Shock and Grief: An Israel Solidarity Gathering

On Tuesday night, our local JCC hosted a gathering in solidarity for Israel. I’m not sure if it was billed as a gathering or a rally, and I’m not sure why exactly I wanted to go, but after a brutal and isolating few days, it seemed like it might feel better to be with people who were looking at the same newsreels as I was. It would not be until much later that I could articulate exactly what I longed for.

For months, I have been going to rallies with UnXeptable to demonstrate against the Israeli government’s proposed judicial reforms. The announcement for this solidarity gathering came over the same channels, created by the huge upswell of attention directed to Israel. In our larger community, there has been no shortage of Israeli flags waved, worn on the shoulders, put on posters, decorating every surface at these rallies.

I was sure that people would show up; would the flags show up? Is that what solidarity means? It’s been whiplash to track what the flag means. Last week, waving the flag was a nationalistic symbol of protest, but waving that same flag today felt like it might mean support of a government that had just let down its people spectacularly. Who could bring themselves to either express pride or critique of the Israeli government? Would people from UnXeptable, a cosponsor of this gathering, bring their flags, or would they find it slightly tainted by the protests? I didn’t bring mine.

The organizers of the event didn’t know how many people to expect; they set up 250 chairs. Palo Alto police stood by as we entered a long line through a metal detector. Eventually close to 2,000 people entered to stand for a rally that included speeches, music, and prayer. 

I got my answer quickly about the flags. There were a few large flags, but mostly people had brought little ones, not through any coordinated action, but because that was what felt right in the moment. They wanted to proclaim solidarity, but the size of the flags made it clear: this was no rally.

The Israeli Consul General spoke, promising that this would be seen to herald the end of Hamas, as Israel would exact its revenge. Our State Senator, Josh Becker, spoke of his own relationship to Israel, the political connections which stand in support of the Jewish community at this time, as well as the other political caucuses which stand ready to support Israel. Our State Assemblyman spoke. There was applause, but not raucous attention.

A QR code had led us to the words for the songs that were performed from the stage, but nobody felt like singing. There were prayers from Rabbis, addresses from the JCRC and the Federation. Somewhere in there, it began to rain, a sudden and light dusting of sorrow on top of sorrow. And finally, the gathering ended with the national anthem of Israel, HaTikvah. Even then, only a few lips parted to eke out a near-silent recitation. I had thought this would be the stirring moment— why else had people come but to express the enduring hope of a safe homeland for Jews, free people in our land?

As a couple of thousand people began to file out, I caught the eye of a friend of mine and I headed her way. She saw me too, and she burst into tears, before I could even reach her. We held each other— a long hug, my eyes brimmed over and over with the permission she had given me to cry.

We finally parted and holding hands, she looked at me, and said, “I can’t believe this happened. I mean, did this even happen?” She gestured around at all of the speakers and microphones, the podium, the flag still flying near the camera that had recorded the event. But I knew that what she meant was the massacres, the rapes, the beheadings, the slaughters, the hostages, the kidnapped babies and grandparents and lovers and soldiers.

Did it happen?

All of a sudden, I understood the reason I had come, why everyone had come. It wasn’t to be stirred to action, either militarily, politically, or with donations, although we did want all of that— or we would, eventually. It wasn’t to be reassured or to be protected or to see friends, although that was all comforting as well. 

It was really much more simple.

I had come to affirm that this violent massacre had in fact happened. It was still so unbelievable, in the most literal sense of the word. I now realized that I was struggling to understand that what was plainly true in the world had actually happened. And it’s ridiculous to say that, because it’s not like I had any doubt that it had occurred.

But it’s the same reason that when you go to a movie and you see something crazy happen, you want to tap the person next to you and say, “hey, did you just see that?” And then they nod that they did, and then you can go back to watching. It’s that desire to confirm with other people that they are watching the world in the way that you are. 

All I wanted to hear, really, was “I woke up on Saturday. I couldn’t believe what the news was reporting.” I had an endless appetite to hear how people heard, what they did first, how they began to turn their shock from disbelief into some other emotion. I wanted to hear people recount what they did in those first hours, how they reached out to friends and family in Israel, what they heard, what they thought in the next hours, how they came to be thinking about things now. I wanted to hear stories of those who had fallen, to remind myself of their memory, of the fact that they used to be with us, and now they wouldn’t ever again. I was looking, simply, for validation in my primary feeling, which was shock. It’s almost like, from the United States, where the world hums on as usual, you could forget for a moment that it all happened and I was guarding against that.

I’m going to confess that when I first saw the news on Saturday morning, I didn’t take in the full import of it. I thought, for at least an hour, that it was a larger version of the border skirmishes I had already categorized in my mind as part of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. I already had a lot of thoughts about Gaza and Israel’s 2005 withdrawal and ongoing hand washing of a horrible situation they had helped bring about. 

I didn’t understand in those first hours. It was before the videos started circulating. It was before the news was reporting— before even the army got there. It was before I understood about the hostages, or the systematic planning of the attack. It took time to dawn on me— and has been dawning on me ever since— just how bleak this is, how different it is from what came before, how far the implications might go. Arguably, I am still in shock.

Shock is, in many respects, an unbearable feeling itself, and it wants to give way— to outrage, to anger, to helping, to grief, to promises of never being caught so off guard again. We’re on day six now, so already the community is starting to splinter into those different reactions. Some of them feel better to me than others. But I’m going to stay here just a moment longer, because part of me still needs to just say it again: yes, it really did just happen. Two-thousand people, the tiniest sliver, showed up next to me on Tuesday night to say so. 

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