War, international border skirmishes, mass kidnappings, and extremist fringe groups threatening to take over the world, have all become so commonplace in the early 21st century, that we have learned to accept them as a new kind of normal. That is, of course, unless it is happening to you. Then it’s a whole different story.
If you are an immigrant from an even-keeled western country, like Canada, then you will inevitably have to answer a series of clarification questions from friends and family outside of Israel who cannot imagine your life in a war zone.
A personal favorite is: “Let me get this straight, you leave your house everyday without protective gear and you’re not afraid?” Followed by: “Your life is completely different without being different at all? How can that be?”
Good question. How can that be?
The simple answer is that, if you have the good fortune to live in the center of Israel, life is not that different than it was the day before the war began. Going to the grocery store, the bank, or doctors’ appointments, attending weddings and getting your hair cut – all the usual personal tasks from life in a peaceful western society, still happen.
Of course if you travel an hour south or 90 minutes north you will experience a completely different war. The closer you are to the northern and southern borders, the more Israel resembles the war clips that we all see on the evening news. Newspapers and online media from around the world are showing endless video clips of people running for their lives or watching their homes being destroyed. In these places war does not have the surreal qualities that you experience when you live in the center.
In the center of the country there is a low-grade sadness hanging invisibly over our heads. You can’t see it but you can definitely feel it. There are sporadic sirens and everything feels muted. It’s like living your life in black and white, instead of in color.
Almost all of our friends have children and in-laws who were called up to their old army units last weekend. And the ones who were not called up feel like they aren’t doing their part. In a small country like Israel where national military service is obligatory, most soldiers feel a strong sense of responsibility to the other members of their units. Even if it means literally getting on a plane from Thailand where you just arrived a few days earlier for a long overdue vacation. If you ask a soldier why he or she returned, the inevitable answer is “how could I leave the other members of my unit to go “in” without me? Someone would have to cover my job and that wouldn’t be fair because they are my brothers.”
There are photos and videos all over social media of plane loads of ex-soldiers leaving their post-army treks and lives elsewhere to get back to Israel as fast as they can to go into battle with their friends. Soldiers who haven’t returned for their annual post army service for the past 10 years are on waiting lists to take any position that the army needs to fill.
The overwhelming feeling is that we are all in this together. The soldiers go to their units, ex-soldiers who aren’t needed by the army take on other volunteer jobs, younger teens babysit for free to help out young mothers who find themselves alone with their small children because their husbands have been called up. Others make challahs so that soldiers and displaced people can maintain some sense of their Jewish identity on Shabbat.
There are thousands of stories; and each one is remarkable.
And this is why we will win. We have a purpose. We believe in something greater than ourselves. Our enemies can threaten us, bully us, or hurt us. But they cannot break us because we have nowhere else to go; except maybe the grocery store.