My daughter is scared of the dark. We got her a nightlight—it glows purple—which helps. Still, she likes my husband or me to lie in bed with her until she falls asleep. She’ll wrap her arm around my neck as she drifts off, and whisper things like “I love you, Mommy” and “What are we doing tomorrow?” She is four and a half.
My son likes for me to read him a book before bed. Right after I give him a bottle of milk, he looks up at me with his stunning green eyes and begs, “Book! Book!” though the k is silent—a syllable he has not yet mastered—so it sounds more like “Buh! Buh!” I read The Going to Bed Book, by Sandra Boynton, to him. He is one and a half. He giggles as I place him in his crib and turn off the lights.
More than thirty Israeli children, some as young as 9 months old, are currently being held captive by Hamas terrorists inside Gaza. If they are still alive, they have now spent seventeen nights away from their beds. Some of them are alone. Some of them are with their siblings. Some of them watched their parents die in front of their eyes.
None of them are getting bedtime stories or purple nightlights.
There are a lot of horrors that have been reported in the last seventeen days—rape that broke women’s pelvic bones, babies riddled with bullets, children whose fingers and feet were cut off, entire families that were burned to death with their hands tied behind their backs, a pregnant woman whose fetus was cut out of her stomach while she was still alive. For parents, though, there may be nothing as agonizing as the ongoing terror of children being held captive by an ISIS-style jihadist terrorist organization that revels in Jewish suffering. As one parent put it, that would be worse than death.
There have been widespread, grassroots efforts to bring attention to the kidnapped civilians, especially the children. One information campaign that has been gaining traction is called Let the World Know, which was started by Anna Tambini, an Israeli woman who lives in San Francisco. Volunteers across America, and around the world, have been hanging posters of the hostages on streetlights and posts, subway walls and coffee shops. Each poster has an individual picture and name with a simple call to action: “Take a photo of this poster and share it. Please help bring them home alive.”
There is no Israeli flag on these posters. There is no mention of politics. They are as anodyne as the missing children that used to appear on the side of American milk cartons.
And still. People all over the world—especially young, cool-looking people, with nose rings and neon backpacks—are ripping them down.
Across the internet, videos have emerged of people angrily tearing down these posters wherever they find them. In NYC. In L.A. In San Diego. In Santa Cruz. In Richmond. In Miami. In Philadelphia. In Ontario. In Paris. In London. They are ripping the faces of real people who are missing—babies, children, teenagers, women, elderly—to shreds.
I’m not sure non-Jews and ordinary passersby understand how painful this is. The Jewish world is tiny and connected. Nearly everyone knows someone who knows one of those faces. A friend’s friend. The in-laws of the sister of a boy who went to your school. And that’s just me.
I was scrolling Instagram this week when I came across another one of these videos. This one was of a woman and a man together ripping down the posters in Williamsburg. I almost skipped past it when I noticed something. I turned up the volume.
After the woman finishes scraping the remainders of the poster from the street post, while muttering the word calba, the Arabic word for dog, she then turns to the camera—presumably to the person filming her vandalism—and says, “Fuck you. Fuck you. And burn in hell.”
And that’s when my heart dropped: I know her.
Sarah—who I’ve since learned from the internet seems to go by the name Lucky and prefers they/them pronouns—and I went to college together at Northwestern. We weren’t close friends, but we performed in a show we wrote together along with five other women, and we were friendly enough to have hung out more than a few times. We even have a handful of pictures together on Facebook from 2011 (which I dug up in order to prove to myself that this was the same person). In more than one photo we are side by side, arms wrapped around each other, smiling.
I remember having lunch or coffee with Sarah before I went to study abroad in Jerusalem my junior year, and we talked about our very different perspectives. She was Palestinian, and she told me that her family was unable to travel to Israel. I listened. How unfair, I thought at the time, that I’m about to board a flight to Tel Aviv, when her family members aren’t even allowed to go visit their place of birth. We left the meal—and the conversation—without raising our voices. Without saying “fuck you” or “burn in hell.”
I haven’t talked to Sarah in twelve years. I don’t know how she went from the girl I performed with at Kresge Hall, ranting about feminism and consent—typical college-aged defiance and edge—to standing on a street corner, tearing apart pictures of kidnapped Israelis and flinging them to the ground like a dirty tissue. In her online bio it says that she has a master’s in social work from University of Chicago and that she is working to better her community through “internal, interpersonal, and systems change.” It also says that she is “dedicated to supporting queer and trans youth as they learn to love themselves, radically and unapologetically, and gain a healthier understanding of their resilience and power.” (Sarah perhaps doesn’t know that queerness can get you arrested, and far worse, in Gaza.) On a “30 Under 30” award she won a few years ago, she describes herself as a prison abolitionist, a therapist, a social worker, a sexual assault crisis counselor, a teaching artist, a resource advocate, and a performer in participatory educational theater.
It is painfully ironic that the one thing you don’t need an advanced degree or elitist jargon for—you know, standing against the kidnapping of innocent children—is the one thing this “queer, gender-fluid femme of color,” as she labels herself, is utterly unable to grasp. It may well be that those advanced degrees are precisely what has emboldened her to commit such acts in the name of progress or power or resilience or resistance.
I’ve watched the video over a dozen times. It is unbearable to think that I was friends with this person.
But I was. I know this person. I knew her. She was not an antisemite. She was not a sadist. And so, with the splinter of hope I have left, I wrote a long text message to the number I have saved in my phone from so long ago. I asked why she thought, as she wrote on a now-private (or deleted) Instagram post, that these posters are “propaganda.” I told her, calmly, that these are real people and real children. And on the other side of those posters are real mothers and real fathers and real brothers and real sisters who are living in agony waiting for any sign that their loved ones are alive.
I ended with this: “The only purpose of this message is to explain my people’s very real suffering and pain, and hope that it touches or resonates with you in some way. I hope it makes you reconsider ripping down any more posters in the city.” And finally: “None of what I’ve written takes away from Palestinian suffering. I cry for everyone.”
If she got the message, she hasn’t answered me yet.
Before bed the other night, my daughter asked me if I knew what was going on in Israel.
“I do,” I told her. “Do you?”
“Yes,” she said with confidence. She continued, “But will the bad guys come here to Atlanta?”
“Never,” I told her.
“How come?” she pushed. Before I could answer, she came up with her own: “Because we lock our doors, right? So they could never get in?”
“That’s right,” I told her. I didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth.
When she’s older, however, I will tell her this: if anyone stole my kids from their beds, I would go to the ends of the earth to bring them home, including—at a very minimum—putting up posters on every damn block in America.
My former friend says she is dedicating her life to bettering the world, to justice. Yet she proudly rips the faces of captured children and calls them dogs. Because they’re Jews. Tonight I will linger a little longer when I kiss my daughter and son goodnight.
Candace Mittel Kahn is the executive producer of Honestly and audio projects at The Free Press.
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