What Happened To The Israeli Generation That Believed Peace Would Come?
I’m an Israeli who holds an American citizenship. I’m an Israeli living abroad. As I sit here writing at my dining room table, I can see the Golden Gate Bridge outside my window. Yes, I’m that lucky.
Twelve years ago, during one of the Israeli army’s military operations (I think it was called “Protective Wall”) my husband was called to reserve duty in Gaza. He was a tank commander during his military service and was now called to sit in a tank on the border with Gaza while other forces were busy razing the Jenin Refugee Camp in the West Bank to the ground. His orders were to shoot at anyone coming too close to the border from Gaza. Most of the people who did come too close were farmers tending to their land. My husband refused to serve and was sent to military prison for a month. He was part of a movement of reserve soldiers who believed that this act of civil disobedience would make a difference and would shift public opinion toward resuming peace talks. We are not “moon-walking lefties,” the leaders of this movement said, we are the salt of the earth. We come from the mainstream of society, we are pilots and tank commanders and officers. They will have to listen to us.
This act of civil disobedience was a result of an optimistic upbringing. I was born in 1973, just weeks before the Yom Kippur War which reminded Israelis that victory in the battlefield is not enough in the Middle East. What we need is long-lasting peace.
Born to Peace was a popular song that year: “I was born to peace that is coming. I was born to peace that’s on its way. I was born to peace that will appear here. Oh I wish, how I wish it would just come.”
When I was a child it was common knowledge that our generation would no longer be drafted to the army because by then “peace will come.” Part Zionist determinism, part Messianic tradition, the idea that peace in our times is inevitable, was firm. Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977 confirmed this belief. As part of the peace agreement signed with Egypt, the problem of the Palestinian refugees was to be solved within a decade, in continuing the talks led by Sadat, Israeli Premier Menachem Begin and U.S. President Jimmy Carter. In 1981, Sadat was assassinated. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon and started the Lebanon War, a long and bloody conflict. The peace process, needless to say, came to a halt.
The first Intifada erupted just in time for me, at 14, to become an activist. I was an idealistic teenager and I truly believed my actions would have an impact. When I was 19, I was proven right: the Oslo agreements, my peers and I thought, would surely bring peace. Yes, it would be difficult but we can do it, I was sure. Remember, “We were born to peace.”
Israelis of my generation have been aware of “the conflict” since birth. We were born into the Occupation. We matured into the first Intifada. We were young and hopeful during the Oslo Accords, had babies when suicide bombers were blowing up street corners. Now our children are teenagers and some of them are already in the army. My sister, an activist dedicated to collaboration with Palestinians around environmental issues, said today: "I remember our father leaving for a war in 1973 when I was 7. It was scary then. I remember my brother being in the army during the Lebanon war of 1982; that was stressful. I remember my husband being in the army during the Intifada, as an officer; and that was disturbing and difficult. But having my son in the war now, having my child there; that is a totally different story."
A friend whose child is also in the military said it was like waiting outside the operating room when your child is inside and you don't know if he will come out alive or dead or half alive, but this surgery is long.
In 2005, the creators of the well-known Israeli TV series, In Treatment, chose to depict in one of the main characters a fighter pilot who had killed many civilians in Gaza. While targeting a Hamas leader, he dropped a one-ton bomb on a residential building. This character comes into treatment with the psychologist (the series’ protagonist) and introduces himself, “I am the one-ton pilot.” The term held signified a moral dilemma: what does it mean when an army that dominates the skies drops a bomb on a civilian population in order to kill a man involved in terrorism? For many Israelis, this was a moral line crossed. We fight only to defend ourselves, many people said. Even after the Intifada, with its many civilian casualties, people in Israel still believed this to be a significant factor of their identity: “We were born to peace,” that is, we only fight when there is no choice.
Many tons of explosives have been dropped and many civilians killed since “In Treatment” went on air. The Israeli hearts seem to have hardened with every “operation” while life in most Israeli cities seemed to have been less and less affected by moral dilemmas and by the conflict itself.
Israelis had other things to worry about—the cost of living, housing prices and illegal immigration. Sound familiar? Israelis have problems that are typical of other countries in the West. Israel just wants to be a normal country. Young Israeli children who are now sitting in their daycare’s security rooms curled up on the floor, arms covering their heads, waiting for the sirens to stop, for the “boom” to be heard so they can return to storytime, are no longer told they are “born to peace.” In fact their parents, born in the 1980s, who were in their 20s during the second Intifada with its suicide bombings and constant fear, probably never had that illusion either.
The Palestinian problem doesn’t fit in with normality and normal problems. This problem: generations of refugees living in two tiny separate pieces of land, is unique in the world. Israel itself is a nation of refugees living with an ethos of heroism and war. It is still unsure whether it is democratic or theocratic, and it doesn’t have the resources to think about solutions.
What’s going to happen when all this ends, I asked my friends and family on Facebook. “First let it be over” was their common reply.
In Gaza people are fighting for their freedom. They are being massacred. They have nothing to lose. This week, Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf writes, “Nations will make inconceivable sacrifices in these kinds of struggles. An entire one percent of the Jewish population was killed in the 1948 war (Israel's War of Independence). The public accepted it painfully and with a stiff upper lip because they felt that they were fighting for their lives and for their freedom. We have become so much more susceptible to loss, not because we went soft, but because we have a deeper understanding that despite all the 'we’re fighting for our future' slogans, 2014 is not 1948. I’ve spoken to people in Gaza who don’t care much for Hamas in their everyday lives, whether due to its fundamentalist ideology, political oppression or other aspects of its rule. But they do support Hamas in its war against Israel; for them, fighting the siege is their war of independence. Or at least one part of it.”
The difference between Israelis and Gazans, as I see it now, is that in Gaza people are fighting for their lives and in Israel people are in despair. Israelis are scared of the rise of fundamental Islamists who are openly killing their own people in Iraq and Syria. They think these militants would not think twice before killing an Israeli, if it ever came to it. They no longer believe that peace is reachable and they don’t see a point in paying the unbearable price of constant war.
Another process taking place in Israel these days is the silencing of the peace seekers. Not only are their numbers dwindling, they are also being persecuted now, more than ever. Adam Amorai writes on his Facebook page, “I was scared of the right wing tonight like I was never scared before...20 meters from the spot where Yitshak Rabin was assassinated, Tel-Aviv’s left-wing activists were beaten with clubs and sprayed with pepper spray.”
There are accounts of Israelis losing their jobs because of Facebook posts opposing the war. Jewish cities are becoming unsafe for Arab citizens, with reports of assaults, embarrassments and threats to Arabs walking on the street, on buses, trains etc. These have been a daily occurrence.
Returning to normality after a cease-fire is reached, after the tunnels are destroyed, seems less and less likely. In Israel, people are in despair. In Gaza people will go on to the last soldier because they have nothing more to lose. It is a dire situation. We, the world that is watching, have an obligation here. Just like in every other desperate situation, we have to do our best to dream for these people who have lost their capacity to dream. They all deserve to live just like us, with their own Golden Gate in the background.