photo by Cathal Mac an Bheatha

The Privilege of Vehemence and the Power of Grief

Julia Mossbridge, PhD
5 min readOct 19, 2023

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We have this curious way, many Americans, of thinking that there is one Correct Response to every situation. While it is acknowledged that tragic situations make this response trickier to find, the conviction is that the smartest among us can find it. The story goes that the first step to finding this Correct Response is to remove our emotional bias so we can see the objective truth of the matter. Once the blinders of emotion are removed and the objective truth is seen, the Correct Response to the tragedy will arise and vehement argument for the pursuit of this response will be justified.

Like many other Jews in recent days, and also like many Palestinians, I am experiencing the utter uselessness of these ideas. It’s not just that they are too simple to actually be useful. At least, that’s not the first thing that’s useless about them. The first thing is that these ideas are useless when it comes to real action after a tragedy. Putting aside emotion cannot be successfully pursued by human beings. Least of all those who are immersed in grief, loss, and rage — the very feelings that are evoked in anyone involved in a tragedy.

Even when we’re not in personal touch with tragedy, humans are always coming from some emotional state. So instead of pursuing this unworkable idea of putting aside emotional bias — something that psychologists know is actually impossible for anyone at any time — I have been thinking about which emotional states are most useful for discerning what to do in response to a tragedy. While I think my ideas are related to any tragedy, right now I am thinking a lot about the Israel-Hamas conflict.

On the left, especially among white, well-educated non-Jews/non-Palestinians, I’ve been hearing a lot of vehemence — the angry conviction that Israel had this attack coming because of its oppression of Palestinians. From the same group of people but more right-leaning, I’ve been hearing the same level of vehemence about an opposing idea — the angry conviction that Hamas and Islamic Jihadists represent all Palestinians, who wish to destroy Israel.

It seems to me that people who are less involved emotionally in the tragedy have the privilege of feeling certainty about their anger and the correctness of their responses. They are one step removed and therefore have the luxury of feeling that there is a Correct Response at all — and that they are just to advocate for it.

I wondered for a bit whether the emotional remove of vehemence makes people better able to discern a correct or useful response; but it doesn’t. The emotional remove can be helpful, though it’s usually false or incomplete. But the real problem is the intensity of the conviction. No one can discern anything if they already think they know everything. There’s nothing to discern.

Another set of people I hear from are indigenous people, black and brown people, non-college educated people, Jews, and Palestinians. Many of us seem to be operating in this situation from the closeness of grief. Grief is emotionally immersive and leads toward acceptance of the complexity of what is happening; what has happened. As a result it cannot be self-righteous or certain. It stays close to the truth, which is a state of unknowing. The student mind.

From the position of the vehement, grief seems weak and useless. But the power of grief is that it both honest and clarifying. Grief acknowledges a specific tragedy is real. It sees and feels the lost potential of lives, the lost possible peace. And because it arises from love, when we really allow it to move through us, grief turns our discernment toward the good.

What possible action can come from grief? I’ll tell you what I have experienced in the past week, from the personal to the political. Friends and family of mine have called to comfort each other, check on one another, and share our grief and pain. This helps more than anything. I was touched to find out that some black folks from a local church showed up at a friend’s synagogue to ask how they can help support Jews, who have previously supported them in their grief. About five American rabbis I personally know have given sermons or published something for the American Jewish community speaking to the grief and complexity of the tragedy — and pleading for discernment and hope in the world’s response to it. And soon after the conflict began, a Jewish friend who is a high school history teacher shared with me how her class of mainly Palestinian and some Jewish students in a wealthy Chicago suburb used their grief to imagine how to create a jointly-run orphanage for young Palestinians and Jews in Israel whose parents were killed in the conflict.

In America we are now used to a polarizing culture of vehemence, but this vehemence comes from the privilege of distance from tragedies themselves. Thinking back to 9/11, those of us who were connected to grief were not capable of vehemence or certainty — though premature grief-driven rage was definitely present. We made many mistakes with our response to 9/11 that I think derived from not taking time to let grief bring forward its full power. With our retrospective wisdom, I am hoping we can better appreciate the full power of grief in this at least partially parallel situation for Israelis and Palestinians.

I imagine international support for a week-long cease-fire to allow grief to do its work. I imagine the cease-fire could be intensely guarded and intentionally designed to offer humanitarian aid to everyone who needs it while it protects an unarmed gathering of Jewish and Palestinian grievers who are supported with psychologists, doctors, and translators. Even if only possible in a metaphorical sense, I imagine what good could emerge if those central to the conflict now — the people grieving the most — could be held in love as they wail, rock, and sing with those with whom they share so much in common.

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Julia Mossbridge, PhD

Acting CEO LightRoot Quantum, Affiliate Prof., Dept. of Physics and Biophysics at U. San Diego; Board Chair, The Institute for Love and Time (TILT)