In recent weeks, the world has witnessed yet another painful chapter in the long-standing and deeply complex conflict between Palestine and Israel. The images of devastation, the stories of loss, and the sounds of sirens have filled our screens and our hearts. In times like these, Americans like me who are typically outspoken on important cultural issues find ourselves at a crossroads. We feel the urge to say something, but whatever we speak or type feels vapid and ill-conceived. In complicated geopolitical, ethnic, and religious conflicts like these that have gone on for years, it’s nearly impossible for us to comprehend the full magnitude of what is going on.
And this is why I personally feel that this moment is a time for many of us to remain silent—to spend our time listening instead of leading.
I was raised in a conservative, Christian, American town in the south. The church of my youth taught me that Muslims are radical, violent people who execute Christians in cold blood. This viewpoint was further cemented after the events of 9/11, which marked the rise of Islamophobia and the belief that we should fear Islam. At the same time, I was taught that Jews are the people who killed Jesus, who rejected their Messiah, and who now bear the curse of their rejection of Christ.
It wasn’t until I was in my twenties and started holding my beliefs under scrutiny that I realized how wrong these teachings were. Muslims are not violent. In fact, most Muslims are incredibly peaceful people, and Islam as a religion promotes principles of peace, tolerance, and compassion. As I began reading my Bible for myself instead of having it spoon-fed to me by a pastor with an agenda, I realized that Jews are not cursed or rejected by God. Even the New Testament emphasizes that the Jews are—and always will be—God’s chosen people, the natural branches. We, as Christians, are the ingrafted branches. Our own scriptures teach us that we get to be partakers with the Jews in the promises of God. We did not somehow pass them in the line.
It’s taken a long time to deconstruct these Islamophobic and anti-Semitic ideologies that were handed down to me by people I trusted. And if I’m being honest with myself, that work isn’t finished.
My immediate reaction to the news of the outbreak in Israel and Palestine was to fall in line with the I Stand With Israel battle cry that I was hearing from the media, from the church (who often seems to only have concern for Israel when it comes to Palestine), and from American celebrities’ Tweets.
I’m thankful that, over the years that I’ve worked to deconstruct the teachings of my youth, I’ve begun following outspoken advocates from all over the world and from diverse ethnic, religious, and geographic backgrounds. I decided to switch off the news and instead explore my social media feeds, looking specifically for posts from Israeli and Palestinian people who were speaking about the conflict as it unfolded.
I learned so much more than what was being fed to us over here in the states. How much more of the puzzle am I missing? How much of the pain, the anger, and the loss for both Israeli and Palestinian people have I not seen?
As I’ve learned more, I’ve realized that standing with one side or the other isn’t as black and white as the American media wants us to believe. The only truth that I am able, at least in some way, to wrap my head around is that innocent, unarmed people are dying on both sides. Both are burying their loved ones. Both are living in fear. Both are beholden to the actions of governments or groups that are making decisions for them and leaving them to suffer the consequences.
For me to speak about supporting one side or the other only serves to minimize the gravity of what is happening, and has been happening, in the Middle East since before I was born. I am woefully ignorant, as most of us living in America are. We are ignorant because that was the plan. That was the purpose. We were indoctrinated into beliefs that served an agenda we couldn’t see or understand. We aren’t responsible for what we were taught, but we are responsible for what we do from here.
I am not speaking about what is happening in Israel and Palestine because anything that would come out of my mouth would be ignorant, biased, and full of indoctrination that I still need to unpack. I will not pick a side. I will not minimize the plight of either group of people who are living with fear, grief, and mourning.
What I will do is offer empathy. I will pray for peace, safety, and security for all people. I will do my best to squash harmful stereotypes, bigotry, and hatred that I see as other people engage in the conversation. I will take seriously the responsibility to prevent the spread of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism as I watch these conversations unfold. I will be outspoken in defending the dignity and humanity of people who are suffering tremendously and who have little agency or control over what happens next.
Most importantly, I will listen. I will hold space for the people to speak who know more than I do. I will learn.
I understand that “I’m listening and learning” has become a trite phrase used by people who look like me to sidestep accountability, especially during times of our own political and humanitarian unrest here in the states. But in this moment, unless we have devoted years of study to the circumstances in the Middle East and understand the full context of what is going on, it really is best for us to be quiet. To let the experts and the people with feet on Israeli and Palestinian soil speak.
We need to listen. We need to unpack. We need to deconstruct. Then, perhaps one we have done all that, we can make a useful contribution to the conversation.
Until then, I will devote myself to listening, not leading.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.