War Away From Home

A vigil in Cambrige. Picture taken by me.

My flight from Tel Aviv touched down at Heathrow on Monday the 2nd and I took the Jubilee line to Kings Cross before switching for my journey to Cambridge. I was nervous, starting third year, but excited to catch up with my English friends after a summer apart. A week later, on Friday night, I said Kidush — blessed the wine — at dinner before we convened for the start of term BOP (Semi ironic Cambridge slang for Big Old Party). We’d convened at my girlfriend’s house and I was working hard to convince everybody to book tickets to Israel over New Years, while they were still cheap. The atmosphere was jovial; I was tipsy, as is expected of a good Freshers Week.

Since that night most of my waking moments are consumed by the struggle not to cry. I’ve spent these days, in the idyllic, sunny streets of a bustling beginning of a Cambridge term, alternating between shock and despair. The pressure has sat in my face for so long I feel like I’m wearing a rubbery mask. I might as well be. I can’t talk to anybody about this. As I look around me, there is no indication here that my home is under existential threat.

My dad called me at 8am on Saturday morning and I rolled over and ignored him. He rang again two hours later, at which point I’d read the news and seen the images. Israel was under attack, there were armed terrorists in the streets, and they’d taken hostages young and old. Bodies were mutilated and paraded to mass applause. My friends all dragged me to brunch where I watched hungover students chat about last night’s hookups. The dissonance made me nauseous.

At first I was simply dumbstruck at the horror of the reality. Israelis are well acquainted with the hatred of their neighbours — we live with the constant knowledge that violence could spark at any moment — but it’s rare that the security system fails to such an extreme degree. With time a creeping anxiety set in. I served in a special forces team during my mandatory service. I knew full well that the appropriate military response would likely be a ground invasion, and that the casualty rate for such an operation would be far too high. My team was drafted the next day and I was stricken by the dilemma: Do I fly back to die?

This question persists as I sit through lectures and don’t hear a word. For the people around me nothing has changed. I can’t talk to anybody. An email went out to the student body offering thoughts and sympathy. Despite this, the University refuses to condemn the slaughter. The Palestinian society has released a statement in support of Hamas, deciding to turn to justification before bothering with sympathy. I see students wondering the campus in Keffiyehs, a symbol of Palestinian solidarity. I hadn’t seen any before the border was breached and partygoers were massacred.

As of now the bodycount from the party alone sits around 260 — This is what it took to elicit outward support for Palestine. If I dwell on this too long it makes it difficult to breath. I was aware that on a university campus the general student sentiment sways Left. I consider myself Left leaning as well, but I didn’t realise how much of this sentiment is blind. In 2014 Hamas was convicted of torturing Palestinians and blaming it on Israel. Hamas regularly hides weapons caches in schools and hospitals. Hamas states in their charter, explicitly, that they reject the peace process in favour of Jihad. I’m not convinced that these beliefs are shared by Cambridge students, even muslim ones, even Palestinians, so the only justification I can think of is ignorance.

And this raises a separate question: How does a population of highly intelligent and engaged individuals remain so detached from, so ignorant of, the reality? The truth is beyond complex but the simple answer is propaganda. Propaganda and a modern first-world detachment from the realities of armed conflict. I can’t talk to anybody about this. So much effort is put into spreading lies and disinformation that nobody knows what is true, and support collapses along identity lines.

You don’t have to endorse Israel’s government (I don’t) to condemn the killing and kidnapping of civilians. The ignorance has evolved. It has transformed into a wilful ignorance of the humanity of Israelis. Of the history of the Jews. The hyper-academic rhetoric of “decolonisation” “Orientalism” and “oppressor/oppressed dynamics” hides the 2600 year old reality of Jewish discrimination. It hides the identities of the dancing boys and girls who were gunned down on Saturday morning. When Israel is described as a “European colonial project” people forget that there is no “Jewish Empire” to mimic that of the British or Dutch. When they say that European Jews stole indigenous land they forget that half of all Israelis are victims of violent expulsion from local Arab countries (Where are all the Iranian Jews now?).

I have a friend who flew home from New York a few days ago to fight. He said he couldn’t live with himself if he hadn’t because, in his words, “Ayn Li Eretz Acheret.” “I have no other land.” This is a well-worn sentiment in Israel. As a Jew with dual citizenship I’ve often wondered how true it is, but after witnessing Jewish owned businesses attacked in London, and seeing the responses of students around me, it’s hard to feel otherwise. I can’t talk to anybody about this either, they wouldn’t understand.

At what point does it stop being politics? How many civilians need to die to overcome the cognitive bias? There are already more Israeli casualties today than were incurred in the 1982 Lebanon war. Coming back from my lectures I see, scrawled in graffiti on an electricity box “FREE GAZA”. I wonder if this is what they intended to celebrate when they wrote this? I wonder if the senseless violence makes any difference to them? I wonder what they’d say if they could meet the friends my friends will never meet again? I can’t talk to anybody about this. The world feels very hostile, all of a sudden, until I remember that it is because I am here, in England, while my friends and family are there. I can’t tell if this makes it better or worse. The ignorance I witness in a place dedicated to knowledge sickens me.

I have since spoken to my team. They’re in good spirits and are training hard. They don’t know what’s to come, but they’re resigned to it. One summed it up neatly: “It’s our shift now, like the generations that came before us.” This is what it means to be the New Jew. The Jew that is done being a victim. This is what it means to be Israeli. They know full well that this is serious, but the most important thing we learned serving together is how to maintain a sense of humour. And they said nobody will hold it against me if I don’t come back. When the team gets the dog shift nobody resents the person who’s left to rest.

About the Author
An international Jew that came to make a home in Israel. Now back overseas studying philosophy and feeling a stronger connection to the land than before I left.
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