I’ve tried to imagine it more than once: My kibbutz overrun with armed enemies, no soldiers in sight, leaving a trail of dead on the ground. The scene is not my kibbutz today, but my kibbutz 75 years ago. The Jordanian legion rolled into the kibbutz in June, 1948, exactly into the place the Jewish forces had left a hole in their defenses. Twenty people were shot point blank; others were taken hostage. Every year around May or June, the survivors and their families meet in the cemetery to talk about the massacre and to say aloud the names of those buried there. They talk a bit about the kibbutz that fell apart just over a decade later, about those who were left to bury their comrades. They speak about the full day the Jordanians held the kibbutz until the Hagana arrived to retake the site, less about the months some of the men spent captive in Jordanian hands, about their attempts to reanimate the kibbutz afterward.
So if some have flashed back to the surprise attack of 50 years ago, in 1973, my flashback is to a different surprise attack – one I was not even alive for, but which I have imagined more than once.
The people living near the Gaza border feel abandoned. I’ve had the feeling described to me – the rapidly dawning understanding that all you have to defend yourself against guns is a pitchfork and shovel, a kitchen knife or pipe wrench. The understanding that the defense you have been promised is not on its way; it could be too late by the time they arrive.
My flashback is to a different surprise attack – one I was not even alive for, but which I have imagined more than once
The new country was still at war in June, 1948, and those on the kibbutz that day considered themselves a part of the effort – the one that held on to land by farming, that grew food for the country, that believed that peace was on the horizon. All these years later, the narrative of the necessity of holding on to land through populating the periphery has become threadbare, the underlying cynicism exposed. Those living near the border have been on the front lines for decades. We send them hearts and kisses, but the truth is, we were not able to protect them. We never really were.
My kibbutz is not a border kibbutz. Sirens caught us – in the shower, eating breakfast in my sister’s house, crowded into her safe room together with an ever-changing assortment of kibbutz members and her neighbor’s Filipino caregiver. But we could only watch the horror unfolding in the South on her TV, the orange rectangles with names of areas under rocket fire flipping up and down the right-hand side of the screen.
We’ve been here long enough to have experienced our fill of wars and skirmishes. We’ve run for bomb shelters, taped our doors and donned gas masks, hosted temporary refugees from border areas and flattened ourselves on roadsides while iron dome missiles shot off next to our car.
This time feels all-too familiar and yet completely different.
For one thing, for years we’ve understood the end to be known even before the attacks started. After two or three weeks of rockets and retaliation, we’d say we accomplished our objectives, we’d sign a cease-fire and we’d enjoy relative quiet for the next six months or so.
Now, not even the present is known, the reports can tell us there are dead, wounded and kidnapped, but not who or how many. The numbers of towns and kibbutzim overrun by armed Palestinians changes from hour to hour, and they cannot tell us which, if any, are back in Israeli control. The reporters call it “war fog,” but to some extent, it feels like war chaos.
They forget how many of the young men who were protesting last week are donning their uniforms and heading to the border as I write
The finger-pointing began mere minutes after the war started, and questions will definitely have to be answered. Some will have to accept blame.
But voices have also already been raised against the left, against the pilots and soldiers who refused to show up for training, against those protesting the government in the face of anti-democratic legislation.
They forget how many of the young men who were protesting last week are donning their uniforms and heading to the border as I write. Certainly left-leaning reservists from my kibbutz are on their way. They are not the ones giving (or not giving) the orders, nor are they the ones who have been ignoring an explosive situation for way too long.
After my kibbutz re-formed itself in 1948-49, the members found themselves embattled in new ways. The members who had been killed could not be considered war fallen, because they were not enlisted. Those left trying to hold the place together were expected to feel shame, for not having been able to defend their land. To this day, the incident is rarely talked about, and is never taught in schools. It goes against the image we want to present to the world — and ourselves — of invulnerability, strength and intelligence.
If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that compassion is as important as strength and intelligence. We are not invulnerable, our strength and intelligence can fail. These just failed those civilians who have been living in harm’s way with only kitchen knives and pistols to defend themselves, just as they failed the original members of my kibbutz. War is a time for hatred and anger, but I believe we are going to need a fair amount of compassion, as well, if we are to survive.