Wednesday, November 28, 2007

An American in Haifa

Published October 2006 in Hakol.

When I arrived in the northern Israeli city of Haifa in early July, I was struck by the breathtaking beauty of the city, with its winding mountain roads, whitewashed Mediterranean buildings, and serene beaches. What better place to learn Hebrew and experience firsthand Israel’s most pluralistic city, with its coexistence between its substantial Arab, Jewish, Druze, Bahai, and Christian communities. By the time my second week in the Middle East arrived, however, it would become clear that this educational experience would provide lessons far beyond those I had come to learn.

On Thursday, July 13, Haifa’s previous sense of disconnect from regional strife was shattered as the first of many Katyusha rockets slammed into the Stella Maris neighborhood, a beautiful area from which, two days before the attack, I had enjoyed views of Haifa’s port and the distant coast of Lebanon. That night would be the first of several spent in a bomb shelter huddled anxiously around a classmate’s radio. In the following days, nearby explosions would shake the ground, and with the routine of classes interrupted, I would find myself spending hours in a stuffy shelter. The experience was not without its benefits, however. From these besieged Israelis I would learn not only the unforeseen joy of chocolate sandwiches, but more importantly, the impact of life under siege upon a society.

For Israel, as for all nations, the experience of the present is colored by historical memory. From the solemn halls of the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem to the war memorials dotting each city, past suffering fills one’s consciousness as strongly as does the fact that nearly every Israeli one meets has lost a loved one to political violence. Huddling in the shelters, people’s thoughts inevitably meander to the past…especially, in this case, to the SCUDs rained down by Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. That war has left an indelible imprint upon Israel not only because of its experience of terror—drudging to the surface the ever-present specter of annihilation—but perhaps even more because of the powerlessness Israel felt when asked by the United States to stay out of the conflict so as not to provoke Arab ire. This sense of powerlessness surfaced then in the form of inward-turned aggression, as the country faced an epidemic of domestic violence, and it is resurfacing today, only this time turned outward.

While many in the international community have condemned the extent of Israel’s military operation in Lebanon, the overwhelming majority of Israelis I spoke with said, “enough is enough.” And “enough,” let us not forget, is a word that stretches over not only years of Hezbollah aggression, but decades of unremitting conflict, the ongoing need to assert Israel’s very right to exist, and centuries of persecution of Jews. These are not the fault of innocent Lebanese, and Israel’s air campaign has been both deadly to civilians and ineffective in ensuring Israel’s security. This painful reality was brought home to me every night as I lay in bed listening to the constant roar of Israeli war planes headed north, unable to sleep with the awareness that the sound meant crushed homes and lives cut short. This reality was also brought home to me every time I did manage some sleep, only to awake to the sound of explosions and artillery fire. However, while it is crucial to condemn the killing of civilians, it is also important to understand the context in which such violence takes place. When the leaders of Europe insist that Israel lay down its arms, even as rockets continue to fall upon its cities, the painful memory of Gulf War powerlessness sounds as loudly in Israelis’ ears as does the wailing of air raid sirens outside. The problem is only further compounded when the condemnations of Israel come with accusations of Israeli exploitation of the Holocaust.

Historical memory also provides clues into the unanimity with which Israeli public opinion has stood by the actions of the Israeli military in Lebanon. In the early 1980s, when Israel invaded Lebanon in order to combat the PLO and aid Lebanon’s Maronite Christian leadership in the midst of civil war, the invasion was met with widespread dissent. A large segment of the population was vocally opposed to the war, and formed the peace movement that has in more recent times shifted its focus to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Following the withdrawal of Israel’s remaining troops from Lebanon in 2000, such peace-seeking sentiments have finally turned sour when they failed to bring about the desired results, and attacks continued. In the bomb shelter, an Israeli student told me about a close friend, one of the founders of Four Mothers, a peace organization sometimes credited with the withdrawal from Lebanon. This time, she said, “we gave them their chance, and they blew it.” The tradition of dissent, nonetheless, remains alive in Israel, evidenced by a recent ten thousand-strong peace demonstration in Tel Aviv. The calls for peace are often led by women, including the organization Women in Black, which continued its weekly vigil in Haifa even as the city faced ongoing violence. Even among those who support the war in Lebanon, many tears are shed for its innocent victims on both sides.

Even in such a time of strife, Haifa taught me many things. I experienced the enduring generosity of its inhabitants, from Israelis such as my roommate, who insisted on feeding her new American friends a feast of hummus, yogurt, olives, and traditional Arab bread and soothing our nerves even though her own family faces greater danger farther north. “Savlanut,” the Israelis would remind us. “Patience.” I saw that in a pluralistic city like Haifa, targeted perhaps for this very pluralism, everyone suffers together, Jew and Arab alike. And I even managed to learn a little Hebrew.

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