Almost a year ago to the day, I experienced my first air raid siren. For sabras who grew up here, this is simply a part of life here. For me, it was terrifying. I remember, three days after moving into my apartment, praying in a dark stairwell googling “what to do in an air raid”. The longest five minutes ever. Fortunately, that time it was a false alarm.
This time, it wasn’t.
I was down south, just four days after arriving in Israel after a blockbuster two months abroad. Adjusting to life back in Israel is hard. I love being back- the delicious hummus, the sense of humor, the fact that I don’t have to hide that I’m a Jew. The land itself has a beauty unparalleled. I missed here. In ways I never thought I would.
In all my adventures in Israel, I found it hardest to get to the South. First off, the public transit is more limited. Secondly, I really like trees and there are a lot more in the North. I felt the desert was kind of boring, depressing.
And I was wrong. The desert is enchanting, and while at times it feels utterly empty, sometimes that’s exactly what fills me with peace.
When you look out at the desert, you can just forget the linguistic barrier, the culture shock, the impending life decisions. And imbibe the emptiness- filling the soul with the space of a breath.
This is the beauty of Israel. The homeland of the Jewish people. And, at least for now, my home. I can’t really imagine living anywhere else. It’s not the affordability nor the amazing politics nor the peaceful region that surrounds it. It’s that quite simply, I can’t see myself anywhere else. Not as home.
Wandering around Beersheva, the capital of the desert, I made my way to meet a friend after eating some sushi. I actually find myself missing Israeli sushi. The sushi sandwiches, which I’ve never seen anywhere else, and something about the taste. I’ve always been a sushi fan. Having lived in Japan as a child, I’ve eaten it since my very first memories. A place feels like home when I miss its Asian food. 🙂
Walking down the street, I peered at some graffiti. Looked at a yellow-white wall next to the train tracks. And heard the word over my right shoulder:
Azakah is the Hebrew word for an air raid siren. An alarm. An alert. Time to duck and cover.
It’s a word I learned during my first experience a year ago. Something you don’t typically learn in Hebrew lessons at the age of 13, when I learned the language. But that’s the reality of being a Jew– wherever we go, we have to be prepared. We have to live in the moment because we don’t know what’s coming tomorrow.
I asked a young man in the streets if the slow wailing I started to notice was in fact an air raid siren. And he said yes, and invited me in.
I stepped inside a nicely-organized Israeli apartment. A young woman named Tal, her boyfriend, and his roommate. All students at Ben Gurion University, a place where I spent the afternoon looking at Yiddish treasures, books preserved from the 1920s and before. A time when world Jewry was also on the precipice of fiery violence.
One book that stood out to me was this one, published in Warsaw in 1901. A city that was once 41% Jewish. 300,000 Hebrew souls before World War II. Out of over 3 million Polish Jews. Today, 10,000 remnants of Israel inhabit the entire country.
After spending two months in Europe, seeing more dead Jews than living ones, I can’t help but be moved. My eyes continuously drawn to the Jewish letters lining the bookshelves. If you want to see Judaism both alive and preserved, you’ll find more Jewish books in an Israeli library than anywhere on the continent my family called home for 2,000 years.
Traveling there- and in the States when an American man murdered 12 Jewish souls in Pittsburgh- convinced me you can’t escape your identity. You can run away, you can disown Judaism and our only state, but they’ll find you. You can only embrace yourself and fight back, or twist yourself into knots trying to please anti-Semites, only to find yourself persecuted along with the rest of us.
I looked nervously at the TV. I asked Tal’s boyfriend to explain to me what was going on. The screen looked like this:
Those little dots in the middle, rockets. The subtitle: “Rocket attack on Israeli communities near Gaza.”
As if it were some sort of sick basketball game, statistics started popping up on the right. “Alert: Nahal Oz”. “Alert: Kibbutz Nir Am”. “Alert: Sderot”. “Alert: Sderot.” “Alert: Sderot.”
I felt distant from the attacks watching them on TV, but in reality, I was a 30 minute drive. In some cases, closer. In fact, last month a rocket hit Beersheva itself.
And I’ve been to all the places these alerts mentioned. Sderot has my favorite sushi place in Israel. Nir Am is where I met families affected by Hamas’s scorching of Israeli fields. And Nahal Oz is where my friend Yarden is studying social work. With rockets falling overhead.
Next time you complain about how hard it is to choose the right color paint for your house or a 30 minute traffic jam, pause and think of the other.
Tal’s boyfriend explained where the rockets were falling. All three of them had heard the azakah before. The sound of an air raid siren is something every Israeli knows. Far from a shock, it is as much a part of life here as prom is for an American teen.
What was most astounding, besides my rather inspirational dose of calm mixed with my anxiety, was how my three new friends reacted. Anger, some texting with family to say they were OK, and then…life continued. They offered me water. We talked about life. I still don’t even know the names of the two young men. One of them wants to visit Australia.
I then hopped in my friend’s car to stay on a nearby kibbutz. As the alerts continued to pour in from neighboring communities and her parents called her to check in.
To be Israeli is to persist in the face of relentless, stupid violence. It is the most concentrated form of Judaism and a beautiful reflection on how to live with verve in spite of almost constant threats. Life is short, go do what you want because no one will do it for you. Live now.
As I hopped in my friend Yael’s car, she told me that she was scared of the rockets and also felt bad for the Palestinians suffering on the other side. A shocking statement of humanity in the midst of literally being attacked by ruthless terrorists. I also wish the Palestinians of Gaza peace and prosperity rather than the 44% unemployment rate that Hamas has delivered them.
