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A Caterpillar and An Anthem

January 1, 2009

We didn’t mean to, but we lied to our kids.

Almost ten years ago, shortly after we made aliyah, we were sitting with our three young children having dinner. One of the boys, still getting used to the idea that his life was going to be very different in Israel, looked up from his food, and asked out of nowhere, “Is Israel still going to have an army when I’m eighteen?”

He was scared. But we knew that he had no reason to be. “Yes, there’ll be an army,” we told him. “But there’s going to be peace by then. By the time you’re eighteen, everything’s going to be different. You’ll see.” I still remember how certain we were, and how relieved he looked.

A couple of weeks ago, on the Wednesday of Hanukkah, Hamas fired more than 60 mortars and rockets at Sederot and the western part of the Negev. The number was high, but the situation wasn’t new. The kids of Sederot have been getting shelled for eight years, with a dramatic increase since Israel got out of Gaza in 2005. The next day, Thursday, I was supposed to go to Sederot to visit my friend, Laura, to see some of the work she was doing on a new movie (about the music scene in Sederot, in which her husband is a leading figure). Despite the horrible weather, it was still a (Hanukkah) vacation day of sorts, and I asked the kids if any of them wanted to come with me. Talia, now in law school, had class and a massive amount of work. Micha, the only one still in high school, also had too much studying to do. But Avi, home from the army for a few days, said he’d happily come – he and I don’t get lots of hang-out time together anymore.

My tour-guide wife was out of town, guiding a family in the north. I figured that I should check with her before taking one of her kids and her only car to Sederot on a week like that. But she didn’t hesitate for a second. “Of course you should go,” she said. “Remember how we resented those people who wouldn’t come to Jerusalem when we were the ones under attack. Just drive safely, and be careful out there. I’ll be home for dinner.” I wasn’t quite sure how one was supposed to “be careful” in the car if rockets started falling out of the sky again, but I didn’t press the point.

A couple of hours later, Avi and I were in Sederot, at Laura’s house. The city seemed deserted, but it was hard to tell whether that was because of the previous day’s barrage of rockets, or the drenching rain that fell all day. The skies were quiet. But even on a day when rockets didn’t fall, it didn’t take long to see how utterly surreal life there has become.

Laura had a great, gigantic publicity poster for a classic movie on her living room wall. “Great poster,” I said to her. She told me a bit about the store in Jaffa where she’d bought it. “Is it an original?” I asked her. “They had originals,” she said, “and I was actually tempted to get one. But then I realized that it’s kind of absurd to buy anything of value to put in your house when you live in Sederot.” I tried to imagine what it would be like to live not wanting to have anything of value, knowing that your house could be obliterated almost without warning, because you happen to live within rocket range of a terrorist state that has no territorial dispute with you, but simply doesn’t recognize your right to exist, and never will.

After chatting for a while and seeing some of the movie-in-progress, we decided to go out to grab a bite for lunch. On the way to the café, Laura pointed out the neighbor’s house that’s now deserted because the owner moved away after a rocket hit it. She pointed to the traffic circle where a young boy had his leg blown off a few months ago in a different attack. And so on.

But what struck me more than anything on the way to lunch was the playground. Even in the pouring rain, it looked just like a regular playground, with jungle-gyms, swing sets and the like. There was even a colorful cement caterpillar – for the kids to climb on, I assumed. “See the caterpillar?” Laura asked me. “It’s hollow,” she said. “And see over there? Those are the openings. It’s really a bomb shelter. When the Color Red siren goes off [indicating an incoming kassam], the kids can run from the other parts of the playground into the caterpillar and wait there until the rocket hits.” (I asked Avi, sitting in the back, to take a quick picture, despite the rain.)

On the drive back, Avi and I got a chance to chat. It was absurd, we both knew. What Israel was (not) doing was beyond immoral. States have an obligation to protect their citizens, and we weren’t doing it. That, undoubtedly, was the sentiment behind the graffiti that we saw, claiming that Sederot should “secede” [the actual word, tellingly, was “disengage”] from the “pathetic state.”

Why should children living in uncontested Israeli territory grow up being taught that in the playground, when the siren goes off, you run into the caterpillar, and hope that the rocket doesn’t kill any of your friends who don’t make it in time? For how many years does a State have a right to ignore the citizens whose children, at the ages of eight and nine, are wetting their beds all over again, the sheer terror of the siren reducing their entire childhood to a years-long nightmare? For how many years dare Israel do nothing, as hundreds of families, terrified that the rockets will hit in the middle of the night, all sleep in the same room? What does it do to a family, and to marriages, when elementary and high school age children have been sleeping in their parents’ room on the floor for years?

How do you educate kids, my friend Ahrele (the principle of the high school in that region) once asked me, when the siren goes off (sometimes several times a day), and hundreds upon hundreds of kids cram the high school hallways desperate to get to a protected room but can’t move because all the passageways are jammed with students? And then, minutes later, when it’s over, how are they supposed to sit quietly and start thinking about their history class, or focus on geometry? “We didn’t finish the job,” Ahrele once said to me and Elisheva during a dinner at his home a couple of years ago, the sounds of exploding shells in the distance punctuating our conversation. “We didn’t show them that we intend to live here, no matter what. Really, when you think about it, this is just the latest battle in the War of Independence. It’s the battle for our right to have a place to live.”

