Courtesy Meislin Projects, NY
I live in an old apartment building in the heart of Tel Aviv that was built in 1946. Two years prior to when the State of Israel was founded. We don’t have a saferoom in the building because back then, no architect had “rooms that should be protected against missiles” in mind. That is why, when there’s a siren, I squeeze myself with all of my neighbors in the building’s stairwell and hope to hear the “boom” of Iron Dome, rather than the other “boom,” the one we will hear if the missile falls on our building or anywhere near it. That would also be the last thing we would ever hear because this stairwell, with its cracks and decrepit walls, can’t really protect us. So why do we all go there? I think we just want to be together.
The downstairs neighbor arrives at the stairwell with his dog, a mixed-breed thing with incredibly innocent little eyes, who is immediately greeted with pettings from the group and who looks pretty happy. We smile at him, like at a child, trying to shield him from the horror, the depression, and worst of all—the ever-growing indifference. As if this war is fate from the heavens and not the doings of man. The upstairs neighbor, an elderly woman, is the only one who doesn’t bother petting the dog. She’s having a panic attack. I guess all this reminds her of something. I don’t know what, and truth be told, I’m scared to ask.
The neighbor who lives across from me hugs her daughter tight. A gothic teenager, 19 years old, whom I have known since the day she was born. Meaning, the pre-gothic era. Like the rest of her friends, that girl was also planning to go to the Nova music festival in Kibbutz Reim on Oct. 7. But she had a headache that night and decided not to go. Early morning, she got up feeling better, so she decided to join her friends who were still dancing. This is one of these festivals which goes on all night and then a few good hours later. An event that joins together people from all types, all ages—they are all equal in the face of music. My neighbor’s daughter got in the car with a cheerful spirit, but 15 minutes into the ride, she realized her shoes were unfit for dancing and came back home to change them. At the same time, Hamas had already started slaughtering her friends. Innocent civilians, not soldiers, not generals, not even politicians. Since that Saturday, she goes from funeral to funeral, and when she gets home and I meet her at the stairwell, she seems like a miracle to me.
I’m mad at all of the men in the world. At every politician, anyone who knows how to use a weapon, I’m mad at myself because I know very well that one day, this war will end, as wars have tended to do from the dawn of history, and we who survived will sit in coffee shops, read books, go to the theater, dance at parties. I hate that other me who laughs with his friends, that me who’s alive and talks and talks as if he knows anything about anything—that me looks to this me like a complete idiot. How can I laugh when those who danced at that party were slaughtered? When those kibbutzniks, those left-wing socialists who had built their homes inside Israel’s land, not the settlements, were murdered on a Saturday morning, and their blood was absorbed into the earth that they lovingly worked day after day?
A murder of one of the women was filmed and sent to the victim’s mother through her phone. I tell myself that can’t be real. It’s too much. Someone made it up. Did the terrorists really go through her contacts looking for Mom and then send that video? I decide not to believe that story. Like I do with the story of the terrorist who murdered a man and then stole his credit card and immediately started using it. Who goes shopping in the middle of a massacre? And the terrorist who deleted a kidnapped boy’s TikTok account, leaving only one message: goodbye. Or the terrorists who put guns to teenagers’ heads and forced them to knock on other people’s locked saferooms and shout, “Open up, it’s us!” only for the terrorists to butcher all those who were inside? It can’t be real, I tell myself; it can’t be real. But it was real. That’s precisely what happened.
A politician is giving a speech on my TV, and I can’t tell what side he’s on. I pay close attention and understand nothing. I, the polyglot who speaks five languages, can’t understand any language anymore. I can’t get out of bed for a couple of days. My son sees me, and I feel ashamed of myself. A friend from Italy tells me that they say on their news that the terrible Hamas videos are staged and that they did not, in fact, kill kids. But they did. I get up. Rage gets me up. Rage has that force. I write essays and do interviews in Italian. For that purpose, I learned new words that I did not yet learn—wounded, kidnapped, murdered. feriti, rapiti, assassinate.
I hug my boy and whisper—I love you. I’m so happy you’re here. He shakes me off because he understands what I’m actually saying: I love you. I’m so happy you’re not abducted, that you’re not tied up in a tunnel in Gaza, that you’re not being tortured and abused.
I take pictures of our apartment in case a missile falls, so we’d have some souvenirs. I look at the many shelves occupied by books, and for the first time in my life, I think to myself: Kindle. But I don’t read anything these days, so what the hell. All books seem absurd to me. Redundant. Except for Primo Levi. And Varlam Shalamov. And a few others. But only the ones who wrote the truth. Those with an imagination? In the trash. With me first in line. I am agonized by survivor’s guilt. Why is his mother abducted while mine is at home? Why is a 2-year-old girl in a tunnel in Gaza while I’m sitting in front of a screen, writing an article for a New York magazine? How disgustingly rude of me. What a nauseating play of fate! My soul is frozen inside my body, as if trying to make no noise, as if afraid of being caught.
