Editor’s note: Jennifer is a non-Jewish American graduate student finishing a degree in Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University. After completing a bachelor’s degree focusing on Islam and the Middle East, she decided to seek her master’s degree in Israel, where she’s lived for the last two years.
The international news right now seems to be very focused on the “numbers” of this war. Nearly as soon as they are committed to paper, or more commonly, on websites, blogs, or Twitter, they are made obsolete by new rockets and new air strikes, new death and new destruction. They are arranged in morbid little competitions: 779 dead Palestinians versus 35 dead Israelis; 2,323 Hamas rockets versus 3,454 Israeli air strikes. Three Israeli teenagers murdered in a car versus one Palestinian youth burned alive in a Jerusalem forest. Everyone seems to be seeking out the grotesque numbers, the sad numbers, the despicable numbers, the ones that can be added and arranged to convince others that they are supporting the “right” side.
We downplay each other’s pain to legitimize our own. Fifteen is the number of times I ran to a bomb shelter in the past few weeks. It is a small, pitiful, unimportant little number to most others but myself and my family. It is not shocking enough for news outlets. It is unworthy of attention when X Palestinians in Gaza City are suddenly homeless and X Israelis in Eshkol are being treated for shock from constant bombings. I’m just an American, and I just have 15 , but 15 is the center of my world this month.
I’ve lived in Israel just over two years now. The anniversary mimicked the arrival: untold hours spent sweating in the back of a heaving and shuddering Tel Aviv metro bus. Two years is an odd amount of time in a foreign country, occupying that opaque space between tourism and residency. In some ways, I’ve paid my dues. I can successfully negotiate my way out of an overpriced bag of pita. I have sweet-talked the notorious Vicki into numerous visa extensions at the Ministry of the Interior, universally acknowledged as the most wretched administrative office in greater Tel Aviv. I’ve bought a perfunctory amount of Ikea furniture for my small Holon apartment. I’ve participated. But I’m not assimilated in any of the ways that matter.
I’m not a citizen. Hell, I’m not even Jewish. I’m not fluent in Hebrew (yet). I have no personal stake in the goals of Zionism. I don’t want to spend my life here. I haven’t endured in two years the things Israelis endure in a lifetime; I only have two military operations under my belt.
I didn’t come for this. Could I have predicted that each year of my master’s degree would be accompanied by a war? I came for a degree, and quite accidentally, fell in love. It didn’t feel like a choice.
The number of times my itinerant downstairs neighbor has chastised my boyfriend and me for wearing flip-flops, screeching in rapid-fire Hebrew that we will surely break out necks while scurrying down the stairs to the building’s basement as air-raid sirens wail over our head. She’s probably right, but there’s no way I’m wearing sneakers to bed.
A girl stands beside me praying under her breath, with the Torah in one hand and an asthmatic puppy in the other. Boom… boom… boom… Once the Iron Dome interceptors have done their job, we wait a few extra minutes in our dust-covered basement in case any shrapnel or debris should find its way to our street, then plod back upstairs to finish dinner and alternate between frank, graphic conversations with our domestic friends and the soothing, unspecific messages we send our families back home.
The times that a speed-loving, teenage motorcyclist has raised my heart rate to a fever pitch recently, unintentionally replicating the escalating wail of an air-raid siren every time they rev their motors to accelerate. These are the things not easily quantifiable, but which shift my little life dramatically. Snapping at my boyfriend for scaring me by watching a video of a rocket attack, not realizing the sirens were only wailing through the computer’s speakers and not through my windows. The guilt for being a perpetually distracted nanny, getting caught by a bouncy ball to the temple because I was staring out the window, imagining rockets falling over the Tel Aviv skyline. Staring blankly when my four-year-old charge excitedly explains how his kindergarten class practiced for the “emergency fireworks.”
A normally quiet morning trip to the local children’s play-place is now a cacophony of some 40 children’s voices, because the basement-level facility has attracted scores of fearful parents. The kids are literally playing underground now. I spend hours alternately isolating and immersing myself in the lurid comments sections of any news article about the Middle East. I transpose every “Death to Jewish Zionist scum” message over the mental images of all my students here. I feel anxious.
The number of times my boyfriend and I have broken down. Mine came first: messy, soggy, and wailing like a wounded animal after a fruitless exchange of political opinions and insults on a Facebook thread. Scenes of the Gaza gore and accusations of my “complicity” in Israel’s military campaign stung me. I didn’t come for this. It didn’t feel like a choice.
My boyfriend’s meltdown was less explicit, more internal. He’s more frightened than me, I think. His fear has roots. His first memory of rockets is from age six, sitting in the mamad (reinforced room) wearing a gas mask, back when Iraqi scuds were the terror in the skies. We’re both quick to anger and slow to look one another in the eye. I silently wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. He can’t choose where he was born, but I chose him. The deepness of the hate I read online directed at my partner because of the menorah on his passport terrifies me. Pundits, scholars, and keyboard warriors still question the reality of the Jewish nation, arguing about its right to exist. But time never stops for theory. My boyfriend’s childhood, sense of home, his memories — they are all linked here the same as the grandparents of my Palestinian friends. How many generations of each will feel that their homeland is under constant siege?
It’s an unfair thing, I’ve decided, to have your life and personal safety wrapped up in a conflict over which you exert no ownership or control. But stay quiet. Stay grateful. Because it’s less unfair than the alternative.