If I Were in Israel
Author’s note: This essay was written in the summer of 2014.
Just this morning my husband informed me that we’ve now lived in the States for seven years since returning from Israel. I say “returning” because those Israelis like us who have done yirida – an act of leaving one’s homeland for the sake of relocating in another country – simply know it’s impossible to not have feelings for that country. Minus its war-torn politics, for nineteen years, Israel was my home away from my New York City home where I was born and raised until 2007. It was the place where my family and I bought falafel dressed up with squirted tahini and fried eggplant (Jewish restaurants in the United States just don’t cut it) or baklava or knafe, a cheese filled pastry at one of the neighboring Arab villages in Nazareth. But food aside, when the country is hit with a war, (and it seems to happen every seven years or so) the entire nation bonds together like one family and I’m reminded why I have no choice but to find the way my way home – one unhappy ending (or is it) to yet another war.
After my husband reminded me of those seven years, my mind quickly raced back to that humid first day arriving in Pittsburgh – a place we called no man’s land, (especially myself since as the American born, I always thought there was nothing between New York City and California, typical for my upbringing) a fresh start to fulfill our American dream as two professionals. No family or friends or jobs to greet us and our then two-and-a-half-year-old son, and just three suitcases to carry us through until our first shipment. We had no clue about the American standard of living, but heard good things about the Jewish community in Pittsburgh and took our chances – all in the name of professional development and economic freedom.
Seven years of living in America where you can basically ignore the politics and no-one really cares about your political point of view regardless of Israel. People here smile and say have a nice day because they don’t want to extend more into the conversation than that. When you mention the word Israel, those who care will inevitably ask you questions and show empathy and you know full well to distance yourself from the ones who mean well but just don’t have a clue. They don’t have the insider perspective of what life is life in Israel. In America, you can get by without staying connected to the news. In Israel however, you cannot run from the threat of an impending war unless you leave the country. It’s up to you to find your own inner peace. Imagine the state of Ohio firing on Pennsylvania? A call I made earlier today to wish my stepmother happy birthday reminds me of how difficult it is to find a balance between fun and war while soldiers are getting killed. “I took a boat trip around the Sea of Galilee and indulged eating at Kibbutz Ein Gev’s fish restaurant,” my stepmother says as I sip a latte. I know full well that escapism from reality is just one of the few pleasures Israelis can afford – fish or no fish. In Israel, the choice of how to live is constantly bound by political reality. Israelis know full well they can either sit plastered to the television paralyzed by fear and bound by inertia or they can live without restraints.
Life goes on.
But my inner peace, the one I’ve felt entitled to by choosing to live on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean away from family and friends, has now been shattered and the question of fidelity – to which side of the Atlantic Ocean does my heart ring true is now being questioned.
Since the Israel Defense Forces entered Gaza on July 9th, 2014 from which they withdrew in 2005, I now wake up to a different kind of peace. If I were living in Israel, I would be glued to the news trying to figure out how in heck’s name the current political parties will find a bipartisan way of handling peace. I would argue with my father about this divisive issue at his picturesque home in Katzrin in the Golan Heights that borders with Syria, as my one-year-old grabbed things from the nearby coffee table.
“This new political government doesn’t want peace,” my cantankerous father would say with one wave of his hand towards the television.
“Why not? Israel is cooperating with the cease fire issued by the United Nations.”
“So what?” He pauses between each word.
News of female Israel Defense Forces reservists, some even as far along as seven months pregnant volunteer to do what’s right and protect the country, and newly minted officers like my nineteen year old niece find their fate at the border of Gaza. Military service is mandatory for all Israeli youth and they are jumping at the chance to serve their country during difficult times. On Facebook, I see pictures of my niece in uniform, and instantly, I’m reliving those two and a half years of volunteering for the Nahal brigade, the settlement and kibbutz division of the Israel Defense Forces. .
Here in America, “I might appear like most of the American-Jews I meet in Pittsburgh, people who attend rallies supporting Israel’s right to defense herself or send money to support the soldiers in Gaza, but of course I’m not because at that critical moment when soldiers are dropping like flies, I see myself already getting on a plane back to Israel talking about what’s going on with members of our kibbutz, crying like everybody else by the news of another dead soldier, and commiserating face-to-face with a colleague (and not by leaving a comment on Facebook) whose former students perished in Gaza. Unfortunately however, the only way I can connect to Israel these days is by watching the news and keeping tabs on which soldiers died and who are being transported to Gaza. Do we know any of them? I ask. “Yes,” says my husband. “My best friend’s son, a gifted violinist and second generation Golani brigade combat fighter died in Gaza.” The minute I see a UPS truck round the corner, I realize that my stepmother’s in Israel and I’m here. If I were still living in the very rural northern part of Israel, (there are UPS trucks in Israel, but they flock in the cities) I’d see a tank heading to Lebanon and I would give the soldiers “thumbs” up. Then I’d zoom back in my lane again, make a right turn at one of the last two junctions closest to our kibbutz alongside the Jordan River, passing the blackened fields and black stumps signaling just where missiles fell, as we drive the last few kilometers to the kibbutz
Because that’s the last full blasted image I remember since leaving Israel in 2007 – a year after the second Israel-Lebanese war ended.