He was right, of course. It was absurd for us to tell our kids that they wouldn’t go to war. Because if the War of Independence was about making it clear that we intend to stay and getting our enemies to acknowledge that we, too, have a right to a country and a normal life, then we’ve yet to win it.

So now, we have to try again. Some progress has been made. For thirty five years, Syria, Jordan and Egypt have all refrained from launching military attacks on Israel. Because they love us? Hardly. It’s just because they know that we will obliterate them if they do. Even when Israel bombed a nuclear-reactor deep inside Syria, Syria whined but did nothing. They’ve learned their lesson. Maybe Hezbollah did, too, the disasters of the 2006 Second Lebanon War notwithstanding. At this writing, at least, in the first hours of the ground war, they’re staying out of the present conflict. One hopes that they’re smart enough to keep that up.

But Hamas hasn’t yet learned, and because of that, our citizens have been suffering for years. So there is no choice but to fight this war, and to win it decisively.

On the Shabbat afternoon after our visit to Sederot, Avi’s girlfriend, who was at our house for lunch, suddenly got called back to her base. That was our first inkling that the war was starting. The next morning, Avi went back to the army, but to a different base. And by Sunday evening (the last night of Hanukkah), Talia, in the first semester of law school, struggling with a massive amount of school work and finally just getting the hang of it all, had been called back to her unit.

Quite frankly, I expected some tears when she told me that she’d been called up. How would she keep up with school? The vast majority of her classmates hadn’t been called up, so it wasn’t as if school would be cancelled. How would she ever catch up? What, I figured she’d want to know, was going to happen to her grades?

But when we called her downstairs to light Hanukkah candles for the final night, there weren’t any tears. What I saw on her face was steely-eyed stoicism. There was work to be done, she knew how to do it, and they needed her. So she was heading back to the army.

Suddenly, I remembered the night, long ago, when we’d told her and her brothers that the wars were all over, that peace was on its way. For a moment, I thought that I should apologize to her, tell her how much we didn’t know back then, that I was really, really sorry that this is how it is. That Elisheva and I didn’t have to go to college like this, and that I hoped that she wasn’t angry with us for having made the decisions that now mean she does.

But by the time I thought of saying something to her, the candles were already lit, and we were up to Maoz Tzur. We got to the last stanza, and I had my arms around her and together, we were all singing:

Chasof zero’a kodshekhah
Bare Your Holy arm and hasten the arrival of some salvation
Avenge the vengeance of your servant’s blood from the wicked nation
Ki archah lanu ha-yeshu’a
For real victory is taking far too long
And there is no end to the days of evil

There’s nothing new in this whole story, I was reminded. It’s what Jews have had to do for generations to stay alive, and it’s what the younger generation now is being asked to do, again.

So I didn’t apologize. When we were done, she went up to her room to look for the uniforms that she’d packed away someplace last year, assuming that after three years in the army, she wouldn’t be needing them anymore. As she climbed the stairs, I thought again of the caterpillar. And of the poster that had to be a replica because the house might come down. And of the kids still wetting their beds. And of towns that have known only terror for years after years.

Our kids don’t want an apology. They’d be appalled if one were forthcoming. Because they understand, perhaps better than we do, that this simply has to be done. What’s at stake is not Sederot. What’s at stake is the question of whether Jewish sovereignty means anything. One can – and should be saddened by the loss of life in Gaza these weeks, on both sides. But we dare not let caring about innocent human life among Palestinians, or even more understandably, our dread of what the casualties among the IDF may be, blur the urgency of what we need to do.

These weeks, with the question of whether or not Jewish sovereignty means anything at all, there is really only one question. As Joshua said to the angel (Joshua 5:13), “are you for us, or for our adversaries?” Do you believe that Jews in Sederot have a right to live without bomb-shelter caterpillars in their playgrounds? Do you think that parents in that whole part of the country have a right to sleep in their own room by themselves, and that nine year olds should no longer wet their beds, night after night, caught in nightmares that will probably hound them for life? Do you understand that the only point of having a Jewish state is that Jews should no longer live – and die – at the whim of those who hate us just because we exist? Do you get that Ahrele was right? That we’re still fighting for the simple right to have the world acknowledge that we have a right to be?

There’s only one question, and it is Joshua’s. Are you for us, or for our adversaries? There is no place for mealy-mouthed equivocation calling for an end to the “violence,” for that is nothing more than a euphemism for more years of Jewish kids living in dread and Jewish sovereignty meaning nothing.

Israel could well become a horribly tear-soaked country this week. But thankfully, we finally have leadership that seems to understand that what is at stake is the question of whether having a state changes anything at all about the existential condition of the Jews. At long last, they get it – if Jews still have to live in dread, for the mere sin of existing, then there’s really no point to any of this.

So pray for them. Whatever you believe, or don’t, pray for the thousands of kids out there doing what the Maccabees did – risking everything so the Jews can survive. And remember, no matter how devastating the pictures that will inevitably emerge from the theater of war, that it’s all about something really simple. We say it, all the time, in our national anthem:

Od lo avedah tikvateinu … liyot am chofshi be-artzeinu
We haven’t yet abandoned our hope … to be a free people in our land.

That’s really all we want.

More than that, we don’t need.
But for less than that, we’ll never, ever settle

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