The photo tells the story. Two young mothers, with two gorgeous rambunctious toddlers, tired but relieved to be in a safe place. They had just spent three nights in their reinforced concrete safe room in Ashkelon to protect themselves from missile attacks, but none of them had gotten a good night’s sleep since the war began because the sounds of explosions were constant, close and overwhelming, even from inside their shelter.
My home on Kibbutz Ketura is safe. It is too remote and too small to be a likely target of attack so within 24 hours of the October 7th Hamas massacre our community had doubled in size, housing families from the Gaza border area who had fled with a couple of suitcases. I told the woman on our kibbutz who had been coordinating the housing for these evacuees that I had room in my house. Within ten minutes I was on the phone with one of the husbands (who drove them down) and three hours later I met my big new family.
Notice the expressions: The women are happy, somewhat relieved, and exhausted. They hadn’t gotten a decent night sleep for days, trying to comfort and entertain scared children and worrying about issues like which toy truck to pack and what the future holds for this country. The kids, being young and resilient, are happy to be running around on my back lawn. But the happiest face in the photo is mine. I have what to do, how to help, something to give. Far too old to be called up for reserve duty (though I have been doing three-hour guard shifts at the newly reinforced front gate) and too remote to be a part of any major national projects, I still had the space in my home and in my heart for these beautiful people.
I need to make clear that this is not an article about what a great guy I am. Indeed, these days my little act of hospitality is the rule not the exception. There are thousands of stories of small acts of kindness, and incredible acts of heroism. Mine is a modest example of the spirit of giving that takes hold here during times of crisis. It is just one piece of an amazing mosaic of unity that springs up everywhere when the country is threatened. From donations to families, victims and communities that were destroyed in the attack to support for soldiers’ aid groups to hotels, towns and private families who have opened their gates to anyone who needs a bed or a meal. Even the atmosphere at the optometrist and the hardware store this week was one of extra good will with people watching each other’s parcels or waving each other ahead in traffic. Anyone who has ever tried to drive in Israel knows that such gallant driving etiquette is rare.
A cynic might ask why this kind of basic good will and unity is not sustainable on a day to day basis. The country just spent 40 weeks embroiled in protests of almost visceral division, in which words like Nazi, fascist, elitist, and dictatorship were thrown around with unsettling frequency, and a palpable fear of political violence breaking out on the street was the norm. Suddenly the whole country is embracing brotherly love and good neighborliness as though it was just invented.
I have a theory. Israel is an intense place. The Middle East is an intense region of the world. Love here is intense. Hatred here is intense. Nationalism here can be intense. Demonstrations are intense. What soccer team you support or what newspaper you read defines you and that can be intense as well. And, in times of crisis, unity is intense. It is a small country and the borders are close. Wherever you turn there is the fragile existential reality of who we are and what we are, and what will become of us. Things have immediacy and a weight that they do not always have in larger, older countries.
When some 1,300 people were slaughtered on October 7th, all of us knew at least one of them. And all of us have friends and family who have been drafted in the emergency call up. Many, many more people will die before this is all over and sadly, the majority will probably be innocent civilians in Gaza. Some of them, however, will be people that I know and perhaps even people that I love.
How do we respond to such a horrible reality? Rage, sadness, introspection, confusion? Apparently, one of the most common responses is to throw ourselves enthusiastically into the project of nationhood, solidarity and community. It doesn’t heal all the wounds and it does not bring back those who are lost, but at least it makes us feel like we are doing something. That is the silver lining in this terrible, terrible black cloud. And that, along with the joy of hugging these beautiful children, explains the smile on my face in the photograph.