Ellen Murphy: A visit to Israel provides a new view on mortality

07/29/2014 1:07 PM

07/29/2014 1:07 PM

Seems like a stretch to claim that an 11-day trip can bring one closer to an understanding of mortality. However….

On July 5, a few days after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered, then a Palestinian youth was abducted and murdered, we traveled to Yad Vashem, the world Holocaust authority, in Jerusalem, to conduct a workshop in passing on our family story. Our daughter’s book about her grandmother’s survival of ghettos and camps in World War II was the topic.

Eva and her parents escaped orderly, direct attempts to kill them, by being in the right place at the right time. If it weren’t for this conference being held despite the current news, we would probably have canceled our trip.

Almost every day we were there, sirens blared, and we sought shelter in the nearest buildings, including stairwells, walk-in freezers and reinforced hotel rooms. As we huddled closely with international strangers, we heard the booms as the Israeli defense system intercepted the rockets over our heads.

Israel fired back, of course, after warning civilians to leave their homes because rockets are launched from all kinds of populated spots in Gaza, including neighborhoods. After five days in Jerusalem, we drove up to the Sea of Galilee, which is a beautiful lake surrounded by bucolic farms and villages.

We stayed with relatives who were descendants of founding families of the state of Israel, moving there or born there when it was called Palestine. One great-aunt, a 91-year-old widow, was the lone surviving pioneer of the battles fought to make a homeland for Jews already there, and world refugees to come. It was a history lesson in the flesh.

The TV news in Hebrew constantly covered the rocket attacks, and the relatives were understandably upset while trying to translate. So at one point, a Fox News program was tuned in, and after five minutes of that, we couldn’t listen anymore, as the subtext of the story was so biased, it wasn’t worth repeating. One thing we discovered that the far right American press has in common with the Palestinian extremists is their hatred of President Barack Obama.

After forging new friendships and meeting relatives for the first time, we headed for Tel-Aviv, which our daughters were looking forward to the most. A large, metropolitan city, with its generous portion of Mediterranean beachfront and artist’s colonies, Tel-Aviv offered a more relaxed possibility of a holiday — until our first walk through the neighborhood, when sirens blew, and we raced inside.

Every time we took cover, we knew that soon, someone in Gaza was targeted, and possibly killed. The Israelis we met held a pragmatic view of the exchanges: glad they had the Iron Dome defense system; sorry it had to exist. The only Palestinians we met (as far as we knew) were hostile or amused toward us as Americans, and warned us that we would be “next.”

We met with several Israeli friends whom we knew from the U.S., and they confirmed that the situation is not black and white. The military training each Israeli receives provides a sense of duty to country and a devotion to survival, even 70 years after a European genocide attempt. They understand, at a very young age that, sadly, survival is the goal for both sides of this current conflict.

There is a difference between the way the military is regarded here and in Israel. Without a mandatory draft, U.S. citizens tend to enlist based on pride of country, job security, etc.

In Israel, it’s the next step of maturity, shows loyalty to country and is its defense when necessary. I was surprised to find that I was not opposed to this practice, given my anti-war beliefs.

I have no idea when or if I will ever see Israel again. It’s not my homeland and it does not appeal to me to live in a religion-based country.

No one likes the enigmatic situation — being the nation tucked among hostile nations — but no one seems able to solve it, either. The location of Israel is an origin of most recognized religions and should represent brotherly love, but it remains a politically incorrect sibling, unable to separate itself from us, its kindly big brother who cares but also has his own family to tend.

Freelance columnist Ellen Murphy writes in this space once a month.

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