There are few experiences more depressing, frightening and isolating than finding oneself entirely outside the national consensus when your country embarks on a war – a war that the vast majority believe is crucial for self-defence.
In Israel, where I have spent the defining years of my adult life, members of the country’s dwindling political left and peace movement spent this week in powerless silence. I know, because I lived that experience twice – during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah; and then again during Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” invasion of Gaza in the winter of 2008-9.
That was the war that nearly wrecked my relationship with my oldest friend. She dropped by to visit just as I was ending a phone conversation with a colleague in Gaza – or, rather, the conversation was ended when a missile landed with a huge , gut-churning crash right next to his home. When the static on the line cleared, the sound in the background was his 8-year-old daughter, screaming. He had just finished telling me that they had no electricity or running water and his daughter was confined to bed with a psychosomatic paralysis brought on by fear of the bombardment.
Shakily, while setting out coffee and cookies, I recounted this conversation to my friend, whom I had known since I was 17. She responded, “Well, what can I say? He should not have voted for Hamas.” These people want to kill us, she continued, and what’s more they force us to kill them because they use their women and children as human shields.
I hardly spoke to her for six months after that. Not because I hated her, but because the knowledge that my oldest friend and I saw the world so differently, that I could not share my thoughts with her or lean on her for support, was unbearable. She did not understand why I was so upset. It’s just politics, she exclaimed.
With other friends I had a tacit agreement to avoid talking about the war, because we knew we would disagree so fundamentally that we risked damaging our friendship. But when a close friend who voted for a right-wing party has two sons in combat units, meeting for coffee during wartime and not discussing current events is absurd. And lonely.
On social-media platforms, acquaintances who had seemed perfectly sane and moderate in their political opinions were suddenly writing hate-filled, very personal attacks – on their blogs, on my Facebook wall, in long, ranting e-mails. Or bloodthirsty comments about what the Israeli army should do to the Palestinians. Yes, even the children, wrote one acquaintance. They would only grow up to be terrorists.
Around the Middle East, liberal Arab friends were looking at their own media’s images and caught up in their own national consensus. Some backed away quietly, fearing the opprobrium of friends or the unwelcome attention of the security services; others politely indicated that it would be better not to be in contact for a while; and still others – again, people I had known for years – became unnervingly aggressive, levelling accusations that mirrored those of the Israeli right.
Amongst the Jewish Israeli public, polls showed support of the war at well over 90 per cent (Israel has a substantial minority of Arab citizens). Even in ultra-liberal Tel Aviv, I was afraid to express opposition to the war – afraid of being physically attacked. The army called up the reserves.
Gay friends donned their wrinkled army uniforms in response to emergency call-up orders; feminist friends packed lunches for their husbands to take with them as they drove to their army bases. Many told me they weren’t sure the army’s bombardment of Gaza was the right tactic, but surely one had to take some action to stop the south from being bombarded by Hamas rockets. Now was not the time to criticize. We were at war.
Amir Ben David, an editor of Time Out Tel Aviv, wrote in his first post-war column about two men who tried to have him kicked out of his local café upon overhearing him express opposition to the war during a quiet conversation with a friend, over cappuccino and cake. “People think they have the freedom to attack you – even if not physically – just because you express a dissenting opinion,” he wrote.
This sort of hyper-nationalism in wartime is common to all societies. But in Israel the wars and crises come so frequently that there is not enough time to calm down and reflect in between. Ten years after the invasion of Iraq, most liberal Americans wonder ruefully why they supported that war, which cost them so much and achieved so little. Four years after the last invasion of Gaza, most Israelis wondered why the army hadn’t hit harder to stop the rockets regularly launched into Israel’s border towns.
Israel is a small country that is very family oriented. People settle down relatively young with life partners; the norm is to have at least two children. For most Jews, the experience of mandatory military service creates a common language. This is true even for the Israeli left – the Jews who are identified with the anti-occupation movement.
But those who have parted ways with the national narrative and committed to anti-occupation activism are a tiny minority. Within that minority everyone knows everyone else – and their spouses and the names of their children. Most are third– and fourth-generation Israelis, deeply rooted in the place by family history, language and shared experience. When they dissent from the received narrative, even during wartime, they still know they belong to the tribe.
But I had come to live in Israel as an adult, had no family in the country and did not serve in the military. My political views had evolved and shifted leftward after I moved there, so I did not grow up in a leftist milieu. Hebrew is not my mother tongue. And so, while I had many acquaintances and friends, I did not have the uncritical support of my tribe.
This support, I discovered, was crucial for one’s mental health. Some of my most radical friends had siblings and parents who disagreed vehemently and fundamentally with their political views. But in a society dominated by family ties, they could count on the comforting knowledge that there was always a place for them at the Friday-night dinner table. You accept your family because you didn’t choose them and you love them for primordial reasons. But you choose your friends. And when they cannot replace family at a time of crisis the loneliness can be devastating.
Lisa Goldman, a Canadian-Israeli journalist, is a contributing editor and founder of the progressive Israeli magazine +972. She now lives in New York.
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