruction. The famed Hebrew poet, Bialik, wrote, “No such revenge—revenge for the blood of a little child—has yet been devised by Satan.” Bialik was quoted by Gideon Hausner, then attorney general of Israel, in his opening arguments in the trial of Adolf Eichmann, and Bialik was quoted again in Leon Wieseltier’s recent cogent analysis of the morality of the ongoing violence in Gaza and Israel.
So, as facile as it is, “Which side are you on?” remains a potent ethical question. Some would say I have no right to grieve Palestinian deaths. Others would say if I include them in my grief, I dishonor my own nation’s fallen soldiers, my own family cowering fearful in bomb shelters throughout Israel. To avoid such discomforting accusations, many of us make a daily discipline of whittling down our identities to simple, stable categories. This helps us make sense of the world, helps us know which deaths to grieve, and helps us decide where to spend our money. I’m an Israeli Jew, so (most of) the losses of July are not mine to grieve. That’s the idea. I think it’s false.
At the end of June, I participated in a ten-day Fellowship at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics (FASPE), as part of a group of twelve medical students. Several historians and two physician bioethicists guided us through Berlin, Krakow, and Auschwitz, as we studied the role of physicians in the National Socialist apparatus and then invited the history to inform our discussions on contemporary questions in medical ethics.
At sites in which the Holocaust unfolded, FASPE positioned fellows to feel the horror and grief of this history. We also had to examine equally scary, less familiar relationships to this history—namely, to identify with the perpetrators, rather than with the victims. We asked ourselves: As future physicians, how will we be vulnerable to becoming perpetrators of violence? What ethical principles guard against dehumanization not just of us, but also by us?
It was all too easy to find historical relevance. Physicians were instrumental in the development of Nazi murder strategies, for example, in formulating philosophies of “racial hygiene,” planning economies for “public health,” and developing technologies and techniques of abuse and murder. In 1920, German jurist Karl Binding and German psychiatrist Alfred E. Hoche coined the German term translated as “life unworthy of life,” and justified the concept, writing, “The question of whether we can justify the expense necessary in all directions for all these burdensome lives was not urgent in the past age of prosperity. Now that has changed, and we must address it seriously.” Over the course of the 1920s, physicians and bureaucrats used such ideas to evolve the rhetorical and technological infrastructures that ultimately became the “final solution” and the gas chambers. The logical moves animating these arguments are uncomfortably similar to contemporary bioethics discussions about futility and distributive justice. Similarly uncomfortable resonance can be found in discussions on the tolerable costs of “just war.”
So what is the proper moral calculus, and how does a perpetrator deal with loss? Berlin—the city itself—teaches us about this. The city is textured with ornaments of absence. The artist Gunter Demnig has nestled “stumbling stones” in the sidewalks. These are brass squares, the same dimensions as the surrounding cobble stones, engraved like tombstones, laid in front of apartment buildings from which Jews were captured and deported. Amateur historian Ronnie Golz has etched images and narratives into bus stop shelters, in situ histories describing wartime crimes planned or performed at the nearby addresses. Will Lammert wrought emaciated bronze figures to wait forever on a concrete platform, built into an empty lot where once a building stood. Originally the building housed elderly Jews, then briefly housed all Jews awaiting deportation, then no one, then, one day, it was gone. The grassy lawn behind the lot was a Jewish cemetery, where tombstones once named the buried. The tombstones were desecrated and removed, and German soldiers were buried above, in a mass grave. The few markers that survive now line the perimeter of the property, while the carefully mown lawn looks to the sky.
I thought it would be complicated for me to witness the grief of Germany and Poland—the grief of the perpetrators—because in some ways I see in them the cause of my grief. But my experience, though deep, was uncomplicated. Grief was recognizable and human, even in German.
My friend might say I was on the “wrong side” for these experiences, too. I am the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, four Jews who fled Europe, in varying states of personal danger and with varying degrees of difficulty, between 1934 and 1942. Houses abandoned, fortunes lost, families murdered, camp guards blindsided.
But I’m on both sides, aren’t I? I have inherited survivorship, and with it a complex of anger, grief, and pain, and I will be a physician, ambitious and empowered. If I cannot see myself on both sides of violence, how will I learn to prevent it, from whichever side I awake in the morning? Both possibilities—my vulnerability to violence, my capacity to do violence—guide my ethical action. If I do not see my vulnerability to be manipulated by power, bureaucracy, habit, or bias, then how could I hope to protect others who will be vulnerable in my hands?
As FASPE ended and I traveled to Israel to visit family and friends, I was still asking these questions. It was the first week of July. Three Israeli boys had been kidnapped and murdered, with funding and support from Hamas, and the Israeli government was responding by attacking Hamas institutions. Three Israeli men also responded by kidnapping and burning alive, to death, a teenage Palestinian boy from a north Jerusalem neighborhood. In that first week of July, as I walked through neighborhoods of West Jerusalem, from my grandmother’s apartment in Old Katamon to the old city, I passed clumps of teenagers chanting for revenge. At a rally in Tel Aviv, against a war we all knew was coming, people cursed at us as they passed. Leftists called right-wing apologists fascists, right-wing demonstrators called for revenge against leftists and Arabs, and no one seemed ashamed of themselves.
Hamas’s violence toward Israelis and Palestinians is unconscionable, and many writers have written articulately about this. Does this assessment bring all Israeli actions within the category of self-defense? I have studied the doctrine of double effect and proportionality in war, but are these sufficient moral foundations for relationships among neighbors? Is there a distinct line between self-defense and immoral killing? Or is it possible that one act can accomplish both? I couldn’t help but ask these questions, walking the worn limestone streets in the Jerusalem pedestrian malls, crossing the narrow state to swim into the salty, swirling sea.
These are uncomfortable questions to ask in the Jewish state, maybe in any state. There seems to be an anxiety that allowing an imaginative or discursive space where we might be impugned as perpetrators would cost us existential rights. We like to think of our violence as limited to the moral performance of self-defense. But the categories in which we see ourselves must be flexible, or they cannot be accurate. We need to be able to see ourselves as possible perpetrators in order to make astute assessments of the political situations in which we find ourselves, and this is necessary in order to stand on moral ground.
Perhaps this flexibility is the privilege of my generation, a third generation of Holocaust survivors, who grew up benefiting from some of the healing that our grandparents and parents did. Our parents and grandparents fulfilled a moral obligation to bear witness to the insults and injuries that they so narrowly survived.
I inherit this moral obligation to witness, and perhaps it includes a moral obligation to bear witness to other injuries, too? Perhaps I am obliged to fast when someone else’s city is destroyed, even as it is destroyed in my name? Perhaps I must fast and mourn and be a friend against hatred, however disenfranchised that position?
It is important to be able to recognize myself on both sides. The book of Lamentations describes Jerusalem among her own adversaries; it counts her transgressions among the root causes of her destruction by foreign armies. This attitude does not exhaust the moral or causal relationships in war, nor would I rely on self-blame to teach me all of the necessary political lessons that must be learned. Still, this attitude teaches us to reflect critically on our own actions, to see our failures even if they are ugly. It teaches us to think about long-term consequences in the causal chain of our actions. It may teach us, this summer, that defense has not been our only form of aggression, and aggression may not be a reliable form of defense.
Yael Shinar is an Israeli American poet. She is a second-year medical student at the University of Michigan and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School.