Behind the Lines: My Summer in War-Torn Israel

When I tell people I spent my summer in Israel, they imagine me hiding in a bomb shelter listening to the sound of Katyushas falling nearby. They ask, “Was it dangerous? Did you see the fighting?” I stayed in Beit Shemesh (a suburb of Jerusalem) so I can, thankfully, answer no to both these questions. I can’t recall any scenes from the frontlines, so I don’t know anything extraordinary about the military strategy or politics of the war itself. What I did come away with was firsthand knowledge of the reaction amongst the Israeli people; something that is hard for a journalist embedded on the frontline to cover. But, this is an important part of understanding Israel as a society and so, it is this I will write about. In northern Israel, people were living with tangible fear in their bomb shelters or taking refuge with family or friends in the south. For the rest of the country though, life physically went on as normal, though the war was felt in other ways. All Israeli men serve in the reserves until the age of 45. So, many fathers, sons, brothers, and friends were called up from the reserves to active duty. This become particularly clear when at a Bat Mitzvah I attended in early August. There were fewer people than expected because many fathers had been called up and could not attend. Everybody knew or was related to somebody who was serving in the army on regular duty (all men ages 18-21 and women 18-20) or somebody called up from reserves. Second, everybody knew somebody living in the north. Israel is physically very small and though it seems crowded at times, there are only just over 6 million people in the country. So, people were worried about their family and friends living in Tzfat and Haifa. The third major way the rest of the country felt the war was the number of refugees who came from the north to seek shelter. People opened up their homes to students and families, volunteered to do laundry, and put together meals for people who left their kitchens behind. I was staying at a Yeshiva with the other 60 American high school girls from my program. As the war got worse and rockets began hitting Haifa, another girls camp from that area with about 50 girls came and stayed on our campus. Finally, the obvious way that the rest of the country felt the war was because everybody was talking about it. It was constantly on the radio and TV. It was argued about by politicians in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament), discussed around the dinner table among family and friends, and talked about between strangers in taxis and elsewhere. It created incredible unity in Israeli society. People who just a year ago were split into orange and blue camps and who screamed at each other in the face of the withdrawal (or expulsion, depending on your perspective) from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank were now united by an outside enemy. Israelis are generally arguing with each other and divided, secular vs. religious being the deepest divide and the cause of many other disputes. A degree of unity is generally felt in any country after being attacked. But, in Israel it is far more than this. Maybe part of it is the degree of division– completely polarized hatred- from which people came together. There is a unique unity felt by everybody since everybody has, is, or will serve in the army. All mothers with children serving their time in Tzahal (the IDF) felt the same fear- especially the ones with sons on the frontline. It isn’t like America where a disproportionate number of poor people worry about losing a family member in the war. Compulsory service means everybody is worried. And there is the forced unity of a people constantly facing a threat to their very existence. The threat is not felt during quieter years, but wake up calls like this past one quickly remind Israelis (and Jews around the world) that the only people they can truly rely on are each other. But, it is not strictly fear that is felt. It is worry and concern- yes. But, it is also strength, hope, confidence, and pride. Israel did not win this first battle of the latest war on the Lebanese boarder. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Bush may declare it an Israeli victory, but Israelis know otherwise. Hezbollah was not destroyed or disarmed, Nasrallah was not killed, and overall Israel displayed a clear lack of strategy and preparedness. Citizens, particularly the ill prepared and poorly equipped reservists, have rightfully criticized the government, especially Mr. Olmert, Minister of Defense Amir Peretz, and IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz in the past month. They will continue to argue with each other until the next conflict hits from the outside, simply because this is how Israel is. I couldn’t have picked a better time to go to Israel. It was my third trip, but the other two times were both quiet. It was unfortunate that this latest conflict took place, but if it had to happen, I’m glad I can say I was there to be a part of it. I got to experience firsthand the transformation of Israeli society from the relatively peaceful times of internal bickering to the unity of wartime. It’s something completely unique and unlike anything else I’ve experienced.