A Tooth for a Tooth

As I write this post, on Monday, October 23, just over two weeks have passed since the Hamas massacre of innocent civilians in Israel on October 7. The lights are still off in Gaza as is almost all power. Food and drinking water are scarce. Many Palestinians have moved to the southern part of Gaza as ordered, some staying with relatives, some with friends, some in shelters but most unaccounted for. As of this past weekend over 4,000 Palestinians in Gaza had been killed, the vast majority (3,400) civilians including over 1,400 children and almost 1,000 women.

Another 15,000 people had been injured, over half women and children. Some 42 percent of all the housing units in Gaza had been destroyed along with hospitals, mosques, schools and hospitals. According to eyewitness accounts, northern Gaza is nearing total annihilation. If you are keeping score, this compares to 1,400 Israelis killed and another 4,500 wounded by the Hamas soldiers in their surprise attack on Israel. At what point do you say, enough is enough. The score is even, the debt settled.

But at least 250 hostages remain captured and held by Hamas with their fate unknown. And Israel’s goal of destroying Hamas once and for all has not even really started. Israel has announced that this is just the beginning. Many thousand Israeli soldiers are assembled on the Gazan northern border prepared to attack at any moment and kill whoever is left in northern Gaza.

The question the world is asking is how does this horror movie end. Are we supposed to believe that all the innocent people have left northern Gaza, and the only people who remain are Hamas terrorists, that anything that moves is fair game? And for that matter, what is keeping the Hamas terrorists from moving to the southern part of Gaza? And how do you win guerilla warfare when the majority support the guerillas? How many more young Israeli lives will be lost in the hand-to-hand and sniper combat?

I suggested in my last blog post that the carefully planned attack was designed as a trap to get Israel to do such terrible things to the people living in Gaza that it would cause outrage on the world stage and cause the country to lose international support. Whether this was by design or not, it seems to be starting to happen; and if the invasion results in an even more severe humanitarian catastrophe as is likely to be the case, it will happen. So where does that leave Israel and where does it leave the United States?

So far, I give Biden and Blinken pretty high marks for sticking with our ally and also pushing hard for humanitarian relief. Food, water, and medical supplies are slowly starting to move into Gaza via Egypt, but how far will they go compared to the enormous need? And the question is still out there: How will this horror movie end?

An Eye for an Eye

One week ago on October 7, 2023, a surprise invasion of Israel by Hamas soldiers in Gaza resulted in deaths of 1,300 innocent civilians, which included beheadings of children and other horrific acts of murder, rape, and torture, leaving another 3,400 Israelis   wounded, many seriously. Twenty-seven Americans were among the dead. Between two and three thousand Hamas soldiers participated in the surprise attack.  I have not found any definitive information as to how many Hamas soldiers were killed or arrested though it appears that there were few. Most got away, taking at least 150 hostages with them, including some Americans. Hamas is threatening to torture and kill one hostage a day and post the executions on social media.

Of course, most people know all of this since it has dominated the news for a week. The unanswered question is this: Why would anyone do this? It was a deliberate act of war and a war crime, which anyone would conclude would result in immediate retribution from Israel to punish Gaza for this unimaginable atrocity. And the retribution would likely be far more severe than the initial act of aggression by Hamas. This is the way things work in the Holy Land.

This is exactly what has happened. Israel immediately cut off Gaza from the electricity it provides to the country and the fuel it provides for generators. Food and water are now in short supply for two million people. Toilets don’t flush. Lights are out. Massive bombing attacks began immediately destroying buildings of all types throughout the county. One bombing destroyed the only access to Egypt, assuring that the two million residents of Gaza would have no escape route. A blockade has been in place for years around the ports. As of today—one week after the war began—Gaza says 1,900 of its people have been killed, mostly civilians, and 7,700 wounded. If this were an eye for an eye, you might conclude that the goal has been achieved since the casualties in Gaza today are higher than those caused by Hamas in Israel.

But that is not the way things work in the Holy Land.

The “real retribution” is just beginning. Israel has announced its stated goal is to destroy Hamas completely and to assure that something like this will never, ever happen again. They have called up almost 300,000 army reservists giving them a total force of around 500,000 soldiers compared to the Gaza force of 30,000. Israel’s air force and stockpile of weapons and rockets far exceed what Gaza has plus they have a nuclear arsenal. As the bombings continue unabated, thousands of troops and tanks are massing along Gaza’s northern border with Israel. A full scale border invasion is expected to happen within days—or hours!

One way of thinking about Israel’s retribution is that it is like killing an insect with a sledgehammer. The problem is the insect is sitting on a glass table.

