Sharon Ya’ari, ‘Bridge With Flowers, Route 42,’ 2013

Courtesy Meislin Projects, NY

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To Be an Israeli

Reflections on October 7th

Sarai Shavit
November 20, 2023
Sharon Ya’ari, 'Bridge With Flowers, Route 42,' 2013

Courtesy Meislin Projects, NY

This article is part of Reflections on October 7.
See the full collection →︎

Saturday early morning. The 7th of October 2023. The sound of an alarm siren pierces the air. I don’t know what is happening, and what is yet to come. My husband and I, used to previous war events, get up quickly, collect the children and run to the safe room in the stairwell.

The children’s soft voices, their quiet breaths, still hang on our shoulders. They wake up in a panic to the sound of the neighbors’ screams. The toddler held in my arms stares at me when she hears rockets exploding above us, while her brother, only 8 years old, lays his fingers out in front of me. Mom, he tells me, this is my sixth war, you know? And he does not know that compared to the other ones, this will be the most terrible war of all. As the explosions go on and on in the sky, he asks me, Mom am I going to die?

To be an Israeli means having your child, under a missile attack, ask you if he is going to die.

Within 24 hours of the 7th of October—“Black Sabbath”—the citizens of Israel are exposed to the magnitude of the horror. Hamas has caught the State of Israel off guard.

About 3,000 Gaza terrorists and residents misled the Israel Defense Forces with a severe missile attack, and violently breached the country’s border. They penetrated with all their might into the border cities near Gaza Strip, mostly sleepy settlements, quiet kibbutzim where peace-loving citizens and farmers live.

It is the Sabbath of the Sukkot holiday in Israel. My daughter’s kindergarten teacher traveled from the center of the country to the south, to visit her parents who live in Kibbutz Be’eri. She reports in the kindergarten parents’ WhatsApp group that she is surrounded in the safe room of her parents’ house. She hears terrorists and gunfire and screams of babies through the wall. We send her panicked text messages. We beg her to stay safe, stay alive. She is terrified when the terrorists try to open the door of the room she is trapped in. Once an hour she sends an emoji in the kindergarten parent group. That’s how we know she’s still alive.

And after 12 hours of her hiding from Hamas terrorists, the messages stop. And into her silence, hundreds of “breaking news” stories erupt.

The terrorist organization Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007 and terrorizes its residents, takes responsibility for the attack. Its men, most of them young soldiers trained to slaughter, looted and murdered, killed Israeli children, slit the throats of babies, burned houses, raped girls and women and cut off their genitals, murdered old and disabled autistic children, infiltrated a music festival with the help of drones and murdered dozens of young people dancing in the open air, and kidnapped 239 civilians. They recorded all their actions in real time in dozens of videos.

During the southern massacre, heavy rocket barrages were hurled across the State of Israel. An unprecedented, brutal, and long attack.

When the alarm stops, I tuck my children back into their beds, knowing that what happened to the people in the south could have happened to anyone in the country. Even to me.

Being Israeli means getting emojis from your daughter’s kindergarten teacher during a terrorist attack. And not knowing if she is alive or dead.

Within a day, the messages start arriving. Among the abducted, missing, and murdered, are many acquaintances, family members and close friends. Older children, of my girlfriends, who are already serving in the army, are recruited to defend the country, and are sent to fight.

Eighteen is the official age at which Israeli citizens are legally required to serve in the army.

When my eldest sister was born during the Six-Day War, my mother told her: By the time you are 18, there will be no more army. There will be peace. When my middle sister was born during the Yom Kippur War, my mother told her: By the time you are 18 there will be no more army. There will be peace. When I was born during the First Lebanon War, my mother told me: By the time you are 18, there will be no more army. There will be peace.

At the age of 18, I enlisted in the IDF and served in the Navy. A period in which I was exposed to countless security incidents, blood, and disasters.

Being Israeli means telling your children that by the time they are 18, there will be no more army. And looking into their watchful eyes that can recognize the lie in your words.

