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August 2014: Searching for a spark

At moments like these I try to recall what was once an instinctive belief in the goodness of mankind

There are so very many things to be said about the current war between Israel and Hamas. One might rehash the rhetoric of politicians and pundits, military strategists and media commentators. One might decry injustice or express outrage, analyze tactics or criticize motivations, convey fear or present opportunities for compromise. But, frankly, I’m tired of all of this. Following 30+ days of reading every possible angle on the current fighting, I think it’s fair to say that most everything has been covered. For most of us, our beliefs and sympathies are set…and were set long ago. Whatever needs to be said already has been, and by those far more articulate than me.

So I struggle to find my angle. What authentic voice can I provide from the midst of this painful moment?

I always knew that life in Israel would be difficult. Having grown up with a strong Jewish foundation, I was familiar with our people’s history – ancient, modern, and a few highlights in between – and moved to Israel in the late summer of 2006 with my eyes open wide. Israel had recently concluded a second war in Lebanon and the green hills surrounding my family’s kibbutz in the Hula Valley were painted ash grey, freshly violated by Hezbollah rockets. As a new immigrant, I carried with me the memory of a breezy summer night on the Tel Aviv boardwalk when a Hamas suicide bomber stole 21 young lives outside of the Dolphinarium discotheque, just a few hundred yards from where I stood. But, my commitment to living in Israel – to plugging into this reality and contributing to a better future in some small way – was stronger than my fear of the hardship and danger inherent in this decision.

The impetus for my arrival in Jerusalem was a graduate program studying conflict, and specifically the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. I wanted to know the history inside and out, learn techniques for managing and resolving political and military conflict, and find my way into a professional role as a mediator or negotiator…or, heaven forbid, a politician. Now, eight years later, I am still fascinated — arguably obsessed — by the tragic reality that surrounds me. But, something has changed within me, something that I am afraid to define. Life became anxious and immediate, my picture grew fuzzy, and as my world broke into opposing camps, I grew accustomed to disappointment; and, today, I am losing my taste for it.

My desire to live in Israel stems from a genuine belief in the importance and promise of this land and this people. After 2000 years of exile, our generation has the opportunity to build the third Jewish commonwealth and fulfill a dream that was, for millennia, the stuff of prayer and prophesy. Making a home in Jerusalem is to live a fantasy — a life spent plugged into the core of the world’s spiritual reactor, a front row seat from which to watch the unfolding of history, an opportunity join the great experiment of building a country upon both Jewish AND democratic foundations, and a chance, if extremely fortunate, to find a role for oneself in this narrative.

And the wheels of history spin faster than ever; the atomic core vibrates and I stand in awe of the great fortune I have had, and continue to have, to be able to experience this moment.

And for all of the privilege and deep appreciation that I feel for this opportunity, it seems that life – with some help from my wife and two beautiful young boys – became complicated. At moments like these, as rockets fall on apartment buildings and young Israeli men die in the prime of life, I rummage through my emotional memory banks for what was once an instinctive belief in the goodness of mankind. Our enemies sacrifice their own children to add fuel to the fires of anti-Semitism burning under the surface of societies across the globe. The slogans, broken glass, and homes-turned-hell that confused and eventually haunted our grandparents now creep into our own nightmares. And Jihadists in dark tunnels with dark hearts cast doubt on a hopeful relocation to the Promised Land. And that is what they want. And that is what I feel. And the depth of meaning and privilege of life in this place does battle each day with my fears.

There were men who set out to explore this land long ago. Between the twelve of them, they returned from their expedition and expressed feelings that are still true today. Ten of them spoke of Canaan as an eretz ochelet yoshveiha, a land that devours its inhabitants. This was reason enough for the majority of the expedition to recommend not settling here. Two of the spies, however, returned with the message tova haaretz meod meod – this land is very (exceedingly!) good. Life in this land was destined, literally from ‘day one’, to be a life of duality and paradox. The precedent was set that this soil would soak up the tears and blood of the Jewish people – that it would literally consume its inhabitants. And, yet, the quality of life is rich beyond description, deeply joyful, and exceedingly good. It seems that both accounts were as correct then as they are today.

So, the paradox rages inside of me.

As a student of anthropology, one of the earliest human traits I studied, common to all cultures across all time, is the ever-famous ‘fight or flight’. And now I face a slower, more calculated version of this instinct. Do I stay and continue to fight the emotional and physical battles required for survival in Israel? Do I accept the risk that my family too might be consumed, G-d forbid, by this land? Or, do I flee to (what appears to be) a safer, simpler, and less tumultuous home elsewhere, foregoing the goodness?

Lost in thought, I sit searching for a spark of hope to tip the scales in favor of staying in Jerusalem. And I realize that goodness is on our living room floor organizing soccer figurines on his mother’s yoga mat. Goodness is learning to walk across the same living room floor, holding a stuffed giraffe and dripping with drool. And all I want to do is protect these miracles. So, the threat of being consumed and the lure of safety elsewhere win the moment; bullets and rockets tip the scale. And in the morning I will pray for a ceasefire to tip it back.

About the Author
Barak Cohen is an international relations and development professional and a former advisor to the Mayor of Jerusalem
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