The Surrealism or Resilience of Israel Society and The Role of the Diaspora

Large numbers of people who have postponed and canceled trips have both given a victory to Hamas and communicated the weakness of their solidarity with Israel.

By Stephen G. Donshik

For those of us who are in Israel during this military conflict with Gaza, there is a very surrealistic feeling to the war. That is because there are two realities to the present situation. Those of us who have children, family relatives, or close friends involved in the Israel Defense Forces actions in the Gaza Strip or along the Strip are living in a continual state of tension and anxiety. In a small country such as Israel, that includes a large part of the population. Almost all Israelis, whether they are in Israel or somewhere else around the globe, are glued to the television, the radio, or an electronic device, needing to know what is happening all the time.

At the same time Jews around the world are experiencing a strong identification with Israel and the need to demonstrate their feelings of unity. In many places they are also coping with anti-Semitic and anti-Israel demonstrations and even violent acts committed against individuals and community institutions. In Europe, the treatment of Jews as a group and individuals has been reminiscent of the Nazi era in the 1920s and 1930s. Some Holocaust survivors have been experiencing a feeling of déjà vu and are reliving the trauma of 70 years ago.

Jews in other communities where there have not been blatant anti-Semitic acts continue to live their daily lives and identify with and feel the pain of Israelis who are under fire and the victim of rocket attacks that are reaching almost everywhere in Israel. Of course, for those who have family members and close friends in the IDF, their daily lives are filled with tension and worry just like the Israelis whose family members and friends are soldiers in active duty.

Yes, many Jews share an overriding concern for Israel, but depending on the nature of their close personal relationships with Israelis under fire, the level of worry shifts from wanting to know that people are alright to phoning and e-mailing several times a day.

Personally, my family has received e-mails both from our close friends and relatives as well as from people with whom I have not had contact in several years, Armed military conflict awakens personal connections and motivates us to reach out and connect with those who think may be in danger. There is no question that these phone calls and e-mails are heartwarming and welcomed.

So where is the surrealism? At the same time that the people in the south of the country and in communities along the Gaza Strip are experiencing imminent danger from the rockets that are launched all day long, those who live in other areas of Israel continue to go on with their daily lives. This is true even in the cities north of the Gaza Strip like Ashkelon and Ashdod.

Of course everything cannot stop and grind to a halt. In most offices and homes the radio and/or the television is playing so that new developments in the military conflicts or diplomatic negotiations can be heard immediately. Everyone wants the conflict to end, but only if it means an end to the terrorist activities and missiles.

Since the state was founded, the resilience of Israeli society has continually been tested, whether along the northern borders with Lebanon and Syria, the southern border with Sinai border breached by terrorists, or from the Gaza Strip, the tunnels built over the last few years by Hamas and the terrorist attacks in Judea and Samaria. Resilience is what enables an Israeli to go on living – continuing to work, shop, and even going to a restaurant for dinner during the present conflict. Walking around any city you see Israelis going about their everyday activities, even as they feel so much worry and concern for the IDF soldiers.

The strength of the resilience is what leads to a feeling of surrealism throughout the country. Of course, normal life ends as soon as a civilian is a victim of a rocket attack or a soldier is killed during armed combat. We mourn our losses and feel the personal and collective pain of every Israeli who is wounded or killed. However, part of the culture is the Israeli ability to respond and, in time, move on with life. During the years of the horrible terrorist attacks on buses in Israel, the bombing scene would be cleaned up and the streets washed, and then people would resume their lives in the cities where the attacks occurred.

If it were not for people being glued to the media, there are places in the country where there is no sense of the war at all. Daily life continues without a sense of what is taking place hundreds of kilometers away. Yet, at the same time, there are empty hotels and tourist sites. It is evident that during one of the busiest times of the year there is a notable silence.

This silence distinguishes those who live in the Jewish state from those who identify with the Jewish state. Having lived through the Gulf War in 1991 when Iraqi missiles were landing everywhere and everyone was vulnerable, I understood when tourists canceled trips to Israel and left the country once the war began. However, this time the threat feels very different. Large numbers of people who have postponed and canceled trips have both given a victory to Hamas and communicated the weakness of their solidarity with Israel.

Fortunately, Birthright groups have continued to come to Israel during this trying time and their participants have not canceled. This is a very important message both to their local communities and to the Israelis who see the buses throughout Israel. It is sad and disappointing that others have not followed the Birthright example and considered coming even during this time. Jews around the world should demonstrate the same resilience that Birthright program participants have exemplified in their decision to be here at this time. Their presence in Israel would communicate a very strong message to Israelis, to the Jewish world, to those critical of Israel, and most importantly to those who want to strike at and isolate the country from the rest of the world.

Yes, there is a difference between being an Israeli citizen and a supporter of Israel. Of course the commitments are different; however, we have seen heroic acts and sacrifices made by those who have come to volunteer and live in Israel as “lone soldiers.” This is not meant as a call for Aliya, moving to Israel, but it is important for those people canceling trips to think twice about that decision. They should demonstrate the resilience that others are exemplifying and come to Israel as a sign of identification with and support of the Jewish state.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.