The place of fear, faith, and love in times of war
This beautiful and thoughtful piece was written in 2006, during the 2nd Lebanon War. Once again our Israeli Government has decided to put troops on the ground, this time in Gaza once more. Sara Eisen’s words still ring true and current.
A society with a healthy dose of fear gives me faith. And a home.
A well-known editor of a widely read Jewish American weekly wrote recently of his deep fear that Israel, with its many hostile and tacit enemies, may be (God forbid, he added) on its way out. The truth is that there is no way to make someone feel better about a qualm like that. It is a logical fear – – although logic, for better and worse, has never been the stuff of Jewish, and especially not Israeli, survival.
The other truth is that scary columns are useful, even when they contain no real operative suggestions, because anxiety often – or hopefully – prompts communal discourse, action, and change. My (quasi-logical) response to him, in Jewish fashion, is a problem, and a Talmudic reinterpretation of Churchill:
Prove: Fear is fine (just not by itself.)
Wives and mothers of conscripted Israeli soldiers, and not only the citizens of Gaza and Lebanon, are the people most afraid of Israeli soldiers showing up at their doorsteps.
It is perhaps no coincidence that at some point during the long, long days of this impossible summer, my two and a half year old son, Shaqed, became obsessed with The Lion King. Tigger, Barney, and Elmo were replaced – quickly, quietly, completely – by an old, squeaky video of Simba and Scar, a legacy from my bigger boys.
My husband, David, could phone me ‘only’ once a day (I was one of the lucky wives) from his Armored Personnel Carrier, when he got back to our side of the Lebanese border. He had been called up on emergency reserve duty within days of the war’s inception. My tiny third son, however, kept in touch roughly on the hour, his skinny legs running frantically from den to me, his diaper rustling, to inform me that the ‘Abba (father) lion died,’ but not, he would intone didactically, ‘the Ima (mother) lion. She no die. Also: the baby lion no die. The Abba lion no get up. He die.’
My stomach was perpetually hollow and wrung out, a feeling that suddenly traveled to my throat, the way it does when you lose a small child for a few minutes in a crowded mall, whenever I was informed again by my tiny messenger of Simba’s grief. Or when the phone rang, or a strange car pulled up in front of the house, or when someone (another messenger?) knocked on the door.
In any event, displaying the proper empathy for Shaqed and his lion was not difficult. I would gravely confirm his diagnosis, rewind the tape once Mustafa’s eventual grandchild took his place in the circle of life (Consolation? Chiastic story telling?), and go on washing, folding, cooking, e-mailing, or writing. Less of the latter, since sitting leads to thinking…
Here’s one thing I thought: Mothers live for their children, while fathers die for them.
Theorem # 2
War is personal
It was right there on the couch, the one where Shaqed watches Simba watch Mustafa die, that the visceral awareness of my own (Selfish? Instinctual?) need to preserve our nest of six souls above all other interests – national, historic or otherwise – – came over me like a sudden illness.
My husband’s unit (part of the Alexandroni Brigade) was being featured in a news special on Israel’s Channel One. I saw David’s profile, in a fleeting camera shot, listening to his commander in the dark, before boarding their APCs to the border. I had not seen him in two weeks, but there he was, on TV, very unshaven but otherwise the same, getting battle instructions.
“There are not going to be any hostages from our unit,” said Colonel Doron, who I am told wants to get all the men and their families together soon for a barbecue. “Let that be clear. If your friend is being taken and you can do nothing else, you shoot him.” The camera was panning away from David’s face at that point, but I had imagined that his expression was impassive but focused, dedicated yet distant, nothing moving but his thick eyebrows, like when we discuss our domestic budget. It means: I might feel something about this, but I won’t say what it is unless I can actually do something about it. I’m on your team, but don’t ask me to elaborate.
Watching the soldiers file onto their APCs, on their way to hunker down in foreign villas for a 48 hours which became two weeks, I waved a quick goodbye to my automatic senses of national responsibility and altruism, the sane perspective that David calls the long view of history – now fleeing in advance of the narrative reality behind those admirable italicized words: Several million devoted dead men.
Just come home now and to hell with everything else, you jingoistic idiots, is the cleaned up version of what I shouted at the TV. (And not, Look, my soldier’s on TV! His elite unit is making a difference to our nation! Look how motivated they are, these fathers and lawyers and accountants!)
I appalled myself by being angry, even disgusted, with an ideology which required anything of me or my family. I dreamt of Kansas. I had a headache.
Corollary to Theorem# 2:
Moral indignation and fear are as borderless and interdependent as Lebanon and Syria.
And so the battle lines were drawn. It was my wife-and-motherhood pitted against every other ‘hood’, ‘ship’, and ‘ism’ in my life, a conflict much bloodier than anything my husband was to see (thank God!) in Lebanon.
M, a neighbor whose husband is in David’s unit, told me that she, too, was feeling very conflicted during the war. She and her husband, D, had debated if there wasn?t something morally problematic in D’s insisting that he go with the other men into Lebanon (during which time he was not able to call her for two weeks), rather than staying back to guard equipment, as he had been given the chance to do. “Was it that clear to you,” a rattled M asked her man, “that your country was more of a consideration than your children?”