But I’m not there. Not even remotely close. Here’s the conversation I have with myself that ensues from morning till night:
Me: Don’t you just want to get on a plane to Israel? You keep saying how important it is for you to support Israel yet you stay in America.
Me again: I know, I know. But what use would it do for me to be there. I’m not an IDF soldier anymore, nowhere close to serving age. I have nothing as far as service. How would I be of help?
Me a third time: If you stayed at the kibbutz and continued to teach young High School students in Israel, you’d have a stronger connection to the country because you’d still be preparing young students for their matriculation in English while seeing them off to the army.
We’ve chosen to make America our home – a place where deranged people can shoot a hoard of people at a mall or a school and that crazy shooter gets some jail time and ends up a free man in five years.
A country where peace is ushered with each changing season, something Israel never had. A country that has six million Jews, but I am swallowed in a sea of diversity and have to work hard to make my voice known. (In Israel, you have no choice but to make your voice known and everybody eventually develops some political perspective regardless whether they were apolitical.) And yet, days will pass when we don’t hear a single bit of news on the television, just local news about road construction or flood warnings. At first, I was grateful for this insane quiet. But after a while, it began to feel like a ghost limb as if I was someone who had an arm removed, but can still feel it swimming and still lifts it when greeting someone.
A country where my son can learn about Israel and acquire Hebrew at a private Hebrew day school and my husband can find a “higher level blue collar” job than the security guard work he was doing in Israel for less than minimum wage. We can work as hard as we want and make as much money as we want. That is the beauty of America. We can count our blessings that we have the freedom of press and religion that runs counter to many places in Europe right now – including the synagogues being burnt in Paris reminding us of another pre-World War II Kristallnacht – otherwise known as “The Night of the Broken Glass, a massive coordinated attack on Jews, and synagogues being destroyed and burnt – a total of eight in Paris, where anti-Semitism is rampant. There’s no attempt to stop the destruction. If this kind of thing were to happen in the States, well, let’s just leave it at that. It won’t.
If I were living in Israel, I would understand that protection is more than just celebrating the service of US army and marines on Memorial Day. In Israel, service takes a special recognition. These soldiers are my former students, my friends’ son, my friends’ husbands, my son’s friends, my family and even daughters of friends protecting me. Here I’m more separate from the military than I’ll ever be. I’m from a place where the people who live there – all the people – are expected to defend the land. I’m so far away. I can’t defend the land. The military in Israel is not a hand-out. It’s a real call for service that brings out the best in people.
This is perhaps the biggest question of all. If I were in Israel, I would feel a stronger sense of belonging. After seven years of being here, how can I be at peace with my decision to stay in this country even as our lives have strangely found their own rhythm and stability when I know there’s suffering in my other home country?
The only way I feel I can bring this subject “home” is by having a heart-to-heart conversation with my son. If I were in Israel, I wouldn’t have to explain what it means to be a Palestinian or a Jew in a Jewish state. He would already know from a very young age how important the IDF soldiers are and the stakes of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He would be drawn into the conversation at the bus stop, the falafel stands and the kibbutz supermarket. But my nine-year old, who also has American-Israeli citizenship, wants reassurance like me. He wants to know if America will enter a war. He looks at the problems Israel is currently having from his “American eyes,” and asks if America is at a war with any state. When I promptly say “no,” he breathes a sigh of relief and says, “Thank goodness. I’m staying here. I don’t want to go to Israel and I don’t want to get inducted into the army over there. I don’t want to get killed.”
You don’t know how priceless peace is until you’ve lived through a war.
If I were to live in Israel, I would need to fight for peace just like the many Israelis who want it too. Do I want to fight for it again? Do I want to subject my family to war conditions that require from us to run to a bomb shelter after hearing a siren?
Even after seven years, I’m still an immigrant eavesdropping at our neighborhood Starbucks where many of the locals from the Jewish community hang out – old mixed with young – religious and non-religious Jews with the occasional Israeli thrown in. I glance at my Facebook page. Another three soldiers killed in Israel (One of them is American and volunteered for the Israel Defense Forces) while this couple is talking about how bad the situation in Gaza really is.
On an unusually coolish day for July, I listen and wait. It’s clear there aren’t any Israelis here because they would chat loudly way before the “How do you do?” part. (The barista is Israeli and he’s figured out how to make this work in English.) Why isn’t anybody talking about what’s happening in Gaza? Doesn’t anybody care? Why are people totally nonchalant about IDF soldiers getting killed?
Then I finally hear what I’ve been waiting for all along: I’ve been sniffing for it – talk about Israel. It’s an elderly couple and the man’s talking: “American airlines doesn’t want to take the risk. Bloomberg’s the former mayor of New York…His ass is going to be safe if he takes the risk. Bloomberg thinks Israel is safer than America. So what if they shot a stupid missile. Don’t give us that bullshit. There are a lot of alternatives. The answer isn’t another war.”
And that’s when reality hits. If I were in Israel, I would want to be in America the minute a war would hit, because I don’t want to live through another war again. While my feet are still on American soil, I will continue to hold Israel in my heart. With each new update of another wounded or killed soldier, I wonder if I’m ever going to return to Israel or if I’m meant to stay in America.