Every time there’s a frightening crisis in Israel - and unfortunately they happen frequently, every few years or so – there are inevitably suggestions from well-meaning friends and family abroad that it might be time for a little vacation. It happened after the Rabin assassination, during the Iraq War, when Saddam Hussein was threatening to hurl missiles again, during the second Lebanon War and Operation Defensive Shield.
My standard response to the suggestions that I might want to pack up the kids, get away and find a safe refuge until the storm blows over is, “Thanks, but no thanks. It’s really harder to be far away at a time like this than to be in Israel. I’d rather be here experiencing it than far away wondering what the country is going through.”
They say, “OK …” and I can practically feel them rolling their eyes over the telephone lines - my position sounds crazy to them. Why would you want to be there, feeling sad, miserable, scared, and worried, when there is an alternative? When you could leave, even for a while?
But the strange, counterintuitive truth is that there is nothing that makes an Israeli want to stay home – or return home – like a crisis. I should know. As recent events have unfolded – the discovery of the bodies of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach, their funerals, the retaliatory attacks on Gaza and the consequences of these shocking events – I am far, far away.
It’s a trip I’ve been looking forward to for a long time – a long summer stay at my parents' home in Rhode Island, where I’m sending my kids to camp and spending days in the tranquility of the cool New England coastline, far from the burning Middle East sun and the turmoil of tribal struggles and religious strife. A break from sadness and strife.
But over the past few days, I haven’t been able to give myself that break. I try, but I can’t. It seems wrong to wake up and read a local morning newspaper where the top story is a feature celebrating the fact that the shin-guards worn by the American soccer team in the World Cup were made in Rhode Island. The story shares the front page with other local news, the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision and President Obama’s announcement on immigration reform. I have to dig deep inside the paper to read the reports from Israel; to see the headlines that aren’t just on the front page at home but cover the entire newspaper.
Don’t get me wrong - I don’t fault the New Englanders around me for whom the kidnappings, killings, and retaliation are merely blips on the evening news. There’s a lot to keep track of - both the domestic news that graces the front page and the troubling developments in Iraq, Syria and other trouble spots around the globe. Why should the kidnapping and murder of Israeli boys be more significant than the fate of 300 Nigerian girls? Or, for that matter, the slaughter of tens of thousands of Syrians?
But for us, for Israelis, the ordeal of the past 18 days and the loss of these three teenage boys are different. No matter who we are or what our politics, whether we identify or don’t identify with their families, their boys are our boys. They are us. And so, like the stereotypical Israeli abroad, and like other Jews and non-Jews around the world who are deeply engaged with Israel, I’ve spent most of the past 36 hours glued to the Israeli news sites in English and Hebrew and to social media, watching news streamed live online and listening to audio recordings of that awful emergency call by the kidnapped boys played over and over again, getting as close to the collective experience as I can from where I am.
I find that events like these invade my consciousness for a far greater part of the day from a distance than they would if I were nearby. It’s similar to when a family member is desperately ill. When you are sitting by their bedside, or making daily visits – when you have your finger on the pulse of their condition and are with other family members who are worried about them – it is somehow easier to cope and move on with other aspects of life. Living in an environment where everyone is engaged with the crisis, even if they are arguing about the best course of treatment, makes it somehow easier.
To be sure, being on the ground doesn’t necessarily mean you are perceiving events more clearly. One Israeli friend, who has lived in the United States for a long time, called me out on my observation that it is better to be back home. Being in Israel is “easier,” she suggested, because one is enveloped in a tribal experience that endows tragedies like these with a meaning that is more inflated than it might otherwise be; experiencing them collectively impairs your ability to view the situation clearly and keep events in perspective.
Perhaps she is right. But the bottom line is that when you care – even if your caring drives you to criticize or even argue about the way in which the situation is unfolding – it is better to be close. That is why thousands in Israel made the pilgrimage to the homes of the boys when their fate was uncertain and crowded the cemetery where they were laid to rest on Tuesday. The same crowds will likely overwhelm the mourning families as they observe the Jewish ritual of sitting shiva, which embodies like nothing else the recognition that the best salve for pain is being together. Nothing makes you understand that better than being far away.
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