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30 May 2024

A Jewish dirge for Rafah

The horrors perpetrated in Gaza are unbearable, but Jews have the language to mourn.

By Celeste Marcus

Monday 27 May was a day soaked in blood. Videos of the horrors perpetrated in Rafah by the Israeli army should shock us from ordinary life. Since October, how many days like Monday have we been called upon to respond to with the proper pain? Human beings do not come into the world prepared to process such sustained catastrophe or to mourn the mass of lives lost. It should not come naturally to us. It is not natural. 

But Jews do not come into the world alone. We come into the world with a tradition, born of necessity, which has taught us how to conceive of atrocity. We have 2000 years’ worth of schooling in how to mourn mass death, how to plead with a silent God, and how to live with ourselves when the blood has dried. So, when I saw the videos from Rafah, my mind was not blank. It echoed with the liturgy I was bequeathed for reckoning with the fruits of human cruelty.  

While I watched the videos and looked at photo after photo of burning tents, charred bodies and dead children, a hymn I was taught to sing on Shabbat evenings played on a loop in my mind: 

“Look at us from Heaven and see, 
For we are mocked and scorned among nations. 
We are thought of as sheep to slaughter for tribute,
To kill and annihilate and beat and to shame 
But throughout all this, we did not forget your name; please do not forget us.” 

I winced at the pain when the full recognition of the implied role reversal asserted itself like a physical weight. That song wound through the memories of my childhood, it had been part of my very consciousness. It feels foreign now. Simply by virtue of this new, terrible association my heritage feels as if it does not belong to me any more.  

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What have we become? 

The following day the Prime Minister of Israel called the air strike on Rafah a tragic mistake, but not before many Israelis cheered the carnage. Could it be a coincidence that Rafah burned on Lag ba’Omer – a holiday traditionally celebrated with bonfires? One Israeli politician posted a video of the burning tents and captioned it “the central bonfire is in Rafah”.   

The depravity of that tweet and others like it brought to mind another of our texts, another artery in the body of our tradition. In 1904, the poet Hayim Nahman Bialik wrote “In the City of Death”, a damning dirge commemorating the Kishinev pogrom perpetrated the previous year, in which an anti-Semitic riot in Moldova tore through the Jewish quarter. Over the course of three days, 49 Jews were murdered, 92 were severely injured and many Jewish women were raped. Bialik, who would become the national poet of Israel, was biting in his criticism of the pathetic rabbis and their students who huddled in an attic and witnessed the bloodbath without raising a finger to stop it. These cowards in Bialik’s poem became the avatar of a typology with which Jewish history has been wrestling with since the eviction from Jerusalem in 70 CE: the Jew who does not fight back. Fury at that typology – the Jewish man in exile – was also part of my childhood, though by the time I was born a New Jew, as the pioneers who built the Jewish state called themselves, had triumphantly risen to replace him. (It is not a coincidence that the same pogrom that moved Bialik to write those immortal verses also pushed Theodore Herzl towards his agitations for a Jewish state.)  

I remember the first time I read Bialik’s poem, and the first time I was taught to feel the shame at those men who watched our blood flow and thought only of themselves and their holy books. Over a century later, his poem howls: 

“Get up and walk through the city of death 
ָAnd with your own eyes look and with your hand touch the fences  
The trees, the stones and the plastered walls 
Crusted with the clotted blood and the hardened brains of the dead. 
Pass the ruined and split buildings, the place where explosions deepened 
And the pits widened. 
The blackened stones and the burnt white walls 
Open like the gaping mouths of human wounds  
That will never be mended, never healed 
Your feet will sink into the wreckage of scrolls and books 
Fragmented fragments

 
But do not stop there in this havoc 

… Go up to the roof and search in the attic  
Another bitter truth of death lurks in the shadows 
They watched it all through holes from the shadows  
With their own eyes they saw, with silent eyes they witnessed 
These ‘holy ones’, these bleak, desolate men 
Huddled in one corner beneath the roof, silent 
… They did not pluck their eyes out they 
Did not beat their brains against the wall 
Perhaps each one simply prayed to God that he be spared” 

Bialik’s bitter, acrid fury in the face of Jewish weakness lives in the marrow of the modern Jew. I sometimes feel that no one hates the stereotype of the anaemic, stuttering, pale Jew more than the Zionist does. We have never forgiven that pathetic huddled mass in the attic. I shudder with horror when I read the hateful tweets and speeches by Israeli politicians who would rather be guilty of the egregious, muscular crimes of a powerful army than ever be mistaken for the battered, helpless Jew who witnessed his own daughters’ rapes and simply prayed to God that he be spared. I imagine folded copies of “The City of Death” stitched into the uniforms of the Israeli soldiers in Gaza. Even if the words aren’t printed on paper, they are as real and present as a lash on raw flesh. 

Monday heaved itself into Tuesday, and another airstrike was reported. This degradation of human life terrifies me. I know too much about it. We all do. We know what this looks like, we Jews, we know how dangerous it is to pen a population into a confined space and brutalise them for months with no end in sight.  

The day before I had bellowed in vain that human life is not cheap, that Rafah must be protected. I had already shrieked “Enough!” Repeating it all again in less than 24 hours would simply have degraded the lives lost in the interim. Many friends repeated “I have no words left” in the face of another Israeli attack on Rafah. But words are precisely what we do have: Jews have the language to mourn. We are rich in granting dignity to the dead. I reached for our rituals, for a text with which I could pay proper respect to the burned bodies in the videos on my feeds. 

Tisha B’Av is the most sombre day of the Jewish calendar. It is the annual day of Jewish mourning. Every year on that day, we make fresh the pains we have sustained over the bloodied centuries. The liturgy recounts atrocities from across Jewish history and was designed as a day of black reflection on every Jewish nightmare, from the destruction of the first temple straight to the pogroms committed in October of last year. Repetition is the point. There was nothing degrading about chanting those verses on Tuesday and on each day since. On the contrary: this was how I honoured the dead. 

The 25th dirge — we call them kinot — for Tisha B’Av was written in commemoration of the crusades that ripped through the Rhineland in 1096. It reads in part: 

“My eyes will flow with tears and I will go to the fields and weep, and ask the other stunned and bitter hearts to join me in weeping for the beautiful girls and soft boys wrapped in their books, dragged to slaughter. Their bodies rosier than rubies, sapphire, or turquoise, were slung and trampled in the mud. The enemy cried out ‘Stay away! They are impure.’… My wound is fatal, none can heal or cure me. So I say, ‘Let me be, I will weep bitterly.’ And I cry till my cheeks shrivel.”

I chanted the dirge and thought of the fathers and mothers in Gaza whose hearts have been torn just as ours were. When a Jew dies, we wish that the family of the dead be comforted amongst the mourners of Zion.  

May we one day share Zion peacefully. And may the people of Palestine be comforted among the mourners of Zion today. 

[See also: What will stop Israel in Rafah?]

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