The Amber of the Moment

Assorted Truths About the Levant and the Jewish Experience

Let's start here: I am firmly and wholeheartedly for a free, safe, and secure Palestine. I condemn the commitment of the Israeli state to apartheid, I condemn the open-air prison that has trapped Palestinians for decades, and I condemn reactionary cries for what I believe amounts to genocide. I stand with Palestine.

I posted that same statement to my Instagram story earlier this week. I’ve copied it verbatim into this new essay because I do not want my words to be misconstrued in any way that suggests that I adhere to an oppressive Zionist belief system. In the perhaps naïve hope that this has now been prevented, let’s move on.

It also feels necessary for me to offer you my sincere apologies for the length of this composition in advance; this will not be a compact or cursory examination of current conflict in the Levant — the geographical region today more commonly referred to as the Middle East — or the Jewish experience, nor will I actively seek to conserve my words in any sort of economical manner.

I would further acknowledge that it may seem a counterproductive decision to share this commentary now, in this moment, and that there are perhaps better uses of my energy and time. I understand this reaction. I do not wish to undermine the movement for Palestinian self-determination in any way whatsoever (quite the opposite). Still, I have arrived at the conclusion that it is inarguably more important to grapple with these emotions and observations in the face of raging conflict than it would be to do so in a time of peace, and so I embark on this literary journey anyway. It is my hope that in crafting this work, I can both add even limited perspective to the broader conversation at hand and order my own instincts and thoughts in a more purposeful way than they perhaps exist in their natural state within my mind.

An Expansive History of the Levant: Geography, Indigeneity, and Sovereignty

It’s likely that, given the recent outbreak of expedited violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip, you already have some sense of the region’s history. It is unlikely, however, that your understanding of that history involves much before the late 1940s (an assumption I am making not to pass judgment, but to justify the inclusion of this critically important context for the comprehension of current global events). While it may seem perverse to trace this cultural and geographical narrative that far back in our planetary history, it is imperative that we do so to fully grasp the nuances of present-day conflict.

Almost 3,000 years ago, the Canaanites (ancestors of both Arabic and Jewish people alike) settled in the Levant. They claimed ownership of the region through approximately 1100 B.C., when Israeli culture first appeared and coalesced. This culture eventually solidified into the respective Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, which neighbored the Philistine and Phoenician States, as well as the Kingdoms of Ammon, Aram Damascus, and Moab.

When the Assyrians and then Babylonians conquered the region a few hundred years later, they exiled a significant segment of these Jewish communities to Babylon (the exact number is debated to this day). Others fled to Egypt. Many of these Jewish communities returned to the Levant years later, after the Persians swept into the area and freed them.

For millennia following these initial invasions, the Levant saw a procession of empires rule — including the Egyptians, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Mamluks, Ottomans, and the United Kingdom — and the arrival of diverse Arabic immigrants around 650 BC. Records subsequently show a semi-independent Jewish state through the time of the Romans; it is actually in the wake of conflict between the Roman empire and Jewish communities in the region that we see the [re]emergence of the name “Palestine” — derived from the word “Philistia,” the descriptor Greek writers gave years earlier to the land once occupied by the Philistines. The Romans revived this terminology around 135 CE as “Syria Palaestina,” a phrase that the Ottoman Empire ultimately co-opted and formalized many years later. It is not clear that the Romans chose this name to cleanse the region of references to Jewish culture, as many believe to this day, but it is evident that the change was made only after the events of the Bar Kohkba Revolt and the mass expulsion of many members of the local Jewish community.

Flash forward to Europe in the early 1880s. In this era of nationalism, antisemitism ran rampant. Jews began planning for the creation of a new, independent nation — Israel — as they bought land and emigrated back to the Ottoman region of Palestine en masse. This continued until a young Serbian patriot assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, igniting what we now refer to as World War I (WWI).

