When, last March, I wrote about rockets from Gaza and Israeli retaliation, I wrote about just war theory, the Talmud, and theology. This time, I cannot stop thinking about crying children. Last time, I was writing from my quiet, Washington Heights apartment (where the only sirens are from police cars, and if you’re white, you can ignore them). This Thursday evening, I spent fifteen minutes in a shelter beneath a Tel Aviv dance studio. That was after trooping down three flights of steps, crowded by crying, ten-year-old ballerinas and their few harried teachers. The girls were in their pointe shoes, because the time between siren and impact in Tel Aviv is roughly ninety seconds. One or two, it seemed to me, were actually still tiptoeing “en pointe.” Was this their first real rocket-induced cower, as it was mine? These might be the only Israelis not inured to intermittent violence, the only ones who shared my incredulity that someone was trying to murder me with an explosive projectile, and my unchecked terror. So no, this time I do not have much to say about the Babylonian Talmud.
Now, this contrast leads naturally to an old chestnut of American Jewish arguments about Israel: namely, that detached Americans, who don’t daily experience the conflict, should defer to Israelis, who “really live it.” But I think that, like many an old chestnut, this one is rotten. And so I’ve always argued. What’s interesting is that until now, I always had lingering doubts. It actually took my first time in a shelter for me to finally reject the detachment argument.
Why is that? Well, the “you don’t live there” argument, for all its absurdities, has a strange, circular resilience. Sure, you can point out, as Rabbi Jill Jacobs has, that if American Jews cannot criticize Israeli politics, we oughtn’t criticize Israel’s treatment of religion either (but we do). Or you can ask where this modesty about criticizing from afar goes when it comes to Hamas and Gaza? But even though the distance argument doesn’t bear much scrutiny, it has a certain circular appeal. “You would make those comparisons,” a voice in me always says, “since you don’t know what it’s like to live under threat of violence.”
Of course, I still don’t know that. Fifteen minutes in a bomb-shelter does not an Israeli make, any more than fifteen minutes of dancing makes you a ballerina (otherwise, I'd be in Batsheva). But having had a taste, what mostly strikes me is the usefulness of detachment: the ways in which fear and threat sap your ability to reason critically.
In part, that’s just because helplessness breeds false knowledge. We all suddenly become, as Ami Kaufman says, “ballistic experts,” speculating about which buildings will be hit first—because it’s unacceptably frightening to admit you don’t know. We notice the extra green uniforms on the bus to Jerusalem, and we wonder if it’s the normal pre-Shabbat surge, or if this signals reserves being called up. We listen to Galei Tzahal (army radio), because even though they’re independent of the army’s combat wing, as an Israeli teacher said to me, “well, you know”—maybe they get leaked extra tidbits. The contexts that actually cause rockets to fall and bombs to drop (politics in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, and Egypt; a mishmash of armies, terrorists, and “security forces”) are so enormous they dwarf the individual. Reasserting your own knowledge—that you can draw conclusions from what you see and hear, that you have some agency—probably keeps you sane.
But what keeps you sane isn’t what’s true. The blurring of personal and political makes it harder for Israelis to see past security—since all we’re thinking about is our own safety, it’s hard to imagine that our government has anything else in mind. And yet, it’s hard to believe it’s a coincidence that, just as with Operation Cast Lead, this wave of retaliation comes right before Israeli elections. Is it just fortuitous timing that the escalation interrupts a wave of media criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failed intervention in American politics and polls revealing that Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s Independence party may disappear come January? Frankly, I’m not sure whether to attribute cynical motives to Bibi and Barak. But I know that my Thursday night—deliberations about the safest way to lie down on Route 1, the worried listening to sirens, the constant fear—makes it much harder to ask those questions, to create the distance between the basic human desires on display in the bomb shelter and the ugly, large-scale world of security and politics.
Because ultimately, this isn’t just about Netanyahu and my distrust of the currently regnant parties. I am thinking now of the horrible and ubiquitous Kadima billboard ad I saw Thursday morning, featuring the line, “Bibi will entangle us” and a brilliant red mushroom cloud. Now, I agree that Bibi’s Iran policy is foolish and dangerous, and that there’s what to be terrified of, and still—the mind reels at the chutzpah. On a day when little girls (and callow Americans) are terrified by rockets, it’s worth noting that there are politicians waiting to exploit that terror. It’s worth thinking about how negotiating their own physical and psychological safeties can make it harder for Israelis to see the more impersonal, more cynical political stories behind the sirens. It’s worth remembering that “living in it” isn’t always the best preparation for “making sense of it,” and that American Jews’ safety, comfort, and detachment doesn’t disqualify their analyses: sometimes, it helps us see more clearly.
Matthew Kalman broke the story of physicist Stephen Hawking’s boycott of Israel. Then Cambridge University tried to falsely deny it.