We’re going to stay with my parents. They have a saferoom. When there’s a siren, we all run inside, except for my dad. He continues smoking in front of the television. He, with his roots that are seeded so deep inside this land, is not one to run because of any missile.
My family on my father’s side was deported from Spain in 1492. That year, Columbus arrived in America and they arrived in the Holy Land. For hundreds of years, my family lived here in Shfar’am, Zippori, Tiberias, and eventually in Tel Aviv. They lived peacefully among their neighbors in this land. My great-grandfather spoke flawless Arabic and even worked as a translator. Our roots are seeded deep inside this land, but we have always believed that no piece of land is worth even a single drop of blood. And no stone is holier than a human life.
Over the past few years, I have noticed that there are days when I wake up feeling like a citizen of the world, free of any nationality. Sometimes I wake up a “Tel-Avivian,” sometimes I’m that wandering Jew, once I woke up an antisemite (yes, there are those days). One of the typical hallmarks of the modern liberal intellectual is self-loathing. Read Michel Houellebecq. On Oct. 7, I was supposed to wake up to a particularly festive Saturday. Three of my plays were to be performed that day. The treasure under the bridge, a modern adaptation of an ancient legend (which was meant to be presented twice that Saturday), The Drop Out, a sad-but-funny political satire about masculinity in the Middle East, and lastly, the premiere of the new cast in a show that is the most important project I have ever made, Anybody Here? It is the story of five teenagers who are hospitalized in a mental ward and of the healing power of the theater. Instead, I woke up to the breaking news that began on Oct. 7 and that is still going on today.
During this time—that is, during the weeks that have passed since then—I’m not so sure who I am anymore.
I was at the square where Rabin was murdered by a right-wing Jew in 1995. Everything was different back then. I had long hair—I had hair dammit. I was singing songs about peace when three gunshots stopped everything. We all knew: Our country isn’t going to be the same. I know the same thing today. Israel will never be the same.
I can’t hear the word “winning” anymore. It sounds vulgar to me. In my novel Souls, there’s a sentence: “In war—the only winners are those who stayed alive, the dead are the losers, no matter which side they died for.”
This story has too much Elohim, too much Allah, and far too much bloodshed. If you look at the pictures that appear on your news, I don’t know if you can tell who’s Israeli and who’s Palestinian. We look like kin, like brothers. On the other hand, Cain and Abel were also brothers.
Oh, I see the guys from campus got here. Shalom and Salam to you all. You may be surprised, but I am also in favor of the liberation of Palestine from the Israeli occupation. All my life I have believed that the Palestinians deserve their own country. I recognize the injustices done by my country, and I think we must dismantle the settlements and make further far-reaching concessions. But I also believe in Israel’s right to exist as a state.
By the way, if you’re already here, I’d like to be precise—do you intend to free Palestine from Hamas as well? Because in my opinion, if you are in favor of equal rights you should be against Hamas. If you are parents of children you should be against Hamas. If you are women you should be against Hamas, if you are LGBTQ+, you should be against Hamas. And if you believe in God, Allah or Jesus you should be against Hamas.
I pray for the beginning of a political process, but I guess that all of us, Israelis and Palestinians, need first to overthrow the existing governments and put new people in power. I myself am ready to clean the dust from the guillotines for the leaders of all the parties. But it is impossible to imagine a political process with Hamas. It is a bit difficult to talk about peace with someone who just murdered and kidnapped babies and women and elderly people while celebrating it online.
Since that Black Saturday, the dimensions of the horror have been revealed more and more. As of writing these lines the number of those murdered is at least 1,200 people and the number abducted is 241. The population of Israel is just under 10 million. Do the math yourself, making the adjustment for your own country.
Yoni Asher found out from a satanic video uploaded by Hamas that his wife had been kidnapped to Gaza with his two daughters, aged 4 and 2. A 2-year-old girl! Alma Ravitz, 84-years-old, mother of a theater actor I know, was kidnapped to Gaza. 84-year-old woman! The parents of Inbar Hayman, who was dancing at the party, saw her being dragged off by four terrorists. I read an interview of a woman begging to draw sperm from her dead husband so they could have children. Endless horrific stories.