As the Allies raced to beat back the Central Powers, the United Kingdom (U.K.) turned to Arabs and Jews in the Levant alike to revolt against the Ottoman Empire. In doing so, the U.K. promised Arab leader Hussein bin Ali the creation of a new kingdom in the Arabian Peninsula. Simultaneously, however, the U.K. also promised to establish a new Jewish nation in the same region (ultimately voicing their support publicly via the Balfour Declaration of 1917).

When WWI came to a close, the Allies managed to split the Ottoman Empire into several tracts of land. The United Kingdom claimed the region that is present-day Israel and Palestine. Unfortunately, the respective promises that they’d made to local Arabs and Jews proved wildly incompatible, and the U.K. instead refused to cede any land whatsoever to either party — a decision made to ensure sustained British control of the Suez Canal, a key passage for maritime trade with India.

Through all of this, Jews continued emigrating back to the Levant. As this rush of newcomers (meant relatively, not as a statement of indigeneity) began to clash with a better-established local Arab population, the U.K. recognized imminent conflict and made a half-hearted attempt to mitigate it. The ruling nation proposed a new partition plan in 1937, creating a map that ceded Eastern and Southern land to Arabs, handed the Northern portion of the region to Jews, and further cemented British control over the center coast and Jerusalem. The Jewish community largely accepted this map, content with its recognition of Jewish settlements in the area. Arabs did not.

If you’re following this timeline closely, then you know what happened next. An empowered Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, commencing the Holocaust and igniting the events of World War II (WWII). Activity in the Levant died down as nations sought to respond to new, more immediately pressing threats. The world watched as Axis powers brutally murdered six million European Jews, along with “at least five million Soviet prisoners of war, Romany, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and other victims.”

Following WWII, the United Kingdom wanted nothing to do with the Levant. In the name of decolonization, they palmed the problem off on the newly created United Nations (U.N.), which subsequently proposed an updated version of the U.K.’s original two-state solution. In an effort to better align this map with updated Jewish settlements in the region, however, this new scheme awarded Arabs a part of the Northern region previously offered to Jews (Galilee) and Jews a part of the Negev Desert (a region previously offered to Arabs).

The United Nations approved this plan with a two-thirds majority. Jews in the Levant again felt largely content with this solution, grateful for the opportunity to establish a new, independent Jewish state. Arabs, on the other hand, still felt cheated of land — implementation of the U.N. plan meant that 56 percent of the Levant now belonged to just 33 percent of the population. Arabs saw this increase in Jewish land as encroachment and rejected the already-ratified U.N. decision. Violence broke out almost immediately as Arab nationalist groups and Zionist militias alike attacked convoys and destroyed entire towns.

On May 14, 1948, Israel formally declared its independence. The next day, May 15, a coalition of surrounding Arab countries simultaneously attacked the fledgling nation. With the aid of global allies, Israel not only prevailed but further claimed more of the land originally allocated to Arab communities in the region (changing the approved 1947 borders often referenced today in discussion of current conflict). In the chaos of this violence, Israel pushed approximately 750,000 local Arabs out of the Levant — this is the event colloquially referred to as the Palestinian Nakba, the Arabic word for “catastrophe,” that resulted in the permanent displacement of the majority of Palestinian Arabs.

(As an aside, and in the name of clarity: The Palestinian account of this period of violence to this day lays blame squarely at the feet of Israeli immigrants, who many view as colonizers and settlers despite legitimate ancestral ties to the land. The Zionist narrative tells a very different story, in which it is the unwillingness of Arab nations and Palestinians to allow the creation of a sovereign Jewish state following centuries of persecution — and a reluctance to return Jewish land to its “rightful” owners, despite the very real fact that non-Jewish families had lived on said land for generations — that caused widespread violence. As it often is and to the best of my knowledge, the truth seems to lie somewhere in the liminal grey zone between these competing claims.)

