I made Aliyah from Vancouver, Canada over 25 years ago. It is at this point that people usually ask how could I leave such a wonderful place. I give them a two-pronged answer: first, have you ever spent a long, wet, grey and dreary winter in Vancouver(?), and second, as my eldest son likes to quote U2’s Bono, “A house doesn’t make a home.” I grew up in a comfortable environment, free of the anti-Semitism now being experienced in many places throughout the world, but after spending some quality time on long-term educational programs in Israel, decided that Israel was definitely home.
Given my age and the changes in Israel in the early to mid-1990s, (massive immigration from the FSU and peace breaking out on all fronts…), the IDF decided that it had little need of people in my age bracket and so I was given a very short, symbolic service in the IDF. When our first son was born in 1993, however, I knew that the race was on – would peace with our surrounding Arab neighbors and the Palestinians be completed before he turned 18, or would he, together with his future siblings, have to serve at least three years, plus countless months in reserve duty? As Times of Israel Editor David Horovitz wrote over a decade ago, in this country we count the age of our children in terms of how many years before they have to go into the army. Unfortunately, the race was lost, as now we have two children doing their mandatory service in the IDF.
So perhaps you now know one reason why this war was different for me than all others. For the first time, I was like millions of other Israelis in that I also had a son on the front line. Although in Israel for a long time, I have never been a combatant, however, I have already experienced too many times (the First Intifada, Gulf War, Second Intifada, the Second Lebanon War, and now three operations in the last few years in Gaza) how vast sectors of civilian Israeli society have become the front line. Millions of Israelis spend too much time and have unhealthy amounts of anxiety worrying about suicide bombers on buses and cafés, wondering whether or not to drive on roads where there have been sniping and Molotov cocktail incidents, making sure your family’s gas masks are accessible, and having to deal with running for cover once the gut-wrenching siren goes off!
For the past two years, since my son was accepted into a special forces infantry unit, I was concerned but not worried. As he reassured me, “Abba, thousands have done what I am doing and thousands more will do it after me.” As a parent, the training period was trying, but manageable. The hardest part was when we didn’t have any phone contact for an entire week. How could that be? As the country with one of the highest cell phone penetration levels in the world, how could the army deny parents their G-d given right to speak to their child on demand?!? As parents, the hardest part was the realization that from the moment we bring children into this world we do whatever we can to protect them, and now, it seems, the glove has switched hands, and they are risking their lives to protect us. This certainly doesn’t help us sleep at night…
Thanks to the journalists who were ’embedded’ with IDF troops in Gaza, we had the opportunity to view the war from the ‘comfort’ of our homes (unless we heard a siren and had to run to a safe room!). I was both hoping to recognize my son (he was the unshaven young man in green with red boots) and praying that I wouldn’t see him in the crazy battles that our soldiers were fighting. As hard as it was to detach myself from watching the tv or reading articles on the internet, it was even harder to fall asleep.
There were, of course, many articles that I couldn’t read, such as those on how the IDF painstakingly informs bereaved families or families of wounded soldiers (as much as I love reading David Grossman, I still am not able to pick up his book, “To the End of the Land”). I quickly found myself addicted to following this war thought the tv, internet and social media. Every morning I would switch on the tv and look on my phone to see if we had suffered any more casualties or fatalities overnight, looking to see if there was any information about my son’s unit. When there was something about them on the news one night, I knew that he was ok as I had received a message from him earlier that day. I couldn’t stop thinking of those families whose sons had fallen, and whose lives had been changed forever by the loss of their son, brother, fiancé, boyfriend, friend, or former pupil. These are our children – each fallen soldier is a loss of an entire world.
The second major difference between this and previous wars is the nature of the battles. Earlier this week, I heard MK and General Elazar Stern (Reserve), formerly head of Human Resource in the IDF, say that this war was different from all operations and wars he had seen in his lengthy career. What was unique to Operation Protective Edge was that the IDF soldiers had no idea where the enemy was coming from – the rockets from above, the terrorists emerging from tunnels, within civilian areas, from behind, etc.
The third element that distinguished this war was the Home Front and the amazing support Israelis across the spectrum – almost unprecedented in scope – gave not only for the justification of the Operation, but for the soldiers. The amount of food, care packages, underwear, shirts, and love distributed to the troops from so many Israelis clearly warmed the heart and strengthened the souls of our soldiers. My son tried to illustrate this by telling me how early one morning, after returning from some operational duties, their unit was welcomed back to their staging area by a massive barbecue prepared for them by civilians!
I believe that this had to do with the nature of the war, as the tactics and methods of Hamas continued to come to light over the past month. Israelis, particularly those living close to Gaza, felt more vulnerable than ever before. Our children were involved in one of the worst things imaginable – a war that is trying to remove the heinous means prepared by Hamas – their rocket launchers and ‘Attack Tunnels’ – intentionally trying to target Israeli civilians. Almost three dozen of these have been discovered and destroyed. This is a Sisyphean task and I know that no solution can be fully achieved militarily. We will never uncover all of their tunnels, discover all of their rockets, nor destroy all of their launchers. Even worse, I fear, is the realization that we may never be able to eliminate their absolute hatred for Israel and the Jewish people.
I am glad that this war is now over. At least this round. Millions of Israelis can return to their normal lives (really- how can residents living next to Gaza ever lead a normal life after the discovery of the tunnels under their homes?). Israelis can begin to deal with mourning our dead soldiers and civilians, and continue to heal the long-lasting physical and emotional wounds. The destruction in Gaza is enormous and will require huge resources to rebuild. How long will it take for Gazans to realize how evil Hamas is to them as well? I am also wondering when the world will wake up to see and understand how Hamas is just like Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Hizbullah. We are the canary in the mine and the world needs to deal with the spread of this hatred and violence as it will soon spread beyond the Middle East.
I have been blessed to have had my son come home last week for the first time in a month. I think that I gave him the longest and hardest hug I have ever given him, as I felt my body release all the pent-up tension and stress since the beginning of the war. He looks the same as he did before the war, but I know that he is a changed person, having experienced and seen too much for such a young man. He returned physically unscathed, but like thousands of others, emotionally affected. I feel blessed to live in a society that exhibited an enormous collective sense of purpose and support for our children who risked so much for all of us. Looking to the future, I hope that our society and political leadership can take this energy forward and find a political solution that will ensure that future generations will not have to face more wars. If we can, then this will truly have been different from all other wars.