Benjamin Simon

The Forging of a New Identity

The serenity of the clear summer night just outside Jerusalem was suddenly broken by distant sirens from the valley below. As we ran for cover, a loud, rumbling noise filled our ears and we looked up to see a brilliant ball of orange illuminate the dark sky. Minutes later, while our hearts were still pounding, we learned that we had witnessed the Iron Dome – Kippat Barzel, in Hebrew – intercept a rocket over Beit Shemesh.

Here I was: a wide-eyed Jewish teenager from Newton, Massachusetts – running for shelter from rockets aimed at me, trying (and failing) to swallow the lump in my throat after hearing that my beloved counselor was just called up to fight in Gaza, calling my worried parents and little sisters from inside a bomb shelter and explaining to them that everything was fine.

In a few short weeks, the gap that had existed between my quiet life and the seemingly foreign conflict was erased. What filled that space was a connection to Israel that could not have come without experiencing the tension, pain, and terror of the conflict for myself.

Without warning or preparation, I realized that I was no longer the third party. No longer was I a spectator watching from the sidelines. The four weeks of being totally engulfed in the conflict made me slowly shed my wide-eyed-Jewish-teenager-from-Newton-Massachusetts identity for a new one. If only for a few short weeks, I truly felt I was an Israeli.

This was not my first trip to Israel. In fact, it was my fourth.  And it was not my longest stay either – my family and I had spent a whole summer here in 2008.  But now, experiencing first hand the terror with which my Israeli friends have grown up has left me feeling something new. I felt the anxiety of being under attack, and even when missiles were not flying, I felt the worried anticipation that an attack could be imminent.

I finally understood what I, and seemingly the whole world, could not fully grasp without being in the heart of the conflict: Israel, just like any other country in the world, can and must defend itself. Israel has not only the right but the obligation to ensure its citizens’ general welfare and to protect its citizens basic freedoms of living free from the constant threat of terror attacks. Moreover, during my time in Israel, I stopped feeling the need to justify Israel’s military actions as if Israel were held to some higher standard marked with objectification and dehumanization.

I have been moved and inspired by visits to the Kotel (the Western Wall), to Yad VaShem (the Holocaust memorial), and other spiritual and Zionist sites in Israel, but being under attack alongside not only my Israeli brothers and sisters but also my American ones was something altogether different. Coming directly from Auschwitz-Birkenau to an Israel that was under direct threat of rockets and tunnels had stirred within me a deep sense of unequivocal, unwavering support of the Jewish state—something that I, a liberal-minded history buff, had never felt before.

Unsurprisingly, I was not alone among my peers in experiencing this transformation. In fact, when I surveyed the thirty-nine other young men and women from my tour bus on this trip sponsored by the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), I found that others shared my sense that experiencing the conflict firsthand made this trip not just a fun summer but, in fact, a life-changing one.

When asked about the prospect of Israel advocacy, over 80% of the thirty-nine surveyed said that they were more likely to advocate for Israel in the future because of their experiences in Israel during the conflict escalation. Vis-à-vis Israel’s right of defense, roughly two-thirds of the survey’s participants understood and believed in Israel’s right to defend herself more than they did before the summer. Lastly, regarding safety, three quarters of the respondents said that, despite hearing sirens multiple times and being under the constant threat of rockets, they felt just as safe or safer in Israel than in America – something that can be attributed to either NFTY’s outstanding security protocol, understanding and levelheaded Israeli madrichim (counselors) who were always willing to help us, Israeli society’s perseverance and unflustered way of life or some combination of the three.

Still, even though the vast majority of my bus group thought that their experiences in Israel during the recent escalation made them somewhat more “pro-Israel,” some felt otherwise. For example, a friend of mine from New York on a different tour bus (who wishes to remain anonymous) reacted differently to Israel taking military action in Gaza. “Just as a police officer would never shoot a hostage to kill the assailant behind the hostage, Israel should not be killing any civilians, regardless of the intent of the air strikes, for the purpose of striking Hamas,” he asserts. “Collateral damage is never acceptable.”

Even though I respect my friend’s opinion, I disagree. While I am saddened by each innocent loss of life on both sides, I hold Hamas fully accountable for the deaths of so many innocent people. Unless the Iron Dome intercepts 100% of all rockets, there is an imminent threat of these indiscriminately fired mortars and rockets landing in Israel and therefore there is a perpetual fear that accompanies this threat – and that’s not even accounting for the mortal dangers that the tunnels that are dug from Gaza under kibbutzim in Israel present. Israel, like any other country with a government whose primary purpose is ensuring its people’s safety, will not and should not allow rockets to fall on its citizens or tunnels to be dug under its kibbutzim without responding either militarily or diplomatically (and when the latter fails or is existentially threatening, military action is the only viable option). Furthermore, Israel has taken preventative measures against collateral damage that few other countries in the world have done or would do during war because these actions are potentially detrimental to the Israelis’ tactical military advantage. On the other side of the equation, Hamas, the “government” of Gaza, spends all of the money that could be going to building schools, hospitals, and, yes, bomb shelters on tunnels for attacking Israeli civilians and capturing soldiers and on rockets to be fired at Israeli schools, hospitals, and highways. Moreover, Hamas fires rockets from densely populated residential areas (and there are alternatives), knowingly exposing its civilians while simultaneously instructing them to stay in their houses and ignore Israeli warning. Those who say that Hamas’ actions are justified because of Israeli occupation in Gaza must be forgetting that Israel withdrew all soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005 and that Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which started in 2007, was a defensive measure against the thousands of rocket and weapon shipments that persist to this day.

If one needs further justification for Israel’s military behavior in Gaza, consider the hypothetical situation in the West Bank should Israel choose to withdraw like it did from Gaza. Given the historical precedent of both Gaza and Southern Lebanon becoming launching grounds for terrorist organizations following Israeli disengagement, it does not take a stretch of the imagination to foresee a similar threat from a West Bank following Israeli military withdrawal. With the close proximity of Israeli population centers, Israel would undoubtedly need to respond militarily to any attacks or incursions such as those that are currently being carried out from Gaza.

Reasonable people will differ in their opinions about the justifiability of Israel’s actions. However, what is undeniable is the potential influence of the experience of coming face to face with the conflict on young adults. I hope that, in the future, teens like me will be able to travel to Israel in peace and not have to worry about rockets, tunnels or innocent people dying on either side of the conflict. However, I truly believe that living the conflict in all of its brutality and ugliness not only has let me see Israel through a different lens but also has had a unique and profound impact on my identity.

About the Author
Benjamin Simon is a student at Gann Academy, a pluralistic Jewish high school in Waltham, MA. He is an active member of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah (an orthodox synagogue) in Newton, MA and the Newton Centre Minyan (a traditional egalitarian shul). Additionally, Benjamin is a graduate of the Tikvah Summer Institute for High School Students and is the editor-in-chief of his school's newspaper.