The next time overzealous anti-Semites abroad want to tell you that boycotting us is somehow progressive or justified, think of Yael. Who in the midst of a terror attack, is also concerned with the well-being of people on the other side of the fence. Will you boycott her humanity?
And the next time someone tries to convince you that supporting Hamas is supporting justice, think of the Israelis smattered to smithereens by their rockets. The 60 year old killed this week. And the Palestinians they are supposed to govern, but instead ruthlessly repress.
There is nothing revolutionary about supporting murder.
There are some people abroad who are naïve enough to think firing 460 rockets is some sort of organic, spontaneous reaction. It’s not. It’s what a military does- an armed terrorist organization. It’s not a poor kid lashing out in anger- it’s professional militants launching expensive rockets at targeted locations to kill civilians. No matter how angry I’ve been in my life, it has never occurred to me to press a button and fire a rocket at a nameless civilian. Absolutely nothing justifies it. If you wouldn’t do it, you shouldn’t excuse someone else doing it either.
Conflict is complicated and hardly black-and-white, but aimlessly launching projectiles at children is never OK. I’m still waiting for the statements of solidarity from “justice warriors” like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who issue authoritative statements of support for Palestinians. Or anti-Semites like Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory who are best buds with Louis Farrakhan, but can’t bring themselves to recognize the humanity of Israelis. Not a word when Israeli children are sitting at home scared of rockets falling on their houses. For shame.
Before I left America, I visited the Magnes Collection at UC Berkeley. A fantastic tiny exhibit about Jewish life in the Western U.S. and around the world. Worth a visit if you find yourself in sunny California.
I noticed an exhibit about Jewish socialism and communism. In the 20th century, many Jews turned to these ideologies as potential sources of liberation at a time when conservative forces like the Tsar and the church were persecuting them. The extensive collection of Yiddish socialist and anarchist writing is what initially drew me to learn the language. You can check out digitized Yiddish books here for free.
While I am empathetic to their impulses, the results were awful. The Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies became some of the most anti-Semitic states in history. Their own ideologies of “liberation” failing to include the Jews. And while the marriage of socialism and Zionism brought cool innovations like the kibbutz, overall, the non-Jewish left has persecuted Jews as much as the right. A warning to my American friends putting all their faith in progressives to save them. It has never worked- and never will. It is always good to seek alliances and to praise bold allies, but in the end we must count on ourselves first to protect our lives. We cannot entirely rely on people who advocate for us only when it is convenient for their political agenda.
That’s why I’m a Zionist. Israel’s existence is affirmative action for the Jewish people. Which is why today, it is the only place in the world with a growing Jewish community.
American Jewish friends- do not distance yourselves from us. You will not outrun the anti-Semites. So whatever your (sometimes justified) frustrations with the current Israeli government, which I often share, do not keep the country as a whole at arm’s length to protect yourselves. In the long run, it won’t work, and it does anger us. We aren’t just here to be a place for you to vacation and kiss the Western Wall. We are a country whose blood and tears preserve the only insurance policy for the Jewish people. At a time when we need it as much as ever. Advocate for us in our time of need. Do not be silent or complicit as the rockets rain down on our homes.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it nicely:
“One of the enduring facts of history is that most anti-Semites do not think of themselves as anti-Semites. We don’t hate Jews, they said in the Middle Ages, just their religion. We don’t hate Jews, they said in the nineteenth century, just their race. We don’t hate Jews, they say now, just their nation state.”
If you’re one of those Jews trying to distance yourself, take a glance back at history and see if you’re doing what’s right. If you’re a non-Jew guilty of saying (like my college Arabic professor told me): “I have no problem with Jews, there are also Jews who don’t like Israel.” Then look in the mirror and realize you’re staring at an anti-Semite. Time to hit the books and raise your awareness. Realize that if you’re disproportionately angry at Israel or deny our right to exist, you’re continuing in a long line of anti-Semitism and it’s your job to interrupt it. Condemn the rockets, speak up for us. Pittsburgh is one face of anti-Semitism, and these attacks are quite simply another. You can, and should, care about Palestinian and Israeli lives- and Hamas cares for neither.
On my way to Yael’s kibbutz in the car, my phone kept buzzing. It buzzed all night with the rocket alert app indicating every place a projectile landed. Reeeeeeeeeeaaaar, reeeeeeear, wailing all night.
At a certain point, I did the most Israeli thing. I took off the app and went to sleep.
Being Israeli, for me, is about rolling with the punches and realizing that life is about living. I think it’s important to feel afraid, and it’s also important to live in spite of the irrational hatred that would have you stop.
As I glanced out the next day at Machtesh Ramon, the huge crater in Israel’s desert, I caught a glimpse of a Bedouin man climbing the stairs to the viewpoint.
I greeted him in Arabic. Turns out, he’s Jordanian and this was his first visit to Israel.
Some secular girls took our picture together as an Orthodox couple looked on.
This is the Israel you don’t see in the news. Because the news isn’t perfect, which is why I help fill these gaps. Help me tell these tales.
Because while Hamas fanatics rained rockets down on our kindergartens and pizzerias and shopping centers, a Bedouin Jordanian Muslim and a gay Israeli Jew stood hands over each other’s shoulders. Smiling as the desert breathed a sigh of relief.
I don’t have to live here, but I do. Not just because anti-Semitism is inevitable, as Pittsburgh showed. And because we only have the choice of how to respond to it.
But also because of these moments. A brilliant, lively country that has survived despite it all. Where each moment is the most valuable currency of all. And life itself takes on a new meaning every step you take.
It’s not always easy, but it is good to be back.
Shalom Israel 🙂
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