Will They Ever Understand an Israeli’s Mind-Set?

I am lying in my Tel Aviv bed long after midnight, soaking my pillow with tears.

My cries are echoing in the house. My folks are fast asleep. The war with Lebanon has finally hit me.

In my mind, I see my father crying the evening before, watching the Channel 2 news report. The news shows how nurses and brothers refuse to leave the bombarded northern part of Israel, so as not to abandon the elderly living there.

Touched by the courage and good-heartedness of these nurses, my father breaks into tears against his will. He often sobs while watching the daily news. The daily news in Israel is simply awful to watch.

Then another flashback appears. At dinner, my dad reveals that he wants to go back to the army and help the soldiers fight in Lebanon. “Better I die, who have lived my life fully, than an 18-year-old.”

My father is 61 years old; God bless his soul. I love him dearly. More than a decade after he completed his reserve duty he suddenly wants to go back to the army. Die in the battlefield as a grandfather?

I break into tears again.

At the Sheraton Tel Aviv Hotel near the beach, I am stuck in a basement for four hours without food or water. I came to be auditioned for a position of a spokeswoman who delivers to the foreign TV networks information about the suffering of the Israelis during this war. One-hundred fifty people, mainly from the bombarded north, came to the auditions. They are all eager to share their horrors with the rest of the world.

At first I want to finish the auditions as soon as possible and go home, but something tells me to be patient. I end up sitting on my chair for several hours without leaving it. Dumbstruck, I listen to the stories of my countrymen.
“Explosion. The windows shatter into pieces. My seniora runs to me from the other room. She is hysterical. A minute earlier, she had entered the house from our backyard, where the Katyusha just exploded.” The man tells the story in Portuguese. He is angry, and he starts yelling at the camera until the interviewer asks him to calm down or to leave.

A mother and her young daughter step up to the camera. They are so similar that it is hard to tell who is the mother and who is the daughter.

The interviewer gives them the cue to start. The daughter begins. She hugs her mother tight. “I am standing here today because last year, my older sister was murdered in a terror attack. Our lives have changed ever since. It cannot go on for much longer. We must protect ourselves.”

She is done talking. The interviewer asks the mother if she wants to add anything. The mother straightens her look to the camera and begins sobbing. Cut.
Shattered windows. rockets in the backyard. Murdered siblings. Babies living in shelters for 28 days in a row. Anxiety attacks. As I listen to these stories, I manage to put together in my head pieces of an inconceivable puzzle of pain and bereavement.

Yet these stories are somehow alien to me. After all, I am a resident of the center of the country, a bubble not yet shattered by Katyusha missiles from the north or Qassam rockets from the south. It would take a long-range missile to pop my Tel Aviv bubble.

I almost regret not having a heart-breaking story to reveal to the cameras. What can I say? That my cousin, an infantry soldier, almost got killed on the first day of the war on the Lebanese border? That he now suffers from anxiety attacks and cannot return to his own house in the north? That every time he crosses a certain point in the northern part of Israel, he feels as though a Katyusha is chasing him? Or that my pregnant sister almost fainted at Shabbat dinner when she heard a Katyusha explode 30 miles north of her house? That her father-in-law, who runs a children’s village in the north, has to deal both with cancer and with keeping 200 children in a shelter for a month?

I am terribly ashamed of myself. I have no real stories to tell, a spoiled brat from Tel Aviv.

In Hebrew, the word “hasbara” literally means “explaining.” It refers to Israel’s attempts to explain to the rest of the world why: Why Diaspora Jews ought to make Aliyah. Why Israel still has to defend itself from its neighbors. Why it is in control of the West Bank. Why we will never give up the Golan Heights.

Why and why and why I think to myself. Explaining is one thing, but do they really understand?

Do they understand what it means to grow up wishing that when you are 18, you will be recruited to an elite combat unit (the Ivy League of the army)? Or what it feels like to sit on your grandpa’s lap and hear how he came by boat to Eretz Israel with nothing but a swimming suit and became a dignified English teacher? Or what strength it takes every morning just to glance at the front page of the newspaper, where photographs of murdered civilians and soldiers appear? Or how it is possible that when there is war, Israelis who are abroad return to Israel and not vice versa?

How can anyone understand? Academic essays about the Holocaust will not tell you that. Six-Day War archives will be incomplete. News reports from Kiryat Shmona can reveal only some of the picture. How can anyone who did not grow up here grasp the impossible reality we live in?

The world understands comparative statistics: the number of dead in Lebanon vs. the number of dead in Israel. Ratios of casualties: 10 to 1. Laws: international law, humanitarian law, ICC, ICJ, I-See-You-and-You-See-Me. Weapon arsenals: tanks and fighter jets and smart bombs and JDAMS.

But what do they understand about us? About the people who love their country to death from infancy? Who admire Diaspora Jews who leave their convenient lives behind and ascend to the Holy Land? Who have to be on high alert from sunrise to sunset, or else they will simply cease to exist?

We Israelis can go on and on explaining, but will they ever understand?

Shira Kaplan is a 23-year-old Israeli junior studying government at Harvard. She served in the Israel Defense Forces intelligence unit.