Courtesy Meislin Projects, NY
On Oct. 6, my 10-year-old daughter and I go to the beach. It’s a Friday. A beautiful sunny day. The last day of Sukkot. It may be the last chance for us to get a swim in before it’s too cold. My cousin’s son joins us. I make pita sandwiches and fill water bottles. We take the bus to Hilton Beach and meet some friends. The sea is cool so I don’t fully swim, don’t put my head in. I regret that. I let my daughter have an expensive ice cream cone, but not without a lecture on how unnecessarily expensive it is and how next time she should get a popsicle instead. I regret the lecture too. On the way back, the bus inching through a bustling Dizengoff Street, the cafes full of people exhaling loudly at the end of a week, I text my friends. “This was so much fun! Let’s do it again next week!”
That first night I am alone with my daughter. My husband, Sean, is at work by the Dead Sea for the week. I managed to protect her from the inconceivable horrors that flooded my feed all day long, the cries for help, the videos, the stories, the parents searching for their missing children. I asked the neighbors to quiet down their conversations while we were in the bomb shelter of our Tel Aviv apartment. I even managed to distract her while our elderly neighbor from the second floor, the one who plays the accordion beautifully, showed us gardening tools we could use as weapons in case terrorists came barging in through the door. We don’t know how far Hamas has gone. They could be anywhere.
Before bed, I lock the doors, pull down the shutters. I walk around my apartment—how I love this place, an airy two-bedroom walkup on the third floor of an aging building in East Tel Aviv, large glass doors facing a balcony and green leafy trees, a jacaranda astounding in its purpleness in the spring—feeling more unsafe than ever. How did I never worry about these glass doors before? The lack of shutters? Terrorists could rappel down from the roof. Shoot through the glass. Drill through the door. I sleep in my clothes, clutching my daughter, keys pinned inside my pocket so we don’t get locked out when we run downstairs. This has happened before.
I cannot sleep. Anxiety creeps in and remains, ticking like a time bomb. In the morning, we pack a suitcase to go stay with my brother who lives 30 minutes north of Tel Aviv. A little safer there.
My kid, anxious even in peace times, doesn’t want to go, terrified of being caught by a siren on the drive. I promise she can be on the iPad. The roads are empty. I drive fast, eager to get further out of missile range. I let out a long exhale as soon as we get to my brother.
Two days later there’s a siren there, too. A rare occurrence in the area. Again, my daughter wakes up with a start, lets out a short scream and runs to the safe room. At least we have a safe room now.
Those first few days the anxiety hums in my body like a live wire, making it impossible to eat, focus, work, parent, sleep. I clench my jaw so hard it hurts. I keep finding out about more people I know who’ve lost family members and friends. People I know who survived, including my cousin’s daughter. I hear more horror stories, find out about the bus of elderly people murdered on their way to the Dead Sea, the family slaughtered as they returned from camping at the park in Ashkelon we once camped at, the youth and fishermen massacred on the beach at Zikim.
It’s all so close. It could have been any one of us.
At the same time, I’m watching, heartsick, as the death toll continues to rise in Gaza. I have always been a lefty, vocally critical of the Israeli government, the occupation, the settlement project. Of Netanyahu. Oct. 7 hasn’t changed that. I’ve been particularly disturbed, enraged and alienated by this current government. A government that has Ben Gvir in it could never represent me. This government has now failed us in unimaginable ways.
Friends and colleagues from Canada keep checking on me. Sean’s family, too. But others I had considered friends, don’t. They begin posting “free Palestine” before Israel even retaliates, conflating Hamas with Palestine, as though this massacre was an act of resistance rather than a crime against humanity. As though one cannot condemn Hamas and also care for Palestinians.
Emergency planes pick up Canadians and take them to safety. Our Canadian friends and family are urging us to get on them. Secretly, we think they are being irrational. The planes come and go and eventually we agree that we should leave. Just for a while. A temporary thing.
Flights disappear in front of our eyes when we come to book them. Complicated routes with many stops. We decide to look for a flight to Athens and figure it out from there. We get a late-night flight for the following day.
Back in Tel Aviv, the sirens keep interrupting our packing. Maybe that’s why we pack so poorly. We are only allowed 8 kilograms on this flight. There goes my hoodie, my second long-sleeved shirt, my hair products. I mistakenly pack a single swirly earing, a gift from my mom. My daughter forgets her favorite stuffy.
