Metro Weekly

The Middle East is a Reflection of All of Humanity

Between Israel and Gaza, there's currently room for little else in our minds.

Illustration: Florin Seitan/

I really don’t want to write about Israel and Gaza, but it’s impossible to focus elsewhere. Aside from simply seeing the images of the attack on Kfar Aza, of kidnapped Israeli children gruesomely displayed by their captors as props, to read of nearly 500 Gaza children — as of this moment — killed by Israeli bombings, how can anyone look away?

I have learned that the worst pain may be helplessness in the face of loved ones’ suffering. For the families of those abducted by Hamas terrorists, or who can’t escape Gaza, I cannot imagine the depths of your pain.

Not an expert in Middle East geopolitics, nor a Jew, nor an Arab, nor Muslim, nor Israeli, my own thoughts on the conflict may be irrelevant in the extreme. Still, I’ve got to share them before I can move on to anything else.

When I think of Israel, of course, I think of the Holocaust, which I learned about when I was about 5.

Aunt Betsy was in from San Diego, visiting us in Springfield, Virginia. My mom, Dora, drove us to their old Baltimore neighborhood. On that same Silver Hill Avenue where they grew up, we visited Lily and Walter. I remember Lily, a pediatrician, being kind. I remember Walter teaching me how to draw a star of David. Dora explained to me how, circa 1940, Lily and Walter, Jews from Austria, fled the Nazi onslaught.

They got as far as Lisbon before hitting a dead end. Through a byzantine network of extended family, my grandfather received a plea to sponsor them, allowing them to evacuate to America. They lived with my mom and her family in Baltimore for some months.

Not long after, Dora told me of her first home with my father, stationed at a U.S. Army base in Germany, in what had been quarters for Nazi officers. The plates in their furnished apartment were marked with “SS” insignia. She knew how real this was.

My mom also told me a sort of funny story about a Jewish college roommate, Harriet, who shared that some of their fellow Skidmore girls suspected my mother might have Nazi roots. It was a reasonable guess in the mid-1950s.

My grandfather was American and Swiss. Immediately after the war, the family left Baltimore for Switzerland, where my grandfather had gotten a new job. By my mom’s high school junior year, he’d gotten yet another new post, this time in Brazil. So, a girl with a peculiar post-war background of Switzerland and Brazil…? They could laugh about her being not a Nazi, but merely Unitarian.

Sharing those Swiss roots, I also had to face Switzerland’s complicity in the Nazi plundering of Jewish wealth. These intersections, these considerations, have played a big role in my perceptions of humanity.

With my father, Obie, I lived in Tunisia when I was 12. Living in an Islamic, Arab country as a kid, I couldn’t grow up thinking of Muslims as some kind of “other.” Granted, those days in Tunisia, you might be as likely to run into topless Swedish sunbathers as into an imam.

When xenophobes yell about Sharia boogeymen, I think of Tunisian wine vineyards and roll my eyes. When we Americans elected a president synonymous with “Muslim bans,” I hung my head.

Not long after my dad’s Tunisia tour ended, Israeli jets bombed the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization outside the capital, Tunis. Casualties included civilians. It was 1985 and I was a high school junior developing a political identity, pondering whether Israel’s actions were justified.

Along with that political identity, I was learning that the world runs on nuance, and anyone offering a black-and-white, cut-and-dry perspective is usually serving it up with a side order of willful ignorance.

That background has led me to a place where I find it disingenuous to demonize a tribe beyond your own. It’s also led me to where I absolutely believe in Israel’s right to exist as a specifically Jewish state. The world has shown the Jewish diaspora over and over again that its existence is perilous. From Egypt to Germany, across the centuries, the evidence backs up a Zionist need to create a bunker state.

My background also leads me to a place where, like many Israelis, I have great pity for the Palestinians. The right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu may think expanding settlements and keeping an occupied population under military control is a feasible strategy, but it’s not sustainable.

Israel’s existence is the answer to the Nazis’ “Final Solution” genocide plot. Its creation is an attempt to heal the Holocaust’s wound. The Palestinians are now part of the same human wound. Israelis may have created their modern state, which begat the current Gaza and West Bank, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum, obviously.

But there’s been so much more. From Eastern European pogroms to the “Dreyfus affair” in France, every nation’s antisemitism, official or otherwise, has had a hand in creating where we are now.

Going back to my mother’s Baltimore neighborhood, she grew up near the public pool where Michael Phelps would practice as an aspiring Olympian. When she was a little girl, there was a sign on that pool reading “Gentiles Only.” That is part of why we are here.

The Middle East is a reflection of all of humanity. It may be the metaphoric canary in our conflict coal mine.

My perspective is insignificant, but some of the data points are not. In 1950, Israel’s population was about 1.3 million, according to Macrotrends data. Gaza was about 200,000 people.

Today, Israel’s population is about seven times larger, roughly 9.2 million. Gaza’s population is now 10 times what it was in the early days of modern Israel, about 2 million, using Reuters information.

Meanwhile, Gazans spent the very hot summer with sparse electricity.

“Sometimes, during particularly hot afternoons at home, Dina sprays the floor with water as they sit on the tiles for hours in wet clothes,” reads Mondoweiss coverage of one Gaza family in July. “Even though their doors and windows are flung wide open, the heat inside their apartment is unbearable, with no fans, air conditioning, or cold water in the fridge.”

As a CNN article from last month explains, “Violent crimes like murder, aggravated assault and rape, terrorist attacks and mass shootings are much more likely when temperatures climb, studies show.”

As our world continues to get hotter and more crowded, should we expect this new, explosive chapter in the Mideast to be a warning for all of us?

We in America have our own resurgence of white supremacist factions to worry about, let alone all our guns and violence. Will population and climate realities spawn intensifying inhumanity? Must it get much worse before it can get better? Will it get better, or is this simply who we humans are?

I’m left to turn to my daily meditation.

Through family illness, and life-and-death considerations, the only answer I’ve been able to find for myself: I choose love. When given the choice of love or hate, love or fear, love or cruelty, I strive to choose love. I hope you will, too.

Will O’Bryan is a former Metro Weekly managing editor, living in D.C. with his husband. He is online at

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