The First War, All Over Again

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27 Jul 2006

This is a different kind of war, and an old kind of war. In the last war, when they blew up buses and restaurants and sidewalks and cafes, Israelis were enraged, apoplectic with anger. This time, it’s different. Rage has given way to sadness. Disbelief has given way to recognition. Because we’ve been here before. Because we’d once believed we wouldn’t be back here again. And because we know why this war is happening.

A rocket hit Haifa in the first days of the war, killing no one, but injuring a number of people. It also tore the face off an apartment building, leaving the apartments inside eerily exposed, naked, for all to gaze into. That small block of Haifa, with its shattered shell of a building, rubble all along the street, citizens dazed as they wandered about looking at it all, appeared to be exactly what it was – a war zone.

And yet, the people in the street stayed near their homes, going nowhere. The newscaster asked them why they didn’t go somewhere else, where it might be safer. One man answered with statistics. “Why leave now? We’ve already been hit. The chances of us being hit again are one in a million.” To which another man responded almost with outrage. “What do numbers have to do with it?” he asked. And then, he turned to the camera, almost screaming, pointed to the broken building, and said, “This is our home. Mi-po ani lo zaz. From here, I am not budging. And he repeated his refrain over and over again. “This is my home. And from here, I am not budging.” Mi-po ani lo zaz.

Israelis understand what this is. This is a war over our homes. Over our homes in the north, for now, but eventually, as the rockets get better and larger, all of our homes. This is not about the territories. This is not about the “occupation.” This is not about creating a Palestinian State. This is about whether there will be a state called Israel. Sixty years after Arab nations greeted the UN resolution on November 29 1947 with a declaration of war, nothing much has changed. They attacked this time for the same reason that they did sixty years ago.

At first, it was the Egyptians, Jordanians and Syrians. We put a stop to that in 1949, 1956, 1967 and 1973.

Then it was the Palestinians, who bamboozled the world (and many of us Israelis) into believing that they just wanted a State, and that their terror was simply a way of forcing us to make one possible. We fought the terror in 1982 (Lebanon), 1987 (Intifada) and even after Camp David and Oslo, once again in 2000-2005 (the Terror War). And then, we actually tried to make the State happen. We got out of Lebanon to put an end to that conflict. And even more momentous, we got out of Gaza, hoping that they’d start to build something.

And now, it’s Hezbollah. Or more accurately, Syria. Or to be more precise, Iran. What’s Iran’s beef with Israel? Territory it lost? It didn’t lose any. And does anyone really believe that Iran cares one whit about the Palestinians and their state? That’s not the reason. We know it, and so do they.

Now, the bitter reality of which Israel’s right wing had warned about all along is beginning to settle in. It is not lost on virtually any Israelis that the two primary fronts on which this war is being conducted are precisely the two fronts from which we withdrew to internationally recognized borders. We withdrew from Gaza, despite all the internal objections, hoping to move Palestinian statehood – and peace – one step closer. But all we got in return was the election of Hamas, and a barrage of more than 800 Qassams that they refused to end. And then they stole Gilad Shalit. Not from Gaza. Not from some contested no man’s land. From inside the internationally recognized borders of Israel. As if to make sure that we got the point – “There is no place that you’re safe. There is no place to which we won’t take this war. You can’t stay here.”

Because as much as we have wanted to believe otherwise, they have no interest in building their homeland. They only care about destroying ours.

Six years ago we pulled out of Lebanon. Same story. In defiance of the UN’s resolution 1559, Hezbollah armed itself to the teeth, and as we watched and did nothing, accumulated more than 10,000 rockets. And dug itself into the mountains. And established itself in Beirut, effectively using the entire Lebanese population as human shields. And, assuming that there was little that we could or would do, it attacked on July 12, killing eight soldiers, and stealing Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. Not from Southern Lebanon. Not from Har Dov, a tiny hilltop that’s still contested. But from inside Israel. Inside a line that no one contests.

Unless, of course, they contest the idea of the whole enterprise. Which they do. And which is precisely the point.

