Some years are more memorable than others. I can still recall the end of 1987, the year I moved to Israel and, six weeks later, the start of the first Palestinian intifada. I was living in Abu Tor, a Jerusalem neighborhood split right down the middle, with Jews on one side and Arabs on the other. I could smell the burning tires and tear gas from my apartment.
I still remember 1991 because it was the year of the Gulf War. I didn’t really believe it would happen, not even when my then-boss, WAS BOSS AN EDITOR AT A NEWSPAPER OR WHAT? who was privy to the latest intelligence information, told the staff one day that war was imminent. I will never forget how, at about 3 a.m. that night, my young next-door neighbor, Merav, knocked on my door and told me that the U.S had entered Kuwait.
“It’s time to open our gas masks,” Merav told me, gently but firmly. “No, it’s not,” I said, in denial. “It is,” she insisted, and tore open the mask’s plastic wrapping and showed me how to use it. The next night I donned the mask as Scuds rained down on Israel.
The year 2009 will stay with me for several reasons, some political, some personal.
The year began with the three-week Gaza war between Hamas and Israel called Operation Cast Lead. Our friends’ children were called up to fight the militia that was using the territory Israel relinquished during the Gaza disengagement to attack civilians in Ashdod and Ashkelon. Our friends’ sons and daughters arrived home safely but too many people on both sides lost their lives for us to chalk this one up as a victory, though in the aftermath of the war the Hamas rocket fire into Sderot and other cities in the south has been vastly curtailed.
I received a taste of what it is like to live within Hamas range during a reporting trip to Nitzan, just north of embattled Ashkelon. Flimsy “caravillas” served as homes for the Jews expelled from Gush Katif during Israeli’s 2005 disengagement. When I inquired about their bomb shelters, they pointed to a series of eight-foot-high cement pipes, one per cul-de-sac, which the government had just brought in for that purpose.
The majority of Israelis feel that the Gaza war was justified, but it showed us, just as the 2006 Lebanon war did, that our enemies are getting closer. Hezbollah’s missiles hit Haifa and Hamas’ rockets came uncomfortably close to Tel Aviv. What would the rest of the year bring, we wondered?
February began with uncertainty as national elections neared and one of our little boys needed emergency surgery to repair a badly broken arm that refused to heal. And my husband, just laid off due to the growing financial crisis, was looking for work.
The centrist Kadima Party, led by Tzipi Livni, scraped by with a victory, but this being Israel, we knew to expect the unexpected. Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, an ultra-rightist who wanted a pledge of loyalty from Arab citizens, swept past the left-leaning Labor Party and formed a coalition with the right-wing Likud Party. Lieberman became the country’s foreign minister.
Would this new right-wing government be good for us, or would it be as ineffectual as the last one (was that possible)? Like the healing of our son’s broken arm, it was a waiting game.
Things began to look up in the spring, at least on the personal front. My husband landed a good job just as the recession in Israel deepened. The May visit of Pope Benedict XVI not only filled our bank account (I also write for Catholic publications); it underscored the Vatican’s commitment to good relations with Israel at a time when the rest of the world was clamoring for boycotts to protest Israeli “war crimes” in Gaza.
About this time President Obama met with Netanyahu, the newly elected prime minister, in the White House. Then in June, Obama’s speech in Cairo proved the American president was not going to coddle Israel and would demand territorial concessions on the West Bank and in my hometown, Jerusalem.
That same month Netanyahu said he would support a demilitarized Palestinian state. The Palestinian leadership decried the speech, but in my conversations with some individual Palestinians, I heard a yearning for normalcy. They wanted for their children what we want for ours and would not object to a demilitarized country if one were offered to them. But we both knew that no Palestinian leader will ever offer them such an option.
The Palestinians and I emerged from our informal meetings with a greater understanding that, on a personal level, we are closer than anyone could have imagined. But we were depressed by the other’s collective inability to understand that we have both been the instigators as well as the victims.
Still, it is hard to feel depressed during an Israeli summer. Blue skies every day. Temps in the 80s. Chabad offered a summer camp we could actually afford.
Speaking of miracles, we sold our apartment, which had been on the market way too long, for an excellent price. In contrast to the U.S., housing prices in Israel continue to roar, especially in Jerusalem, where foreign investors have snapped up 9,000 apartments, often at exorbitant prices. Within a couple of weeks we found a larger place, next to our kids’ school. The only problem was work. Mine was fast disappearing as the American publishing industry was pummeled by the recession.
Even without taking out a larger mortgage, buying at this time was a leap of faith.
We relied on faith again when Eitan’s surgeon told us his arm wasn’t growing, and that he would need a second operation just before Sukkot.
Homeless between apartments, we traveled to see family in New York, where the debate over universal health care was in full swing. With our son’s surgery approaching, we realized how lucky we are to live in Israel which, despite its problems, offers excellent universal health care at an affordable price. Eitan’s first three-hour surgery cost us $2,000 out of pocket; the second — which appears to have been successful — not a single shekel.
As a nation we felt under siege during the second half of the year.
The United Nations’ Goldstone Report placed all the blame for the Gaza war on Israel’s doorstep, though it concluded that both sides committed war crimes. Israel physicians were prohibited from attending a Cairo breast cancer conference organized by Susan G. Komen for the Cure, which took a stand against the ban. The battle cry of the European BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement is “Don’t Squeeze a Jaffa (orange); Crush the Occupation!”
And now there is a serious EU drive spearheaded by Sweden to re-divide Jerusalem while keeping it “open.” Have any of these people actually visited Jerusalem?
There was also intolerance closer to home, with hate crimes committed against gays and Messianic Jews, among others.
This year, with its continuing uncertainty, has tested my family’s resolve to stay in Israel. Like the rest of our friends who are unemployed or underemployed, we gulp through every mortgage payment and wonder when the next shoe will drop.
When things became a little too daunting in 2009, we reminded ourselves that others, like the family of Gilad Shalit and other victims of Israel’s enemies, have persevered against much bigger challenges.
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