Tuesday, September 2, 2014
I recently had an unexpected experience like my grandmother did 70 years ago. Just a toddler at the time, my grandmother sat in a bomb shelter surrounded by strangers in Holland during World War II. She was already an orphan, her entire family killed in the Holocaust. Bombs exploding overheard, she remembers that although she was terrified and crying, nobody in the bomb shelter comforted her or paid any attention to her.
70 years later, I also found myself completely alone in Jerusalem surrounded by strangers as the Red Alert siren sounded, notifying civilians of rockets overhead. When the sirens sound, you have 90 seconds to run to shelter, but that's in Jerusalem. In places in the south of Israel, people have 15 seconds to get to a bomb shelter or safe room. And as we saw with the recent, tragic death of four-year-old Daniel Tragerman, sometimes people only get a few seconds before the rockets hit.
When I heard the siren, I dropped what I was doing and quickly got myself to the safe room in my building. There I found myself surrounded by complete strangers including an Israeli couple, an Orthodox family, and a group of university students. This was the first time I met my neighbors, and when they found out that this was the first alarm I had ever heard, they all started to hug me and gave me their phone numbers and told me to come to them if I ever need anything. There was suddenly a loud "boom!" and the building shook a little bit (the rocket landed in an open field), and a little boy started to cry. Everybody comforted him and reassured him that everything was okay. A few seconds later, everybody got up and went back to their apartments to go back to living their lives.
This war has been tragic for both sides, so of course there is tension between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Just about a week ago, hundreds of people gathered outside of a wedding between a Jew and a Muslim to protest the intermarriage. I spent today in Jaffa, a city where Muslims and Jews, Israelis and Arabs live together in mostly peaceful coexistence. We walked around the port area and had lunch at an Arab restaurant, and everything seemed really empty. My cousin said that many Israelis stopped coming to these Arab places since the war started here, but not because they’re nervous about their safety. They’re making a political statement and showing their opposition to Arabs amidst the conflict. And according to my cousin, many Arabs are doing the same. This conversation took place minutes after we visited the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa, a place that brings together young Jews and Arabs for peacebuilding projects. This is just a small example of how contrasting and complex life is here.
Not only has there been tension between Jews and Arabs, but there has also been conflict within Israeli society. For example, thousands of Israelis showed up to a demonstration in Tel Aviv to protest the war, and there was violence between them and counter-protesters.
It’s amazing how people can have such different reactions in times of conflict- there is violence and division but there is also unity and compassion occurring simultaneously. In the midst of somewhat recent hostility between religious and secular Israelis over the issue of mandatory army service, hundreds of young Orthodox men enlisted in the IDF, and prayers for the safety of the soldiers echoed throughout religious neighborhoods. There was an outpouring of care packages and donations to help the soldiers throughout the war. There were pictures and articles all over the internet of young, old, religious, Orthodox, Druze, Christians, and Arabs leaving their often conflicting streams of life and converging in bomb shelters. While this may be a necessity and not a choice, when sirens sound in the cities, shopkeepers and residents open their doors to any stranger on the street.Take my experience with the siren- all these different kinds of people- Orthodox, young, old, American, Israeli- who usually have nothing to do with each other were sitting all together and acting as a community. These people never met me before, but they treated me and each other like family, which was incredible to witness. At work the next day, it seemed like everybody in the office asked me if I was okay after hearing the alarm, and my Israeli relatives all called during and after the fact.
I had such a different experience from my grandmother 70 years ago in Europe. Of course, you can't compare the times and mentality of people during World War II with life today in Israel, but it still amazes me what a contrast our experiences were. While my grandmother probably never felt more alone, despite me also being alone, I felt part of a community and part of the Israeli people who are all facing this together. So while I know this is not the safest or most ideal time for me to be in Israel, I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to experience this level of unity that I never felt anywhere before.