I Didn’t Come Back to Jerusalem To Be in a War
What it’s like to be in Israel as the conflict escalates.
Photo by STF/AFP/Getty Images.
I’m in Jerusalem on book leave and everyone keeps asking me to write about all this mess. I keep saying that I don’t ever write about things I can’t fully understand. It’s why I like the law—it’s tidy. I don’t have much to say about what is happening all around me here in Israel. But maybe I can share a memory.
Thirty-five years ago, I spent a year with my family in Jerusalem. I was 10, and my dad was on an academic sabbatical at Hebrew University. My best friend and I danced to Europop in the living room every afternoon. It was the best year of my life.
And 35 years ago this week, Anwar Sadat addressed the Israeli Knesset in an unprecedented and historic move toward establishing peace between Israel and Egypt. My little brother and I stayed up half the night making an enormous Egyptian flag. We colored it in with pencils and crayons and trekked up to the Knesset with it, where we stood on the sidewalk with throngs of Israelis, waiting for his mortorcade to arrive. Our flag was so huge, we took up three feet of sidewalk.
My indelible memory of that day—in the pale greens and reds of the late ‘70s—is that President Sadat smiled and waved at the two kids with the massive Egyptian flag as he drove past, and then we probably went home for ice cream. Sadat said in his remarks that Israel had a right to exist. We really believed he had made history that day. We had the flag to prove it. (Here is Daniel Gordis’ lovely piece on his memories of that same day.)
I didn’t come back to Jerusalem to be in a war. I didn’t come to Jerusalem to write about Middle East politics either. I came because I needed to take some time away to write my book about the Supreme Court (thank you, it’s going fine) and because my parents live here in Israel and we wanted to spend a year with them. I came because we desperately wanted to give our sons—who are seven and nine—a year in which their world became bigger and more complicated, since everything in their lives up until now had been measured out in equal units of comfort and Lego.
I don’t really want to write a heartbreaking account of the sirens in Jerusalem Friday night, or the touching and innocent commentary offered up by our boys as they told us they were scared and wanted to go home. I am just not sure how such accounts help us move forward. I am fully aware that innocent children on either side are being traumatized by growing up in this way.
I don’t know how to talk about what is happening here but it’s probably less about writers’ block than readers’ block. It says so much about the state of our discourse that the surest way to enrage everyone is to tweet about peace in the Middle East. We should be doing better because, much as I hate to say it, the harrowing accounts of burnt-out basements and baby shoes on each side of this conflict don’t constitute a conversation. Counting and photographing and tweeting injured children on each side isn’t dialogue. Scoring your own side’s suffering is a powerful way to avoid fixing the real problems, and trust me when I tell you that everyone—absolutely everyone—is suffering and sad and yet being sad is not fixing the problems either.
One good lesson I am learning this week is to shut up and listen. Because the only way to cut through the mutual agony here is to find people who have solutions and to hear what they have to say. Bombing the other side into oblivion is no more a solution than counting your dead children in public. The best thing about shutting up and listening? You eventually lose the impulse to speak.
Please don’t judge. Work toward solutions. Because everyone on every side of this is desperate. This isn’t a way to live and we all know it. Last night I was at a study session with a group of women in Jerusalem. A teenage girl was crying and I assumed it was over a guy. It’s always a guy. But it wasn’t. She was headed to the army today.
Friday night when the air raid sirens sounded here in Jerusalem, my husband Aaron was on a Skype conference call with a bunch of students in London describing his ten-years-in-the-making white flags installation. As I typed these words, Ynet’s live blog flashed this: “17:09: Hamas’s armed wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, says it’s launched ‘two M75 homemade missiles towards Jerusalem.’ ” And there was Aaron’s disembodied voice from the next room, explaining that in the end we are all part of a single human family destined to the same fate. And I was typing, “But I don’t want to die this way.” And my boys were watching Ice Age 4—which was blessedly louder than the sirens Friday night. They told us they would like to go home now.
You want to hear about what it’s like here? It’s fucking sad. Everyone I know is sad. My kids don’t care who started it and the little boys in Issawiya, the Arab village I see out my window, don’t care much either. I haven’t met a single Israeli who is happy about this. They know this fixes nothing. The one thing we learned this week is how quickly humans can come to normalize anything. But the hopelessness seeps right into your bones as well.
I am worried about our friends here who are being called up. I am worried about my friends here who are war correspondents. I am worried about terrified children in Gaza. I am also worried about how I will explain to my sons why we are staying, but I’m more worried about what I would tell them if we left. I am crazy-worried about my parents who live in the south, where 1400 rockets have been fired since January. I am worried about how this can possibly ever end if just tweeting about peace is an international act of aggression.
So tonight I will tell my kids about Sadat’s visit 35 years ago, just as we told them last month about Yitzhak Rabin. I hope they understand what I am trying to tell them, because—forgive me—what they think matters more to me than what you all think right now. People who tell me you can’t teach children about peace in a war zone are wrong. We have nothing but peace left to talk about.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.