As we drive to my mother to say goodbye, faint sirens wail in the background, loud booms, whistling sounds of the Iron Dome intercepting missiles above our heads. I map out the city and highways for shelter, apartment buildings we could run into. It is all very close, yet somehow, we manage to drive away from the affected areas moments before the sirens slice the air.
My daughter is so traumatized by that journey that she walks into my mother’s safe room and refuses to leave. Later, the taxi driver that takes us to Ben-Gurion Airport begins talking about children who were murdered and I say, sternly, “You mean, soldiers.” “No,” he starts, not understanding, “Haven’t you heard?” I touch him lightly on the shoulder and make intense eye contact in the mirror and he finally understands. But she does too, curls into a ball in her seat. He tries to repair the damage. “The soldiers are 18,” he says. “They are children to us.”
The plane is full of families, kids, and babies. Everyone looks haunted. At the airport in Athens, I chat with a young Israeli man and his beautiful, silver-haired mom. “I don’t feel good about leaving,” she tells me, pained, her Russian accent thick. “My friend told me I’m betraying her by leaving.” “That’s an awful thing to say,” I tell her. “You’re doing the best thing for you and your son.”
Maybe I need to hear it too.
During the flight to Toronto, the app on our cellphones alerting us of missile attacks doesn’t recognize we are no longer in Tel Aviv and plays the sound of alarm. My daughter and I both jump, hands on our heart. I recognize that look in her eyes. The fear. It breaks my heart. I feel guilty, then, for moving my family to Israel five years ago, after living in Canada for 20 years. I wanted my daughter to have the large family experience I had growing up. I thought I was doing the right thing for her. For us.
We go to Toronto first, then to Vancouver, moving from home to home, friend to friend. Collecting clothes from strangers. Toys, dolls, and books. Our kid cries at night, silent and grumpy in the mornings. One day, I literally drag her off the couch and force her to dress, eat, plan her day. “I think I have a hint of an idea of what it feels like to be a refugee,” Sean says, and I bristle. “A very privileged refugee,” I say.
I’m constantly riddled with guilt. For leaving, for taking my daughter out of school, out of her familiar environment, her gymnastics, and art and piano. Guilty for some of the acts done supposedly in my name. Guilty for speaking up and guilty for being silent. Half the times I am too numb to speak or post, and the rest of the time I am too scared. Because posting even something I had perceived as innocent drew heat, because a friend deleted my comment, because I had been dragged into unnecessary cyberwars without paying attention.
Survivors’ guilt, my friend tells me. You’re not special. We live in terrible times. Something horrible happened to our country. To our people. To us.
Vancouver is breathtakingly beautiful. Sidewalks covered with red and yellow leaves. Mountains dipped in soft clouds. I lived in this city for years, met some of my closest friends, began writing in English, fell in love with Sean. It is, in a sense, a home, too. I walk through it and run into old iterations of myself, the way I do when I walk the streets of my hometown of Petah Tikva.
Meanwhile, I hear of people returning to Israel, feeling that the events of the last few weeks proved that there is nowhere else for them to be.
My sense of belonging has always been fractured; it is something I attributed, among other things, to the death of my father as a child. I held that fracture in my body along with deep longing for my family home, for the Mediterranean Sea, for the smells and sights and textures of childhood, for the Yemeni Jewish culture and community that survives there. That is why I returned home from Canada. But now, I feel rootless again, newly afloat. What if we just stayed here, in British Columbia? I think. This is Sean’s home, after all. What if we lived on an island in the Salish Sea, hiked through the rain forests, breathed in the scent of pine trees, swam in the icy Pacific Ocean? Who could we be if this was our life?
But of course, your heart goes everywhere with you.
And then I feel guilty again. For being privileged enough to leave when so many others in Israel can’t afford to, when Gazans simply can’t, guilty for daring to dream of a different life. (“If we all leave,” a cousin says to me, “what will happen to this country?”)