In the years that followed, Egypt claimed the Gaza Strip. Jordan took the West Bank. Still unhappy with their predicament decades later, a coalition of Arab countries planned another attack on Israel. Israel caught wind of these plans in 1967, shooting down the air forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in a single day before pushing deeper into Golan Heights, the Sinai, and the West Bank. Another 100,000 Palestinians fled Golan Heights, and 300,000 fled the West Bank.

Exactly one decade later, in 1977, Egypt and Syria once again attacked Israel. After suffering heavy initial losses, Israel eventually prevailed. A year later, Egypt and Israel met at the 1978 Camp David Accords to sign a peace treaty, and the Jewish state returned the Sinai to the former nation. Over the next few decades, Israel worked to normalize relationships with Arab and non-Arab nations in the region alike, signing treaties with Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates (dynamics further formalized by the still-fresh 2020 Abraham Accords).

Now — this timeline has yet made no mention of the myriad atrocities and human rights abuses the Israeli government has perpetrated against Palestinians through history. This is a decision made intentionally, given both an assumption that this is the aspect of current conflict that we are all unfortunately most familiar with today and a desire to present a chronologically accurate history of the Levant unmarred by often-controversial claims. Still, I would not be doing myself or the situation at hand justice if I chose to gloss over the reality of life for Palestinians in the Levant, so I feel it is important to now share just a few difficult truths relevant to this account (I welcome critique of my decision to not write a more detailed analysis of this oppression, but please be assured that it is not a decision I have made lightly, and my calculations have only to do with the value this commentary may be able to add to relevant conversation).

It's no secret that the Israeli government has long abused and subjugated Palestinian communities in the region. Israel still denies Palestinians a formal nationality, establishing a legal differentiation from Jewish civilians that sets the foundation for further discrimination — in the Gaza Strip and West Bank alike, Palestinians have no citizenship and are considered mostly stateless (though they account for approximately 19 percent of the national population), requiring identification cards from the Israeli military to live or work in the territories. Further, the Israeli government has blocked Palestinians from leasing on somewhere around 80 percent of state land, passing myriad building and planning policies that intentionally exclude and ostracize Palestinian civilians. These policies include the exclusion of Palestinians from state-run education and healthcare systems, the refusal to provide electricity or water for many unrecognized Palestinian villages, and the restriction of political participation in civic processes. The Israeli government also continues to demolish Palestinian buildings and neighborhoods as it paves the way for new Jewish Israeli settlements, while simultaneously imposing draconian restrictions on the movement of Palestinian civilians looking to travel abroad or into Israel. In Gaza, more than two million Palestinians live under an Israeli blockade that has created an urgent humanitarian crisis.

I understand, once again, that it may seem disobliging or even obstructive for this section of this essay to peer so far into antiquity. I understand that it may seem more immediately urgent to prioritize understanding of current tension, and a deeper exploration of the issues of social justice mentioned in the prior paragraph. But I believe that historical literacy is critical to understanding the full scope of current conflict in the Levant. There is no excuse for the brutal mistreatment of the Palestinian communities living within Israeli borders — and we should fully condemn the system of apartheid that defines the region — but there are legitimate ancestral claims to be made from those on both sides of this dispute, and enough generational trauma to go around. If you decide to use the power of your platform to champion the Palestinian right to self-determination, you should do so with an appreciation of this nuance, and a conscious awareness of the ways in which this conflict can and does affect Jewish and Palestinian communities alike. I do not believe that you must be inordinately cautious when condemning the violation of basic human rights, but I do encourage intentionality in the ways in which you choose to express yourself, given the inherent emotional nature of the situation.

On Hamas, an Anti-Jewish Terrorist Organization

I wish it could at this point go unsaid, but I feel it is probably necessary to iterate and reiterate a certain key truth: Just as the Israeli government does not represent the will of the Jewish people at large, abroad or within the state’s borders, Hamas does not represent the will of the Palestinian people. And we can be even more granular with this truth in the recognition that Hamas — despite common themes in contemporary, talking-head punditry — is not at all concerned with the Palestinian right to self-determination. Hamas is an anti-democratic terrorist organization with the sole expressed goal of wiping Jewish people from the face of the Earth entirely.

