Today, I took the train south to Sderot. Sderot is a city in southern Israel, spitting distance from Gaza. As of November 2007, 6311 Palestinian rockets have fallen on the town. At that time, 75% of children suffered from PTSD. By the beginning of June, Palestinian terrorists had set 3,000 separate fires, destroying 2,500 acres of Israeli farmland and parks. And there have been both rocket and fire kite attacks since.
I wanted to see things with my own eyes. Knowing that there are still fires- and the risk that I could get caught in one- I went. I went with the best knowledge available, consulting with locals. Ultimately embracing what one person said when I asked if there were fires today: “you can’t know”.
Living in Tel Aviv, you don’t feel this at all. The beach, the nightclubs, the hummus- the buzz. You’d have no idea radical Islamic terrorists are trying to breach our border- and have launched rockets and flammables at us. Tel Aviv feels utterly normal, like most of the country.
As I walked from the Sderot train station, nothing seemed strange. The people seemed normal, there were trees and businesses. Is it possible I went to the wrong city? Maybe the fires were elsewhere? A cabbie told me otherwise, but maybe he was wrong.
I walked closer to the border. Sderot is .62 miles from Gaza. A kibbutz next to it, Nir Am, is 800 meters from Hamas territory. I physically stood one mile from Gaza today.
I asked around the kibbutz to find where the scorched land was. Admittedly an odd question, but because Israelis are always willing to help, a man actually gave me a ride to the burnt fields. Before picking up his daughter from school.
I asked him how it was living there and he said: “I don’t know the right word, it’s not that we’re used to it because you never really can be. The fires happen. We survive.”
He told me how he has to explain Palestinian terrorism to his 5 year old. His two year old doesn’t yet have the words to understand it.
My heart broke.
I dare any of my “enlightened” left-wing friends in America who have more often than not heaped meaningless bile at my country. I dare them to look that 5 year old in the face and call her an occupier. That somehow she deserves to have her playground melted, her trees burnt, her childhood robbed. While you sit pretty on Native American land you know literally nothing about. But feel utterly entitled to. While we are actually from here.
I bid the man goodbye and told him my heart is with him. I could tell he was moved- not many Tel Avivis come visit this part of Israel. Especially now- though they should.
I headed towards a high point. He said I could see the burnt fields. To me, the fields just looked kind of like the Great Plains in America, but with shorter grass. I didn’t really understand what was so grave. Until I noticed the color. The ground was dark- a charcoal black. And I looked on a map and realized- this wasn’t the Great Plains. This used to be a forest.
An almost completely leveled forest. But for a few trees bravely peeking out, embarrassed at their nakedness. Surrounded by slivers of their former friends. Burnt to a crisp. Like an onion on a grill, but with all the water sucked out, and a dry carcass left to rot.
This scene was as far as the eye could see. I was probably looking at Gaza without realizing it.
What was astonishing was how normal the rest of the kibbutz was. If you didn’t really know what had happened, you’d think it looked quite pretty. And it is. And the people there, quite typical for an Israeli town.
Then you look at the ground. You notice the dirt is light brown. Except in certain large patches, where it is pitch black. I leaned down and grabbed a handful. There was nothing soil-like about it. It was soot. Ash. The cremated remnants of a forest once planted there. A place with picnics and fun. Now destroyed in the name of greed, fanaticism, and violence.
What I also didn’t realize until writing this blog, is that Hamas actually buries tunnels under this kibbutz. Probably under my feet. To smuggle weapons and to kill Israelis like me.
Some people on the far-left like Jeremy Corbyn call Hamas his “friends”. Others think it’s some sort of peaceful liberation movement- that calls to “liberate Palestine” (from me) are somehow equivalent to women’s liberation or gay liberation. The delusional Chicago Dyke March, which last year kicked Jews out for waving a Star of David pride flag, this year waved dozens of Palestinian flags. And said “all anti-racist work must inherently be anti-Zionist“, without recognizing the irony of becoming anti-Semites themselves. And aligning themselves with a nationalistic movement that’s utterly homophobic.
The reality is Hamas is anything but progressive. In Gaza, it bans women from smoking, Palestinian hip-hop concerts, dog walking (yes), and women’s TV channels. It’s a professional murder machine. Its goal is to massacre me. That’s not a metaphor- it’s its practice. It spends millions of dollars burrowing under the earth to harm me instead of feeding its own people. Who lack sufficient electricity, food, and job opportunities. I hardly believe it’s solely one party’s fault- the Egyptians, the Israeli government, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority are twisted in a confusing knot. Not easy to get out of. But let’s stop pretending the Hamas government is an innocent teen playing with matches. It’s manipulating its people and putting countless lives in danger.
Recently, I was in Rome. I visited the Jewish ghetto- the second ghetto established in Europe. For the purpose of corralling my people. Every entrance was marked by churches on either side. Where popes made Jews listen to sermons upon entering and leaving the ghetto. To try to convert us to his devil worship. And by devil worship, I don’t mean Catholicism- though the religion has more than a bit of reckoning left to do with its anti-Semitic past. And still-locked Holocaust archives. By devil worship I mean torturing religious text in order to demean a near-powerless minority. Who thrive or die at your whim.
