Two missed calls and a text from my dad.

When I call him back, he says, “Do not post anything about Palestine. Whatever you do, do not go to protests or write anything public.”

The student protests across the country against the mass bombing of Gaza were making news. It was October 2023 and the death toll of Palestinians was approaching the first 10,000, many women and children dying in their homes, schools, and hospitals. The world was mourning the deaths of more than 1,000 Israeli civilians killed in an unprecedentedly deadly raid by Hamas.

I had just taken my first faculty physician position at a large, academic teaching hospital. I spent the last 10 years studying and working with survivors of trauma and violence, and past few years volunteering to perform forensic medical evaluations for asylum seekers.

I have always been loud about my political opinions — particularly on issues of justice and human rights — yet my dad had never warned me before.

My parents grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution, when any perceived criticism of the government made you a public enemy punishable by your coworkers, school and neighbors. An estimated 1.5 million alleged dissidents died at the hands of riled up crowds, in labor camps or by suicide to escape relentless humiliation and persecution.

My maternal grandfather, or laoye, was a charismatic and brilliant 6-foot poet, volleyball player, polyglot, and assistant professor of Russian literature who liked to ride his racing bike to class.

In 1957, during Mao Zedong’s Anti-Rightist Campaign, my grandfather’s department called a meeting to charge his colleague, a professor Wang, as a “Rightist Counter-Revolutionary.″ The young assistant professor was not invited. He had critiqued the Communist government in an staff meeting during a period Mao had called for open feedback by intellectuals and educated people around the nation. However, months later, these people who spoke up were labeled as detractors and rounded up for execution or re-education through hard labor.

During this meeting, my usually reticent grandfather was the only person who defended Wang’s good intentions in a silent room. Soon after, my grandfather was also pronounced to be a rightist and sentenced to re-education as a high school janitor. He was not allowed to return to the university until 25 years later, after the Cultural Revolution had ended.

I knew why my dad was worried. Since our family immigrated to the U.S. in 2000, none of us have ever witnessed this current level of fear of holding a political opinion, especially when it is in support of humane treatment of a people.

Around the country, prominent academic institutions such as Harvard, the University of California and the University of Pennsylvania circulated statements after Oct. 7 expressing compassion for the Israeli civilians and condemning violence against them, as they should. Health systems and organizations around the country issued similar internal statements that were shared amongst colleagues and friends.

However, there have been few analogous condemnations against the ongoing mass killing of Palestinian civilians or calls for a ceasefire.

The term “progressive except Palestine” refers to when people and organizations who usually stand for justice and equity remain silent on the oppression of Palestinians in Israel and occupied Palestinian territories.

This is despite the systematic oppression many human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Israel-based B’Tselem have called apartheid.

The silence is deafening.

In December, a University of Maryland and Georgetown University poll of Middle Eastern academics in the U.S. found that, of scholars who felt they had to censor themselves, the vast majority — 81% — self-censored around criticism of Israel, while only 11% self-censored around criticisms of Palestinians and 2% self-censored around criticisms of U.S. policy.

“It’s fear, rather than sensitivity,” one of the lead researchers said in a NPR interview.

To be sure, many choose not to speak about politics at work or on social media. But it’s the silence among peers and leaders we expect to stand with the marginalized that is most painful.

I was also silent and afraid. Even now, I can come up with 20 reasons for not writing this or ever publicly voicing my moral anguish. I fear being misunderstood. I worry about opening intergenerational, existential wounds of my Jewish friends, or being labeled as antisemitic even if I am committed to the rights and dignity of all people.

Of course, there is also fear being personally or professionally attacked, fired, blacklisted or at least ostracized as others have been. Some may say I have no right to speak because the issue is too complicated, and I am neither Israeli nor Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim or Christian or from the region.

And yet, I feel compelled to speak up precisely because I feel the pressure to stay silent.

The lives of Palestinians and Israelis should matter to all of us. Trauma persists in silence.

The Holocaust, the Nakba, the Cultural Revolution my grandparents endured, the many other genocides and crimes of war and colonialism not taught in schools — all those collective traumas are with us.

I don’t have solutions for peace in the Middle East. But I do know acknowledging atrocities and bearing witness with compassion are fundamental first steps to healing. We cannot interrupt cycles of violence and suffering without cultivating our shared humanity.

Share with others the moral disquiet eating at you and speak up. Humbly ask questions, create a safer space, and trust in each other’s empathy. Courage lives in the collective.

It then becomes possible to raise our human voices together, hold our organizations accountable, and tell policymakers we demand a ceasefire.

I am afraid to speak. But I remember my grandfather, so I stand up, and take one step. This is my first.

Dr. Jenny X. Wen M.D. MPH is an internal medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Instructor at Harvard Medical School. She studies and teaches asylum medicine and collective healing at the MGH Asylum Clinic and Cambridge Health Alliance Asylum Program, and has over 10 years of experience in training clinicians on trauma informed care.

Dr. Wen received her MD and Master of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University and completed her residency training at Cambridge Health Alliance, Harvard Medical School. She first started studying trauma and healing in survivors of gender based violence in the US and across 4 continents as an undergraduate at Rice University and as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow. She is currently a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project in partnership with Massachusetts General Hospital. Views expressed are her own.

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