Today at 12:35am from Eli
“So messed up I was on the same street as a shooting in telaviv
It was 500 meters away from where I was
1 dead 5 injured
And his Still [sic] on the run “
These are the texts I received from a close friend away on a Birthright trip to the Holy Land last Friday. My thoughts scattered, breaking into a thousand tiny shards, as I imagined him running through the quiet back-streets of the Shuk faster than he has ever ran from a gunman that can be behind any corner of the streets he doesn’t know.
Run faster, I told my image of Eli. Go, your life is in danger. Where could he hide? Where in the unfamiliar shopping malls of Tel Aviv could he find a quiet safe corner? Nowhere. Birthright is meant to provide a fun tourist experience, laid back in the civilian quarters, with a paid flight there and a paid flight back.
And here I am. Looking to head into Tel Aviv, but also the poverty-stricken Palestinian refugee camps and the hostile ghettoes of Gaza, the world’s largest open-air prison. Where am I going? What am I doing? I should go. Yes, we have put these people in the camps they are stuck in. We have created the monsters that stab civilians in the streets. I must see them, and they must see me. The appointment is set and I am already in the waiting room.
A day passes, my nerves calm. The friend is safe. My sister, Leah, sits awake in the living room late into the night as I return drained and shoddy from a late shift at work. “Yo, Boker Tov.” I wearily grin at her, bidding her good morning in Hebrew. The dogs answer with a rhythm of barks waking the neighbourhood like an off-beat rooster.
“Hey, I’m going through all of my photos from my year in Israel,” she says. “I haven’t had time to tag the friends since we landed.”
“Did you hear about Eli? Pretty messed up.”
“Dude, do you know how many times I’ve had a shooting on my street or a friend stabbed or a terrorist on my corner?”
She takes me through the laundry list of affiliates, colleagues, neighbours, teachers, lovers’ friends, friends’ lovers. “I was scared in the beginning,” Leah says in passing, “but by the end I just learned to carry on.”
“How did you cope?”
“The trip coordinators moved us away at first to a Moshav where we were safe. But then the attacks went on and on, and we decided that this is our trip. We will have to get used to it or stay locked up forever so we were let free but we were still back before dark, and careful wherever we were, and watchful of every Palestinian.”
Ahhhh . . . so that’s why we’re taking backwards steps in the peace process. Watchful of every Palestinian. Of course. Of course they feel different and alien in their land. But can you blame her? Some of these boys become monsters. And monsters create more monsters. Sin begets sin, the rabbis teach us. I admired her bravery to face another day after day of adventure in a war-torn land.
But I’m scared and worried and whatever this war is, the divide is clear: there is little love to be shared between Israelis and Palestinians. But yes, I am scared for her. And more scared for myself. I quite like living. I like to keep this thing going. How will I check the corners when I am in Gaza? Shut up. This is all quite silly. I’ve armed myself with books. Knowledge is my hard hat. Finkelstein and Fanon have told me these people are harmless. Surely if I carry my Chomsky book in my chest pocket it’s thick hard-cover will catch any bullet that wishes to rest neatly inside my delicate organs.
But this is bigger than just me. Two thousand Palestinian children, innocent, young and ambitious like me, were buried by their parents since the turn of the century. I feel sick. My imagination rushes to imagine the boy sprinting through the sprawling slums of Jenin from a trained hunter impartial and efficient but apathetic to the difference of civilian or fighter, man or women or child.
Run faster, I tell him. The image comes back to me later than night. And again. And again in the morning. Three times before breakfast. Sometimes the boy makes it to another dump on the other side of town, where he is mirrored by wide-eyed orphans with sunken faces from a town many bombings away. Sometimes he doesn’t.
“We were trained to clear out all areas of threat,” a friend who was in the IDF tells me. “If a suspect is inside a room that is meant to be empty, we shoot him immediately. We cannot afford risks. In the War on Terror, anyone can be hiding a gun.”
“Let’s say a young boy is in the room.” I ask. “Do you shoot him?”
“If he is old enough to hold a gun.”
“How old is that?”
“Eight, maybe nine.” No. That can’t be right. But it is us or them. And for a soldier it’s either me or you. No. Is it? In my mind, I see the boy’s wide stare and long face through the scope of my gun as I scan the corners of a living room. F*ck. It’s the same street-rat from before. I told you to run faster. Where can I go? he replies, let’s see whose house you can hide in when the war comes to your hometown.
Would I be any different?
No. No, no, no! This kid is too young to die and too innocent for the death penalty. The responsibility is on the soldier to protect the innocent. A life is a life is a life. You are a soldier. You may die, but you are a soldier who signed up for war and he is a child running from it all. Would I pull the trigger? I, who had childhood dreams of holding an IDF-issued gun between my tefillin-wrapped hands. Would I? Would I squeeze my sweaty finger heavy on the trigger, before calculating the moral philosophy of another civilian casualty in the twitchy moments of the heat of battle? No, I tell myself. I am a liberal. You smug asshole. Yes. Yes I would. Shut up, I tell myself, you have never been in battle. Oy, what would I know? I know this much: if I shot the boy, I would never forgive myself. It would always be wrong. Categorically, necessarily, always wrong.
Perhaps I would tighten my finger around the trigger like a hammer tap-tapping a knee. Yes, perhaps. But it would not make it any less wrong.
Christ, the walls seemed to close in around me. This is a world I know very little about. Two thousand children dead. Each one killed by a bang. Each bang set by a bullet. Each bullet shot by a rifle. There are many like them, but this rifle is theirs.
This rifle, of course, also belonged to a soldier. Young, erratic, and slippery on the trigger. Does it weigh heavily on his conscience? Maybe. What do I know? I’ve never seen the war fully.
I grew up far away from the war, in a sheltered, reclusive enclave of religious Diaspora Jewry. We didn’t have guns but once there was a fight and one kid pulled the other around the playground, dragging him by the peyos like a leash. There were also a few classmates who beat their chests with their muscular arms and flew off to become a hero in the IDF. As a child, I looked up to these sorts of boys as men. Now I am of army age –– and I am still a boy. Lost in a circle of curiosity, stuck and sickened by the destruction the war has brought.
The wall between the Palestinian man and I forces occupation and blocks empathy. I have not yet found a gate to the broken stare of the boy who’s eyes are a vandalized graveyard. “Don’t climb it,” my school teachers warned me. But my best teacher was curiosity; I have to see it, I will see it.
“Don’t. Don’t do it. They will kill you on that side of the wall. You are a perfect boy for them to capture. Young, naiive and Jewish.” My teachers repeated.
And that is exactly why I am going. Because I am no different from the boy on Birthright fleeing another Tel Aviv terrorist attack, from the boy sprinting through the sprawling slums of Jenin, or the boy lifeless in an army that has sucked his conscience from his mind like a straw. I am the boy that climbed the wall.