Rome is the oldest Jewish community of Europe. And Judaism the oldest religion of Italy. Having survived the Roman Empire who destroyed Jerusalem, countless anti-Semitic popes, Italian fascism, and Nazism- they’re still around. And have amazing food, history, synagogues, and culture. A testament to the resilience of my people. They have a keen sense of who they are- and a pride in being Italian, Jewish, and quite Zionist. They don’t live with the American Jewish sense of privilege and stability. They are, numbering just a few thousand and only decades separated from actual fascism, quite aware of the importance of a Jewish homeland. They don’t take it for granted. As the golden bricks on the street, indicating Holocaust victims everywhere, make quite clear. Never again isn’t a cute phrase to say once a year- it’s the Roman Jewish community’s personal story.
As I write this blog, I’m getting tired. I’ve had a meaningful and exhausting day. I slept very little last night, and I’m up late writing this blog because I think it’s important. And it offers me some solace, even as my electricity just went out for some reason. Meaning no air conditioning on a hot Middle Eastern night.
Life in Israel is unpredictable in some ways. Although you can always count on warmth and deep kindness, much more frequently than I’ve experienced in American culture. Quite similar to Italy, Cyprus, Spain, France, Romania, and Hungary where I’ve visited this year. Begging the question are we the weirdos or are Americans far too individualistic for their own good? Even today, as I grabbed sushi after my adventure, I met a young man who lived in Sderot. Who, when I asked him how he felt about the recent situation, said: “I grew up near Hebron, with attacks my whole childhood, the situation here has been good the past few years. It’s gorgeous here, come back and visit.” We chatted, smiled, cracked some jokes. And I ate delicious sushi- some of the best in Israel. It’s by the train- go visit.
In short, yes my air conditioning just went out. I could be like the French Jewish tourists who visited my tiny synagogue for Pride and complain about the water temperature at dinner. Or I could be a human being and say: “mah laasot? Nistader.” What can you do? We’ll roll with it.
Despite the incessant provocations of left-wing “do gooders” boycotting us and ridiculing our country, we’re actually really good at something they lack. While large swaths of the American Left I once called home repeat over and over again the word “resistance”, I think they need another R word: “resilience”.
From afar I see every tweet and every sad news story turn into a 4 day mourning period (or battle), I see Israelis all the time just living. Fully. The guy at the sushi place who, rather than dwelling on rockets and fires, tells me about the gorgeous sites in his town. The dad who tells his 5 year old about terrorism with a hug. And the 5 year old who goes to school, maybe scared and also singing. And the American oleh who visits Sderot by himself and makes a truly meaningful experience out of it. Joking with the bus driver all the way home. While fields nearby are burning.
Israelis know how to squeeze every last drop out of life. Like our delicious juices, we come out sweet despite it all. A sweetness few places can compare with, especially places that just haven’t suffered so much. That have it a bit easier than they really understand. So they don’t put their own issues into perspective. And live in a constant state of chaos- some of which is perpetuated by their own lack of self-awareness. Or of the problems facing others. Like the 50,000 Syrian refugees crowding the Israeli border in fear or the brave Iranians protesting their dictatorship today. My neighbors.
If there’s something I could wish for America, it’s that you had a few more problems. Real problems. Not problems you’re fighting about on behalf of other people, but problems you have to face. I know- that sounds a bit harsh. Perhaps it’s my Israeli bluntness. But having some real toughness in your life can give you the chance to overcome it, to master, to learn to roll with the punches. So that next time something bad happens, you’re not spending hours on Facebook. You’re acknowledging it, moving on, and living. Like my friend who lives in Nahal Oz, walking distance from Gaza, fields burning, studying for her exams and planning a pub night for friends. It’s harder than seeing a racist tweet and she also turns out happier. I think it’s no accident that Israelis turn up as some of the happiest people in the world on survey after survey. Because if you can manage to find joy while your town is on fire, you can pretty much handle everything.
As I left Nir Am, I looked at a desolate field. Burnt, brown, empty. And I noticed one little green plant. Just making its way above the decay. Blossoming. A source of new hope.
This plant is like Israel, like the Jewish people. Every time someone comes to destroy us, a little remnant stubbornly survives, keeps our people going. Even when those around us decry our “tribalism”, its our very sense of identity that keeps us alive. Which is why there’s a Jewish state but no Akkadian one. We live our heritage.
As someone who is a PTSD survivor, like a lot of Sderot and a lot of Israel- I feel at home here. We are people who know how to survive- and actually turn it into an advantage because we can thrive anywhere we’re planted.
I’m proud of the Israeli Defense Forces for keeping us safe. And we’re not about to give up our arms to satisfy a bunch of wealthy self-indulgent critics sipping fair-trade coffee in Seattle. Living in the labyrinth of confusion about why anyone could possibly disagree with the Editorial Board of the New York Times or the latest NPR story. A fragile and self-reinforcing bubble much in need of a gentle pop. For the sake of America itself.
If you want to know why I visited Nir Am and Sderot today, it’s because I love my fellow man. I love my people. I care about others- I love my friends. The Jewish people is a story of resilience. Our anthem is hope. Join us, help us sing it, so that one day, instead of fiery balloons, maybe our neighbors will play with the normal kind. At a bilingual fair. A future of dreams and love.
In the meantime, we’re standing guard. We won’t be sent to the fire again.