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Little Things: Israel's Art of Survival

Tags: Living Israel, People and Society

By Mel Mahler

Lying awake in bed, musing about the situation, what happens, how people are affected. Last night’s bombs upset everyone here. I don’t know how my daughter in the army is coping – she’s gone back to the base before I wake up.

I know a little about the rest of us. We’re all calm, going about our business as if it was a normal day – which for us it is. There are a host of things, little things, things that nobody really notices, but are very real affects of living under the threat of rockets, enemy incursions, mortars, explosions.

Life during wartime is smaller.
I don’t think big thoughts or make big plans.

I had originally planned to try and get to the U.S. this summer, to visit my grandchildren. This is a huge deal as I don’t travel well and I couldn’t really afford to bring someone with me. Well, as it happens, I actually have the money. But all the plans, or thoughts of plans, went right out the window during the war. Excuse me, the ‘operation.’ I’d still like to go. But to summon up the energy to put such a plan into action is barely possible, and the thought of leaving the rest of my family behind in an active war zone is unthinkable.

We had somewhat smaller plans, to go up to the north of the country and spend a few days visiting friends, camping, going to a water park. A little bit of a vacation. You’d think during a war would be the best time to get away, but again it takes energy, mental energy to plan it, physical energy to do all the preparations, make arrangements to take care of the critters while we are away, and for daughter in the army because she can’t go back and forth from where we live to the base (no busses) if there’s no car. It’s just too much.

Now here it is, a couple of days left in August is all. Even if the operation is truly over, even if we are going back to our more ‘peaceful’ state of siege, I don’t really see that we can pull such a trip together. September is the high holidays, so that’s our summer, all used up.

Other things shrink – we don’t go on long outings, even for groceries, if we can help it. Usually in less stressful times we do a lot of our shopping in Be’er Sheva, where there are bigger stores, with larger selections, and lower prices. We’re buying enough groceries for our family that it generally paid for the trip. Now – we’re shopping in Netivot, or Sderot. Fifteen minutes away and much easier even if more expensive, and there are foods we would like that we haven’t seen in months, literally. But making those huge shopping trips and driving that far away is too much. Instead we are running out to buy a few things here, a few more there, and coming straight home.

The Husband has resumed going in to work twice this week, for the first time since the operation started. He works from home as much as possible. Since his home office, his ‘man cave’ as we call it, isn’t in the main house where the rocket alert sounds, it’s been a bit stressful to say the least.

It feels like we all want to be as close as possible as much as possible. If we’re all together when a rocket hits seems like a worse outcome, but being separated while crouching or sitting in the hallway waiting to see if we are hit feels worse. We want to be together, and to see each other and know that all are all right.

My daughter and son living in Sderot are constantly on my mind whenever we hear the booms, or read about rockets hitting elsewhere. I’ve stopped calling them after every time, it got a bit old, but it doesn’t stop me worrying.

Okay, so, little things...

I don’t want to watch any new movies, lest they turn out to be upsetting. I want to only watch movies where I already know what to expect.

New books are also an issue. TH and I are reading James Garner’s memoire together, that doesn’t seem likely to cause any upset, but we had to give up on Shakespeare’s Cymballine. Just not the right sort of piece for our present mood and situation. Otherwise everything we are reading and watching are things which are predictable and safe.

Comfortable. We don’t need any extra excitement. Unlikely we would be looking for roller coasters, if there is a carousel, that is enough. A little ride, a tame ride.

Then of course there is the constant lack of sleep, which leads to an inability to concentrate, difficulties with memory, and a lack of physical coordination. One week there was a glass dish or drinking glass broken every single day, with some days having more than one.

Little things. They don’t make headlines, they aren’t terribly interesting, but it adds up to a major change overall, in all of us.

This isn’t the small children being terrified to leave their bomb shelters, or people having to flee their homes and live as refugees. It isn’t the injured and the dead. This isn’t dramatic, no one will ever write a play or book or movie about them. But living in a war zone definitely changes one.

It takes away creativity and drive – or rather one’s creativity and drive are redirected in other directions. Survival becomes a fine art, and maintaining one’s sanity is a challenge beyond one’s strength sometimes.

