Life teaches us that things don't always go as planned. Coming into the spring, events in Israel had me believing that the Middle East was changing for the better. Israel had elected a government of the center-left, committed to real territorial compromise. It had a prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who was a consummate political operator, and a number-two, Amir Peretz, who was a genuine working class hero. Optimism was in the air. Israel had chosen peace and was, at last, prepared to address its social and economic disparities. What could go wrong?
Then the war came. As the editor of The Forward, a weekly newspaper that covers the Middle East, my life suddenly became very busy and very complicated.
The complications weren't merely professional. My family tries to spend each August in Jerusalem. We have a lot of relatives and close friends in Israel. We want our kids to know their cousins and grandparents, to be comfortable in Israel, to use their Hebrew. We'd missed the previous year, so there was no comfortable way to cancel this year. We'd paid for an apartment and four non-refundable plane tickets. And we had a bat mitzvah to attend just outside Haifa. This was not a trip we could cancel.
On the other hand, could we responsibly proceed with our plans? My own notions of Jewish heroism were shaped by "Exodus," where the heroes fought bravely after evacuating the children to safety. Could we fly our own children into a war zone for summer vacation? Would the war expand southward from the Lebanese border? How deep could the Hezbollah rockets penetrate?
We followed the news on the Web from hour to hour, wondering what to do. By the time of our August departure date, the war was in its third week and seemed to be contained in the north, far from Jerusalem. We decided to go. We got to Israel after an uneventful flight, had a tranquil drive to Jerusalem and settled in peacefully.
There was an air of high anxiety everywhere we went concern for the soldiers, sympathy with the residents of the north, alarm that Hezbollah was holding its ground. But in the center of the country, life was safe.
More than safe, we felt welcomed in a way we hadn't ever before. Folks were grateful to us for coming. For the first time in years, you could sense a moment of national unity. Left, right and center, from our settler cousins in the West Bank to our Peace Now cousins on kibbutz, everyone seemed to share a common determination that this was a just war, a war that had to be fought, a war that had to be won. We felt like participants, albeit in a minor way, in a historic Jewish drama. Almost nobody I knew questioned that Israel was fighting for its life against enemies that wanted to destroy it that much was agreed, nearly across the board, creating a sense of shared mission that I hadn't seen since 1973. Being in Israel felt very right.
We went to Haifa for the bat mitzvah on the weekend of the cease-fire and the last, bloody ground assault. We feared for our lives each kilometer we drove northward, expecting an errant missile to hit our car. As it turned out, we spent a bucolic Shabbat in a lush village in the Carmel Hills, playing ping-pong, lying in hammocks and watching squadrons of warplanes streaking overhead toward Lebanon. Then, on Monday, the guns stopped.
The next few weeks flew by: museums in Jerusalem, surfing lessons in Herzliya, hikes through the Judean Hills, endless meals with cousins and friends and furious debates over the war that had just ended. For all the justice of Israel's cause, everyone knew things had gone very wrong. Hezbollah was still intact. Israel's north was in shambles. Everyone knew at least one reservist coming home from Lebanon with horror stories not the blood and gore kind of horror tales, but the "Catch 22" and "MASH" kind, stories about idiotic, contradictory orders, about days without food or water because nobody had organized supply lines, about units that had sent a patrol out to a mall in Nahariya to buy essential communications equipment and life-saving protective gear, because the army ran out.
As Labor Day approached and we started packing for home, there was a moment of hope. The peacekeepers promised by the United Nations actually began arriving in Lebanon. Hezbollah demonstratively handed over its border posts to the Lebanese army. There was one day that I managed to drive the length of the country breakfast in Haifa with the novelist A.B. Yehoshua, lunch outside Beersheva with a business consultant, dinner in Rehovot with a nephew who's a graduate student and army lieutenant, a long phone chat along the way with an old friend who's a cabinet minister and hear nothing but optimism about the war and its results. It looked ugly but it worked, everyone said. We'll be better off because of it.
But, of course, summer joys never last past Labor Day. Back home after a long flight, back to work and school, back to the traffic and the noise. Back to the old arguments and debates, which were resurfacing with ever greater venom. The left was more convinced than ever that Israel was a genocidal occupation force, bent on global domination. The right was trumpeting its vindication, now that the world had seen how territorial compromise fuels terrorism. My brother-in-law, a rabbi in Hebron, was patiently explaining to me that the war was God's punishment for giving up sacred land. "There is such a thing as divine reward and punishment," he told me over dinner one evening.
And the sensible middle? It was busy explaining the value of compromise and dialogue, but nobody seemed to be listening anymore. After all, nothing goes as planned.
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