And suddenly, the parties and grooving and raves grind to a halt. And the war begins, and we find our strength.
An Israeli friend of mine, a girl named Tal, just attended the Tomorrowland music festival in Boom, Belgium. (I had to Google extensively to find out if Boom is a real place—turns out it is). Tal had just finished her reserve duty, so she flew over to Europe with some friends for a change of pace.
Tal is a proud Israeli, and in a show of solidarity with her home—as she partied in a country which is enabling anti-Semitic conduct—she wore an Israeli flag as a cape. Her hair was decorated with flowers, her body covered in glitter. She looked like any other 23-year-old at a music festival. The flag was simply a show of patriotism—like someone wearing an American flag, or a German flag, or even a Palestinian flag. What happened during the festival was shocking. She told me that she was accosted by strangers numerous times. They told her that her flag was insulting, and what she supported was wrong.
Apparently, toward the end of the festival, the concertgoers had enough of Tal and her cape. She and her girlfriend were surrounded by people, all of whom were shouting, “Juden! Juden!” She was shocked. She was heartbroken.
“Never in my life have I felt more like a Zionist,” she told me. I thought about her words throughout a sleepless night. I realized immediately why they resonated with me—I agreed. Before I moved to Israel, before the current war, I would not have described myself as a Zionist. Why? Because Zionism seemed outdated, irrelevant, unnecessary—a political issue for my grandparents’ generation. Anti-Semitism was something distant and foreign; something you were taught about in school. It happened long, long ago. People have changed, people are more civilized these days; they are different from how they were back then. But, as the situation in Gaza escalates, shockingly (and as my father would say with dismay, unsurprisingly) so does the anti-Semitic rhetoric. Unfortunately, the conversation (or rather, the shouting, since conversation implies listening on both sides) has left the realm of geopolitics. It is no longer a matter of Israel vs. Gaza. It has become a hateful shouting match of Jew vs. Muslim.
Yet Israel is an oasis where you can avoid this ugliness. And in these times, I, as a young Jewish woman, have never been so grateful for this haven. With every story in the news about the near-firebombing of a synagogue or the beating of a rabbi, I feel relieved to be here in Tel Aviv. Despite the summer being tainted with the shrill screams of rocket sirens, the notion of European anti-Semitism can still seem far away, an outdated and uneducated opinion held by the completely mad.
But I have also realized how ignorant most people are about life in this oasis. After speaking to friends in Toronto, I was struck by the extent to which North American opinion is tainted by a complete lack of understanding, fuelled by tinges of guilt and ignorance. They do not hear the sirens. They do not understand the mindfuck of realizing that the alarms are not for practice. This is not a drill. It is the very real situation of people trying to kill you and your friends and neighbors. Slowly, this war has morphed from a New York Times tweet into becoming my life, my conversations at bars on Thursday nights, my small talk at photo shoots.
The first day I sat in a bomb shelter, I went on Instagram and saw pictures of people on boats, friends celebrating summer, drinking margaritas on sunny porches. I became bitterly envious of my friends at home. Their summer was fun, carefree, light. Here, I jump every time I hear the sound of an ambulance passing by; it sounds so similar to an air raid siren. Instead of emails with messages about travel or new experiences, I got messages inquiring about my safety. Instead of talking to my mom every day about pleasant things, like the beach or sandals, we discuss Hamas and the capabilities of different types of rockets. When my phone rings, I worry it’s my boyfriend calling to tell me he’s been called up and is joining his unit in Gaza.
Day-to-day life has drastically changed. Only a few months ago, I wrote an essay for The Tower about cafe culture, acid raves, and the Tel Aviv counterculture. All of that has disappeared in wartime. No one wants to go out; they want to be with friends and loved ones. Clubs built for big crowds are empty without the tourists and army boys. Young people seem somber and nervous, tired of the sirens. Leftists continue to arrange peace rallies, but their enthusiasm and bravado are gone. You simply cannot forget what is happening around you. The sirens slam you back to reality.
I grew up in the United States and Canada. Wars were far away, fought by volunteer soldiers. As a producer of a news show in Canada, I was warned against “overdoing it” on the Middle East conflict. We had to cover more local problems. The audience was bored by the hopeless sadness of the subject. Unless the chaos was really extreme—forget it. It was considered repetitive and therefore boring.
In Israel, war is not a faraway nuisance. In Israel, the rockets are fired at your neighborhood. The soldiers are your friends, your lovers, or your brothers. Living under rocket fire isn’t a remote worst-case scenario, but a very personal reality. The face on a grotesque wire service report about terror casualties could be yours.
This war is not my war; but the war of my new people, my new family. I have adopted it by default. But just because I was not born an Israeli does not mean I am less afraid of the rockets.
There’s a slur, sometimes repeated by my friends in North America, that Israel is a nation that delights in conflict and fighting. You have to live here to know just how untrue this is, to know what it means to long for peace. The toughest Israelis yearn for peace with a tenderness beyond anything that can be understood by any protester in quiet North America—precisely because they are tough, and know the price of toughness intimately.
