The Gates of Gaza: An Interview with Lihi Ben Shitrit

Out now in hardback, paperback and eBook, Volume 4 of De Gruyter Disruptions reminds us that an eye for an eye leaves us all blind. Lihi Ben Shitrit gathers dissenting voices from within her country, both Jewish and Arab, as they grapple with the October 7 attacks and the subsequent military retaliation – and try to find ways forward together.

Over the past eight months, we’ve witnessed immense suffering among civilians in Israel and Palestine, amid deep polarization and a crisis of global leadership. Support for a devastating military retaliation and resolution in Gaza took center stage in the wake of the horrific attacks of October 7, but within Israel, numerous critical voices question the sustainability of such approaches. They advocate the principles of morality, legality and common sense as the real keys to a lasting solution.

On October 8, Israeli scholar Lihi Ben Shitrit immediately set out to document dissenting voices from Israel, asking how we came to this disastrous war, and whether we can find grounds for hope and reconciliation in the future. The result is The Gates of Gaza.

On the occasion of its release, we spoke with Ben Shitrit about the difficult series of events that prompted the book, the challenges of thinking and writing in the midst of violent conflict, and the urgent need for dialogue in the current climate of polarization.

De Gruyter: To start things off, why did you decide to publish this essay collection?

Lihi Ben Shitrit: On October 8, 2023, I was scheduled to give a public talk at 92NY, a Jewish public cultural institution here in New York, about the judicial overhaul in Israel. Waking up on October 7, the news is coming in and it’s horrific. It’s like nothing that I or any Israeli have ever experienced. I’m in shock and I think that we’ll cancel the talk.

But then the organizers say: “Let’s do the panel, but let’s talk about what’s happening right now.” When I was asked what needed to be done, the first thing I said – on October 8 – was “ceasefire.” A prisoners’ exchange deal to bring all the hostages back. At that point, there were around 240 hostages, though we only knew of 100. I said, “this is the number one priority, right?” Also, in terms of leadership: It’s the government that’s responsible for the biggest intelligence failure, security failure and tragedy in the history of the state. Clearly, it’s the government – in its current composition full of far-right extremists with very little military experience – that failed.

“It’s a zero-sum game, with a lot of violence involved in the discourse and in the mutual silencing and shouting between these two extremes.”

I said those things because that’s exactly what I thought. I also said that I’m worried not just about the hostages, but also about the people in Gaza who may not live to see the next day and their families. It’s one of the most crowded places on Earth, and extremely poor. It’s been under siege for over a decade.

As the days and weeks passed, I realized that the things I was saying, which to me seemed common sense, were in fact very controversial. Even the word ceasefire was considered political and polarizing. Everybody seemed to be forced to take a side. You’re either for Israel, or for Palestine. Those two attachments are mutually exclusive of each other. It’s a zero-sum game, with a lot of violence involved in the discourse and in the mutual silencing and shouting between these two extremes.

I felt that the United States public, perhaps also in Europe, mostly heard official voices from the Israeli government or from people who were speaking its line. I thought it was really important to hear other voices from Israel, voices that have been critical of the government before and are critical of the government now; dissenting in terms of what should be done next. That was the motivation for The Gates of Gaza. I started reaching out to all these amazingly smart and clear-headed people that I know and asked them, “can you write something for me?”

I didn’t specify what: It could be scholarly, it could be unmediated reactions to what’s happening now, or an explanation of how we got here. I also asked them if they could find it within themselves to write about the future and about hope, because I thought we really needed it in that moment. That’s how the book came together.

DG: How did you go about assembling the book? What were the challenges of drawing together so many contributors in this immediate context?

LBS: It was very immediate – I found myself in shock after October 7, in trauma because so many people that I knew back home in Israel had been affected. I also have Palestinian friends and Palestinian colleagues who were affected from the other side. It was so unprecedented that you didn’t really know what to do. I felt like I couldn’t even do my job. I was paralyzed.

For all of us involved, The Gates of Gaza was a way of getting back to what we do: Thinking critically and speaking to current events with the wider view that we have as scholars and intellectuals. The contributors are all people that I know or people who I read and whose perspectives I really appreciated. I reached out to many more people than the ones that ended up contributing. Many of them said, no, I can’t write. I don’t even know what I think, or whether I can put things together coherently. I respected that. Other people said no before changing their mind. You know what? I’m going to try. This was the first thing that many of the authors had written since October 7. It was a way to get back to thinking clearly.

