This Bruised and Broken Land

14 December 2023

I am writing to you from Kibbutz Tzuba, west of Jerusalem, where I’ve just celebrated the seventh night of Chanukah with three generations of my cousins—a big, beautiful family that has always been the heart of my Israel. During this terribly dark time, lighting the candles with my family tonight provided some much-needed light, love, and hope that one day, as the old Israeli peace song goes, things will be better. They are sad, angry, shattered, my relatives, but they haven’t given up their commitment to a different future for their beloved country. As I walk through the kibbutz, I can see the lights of hundreds of hanukkiot in the windows of veteran kibbutzniks, and in the rooms provided to the scores of kibbutznikim and moshavnikim who’ve evacuated from their farms near Gaza and sought refuge here. The lights both break my heart and help heal it. Amid this nightmare, the kibbutznikim are taking care of each other.

And that’s the story—or one of the stories—in Israel today. In the absence of a competent, caring government, the regular citizens of the country and the organizations they have built—what we call civil society—have stepped into the vacuum to repair what has been broken. For the past few days, I’ve sat with NIF staff, board members, and grantees to talk about how they’re doing and, mostly, listen. What they have done these past nine weeks—caring for the victims of October 7, working to reduce tensions and rebuild connections between Arabs and Jews in Israel’s mixed cities and towns, monitoring and calling out the spike of human and civil rights violations carried out under the fog of war, and planning for a better, different “day after”—is awesome and inspiring; it is my light in this darkness.

But the pain is still everywhere here in this bruised and broken land between the river and the sea. For so many Israelis, it is still October 7—and each day brings awful, new reminders of what has been, and continues to be, lost. Scores of hostages remain in Gaza. Soldiers die every day. Horrific stories of sexual violence continue to emerge. Hundreds of thousands cannot return to their homes. So many Israelis, contending with this ongoing horror, a government of antidemocratic extremists who have failed in their most basic responsibilities to their citizens, and a wider world that too often seems to ignore Israeli—and Jewish—pain, do not know where to turn.

And for Palestinians in Gaza, the daily nightmare of violence, bombing, dispossession, and death continues unabated. Thousands have been killed. Well over a million displaced—and with no end or escape in sight. There are reports that, due to the lack of internet access and confusing IDF tweets, people simply do not know where to go to be safe. Increasingly, Israel’s friends in the world, including the US administration, are saying that Israel’s approach to this war needs to change, that the humanitarian corridors that Israel created are not doing enough. Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the UN, wrote that “nowhere is safe in Gaza,” and warned that, due to the “desperate conditions,” the “public order is likely to break down soon.” The World Health Organization is warning of the risk of disease and the breakdown of Gaza’s health care system. And doctors from the ICRC are treating and operating on patient after patient, child after child, with no anesthesia and no follow up care. Yesterday, President Biden warned that Israel was losing international support because of its “indiscriminate” bombing of Gaza and reiterated that everything possible should be done to avoid civilian casualties. There is so much darkness.

All of us in the NIF community—in Israel and around the world—are watching the news closely, praying for the captives, the homeless, the injured, and the families of the victims of this conflagration. But we are not only watching and praying; we are working, as we always do, with Israelis—both Arabs and Jews—who are dedicated to human rights and a truly shared future. And even at this time of almost unbearable pain, we are supporting those Israelis who are calling on their country to address the deeper, more fundamental questions about how we arrived at this horrific dead end, and how Israelis and Palestinians can get out of it.

NIF’s response to the crisis has been severalfold. First, we are providing critical support to the Israelis most affected by this war. We just approved an additional emergency grant for the “Hostages and Missing Families Forum”, for example, and are supporting a joint Jewish-Arab relief center in the Bedouin city of Rahat organized by two of our grantees: Have You Seen the Horizon Lately and Itach-Maaki. At the center, they package and send food and basic supplies to needy families throughout the south. We are providing people with trauma counseling, and our staff at Shatil, experts who work to see the whole picture of civil society and Israeli democracy, are writing about collective and national trauma—and how Israeli civil society can address it. At the same time, we are defending those Israeli citizens whose rights are being violated in this moment. Our grantees, including the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Adalah are of course providing legal aid, as they always do, but we also are funding bodies that track the data on the frequency and type of persecution and incitement that is happening on a daily basis against Arab citizens of Israel. And, finally, we are supporting the efforts of progressive applied think tanks and thought leaders to envision and craft new policy directions that can create horizons of hope for a different future for this much-too promised land. 

May we all, on this last day of Chanukah when the menorah shines with its fullest light, believe in the hope and power of those flames, those little pinpricks of light in the dark. And may we extend that belief to the fire burning in activists and organizations on the ground in Israel who work every day to make sure that tomorrow is brighter than today.