And which is why this incredibly divided and divisive society has rallied so monolithically around a Prime Minister who until last week wasn’t terribly popular, and around a war that may or may not accomplish all its military objectives. It explains why, even as the air raid sirens go off across the country, and may eventually start their wail in Tel Aviv, too, as people dash across streets, panicked, trying to find the nearest bomb shelter, no one complains about the government. No one’s complaining about the amount of time it’s taking the air force to put a stop to this. It explains why all over this city, advertisements on bus stops have been replaced with a photo of an Israeli flag and the phrase Chazak Ve’ematz – “be strong and resolute” (Moses’ words to Joshua in Deut. 31:7). Even the people who’ve lost family members, who are interviewed while still overwrought with grief, have no complaints about the government or the army. “Finish this job,” they effectively say. “We’ll stick it out.”

But behind the defiance lies sadness, a tired and experienced renewed loss of optimism, a wondering if it will ever, ever end.

Because we know what they want. It’s not the Golan Heights. It’s not the West Bank. And it’s not a State. We know what they want, and we know why they want it.

On TV the other night, one of the news shows started off with a brief comedic episode. It showed two guys, looking and acting Israeli to the hilt. One of them was speaking in a heavy caricatured Sephardic North African accident, spitting toothpicks as he carried on, telling his friend, over and over and over, mi-po ani lo zaz. This is the only place where Jews can be safe, he insisted. This is the place we must stay. From here, I’m not moving.” And then the camera panned back, until gradually, you realized that the background you were staring at was the London Bridge, and the Tower of London. It would have been funny, if it weren’t so sad.

It’s sad, because deep down, people are starting to wonder. Would going there be the only way to get beyond their hate? We got out of Lebanon. We left Gaza. Olmert was elected after he openly declared his intention to give back the majority of the West Bank. But without intending to, we called their bluff. And now we know: the issue isn’t their statehood. It’s ours.

The sadness comes from the clarity. We can sign peace treaties, and withdraw, and arm ourselves. But nothing’s enough. You sign a treaty with Egypt, but then Syria takes over Lebanon and uses Hezbollah as its proxy. You get peace with Jordan, but Iran joins the fray. You learn to defend your border, so they attack you from well within their countries. It feels relentless, because it is. It feels like it never ends, because it doesn’t. It doesn’t feel like the seventh war. It feels like a continuation of the first. Could it be that we’re right back where we started?

Maybe that’s why nobody I know actually laughed at the Tower of London skit.

Is this like the first war, because we could win it and still not have security? What if, as even the army says is likely, Hezbollah is left wounded but still intact at the end? What, we just wait until they decide to lob more missiles at Haifa, or Safed, or even Tel Aviv? Bomb shelters will once again be part of the reality of Israeli kids? Have we returned to the late 40’s and 1950’s, when border towns had to live with the ongoing dread that Fedayeen would sneak across the border and kill people? Except that now, in an era of missiles, most of the country is a border town.

This is like the first war because Israeli citizens, in the middle of the country, are getting killed by a foreign “army.” In 1956, 1967 and even in 1973, we mostly took the war to the border. And then to their territory. Israel’s civilian population centers, even in those horrible conflagrations, were left more or less intact. But not in 1948, and not this time. Haifa is the front. Safed is the front. Nazareth is the front. And they’re all burying people. Adults, and children. Jews, and Israeli Arabs. And Tel Aviv, if you believe Nasrallah, may well be next.

And it’s like the old wars because all our hopes to the contrary notwithstanding, the casualties are mounting. Just days after the Israeli pundits were discussing whether or not a limited ground incursion might be necessary, whether or not the air force could do this on its own, there are troops on the ground in Lebanon. Thousands of soldiers, the papers say this morning. And in the few days since they’ve gone in, kids have been coming back in body bags. These are elite units, and though we’re told that they’re having some successes in finding and destroying the bunkers built into the mountain, they’re encountering heavy resistance. And not all of them are making it home.

We’ve been here before, too. We’d thought we were done with that.