But a lot of people found it difficult to write in that moment. And that’s why the chapters that you see in the book go from several days after October 7 to several months – it took different people different amount of time to try to process their thoughts. This project kept us going at a time when we were so disoriented, confused and really mourning October 7 and its aftermath: The war on Gaza that has been so devastating and unprecedented.

“More and more people in Israel are realizing that military action will not achieve the supposed goal of destroying Hamas and is in fact contrary to the goal of getting the hostages back alive.”

In Israel, you don’t really see what’s happening in Gaza because the Israeli media doesn’t show it. The authors and I felt that in the United States and Europe, Jewish public opinion and pro-Israel perspectives were also not seeing what’s happening in Gaza. It is important for them, I think, to hear Israeli voices saying that it’s okay to not be on board with the military operations and the way the war is being carried out in Gaza.

DG: What kind of outlets exist for these voices in Israel?

LBS: There are outlets like +972 Magazine and the liberal-democratic newspaper Haaretz, where many of the authors I worked with on this book usually contribute. There are think tanks like the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, or the Forum for Regional Thinking, which are mainly focused on the Israeli public.

Some of the pieces in this collection were originally written in Hebrew and published in Israel. Currently this is a minority discourse. The space is there, but it’s shrinking in the aftermath of October 7, and even before, with the government’s attempt to overhaul the judiciary and weaken democracy in Israel. I think it’s important for people abroad to hear and support these voices, this democratic discourse in Israel that is slowly becoming more difficult to sustain in opposition to the government. Israelis were in shock, but now we’re slowly seeing more demonstrations against the war and for a hostage deal. More and more people in Israel are realizing that military action will not achieve the supposed goal of destroying Hamas and is in fact contrary to the goal of getting the hostages back alive.

DG: You mention the proposed judicial reforms of 2023. When the Supreme Court officially overturned the law in January 2024, it was barely mentioned in international media. How have these events affected the situation in Israel?

LBS: It has come back to the fore now with the international legal proceedings against Israel, including the rulings of the International Court of Justice in The Hague and the International Criminal Court prosecutor’s request for arrest warrants for the leaders of Hamas, Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

The discourse is resurfacing on Israel’s need for a strong judicial system that can investigate itself, its political leadership, its military, and hold people accountable if they commit war crimes, crimes against humanity or other atrocities. The idea is that Israel needs a strong judiciary in order to communicate to the world that international legal intervention is not necessary. I don’t know if the international media is picking up on this agenda, but the importance of a strong and independent judiciary has returned to really dominate Israeli discourse right now.

“I wanted more clarity about the causes for why we found ourselves here. I wanted to know from people on the ground what they were experiencing. I wanted them to talk about the future and hope.”

DG: Going back to the book, you mentioned the chronological structure that reflects each author’s process of trying to think clearly and logically about what has happened since October 7. Can you elaborate on what readers can expect from The Gates of Gaza?

LBS: Thematically, I divided the book into three parts. “How Did We Get Here?” is a collection of essays that try to explain how we got to the events of October 7. The first chapter looks at the 30 years that have passed since the Oslo Agreement and the missed opportunities that paved the way to where we are right now. The following chapters focus on the last decade or so, with the premierships of Benjamin Netanyahu and his policies – towards Gaza, towards Hamas, towards the Palestinians – which also laid foundations for the events of October 7.

Then the next section is called “Notes from the War” and features a lot of unmediated responses to October 7 and its aftermath. These pieces follow as the war in Gaza unfolds and the magnitude of civilian losses in both Israel and Gaza is gradually exposed. It’s a chronicling of what’s happening on the ground.

“Going Forward” is the last section. It’s a view towards the future, asking questions of morality, legality and really focusing on how the war has been conducted. The last three chapters of this section focus on hope: Where can we find it in this moment that feels so hopeless?

This structure grew out of the questions I had after October 7. I wanted more clarity about the causes for why we found ourselves here. I wanted to know from people on the ground what they were experiencing. I wanted them to talk about the future and hope. As the chapters came in, I saw these questions come together as a structure for the book.

At the end there is also an epilogue written by Ali Al-Awar, a Palestinian whose family is in Gaza and who has lost many close family members during the war. He’s writing about what that feels like. He still maintains that the futures of Palestinians and Israelis are so entwined that they must find a way to live together after this. Even with his loss, he wants to live together and have a better future for his family and for Israeli families. I thought it was important to end with a Palestinian perspective that was not so prominent in the book itself, since the book collects voices from Israel (both Jews and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship). But I didn’t feel it was my place to curate Palestinian voices in this moment. I really feel that this should be the role of a Palestinian editor who makes space for these voices on strictly Palestinian terms.

