How to bear witness as a community when the world needs it most
Hannah Feller, Guest Opinion Columnist
Dear River Valley,
I write to you kindled by the love of our community and the Palestinian people.
I am tired of all the caveats, the conditional statements, the analogies. I believe we are suffering from a crisis of imagination in a situation that actually does not require much. It may sound counterintuitive amidst a discourse that encourages you to put yourself in Palestinians’ shoes, asks you to imagine if it was your family or friends or neighbors who were being slaughtered, would have you use a thousand “what if” statements instead of looking at what’s really going on. It’s a cheap liberal tactic to get us to care about others only in terms of how much we care about ourselves and our loved ones.
There is a deeper truth that resides in your body, your bones, your blood. The dull ache, the sharp terror, the fear of pain, the scrambling for solid ground to build a life on while everything crumbles around you. You might not feel it right now because it is entirely human to tamp it down and turn your back on it. But it is always there for you. It’s not necessary to feel it all the time; our culture has created so many delightful and destructive ways to drown it out. But currently, as thousands of innocent and complicated and whole people are being killed, I ask that you feel it. Not empathy or sympathy, but the acute hurt of the Palestinian people whose right to self-determination has long been ignored.
You may feel ashamed if you didn’t know before now about the displacement and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, something that certainly did not begin at the start of October when the world started paying closer attention. I am telling you: you do not need to wear this shame like a heavy coat that insulates you from the rest of the world. It is okay to feel this shame and to also recognize that the Israeli government is capitalizing on it. They are counting on it keeping you quiet, hoping that you’ll only speak up when you have seen enough, read enough, researched and fact-checked and considered everything from every single angle. I am asking you not to think the Palestinian people to death. Yes, think critically. Yes, check your sources. But this is not a time to hem and haw over an endlessly nuanced but also extremely straightforward situation. You can see clearly through the lens of your basic humanity. You know all you need to know.
I’m not asking for a small thing, but it’s the only thing that will get us through: looking outside of our community and country to those whose needs are currently louder than our own. It’s more than likely you have your own pain and your own daily practice of tending to it: a routine of taking in its griefs, of asking what it needs from you to get through the day. That pain is a thread that connects us to the people of Gaza, and by turning your attention to them, you are not ignoring it. Rather, I believe that by opening ourselves to the pain of others, we might better address our own. Given the age we live in, it’s natural to think of your time and attention as things that are finite and portionable. But they only expand as you attend to the urgent needs of the world.
I pray that we can admit what we have done to one another, what we are currently doing to one another with our money and power and blindness so that we can finally know who we are and where we are headed. I see so much light in our community, so much capacity for grief and collective care. Sometimes that care is immediate and gratifying: for me, it often takes the shape of a meal shared with a friend, listening to their stories, dreaming together of a future for Spring Green that feels, at least to me, intensely possible despite our material circumstances.
I hope you cast a wider net to where the care is less comfortable, but where you can show up exactly as you are. You don’t need different tools or training. Your humanity resides within you and is asking you to use the skills you already possess to push harder. By trade, I’m a writer. I choose to set down in words (that I hope are not merely self-serving) an urgent call to action. I want you to look inside yourself and take the action that aligns with your roles. How can you urge others into acting? How can you embrace the world when it needs you most?
I recently took a trip away from Spring Green. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that briefly being away gave me the space and urgency to write back to you all. Outside of the hearth of our community, there are people dying for us to share some of our warmth, our impassioned love for one another. And not the empty kind, the love only of those who we deem undeserving of death. The Palestinian people deserve the love of action, of protest, of calling your representatives, of boycotting corporations who support Israel, of having difficult conversations that risk your social standing and posterity. They deserve love at the edge of your comfort zone, as theirs is being completely and systematically annihilated as we watch in real time.
Hear me when I say: the comfort of your material circumstances will never match the comfort of solidarity, of knowing you did not look away when you were asked to bear witness. The comfort of your social class will never match the comfort of standing firmly with the people of the world who are people murdered in the name of upholding the system that keeps you teetered on the edge of stability and instability, never knowing when the other shoe is going to drop.
Free Palestine from the rubble of your comfortable life. And with her, believe that the rebuilding will be worth the loss of your tenuous class allegiance. You will always be closer to the people getting bombed than those doing the bombing. Be fearful of and grateful for that. And use that to do the work you are being called to.
And as someone who is trained to focus on language, I hope that when you do speak, you do not waver and waffle. That you demand a ceasefire, so that more people are not murdered in the name of a failed colonial project. Anything else is ignoring the blood running through your veins and the ache in your heart, the lifeline that connects you to all other living and dying things. This is a time when hyperbole doesn’t seem hyperbolic enough.
I’ll admit: I have a selfish and abiding fear that writing these words will bring me further away from my community, from those who would use our liberal bubble to protect themselves from the genocide in Gaza. I fear division from my friends and family, but I know that I will be proven wrong. That something written out of a deep desire for collective action will inspire more of the same, and bring us closer to one another and the Palestinian people. They will be free.
With love and in grief,
Hannah is a Spring Green community member of a bit more than 2 years, having grown up in Reedsburg and lived abroad in Germany, the Netherlands and Latvia for most of her adult life. She works as the beverage manager at Reunion and Homecoming restaurants, as well as doing a little bit of everything in day-to-day service: line cook, server, host, expediter. She’s also a creative nonfiction writer: sometimes for work, sometimes for play, always with the utmost devotion to the power of language.