Photograph of Irena Klepfisz with the quote: ' "I confess I am most moved by the stories and images of children: Jewish children, Palestinian children. I know how the imprint of war in childhood lasts a lifetime and how it can warp our perspectives." -Irena Klepfisz'

Irena Klepfisz: Seeking a moral compass

A Jewish poet responds to the current Israeli-Palestinian crisis

When I was asked to contribute something to the WUP blog in response to the present war in Israel and Gaza, I quickly said “Of course,” but now, facing the blank page, I find myself without words. I am horrified and terrified unable to articulate the gnawing dread of what news awaits me when I wake up tomorrow. Perhaps you are already reading these words and are too full of that inevitably terrible knowledge. Today, October 13, as I write, much in Gaza has been destroyed and 1500 Palestinians have died, more than 6,000 have been wounded, more than 400,000 have already been made homeless. And at this moment, the Israelis haven’t even begun their incursion

I was born a Jew in occupied Poland in 1941. I learned Polish Catholic prayers in an orphanage that hid Jewish children during the war. After the war, coming here, I lived the immigrant experience. I’ve navigated through the challenges of adapting to a majority culture that is not mine. In February of 1963 I volunteered for six weeks in Kibbutz Nir Oz, one of the kibbutzim that on Saturday was totally destroyed, many of its members murdered and some taken hostage. As a Jew and a member of the majority in Israel, I have never felt that it was my home to reclaim. I was raised to believe in do’ikayt/here-ness, the principle that Jews should be and could be full Jews and full citizens of any country. At the same time, over many decades, I have naturally made strong connections with many Israelis. So writing about Palestinians and Gaza does not erase my overwhelming grief over the 1,300 Jews who were killed and the many that were taken hostage by the murderous Hamas troops. I confess I am most moved by the stories and images of children: Jewish children, Palestinian children. I know how the imprint of war in childhood lasts a lifetime and how it can warp our perspectives. Those children that will survive this present nightmare will have to create a future in which they can live and flourish together.

Other writers have articulated with greater clarity than I can what Israel’s political and moral options are in the aftermath Hamas’ murderous incursion. So I want to pass on their words as well as that of a poet of the Palestinian diaspora. Nicholas Kristoff and Orly Noy point to the righteous, humane path. Lena Khalaf Tuffaha’s poem reflects the reality when that path is not taken.

            —Irena Klepfisz, October 13, 2023

from Seeking a Moral Compass in Gaza’s War
by Nicholas Kristof
(New York Times, October 11, 2023)

There will be no optimal solution in Gaza, any more than there was in Afghanistan or Iraq. We are fated to inhabit a world with more problems than solutions, and it’s fair to feel conflicted about next steps. Israel will face hard choices in the coming weeks; its challenge will be to respond to war crimes without committing war crimes….

The counsel we Americans should offer Israel is threefold and admittedly difficult to follow. First, Israel has right on its side when it goes after its assailants. Second, urban combat has a poor record in achieving its goals — and a considerable history of horrendous casualties. Third, if your moral compass is attuned to the suffering of only one side, your compass is broken, and so is your humanity.

from Our Humanity Is Being Put to a Test
by Orly Noy
(+912 Magazine, October 11, 2023)

Morality is never a privilege, a luxury, an accessory that we can don when it’s convenient or remove when less so. Morality isn’t an indulgence we can’t afford during a catastrophe.

Insisting on morality is an insistence on context, without which this horrible violence loses its meaning and gets reduced to “human animals that want to destroy us for no reason.” To insist on morality and context is not to justify a crime. On the contrary – it is to ensure our understanding of reality includes all of the factors that contribute to it, so that we can more effectively change it.               

Running Orders
by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

They call us now,
before they drop the bombs.
The phone rings
and someone who knows my first name
calls and says in perfect Arabic
“This is David.”
And in my stupor of sonic booms and glass-shattering symphonies
still smashing around in my head
I think, Do I know any Davids in Gaza?
They call us now to say
You have 58 seconds from the end of this message.
Your house is next.
They think of it as some kind of
war-time courtesy.
It doesn’t matter that
there is nowhere to run to.
It means nothing that the borders are closed
and your papers are worthless
and mark you only for a life sentence
in this prison by the sea
and the alleyways are narrow
and there are more human lives
packed one against the other
more than any other place on earth
Just run.
We aren’t trying to kill you.
It doesn’t matter that
you can’t call us back to tell us
the people we claim to want aren’t in your house
that there’s no one here
except you and your children
who were cheering for Argentina
sharing the last loaf of bread for this week
counting candles left in case the power goes out.
It doesn’t matter that you have children.
You live in the wrong place
and now is your chance to run
to nowhere.
It doesn’t matter
that 58 seconds isn’t long enough
to find your wedding album
or your son’s favorite blanket
or your daughter’s almost completed college application
or your shoes
or to gather everyone in the house.
It doesn’t matter what you had planned.
It doesn’t matter who you are.
Prove you’re human.
Prove you stand on two legs.

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, “Running Orders” from Water & Salt. Copyright © 2017. Red Hen Press

Read commentary from poet Yonatan Berg here.

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