I have a friend named Ayelet, a makeup artist, who grew up in southern Israel. She and I sat down for coffee. When the war came up in the conversation, she told me about her father, a dedicated member of a kibbutz, who volunteered to inform families that they had lost children in battle.
“He’s a strong man, very strong,” she said. “But the other day he had to tell his good friend that his son had died in action. Not an easy task. Not something he wants to do again.”
Americans have a very well-intentioned desire to empathize with the situation. There is something to be said for the effects of living on an isolated continent, with vast oceans protecting you, living without fear of invasion. But this also makes it hard to understand what it is like to live with the constant threat of danger. It makes you somewhat immune to the fear that your friends could disappear.
There is nothing wrong with this, and as I say to my outraged Israeli friends who are green with envy, to think like this is a luxury and a privilege. But this privilege should not be misused or misplaced. Facts should be checked, information referenced. Outrage should be directed where it belongs. Where, for example, is the American activism against the slaughter in Syria? If one is going to be anti-genocide (which everyone should be), then Americans should also take to the streets to protest Assad or ISIS with the same vigor and enthusiasm they have when they protest Israel—where a genocide is not even happening.
Americans must also understand that, on this issue, they can be grossly uneducated. If they care so much about the situation here, they must, for instance, learn the languages of the people involved (which is no easy feat). I recently saw a video on YouTube, for example, which shocked me. It showed a British woman—with very good intentions, I’m sure—harassing a group of IDF soldiers who had “arrested” two young boys. “They are children!” she cried, her Leeds accent filled with indignation and outrage.
“They are just children! What could they have done? Where are you taking them?” The soldiers shrugged her off with a “no comment” and took the boys to their base. What were those soldiers doing? They were chastising the children for public disturbance—they had been throwing rocks at buses and people. When Americans hear the words “rock throwing,” they think these rocks are pebbles thrown against the guns of evil war machines. This is not true. They are huge, heavy stones. They can take out car windows. And they can kill. If American children were throwing heavy rocks at policemen or ordinary citizens, wouldn’t they too be arrested? Or would they be left alone to continue disturbing the peace because what they are doing is “child’s play”?
What also struck me about this video is that it contained a conversation in Hebrew between the soldiers and an adult supervisor of the children. The British “journalist” involved missed the entire thing, because she couldn’t speak a word of the language. And that Hebrew conversation explained the whole situation so clearly that even the supervisor of the children backed down immediately, without a fight.
Another fact that Americans seem to rarely understand: Israelis are happy not to fight. (Unless, of course, the fight is over the price of a tomato at the shuk—in which case, get ready for the fourth intifada.) Israel even handed back oil-rich Sinai to the Egyptians for the sake of peace. Hamas is not so keen on coexistence, and uses terrorism to prove it. Imagine if, instead of gang warfare, Americans had to endure what Israel does: A constant series of terror attacks. Bus explosions. Nightclub massacres. Suicide bombings at children’s after-school clubs.
If New Yorkers, for example, had to deal with the constant threat of rockets hitting their homes, what would happen? If President Obama had to cut a press conference short so that everyone could safely assemble in a bunker, what would happen? Would Americans listen to the earnest, helpful suggestions of an international audience? How would America receive its criticism?
Another story: I work as a model. At the beginning of the war, when rockets were being shot at Tel Aviv every day, I was at an audition for a runway show—one of the biggest productions of the year. As we sat and waited our turn, the sound of explosions echoed in the air. I turned to a friend of mine, a Brazilian girl who lives in Israel with her boyfriend.
“How was your night?” I asked, trying to keep the conversation light, almost pretending that everything was normal.
“Shit,” she responded despondently.
“Did the rockets scare you?”
“No. I can’t believe Brazil is out of the World Cup.” The sound of an explosion made the windows of the office shake. We both shuddered. “This doesn’t make losing any easier,” she said.
In the background, I heard my booker shouting at another model, “Just because the rockets scared you is no excuse for forgetting your portfolio! This is unacceptable!” It made me smile. No matter what’s happening, no matter what mood we’re in, no matter how we feel, Tel Aviv life continues.
My friends and family wonder why I don’t come home. Why would I remain here, they wonder, amidst the chaos? Why go through the heartbreak as the names of the dead are released? I am not Israeli. I do not have permanent roots in this country. Why stay? Because, as I said earlier, this place is an oasis. This place is a home. I’m grateful that this crazy, chaotic place exists. David Ben-Gurion once said that the Zionist experiment would be a success when the first Jewish police officer arrests the first Jewish criminal. The experiment has been a massive success—Tel Aviv has a fashion week, Jerusalem has one of the best museums in the world, Haifa has gardens so beautiful they are a UNESCO site. But the work is not finished. These places need to be defended. The experiment must continue.
Banner Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower