Opinion |

This Year, for My Birthday, I Want Israel to Stop Breaking My Heart

In the course of the year since my last birthday, I saw something which, entirely unexpectedly, convinced me that my wish could someday actually come true - it was a terrible fire

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
Israeli firefighters (pictured) were joined by Palestinian, Egyptian, Greek and Bulgarian firefighters in the battle against the 2016 fires in Israel.
Israeli firefighters (pictured) were joined by Palestinian, Egyptian, Greek and Bulgarian firefighters in the battle against the 2016 fires in Israel.Credit: Jack Guez / AFP
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

Today happens to be my birthday. This year, the restlessness of the Hebrew calendar placed the date between Israel's two central days of darkness, the commemorations of the millions of Jews killed in the Holocaust, and of the tens of thousands killed here in wars and terrorism.

This year it also intersected with a period of personal mourning, for a friend who loved this country with the whole of his severely scarred heart.

In a country this small, this awash in wrongful and obscenely untimely death, you learn a great deal, and quickly, about grieving.

The lessons are often unspoken. You come to learn, if your family's fate has not made the knowledge congenital, that Holocaust Remembrance Day is not at all for the survivors and their families.

For them, Holocaust Remembrance Day begins every morning of the year, and never ends.

Just as Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism is not at all for the loved ones bereaved and irreparably broken, and left to live out their lives with a sinkhole in the heart.

You come to learn, if you are one of those who did not inherit the awareness from a parent or grandparent, that no one really survived the Holocaust. None of its victims emerged from the Nazi horror as the person they were before it began. None would have the life they might have had.

You learn as well, that no one here really survives a war. Whether your experience is combat or fleeing rocket barrage or burying a classmate, you don't come out the other side intact.

There is something about birthdays, and something about mourning, that spurs a person to look back, take stock. To carry out, in the Hebrew, heshbon nefesh, a reckoning so deep that it begins with the soul.

This year, for my birthday, I don't want a cake or presents.

This year, for my birthday, I want Israel to stop breaking my heart.

This is not my only wish. But it's the one I feel the need to say out loud.

I want the people who run things here to appeal to the best in us, rather than pander to the worst.

I want to stop waking up to ill will and the cunning codes of hatred.

I want to see people on all sides treated with the respect they deserve as human beings.

We are, every one of us here, permanently scarred. We are scarred by what war does to us. It's the way scars work. They protect and reinforce a wounded place, but they also take away its feeling. They make it less flexible.

Scars have made us what we are.

They armor us in callousness. They steel us to the hurt we cause others. Not only on the level of politics and governmental policy. Face to face. Person to person.

We are deformed. By terrorism. By occupation. They rob of our humanity, our sense of fairness. They kill our souls. They make us into their puppets.

Still, if the heshbon [account] is to be truly honest, there's must be much more to it than just the darkness there. There's also this - a debt of gratitude to be paid.

In the course of the year since my last birthday, I saw something which, entirely unexpectedly, convinced me that my wish for this year could someday actually come true.

It was a terrible fire.

The place our family called home for 20 years was on the point of being destroyed.

The inferno would have taken the whole mountain, every single home, were it not for a war in which Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians and Egyptians and Jordanians, all fought on the same side. They all fought to save lives and homes, to protect trees and animals. And they won.

To all of you, to the firefighters from Bet Shemesh and across Israel - one of whom is truly family to us - and to the Palestinian Authority firefighters from Jenin and Tubas and Tul karm - to the Palestinian firefighters who spoke of their pride in their work alongside the Israelis; to the Israelis, to all of you who helped save the home in which we raised our babies, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

To our neighbors in the Arab village of Abu Ghosh, who were the first to phone us and ask how we were, and to tell us that their home was open to us as if it were our own, and who opened the community center to everyone who had been evacuated, and who brought food in great quantities from restaurants and individuals, and who helped set up activities for the children, gratitude forever.

To our neighbor from Katana, on the next mountain, from the West Bank Palestinian village, who built much of the restaurant that caught fire and was destroyed, and was instrumental in containing the blaze, words fail me.

I knew that fire obliterates. But I learned then that fire also reveals. Fire burns off our every mask. Fire is a cruel but unbiased mirror. It reveals our character.

I'm not the same person I was a year ago. Some of my most calcified, most unexamined assumptions have been burned out of me.

Something was torn away from my heart in those days.

It might have been scars.



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