This is not a secret. Hamas has made no qualms about showing its true colors. From a charter rife with antisemitic characteristics and tropes to indiscriminate killing sprees, from rockets launched at Israeli civilians to the more recent October 7th massacre, it is and always should have been abundantly clear that Hamas is more concerned with Jewish elimination than it is with any other cause or movement.

It is ferociously important that we not conflate the actions of a terrorist organization with the values or will of an entire geographic ethnicity. To this point, it is also clear that Hamas is more than willing to destroy Palestinian lives in pursuit of its genocidal agenda. In lieu of effective and meaningful governance, Hamas has “repeatedly cannibalized Gazan infrastructure and appropriated international aid to fuel its messianic war machine.” In no particular order, the group has: refused to run democratic elections in the Gaza Strip since 2006, gloated about digging up metal pipes in the Gaza Strip to repurpose as rockets, stored weapons in U.N.-run schools, and appropriated underground shelters intended to ensure civilian safety for their own offensive-minded operations.

Hamas is a terrorist group, not a manifestation of the will of the Palestinian people. Likewise, the Israeli government is a political machine, not an unquestionable monolith of definitive Jewishness.

Some Perspective on the Jewish Experience

Earlier this week, I stumbled onto another lengthy blog post entitled “Why You Might Have Lost All Your Jewish Friends This Week and Didn’t Even Know It.” I don’t know that everything Josh Gilman expresses in his personal essay perfectly mirrors my own experience as a Jewish man in America, but I do know that it struck a chord with me. Specifically, I took pause at this section:

“When you are Jewish, you are always aware that there is a large population in the world that wants to kill you… We don’t wonder if; we wonder when. Because we know that whether it is indeed us, or whether it is our brothers and sisters in Israel, or in France, or in Pittsburgh, it will happen again somewhere. It wasn’t until this last weekend that I realized that I have lived my whole life treating the world as guilty until proven innocent. That until you are proven safe to me, I hold you in mild suspicion. I didn’t even realize that I’ve always done this.”

Josh Gilman

Hammer, meet nail. It’s an excerpt that actually reminds me of another passage I read years ago in The Atlantic from British journalist and writer Ben Judah, in which he describes antisemitism as — rather than a theoretical, past tragedy like the black death — the common flu. It is “uncomfortable, sickly, occasionally deadly, but constantly with us,” he writes, and it only takes a matter of time for it cyclically mutate into an epidemic.

I share these observations and thoughts not in some misguided attempt to “one-up” Palestinian pain by reminding you of the breadth and depth of Jewish suffering, but to add some context to the situation that may help you better understand how your Jewish friends are feeling right now. I am, as I’ve affirmed and reaffirmed many times both privately and publicly, firmly and wholeheartedly in support of the Palestinian right to self-determination — but that doesn’t mean I am not still uncomfortable with the tenor and tone of recent conversation surrounding it.

We are currently experiencing the highest levels of antisemitism we have seen in the United States since WWII. Jews make up 0.2 percent of our global population, and yet in 2021 accounted for 51 percent of religiously-inspired hate crimes across America. We are just a handful of years away from the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh that saw 11 killed. Earlier this month, hackers stole and published data from 23andMe in an attempt to dox and expose almost one million people with Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. Even at the exceedingly diverse, overwhelmingly progressive high school I attended in Silver Spring, Maryland, distinctly anti-Jewish displays are on the rise.

If you, in your first reaction to the events of October 7, went online to post a screed on Palestinian freedom or set your status to a Palestinian flag emoji, then I am apologetic but steadfast in my belief that you got it wrong. I am firmly pro-Palestine. I do not believe the Israeli government has a right to commit war crimes in the name of self-defense, nor to commit years of human rights violations in the interest of “national safety.” But I do believe that if your response to a brutal attack on Jewish civilians committed by a terrorist organization with a confirmed goal of Jewish elimination — and zero interest in protecting or uplifting the Palestinian people — was to try to start a conversation about a fight for freedom, then you are part of the problem. And you’ve made it measurably more difficult for many of your Jewish friends to post publicly or speak out about this humanitarian crisis in the way that they want to (and the way that you would like them to).

