It’s sunset, and a cooling breeze comes off the ocean in Nahariya, Israel. It’s been a long day of driving, and this spot – and the mojito I’m sipping – are exactly the relaxation I need. I take a deep breath and lean over to click glasses in a toast with my traveling companion. “This is where Hezbollah aims their rockets,” she says, and like that, the spell is broken.
This is the conundrum of Israel and why I never found my comfort zone in this country. There’s beauty here, from the harsh desert in the south to the fertile mountains of the north to the magical Mediterranean beaches. There’s easy infrastructure with great highways and public transportation. The people are as friendly and welcoming to tourists as anywhere else I’ve visited. But underneath it all, there’s a culture of fear that borders paranoia.
Israelis constantly live under the shadow of a threat, surrounded on all sides by people who at best barely tolerate them, and at worst want to annihilate them. The threats are both historical and current, and both real and perceived. With the help of politicians and the media, the perception of peril becomes a daily reality. Individual incidents escalate into weeks and months of increasing danger. Fear seeps into every conversation, every act, every choice. Terrorists have thrown rocks onto that highway, so no one uses it. Three Jews were beaten up in Hebron last month, so Israelis won’t go there. Every incident becomes a media event, and the word terrorism becomes more and more common. An Arab stabs an Israeli over a parking spot and it’s terrorism, not assault. Each incident becomes another brick in this house of fear.
But how can I blame them? Israelis live under the threat of enemies digging tunnels into day care centers. They wake in the night to sirens and drag their terrified children to shelters because rockets are coming. They spent days and nights praying that the Iron Dome will shield them from incoming enemy missiles. They go to a café and wonder if a suicide bomber is in their midst. This is normal life in Israel.
As uncomfortable as this culture of fear is to me, as much at odds as it is with the way I choose to live, I have to acknowledge that if I lived under that constant fear of attack I would probably become paranoid too. Chances are I would become jaded and lose my ability to see the good in people, especially those who don’t look like me and pray like me. I would hate that. I would hate what my environment was turning me into. I would hate what parts of me were getting lost in the process — the bits of love and compassion that are so critical to being a complete human being, getting crushed under the constant oppression of fear. I don’t know how I could avoid indoctrinating my children with my own biases of fear and hate.
And yet somehow, the Israeli people manage to find joy in the simplest things, from family dinner on Shabbat to a day at the beach. When each day might be their last, life becomes more precious, and the resolve to protect their way of life becomes stronger. And so, even though I’m not comfortable here, I find myself respecting the strength and courage of these people, and I feel blessed that I’ve had the chance to get to know them, experience their world, and join them in celebrating life.