Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Reflections from a 14-day journey through Israel

It’s been a while since I’ve written here; as you can see, over three and a half years. This blog was created during my pursuit of becoming a sports writer, so please excuse the content below, laden with sports-related banter and weekly NFL picks.

I’m choosing to rekindle my journalistic tendencies in order to pour my feeling out into the blogosphere. I haven’t felt this strongly about any given topic in a very long time, maybe ever…

I sit here 96 hours removed from a 14-day journey through the land of Israel, which has finally been enough time for me to digest and reflect upon the emotional roller coaster that ensued and has subsequently continued since landing back in the States last Sunday morning.

I sit here literally sick to my stomach over the conflict in the Middle East, a conflict driven by hatred and extremism among neighbors. Ignorantly, before taking off for Tel Aviv on July 7, I was unaware of the true hatred and anti-semitism that exists not only in the Middle East, but all over the world, as demonstrated by this week’s anti-Israel “die-ins” that took place in my own childhood backyard: Boston, Mass.

Perhaps I knew that anti-semitism existed, but I didn’t realize how tangible, how real it is, even today. After visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem, I posted a picture on Instagram with the hashtag, “prayforisrael”, materialistically trying to maximize my “likes” in hopes that people would enjoy the picture and perhaps add pro-Israel comments to contribute to the flavor of the post. Instead, a user with a Hitler-based username, a Nazi residing in Belgium made an anti-Semitic comment, followed by the emoticon of a knife, insinuating that all Jews should be killed. I quickly took down the post, as I realized just how serious this conflict had become. I am fully confident that given the opportunity, that man would gladly kill myself, along with the 40-plus others on that bus with me.

In so many words, that’s when shit got real for me.

Without being there, it’s hard to comprehend what’s going on in Israel today. As an American, it’s nearly impossible to understand what it’s like knowing that the vast majority of your neighbors want to literally kill you and all of our family and if you lose just one battle, it could end the existence of your entire nation. But I’ll tell you what; the 19-year-olds manning Israeli tanks at the Gaza border know what that feels like, much like their fathers and grandfathers did on the Syrian border decades before, defending against those whom were determined to rid of the state of Israel merely because of their existence and heritage.

Despite visiting at what most would consider an inopportune time, I feel privileged to have been able to experience what all Israelis feel on any given day, and more recently, every day. I feel privileged to have met and spent time with Israeli people (Yuda, Itay, Nadav, Omry, Rotem and Virginia, among many others) who have such a strong sense of patriotism and love for their country. Having spent time with them and listened first-hand to the way they describe the ongoings of this war, I know that what they want is peace and the ability to live lives without the fear of being hit by a rocket launched from Gaza or blown up by a terrorist who snuck into their country through a secret tunnel, built with materials sent from Israel to help grow Gaza’s infrastructure.

Not since 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing have I felt such patriotism, such passion about defending one’s backyard in honor of freedom and peace. But fortunately for America, those two events were isolated incidents (not to diminish either one), whereas this continues to happen day-in and day-out in both Israel and Gaza.

Five times during my 14-day journey I heard sirens and had to flee to a nearby “safe area” while rockets fired from Gaza sailed toward me and my friends. To your average American, that thought sounds terrifying. But oddly enough, as almost all the rockets were blasted down by the Iron Dome (an anti-missile defense system greatly funded by the US), that sense of fear was quickly replaced by a stronger sense of pride and comfort. I never felt unsafe, and neither did the five-year-olds dancing and singing in the basement of our Kibbutz as the sirens rang overhead. It’s difficult to explain, but in Israel, fear is replaced by senses of unity and family, knowing that everyone is feeling similarly, hoping to find peace and recognition among neighboring countries filled with hate.

I don’t know what it was like to live in America in the 1940s, and before this journey, I never thought I would. You look at black and white pictures from the Holocaust and they seem ancient, outdated, surreal. It’s literally terrifying to know that many of those same feelings exist today, especially in cities like Boston and Paris, Western cities renowned for their culture and social liberalism.

Despite 9/11 and the Marathon bombing, we Americans tend to take freedom for granted, not necessarily to a flaw, but because here, that sense of liberty is assumed. Canadians aren’t digging tunnels under the Michigan border to sneak into our country and kill as many of us as possible in a flurry of martyrdom and self-worth. Mexicans aren’t launching rockets into Texas during so-called humanitarian ceasefires while we send aid to their people.

The same, unfortunately can’t be said about our allies in the Middle East.

I feel fortunate to have met such amazing people during my two weeks in Israel. But I feel saddened and sickened about what continues to go on over there. Sadly, this war is fueled by severe hatred and the inability to coexist with others of different viewpoints and opinions, many of which are religious-based.

More so than I ever have before, I’m proud to be an American and I’m proud to be of Jewish descent. Thankfully, I feel safe and confident in both remarks.

But despite going from black and white to color, HD and 3D in a mere 70 years, not everyone can. That’s a somber, scary thought.