You Have Power. There Is Hope.

The last months have been brutal.  I’ve seen many injustices, but watching Israel create a famine on purpose hit me in a raw, visceral place.  I remembered how much I’d eaten as a child, a high energy boy who liked running and stayed thin no matter what.  I remembered how my parents had found my appetite endearing, how they’d smile as I’d ‘clean up’ whatever was left of a meal.  I remembered being 11 and going four days without food, too sick too eat—and I remembered the way my thoughts had begun to loop, circling around the image of a bowl of rice and lentils with garlic and cheese, as if my body knew what nutrients it needed most.

Reading the news, I knew that kids like me would die first.  And I knew that people like my parents would be watching it before their eyes, unable to help.  I felt I had to do something, and I wrote an op-ed about how people could act, but I still felt powerless.  Powerless…and dazed.  When I’d read of babies starving to death as Israel blocked food, it was almost disorienting to switch my attention to the bland trivialities of work, or the greetings from apolitical friends.  During these moments I felt…not there.  I would manage something appropriate when a colleague said hi or a student had a question, but it seemed like the words of someone else, a robot going through the motions of conversation.  Life alternated between vivid clarity as I read horrible truths, dissociation as I navigated society on autopilot, and haunting thoughts as I lay awake at night. 

            I knew this wasn’t good for me—and I also knew, in a very uncomfortable way, that I had the choice to simply stop paying attention.  I wasn’t personally being starved to death.  Palestinian agony was an unpleasant vacation for me, a reality I could step away from whenever I chose.  If I stopped reading news, I would find blue spring days, filled with cherry blossoms and sunlight.  I could tune into the horrors on screens, or I could live in a bubble of beauty and laughter and fun. 

I had a sense that my needs didn’t matter, that my pain was a trivial echo of Gaza’s suffering, that I had to keep researching and writing because of the accident of birth that gave me more power than the people dying.  But I couldn’t deny that I was in a bad place, and that I wanted not to be.  I wanted to eat a meal without an eerie guilt about starving children.  I wanted to walk without imagining what it would be like to fear drones.  And most of all I wanted to feel joy again, to laugh and play and think pleasant thoughts. 

And I could. 

All I’d have to do was look away. 

I realized that for a bystander in the Holocaust, it would have been alarmingly easy to just…go on with life.  All you’d have to do was not go out of your way to learn things that would make you unhappy.  That might not have been ethical, but it would have understandable.  And faced with the horrors in Gaza, it was tempting.

            If I was going to keep my mental health, I needed to feel hopeful without being delusional.  I thought hard, and then remembered that there’d been another country similar to Israel.  South Africa had also been an apartheid state—but with enough pressure and marches and boycotts, things had changed.  I re-focused long enough to read The Mirror at Midnight, an account of South Africa written by a journalist and historian of human rights movements.  In the 2007 edition, there’s a preface and an epilogue about the changes since publication in 1990—but the main text is unaltered, giving a view of South Africa by an astute writer who didn’t know what the future would hold.

Reading the book in 2024 was uncanny.  I knew South Africa was an Israeli analog—but I had no clue how deep the parallels went.  South Africa was also a country where one group were citizens with rights, and the other were subjects in one of the harshest police states on Earth.  It was a country where one group had protection from state violence, and the other were imprisoned without charge to be beaten and tortured.  It was a country with massive ethnic cleansing of the undesirable group, enforced with police, soldiers, bulldozers, and private violence tolerated by the state. 

Black people who had been ethnically cleansed were concentrated into small, undesirable areas, “homelands” that the South African government tried to argue were independent countries whose people it wasn’t responsible for.  Reading about these overcrowded “Bantustans,” I thought immediately of Gaza, a tiny area confining two million Palestinians and furthering the Israeli goal of “as much Palestinian land as possible with as few Palestinian people as possible.”

In another Israeli parallel, South Africa had armed right-wing groups more radical even than the government, but with informal ties to security forces.  Reading about the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, I thought of the collusion between armed settlers in the West Bank, and the Israeli government that occasionally reins them in and more often helps them steal Palestinian land.  The analogy goes even further: some Afrikaners thought they were a special people chosen by God! 

As with Israel, the US gave crucial support to the apartheid regime.  America helped weaken sanctions with loans, diplomatic cover, and important technological transfers, including helping with coal-to-gas plants that neutralized efforts to stop South Africa from buying petrol.

