It’s been quite a month.
I can’t remember another time when I’ve had so many friends and colleagues from the States checking in with me, asking me if I’m ok. Or expressing condolences. Or just asking me to explain things.
This long May started with the Meron crowd crush disaster that took 45 lives. While this actually happened on April 30, it was during May that I found myself responding to questions and expressions of sympathy from my American spiritual care colleagues.
The conventional wisdom is that Israel is a dangerously divided country with its people sorting into four competing tribes — Arab, ultra-Orthodox, national religious and secular, as president Reuven Rivlin says. But what stands out to me from the Meron disaster is how united Israelis seemed in its aftermath. Everyone seemed to be mourning together.
Then on May 10 rockets started falling from Gaza. My wife and I made Aliyah in 2014 in the midst of the previous Gaza war so we’d been here for rockets before, but we didn’t have any children then. Boy, having kids changes things!
Every night I went to sleep hoping that there wouldn’t be an attack during the night, and worrying about whether I would be able to get the kids down the stairs in time to the ‘miklat’ shelter if a siren went off. I slept with my clothes on. I carefully placed my sandals by the door.
Luckily for us here in Jerusalem, far from Gaza, there was never another attack after the evening of May 10. But for those who live closer to Gaza — including, especially, in Sderot, Ashkelon and Ashdod — the rocket fire was frequent.
The Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system stopped most of the Hamas missiles and many people are fortunate enough to have a mamad — a safe room — in their homes, which saved many lives. But even that was not always enough. In Sderot a five-year old was killed when a piece of rocket shrapnel penetrated his family’s mamad. As the father of a five-year old myself, I was deeply saddened by this.
Being a father and being responsible for young lives changes so much. I constantly worried during that time. I felt such guilt that I had not provided our children with a mamad where they could sleep at night at times like this.
The cease fire was finally announced to go into effect at 2am in the early morning hours of Friday May 21. Why 2am, I wondered? Was Hamas planning some kind of last-minute barrage while most people were asleep? I decided to stay up until two, sitting close to the door to the building stairwell in case I needed to unlock it quickly. I watched the news. Thankfully, nothing happened.
I was so relieved when it was over, but the echoes of it, like a physical trauma, continue to resonate through my body and soul. Again, having children changes everything. I not only worry about their physical safety, but I want, even though I know it is impossible, to preserve their innocence, to protect them from having to know that this is a world where there are people who want to harm and kill you.
I especially don’t want them to have to endure a horror like the murderous Second Intifada with its countless suicide bombings of buses and wedding halls, etc. Today is the 20th anniversary of the Dolphinarium bombing in Tel Aviv where a Hamas suicide bomber took 21 lives, mostly young immigrants from the former Soviet Union out for a night of dancing and partying.
Maybe 20 years seems like a long time to you. But the inconceivable traumas of that time shaped a whole generation of Israelis, and changed the political landscape dramatically. Israelis lost hope that there were Palestinians actually interested in making peace and in finding a way to live together instead of murdering each other. With that hope gone, all political support for the left collapsed, and the right-wing has been ascendent.
Today, as I write this, political negotiations are going on that are expected to put an end to Benjamin Netanyahu’s long time as prime minister and replace him with a very right-wing former protege, Naftali Bennett, as the leader of a unity government.
Here is another area where I’ve had to respond to a lot of inquiries from my American friends and colleagues. Why, they ask, if you’re so interested in peace, are you excited about just another right-winger coming into office? (And what is this thing called a ‘unity government’?)
What’s hard for Americans to get — I know I can barely get my head around it! — is how dramatically different parliamentary democracies like Israel and most European countries are from American-style presidential democracies. In parliamentary democracies, prime ministers are accountable to the coalition that puts them in office and they can be removed from office at any time by that coalition.
So, on the one hand, it’s true that Naftali Bennett would be a very right-wing prime minister. On the other, this change coalition would be one of the most amazing and radical developments in the history of Israeli democracy. The coalition that Yair Lapid is putting together is incredibly diverse, containing representatives from both the far right and the far left, and even representing Arab voices to an extent never seen before in Israeli government. Israeli prime ministers are not kings or queens, they need the consent of their coalition for what they do. Bennett would not be able to rule by fiat.
I don’t expect Bennett to immediately work towards any kind of peace agreement. But right-wing prime ministers have surprised us before. Menachem Begin was no peacenik either and he made peace with Egypt. Getting rid of Netanyahu by itself will not bring peace. But change, even change that brings a more right wing person than Bibi into the PM’s office, creates new possibilities. And new reasons for hope.
My hope is that someday, not too far off, the inquiries I get from my American friends will be about asking me to explain the complexities of a peace agreement. Or maybe just some small step in that direction. Because I will be grateful for just that.