It has been three months since Israel began its devastating campaign of violence against Palestinians. The world has watched, day in and day out, as Israel has killed, displaced, and traumatized an entire people. In this essay, Palestinian writer Sarah Aziza considers what the act of bearing witness to unrelenting atrocity means:
As long as Palestinians are alive to record and share their suffering, the duty and dilemma of witness will remain. As we look, we must be aware that our outpouring of emotion has its limits, and its own dynamics of power. Grief and anger are appropriate, but we must take care not to veer into solipsism, erasing the primary pain by supplanting it with our own. As the Mojave poet Natalie Diaz has observed, empathy is “seeing or hearing about something that’s happened to someone and . . . imagin[ing] how I would feel if it happened to me. It has nothing to do with them.” Or, put more succinctly by Solmaz Sharif—“Empathy means / laying yourself down / in someone else’s chalk lines / and snapping a photo.”
Rather, we—those outside of Palestine, watching events through a screen—ought to think of ourselves in relation to the legacy of the shaheed. Our work as witnesses is to be marked; we should not leave it unscathed. We must make an effort to stay with what we see, allowing ourselves to be cut. This wound is essential. Into this wound, imagination may pour—not to invade the other’s subjectivity, but to awaken awe at the depth, privacy, and singularity of each life. There, we might glimpse, if sidelong, how much of Gaza’s suffering we will never know. This is where real witness must begin: in mystery.
Perhaps the fundamental work of witness is the act of faith—an ethical and imaginative leap beyond what we can see. It is a sober reverence of, and a commitment to fight for, the always-unknowable other. This commitment does not require constant stoking by grisly, tragic reports. Rather than a feeling, witness is a position. It insists on embodiment, on sacrifice, mourning and resisting what is seen. The world after genocide must not, cannot, be the same. The witness is the one who holds the line of reality, identifying and refusing the lie of normalcy. Broken by what we see, we become rupture incarnate.