Being Israeli means getting emojis from your daughter’s kindergarten teacher during a terrorist attack. And not knowing if she is alive or dead.

When I text my good friend R—a writer and editor of Palestinian literature—about the events, and anxiously ask about her well-being, she is shocked by the things I tell her that are happening on the other side of the border. For them, the news tell a completely different story.

Hamas sent missiles and stole IDF tanks. That’s all. It can’t be, she tells me, that our people are capable of doing this. Our people are just people, not animals. I send her dozens of links of documentary videos that are difficult or even impossible to watch. Her shocked reaction reminds me of similar reactions of people in Israel when faced with the sights of war on the other side.

It cannot be that our IDF is killing children. It just can’t be.

We end the conversation with the words of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darvish:

She said: When will we meet?
I said: A year after the war ends
She said: When will the war end?
I said: When we will meet.

A day later, the internet and phone lines of the Arab settlement where she lives are cut off. From that moment on, we have not spoken.

To be an Israeli means not knowing when you will next talk to your Palestinian friends.

To be Israeli means to understand that there is a visible difference between the reign of terror of Hamas and the wishes of the Palestinian people, who want to live. Among them are writers, doctors, teachers, and lawyers. People scattered around the world; people like us.

At the next alarm, my son again counted with his little fingers the wars he had known. He pronounces their rough and masculine names, “Iron Swords,” “Guardian of Walls,” “Black Belt,” “Cast Lead.” These could be great names for books, or series on Netflix. To be an Israeli means giving poetic, metaphorical titles to every war. As if it were a story. But this is not a story. This is life here.

During the next alarm, while we are pushing each other in the stairwell to defend our bodies, I look at the delicate fingers of my son, who has recently started school, and try to count on my fingers how many wars I have participated in.

I was born in the 1980s before the First Lebanon War, continued into the Gulf War, grew up into the Second Lebanon War, and since then I have experienced dozens of operations, wars, and many terrorist attacks. Ofra, my elementary school teacher, was killed in a bus attack. Tom, the son of my neighbor Shmulik, was killed in a tank in the war. Lior, a classmate of mine, was killed in training for Operation Wall Guard. My cousin was killed in the Yom Kippur War. In every operation or war, blood is shed. In every operation or war, I lost a person I loved. Being Israeli means jumping on the spot from every ambulance siren. Walking stressed in crowded places. Living your life in an endless sea of sorrow.

To be Israeli means to understand that there is a visible difference between the reign of terror of Hamas and the wishes of the Palestinian people, who want to live.

When the missiles explode above us and their fragments litter the sky, I find that 10 fingers are not enough for me. Then I remember my grandfather Naftali’s fingers.

Every morning, before the eggs and coffee, Naftali used to close his eyes and count the members of his family who were sent to Auschwitz. Not the general and distant family members. But those that were close to him, whom he knew personally by first and last name. Every morning, before the eggs and the coffee, 106 names were counted. Only then did he allow himself to open his mouth.

To be an Israeli means keeping a list of the dead. To be an Israeli means wanting to stop this madness.

On the third day of the war, when my little children are sitting scared at home and I have no way to hide the magnitude of the horror from them, I look out the window at the closed and empty street and ask myself difficult questions.

Would I give up my Israeliness and my Jewishness for the sake of stopping the bloodbath of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

The answer is yes.

Will there be peace here and not war by the time my son is 18 years old?

The answer is I don’t know.

Is my friend R entitled to live peacefully in the Gaza Strip without brutal shelling by the Israeli army?

The answer is yes.

Were all the residents who lived in Germany between 1939 and 1945 Nazi murderers?

The answer is no.

Are all residents living in Israel in 2023 Arab-haters?

The answer is no.

To be an Israeli means asking yourself difficult questions in a time of war. To fear for your side’s and the other side’s basic existence. Not knowing the complete answers.

To be an Israeli means to understand, deep down, that there is a difference between the Palestinian like my friend R, who wants to live her life peacefully, and the terrorist leadership operated by Iranian power, which exploits children and women in order to protect its leaders, which condemns LGBT rights and human rights, which murder and slaughter.