An Arab Israeli woman I follow on Twitter tweets she’s never felt more alone. Being an Arab Israeli, or a Palestinian with an Israeli citizenship, is never easy. It’s even harder now. Many of them lost Jewish friends in the massacre. Some Arab Israelis and Bedouins were also murdered by Hamas. Bedouins from the nearby town of Rahat risked their lives to save people from the music festival. And yet, there are Jewish Israelis who suspect them now, more than ever, demand that they prove their loyalty to Israel, condemn Hamas.
Strangely, this tweet gives me some comfort, because I also feel alone. Alone in my grief. Alone in my silence. Alone among Canadians with no knowledge or connection to this place and their steadfast convictions. Alone in my lefty circles in North America, who seem incapable of denouncing Hamas. Alone, also, in some of my Israeli and Jewish circles, among those who are blinded by rage over the horrific massacre, their hearts hardened, their empathy run out. I feel alone in a world that wishes everything to be simple, polarized, that resists nuance and complexity, where only one truth can be held at any given time, where only one people can be grieveable.
The first time I see someone, a fellow author, justifying the acts of Hamas on Instagram my heart stops, my fingers begin shaking, my entire body chills. Hamas murdered children, shot babies, raped young women. In the most brutal ways. They posted those videos on their own Telegram channels. They’ve admitted they have no intention of stopping. That they will do so again. Many Palestinians wish to be free of their tyranny, want nothing to do with Hamas.
I don’t know how to live in a world that justifies such evil in the name of social justice.
I’m noticing a trend in the comment threads on posts by Israeli peace activists. They are often being asked by pro-Palestinian followers, Why do you live there? If you do not support the occupation, the Israeli government, shouldn’t you just leave? It’s my home, the activists answer simply. I was born here. Where would I go? It’s a question based on the ignorant assumption that Jews can simply go back to the places where they had been killed, persecuted, and ethnically cleansed.
An activist for Jewish-Arab solidarity finally posts, “We, the Jewish people who live in Israel, are not going anywhere. Too often we hear calls to ‘go back where we came from,’ or ‘from the river to the sea ...,’ and the only answer to that is the simple fact that millions of Jews are going to remain on this land.” He continues by saying,“We need to understand the competing fact: The Palestinians are not going anywhere as well.”
When we first arrived in Toronto, the house next door had a huge, handwritten sign in their window, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” I flinched at the sight of it. While many Palestinians claim that the slogan doesn’t mean ethnic cleansing or genocide, I still felt threatened. I still couldn’t see how else I am to understand it other than a call for Israel, my home, in some form or another, to no longer exist.
A dear friend in Vancouver asks me, “Remind me again, why did your family come to Israel from Yemen?” It’s an honest question, but knowing the context and her political views, I hear the implication. I tell my friend that the Yemeni Jews were deeply religious and dreamed of returning to the Holy Land for generations. As early as the 16th century, Rabbi Shalom Shabazi wrote poems of longing for Zion. I explain to her what it meant to be dhimmi in Yemen, to live as second-class citizens. I tell her of the draconian Orphan Decree, how Jewish orphans were confiscated and converted to Islam.
A Jewish American friend asks for reassurance that the Nova music festival wasn’t too close to Gaza, suggesting it may be perceived as insensitive to party when the Gazans suffer so much.
We are being asked to validate our connection to this land, our right to live on it. To justify our existence.
One day, I tearfully thank Sean, who is not Jewish and not yet Israeli (we are months away from his citizenship and now I wonder what our leaving may do to the process), for holding some of this trauma with me, for sharing in this national memory, for understanding some of this complex existence in a way I couldn’t have possibly put in words. Because all of us now, Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, right and left, are bound in that tragedy. My husband, too.
I used to pride myself on not seeking out Israelis while abroad. I was looking for like-minded people, I loved saying as though it made me more international, and that didn’t necessarily mean Israelis. The closest friends I made in Canada were from everywhere. These are the friends who embrace us when we arrive, share their homes, care for us, collect clothes for us, toys for my daughter. I am warmed by the dozens of messages checking in on me. Telling me I am not alone. That I am loved. I am deeply grateful and moved.
And still, I find myself craving, for the first time, the company of other Israelis. I want someone to understand this burden. To share the pain of trying to mourn at a time when the world seems increasingly impatient with our grief in light of so many Palestinian deaths (“you need to look past October 7,” a white European woman tells me on Instagram).
