My mom’s sleeping. She never realized that I was supposed to have been gone by now. She lies in bed and a small noise wakes her up: “Did you eat something?” she asks and shuts her eyes again. I can hear Saint Swapna gurgling softly on the phone to her family in India. They’re anxious about her here, she’s anxious about them there.
And me? I’m trying to get home. Canceled. Canceled. Canceled. I’ll be rebooking once again soon because my latest flight, due to leave on Sunday night, is canceled. This time I’ll try for the European airlines, see if I can go home through there. If you think getting a covid test prior to a flight is hard, try to get a covid test before a flight that’s canceled, rebook and get a second covid test, and when that’s canceled rebook and get another covid test.
“Till there’s a ceasefire nobody will fly,” my brother tells me reassuringly. And there isn’t going to be a ceasefire anytime soon.
My niece is the heroic one, with four little children, pregnant with a fifth, and a husband who came home from an elite unit that’s working “somewhere out there,.” as they say here He’s home for the weekend, scheduled to leave on Sunday, unless he’s alerted to come earlier. “Come for dinner,” she instructed my sister and me, guests number 13 and 14. “Only place that you have to watch out for is before the tunnel on Mt. Scopus; they’ve been throwing rocks on cars.”
She’s not the only one speaking with semi-nonchalance about The Matzav, the situation. Still, she didn’t wish to drive herself with her kids through that. Years ago, when she was a young girl and suicide bombers were blowing up buses, her parents cautioned their children to take basic precautions, but they didn’t prohibit them from taking buses. The Matzav was the Matzav, it was what it meant to live in Israel. But now she has children and insists on keeping her children a lot safer.
Israelis pride themselves on their stoicism. Two-thirds of the schools closed, but not the other third. People who’re not in the South and Center go to work, though the streets at night are quite deserted.
Still, after last Monday’s rockets to Jerusalem, which were fairly symbolic in nature, we are safe here. Hamas has no wish to inflict casualties on the large Palestinian population here, never mind a catastrophic hit on the Al-Aksa Mosque. So, Molly the dog gets walked, my sister goes shopping, I go to visit my mom, and we’ll visit my niece for Shabbat dinner this evening, tensing up a little before the tunnel, but not much. Normal life. Normal activity.
“Look at that beautiful university across the street,” says my mother yesterday.
“Mom, I think it’s a luxurious private home that’s still under completion,” I tell her.
“Don’t be silly,” she says, “they already asked me to teach there.”
“Teach what, mom?”
“With my life, you don’t think I have something to teach?” she says indignantly.
At this point in my life, I feel like I’m the opposite of her. I don’t have a clue what to teach; I don’t have a clue what to say.
It’s so easy to get into stories and principles. I had my principles from Day 1 here. I loathed the occupation, was sure it was wrong. I thought the efforts to undermine a 2-state solution were wrong. I watched Israeli settlers speeding through checkpoints while Palestinians waited in a line a mile long, late to work, late to school, and said: “That’s wrong!” “So many checkpoints,” Sami Awad used to say, “you can’t get into 3rd gear or above anywhere around Bethlehem.”
I felt that the way Israel treated Hamas and the Palestinians under its rule was wrong.
Right, wrong, apartheid, discrimination, oppressor, oppressed. Wisdom, enlightenment. One concept follows another follows another.
When you’re in the middle of these things—and I’m not in the middle—principles fail you. Suffering is suffering. People go down to shelters, sleep there with their families night after night, rockets explode all night and people are afraid for their children.
We watch TV a lot. Over and over again, the spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces tries to reassure the skeptical journalists: “We’re the strong ones. You see what they did to us? We counter that with 10 times more force. We took down their senior commanders, headquarters, internet infrastructure, buildings–we brought that down, so don’t worry. You can trust the IDF, it’s doing its thing, it takes care of us.”
Those declarations fall on deaf ears. Yes, deep inside, Israelis have terrific trust in their army; they know it’s among the best in the world. They and their children have all served in it. At the same time, you can’t get past the existential dread that’s here: here it is, happening again, bombs and rockets and sirens and children crying and people dying.
Long ago I met the Israeli writer David Grossman, who said that Jews in Israel see Auschwitz everywhere. “I don’t know how long it will take.”
This time it’s even worse because of the unrest inside Israel itself, Arabs and Jews facing off each other, stoning, burning, cursing, and even lynching. There is no Hebrew word for lynching, they use the English. A Jewish man was killed on his way to synagogue in Lod? He was lynched. An Arab driver was taken out of his car and beaten to an ounce of his life? He was lynched. An interesting legacy of our own, thank you very much.
They know—I don’t have to remind them—that the scale in Gaza is overwhelming, that what happens on that side is way worse than what happens here. My pregnant niece is bound to wonder what it’s like for a pregnant woman to be unable to get to a hospital to give birth, what it is not to be able to provide safety for your children. People aren’t animals, they’re fully aware that on that small strip of land by the Mediterranean, the densest place in the world, there is horror and destruction.
But there’s also a sense of deep hopelessness and fear: We don’t know what to do. We know those are human beings, but we don’t trust Hamas and there’s nothing more we can do.
Zen truisms come up for me, especially that Zen is about giving no fear. And if and when I manage to get home, a safe distance away, I’ll be tempted to come up with spiritual solutions, with axioms and stories from the past.
But right now, the principles just slip off me. I see how small the story of right and wrong is, how it doesn’t capture the neighbor yelling into the phone about terrorists, the tiredness of hearing explosions in the distance even if they’re not coming straight at you, hearing a siren and wondering if it’s a local ambulance or the warning about incoming rockets, giving you one minute to get to a shelter.
It’s nothing like Gaza, but suffering is suffering. It doesn’t lend itself to comparison (Ours is more than yours!); you’re in the middle of misery. You do what you can, usually it’s closer to home. You walk your sister’s dog, she takes great care of you because you have a cold—what would I do without her?
And though I’d like to get home, I know in my gut that home for me is wherever there is suffering. And for that, I don’t have to rush back to Massachusetts.
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