To change the Israeli story, it is necessary to explain it.

At the beginning of 2023, on Jan. 16, I wrote the following post on my Facebook page:

Arab students live in the building where I live. A few weeks ago, one of the old neighbors in the building vandalized their car in the common parking lot. The damage—blood red—included harsh nicknames because of their origin. In a neighborhood next to the one where I live, a soldier passed by a garden. He caught high school boys hitting each other. When he tried to separate them, they cut his scalp with a Japanese knife and almost killed him. In the country where I live, there are LGBT people and secular and religious people and ultra-Orthodox people, as well as two million Palestinians. I open my eyes in the morning and during the day read the feed and find it hard to breathe from the Israeliness that is now my building and my neighborhood and my city and my country. I don’t have a foreign passport, nor do I have any desire to run away. I’ve never felt so strange and sad in the little square I call home.

To be an Israeli in 2023 means not feeling at home.

The crisis point of January 2023 is considered a breakthrough point. After two very difficult political and social years in the State of Israel and after five inconclusive election campaigns, the politician Benjamin Netanyahu, who has ruled Israel for over 30 years, came to power. Almost my entire adult life.

Last year, unlike other times, Netanyahu established a government with an extreme radical partner, and began a public process to transform Israel from a democracy to a dictatorship. In response to his acts, the Israeli people went out to demonstrate in the streets against the government and its leaders’ agenda.

Political figures of the government became outcasts, and the word “occupation” alongside the words “a real solution to the Israeli-Palestinian blood conflict” was spoken this year more than ever.

So many people in Israel, hundreds of thousands of them, asked for a reformed state. A new agenda.

Writers, poets, and many intellectuals and cultural figures have united and are at the head of this powerful protest.

At the beginning of the war, when the leadership went into a state of silence, the protesters were the ones who collected money and provided protective vests to the fighters, took care of the bereaved families, the survivors of the massacre in the southern settlements on the border of the Gaza Strip, and the civilians who were evacuated from their homes in the northern border. And beyond this, extensive publicity operations are being carried out in order to cause international pressure to return the hundreds of kidnapped Israelis home, among them infants and small children.

The protest against the government has become a well-oiled social machine. A responsible adult who can be trusted, more than Benjamin Netanyahu and his accomplices, who managed to harm the State of Israel in such a short time.

During the second week of the war, it would have been my father’s birthday. An upright and short man who once walked the world. Who ate fruit with the kernel. Who hated naps. Who used to float slowly in the Dead Sea. Who read three books at the same time. My father. Who used to say about small things “the situation is serious” and get anxious, but in the face of much more serious situations he maintained a freezing composure.

One man who dedicated his life to protecting the country from terrorists. Who reminded his subordinates that the terrorists in Gaza are never tired. My father. The outstanding officer who was born to establish the state, served in the Six-Day War, and saw the blood of the Yom Kippur War with his eyes.

My father died early and never got to see any of his grandchildren. Nor the southern kibbutz he founded burn down in flames and his core members slaughtered and kidnapped and dead with their grandchildren and children, the tender and beloved ones. My father. Who did not believe in God but knew the “Song of Songs” by heart.

He could not imagine that his cherished Zionism will kill itself at the altar of religious, racist, messianic ideas. My father. That before his death didn’t stop talking about the occupation in Gaza. About what will happen to us if we don’t pay attention. If we don’t stop. Who one day abandoned everything and walked out and died. That left the house with a suitcase and bags and sunset on his back like in an Italian movie. That left us to grow and grow to glory and become responsible adults.

Standing in shock in front of the Israeli reality. Looking for a responsible adult.

To be an Israeli means realizing that your country lacks a responsible adult.