And like Israel, South Africa was skilled at presenting a pleasant face to the outside world—and to its own citizens in the dominant group.  There was a narrative of “Sunny South Africa,” a place of beaches and safaris with a southern-European feel and a southern-European standard of living.  In the late 1980s, at the peak of state repression, the news was mostly apolitical, full of stories about sex scandals and charity runs and sports rivalries.  For foreign tourists, and for white South Africans who weren’t going out of their way to learn unpleasant truths, South Africa would have seemed a just, prosperous place full of warm, friendly people. 

Finally—as with Palestinians, in South Africa the oppressed group were not angels.  Black people viewed as collaborators were “necklaced,” a horrific execution method where people would put a tire filled with gasoline around someone’s neck and burn them to death.  Black groups also fought each-other: the African National Congress had to contend with a powerful militia called Inkatha, an armed faction that the government blatantly supported so they could say blacks were violent and giving them rights would cause chaos. 

If I hadn’t known how things ended, Mirror at Midnight would have been a depressing book about the staying power of apartheid.  Instead, it was the most hopeful thing I’ve read in a long time.  The oppression was vile—but the very depth of brutality shows how much the world can improve, and how fast.

In the late 1980s, change looked impossible.  Activists, political scientists, intelligence analysts, and anyone else knowledgeable guessed that real reform would be decades away, if ever.  There was a joke about three politicians asking God when their countries problems would be solved.  God tells the American president it would happen not in his administration but the next one, and the Soviet leader it would happen not in his lifetime but his children’s.  When Mandela asks the question, God shakes his head sadly and says “not in my lifetime.”  And then—within a few years the leaders of the African National Congress had been released from prison, South Africa had its first real election, Mandela became head of state, and there was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to come clean about the past without taking revenge.

As I thought of this, I remembered an analogy of a sculptor shaping marble.  500 taps with the chisel doesn’t change anything—and then the 501st tap causes a chip of rock to break loose.  There’s nothing special about that tap: instead, all the taps before added up to a tipping point.  Trying to change society works the same way.  There’s a long period of actions that might feel futile—years of petitions and marches and messages to politicians where it feels like nothing changes.  And then enough people are informed and convinced, and things happen fast.  In South Africa, decades of activism around the world didn’t seem to be accomplishing much—but it was, slowly, behind the scenes.  And when it finally added up to something big enough, change was swift.

Change could happen in Israel – Palestine as well—especially because Israel is highly dependent on the US.  I thought this was a thing of the past, that Israel had become a great power in its own right—but in November, a retired Israeli general said that:

“All of our missiles, the ammunition, the precision-guided bombs, all the airplanes and bombs, it’s all from the U.S…The minute they turn off the tap, you can’t keep fighting. You have no capability. … Everyone understands that we can’t fight this war without the United States. Period.”

American support isn’t guaranteed.  In a democracy, there’s a truth that’s utterly banal and extremely profound: if enough people vote against a politician, that person stops being a politician.  And American opinion has been changing fast, including among Jews.  In a 2021 poll, 38 percent of American Jews under 40 agreed that Israel was an apartheid state.  That was before 2022, when an anti-Arab extremist leading a party called “Jewish Power” became head of Israel’s police.  It was before the famine in Gaza, when the world saw babies starving while Israel blocked food.  It was before the latest bombing of Rafah, when civilians were burned alive in their tents.

Granville Sharp, a leader of Britain’s abolition movement, said that “the nature of the slave-trade needs only to be known to be detested.”  That’s also true about what Israel is doing—and what it’s doing is becoming known.  In 2023, 64 percent of young Americans had a favorable view of Israel.  Now it’s 38 percent.  Minds are changing every time we post on social media, every time we have hard conversations, and every time we’re willing to listen to good people who simply disagree on the facts.  I’ve followed this issue since I was 14, and I can say that more people are more informed than I’ve ever seen.

If enough people learn the truth and push for change, it will come.  It happened in 1833, when the British Empire abolished slavery after decades of pressure.  It happened with the fall of the Soviet Union, when a host of subject countries won independence.  It happened in 1965, when the US ended legal apartheid in the American South, and it happened in 1994, when South Africa ended its own regime.  Changing the world wasn’t any easier then than it is now.  It’s not any harder now than it was then.

On Israel – Palestine, getting to justice won’t be easy, and it’s not inevitable—but the hope that activism could work isn’t a delusional fantasy.  It’s what history shows can happen.  So if you’re overwhelmed, take a moment to read Mirror at Midnight, or Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, or this account of how slavery ended in the British Empire.  When you’re recharged, learn the history of Israel’s founding, of key policy decisions since, and of how Israel has governed Palestinians.  And then—keep talking about it.  It will matter.