I know, I know: Living a life of values, where your gift to your children is a meaning bigger (and longer term) than you or them, is why these guys fight. But still… My friend T, whose oldest son was just drafted, told me matter-of-factly, when I aired these and other moral qualms about the necessity of war to her, that fear of loss was part of the ticket price when you made aliyah.
But I did not have four boys, or any, when I made aliyah. I was 20 and gung-ho and in love with an ex-Golani who still had large muscles from his basic training. And besides, have we stopped questioning the wisdom of war just because our enemies are particularly evil? I know that for native Israelis this question is so last decade, but I finally got it, after 13 years here, what all the fuss was about. It was my aliyah bar mitzvah, and this was my coming of age.
And I was in an even worse place than Lebanon. I was completely lost.
The closer one is to the source of distress, the more likely it is that one will end up supporting those who should in fact be supportive.
Any woman who has ever given birth knows this is true. Your husband may be physically holding you up, but it is you, the laboring woman, holding both of you together (or not.)
A lot of people wanted to know how we were during the war. I wanted to speak with about 5% of them, mostly because I am pathologically private when under stress – talking about my vulnerabilities when they are at critical mass somehow makes me feel violated. The abovementioned T coined the term ‘kindness anorexic’ to describe me, because it is so much easier for me to give than to accept concern or favors.
However, in part, my resistance to talking and sharing (I, like Nasrallah, basically went into hiding for a month) was because the conversations or emails more often than not went like this:
Well-meaning Supporter: I heard David was called up to the war. That’s awful! I’m so sorry to hear it!! Where is he serving?
Me: It’s not really bad news. Just a bit tense. Half the country was called up.
WMS: You must be so nervous! It’s so hard for us, too, thinking of him out there! Where is he, exactly?
WMS: How are you coping with four kids by yourself? Is Avi [our 12 year old] the man of the house now?
Me: It’s not easy but we’re managing ok.
WMS: When is he coming home already? Hasn’t it been three weeks? Where is he?
And so forth, me avoiding the topic of where exactly he was because I really just didn’t want to get into it. The line between projected anxiety and empathy was being crossed by concerned but clueless people as often as David was taking his APC over the border at Zarit. I imagine I got this type of reaction more frequently than did my native Israeli counterparts, whose fathers and brothers and husbands also did (or do) reserve duty and have fought in previous wars, and for whom the whole concept of being in a war is not as totally-cool-in-a-morbid-sort-of-way.
I paid the imbalance of fear forward by laying it all on David whenever the poor guy had a minute to call me. Instead of being, yes, supportive and upbeat and patriotic, I cried to him about all my grievances and ideological struggles with war and death and with the messy, bungling IDF, which was putting him in danger and didn’t seem to know why or for how long. (He didn’t hang up on me.)
Speaking of dumping the task of providing support on those most in need of it… It seems that the reservists, with a nearly 100% draft response and boundlessly dedicated (and judging from Colonel Doron’s crew, enthusiastic, if there’s such a thing) service, despite being called away from jobs and families, and being under-trained, under-supplied and under-informed, were carrying the great and mighty IDF, instead of the other way around.
All’s fair in love and war, I guess. Maybe that’s what our leaders will tell the judge.
Somewhere between doing nothing, because we are afraid (and want to feel good), and going too far, because we are afraid (and want to feel right) is a non-secure, ever-conflicted zone of motivated purpose, where fears wax and wane, but yield something much better and more enduring.)
In the end, I have been inspired by David’s return to civilian life, quietly and without much ceremony. The reservists, both those protesting their neglect in the war, and those who think the protesters are crybabies, have not ever intimated that they should not have gone at all, or that the war was, in itself, wrong.
I have also been thinking more about Simba than people in their thirties probably should. I’m figuring that if even two year olds (not to mention the politically correct Disney franchise) understand that some things are worth going out of your way to fight (and maybe die) for, I’m going to have to come around to that, too. Hakuna Matata (‘no worries’ for the uninitiated, a kind of no frills hedonism) just won’t cut it in the 21st century, if we wish to see a 22nd.
Besides, David has reminded me that just living safely in and of itself is not a very rewarding existence; after a while, one is pulled towards meaning, and must push forward, while measuring risks. I knew this once but, like many mothers, forgot during pregnancy.
Which brings us back to fear. Fear is useful, as I noted above, in getting us started, if we can use it for that. Also, perhaps, in knowing when to end, if combined with an honest weighing of facts. Fear of dying, or of the death of loved ones, or of the killing of innocents, keep us prudent, rational, and moral – when balanced against ideology, duty, and a sense of purpose. A society without any fear, with nothing to lose, produces disposable human beings. That is what Israel is up against. A society with too much fear (Europe?) ultimately breeds emptiness and apathy.
But a society with a dialectic reality – a healthy dose of fear constantly ricocheting off of more noble concepts – gives me faith. And a home.
And a headache.