Bursting my Tel Aviv bubble

When I, on this land, struggled with this war in Gaza, I became Israeli.

Grad hit car beersheba 248.88.ap (photo credit: AP)
Grad hit car beersheba 248.88.ap
(photo credit: AP)
Boaz dipped pita into the warm, spicy sauce. "It's about time," he said. "What do you mean by that?" I asked as the body count ticked upwards before our eyes. "The people down there are suffering," he said. "The people in Gaza, you mean?" "No, in Sderot." And we watched the beginnings of the war from the safety of my apartment in the center of the Tel Aviv bubble. I'd watched another war from another apartment - in the summer of 2006, just after I returned to the States from my first visit to Israel. I was a graduate student then, running from teaching duties to lit classes, staring at CNN and The Jerusalem Post in between. Saleh, an Israeli Arab friend who owned a Middle Eastern restaurant that doubled as the English Department hang-out, grew more sullen by the day, eventually raising homemade white flags around the outdoor seating. For Saleh, an Arab who readily calls himself an Israeli and who sympathizes with both sides, this wasn't an act of submission - it was a call for all sides to surrender to the greater good of peace. We ate many lunches together in silence, the white flags drooping under the afternoon sun. "Do you want to watch this?" Boaz asked, remote in hand, gesturing at Operation Cast Lead on the screen. I did. I didn't. "I don't know," I said. "OK." He shrugged and went back to his breakfast. It felt perverse, in a way. When I was in the States, I was thousands of miles away - it seemed natural to go about my life, seemed logical to keep news of the war on in the background. Now, just 70 kilometers up the coast from a war - when I was a kid, my family and I used to drive further than that to go to the beach on Saturdays - it felt callous to be eating in front of the images on the television. Several days later, rockets hit Ashdod. I called South to check on a friend there, Eitan. "I'm fine, I'm fine," his voice tired. "But you, this is your first war. You're a real Israeli now," he said with a laugh. "We don't feel it here in the bubble," I said. "You will. Wait and see," Eitan said. Another day, another phone call… but this time to the North, to the Arab village where Saleh has been visiting his family. Just two months ago, I joined him there for a weekend. His extended family had greeted me with warmth and enthusiasm. Our visit had been one long meal, one coffee after another, that spanned brother's house after brother's house. When I saw the newspaper pictures of the protests in his village, I searched the crowds for familiar faces, hoping I wouldn't see one. A young man held a burning Israeli flag. I looked carefully, slowly. Saleh has dozens of cousins and nephews - could this youth be one of them? Was this the cousin who had picked me up from the train station? I was as nervous calling Saleh as I had been calling Eitan. My throat tightened as I imagined an emotional Saleh confronting me: was I for or against the war? Calling Eitan forced me to face the reality of the situation here - that people I cared for could be wounded or killed; calling Saleh might force me to take a stand. When he answered, my fears were quickly laid to rest. He hadn't participated in the demonstrations. He thought both sides were wrong and supported neither. We then talked about rockets. Could they reach Tel Aviv? What would I do if Tel Aviv were threatened? "You are welcome to come here, to our village," Saleh said. I pictured the village in my mind then: the mosque within meters of Saleh's apartment, the way Hebrew had seemed out of place, wrong, an intrusion. I wondered if the family that had embraced me would see me differently now: as wrong, an intrusion. Without thinking, I stammered an excuse. I lied to my friend. And when I hung up the phone, I had to confront myself. I wasn't frightened of Saleh, but I wasn't about to set foot in his village. I was scared. As I faced this fear, I felt shame. How could I look Saleh in the face when I didn't trust the people around him, including his family, who had welcomed me with open arms? I was ashamed, too, to face him with the part of me that supported the war, and agreed with Boaz's "it's about time." But when I thought of Eitan, I was ashamed of the part of me that sympathized with the citizens of Gaza. When Eitan had said "You're a real Israeli now," it hadn't rung true to me - simply being here during the conflict wasn't enough. But to feel the conflict - to feel shame, to feel fear, to feel both supportive and critical of Israel, and to feel conflicted - was. After all, when Jacob wrestled with God on this land, he became Israel. When I, on this land, struggled with the war, I became Israeli.