Antisemitism, Palestinian Freedom, and False Dichotomies

Well. Now that we’re safely a few thousand words into this essay, what exactly is my point? What am I hoping to convey with this convoluted exploration of geopolitical history, a brief analysis of a terrorist organization, and a summary explanation of one small piece of the Jewish experience?

I believe my point to be this (though I am open to other interpretations): I would encourage everyone to simply take care in their approach to current conflict in the Levant. It may seem simple or wide-eyed to believe that anyone in this self-gratifying world of bullhorns and platforms would pause to seriously reflect before sharing their often-emotional observations and opinions, but your words do have real and meaningful consequences for those who share this planet with you.

If you have remained silent through pronounced antisemitism but are using your platform now, I would encourage you to ask yourself why you have made that decision. If you have yet to speak out against ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia, Myanmar, or Xinjiang, but have adorned your social media profiles with the Palestinian flag, I would suggest that you may want to consider your own internal biases and prejudices. If you are posting about Jewish values that contradict genocide — as if tikkun olam or tzedakah mean anything to non-Jews, and as if your reminders come across as anything but condescending to your Jewish friends — I would urge you to interrogate your need to position yourself as a moral authority within a religion that you barely understand.

To be clear, as I’ve asserted throughout this piece — we can and should be vocal critics of the Israeli government’s mistreatment of Palestinian civilians. We can and should demand a better world for everyone that lives in it. But that’s exactly my point. As Naomi Klein so succinctly put it in her recent piece for The Guardian, this moment calls for moral consistency, not moral equivalency.

Do not amalgamate support for Jews with support for genocide. Do not amalgamate support for Palestinian causes with support for Hamas. And please be careful about how you show support for the causes you believe in. Please recognize that for many Jews — even those horrified by the persecution and subjugation of the Palestinian people, even those who believe in the right of an oppressed people to self-determination — this is an extremely difficult and emotionally charged moment saddled with generational trauma that heightens sensitivity to perceived indifference and intended harm alike.

I will continue to advocate for Palestinian freedom, and to build toward a world that works for everyone in it. But I would also like to feel once again safe wearing my gold chai or silver Star of David in public without the constant fear that I will be at worst the victim of a hate crime; at best forced into an uncomfortable conversation. I would like to be able to scroll through my social media feeds without reading first-person accounts of brides firing wedding planners over their Jewish identity, or companies illegally terminating their yarmulke-wearing employees over a “failure” to follow designated dress codes. I would like to be able to celebrate my heritage at the Capital Jewish Museum without wondering if I’ll have to wade through protestors to make it inside (I hope these freedom fighters chose this location over the Israeli embassy in simple oversight, but I recognize that it was more likely a decision rooted in antisemitism). I would like my family members to be able to travel for pleasure and work without feeling the need to make provisional plans for their personal safety, lest they are targeted for their demeanor and appearance. I would like to speak openly with my friends about conflict in the Levant without having to flash my progressive credentials every other sentence or listen to people that I otherwise enjoy and like make wild off-the-cuff generalizations about the moral propriety of Jewish behavior.

I welcome corrections to the information presented in this essay. If I’m mistaken or have misunderstood my history, please let me know. I am not necessarily here to argue or debate, but I am intensely interested in factual accuracy.

And if, after reading these words, your response is still to question my timing — trust me, I am sympathetic. But I know that these feelings and observations hold certain truths about the world we live in beyond the confines and contours of even the Levant, and I encourage you — armed with this understanding of the Jewish experience, or at least my own experience as a Jewish man — to read me charitably and be both intentional and purposeful in your behavior online and as you go about your days in both the near and distant future.

Join the conversation

or to participate.