For the first few days of this new war, Israelis were relieved to see the footage of a hundred Israeli planes over Lebanon at any one point. We’d show them that they’d miscalculated. We’d put a stop to this. We’d get our stolen boys back. A decisive victory, like in days of old. With fewer casualties on our side. But well into the second week of the war, we don’t have our boys back. And soldiers are dying, and coming home without legs. And the victory hasn’t been decisive. And Israeli cities are still being shelled, and traumatized Israeli kids by the thousands are still sleeping in bomb shelters. Just like in the first war.

And it’s like the first war because the news is broadcasting photos of lines of Arab refugees fleeing the fighting in Beirut, heading north, or to Syria. Israeli TV is showing footage of a former city that looks much more like Dresden than Beirut. There are probably some Israelis who couldn’t care less, but the ones that I talk to, work with and share a neighborhood with, do care. They understand that we probably have no choice, for Hezbollah has decided to use Beirut as its human shield, and for years and years, Lebanon did nothing to stop them. Or even to try. And we have no choice but to survive.

But the Israelis I talk to all day long are still saddened by the miles-long lines of thousands upon thousands upon thousands of Lebanese refugees, fleeing their homes and rubble filled neighborhoods with white flags hovering outside their cars even as Israeli war planes roar overhead. Simply on a human level, we know that the suffering is incalculable. That, too, looks like that old black and white footage from the War of Independence. And as a problem for Israel, we know, Arab refugees don’t disappear. They attack, we respond, they flee. And then the problem becomes ours.

And even though Jerusalem is, so far, beyond the reach of the rockets, even here, the air has started to take on a war-like feel. A colleague of mine, in her 40’s, cancelled a meeting yesterday because her real-estate agent husband was just called up and sent to the Egyptian border. A friend I met later in the afternoon cut a meeting short because his son was getting a few hours off. The kid hasn’t even finished basic training, but was sent out to Samaria to guard an outpost so that more experienced kids could get sent to the front. And we were going to try to get together with other friends this morning, but they can’t. Their twenty year old son got called up from his yeshiva, and sent to south of Hebron, and they’re going to try to get out there to bring him some food for Shabbat. And our daughter won’t be home for Shabbat – she’s got guard duty on base. With the other two kids away for the summer, we’re home by ourselves. The house feels empty, hollow. Like the towns in the north.

And so it goes. Another all out war, when it could have been different. If they’d wanted something else. But they don’t. Not the Iranians, not the civilians in Syria interviewed on CNN who spoke with admiration of Nasrallah, not the Palestinians on the West Bank who’ve posted his picture everywhere, and not even the Israeli Arabs in Nazareth who, from the depths of their mourning, blame Israel and not Nasrallah for the loss of their children.

So it’s the seventh war (Or the eighth, if you count the War of Attrition. Or the ninth, if you count the first Intifada). And the first war. It’s all the wars. They’re all the same, in the end, because we can’t afford to lose. We can’t afford to lose, so we won’t. More decisively or less, with more destruction of Lebanon or less, sooner or later, we’ll win it. We have to. The whole enterprise is at stake.

It’s the seventh war, or the eighth. And the first. When the 1973 Yom Kippur War was at its height, Yehoram Gaon went to the front and sang the now famous lyrics, Ani mavti’ach lach – “I promise you, my little girl, that this will be the last war.” They never play that song anymore. Because no one believes it. There will be no last war.

It’s the eighth war, or the ninth. But it isn’t the last war. It’s the first war, all over again. We’ve got this war for the same reason that we had all the others. We have this war for the same reason that people in Haifa are still saying mi-po ani lo zaz. We got this war for the same reason that we got the first, and the second.

We know why they attacked then. And we know why they’re still attacking. And we’re determined to hold on for the same reason that they’re so determined never to stop. There’s one reason, and one reason only:

The Jewish People has nowhere else to go.

© Daniel Gordis, reprinted with permission of the author. Daniel Gordis is Vice President of the Mandel Foundation – Israel, and the author, most recently, of Coming Together, Coming Apart: A Memoir of Heartbreak and Promise in Israel (John Wiley & Sons, 2006). Visit his website at

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.