Yesterday, Israel gave notice to the 1.1 million residents living in north Gaza that they had 24 hours to relocate to the southern part of the country. Hundreds of thousands are leaving their homes carrying what few belongings they can handle and walking south along streets blocked by wreckage from destroyed buildings. Virtually no transportation is available. The old, the disabled and the very young are stuck in north Gaza. And where will people go once they reach the southern part of Gaza? This tiny country (the size of Philadelphia) is one of the poorest and most densely populated countries in the world. Many have described it as a “hell hole,” others “the world’s largest prison.”

Israel has announced its goal is the “total and complete annihilation” of Hamas in Gaza, which sounds to many like the total annihilation of Gaza. About half the population of the country is under the age of fifteen. The Hamas army makes up only two percent of the population though a little over half of the populaton are Hamas sympathizers. The United Nations and several organizations involved in catastrophe relief have warned that if the course of action does not change, this could lead to one of the worst humanitarian disasters of all time and possibly could involve war crimes and crimes against humanity.

So, the question I raised earlier deserves a response—why did  Hamas do something like this? It seems insane. Certainly, Hamas must have known that Israel’s response would be far more than an eye for an eye. Certainly, they must have known that atrocities like this would require Israel to engage  in a fight to the finish that Hamas has no chance of winning.

My take on this is that knew exactly what they were doing. They were setting a trap for Israel. They were setting a trap that Israel will overreact so much that the initial sympathy for Israel will turn to scorn and hatred. They are betting that the Arab/Muslim world will unite, and that Hezbollah will attack Israel  from the north and other Arab or Muslim countries will come to their aid, making this an all-out war in the Holy Land. They are betting that Iran will have their back. They are betting that the peace initiatives between Israel and Saudi Arabia will be blocked. They are betting that Hamas has a better chance of leveling the playing field if the war becomes hand-to-hand combat in a guerilla style, hunt-and-kill war. The U.S. has seen this movie in Fallujah and Afghanistan. The endings were not happy ones for us.

And so far, Hamas would appear to be right. A half million people gathered in the main square in Baghdad yesterday to support Gaza and scorn Israel. Similar demonstrations happened in Beirut and Bahrain. Even in the U.S. at some elite colleges, students are speaking out against Israeli overreaction and are supporting the Palestinians.  If Israel continues to keep the lights and water off in Gaza and if it continues to blockade the country from getting food and supplies from ships, people will begin to die from starvation. Hospitals will be paralyzed, and the vast majority of causalities will be innocent civilians. If Israel continues to blow up buildings and obliterate neighborhoods, the number of deaths will skyrocket.  There is no question that it is going to get worse before it gets better. What will happen next?

If innocent Gaza citizens are spared massive casualties, then there may be a glimmer of hope. If not, the outcome could and probably would be  grim for all involved and for the planet Earth. The goal should be to find a pathway to avoid a worst case catastrophe. When you smash a mosquito on a glass table using a sledgehammer, the mosquito dies, but the glass shatters and goes everywhere.

Make no mistake: This is a big deal. The U.S., which appropriately wholeheartedly supports Israel as do many nations in the world, needs to help steer a path toward peace and humanitarian aid for the hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, who will be hurt the most. The alternative of total mass destruction of Gaza and it’s already destitute civilian population is unthinkable.

Old Age

Now that my “Human’s Quest for Meaning” lectures are almost over at All Souls Church, I am moving on, starting by posting some thoughts about old age, inspired by a light-hearted op ed column by Roger Rosenblatt in the October 1 issue of the New York Times. (“Old Age, It’s No Joke.”) It is true that for many octogenarians getting out of a taxi or a comfortable chair requires enormous skill and elaborate planning in advance and that the simple tasks of earlier years are now daunting for us codgers. Yet Mr. Rosenblatt does not deal with the most daunting task for some old people: trying to understand what on Earth other people are saying.

I am now 81 and will turn 82—his age– in exactly six months. I am not a newcomer to hearing loss. I got my first pair of hearing aids in 1997 when I was only 55. I probably inherited this problem from my father, who when he was my age often provided strange or weird answers to simple questions because unlike me, he rarely wore his hearing aids and had no idea what people were saying. It drove my mother crazy. I, on the other hand, have been a devoted and shameless hearing aid user for 25 years. The technology has gotten much better over the years but still has not been able to achieve the Holy Grail of solving the biggest hearing challenge—ambient noise. The hearing aid providers say they have made progress in this area. They haven’t.

