Volunteers sort donated clothes for those who have been forced to flee their homes following the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7, at a sports gym on Oct. 24, 2023, in Ramat Gan, Israel

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Why Israel Feels Like Home

I’ve lived in places all around the world. But since the Hamas attacks, I’ve realized why this is where I want to be, and where I want my kids to grow up.

Tanya Mozias Slavin
October 31, 2023
Volunteers sort donated clothes for those who have been forced to flee their homes following the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7, at a sports gym on Oct. 24, 2023, in Ramat Gan, Israel

Leon Neal/Getty Images

This article is part of Hamas’ War on Israel.
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I say “just in case” to my kids a lot lately.

Why are there eight cans of tuna in my sock drawer?

Just in case.

Why did you put this wooden board with a hole in it under my bed?

Just in case.

Why do we have to go to the safe room if the Iron Dome protects us from the rockets?

Just in case.

My kids and I live in Israel, and like everyone else here, after the horrific attacks by Hamas on Oct. 7, we’ve had to learn to exist in the narrow space between unimaginable heartbreak, fear, and uncertainty.

In addition to stocking up on canned food and bottled water, we have acquired wooden boards that could block the door to the safe room—which doubles as my kids’ room—from the inside, in case armed men try to break in to kill us. Two carpenters worked for six days in a row to make wooden boards (with a hole in the center for the handle) for the entire city, for free.

Maybe the wooden board is overkill. I don’t know. We don’t know what to be scared of anymore. I’ve never been this scared in my life.

But, paradoxically, I’ve also never been this grateful to live here, and not anywhere else in the world. After living abroad for 16 years, I came back to Israel four years ago, but until recently, I still considered myself a “citizen of the world” more than Israeli. The events of the past three weeks have changed that.

I grew up in the Soviet Union, in a Russian town with virtually no Jews but plenty of antisemitism. My parents, my three siblings, and I were routinely harassed for being Jewish. The wall of our building had the graffiti Bey Zhidov (“Kill the Kikes”) permanently written on it. Once, at a dark train station, a stranger approached my father and addressed him using a generic Russian name: “Hey, Vasia, do you have a cigarette?” But when the light of the approaching train illuminated my dad’s non-Slavic looks, he erupted in a diabolical laughter: “Hey you’re not a Vasia, you’re Abram! Abram!!!” Luckily, the doors of his train opened and my dad was able to get in, unharmed.

I grew up with my grandmother’s stories about the Holocaust that she would tell us in all the gory details: how one day, Nazis came to the village of Novopoltavka in Ukraine, where most of my grandfather’s family lived, ordered all the Jews to strip naked, led them across the town, made them dig their own grave, and then shot them one by one.

I had nightmares where some unquestionable authority would show up, tell us all to strip naked, and take us out of the apartment, out of the building, past the graffiti and the playground with the broken swings, to our death, with all our neighbors looking on. In this nightmare, however, we were the only ones who’d be killed. All our neighbors, I had no doubt, would consider it justified, or at least not that terrible.

I knew that my childhood nightmares were just that, nightmares. We children lived in a different world. My parents would often say, “so-and-so is Jewish” about someone, meaning “He is one of ours and so could be trusted.” The assumption was that, by default, if they weren’t Jewish, even if they weren’t overtly antisemitic, sooner or later they would say something to give their true feelings away, even if it was something relatively inane like “You’re a good person … even though you’re Jewish.” I considered that kind of distrust on my parents’ part over-the-top. Sure, I knew that some people were antisemitic, but nobody was really out to harm us. So when my family moved to Israel when I was 15, it didn’t register, for me at least, as a major exodus to the land of our ancestors. It was just something that Jews did at the time. In the mid 1990s Russia was a mess, and antisemitism was only one of its many problems. It’s not like ethnic Russians wanted to stay in Russia, either.

Seven years later, after attending high school and university in Israel, I got married. At the time, the Second Intifada was in full swing. I’ll never forget that dreadful feeling after each suicide bombing, of holding your breath as you do the “head count,” calling all your family and friends to make sure they’re still alive.

That was one reason we decided to leave Israel. But the main reason was that my husband and I wanted to go to graduate school, and doing so abroad seemed like the most reasonable next step. So we moved to Canada.

When I left, I was convinced that I would feel at home everywhere. It never crossed my mind that my Jewish or Israeli identity would be something that I’d have to hide.

During the next decade in academia, I watched with dismay the ever increasing obsession with Israel and the steady growth of anti-Israel sentiment on campuses.

