Israelis and Palestinians are both held hostage by their own leaders

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I broke up with Israel years ago.

It was a rough, one-sided, very much “It’s you, not me” ending. I initiated this break-up when I moved to San Francisco to flee what I now know was PTSD — trauma from years of living under the threat of suicide bombers, and the fear of giving birth to children who would inevitably become soldiers, protecting a land that might end up taking them away from me.

My grandparents were sabras: Jews born in Palestine, later Israel. Secular rebels, they tried with all their might to embody the opposite of the shtetl Jews who’d suffered from pogroms and prayed to God. And just as they are secular, my family is also political. Mine was a childhood of contradictions: sitting at dinners listening to my grandparents warn me that we are surrounded by enemies who want to throw us into the sea, and proudly sitting on my mother’s shoulders protesting the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Turning my back on the generations before me, I moved to America, a place where I could finally breathe, where I could get on a bus without scanning every passenger to ensure they weren’t hiding explosives under their clothes. Where I could imagine being a mother to children who wouldn’t be killed by suicide bombers at a cafe, a street corner, a nightclub.

Because this is the reality of Israelis, no matter how much better it is than that of the Palestinians. Israelis have learned to live with a constant fear of unimaginable death and loss — a life of imminent threat and the sacrificing of our children to the war machine of the Israeli Defense Force.

And so it is, no matter how many times we break up with Israel, or how fully we recognize the suffering of Palestinians. No matter how sincere we are in our understanding that Israel continues to create the very monsters that seek to destroy it.

You can dedicate your life to promoting a two-state solution, perhaps even propose a one-state solution or believe it would be better for Jews to live again in the diaspora. You may be a left-wing, pro-Palestinian Israeli, and your son or daughter could still be drafted to the elite armed forces. Your only comfort is knowing that you raised them to cherish the lives of Palestinians they will encounter. You tell yourself that it is better that your peace-loving soldier handle those civilians, rather than one raised on hatred.

Since the events of October 7, I have been unable to function. Even after 20 years in the U.S., I now jump at sudden noises and sirens. I hear my husband stomping up the stairs and, for a split second, I panic, the images of Hamas invading homes still fresh in my mind. I see the villages of my great-grandparents in Russia, destroyed more than a century ago. I see Poland, families being torn apart as they arrive at concentration camps. I hear my mother wailing in relief when she found me safe in our Tel Aviv apartment one afternoon — I had made it home after school and did not, as I had planned, stop at the mall that was bombed. I had not been blown to pieces while hanging out with friends, just as I had missed the exploded Number 5 bus months before.

After yet another morning of being glued to the news, I manage to get dressed for kid pick-up. I enter the school courtyard and see my Palestinian friend Elham. I have been trying to text her all week but the only words that had come to mind were: No words. A cliché, so I don’t bother to write.

I stand still as Elham approaches, still unsure of what to say. She embraces me, and I burst into tears. We stand together in silence, our seven-year-old daughters watching us quietly. No words, Elham mutters. I agree. It’s not cliche; it’s the hardest truth to admit.

I pull away, wiping my tears.

“I wish we could just bring them all here,” I say. “To safety. All of them, the whole of the Palestinians and Israelis.”

Elham looks serious. “My people aren’t interested in leaving,” she says.

I feel ashamed of what my words had implied. “I mean, just to protect them. The children, at least.”

She sighs. “Yes, the children.”

“Just for the time of the war. Then we can send them back.”

She nods in agreement, then looks me in the eye. “You know, Naomi,” she says, “the truth is that the Palestinians and the Israelis are both being held hostage by their own leaders.”

We are slowly finding our words. And Elham’s words are also those of my cousin in Israel, who texted me before collapsing into bed at the end of a day filled with air sirens, and children who need shielding not just from missiles, but from horrifying stories and images as well. “We are hostages of the psychopaths in our government,” she writes, “just like the Gazans are hostages of Hamas.” Attached are her son’s drawings of red monsters: pages and pages of them.

And here I am: an Israeli, an American, a Jew. A parent, a rebel, a pacifist, a writer, a traitor, a lover, a woman who never thought she’d have to tell her teenage son to not speak Hebrew in public, to not join his high school’s walkout in support of the Palestinians — not because I don’t support them, but because I deemed it unsafe.

The war is no longer just “over there.” And it never should have been. Time and again, the decades-long experiment has been proven a failure: Sovereignty for one nation and not the other will never be the answer.

The truth is that both Israelis and Palestinians need all of us to walk out, on their behalf. Together. Proudly shouting in our native Arabic and Hebrew: Enough. Shout it out loud, everywhere. Khallas. Dayenu. ENOUGH.

Naomi Anne Goldner is a San Francisco-based writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. 

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