Witnessing Gaza

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Max Blumenthal's photo of Israeli soldiers' vandalism of school in Khuza'a
Max Blumenthal’s photo of Israeli soldiers’ vandalism of school in Khuza’a

This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

As we approach the endgame of this phase of Gaza’s tribulations – for rest assured, Gaza’s tribulations will continue – reporters on the ground are writing and photographing the disaster. Like all of us, they’re looking for hope in Gaza’s ruins. They’re not finding much.

Among these reporters are Jews from Israel and America. They’re observing what their fellow reporters are – devastation as far as the eye can see. They’re meeting with the grieving, the homeless and the injured. They’re also finding out what the dead look like close up.

I’m thinking especially of young Jews like Max Blumenthal, whose twitter photos are arresting, and Allison Deger’s incisive reporting. But there are others, like the veteran Israeli reporter Amira Hass. In the coming days, more Jewish reporters will arrive.

I have never seen the devastation of war. It can’t be easy for any of the reporters. Is it different for Jews?

A few of these reporters have been in touch with me. They are startled and shaken by what they’re experiencing. Israel’s invasion seems pointless. What they see is the sheer brutality of it all. Since this might be the point of the invasion, asking the deeper questions of life and death is natural.

Like all of us, they’re struggling to make sense of it all – as human beings and as Jews. The Jewish identifier is intriguing, especially since most of the Jewish reporters aren’t religious and have tenuous, if any, connections with the larger Jewish community. They think of themselves as typical reporters and photojournalists. Most don’t want to be singled out as Jews. They just “happen” to be Jewish.

But most of the Jewish reporters are not well-paid journalists assigned by the higher-ups for the Gaza beat. It’s volunteer duty, raise your own money and take the risk.

Still the soul searching may have been unexpected. To one who wrote, I offered that as a human being she is witnessing part of the human drama without blinders. Being Jewish adds another dimension:

Yes, the most obvious thing you’re doing is helping the world know what happened in Gaza and encouraging solidarity with the Palestinian people. But, as well, you are a Jew observing what “we” have done – Israel specifically and Jews around the world who enable Israel’s violence.

Has Jewish history come to this? What are Jews of Conscience like you to do with what you are seeing, touching, experiencing?

You are a different pair of Jewish boots on the ground. First the soldiers, now you.

You might not know what to do with this. I don’t know either.

Who does? Jews have never descended to this level of depravity before.

The end of Jewish history as we have known and inherited it – I think that’s what you’re witnessing. Whatever ethical values were present in our tradition – what both of us consciously or subconsciously draw upon – are gone.

Like – or with – the Palestinians – Jewish ethics have literally been blown away.

What you write, the photographs you post, detail this end.

Documenting the end isn’t easy – I think it’s very, very important.

There is no return to what is lost. This may pain you in a way that isn’t definable. I think of you as experiencing a trauma that comes from another place and is now inside you.

That trauma isn’t going away – I think you know that. It will get worse. That’s what I read in your words. I see it in your photos.

If only there was something hopeful I could share with you. Nothing in my lifetime – perhaps in yours since you are much younger but I also doubt this – will set this aright. Barring a strike from the heavens – a miracle of sorts – Palestinians will remain under Israel’s thumb.

We need clear-headed political and economic analysis – your reporting demands this – and something more – your reporting demand this as well.

That something more is within and beyond your personal/reporting/solidarity journey. You are witnessing a horror that is present-day but resonates with the Jewish past. It’s defining our Jewish future.

Yes, you’re witnessing our future in Gaza – which has already arrived.

So in my mind you’re a witness – a witness at the end. Small comfort.

Hold fast – what you’re doing is important.

Jewish boots on the ground in Gaza. First Israel destroys, then Jews and others detail the end.

Of course, Gaza remains alive and this, too, must be written about and photographed. And these Jewish reporters are alive, too. Which is a source of hope.

Perhaps I should include this hope when the next email from Gaza arrives.

These Jewish boots on the ground are a sign of hope – the only hope we have – at the end. So I have to choose my words wisely.

I also have to tell them the truth as I see it. It wouldn’t be right to condescend to those who bear the weight of Jewish history as it comes to its end.

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“:The end of Jewish history as we have known and inherited it – I think that’s what you’re witnessing. Whatever ethical values were present in our tradition – what both of us consciously or subconsciously draw upon – are gone.”

Right – Jews have no ethical traditions now. And you wonder, Marc, why people consider anti-Zionism an antisemitic movement.

@Marc — this is the human condition. One of the oldest ethical insight is recognizing that humans commit evil, when they are bound together by myths of us/them. So, to accept that Israel is behaving like this, is to accept that such myths of exceptionalism & communalism lead to herd like behavior. I don’t understand the angst about losing Jewish ethical traditions — which have rich resources for combatting such myths (and therefore seem like… Read more »

Thanks, Betsy, you expressed my thoughts well. Human depravity is common, it tends not to get recorded by the governments or people doing it. It’s always “the enemy” who’s depraved, impure, the instigators against innocent victims (us). To say this is the end of [ethical] Jewish history as you know it, perhaps means you left 1948 out of Jewish history? I’m sorry, please don’t throw out your ethical tradition with the loss of belief in… Read more »

What are they afraid of? If, as they claim they were “defending” themselves and taking extreme “care” to avoid civilians casualties, why are they so hell bent in preventing investigations by the international organizations in Gaza? Another example of the guilty being afraid. “Israel bars Amnesty, Human Rights Watch workers from Gaza Human rights organizations prevented from conducting investigations into Israel-Hamas fighting. By Amira Hass Israel has been refusing to allow employees of Amnesty International… Read more »

See this essay by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks ( a different “jon s”…):