One of my closest friends in Canada asked me today what happened. He is Palestinian and we’ve been doing emotional check-ins every other day.
“What do you mean? What happened where?”
“Like, that day. What happened in Israel?”
The question stunted me. It’s been two weeks since that bloody Saturday. The massacres Hamas perpetrated have been on every news network, discussed up and down on every talk show. His union issued a statement. Every institution in Canada has issued a statement.
“You mean what happened on October 7th??”
“Yeah. I’m not sure what to believe and there’s so much misinformation. It doesn’t come up on my social media, and everyone I’m talking to doesn’t talk about it. I just wanted to know what happened.”
I tell him what I know about the ground and air invasion Hamas fighters launched.
About the villages where they hunkered down and went door to door killing everyone. About the bus stop with a pile of dead pensioners who were on their way to a Dead Sea seniors tour but heard a siren and stopped the bus to seek shelter from what they thought was a rocket. When Hamas fighters found them they machine gunned them all.
“How do you know that? Like how do you know that happened?” he asked.
I’ve spent half my career working as a journalist in Israel and Palestine. It had never occurred to me that Palestinians have been so misrepresented by the press that they’ve given up on corporate media altogether. The truth is that I don’t usually look at the mainstream news either. Most networks haven’t had the funds to keep bureaus open ever since the Internet bankrupted news media, so most publications decide on what’s news by picking various notices from the Associated Press and Reuters. Usually they look at what other networks chose to be newsworthy that day and repeat that. AP and Reuters, however, hire local or parachute journalists and they have a lot to lose if they get the story wrong.
“So that’s how you know?”
“Well, I start with AP and Reuters, then I check the Hebrew press - Kan, Ha’aretz, Channel 12, Channel 13 and get the Israeli side of the story. I look at Al Jazeera but mostly, I follow a few great journalists. People I know and trust. Many of them write and photograph for 972 Magazine, a Palestinian-Israeli publication. I follow Oren Ziv from ActiveStills, Motaz Azaiza, Ohad Zwigenberg, Lana Shaheen, Amjad Iraqi, Ilia Yefimovich, Yousef al Helou…”
An Israeli-Soviet relative sends me videos from ad-ridden Russian websites. Videos that show “without a shadow of a doubt that Gazans bombed their own hospital” she asserts. She writes me long paragraphs in dozens of texts about the barbarity of Hamas. How it’s a monster of pure evil. How it sacrifices its own children.
An American friend plays global geopolitical chess with me over Messenger, trying to pinpoint whether it’s the possibility of an Israeli-Saudi peace deal that Hamas tried to sabotage with their attack. He speculates that was orchestrated by Russia in order to drag the West into another front. He wants my take on the Hezbollah-Iran alliance and what the Syrians stand to gain by inserting themselves into this mess.
I think about Stanley Cohen. He was born a white Jewish man in South Africa and dug his way out of the denial that kept Apartheid in place. He spent 12 years in Israel and ended up writing the book that launched the field of study of Collective Denial. I imagine the Op-ed he would write and I wonder how we can speak about the sneaky ways collective denial forms at a time like this. I’ve spent my entire career trying to understand it. First as an activist then as a journalist, then as a documentary filmmaker, and now a PhD-writing (reluctant) scholar. Misinformation, echo-chambering, and institutional lying are obvious aspects of Official Denial but it is so much more insidious than that.
The thing about denial is that it is not ignorance. If you don’t know, you don’t know. Denial is this murky thing of knowing and not knowing at the same time. Whether you are a bystander, perpetrator, victim or their supporter, at its root, denial is the manifestation of all these little mechanisms that slip knowledge that is too unbearable to hold consciously, into less accessible parts of the mind. Collective denial is when we do it together. When we dehumanize, theorize, ignore, and silence. It includes how we understand, feel, perceive and explain the world to ourselves and to each other. How we manage to put aside seemingly foundational values when they force us to face something too difficult. We do this because we’re afraid we can’t bear it.
But we can. We have done harder things.
We can hold space. We can excavate multiple truths from the dark corners we have banished them to and we can speak honestly. We can ask “what happened?” and “how do you know.” We can keep checking in emotionally and loving beyond identities. As souls. I promise you, it is easier.
Fig 2. Sutton, Barbara and Kari Marie Norgaard. “Cultures of Denial: Avoiding Knowledge of State Violations of Human Rights in Argentina and the United States†.” Sociological Forum 28 (2013): 495-524.