There are also personal stories of people I know: Roy Idan, a photographer, a cousin of my best friend, was murdered with his wife in front of their small children who survived only because they hid in a closet. They were there for over 10 hours until the IDF soldiers reached them. A friend’s cousin who nursed the wounded for hours and was shot to death. There is also a closer case that I am not writing here, because I don’t have the strength to see the letters come together and tell the story of this disaster. All my life I’ve believed in letters, and I don’t want to be scared of them. I’m scared enough anyway. I find hope knowing that the Jewish people will perform the trick we do best—and rise from the ashes.
The entire country is a part of this. You hear stories about the thousands of Israelis who are doing all they can to help—blood donations for the wounded, donations of clothes and books and even, how terrible, donations of breast milk for babies whose parents were murdered. I read to the children from my translation of Winnie the Pooh but not the chapter where they kidnap baby Roo from Kanga. When I get to this chapter, I feel my blood run cold. Conversations with friends at 2 a.m., at 4 a.m., have become commonplace. We have nothing to say and yet we call.
My friend Neta, a young and talented actress, has been since the beginning of the war in a hotel at the Dead Sea where the survivors of the massacre in the south were evacuated. She does holy work, with an energy that I do not find in me, she supports boys and girls who lost their childhood for good, and I ask myself—who will support her after the war? A whole country traumatized.
“There are also children in Gaza who die as a result of Israeli bombs, don’t you know that? Don’t you feel pain for them?”
I know. It hurts me endlessly. I feel pain for all the innocents who died, are dying and unfortunately will die in this war. I also think about the young people from Gaza that I had the opportunity to get to know in my youth. Where are they today? It is too scary to imagine.
When I was 16 years old I was part of meetings between young people from Israel and young people from Gaza. These were meetings for peace. We ate hummus, talked about our role in the society, argued, laughed, kept silent. The silences were louder than the arguments. We dreamed of a different future. But we were defeated by the extremists on both sides. I blame myself. I blame all of us. We didn’t do enough. Writing political plays is not enough. Demonstrating against the current Israeli government is not enough. For a whole year I went to demonstrations against Bibi Netanyahu and the messianic, extremist, chauvinist government he established. I tore my throat out and shouted: We want democracy! Israel is not a dictatorship! But it wasn’t enough.
The Palestinian side didn’t do enough either, but let them judge themselves, let history judge them for their decisions, for their distorted use of the funds they received from the world, for all the opportunities they missed on the way to peace and for choosing Hamas to represent them. A terrorist organization that started a war that Saturday. A war that could turn into an all-out war in the Middle East, and with the situation things are in today, possibly a third world war. Who knows, maybe you who are reading this now will find yourself someday soon on barricades, protecting your parents and your children. So ask yourself and try to answer honestly: Have you done enough?
In In the Tunnel, a political satire I wrote, Hisham from Gaza says: “In war there is no such thing as neutral, neutral means indifferent.” When I look for a small light at the end of my private tunnel I think about literature, about the intimate meeting between the writer and the reader. In the silence that takes place in such a meeting you can try to talk about what you cannot express out loud at the moment—that is, about hope. And then I imagine going back to the theater hall, which for me has always been a synagogue, a church and a mosque all at once. That’s where my community is and that’s where we read sacred and profane texts together.
But all this is not for now. All this is for later. Maybe. Now is the time to bring back those who were kidnapped, immediately. That is the only thing that is on my mind.
Sometimes it seems that the whole world knows exactly how we should behave. Everyone explains, everyone advises, everyone acts as the responsible adults.The involvement of the world is more important than ever, the Middle East is desperate for help, but for real help, not arrogant fakery, not empty words, not moral preaching.
If I had to delete all the words from the dictionary today and leave only one word, I would not choose the word “peace,” because it seems empty now, nor the word “justice,” because it changes according to who says it. I would choose the word “empathy.” Even that one seems out of reach, but I want to believe that it’s not. That it’s still possible to achieve—just a bit of empathy.
Roy Chen is a writer, playwright, and translator. He is the author of the novels Great Uproar (2023) and Souls, translated into Italian, Russian, and now being translated into English. Since 2007, he has been the house playwright of Gesher Theater (Jaffa), where his plays are staged, including Anybody Here, In the Tunnel, The Odyssey, Floating Island, and more. He has translated classic works of fiction and over 40 plays from Russian, French, English, and Italian into Hebrew, and is the recipient of many awards including the Rosenblum Performing Arts Award by the city of Tel Aviv (2022), the Prime Minister’s Prize for Hebrew Literary Works (2022), and the Yitzhak Navon Ministry of Culture and Sports Award for the Preservation and Cultivation of Israeli Cultures (2017).