DG: How did this book project differ from your usual work as an academic researcher? Did it require a different approach?

LBS: I felt this was more of a public intellectual project than an academic project where you have a research question, you collect data, you analyze it and then come up with a peer-reviewed academic article. That takes a lot of time – years – and can’t make immediate interventions in a public conversation. This was very, very different. I am so grateful to De Gruyter for taking this on because it required a fast turnaround. Acquisitions Editor Julia Brauch took it on, understanding why it was so important and urgent.

“We can’t just be intellectualizing everything all the time. We also need to acknowledge what it’s like to be a human being in the grip of so much pain.”

It’s very different from the normal academic work that I do, although some of the pieces are quite academic and have a lot of footnotes. We have legal scholars who talk about international law and the legal implications of the war. There’s Anwar Mhajne, who draws from her research on online cybersecurity and surveillance to talk about suppression tactics in Israel. Other chapters are essentially unmediated responses from scholars writing from the place of their basic human experience who ask, with compassion and critical thinking, what do we do when we are faced with something so traumatizing? One comes from my friend, Jessica Ausinheiler, who lost her two-year-old son in an accident. She writes, I know what it feels like to hold a dead baby in my hands. That pain is so much when it’s your baby. And when there are so many babies, and so many babies that are also from your so-called enemy’s side, it’s too much pain to hold. She’s saying this, I think, with a lot of compassion for all the people who can’t hold the pain of both sides. “The pain of one child is enough,” she writes.

To ask that people have empathy for the pain of so many others, it’s almost an inhuman request. And yet, she makes this request from her own personal experience, bearing down on the moment. It’s completely non-academic, but also very powerful. And it deserves to be in there too. We can’t just be intellectualizing everything all the time. We also need to acknowledge what it’s like to be a human being in the grip of so much pain.

DG: You’ve written for Forward about the protests at New York University, where you are Director of the Taub Center for Israel Studies. Going forward, where do you see your position as an academic? And what about academia in general, can it play a role in fostering a healthy dialogue around this conflict?

“As professors, we need to model for our students how we can have critical dialogue, where people disagree with each other in a respectful way.”

LBS: I think that’s a really good and also difficult question right now. I can see that both universities and students are thinking, what is our role? Universities are clearly sites where this issue has been contested and discussed. But while protests on campuses have kept our attention on the conflict, the protests themselves have also dominated the issue so that a lot of the public discourse is about universities and what happens in universities. It’s about the student protestors and the reactions of the administration. It’s about academic freedom and antisemitism and all these things that are happening on campus, almost overshadowing October 7 and the war in Gaza. I contributed to this by writing an op-ed about what’s happening in my university and in universities across the United States. But still this trend worries me a little.

I do think universities can play a constructive role. As professors, we need to model for our students how we can have critical dialogue, where people disagree with each other in a respectful way, discussing hard topics on which we have very strong opinions, while listening to and learning from each other.

I had a lot of criticism towards the protests at NYU and some of the slogans and tactics on display. I’ve also been upset by elements of antisemitism that exist at some – though not all – of these protests. But at the same time, I have appreciation and admiration for students who are willing to risk their academic career and reputation over something that they’re passionate about. I know that it means a lot to people in Palestine, when they see that people here care. Ali Al-Awar, my friend and a contributor to The Gates of Gaza, emailed me saying “please tell the students, thank you from people in Gaza, from my family, for caring and for not forgetting about what’s happening to us.”

So, I’m in a place where I’m trying to be very generous towards my colleagues, towards the students and towards the administration as well, which finds itself attacked from all directions – by students, faculty and by Congress, from both the left and the right. It’s a hard moment. What we really need is generosity, compassion and more listening, not less. Maybe academia can play a constructive role in bringing that disposition – listening to Israelis and to Palestinians when they need it the most. I think there is a role for the university there, and we’re trying to figure it out.

[Title image by DNY59/iStock/Getty Images Plus]

Lihi Ben Shitrit

Lihi Ben Shitrit is the director of the Taub Center for Israel Studies and the Henry Taub Associate Professor of Israel Studies at the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU. She is also an associate professor at the School of Public and International Affairs, University of Georgia. She is the author of Righteous Transgressions (Princeton, 2015) and Women and the Holy City (Cambridge, 2020). She holds a Ph.D, M.Phil, and M.A. in political science from Yale University and a B.A. in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University.

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