November 21, 2018

Life in a war zone: Yad Vashem and sirens

I have been in Israel for the past several days attending conferences on the Holocaust at Yad Vashem and at the Ghetto Fighters’ House, near Nahariya — all amid the shelling. 

Sirens go off in the morning and the evening, and we face a decision whether to hasten to the shelter or choose a windowless room and wait it out. My sister carries a blanket in the car in case she has to stop on the side of the road. But we really don’t have a feeling of danger so much as annoyance, at least in the center of the country and up north where citizens have time to respond. In the south, the arrival of rockets is just a matter of seconds. At Kabbalat Shabbat services after Mincha, a gabbai rose and calmly announced: “We have have no shelter. The safe room downstairs is for women and children, all others should move to the center of the room and away from the windos if our Shabbat peace is disturbed.” No panic, a simple, clear statement.

Former Labor leader Amir Peretz, who was scorned as defense minister when he looked through binoculars at the wrong end, is suddenly a hero because, against the advice of more experienced military leaders and politicians, he insisted on creating the Iron Dome, which has worked marvelously. He is the only political leader looking good right now.

A new situation has developed. So Israel has time to inflict damage on Hamas. Let me explain:

Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi doesn’t mind Israel giving Hamas a terrible beating and will intervene only after Israel has done so. Al-Sisi will use this as an opportunity to look like a statesman. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, no matter what he says publicly, knows that his hand is strengthened by weakening Hamas.

The United States will not intervene for a while, giving Israel the opportunity to have at it until it gets out of hand or Israel makes a mistake. Even the media is consumed with other issues: the U.S. border “crisis,” Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Ukraine and, above all, the World Cup.

The population here in Israel is not rattled, as the Iron Dome has worked, and even though it is no longer the south alone that is at risk — a new, albeit tentative, sense of national unity is prevailing, but not for long. There have been air-raid warnings in Jerusalem each day. Last night, in the north, we heard a siren at midnight. People came to the shelter or safe room in nightgowns and pajamas, then returned to their rooms in time to see Germany win the World Cup.

We went out to lunch at the shuk on Friday afternoon in Jerusalem; the market was full, no one felt unsafe or under duress. My grand-niece is undergoing preparatory military training in the south, in case there is a ground attack while her loving father is drinking beer and eating fish and chips. Had Israel actually invaded Gaza, he would not have felt so nonchalant about the situation.

One truly optimistic note, a rare one, is as I came to the Beit Lohamei Haghettot (the Ghetto Fighters’ Kibbutz) and its Center for Humanistic Education, there was a meeting going on of Jewish and Arab teachers, with the mayor and local principals present, preparing themselves to deal with the hatred that has been expressed on all sides in anticipation of the coming school year, and the interim without the safety valve of school, which will not start for six long weeks.

Israel still has only tactics, not strategy. Hamas sees itself as the beneficiary of a large number of Palestinian casualties. All sides may regret not keeping the peace process going.

And throughout, we hear lectures on the Holocaust. We can better understand the past than the present.

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at