In Israel: Out of Class, Off to War
Of the many ways in which Israel is utterly different from the America in which I grew up, none is as striking as the fact that in the U.S. parents take care of their children until long after they're kids, while in Israel, from a relatively early age, it's the kids who protect the parents.
I was reminded of this strange role-reversal as the war in Gaza began to die down, as the conversations in the cafés turned from the news of the latest battle to the bigger picture. "Who won?" people asked in worried tones.
Weeks of overwhelming Israeli firepower hadn't stopped Hamas's rockets. Some doubted the Israeli Army's claim that all the tunnels had been found and destroyed, and assumed that Hamas would soon be digging new ones. In Lebanon, Hezbollah (which is more heavily armed than Hamas, with larger and more accurate rockets) had sat this round out. But what if it hadn't?
We all sensed America's abandonment: the absurdity of John Kerry's first cease-fire proposal (which read like it had been written by Hamas), the Federal Aviation Authority's turning Israel into a pariah state with the stroke of a pen, and now, a rumored American arms embargo on Israel. Add the wave of vicious anti-Semitism across Europe, and it did indeed seem that it had been an awful month for the Jews as a people.
For me, the funerals were the worst. Mothers spoke in broken voices, fathers wept, siblings cried out in anguish. But nothing was as painful as the eulogies of the girlfriends and fiancées: 22-year-olds shouldn't know that kind of grief.
But those same kids have a resilience that has buoyed many of us older, café-based hand-wringers. At Shalem College, where I work and where we've just opened Israel's first-ever liberal arts college, students who one day were studying literature and statistics, philosophy and music, simply disappeared. They'd gone, we knew, to pick up uniforms, to sign out a weapon and to head into hell. To me, with my American sensibilities, watching them transition from reading Aristotle to heading for gunfights in the alleyways of Gaza seemed an affront to the way the world is supposed to work. To their peers, who continued coming to class even as the war wore on, it was simply how one stays alive here.
Perhaps it was immigrant versus native, or the difference between generations -- but these young people were responding to the war very differently than my friends and I. A few days later I was in Canada and met with a senior official from the government who cares deeply about Israel. "It feels pretty catastrophic," she said to me. It really did.
Her comment reminded me of a conversation a few of us had last Friday evening in Jerusalem as we were leaving synagogue. "How bad was this, really?" someone asked. "If Israel were a stock," someone else responded, "would you buy now?"It was eerily quiet as we walked up the street of what had once been a high-end Arab neighborhood, now entirely Jewish, a reminder of how quickly fortunes can change in that part of the world.
But the kids weren't buying the hand-wringing. They were the ones at war, they were the ones burying their friends, and yet, they just didn't see the war or the world the way that we did. For years, my Israeli-born son-in-law, who spent seven years in the army, has said to us at Passover Seders, as the conversation turns to the line that reads "in every generation they rise up to destroy us": "You're one generation after the Holocaust, while our generation was born after the Yom Kippur War -- we've never known a day in which Israel was existentially threatened. Really, why are you so worried?"
One of my students came back to campus after a week in battle, utterly exhausted. "Gaza is rubble," he said, on the verge of tears. He chatted for a few moments, hugged his friends and went home for Shabbat. On Sunday, he headed back into battle the way I head for the office.
When another student showed up one morning looking like hell, I asked her if she was OK. She'd gotten a text from her boyfriend's buddy the night before, she told me, letting her know that her boyfriend was headed into an area where some of the worst fighting was unfolding. Not surprisingly, she was awake the entire night. At sunrise, she received another text saying that he was out for the day. She slept an hour and a half, came to school, and went to class. This is -- I said to myself, recalling what Columbia University was like when I went there in the 1970s -- a generation made of something utterly different.
I also spoke to a student who was considering coming to Shalem. I barely know her, but she's Israeli and unabashed -- so she asked why I was headed to North America in a few days. I told her it was to rest, to see friends, and to touch base with a few of the college's supporters. "Tell them not to worry," she told me, in what felt like a humbling rebuke in light of that conversation about Israel being a declining stock. "Tell them that we're strong, that we know this is our only home. Tell them we'll be OK."
I didn't know what to say. But you talk to these kids, day in and day out, and you can almost believe it's true.
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