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On Compassion
by Jacob Mandelsberg

May 29, 2020

Just this evening several of us from the San Francisco/San Mateo Jewish-Palestinian dialogue group met as a panel before an excited group of students at UC Santa Cruz for an evening entitled "On Common Ground".

I always feel so energized by these encounters and that somehow we really are doing something that matters and ultimately affecting the conventional way of thinking that has kept us in the darkness for so long.  We also talked a lot about fears.  Len Traubman reiterated the imperative need for both Jews and Palestinians to begin to understand and appreciate the fear that "the other" constantly lives with.  Together we tried to remind the students and audience that our own fears and our own narrative sometimes prevents us from truly having compassion (or at the very least understanding) the fears and concerns of each other.

Each time we present ourselves as a panel I try to frame my experience in slightly varied accents and flavors.  This evening I didn't really speak about my experiences in the IDF more than twenty years ago, rather I tried to focus on the work that confronts us this very moment.

Just before we left for Santa Cruz I had seen more blood-soaked headlines from Israel and Palestine.  Two more Israelis killed.  Enroute to the funeral of a colleague, the security officer for the northern Samaria settlements, ambushed the night before.  Somewhere in between two Palestinians were killed in Gaza at an IDF outpost and another one was killed in Jericho.

What any of them were doing at the time of their deaths is completely irrelevant.  They are all dead.  But mostly, they are dead because their fears held them in place and prevented them accepting each other.

And now I would like to share one of my experiences that completely brings this story to a full-twisted and knotted completion.

It was almost literally "the day the music died": December 8, 2020 I had just returned from an armed patrol around the Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip with a group of new recruits that I was responsible for.  I was troubled by the day's activities which consisted of patrolling the muddied streets, stopping and searching people or going from corrugated door to tin door and checking people's ID cards, at any odd hours of the day and night.

When I returned to the base with my soldiers I spoke with my CO expressing my great discomfort over this assignment.  In the big scheme of things, this was huge for me, as I had never before questioned military authority so directly.  I offered to pull a double-shift of patrolling along the sea-shore but instead my officer angrily assigned me a double-shift of patrolling the camps the next day.  When I turned into the bunks, my buddy Nelson from Argentina approached me, ashen-faced and trembling: "John Lennon was shot, murdered!!  He's dead, some f  ker just killed John Lennon".  Nelson dropped his head on my shoulder and we both sobbed on choked, parched throats.

The next day my officer called me over for a few words from the previous evening's exchange, it was a mantra that would begin to frame my entire existence in Israel and Palestine: "look, you leftists, and look at you, all the way from America to come here and tell me about the Arabs...let me tell you...."  The experiences of December 8 marred me for a long time to come, in many ways.  Certainly much of my remaining service under this CO was strained with mutual distrust.  And all the things that John Lennon ever said about peace were being tested, torn and twisted.

About two years later, mid 1983, I was studying Computer Science in Jerusalem.  Israel announced that it had just uncovered an "Israeli Underground" that had been responsible for a series of car bombings including the 1980 bombing of Nablus mayor Bassam Shak'aa.  The group was composed of settlers from various West Bank Settlements intent on destroying any chance of coexistence between Jews and Palestinians.  Upon further research I discovered that one of the men arrested for his role in the Israeli Underground was Moshe Zar, a story in his own right, but he was also the father of the CO I had while in Gaza.  This helped to clarify so much of the difficulty I had as a soldier, squaring off with my officer and the competing idealogies of living in Israel as opposed to the Land of Israel, of my Zionism to his expansionism, or in his eyes: his nationalism to my diaspora-induced capitulation.

I think that this relationship was a microcosm of some of the most intense interactions we will ever have regarding Jewish-Palestinian relations and Jewish-Jewish relations.  These events continued to color the palette of my Zionist to Humanist approach over the years.

And now I ask for compassion, in a place where my emotions are worn through deep to the sinewy fibers.

I am back from our mission at UC Santa Cruz, and I've just finished reading the details of today's bloodshed...  I ask you out there for a moment, to acknowledge those killed today in Israel and Palestine.  Perhaps those killed might again simply be names for me, but an ironic twist in this insanity has come full circle.  I would like to offer a prayer for all of those killed, but in particular to the son of Moshe Zar, Gilead the security officer from the Samaria Settlements, my former army CO.

I would like to have compassion at this moment and wish peace on the souls of all of those who have died, Palestinians and Jews, from the continued senseless violence.  Gilead, I know that you died true to your beliefs and I pray that you are now finding the peace that was so difficult for you, while you were here.  I also want you to know that I will continue to work for peace.  I know that we probably still don't agree with each other, but we continue in our paths.  Gilead may your soul rest in peace, and may we all have the strength to transform the hatred and the bloodshed to trust and understanding.