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I can see their faces

For American Jews to grasp what's at stake for Israelis, they have to be able to picture those at risk of harm
Children and residents of Kibbutz Nir Am release balloons carrying candy towards the Gaza Strip on June 15, 2018. (Screen capture: Hadashot TV News)
Children and residents of Kibbutz Nir Am release balloons carrying candy towards the Gaza Strip on June 15, 2018. (Screen capture: Hadashot TV News)

It is important to be able to close your eyes and picture what the people targeted for harm look like.

American Jews are diverging from Israeli Jews. Everyone says so.  Descriptions are given. Prescriptions are offered. For education. For better understanding, to foster respect and solidarity.

These might help. But what might help more would be if more American Jews knew what actual Israelis look like.

The “Modern Orthodox,” the group I belong to, feel closer to Israel than the average American Jew. Some of this closeness stems from religious belief or ideological commitment. But a lot comes from knowing Israelis.

Our social matrix with Israelis is fairly dense. Many of our kids spend time in Israel. A number make aliyah. For these and other reasons, we hang out in Israel often. There we meet Israelis.

We meet Israelis here too. The Boston area attracts many — for sabbaticals and post-docs in universities, teaching jobs in day schools, stints in think tanks, jobs in high-tech. Many Israelis stay here for a year, or a couple of years, some for longer, or much longer.

Like anyone far from home, Israelis in America hang together. Even travelers who know the local language feel more at ease in the one they speak back home, bantering with those who went to their schools, know their songs, like their foods, get their jokes. When I visit Israel, I stay mostly in an Anglo bubble, tongue-tied and socially inept outside it. Quite like my bubbe and zeyde, in their Yiddish bubble.

When Israelis join us here, we get to know them, at least a bit and sometimes more than that. We see them in shul, at our Shabbat tables, or at theirs. They contribute much to our community, and we miss them when they go. Sometimes, we stay in touch.

We do not talk politics, ours or theirs. We talk about what people talk about — jobs, kids, travel. In this way, we know what they sound like, and what they look like. We know what their kids look like too — at youth groups, lounging on the shul steps, shooting hoops. And we know, though no one talks about it — except at the tekes (ceremony) for Yom Hazikaron — that their kids, unlike ours, will serve in the IDF. In this way, we sense, though no one spells it out, what such service implies.

When tens of thousands of Gazans mass at the border for what they call the “March of Return,” the marchers are plain about what they want to return to: all of Israel. They make their immediate aim quite clear: to breach the fence in order to harm, kidnap, and kill as many Israelis as they can.

I live in a leafy American suburb. The air is soft this time of year, the grass is green, the local pond shimmers in the early-morning sun. No one will try to murder me today.

The Israelis whom Hamas wants to kill are ordinary people. They are not chess pieces on a board. They are not action figures in a video game. They are not players in some ideological puppet show, whose viewers get to strut their virtue by rooting for heroes and hooting at villains. The Israelis potentially in harm’s way are just people trying to raise their families and pursue their careers. At least to some extent, we who meet them know what they look like. And we know what their children look like, the ones they will send to defend their borders, their homes, and their lives.

Israelis of course know this far better than we do. Let one soldier be lost, one teen be washed away by a flash flood in a Negev wadi, and the whole nations mourns. Everyone knows the one who was lost, or his parents, or her friends, or someone who looks just them. Losses you can picture not abstract. They are personal.

I can’t say I get to know most Israelis very well, not in a rounded sense.  Many gaps divide us, of language and background, of age and stage of life.

I have no proposal to draw our communities together. I offer no plan. Just this thought:

It is harder to consign people to a fate aimed at them by remorseless and implacable enemies once you can close your eyes and see the faces of their intended victims, the women and men, the boys and girls, they want to kill.

About the Author
Avi Rockoff came on aliya with his wife Shuli in March 2022. They live in Jerusalem.
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