Then comes the message from Shira. The woman who did everything right. Shira. My friend who always opens every conversation with a huge smile. Who listens to people very patiently, no matter what they say. That always reaches out, without you having to ask. Who raised her four children to be good brothers to each other. Who went to courses to learn how to do it. Who likes courses in general. My friend Shira, a careerist who treated her family as the most important task in life. Shira, who travels abroad three times a year, once with her husband, once with her family, and once with her friends. That every day at 5 in the morning made sandwiches for her eldest son Yiftah, the outstanding athlete. That accompanied his professional crisis with grace, wisdom, and love. Her son Yiftah, who, despite his athlete’s exemption, insisted on serving like everyone else in the army. To give back. That fell in the north of the Gaza Strip at the war. I read the announcement about his death and think that life here is a scandal. Shira, my friend. Warrior of light and freedom lost her son.

From that moment, whenever I close my eyes, I see young and beautiful soldiers dying. When I look out at the sky, I imagine parachutes with suicide terrorists flying in the air. When I step on the floor of the house, I imagine the soil of a skull. On the way to a quick visit to the half-empty grocery store, when I pass by a closed photo shop whose window displays the sweet faces of children, I think of the children and babies who are now being held hostage in Gaza. Among them, the 3-year-old Abigail who saw her parents murdered in front of her eyes, and then was kidnapped. Alone on enemy land. Held by terrorists. Three years old. Kidnapped

I think of Aric and Ruth, father, and daughter, who came to dance at a party in the desert. A father with a huge heart, that took care of his daughter, who suffers from cerebral palsy in an advanced state, with admirable devotion. Ruth loved music, and Aric would take her to outdoor parties, hold her on his body with infinite tenderness and dance. Two hearts beat in his heart, one of them hers. Near her wheelchair, Ruth and her father were slaughtered in the 7th of October bloodbath.

I think of Haim, a well-known bus driver in the southern settlements. After the 7th of October, when he saw the B’eeri children and the massacre with his eyes, he could not stand the memory of those difficult experiences and committed suicide. I think of Tamar Tropiashwily, a 9-year-old girl from Ashdod, who, without any medical problem, just out of anxiety, went into cardiac arrest during an alarm. She died.

To be an Israeli means to feel all kinds of damage in your flesh. War damage resulting in death or terrible loss. Followed by the ripples. The other war damages. Those that change the blueprint of the soul. They have no cure.

To relax, I keep looking at the picture of Yiftah and Shira. mother and son. Best friends, sharing a tattoo, a common identity. Eric is dead. Ruth is dead. Yiftah is dead. together with more than 2,000 Israeli citizens and soldiers. Now you have to hold and protect those who are left.

“I understand the desire for revenge,” says Matan Avner, who lost his parents in a terrorist attack, “but I also see where this revenge has brought us. We need to return the abducted, bury the dead, cry, and then change all our assumptions.”

To be an Israeli means changing all our assumptions.

In a central square in the city of Tel Aviv, 240 empty beds are available 24/7. Each of them belongs, symbolically, to one of the kidnapped citizens. Actors, entertainers, singers, and intellectuals come in the evening and sit by the beds. Reading a bedtime story to the empty sheets.

What is the Hamas organization doing to the bodies and souls of 240 citizens? What does it want from a 9-month-old baby? From 9-year-old children?

On the 4th of November, the day of remembrance of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, all ceremonies are canceled, because it is dangerous to gather in a time of war. In order to remember him and his life, I play my children a podcast. And in a recording from the 1990s, Rabin says in his own voice: “We must act firmly against all manifestations of terrorism from the Palestinian side. But I believe that the demand of the Palestinians for self-government cannot be ignored. We must find partners for peace from the other side. After all, peace is made with enemies, and not only through prayers. There is no path to Israel without pain. The path of peace is better than the path of war. I believe there is a chance for peace.”

To be an Israeli means remembering these words.

Sarai Shav­it is a writer, poet, and a TV pre­sen­ter. She has pub­lished two books of fic­tion and two poet­ry col­lec­tions. Her award-win­ning poet­ry has been trans­lat­ed into Ger­man, Eng­lish, French and Malay­alam. She won the Tel Aviv Munic­i­pal­i­ty Poet­ry Prize, the Gold­berg Prize for Lit­er­a­ture, and the Mifal Hapayis Poet­ry Prize.