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Shabbat Reading List

Alisa Solomon (contributing writer): “To me, Gaza embodies the entire saga of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Amira Hass wrote in the introduction to her shattering book, Drinking the Sea at Gaza. “[I]t represents the central contradiction of the State of Israel—democracy for some, dispossessing for others; it is our exposed nerve.” That book came out in English in 1999, so some of its descriptions of Gaza—economic statistics, relative sizes of various nationalist and Islamist political factions, the presence of Jewish settlements—are obsolete. But the overall portrait of a people under siege still applies, now to a whole new generation. And the nerve is more exposed than ever. I pulled the book off the shelf in this cataclysmic week for its helpful historical context, clear-eyed analysis, and scrupulous personal reflection of a committed Jewish leftist.

Hass wrote the book after living in Gaza for several years following the Oslo Accords, where she was Haaretz’s correspondent for the occupied territories. (Since then, she has been living in and reporting from Ramallah.) In the book, which begins with a detailed account of the First Intifada from the perspective of Gazans, Hass portrays, and contextualizes, life on the ground through their voices. Her own keen observations and experiences enrich the narrative as she shows us, for instance, Fatah and Hamas members sneaking a cigarette together during Ramadan in an illuminating chapter on the “tangled web of politics and piety.” Hass also captures much else about Gaza: the piles of rubble from house demolitions that blend into the landscape; the way a rainstorm always means power outage, the makeshift sewage systems; the respite of a small breeze on a friend’s concrete rooftop; the persistent longing of the refugee for home. One powerful chapter presents oral histories with Gazan women living within (and sometimes resisting) “ingrained patriarchy.” Several other chapters appear under the subtitle “Prison” and detail the infuriating bureaucratic procedures, contradictory rules, and plain indifference that make it nearly impossible for Gazans to leave.

When I first read Drinking the Sea at Gaza, I remember being struck by the mordant humor and unlikely optimism expressed by the Palestinians despite the relentless crush of occupation. Yesterday, I asked Hass (full disclosure: she’s a friend) whether she finds that sustaining drollery among Gazans now. I asked knowing that she had been reporting on the rapidly deteriorating conditions in the enclave, and knowing that she had also been checking in on her friends there. In reply, she told me that only two who are “caught in the hell of Israeli bombing resorted to the typical Gazan humor, albeit darker than ever.” One of them, named Marwa, told Hass to go ahead and ask her a question because it might be the last one she’d ever answer. The other, Bassam, said in a WhatsApp text: “We are 28 souls cramped in one flat” and added, “not counting the fear of the evil eye.” He wrote “evil eye” Hass noted, in Hebrew. And added a smiley emoji.

Aparna Gopalan (news editor): In the past week, I have lost count of the number of hours I have simply stared at my phone in abject horror, searing the worst images in existence into my brain. But as I was engaging in this gruesome ritual last night, I was blessed enough to instead come across Sarah Aziza’s “Doomsday Diaries” in The Baffler. Aziza’s account of bearing witness to the past ten days as a Palestinian in diaspora opens with her listening to the BBC on October 7th and learning that Gazan militants had entered Israel. “Gaza? How?” she wonders. “All my life, that name has been an ache, beloved and impenetrable, intimate and out of reach.” But as she watches the video of Palestinians breaking the Israeli fence around Gaza, Aziza says, “for an instant, Gaza no longer means unreachable, trapped, inert.”

Aziza’s hope quickly turns into horror as she learns of the number of Israeli dead. But hers is not the kind of “humane,” apolitical horror many commentators have demanded of us in recent weeks. It is instead formed within what she calls “the cruel calculus of our oppression,” under which she cannot mourn Israeli deaths without always already mourning what those deaths carry—the death sentence of her entire people. “My compassion for the slain is shadowed by the towering numbers of our already, and soon-to-be, dead,” Aziza writes.

Over the next few pages of ethereal, haunting prose that nevertheless does not lose contact with political reality, Aziza describes how she, her Jewish partner, her Palestinian father, and her many family members in Gaza deal with the genocidal fallout of that early breach. She seeks to capture “a sorrow lifetimes larger than words” as days roll by and more and more relatives “are gone” (her father will not—cannot—say “dead”), more and more denunciations sought, more and more nightmares actualized. “Each moment is an atrocity. Genocide has begun,” she writes. But still, somehow, she can conclude with a vow: “Israel is mistaken if it believes this will be the final word. Palestine will live.” To such defiance, such grace, I can add little except to say: read every word.

Cynthia Friedman (managing director): The events of October 7th have shifted the ground under our feet: New divisions among collectives, new clarity of conviction, new possibilities for creation and destruction. Amidst this turbulence, I am seeing small cracks in the staunch Zionism of people from my youth. Former campers who were in middle school when I was their counselor, now in their early twenties, and siblings of my high school friends, have asked me about the articles and analysis that I am sharing on social media. Something about what they were raised to believe in and the feeling in their gut are at odds.

When I was in my own period of questioning, I watched the film 5 Broken Cameras, directed by Emad Burnat, a Palestinian farmer living in the village of Bil’in in the West Bank, and Guy Davidi, an Israeli documentary filmmaker. Filmed over five years beginning in 2005, Burnat records his children growing up, alongside protests against the encroachment of a barrier cutting through their land. We see the Israeli army from the lens of his camera: faces obscured by helmets, bodies cloaked in military fatigues, never without a machine gun slung over a shoulder. Such soldiers were the “mishlachat” (Hebrew for “delegation”) at my California summer camp. With wide open faces, they told stories, led programs, and flirted with American staff. 5 Broken Cameras sparked a dissonance for me: The soldiers I knew appeared wholly differently to the residents of Bil’in.

As Israeli soldiers break each of Burnat’s five successive cameras, the glitchy screens and sudden darkness become part of his effort to document the lives of his family and community. I have not seen this film in years, but I remember feeling Burnat’s generosity in welcoming the viewer—a stranger—into the intimacy of his home, his children’s early memories, his fraught discussions, and his grief. This is a strategic artistic choice: By sharing some of the most vulnerable moments of those years with a broader international community, his humanity will be acknowledged, and if his humanity is acknowledged, he has a greater chance of winning survival, rights, and freedom. Absent the context of a brutal occupation, Burnat would have had more freedom to choose whether to film a documentary for a wide audience, or whether to simply keep home videos of his toddler’s first steps private.

As we now receive harrowing testimonies from Gaza—including videos and photographs of graphic injuries and heart-wrenching goodbyes—I am reminded of how high the stakes are for such projects. We are seeing the dire consequences of the refusal of people in power to recognize Palestinians’ humanity. That recognition, which artists and activists like Burnat and Davidi have fought for, has not come in time to prevent this catastrophe—and the mandate for the wider world to bear witness is unchanged. Our hearts, too, must break, as we organize for a liberated future. The warmth and humanity of 5 Broken Cameras shifted the frame in which I understood life in Israel/Palestine, and it can for others too.