Just like canoeists and kayakers who rate rapids by categories from Class 1 to 5 (with Class 5 meaning impossible passage for a canoe), every morning I think about the day’s activities and rate the conditions that I am likely to face that day. A one-on-one conversation in a quiet room is a Class 1. If I have my hearing aids on, no problem, even if the person is occasionally looking in the other direction when speaking. Embry, of course, might disagree, but like a novice canoeist gently paddling down a stream with small ripples and wavelets, I declare that this situation is relatively easy to handle. Two people, when they are talking to each other and to me sometimes are a Class 2, especially if there is low music or ambient noise in the background.  Also concerts with good amplification and acoustics fall into Class 2 along with moderate-sized dinner parties. Bottom line: I am fine with Class 1 and can get by pretty well in Class 2 situations. Class 3 is when the situation becomes a bit problematical. This includes lectures, presentations, and sermons (which are not always a loss to miss), unless I am seated at or very near the front. I can catch the gist of what is going on but often not much more. Some movies fall into Class 3 or worse if the acoustics are not good, which would cause them to fall into Class 4 along with plays, large dinner parties and conversations with groups of people where moderate ambient noise or music are present. Conventional phone conversations fall into Class 4, but fortunately with Blue Tooth the sound goes directly into my hearing aids. Class 5, however, is where the problems become insurmountable. And the challenge is there are lots of Class 5 situations, especially for an extrovert like me, who likes to be around people and engage in chit chat, to go to cocktail parties, to gatherings for morning coffee and conversation, and to enjoy eating at a good restaurant. At least I used to. However, a crowded restaurant with low ceilings with hard surfaces on the floor and the ceiling and with occupied tables close together is hopeless. I have no idea what anyone is saying. It is a Class 5 on steroids disaster. And, of course, the main culprit is always ambient noise.

So, what is an old codger like me (or anyone with a serious hearing problem) supposed to do? You can’t just keep on asking people to repeat themselves. If I had a dollar for every time I asked, “Pardon, could you say that again?” I would be, as they say, rich. You have to fake it. So, in situations where I am talking to people in a crowded room with ambient noise in a Class 5 environment, I try to read lips and study facial expressions. If they are smiling and look happy, I nod, smile, and say something like “yes” or “very interesting” or “glad to hear it.” If they suddenly look shocked or horrified, I immediately switch gears, blush, and say something like, “Oh, what I mean is I am very sorry.” Since in superficial conversations, most people usually reply to the question “How are you?” with the answer “Oh, I am doing fine” even if they aren’t doing fine, it usually works. But not always.

You have heard the pejorative term “deaf and dumb.” This is where the “dumb” part comes from. Hearing impaired people like me say dumb things because we have no idea what other persons are saying, do not want to ask them to repeat what they said too many times, and often have no choice other than just a guess. Mostly this works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

This happened to me at my 60th high school reunion in Nashville four years ago, just before Covid arrived. I went to a small, private boy’s school where over the years I have remained close to more than a half dozen classmates. In our class of 50 boys, I would guess more than half showed up with their wives for the main event, which was a cocktail dinner at the elegant home of one of our most successful classmates. The minute I entered the main room where drinks were being served, I knew I was in trouble. It was bedlam. The room was jam-packed with people hugging and laughing and celebrating our survival and our friendships after all these years. The ambient sound was an extreme Class 5. What to do? I did what I always do in situations like this: I faked it. I smiled, hugged, shook hands, and said again and again, “Great to see you, glad you are doing well, terrific news,” that sort of thing; and as the evening wore on, I concluded that I had managed pretty well though I had understood hardly a word that was said.

Two days later, after I got back to Washington, I got a call from one of my best friends whom I have remained very close to over the years and whom I could always count on for his gentle honesty.

“Well,” he said, “Joe, I am afraid I have bad news. You are the talk of the reunion. The word on the street is you have severe dementia. I got this from more than one person that what you said to them made absolutely no sense. Everyone thinks you have lost your mind.” He said he was asked not to mention any names.

“Oh, my goodness!” Then I recalled that some of my typical rosy responses to my fellow alumni had been met with a few shocked expressions and a couple of people just walked away.

Uh oh. Guessed wrong.

Here is how I imagined one of the conversations going:

“Hi, George, great to see you! How are you doing? It has been so many years!”

“Not good, Joe, but it is good to see you too. My wife died of a stoke just a couple of weeks ago and I am at a loss of what to do next.”

“Hey, that’s great news, George, so glad to hear it!”

I had at least two or three of those conversations where I suspected that my guess had been wrong, judging by the expressions on their faces. But what to do? The room was so noisy that I could not have heard their story if I had asked them to repeat it.

“Deaf and dumb,” that is me, but thankfully no dementia though some might have different views on that too.

“Old age, it’s no joke,” says Roger Rosenblatt in the New York Times. How right he is!