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Benjamin Birely

The Surreal Jerusalem Wartime Experience

Tonight I sat outside of Jaffa Gate in tears.

Looking at faces of many of the 239 Israeli hostages being held in Gaza since Hamas’ horrific attack on October 7 projected onto the Old City walls, the same sentence kept playing over and over again in my head: How can we carry on? How can we carry on when they’re still there, still being held in Gaza?

Images of hostages held by Hamas projected onto Jerusalem Old City Walls, photo belongs to the author

In every face I saw myself or someone I know. In every face I saw a reminder not only of the nightmare of Oct. 7  but also of the horrific realization that our government has thus far been incapable (through diplomacy or by military force) or unwilling (for whatever reasons) to rescue them.

Is this our new unspoken contract with the state? If any of us were taken hostage from our homes on a chag or Shabbat morning, we could really be stuck in the hands of Hamas or Islamic Jihad for a month — or longer?

About 30 minutes passed as I watched people walk by.

Seminary girls speaking English; Yeshivish guys joking around; two Arab guys on their phones and vaping; a group of Hasidim racing forward, turning away when they saw my smartphone filming in their direction; someone zooming by on an electric bike; a young, awkward couple on a date.

All but one kept walking. All but one didn’t stop to look at the faces on the walls.

They carried on.

As someone who regularly transverses the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem divide, this past month has been a surreal experience.

I regularly hear the surprise of people from Tel Aviv who have come to Jerusalem.

“Wow, it’s like things are back to normal here” is a common refrain. Along with “Huh, you really don’t get rockets here, do you?” (we really don’t, comparatively).

At first it shocks me. Normal? My neighbor across the street has a son who lives in Ofakim. He and his daughters were miraculously unharmed in Hamas’ brutal onslaught on their neighborhood. Stickers with the face of 23-year-old Hersh Goldberg Polin, taken hostage while severely injured from the Nova Music Festival, are everywhere in my neighboorhood. His family lives just a few minutes away. Many of the people on my street have sons in the army, whom they haven’t seen in weeks. Several older guys in my building have dropped everything for miluim. This doesn’t feel “normal”.

But the Jerusalem experience is different. My interactions on the street, in stores and talking to friends, neighbors and students here are different.

Every time I’ve been to Tel Aviv over the past month, that difference feels especially surreal. On one occasion, I told someone that if I wasn’t always consuming some kind of media and spending time in other places, I really wouldn’t be having the mainstream Israeli experience of this war right now.

Jerusalem is simply not mourning October 7th in the same ways as the rest of the country and it has a lot to do with demographics.

Images of hostages held by Hamas projected onto Jerusalem Old City Walls, photo belongs to the author

As of 2023, Jerusalem is 40% Arab and nearly 30% Haredi (making Haredim 45% of the city’s Jewish population). That’s a whopping 70% of the city that isn’t in the same mainstream Israeli reality as the country’s Zionist secular and traditional sectors which make up almost 2/3 of the country.

While Arabs in East Jerusalem and Haredim in the city’s Haredi neighborhoods don’t live in a bubble (and elements of the Haredi world have mobilized to emphatically support the war effort), they’re not living in the mainstream Israeli experience of this war.

They’re not glued to Channel 12 or 13 (or 14), on Israeli social media, or involved in the massive mobilization of Brothers in Arms and the other protest movements that transformed overnight into volunteer and rescue organizations to fill the vacuum left by the state’s insufficient response during the first weeks of the crisis.

They’re far removed from the world of EDM and nature parties like Nova and secular kibbutzim like Beeri and Nir Oz, and, as a whole, they’re not serving in the IDF.

They’re also not experiencing the same “Where was the state? Where was the army?” trauma that is deeply reverberating throughout Israel.

The remaining 30% of the city’s population are predominantly right-wing and well-represented by this government. While they’re deeply invested in what’s happening and their children are in the army or they themselves are doing miluim, my conversations with them sound and feel very different than those with my friends or colleagues in Tel Aviv, Kfar Saba or Hod HaSharon.

Like Haredim, they too feel a kind of ambivalence about the secular and left-leaning kibbutzim that were attacked. They bring up Ofakim or Sderot, instead. They’re also uneasy and frustrated about the criticism of the government which they strongly support and they’re highly skeptical of protest organizations like Brothers in Arms.

They repeatedly bring up Oslo, the Disengagement from Gaza and the “failed leftist approach” that got us into this horrific mess. They’re also adamant that we can’t let the hostages cloud our judgement or “weaken” our objective of eliminating Hamas — “destroying Hamas forever, not returning the hostages, must be our first priority”.

Some express controversial theories that aim to vindicate Bibi and pin the blame for Oct. 7 entirely on the top military brass. And the conversation often turns to the West Bank and how we need to prevent this from happening there, strengthen Jewish communities and building there and prevent PA-controlled areas from turning into Gaza.

If I’ve spent the first half of the day in Tel Aviv, these conversations feel like whiplash.

We’ve seen incredible unity over the past month and overwhelming support for the IDF across sectors, but the daily lived experiences in the realms of Israel and Judah remain remarkably different. We may be one country, but we’re living out very different stories right now — and time will tell how those stories merge or continue to diverge as Israel goes through what is likely the most transformative crisis since the state’s founding.

About the Author
Benjamin made aliyah in 2011 and lives in Jerusalem. Over the past decade he served as a lone soldier, completed a B.A. and M.A. in Ancient History at Tel Aviv University, and worked in Israel's tech industry. He will begin his PhD in Fall 2024. See his account HolyLandSpeaks on TikTok and Instagram.
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