The world shrinks. WE shrink. Between the rockets. And it looks as if we are all carrying on, chin up, tally-ho; but the truth is that sometimes I fantasize about being injured by a rocket (not seriously, and not killed, never killed) because then the effects would be visible, I’d have something to show people, something concrete that others could understand.

Having an invisible chronic illness, I’m used to that feeling. I used to be jealous of amputees, or people with visible deficits, because all I could show people was how wobbly I was walking down a straight hall. If that. I would imagine that people who had disabilities others could see had it so much easier than I did, with all the people (including doctors) telling me it was all in my head, that I was lazy, that I wasn’t trying hard enough. I know too well what it is like to live with problems that aren’t obvious to people outside of the situation.

Here in Israel we have an (apparently invisible) chronic illness. It is living with war.

Although treaties were signed with Egypt and Jordan, Israel has been in a continuous state of declared war since it’s inception. It doesn’t matter whether you live in Jerusalem, or on the Gaza periphery, or in the north, or even in Tel Aviv – although the people in Tel Aviv seem to be better at lying to themselves about it – Israelis live in a state of war, whether it is a shooting war or the more common state of siege with enemies all around us.

We live at the crossroads of three continents, but it isn’t safe for an Israeli to drive anywhere outside of our country. We cannot drive to Europe, India, Africa, because it isn’t safe for an Israeli to do such a thing. We live in a state of siege. It affects us.

Sometimes I think that one reason Israel gets a bit hysterical during the hot, or shooting parts of our war-situation is that it is an opportunity, like my fantasy of being lightly injured by a rocket, to jump up and down and tell the world ‘See? This is what it is like! This is how we live! Don’t you care? Can’t you get it?’

Almost no other people can relate to what it is like to being constantly, for several lifetimes, surrounded by people who want to kill you, people whose stated goal is your extermination – even if they don’t happen to be killing you just at the moment. When they do kill some of you, you want people to acknowledge the situation, to stop pretending everything is okay as long as they don’t happen to be currently killing you in large numbers.

That seems to be what we’ve got now. A lot of people seem to think that unless we can produce thousands or tens of thousands of dead Israelis, then we have nothing to complain about. They seem to think we are sitting in the catbird seat. There are a lot of people who do get it, and I am incredibly grateful for the support and good words and deeds of those people, but it does not seem that they are the majority.

We survive. We even thrive. But we are affected. In invisible ways that we can feel, even if we can never really put words to them. We are surrounded by hatred, and it fills our ears, even when it doesn’t reach our hearts.

What is truly amazing is that most Israelis do not have an unreasoning hatred of muslims, or arabs. There are some, of course. How could there not be? But overall our country tries to meet hatred with love, and that is evident in our giving medical treatment to our enemies, even during shooting wars, it is evident in our constant restraint.

I think the world knows that we could carpet bomb Gaza, and eliminate it as a threat to our peace of mind. But we don’t and we won’t, because that is not the sort of people that live in Israel. We choose to be better than that, to suffer the ongoing threat of bombs and other terrorist attacks.

It looks, sometimes, as if we are professional victims, and sometimes it feels like that on the inside. I’ve been known to make the thoughtless comment or two, about nuking Gaza, or other such things. I am neither perfect, nor do I try to be. I’m human and if i didn’t make thoughtless and even hateful comments now and again under the stress of the bombs, I’d have to snap in some other, possibly less benign direction.

It’s one of the reasons I don’t like talking to people outside of our situation. People here understand that you can say a thing in the stress of the moment, and not mean it – not *really* mean it.

In any event, since the last bombs it has been quiet here in our little moshav. The sun is shining, and if it is filtered by the haze still left from the big guns, that softens it and makes it less harsh. The summer sun in Israel is really overwhelming most of the time.

I had a good day yesterday, managed to get outside to do laundry. Today I am hoping for a visit from a couple of kids who live here and who are working on their Hebrew with me. Everything seems fine on the surface. All of those effects, those cumulative little effects are invisible. Yet they are real.

The bombs may not be falling today, but it is still a life during wartime.


Read more from Mel at her personal blog Meldvash

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