Last Sunday night, my wife and I decided to go to dinner with friends. We made reservations for 8 p.m., when the restaurant should have been packed. But when we arrived, not another soul was there. As we were shown to our places, I kiddingly said to the waitress, “It’s good we made reservations.” “It’s wartime,” she said, not smiling back. “This is what happens.”
She was young, probably in her late 20s, professional enough but undeniably sullen. Yet who could blame her? Who was in Gaza? A boyfriend? A brother? Both? More? It was hard to watch her try to do her work while being so upset, so I said to her a short while later, “You know, these are impossible days. But this won’t last forever. There’ll be an end.” She stopped, put my plate of food down in front of me, and said, “No doubt. The only question is – an end to what?”
She’s not alone. Not nearly. Behind all the chatter – the politicians’ proclamations, the tweets of links to “watchus- blow-this-up” videos, and all the organizations correctly trumpeting the legitimacy of Israel’s cause and the necessity of this horrific war – there’s another Israel. There’s a hurting Israel. There’s a sadness here among the “kids” in their 20s, a quiet desperation. It’s not that we can’t “win” – they know we can. It’s just that they believe there will never be an end to this. And that changes everything.
This is not a new operation, or a new war. This is the latest battle in the War of Independence, the ongoing struggle of the Jewish people to create a new home in their ancestral homeland. Our neighbors have never accepted us, and increasingly, the world does not, either.
In the middle of a class I was teaching, a student struggled not to weep. She, too, had a boyfriend “in.” She, too, had been awake all night worrying. She, too, was trying desperately to hold it together. The student next to her mumbled aloud, “If my kids are going to have to live this way, is it fair to raise them here?” Another student got a 24-hour leave from the front a few days later. Other students, who hadn’t heard from him in days, gathered around. “How are you?” He forced a smile. And then they asked, “How bad is it out there?” His eyes went vacant. “Gaza is just rubble,” he said. It looked like he was going to cry – the costs of staying alive here, no matter how justified, are horrific.
Then he headed home for a few hours, and from there, back to the front.
Long, dark days lie ahead of us, but it’s not too early to know that when this is over, nothing is going to be the same. The tunnels are the ultimate image of our vulnerability, the response of the world the perfect picture of our aloneness. “Death to the Jews,” they chant in Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam. Storefront signs in Belgium read: “Dogs welcome, Zionists absolutely never.”
A shocked young Israeli generation, which has more than proved its mettle, is going to need to hear from us what this is all about. Why live this way? Why have to stand against the world?
There are Israelis for whom theology is enough of an answer. God gave us this land, they say, so we’re here to stay. They’re the Israelis we saw in the aftermath of the kidnapping of the three yeshiva students and who are, to many, an inspiration. But they are not most of us.
There are secular Israelis for whom their history with this land, like an old married couple who can’t imagine life any other way, is sufficient. They are the Israelis of Nahal Oz when it was attacked in the 1950s, the same ones who were there this week when disaster was narrowly averted. Shaken but unmovable, they are part of our landscape – but they, too, are not most of us.
There are Israelis who want out, who are done. They’ll move to the States, Europe, Australia. But they, too, are not most of us.
Who are the “most of us”? The most of us are the young men and women who are proving day and night that their generation, too, has what it takes. But the most of us are also a generation that is going to need to hear from their leaders why we’re here, why what we’re building is so important.
Israel’s hi-tech boom is dazzling, but it’s not a reason for a Jewish state. World-class Israeli wines are fun to drink, but they, too, are not the reason we’re here.
So why are we here? That’s the question which is going to hang heavily over this country when the uniforms return to the closets and the guns get put away. It’s the question these kids will want to hear their society discussing. They will want to know that this is a fight for our homes, but also for a vision. They want to believe that this fight is worth the lives of the children they haven’t yet had.
Are we listening? In 1956, the utterly secular Moshe Dayan delivered a eulogy for Nahal Oz’s Roy Rotenberg laced with biblical imagery and language. Menachem Begin was constitutionally unable to say anything without reference to the Jews’ majestic history, without quoting the Jewish canon. For David Ben-Gurion, what we were building here was to have been a direct reflection of the vision of the Prophets.
All three of them, different though they were, had a sense of where we had come from, and where we were heading. They heard the chords of a uniquely Jewish music for the world. The younger generation of “most of us” is thirsting to hear some of that again.
When the dust settles, will we be honest? The tens of thousands who gathered in Tel Aviv in late June to pray for the three boys – whom we almost never mention anymore – were almost entirely religious. Unless we’re under fire, we never discuss the chasms between us. Unless we’re under attack, we no longer ask who is going to live here, and how we’re going to live together.
When we’re not at war, there’s no national conversation about how Jewish Israel should be, and how Israel should be Jewish.
When the guns go silent, are we really going to abide a Haredi sector that, for the most part, did nothing to protect this home? When the dust settles, what are we going to do about the Jewish thugs who beat up Israeli Arabs? When the dust settles, will we know how to pick up where Herzl, Jabotinsky, Kook and Berdichevsky left off? This is an earthquake, let there be no doubt. When the guns go silent, we’re going need to renew a vision that blends resolve with tolerance, strength with utter decency, individual freedom coupled with a sense of serving something greater than ourselves.
Can we pull it off? The ground is shaking here, and it’s not only because of the rockets. When the guns fall silent, this society had better be prepared to start talking.