Nina B. Mogilnik

Rest and Relaxation in a War Zone

It seems strange to say, but our recent, week-long trip to Israel was the best vacation my husband and I have had in what feels like forever. To some, that might seem absurd; to others, perhaps obscene. Let me explain.

I live in America, a country on the knife’s edge of collapse, if political, social, and cognitive polarization are any indication. The volume of idiocy in America–on right and left–is staggering, soul-crushing, and exhausting. Fleeing that reality to a place at war might seem the wrong solution, but Israel is where we have amazing family and friends, people who are serious, loving, wise, and kind. People who can laugh and cry with gusto. People who are generous to a fault, whom we love, and whose love we feel deeply in return.

We are well aware of the reality that Israel is also a divided nation, with its share of fools and cruel characters. So we admittedly stayed in the bubble of Tel Aviv, with sojourns to outside places that kept us far from the West Bank and Jerusalem, for example.

We arrived at 4a.m. on a Friday, and made our way to our hotel in Tel Aviv, a place we have now stayed at, in various familial combinations, three times in a year. It feels like home. The staff are like family to us. What we are to them, I cannot say, but they are great actors if their warm greetings to us are fabricated.

We brought with us two large duffel bags stuffed with toys my daughter had collected for displaced Israeli children, to which I added clothing and some toiletries. It was not enough, to be sure, given the need, but it was what we could manage between my husband and me. And the amazing hotel staff offered to find a place to take it, so it would land where needed, which is all we wanted.

We had Shabbat dinner on Friday night in Hod Hasharon, with my cousin who is more sister/mother figure to me, and holds an especially beloved place in my heart.  We were driven there by her son and his wife, whose wedding we attended last May, before the world imploded. Especially their world.

The food was, as always, delicious. The company, gracious and kind. The conversation, serious. After all, there is a war on in Israel, between Israel and Hamas, Israel and Hezbollah, and between the lunatic right in Israel and everyone else. Not to mention the war against Israel being waged by the rest of the world, or so it seems. My family were amazed when I described the craziness in America, the pro-rape chorus on college campuses, the idiocy of adults who ought to know better, but seem happy to be taken hostage. Or worse, to be the leaders of the hostage takers. They were incredulous, as were the staff at the hotel and even Shnay Or, the hat seller of Nachalat Binyamin, when I described the reality. “But don’t they know that Israel is the country that is a democracy, that it’s pluralistic, that it accepts LGBTQ people?”  “I don’t know if they know,” I told him. “But I guarantee you they don’t care. And the truth would be lost on fools holding “Gays for Gaza” signs anyway.”

We spent time at the beach with my husband’s French cousins, who happened to overlap with us. We see them rarely, since they were visiting from Paris, so that was a real treat. The Sabra wife of Len’s other French cousin (who ironically was in New York at the time), shared a story about an artist colleague in New York who was locked out of her classroom (at Pratt, or Parsons, I can’t recall) by Kampus Keffiyeh Klowns (my term, not hers), who told her she would would not be teaching. “Can I at least get my computer?” “No.” She went to the security guard who told her to just let it be. And she waited twenty hours to retrieve her laptop.

We went on a curator-led “insider” art tour, which was wonderful, and reminded me that in the midst of horror, Israelis somehow never stop creating, innovating, living.  I was mindful that all the folks I was seeing and interacting with were traumatized, even though they looked normal. Including my family. How could they not be?  “They’re building tunnels from the West Bank,” my cousin told me. So the lessons of October 7th for Palestinians? Keep it up. For Israelis: this will never end. Never.

My cousin’s younger son, traveling outside the country, absorbed the news that two of his comrade friends from his unit, which was stationed in the north, were killed in combat. That war, for the vast array of people not paying attention, is the one being waged by Hezbollah, another Iranian proxy, against Israel. The fear and expectation is that a full-scale war with Hezbollah is coming.

Which is what makes scenes of Israelis seemingly enjoying life so important.  Downright magnificent, if you ask me. One day, you’re in a tank, or with your infantry unit. You’re sent home, and you want to live. To kick that soccer ball on the beach, to have drinks with friends, to dine out, to go for a jog. All the things that mimic normal, life-affirming.

On Sunday, we went to Kibbutz Erez (yes, the same name as the crossing), so quite close to Gaza. We picked clementines to the booming soundtrack of war. The instructions: if you hear sirens while picking, lay down on the ground and cover your head. I guess we didn’t need to be told…and hope for the best.

I went with my husband to the Hostages Plaza. I had been before, in February, with my daughter, but he had not. Some things were different, but the soul-crushing nature of it all was the same. We went from there to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. It was powerful and important to be reminded of creativity, some of which was rooted in pain, as art often is. And the side-by-side nature of the Hostages Plaza and the Museum might be the perfect metaphor for Israel as a nation, as a people: pain beside beauty, loss beside creative rebirth.

There are everywhere in Tel Aviv signs to Bring Them Home. Hostage posters everywhere. There were none in Jerusalem when I was there in February. Only one partly ripped down at a bus stop. It made me never want to set foot in Jerusalem again. But it was a powerful reminder of the disunited nature of the nation, a disunity fostered and enflamed by a corrupt, fascistic, theocratic-minded government, at the head of which sits a cowardly, self-serving megalomaniac.

Which brings me to the question I’ve been wrestling with for a while: do I march in or wave a flag on the sidelines of the June 2nd Salute to Israel Day Parade? Do I stay home? What exactly would I be saluting? I cannot wave a flag as if I am endorsing the government. How can I participate without people assuming I agree with a government that has done everything to show its contempt for those who are outside the right-wing bubble of racism, incitement, and true anti-Zionism? I asked my cousin’s older son, the one who was at Shabbat dinner. I had an idea of what he would say, but I asked anyway. “Will there be people from the government there?”  “There always are,” I told him. “Then I would only go to protest, to curse them.” So that is what I think I will do. I am thinking of the sign I will make and hold. For myself, for Ido’s fallen comrades, for Nadav’s pro-democracy protests, for my cousin’s fears about the tunnels being dug in the West Bank. For my Holocaust surviving family, buried in an Israeli cemetery, who would look at the Israeli government with horror, knowing they and their descendants had been betrayed by the worst among us.

I cannot influence what this government does or says. I most assuredly cannot influence anything the pro-Hamas haters say or do. I can only, as I remind my children, control what I put out in the world. So I will use my feet as Rabbi Heschel taught, to pray. I will use my hands to hold my sign. And hope someone reads my words, and pays them forward with their own foot-born, sign-aloft prayer. Because if Israel is truly to be a light unto the nations, we must somehow extinguish the darkness from within. And we cannot do that if we look away, if we endorse with our presence the policies that are tearing a nation apart, leaving hostages to die gruesome deaths, and parents to bury their soldier sons and daughters.

About the Author
Nina has a long history of working in the non-profit, philanthropic, and government sectors. She has also been an opinion writer for The Jewish Week, and a contributor to The Forward, and to The New Normal, a disabilities-focused blog. However, Nina is most proud of her role as a parent to three unique young adults, and two rescue dogs, whom she co-parents with her wiser, better half. She blogs about that experience now and again at
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