Do you remember where you were during the September 11 attacks in the United States?
Do you remember where you were during the Holocaust?
Think now to how you relate to the victims of the 9/11 attacks compared to how you relate to the victims of the Holocaust.
If you are an American under the age of 60, it’s more likely that you knew someone, or knew someone who knew someone, that was personally impacted by the terrorist attacks of 9/11 than someone who was personally impacted by the Holocaust.
If you didn’t know someone affected personally by 9/11 you’re lucky, but perhaps you used to work in the World Trade Center, or you interned one summer at the Pentagon. Maybe you visited New York on a field trip once. Or your boyfriend had a friend who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald.
Or maybe you’re American and you watched the whole thing go down minute-by-minute on television.
Most likely, the tragedy of 9/11 is a lot more real to you than the Holocaust. And no matter how many times you see Schindler’s List or The Pianist; no matter how many times you try to wrap your mind around the horror of the Holocaust; and no matter how many times you try to imagine “what would I have done if that was me?”; it’s really challenging to personally connect to the tragedy.
Jewish or not.
It’s not a matter of compassion. It’s a matter of reality.
Philosophers, psychologists, scientists, and Zen masters have spent their entire lives, their entire careers, debating what’s real. Freud, Jung, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, the Dalai Lama.
But for those of us on the ground, what’s real is what we know.
The closer we get to knowing something or someone, the more real it becomes.
I became present to this very human phenomenon over the past few days as I processed two horrific tragedies — the terrorist attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria and the shooting of movie-goers in a theater in Aurora, Colorado.
I wrote soon after the attacks in Bulgaria that for the first time I felt personally frightened by an act of terror on Israelis. Whereas before, as a Jew living in the States (and as a human being), I had always felt sorrow and compassion when Israelis were killed in terror attacks, I never felt it in my gut the way I did on Wednesday.
Fellow olah, Marina Boykis, takes a little heat in the comments section of her post on the Times of Israel for expressing something similar. For her, the reality hit when she found out she knew personally a victim of the Bulgaria terror attack.
When you personally know a terror victim, the icky feelings stay long after their story has been told. The thoughts don’t leave you because you quickly understand that it could have been a family member or close friend. That it could have even been you and your boyfriend on the way to a long-awaited vacation.
Rebounding after a tragedy is deeply rooted in our human instinct for survival. But the closer to home a tragedy hits, the harder it is to rebound.
I felt equal amounts of horror in response to the two attacks this week, and yet I was painfully aware — on Facebook and on Twitter — that the majority of the people I know (mostly Americans), expressed greater public empathy for the victims of Aurora.
I understand this.
I understand how it’s easier to feel complete and utter horror when you hear that an innocent American citizen was gunned down simply because she wanted to catch the premiere of a Batman movie.
I understand how disturbing it is to hear about a seemingly random attack on seemingly normal folks in a movie theater in a suburb of Denver, Colorado.
Aurora is a suburb just like the one you live in. Those people were holding popcorn settling into a movie you saw the same night with your teenage son. The mourners look like you. They’re sobbing over their sister, their boyfriend, their wife: Alex, Matt, John, Jessica.
Not like the mourners in Israel crying over victims with foreign sounding names — Itzhik, Amir, Maor, Elior, Kochava. Names you can’t even pronounce.
Not like the victims of Israel’s tragedy — people who lived in towns a world away from where you live. Who were visiting a country you’ve never heard of, let alone considered vacationing in.
I understand this.
And, from the bottom of my heart, I don’t judge this.
But as someone who now understands Israeli reality (though not yet as well as I understand American reality), I am that much closer to understanding how the Israeli victims of terror were just like the Aurora victims of terror. They weren’t victims of war. They were innocent victims, plain and simple.
The Israeli victims were also doing something regular people do: They were on their summer vacation. They were giggling with excitement imagining the hot steamy sex they were about to have on their couples only romantic getaway — the first one since the baby was born. They couldn’t stop thanking their lucky stars they snagged such a great package deal complete with fruity drinks on the beach.
That morning, they had checked off all the items from their packing list before they left the house. Did they have their passport, camera, heart medication? They had printed out the “While We’re Away” list for the doting grandparents taking care of the baby. They had turned on their “out of the office” notification in Microsoft Outlook.
They’re as close to being real to me as the folks in Aurora.
I understand how my American friends may more easily relate to shooting victims in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater than to the victims of the terrorist attack on Israelis in Bulgaria
With my heart, I understand. And I pray that neither you nor I ever come close to experiencing the reality that is knowing someone who knows someone who has been the victim of a senseless attack on innocent victims.
With my heart, I pray neither ever becomes truly real.