Just a few weeks ago, my husband, who served for many years as a reserve officer in the Israeli Defense Forces, announced he had officially retired from the army. We were sitting in our Tel Aviv kitchen eating almonds, and I told him how relieved I was—or to be more precise, “It’s about fucking time.” So on Thursday, as the IDF dropped bombs on Gaza, Hamas shot rockets into Israel, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government gave the army the go-ahead to call up 30,000 reserve soldiers, I assumed my husband would not be one of them. The next afternoon, however, my phone rang. “Are you sitting down?” my husband said—such a cliché—and immediately I knew my assumption had been wrong.
Less than an hour later he was dressed in his army uniform, ready to go. I was crying uncontrollably, anything but the brave example the Israeli norm deems I should portray to our three sons. The boys were surprised to see their father in uniform, but it took them only a second to go back to their iPad. It would take me about an hour to stop sobbing, and while I acknowledge that it’s preferable not to fall to pieces in front of your children, I didn’t feel a good reason to hold myself back.
I don’t want my sons to think that war is something we have to accept as part of living in Israel. The tears I cried were not just those of fear for my husband’s safety. I was shedding tears of regret over a conflict that should have been avoided. I was shedding tears for the country I moved to 15 years ago from America, because I wanted to be part of Israel’s road to peace. And tears for the fact that I’ve had to question whether the Israel of today is a place I want to raise my children, a place that I want them to defend in uniform, or if we’d all be better off going back to the United States.
Less than a day after his departure, my husband was home. Because of his age (43) and his diabetes, he was given permission to leave the army, but his friends and comrades who have also left their families to get ready for war can’t do the same. I don’t know if the call-up of tens of thousands of reserve soldiers suggests an impending ground operation in Gaza or is just a bluff. This is the question on everyone’s mind. What I do know is that Israel has been here before. Since withdrawing in 2005, Israel has gone back into Gaza with force numerous times—“cutting the grass,” as these deadly missions are now referred to—and no big leap toward peace has been made on either the Israeli or the Palestinian side. Every few years the simmering war boils over into a large-scale conflict, reserve soldiers are called up, there are casualties on both sides, and when it’s over, nothing is better for anyone. If anything it’s worse.
So here we go again: Gaza is being smashed, southern Israel is under constant rocket fire, and in Tel Aviv, where I live, our urban, secular bubble is bursting with every air-raid siren. The reserve-duty-age men are all gone. Some stores and businesses are closed. And at home, instead of talking about soccer games and homework, we’re talking about missiles. “How was your siren today, Tom?” my 9-year-old son, Guy, asked his brother earnestly Sunday afternoon. Tom answered him with a big smile. “We had a drill,” he said. “Everyone ran to the shelters. Then right after the drill, a real siren sounded.” Despite the seriousness of the situation, I couldn’t blame him for seeing the humor in that.
My sons went on to tell me that in each of their schools, the siren led to a stampede toward the bomb shelter. Some children went home after the real siren. Others hadn’t come to school at all. I don’t know why, but it hadn’t occurred to me not to send my sons to school. Don’t get me wrong: I am afraid. But outside of the immediate adrenaline-producing fear lies a deeper fear where I wonder whether a childhood spent living in a state of low-grade war, on both sides of this struggle, leads to adults who are drawn to the scent of blood? Is this a risk I’m willing to take? And today it’s not just low-grade war. This is the real thing, yet I send my sons to school as if to say life is normal. It’s a kind of lie.
I’ve lied before. In 2004, I came too close to the blood. I lived in Jerusalem during a time when suicide bombings were frequent. I was walking my dog one morning, a bus drove past, and then, less than a minute later, I heard a blast. “That’s really loud construction,” I thought, lying to myself. When my neighbor stepped out of her doorway to ask about the noise, I lied to her, too. “It has to be construction,” I said. The sound of police and ambulance sirens coming close told the truth. I leaned my arm against a wall to steady myself, and I vomited.
On Friday, I lied again. I was out on an errand when a siren sounded. I ran for cover with a stranger who had been walking alongside me. We entered a building with a bomb shelter and went down. The stranger and I waited out the siren together without making small talk. When we heard a boom, he said, “Did you hear that? I think it landed.”
“No,” I said. “That was just someone upstairs slamming a door.”
I can’t lie to my older sons. They know what’s going on here and give me updates from their own computer. They watch the news, too. What I can do is remind them that the fear Palestinian boys in Gaza feel is just as real as theirs and that the way to make all lives better is to pursue peace. That’s a hard message to instill, though, in the middle of a war. Last night during our family dinner a siren sounded. I told Tom and Guy to run. I picked up my 3-year-old son, Adam, and carried him down the three flights of stairs to the bomb shelter in my socks. The race to shelter already felt disturbingly routine.
Adam, wearing nothing but a T-shirt and a diaper, said, “Why are we going down again?”
“Remember I told you that every time we hear a siren, we have to hide?” I said, telling the truth, but only as much as I had to.
Hide-and-seek is one of Adam’s favorite games, and he has accepted that answer each time I’ve offered it. By the time we reach the shelter and he sees the other children around him, he forgets that we haven’t done the “seek” part of the game. We’re just hiding.