Merry Christmas, everyone.
This is my last post from Israel, where Jerusalem and Bethlehem have no Christmas decorations or celebrations. No pilgrims or tourists. The airport is completely empty, as the above photo shows. It’s hard to appreciate the blankness of the gigantic space unless you’ve visited this country before, negotiated your way through various security lines in Terminal 3 and crowded shops and cafes in the circular plaza in the middle.
The stores and counters are open, but there are no people. El Al, the Israeli airline, is still the only airline flying in these sad, sad skies.
This afternoon I attended a memorial service for my uncle who died 12 years ago, and who basically saved the lives of his family during World War II, indirectly providing me with life some 5 years later. I put a small stone on his grave, as well as a small stone on my mother’s grave nearby.
My mother died more than a decade after her brother, but perhaps a small part of her died back in Bratislava, in Slovakia. The voice of survival at any cost seemed to have stayed in the same groove as it was back in 1944 and it affected all aspects of her life, including how she raised her children, her marriage, her friends, her attitude towards money. It was all confirmed by her participation in Israel’s war of independence in 1948 when they went through a life-and-death struggle 2 kilometers away from, of all places, Gaza.
Similarly, Israel continues to live out of October 7. It doesn’t seem to matter how many days and even months have gone by, and it makes very little emotional sense to the big majority here that the world has marched on, with newer news and headlines, other things to think about. Here, October 7 reigns, much as the American 9/11 reigned for a long time. 9/11 reminded us that we were not impregnable, that in fact we were vulnerable and implacably connected to everyone else in the world. That understanding brings a lot of tenderness to my heart, but it scares many others.
Listening to the perpetual radio here, or watching the news, there’s a sense of siege: Hamas to the south, Hezbollah to the north. Imagine how Americans would have felt had, in addition to 9/11, we also had rockets coming in from Mexico and Canada.
From the outside, it’s hard to understand the dread and fear, a little like starting a pleasant conversation with someone standing on line at the supermarket without knowing in any way what that person contains inside. It could be grief, it could be rage, even homicidal intent. You can’t know till you get to know the person much deeper, and even then … Even then …
I am shocked by how the Israeli media presents events in Gaza. It’s not that the news doesn’t mention the thousands killed (though they do leave out the part about the one-ton bombs thrown on urban civilian areas), they even show brief montages of the destruction, of parents holding up a dead child, but it’s as if all this happened somewhere else. As if an earthquake they have nothing to do with struck a distant part of the planet and the ensuing devastation is merely a backdrop to Israeli worries and concerns, nothing more.
One or more newspapers quotes investigations by The New York Times or The Washington Post, and yesterday’s editorial in Ha’Aretz, the closest Israeli equivalent to the American newspapers above, demanded a stop to the mass killing.in Gaza, but it’s a very small voice. A bigger concern here is the growing suspicion that inflicting maximum death and devastation on Gaza may not be the best solution for getting hostages back. That Netanyahu’s and Defense Minister Gallant’s assurances that they will destroy both Hamas and get the hostages back will not happen.
At this point in time, the voices casting doubt on this are fairly muted. They go against the national mood; I think people worry this can happen but won’t voice it aloud.
A terrible reckoning is ahead, I think. Like some reckonings, it may bring about a change in consciousness—I think many Israelis are aware of this, too, but meantime they listen with horror to the news—not about hundreds killed every day in Gaza—but to their own losses. Eight soldiers killed in a missile attack on an armored vehicle, two the other day, three or four another day. In this small country, everybody knows somebody who’s lost people on October 7 or in the ensuing battles.
Right now, there are two nephews down in Gaza and one in the West Bank. When the names of those killed were released on the radio as we traveled in the car one night, my brother’s shoulders stiffened. It wouldn’t have been his boys, they always notify the family before making the names public, but his body freezes nonetheless.
I bear witness to the importance of bearing witness. Not to opinions, not to theories, but to the fear of losing family members, the gracious, angry hospitality of Bedouins, the exhaustion of the wives and mothers “in the rear,” as they call it.
The other day I walked on Via Dolorosa, where Christ walked bearing the cross. I thought of the pilgrims I’d see there, Filipino, Mexican, Colombian, getting down on their knees at each station as the pastor or priest read from the New Testament. Hallelujah! he’d call out.
Leonard Cohen, towards the end of his life, said that in encountering the world you can either raise a fist or sing Hallelujah. “I do both,” he said.
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