To most people my decision to leave Canada for Israel this past November seemed like a death wish. For me it was the most life affirming, empowering gesture I could make.
I was born in Canada to parents who arrived there from Poland before World War II. Half my extended family perished in the Holocaust. I became an Israeli citizen 8 years ago to honour their memory and to fulfill a promise I’d made to Golda Meir when I was 12 years old. (It’s a long story for another time.) I had the ideal arrangement: cold, rainy Vancouver seasons in Tel Aviv, hot, humid Tel Aviv seasons in Vancouver. I moved seamlessly between my two beloved worlds.
And then Oct. 7 happened. 3000 Hamas terrorists burst through Israel’s southern security barrier and slaughtered 1200 Israelis and took some 250 back to Gaza as hostages, to be imprisoned somewhere in Hamas’ 500 kilometres of underground tunnels. The victims ranged in age from babies under a year to seniors over 80, some of them Holocaust survivors. Almost immediately, thousands of rockets were launched from Gaza in the direction of Israel, bringing life there to a virtual standstill, as Israelis hunkered in their bomb shelters. At the same time Israel declared war on Hamas and called up 350,000 reservists, many of whom answered the call from thousands of miles away. The intention was to obliterate Hamas. Once more, Jews invoked “Never Again”. And all I could do was weep as I felt my soul being destroyed. My Holocaust gene had kicked in. I was in exile, helpless and bereft.
Predictably as soon as Israel began retaliation against Hamas the media war was launched with the usual accusations of genocide, apartheid, and disproportionate use of force. Simultaneously there were huge anti Israel demonstrations in the streets and college campuses, as well as attacks on Jewish institutions and individuals. I crawled into bed and pulled the covers over my head. I was not coping well. Ironically the strongest comfort came from daily conversations with my Israeli cousins who were sympathetic towards me because of the emotional hardship of being so far away. I felt somewhat ashamed and resolved to pull myself together. I decided to make my own public statement as a Jewish woman – and an Israeli citizen. I put on a large, rather prominent Star of David. On my left arm I had an orthopaedic brace, reinforced with heavy steel rods. (I was recovering from surgery for a broken arm which is why I was still in Canada.) On the right hand each finger had a ring with a setting of a large, prominently raised stone, my glamorous version of brass knuckles. Thus armed, I ventured out into the streets of Vancouver. No one paid any attention to me, but I felt better for having made that gesture.
As soon as I set foot in Israel I breathed a sigh of relief. Though there were still occasional rockets, I felt safe. The first time I was in the bomb shelter in my building, it was more like a social gathering. We were chatting quite comfortably and when we heard the boom, a cheer went up. The Iron Dome had done its job. I not only feel safe here. I feel strong because Israel is the very antithesis of victimhood. Most Jews who came here didn’t come out of some idealistic notion of Zionism, as I did. They came because they had no place else to go. The remnants who survived the Holocaust came. 850,000 Jews expelled from Arab countries when Israel was founded came. Ethiopians came, airlifted to the promised land. And more recently over a million Jews came from the former Soviet Union. Israel is the land of no choice. There is a freedom in acknowledging that. And a simplicity. We have learned the hard way that we can’t trade land for peace. What our enemies want is for us not to exist at all. As Golda Meir put it, “They say we must be dead. And we say we want to be alive. Between life and death,I don’t know of a compromise. And that’s why we have no choice.”
Everyone here understands that reality and embraces it and commits to it, moment by moment, day to day. It’s an empowering reality. And it builds strength. And unity. There is an almost palpable sense of everybody being in this together – Jews, Israeli Arabs, Druze, Christians – there is no room now for division. People are gentler and kinder with each other. Daily life is characterized by heroism, generosity and sacrifice, whether it’s giving blood, volunteering to work in the field, or offering accommodations to families that have been displaced by the war. And then there are the hostages, front and centre. They are constantly in our hearts. They are ours, and we will not rest until they are returned to us. Above all, we have an army that will do and does whatever it takes to ensure the safety and survival of Israel and its people. We will not be victims.
That is why I am at peace in Israel. Let them march in the streets of London, New York, Paris, Toronto and yell, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Let them call Israel an apartheid state. Let them say that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza. Let them hate us because we refuse to be victims. Let them hate us for our strength, and our commitment to survive and prosper. Let them hate us because we choose life.