Between Guilt and Regret as the Sirens Sound in Tel Aviv (July Story Journal)

Guest writer: Angie Hsu* 
I did not want to come to work today. A combination of coming off the high of getting married five days ago, being surrounded by friends and family from all over the world and showered with their love and good vibes, and then this morning waking up to a siren that depleted me of all motivation to continue the day. I finally got to the office, where a co-worker smiled at me and said hi, I returned both the smile and the hi, and we parted. Two seconds later, she came up to me and said, “Ohhh, Angie. You’re not used to the booms, right?” Two immediate thoughts in my head. The first: Oh, damn. Do I really look that pathetic? How embarrassing. And the second: Yes, exactly. I am not used to them. Good, I do not want to look (or be) used to waking up to a siren as my morning alarm and the sound of rockets being intercepted by a massive piece of military equipment before hitting the city I live in.
These days, my first instinct is not to join a protest, to write something on Facebook, or really to write anything at all. Part of me feels embarrassed to say I default to wanting to go to sleep or stare out the window, or just partake in some solitary crying. After three years here, shouldn’t I be more seasoned? More capable of making jokes, toughening up, and being “productive” with my feelings (read: go to protests, post on Facebook, write on blogs)? I flip-flop between these feelings of being a “bad” activist in a moment of great injustice and suffering…and also these bizarre feelings of pride, that I have not been normalized to continue living normal life – brush teeth, drink tea, go to work – when war is here, when Palestinian and Israeli teenagers have been murdered, and when rockets are destroying lives as they fly back and forth.
I often struggle with feelings of guilt, living here. As a non-Jewish, non-Palestinian, Asian-American, feminist, mountain-loving woman, what am I do doing here? After 10 years with my Israeli partner, 5 years of visiting the region, and 3 residing in South Tel Aviv, I am pleased to say I have found peace with my decision to live here, learn Hebrew and Arabic, and work in a human rights organization. Every once in a while, I win a small victory when my guilt of being able to live here (and hold a A5 temporary residency visa, when others cannot) is checked by my self-reassurance that I am doing the right thing. Though, for the last few days, I have not been able to check my guilt.
We had a wonderful, personal, lively wedding on July 4th on our friends’ goat farm in the Galilee, following a week of family events, beach hangouts, 40 person dinners, floating in the Dead Sea, touring the four quarters of the Old City, simultaneous translation for my Chinese-speaking relatives, renting cars, buying SIM cards, and joyous reunions with guests from abroad. My point of describing all this? (Besides to emphasize that weddings require massive amounts of logistical planning) …I did not read the news. From roughly June 26 to July 6, I was vaugely informed of the unfolding and escalating political scene, and intentionally ignorant of the details. On purpose, I didn’t engage in political conversations with friends, especially around out of town guests, wanting to protect them (and let’s be honest: myself) from any anxiety and worrying.
Then July 7. After most of our guests left, I came to work for a half day, and knew – personally and professionally – I needed to get updated. And so I read article after article, in Hebrew and English, from local and international sources, including civilian videos, official statements, friends’ blogs, and co-workers’ e-mails. And then it hit: a wave of guilt, massive, overwhelming, suffocating. Who was grieving as I was dancing? How many lost their homes as I checked friends into their hip Airbnb rentals? How many children experienced life-impacting stress and trauma, as I braided my little nieces’ hair into braids?
I am frustrated by this guilt. On a rational level, I know I have done no fault, and so I am all the angrier that such a situation makes me feel selfish and self-involved. A few friends have encouraged me to look upon celebration, especially of love, as a means to counter the hatred, suspicion and tension in the air. And yet, it’s still there, my stubborn guilt. And it snowballs: How can I run when the siren sounds, when there are no sirens in Gaza? How can I sit in this comfortably air conditioned room? How can I live here?
Ironically, as I ask myself these questions, I don’t regret anything. I don’t regret choosing to build a life here, and I don’t regret having my wedding as planned. But still I feel heavy. And as I write this, I think perhaps that is the best I can do right now, to pay tribute to the values of justice and humanity I believe in. Maybe this is how I ensure that as the years pass, I do not begin to accept war and military operations as a “normal” part of Israeli life, of my life in Israel. I have stopped trying to legitimize my guilt, or to take action to somehow transform my guilt into something comforting and empowering. I am instead accepting it and naming it for what it is, a feeling that is honest, difficult, painful, helpless.
To me, there is a clear difference between regret and guilt, and I reject the first and accept the second. Definition: guilt is an emotional experience when a person realizes or believes that a moral standard has been violated and hence the individual bears a significant responsibility for that violation. In moments when I accept war as normal, or ignore facing the reality of it (however justifiable my reasons for doing so are, and I believe mine were last week), I believe I am violating my own moral standard, and thus it is my responsibility to recognize that violation. Feeling guilt is part of what drives me to reaffirm to myself that war is unacceptable, under any circumstances, and that it is my responsibility to fight the very human instinct of normalizing war as a means of coping with it.
So guilt, for me personally, is a symbol that perhaps I am doing at least one thing right: ensuring that no part of me, no matter how long I’m here, accepts war between Israeli and Palestinians as normal.
tel aviv
*Angie Hsu is a activist and feminist, and works at a Human Rights NGO in Tel Aviv. She is originally from Boulder, CO, received her Masters in Gender Studies from LSE and has been living in South Tel Aviv for the past three years. She is also a dear friend of mine.