What It Means to Be Israeli

24 Dec 2015

You wanted a certain kind of life so you moved to another part of the world. This is the life you chose. Before you moved here, it was impossible to understand what that meant. It was impossible to understand how you would be tested. Perhaps you felt your choice was a personal choice; perhaps a religious choice that would infuse your life with new meaning. Yet your choice also makes the act of being Jewish into a political statement. Your choice means that for now, and for the indefinite future, you have been marked as an enemy.

At 7 a.m. two young Arab men walk casually down the street in Ramah Gimmel in Beit Shemesh. Men rush past them on their way to shul and children walk to school. Some children are accompanied by their parents; others are alone. Everyone is in a rush, except these two.

At 7:30, the Arab men stop at a bus stop. They watch three buses arrive, but don’t board. People are getting nervous by the men’s equanimity. The young men remain at the bus stop, chatting casually.

The two Arab men make their way down the street. They stop across the street from a shul and watch the doors. Less them a year ago, a massacre occurred in a shul in a neighborhood in Jerusalem. A police car appears.

A young man exits the shul. The Arabs suddenly withdraw knives and lunge. The police take out their guns and fire; one of the two is instantly killed. The second man twirls, holding his knife high in the air, searching for another victim in his final moment. He is shot as he rotates. The true identities of the men, who for the last hour have aroused suspicion and fear in the neighborhood, are revealed: they are terrorists. Now, both are mortally wounded.

It is several minutes before eight in the morning.

The story does not make the news immediately. Instead, it will be spread by those who witnessed it; those who now walk past the terrorists and their victim as they lay in the street. There is blood on the ground.


I have still not heard the news when a technician from Bezeq, the main telephone company in Israel, knocks on my door to fix my phone line. A few weeks ago, an Arab Bezeq employee stabbed several Israelis. Now a Bezeq employee knocks on my door. I am alone in the house, but he is expected so I let him in. The terrorist who worked for Bezeq inhabits the air between us like a ghost. I want to ask him if he knew him—if he was a colleague, perhaps a friend. Instead I offer him a drink of water, and watch him take out his tools as he works on my phone line. I remind myself that the fact that the terrorist worked for Bezeq means nothing.

Radicalization and incitement are the new catchwords, the way we explain the current wave of terror attacks—the rocks being thrown at moving cars and the stabbings that occur on a daily basis. We hesitate to call this a third intifada. We are still in denial. We still want to believe that these are isolated incidents, and not a new reality we must now confront. Instead we read the news compulsively, stop sleeping well at night, and start drinking too much coffee to compensate.

We want to believe we are not afraid.

The technician opens up; he is not in a hurry. He explains that he does not like to work in Ramah Gimmel because he does not feel safe there. He has been requesting that the phone company supply him with a weapon if they want him to work in a half-built neighborhood where Arab construction workers outnumber the Jewish residents by tenfold.

“Have you seen the pictures from this morning?” he asks.

“What happened this morning?” I ask him.

He pulls out his smartphone to show me the pictures that have not yet made the news. They were emailed to him by a friend, a fellow employee from Bezek, who watched the confrontation unfold. These pictures were taken before the police closed off the area; before the blood could be cleaned off the sidewalk. Two men lie on a sidewalk. They lie facedown and it is impossible to tell if they are Jews or Arabs. I can only tell that they are dead. I recognize the street.

His own phone screen is cracked; he dropped it as two Arab construction workers approached him on a deserted street in Ramah Gimmel. His forearm is covered in old scars; I assume he received them as a soldier in the Israeli army. I don’t ask him about them; instead I listen to his story and look at his pictures. These are the new scars.

By the time my kids return home, they know many details that I do not. They have heard from their teachers and their friends who live in Ramah Gimmel. In my daughter’s school, the school psychologist gathered all the girls who live in Ramah Gimmel together to talk about the attack. My daughter hears all about this meeting from her best friend who just moved there.

My son does not want to go to school at all anymore. His head hurts. His tooth hurts. His stomach hurts. He is dizzy. Everyday there is a new reason. But the reasons don’t matter, he just doesn’t want to go to school now. He wants to be with me, his mother. Being with me makes him feel better, he tells me. The fact that the attack occurred in the neighborhood across the hill does not matter to him. For all practical purposes it is just an extension of our own neighborhood. His friends live there. He can ride there on his bike. This attack is not distant; it is right here in my home, in a way that makes my son’s head ache.

This latest attack is here in my stomach, which wakes me up with a sharp pain every morning at 4 am. This morning I don’t even try to go back to sleep. I get out of bed, make coffee and sit down to write.

I wasn’t born here. Unlike my children, I chose a life that makes the act of being Jewish both a personal and political statement. In the past few weeks, according to Magen Dovid Adom, 24 people have been stabbed and more than 200 have been injured.

Everyone has their own opinion of what makes you an Israeli. Is it the moment you get your teudat zechut, your Israeli citizenship card? Is it the moment you vote in your first election? Is it the moment you notice yourself speaking Hebrew when you hadn’t even realized it? In my opinion, it’s the moment you enter a mamad, a room reinforced with concrete and steel that can withstand rockets. It’s the moment you refer to Sbarros as the site of a terrorist attack rather than the name of pizza place. It’s the moment you instinctively recognize the difference between a siren sounding as part of a drill, and a siren that tells you to stop everything and run. It’s the moment you understand that you live under a constant threat that may strike you or your loved ones at any moment.

The day you become an Israeli is the day when you truly understand this. You might wake up for several nights in a row with a stomachache in the middle of the night, while your friends consider you lucky because you got to sleep at all. Your child may suddenly have headaches and refuse to go to school on that day, or the day after that. But you’ll know you’re Israeli when you know that these moments are just part of what makes up your life—and that these terrifying moments will pass and be replaced by ordinary questions like what to make for dinner and what time to leave to catch the bus.



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