It was two years ago, when Israel launched the Gaza War, or “Operation Cast Lead” as the Israeli military calls it, that I had an Israeli experience Birthright didn’t prepare me for–trauma. Even though I was a peace activist my whole life–organizing demonstrationsagainst the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq at age sixteen–during the Gaza war, like many in the Israeli peace camp, I became pro-war.
Boxed up in my tiny Tel Aviv apartment, I struggled to understand how my life could go on as normal while blood was running through the streets of Gaza, just one hour away. For hours I glued myself to the news via television, radio and internet — looking for a way to touch the trauma, to become a victim of the war machine. The IDF warned, that for the first time ever, Hamas missiles could reach Tel Aviv — I cursed my south Tel Aviv apartment and wondered why I didn’t pay higher rent to live up north. At any moment, a missile could land on our house and we would be like the Israelis in Sderot, suffering from shock, shrapnel wounds and property loss — thank G-d I was renting.
A few days after the war started, I had to go out of the house. I had to go to this office and that office, pay this and that bill. I had to, as many of my Israeli friends said, “go on with my life.” But the war wouldn’t let me go — there was no normal life to be had. In every car and shop, the radio and television blared with images of army generals and angry journalists, who were locked out of Gaza and could only stand on hill tops overlooking plumbs of smoke. Every once in a while, we caught a glimpse of a mother lying over the body of her child. A father standing in front of his demolished house — the coffin of his family. In every office I visited, a distraught family member sat behind a desk on the telephone speaking to her or his loved one, who was putting on his uniform and heading to war. The city was suddenly filled with soldiers, carrying heavy bags on their backs and expressions on their faces. The Tel Aviv bubble had been penetrated.
Photo by Wassam Nassar
When I returned home, I closed the big medal door on my bedroom window, which doubled as a bomb shelter. I posted myself in front of the television, keyboard on my lap and started writing. Many of my posts (which I removed later) reached levels of deep distress and hysteria. A few of my Israeli and American friends tried to help me break through the fear and see how cruel and inhumane “Operation Cast Lead” was — I couldn’t hear a damn thing.
Months later, when I returned to the United States, I started to recognize how absurd my state of mind had become. When a military plane crossed over my college campus, I thought it was Iran. When students brought up the war, I accused them of being anti-Semitic. And most notably, at my graduation ceremony, in a crowded auditorium I heard someone speaking Arabic and I immediately thought I was going to be the next victim of a terrorist attack. I was traumatized.
Photo by Wassam Nassar
This mild experience of the war, for someone so new to Israel — at home, safe in Tel Aviv — just touches on how manipulative fear is. For Jews (Israeli and non-Israeli alike), whose identity is so deeply defined by fear of the “other” — from the stories of Purim and Chanukah warning against assimilation, to historical tragedies like the Spanish Inquisition, Pogroms and the Holocaust — our fear continues to serve as a justification for brutal retaliation. Rest assured, we were victims. But wake up, we aren’t any longer.
When I returned to Israel, I started looking for a way to keep my fear in check. I looked for a community that could weather the war storms and not let fear flood us with nationalistic tendencies where we forget what “nation” we’re really apart of, the human one. During the Gaza flotilla raid, an event which only posed danger to Israel’s reputation, I became critical of how quickly journalists picked provocative language and published round-ups and articles, like “‘Lynch,’ ‘Attack’ and ‘Massacre’ – Shooting Down Words in International Waters,” to try to de escalate the fear and nationalistic tendencies that were rising. These posts connected me to a group of thoughtful journalists, most notably two Israeli photojournalists and former soldiers, who travelled regularly to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). They invited me to join them in Nabi Saleh, and slowly I started a journey of recognizing and breaking down my fear of the “other.”
This journey included living in the OPT for six months. During this time, the people that I formerly only saw in the media as “terrorists” vanished. Not because Israel’s endless “security” measures have repressed them, because the security fence has stopped them or all terror cells have been cleaned out — but simply because today 99.9% of Palestinians do not believe that terrorism is the way to freedom.
Photo by Wassam Nassar
But what about that 0.01%? The dozens of families that I came to know from Hebron, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin all had one striking thing in common: at least one or more of their family members was killed or imprisoned by the IDF. There is strong evidence that most “terrorists” have a prior history of violent encounters with the IDF that resulted in an immediate family member being killed or in some cases the attacker her/himself being injured or arrested (see statistical analysis here). And yet, even though Israel continues to collectively punish the entire Palestinian population for the violence of a few, Palestinians recognize something the Israeli government and most American-Jews do not yet understand — violence breeds violence and war will never lead to peace and security.
Now, two years after I shamefully supported the War in Gaza, the murder of 1400 people who have every right to hate and desire revenge, I am sure that I know who the terrorists were and who supported them–it was my democratically elected government, it was my military and it was me. Gaza, I am so sorry. You should not forgive me, or us, but perhaps if I work for your freedom, one day we will be able to reconcile. Until then, all my love.