I need someone who knows this without me having to say it: We are not the same as we were before Oct. 7. Nothing will ever be the same.
The last picture on my phone from Oct. 6 is a single picture I took on the beach. It’s unusual for me to take only one. An avid photographer, I usually snap many shots. It’s not a very good photo, either. Like I felt obligated to capture the memory but was too lazy to move closer or wait for the perfect moment. It’s a wide-angle shot, poorly framed, with a man sitting at the water’s edge cropped on the left. The sky is perfectly blue and free of clouds or rockets, Reading Station looming in the background. My daughter is lying in the water half submerged, one leg up behind her in an unnatural position. Her cousin sits slouched in the water, watching her. A small child runs into the waves, one hand holding a bucket, the other clutching the back of his bathing suit. It’s almost dull in how idyllic it is, mundane in its serenity. It’s a photo I would have surely deleted if it wasn’t for what it now represents.
The next photo is a screenshot from the web: “8 steps to self-calming your nervous system.”
The picture after that, my suitcase open on the bed, clothes stuffed in disarray.
A few weeks before the war, I started volunteering for the Road to Recovery, an Israeli association of volunteers who drive Palestinian patients—primarily children—from checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza for lifesaving treatments in Israeli hospitals.
I only managed to do it once. A friend who’s done it before accompanied me and we woke up early to arrive at Eyal Checkpoint (in the West Bank) at 6 a.m. and pick up a mother, a father, and their adorable and tired 2-year-old, and drive them to Sheba Hospital. The checkpoint was a shock, chaotic and crowded, filled with workers on their way to Israel, all men, and vans picking them up. The family didn’t speak English and I practiced my broken Arabic on them.
The charity has been sending emails every week. I’ve been enjoying them. Heartwarming stories of drivers and patients, pictures of children enjoying a fun day that had been planned for them by volunteers.
After Oct. 7, the newsletter listed the volunteers and activists who have been abducted or murdered by Hamas.
I want to end on a hopeful note. To say something about the way the people of Israel have come together after months of being divided. About the Palestinian-Israeli partnerships that are happening on the ground. But the honest, uncomfortable truth is that I feel pessimistic in a way I haven’t before. I see the hate, the way people hunker down in their opinions, pro this and anti that. Us against them. The radicalization on both sides. The rage.
I also see the rise in antisemitism. In the past, when I was asked whether I experienced antisemitism in Canada, I always said no. That the only racism I’ve faced was for being brown. It’s not entirely true; there were microaggressions, jokes about rich Jews and Jewish gold and Jewish girls. But this feels different.
My friend in Vancouver tells me that at her daughter’s high school, kids yelled “kill the Jews” while waving Palestinian flags. In Montreal, my niece came to school inconsolable after the events of Oct. 7, and when she expressed her grief, she was mocked and harassed for “supporting the deaths of Palestinian children.” My brother contemplates moving her to another school.
We are safe in Canada now. And yet, my anxiety hasn’t fully dissipated. Everything is a trigger: Car alarms. Motorcycles. Construction sounds. Fireworks. Kids screaming. Kids crying. Kids playing. Halloween. Oh my God, Halloween. Tiny graveyards on front lawns. Bloody handprints on windows.
Grief grips me in unexpected times, closes fingers over my heart and presses. I wake up into it every morning. To the hostages, the dead babies, the slaughtered families. Sometimes it hurts so much I cannot breathe. I cry while cooking, during yoga class, on the bus, in front of strangers.
I miss my home. My life.
I search my heart for vengeance but find none. I still wish for peace, am heartbroken by images and stories coming from Gaza. When I read about the Palestinian people who died, I say their names, memorize their faces. I want an end to the bloodshed, to the war. I pray for the hostages’ release. I still believe in our capacity to love and heal. I refuse to lose my humanity, my compassion, my empathy.
To recover from my descent into pessimism, I remind myself that the Road to Recovery continues to drive patients. I follow good people who do good work: Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Jews. I collect tales of triumph and heroism. I watch survivors who lost loved ones asking for peace, expressing hope.
In one event I watch online, a Palestinian speaker says: Hope isn’t optimism. I find comfort in this distinction, repeat it in my head like an incantation. Even in the darkest of times, I can still hold on to hope.