Center Field: My son was gassed in Gaza

I showed that picture to a young American friend. He didn’t get it.

May 1, 2019 04:30
4 minute read.
A Palestinian demonstrator uses a sling to hurl back a tear gas canister fired by Israeli forces dur

A Palestinian demonstrator uses a sling to hurl back a tear gas canister fired by Israeli forces during a protest marking Land Day and the first anniversary of a surge of border protests, at the Israel-Gaza border fence east of Gaza City March 30, 2019. (photo credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS)

Last month, my son Yoni and a friend were patrolling along the Gaza border. It was a Friday and, as usual, thousands of Gazans, mostly manipulated and bullied by Hamas, were rioting – yet again mocking the international community’s promises and Israelis’ hopes when Israel left Gaza in 2005. As usual, IDF soldiers lobbed tear gas canisters into the mob, trying to protect our citizens and secure this legitimate border, without causing Palestinian casualties. As Yoni and Itzhak exited their Humvee, the winds suddenly shifted. Whoosh. The tear gas overwhelmed them, burning their eyes, constricting their lungs.
They scurried back inside, waited for the gas to pass, wiped their eyes, and took a selfie of themselves laughing hysterically with still-red eyes.
I showed that picture to a young American friend. He didn’t get it.
“Why were they laughing?” he asked.
“Why not?” I replied – then explained the historical meaning to me that my son got gassed in Gaza – and laughed.
No, I don’t take what happens at the border lightly. I bleed with Israelis and with Palestinians, too. My cousin Adele Raemer lives on Kibbutz Nirim and has spent years documenting for journalists and posterity how her liberal paradise was menaced by Hamas, rockets, a kite-tifadah, and abandoned by a government that isn’t protecting its citizens.
Yoni notes that “most of the people who are demonstrating on the border aren’t hardcore Hamasniks. They’re just citizens who are bored, who don’t have something better to do.” He wishes our leaders could help their leaders develop a “plan to give the Gazans a better lifestyle, which would weed out most of the problems and leave only the hard-core Hamasniks making trouble.”
And no, I don’t think it’s funny to joke on Holocaust Remembrance Day about gassing people. But it’s because of the Holocaust that Yoni’s reaction moved me so deeply. That we are still here – wow, dayenu. That we now have an army to protect us – amazing, dayenu. That our Jewish state is growing – wonderful, dayenu. But that we have raised a generation of young heroes who know how to defend us and know how to laugh off adversity – now that’s a miracle after millennia of cringing.
Jews have always laughed – some even laughed through the Holocaust. The Warsaw Ghetto’s great chronicler, Emanuel Ringelblum, recorded the story of a teenager who, when asked “What would you like most of all, if you were Hitler’s son,” snapped back: “To be an orphan.”
“Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation,” the psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl explained in Man’s Search for Meaning. The ability “to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick while mastering the art of living.”
Fortunately, Israel relies on more than humor for self-preservation – humor remains an essential auxiliary weapon. The laughter of Yoni and Itzhak wasn’t a laugh of militaristic contempt or disrespect. It wasn’t a laugh of traditional Jewish spinelessness. It was a laugh of resilience, a laugh of buoyance, a laugh of lightness, not frivolousness. It’s precisely the laugh we can now afford to have – thanks to the Zionist miracle – and which we need these days to manage the ongoing afflictions of Jew-hatred and terrorism.
It’s a laugh echoed in the tears we’re shedding for a 60-year-old heroine, Lori Gilbert Kaye, gunned down by that antisemitic terrorist in the Poway Chabad House. It’s a laugh folded into the pride we’re sharing in Poway’s spiritual leader Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who demonstrated such eloquence and strength when shot in his own shul. Bleeding profusely, Goldstein protected his congregants, calmed everyone down, proclaimed “Am Yisrael hai – the Jewish people lives – nothing’s going to take us down” and called for “unconditional love,” before accepting medical attention.
And it’s a laugh that turns bitter when we consider how much attention eight-year-old Noya Dahan and her uncle 34-year-old Almog Peretz are receiving for being shot in Southern California, and how little attention similar wounds – and worse – attract in their hometown, Sderot.

According to Merriam-Webster, the word “outrageous” means “violent, unrestrained” and “going beyond all standards of what is right or decent.” Clearly, both the years-long bombarding of Sderot and the lightning-quick shooting in Poway are outrageous. But the first two meanings of outrageous are “exceeding the limits of what is usual” and “not conventional or matter-of-fact.” Hamas’s great mass sin against Sderot and its neighbors has been normalizing the outrageous. Hamas regularized, even ritualized, terrorism. And it neutralized everyone’s outrage – except for those in harm’s way.
Fortunately, attacks on synagogues in America still fit all definitions of the word “outrageous.” Unfortunately, attacks on equally innocent Israelis who just happen to live near the Gaza border no longer surprise, shock, outrage – especially because Israel in 2005 did what so many outsiders want it to do again today, without helping us figure out how to avoid replicating the disengagement error that guaranteed terrorism.
On June 1, 2001, a Hamas terrorist blew himself up outside the Dolphinarium disco, killing 21 Israelis, including 16 teens. The memorial the parents established nearby says defiantly, in an inspiring matter “Lo nafsik lirkod” – we won’t stop dancing. That’s our Holocaust Remembrance Day message to Holocaust murderers and deniers, to antisemitic terrorists and enablers: We won’t stop dancing. We won’t stop laughing. We won’t stop defending ourselves when necessary while “mastering the art of living” always – as Yoni and Itzhak did and do.
The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.

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