I watched the discourse shift from “Against Israeli Occupation” (reasonable, even though I suspect that 90% of people opposing didn’t know what exactly was occupied and where) to “Boycott Israeli Apartheid” (a slogan that didn’t leave a space to debate whether or not there was such a phenomenon as “Israeli Apartheid”) until it suddenly became mainstream to debate Israel’s “right to exist.”

I watched the gradual demonization of the term “Zionism,” the term that simply refers to the idea that Jewish people deserve their own country. It doesn’t mean a country that is populated exclusively by Jews. It means a country where Passover and Hanukkah are national holidays, just like Christmas is the national holiday in many countries where large portions of the population don’t celebrate it.

Still, I thought it wasn’t that bad. After all, my everyday life was largely unaffected by anti-Israeli propaganda. I didn’t talk about politics with friends, and while I hoped that most of them didn’t support the destruction of Israel, I forgave them in advance for anything they might be thinking, because after all, they were just well-meaning, left-wing people who wanted everybody to live in peace, and who never in their life had to do a “head count.”

And when out and about, there were ways to avoid the upsetting sights. If you could just cross the street when you see people distributing “Boycott Israeli Apartheid” leaflets, if you could temporarily turn off (or put on mute) the Jewish or Israeli part of yourself, if for those few minutes you could just decide to be an unaffiliated human mammal going about your business, then it would sort of be tolerable.

When I made the decision to move back to Israel in 2019, it was mostly for social reasons. I missed my family. I missed the ease with which people interact here. I missed the feeling of community that makes you feel like everyone is taking care of everyone’s kids. I was glad that now I lived in a country where Passover was a state holiday. But mostly I still considered myself a “citizen of the world,” with one foot still across the ocean. I write in English, after all, and have a lot of friends overseas. Maybe when the kids grow up, I thought, I could still go and live somewhere else for a while.

The last two weeks have changed that.

When after the brutal Hamas attacks, many organizations on North American campuses either refused to condemn Hamas, or minimized or justified the attacks—to say that I was “triggered” is a gross understatement.

Awful as it sounds, before I knew it, I started dividing people into “those I can trust” and “those I can’t.” I’ve become my parents. Some friends from abroad have reached out, on email and social media, expressing concerns or sympathy. Those, I know, are people I can trust.

The ones who didn’t? I don’t know. In my reasonable mind, I know that people are busy, or simply so (understandably) tired of the media’s obsession with the Israel-Palestine conflict that perhaps they can’t appreciate the significance of what happened. But I’m not in my reasonable mind anymore. I’m in an animallike self-preservation mode, and this is my visceral reaction. My visceral reaction, despite the fear, is to be grateful that I’m here and not there. I can’t imagine having to endure this heartbreak while walking past anti-Israeli demonstrations on campus.

On the other hand, I’ve seen Israelis, divided as we were before, come together in a matter of 24 hours after the attack, across political divisions, race, and religion (including the Druze and Arab Israeli citizens, the vast majority of whom do not support Hamas), and begin to take action long before our incompetent politicians formed an emergency government. It seems like every person of the 9 million living here, if they’re not fighting, is either volunteering or desperately looking to volunteer.

Volunteer teams patrol the streets and guard entrances to every city. People collect donations and pack boxes of nonperishables and clothes for soldiers and evacuated families. Restaurants donate food. Teenagers offer free babysitting to parents who have to keep working and help elders get groceries. Artists lead free basket-weaving sessions. Cosmeticians offer free gel nail polish removal. A 90-year-old Holocaust survivor is knitting socks for soldiers.

I’ve put my name on a few volunteer lists for something I can do close to home (because I don’t drive) but have been warned, “We can’t promise anything. We have a very long waiting list.”

I tried to volunteer my dog to donate blood to injured police dogs but by the time I saw the post, 342 desperate-to-be-useful dog owners beat me to it. Every time someone posts a call for volunteers, 15 minutes later they have filled the need. It’s like trying to get a new Playstation: You have to start lining up the night before it arrives in the stores.

My sister visited the States this past summer, traveled around the Great Lakes, and then said, when she got back in Israel: “There is so much space there! Why are we all attached to this tiny, hot, overcrowded, contested piece of land?” To be honest, until the events of the past three weeks, I sometimes wondered the same thing. Why do I feel the need to raise my kids here, and not in any other place in this broken world?

Now I know why.

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Tanya Mozias Slavin is a writer and a linguist whose work has been published in Oprah Daily, Boston Globe, and Newsweek. Find her on Facebook or Twitter.