Dispatch from a Country Living Sanely

Cole S. Aronson
June 3, 2024
Reproduced with Permission
Public Discourse

Half an hour after midnight my roommate and I decide we ought to get to a decent bomb shelter, so we pack a change of clothes and head out. Two buses. Three cabs. A police car speeds and blares nearby. A husband and wife drive past and smile. Mundane signs of order. Half the houses are lit up, and so is the cafe where I sit most evenings and write. The two women who manage the place are outside smoking. I ask if they've seen the news. The official-looking blonde one exhales and raises her eyebrows: yes, there's a war, anything else? Well, some missiles are due in about an hour from Iran. Oh Lord have mercy, thank you they laugh, and then extinguish their cigarettes and go in to close up shop.

The Iranian fusillade in the early hours of April 14th was Israel's scariest moment since October 7th. Neither Hamas in the south nor Hezbollah in the north can eliminate the Jewish state, though each has emptied a region of it. Iran, though, could with one bomb incinerate a hundred thousand people and the Jewish state's military/high-tech nerve center in Tel Aviv. Maybe the Islamic Republic would try, with a nuke secretly assembled, early that Sunday morning a month and a half ago.

But ten hours later, the two large supermarkets near my apartment were full of diapers, milk, bread, and eggs. The mall had four floors of squealing kids. No surge in crime, no looting, no riots. The largest missile and drone launch in history, and Israel didn't even have to muddle through. It could just carry on.

For the past eight months, my adopted country has belied the diagnoses printed in the newspapers of my native United States. Supposedly, the atrocities of October 7th traumatized the Israelis into committing great atrocities of their own, and now forty thousand Gazans are dead because of a militant Jewish psychosis.

But pace Israel's American analysts, the war against Hamas has been prosecuted with dispassion, and slowly. A disputatious war cabinet leads a disputatious populace, both are remarkably deferent to the opinions of Israel's allies. The head of West Point's institute for urban warfare concluded in March that the ratio of civilians to combatants killed in Gaza is very low for a conflict in cities. Israel has fought soberly - it could've done otherwise. The evacuation orders before operations begin, the millions of warning flyers, phone calls, voicemails, and texts, the humanitarian corridors, the aid permitted to areas still under the influence of the terrorists who started it - these measures are meant to distinguish civilian Gazans from the Islamists who hide behind them, who hope to profit politically from their deaths. Nations gone mad do not act this way.

Nor do they have vigorous public debates. Rescuing the hostages is weighed - not always calmly, but usually seriously - against defeating the terrorists who have captured and tortured them. There is no consensus "day after" plan due to a contest between two sympathetic principles: not subjecting Palestinians to an Israeli occupation that both peoples will resent, and not subjecting Israelis to dangers that no European or American government would permit its own citizens to suffer. This is not to absolve Israeli society of rhetorical or even physical excess - both facts of every war ever fought. Especially in the weeks after the Hamas massacre, some Israeli officials said disgusting things about Palestinians, and far-right activists continue to do so on Twitter. The recent vandalism of aid convoys into Gaza is despicable, and condemned by the right-of-center government. But windy militancy, war pageantry, and the idolization of violence are not common and have not dictated policy on Gaza. Instead, a vulnerable democracy is trying to keep itself safe, frequently grieving while never submitting to grief.

Israelis are brusque and they are sometimes even frantic. But they deal rationally with danger, which is to say they can distinguish real threats and harms from fake ones. The industriousness with which coastal Americans manufacture and perform grievances is not a habit of Israel's public character. Israelis resent hypocrisy and they grumble about their elites. But revolution is not popularly demanded, statues aren't torn down, memorials aren't desecrated, the nation's founders aren't contemned. Israelis pay dearly to govern themselves, and so can't afford civic disdain. They know what it costs when they do have a state, and they know what it costs them without.

Three weeks after the missile barrage, thirty of us from my Jerusalem neighborhood gather in a living room to hear an old man talk about hiding with a Polish family from the Gestapo. The Germans paid well for any living Jew: a kilo of sugar or a liter of vodka. But the family kept the boy and then, when things got unsafe, entrusted him to an elderly woman. The boy spent three postwar years at an orphanage for the children of the lost, then went to America, then Israel, had a couple of kids and a bunch of grandkids, and a fourth generation came along this year. Among the audience were two young couples on dates, and a third arrived later. There were dozens of such gatherings in greater Jerusalem, and the next morning the whole country stood in silence for the six million.

Israelis know what their country is against thanks to Islamist terrorism and memory. The recollected fear of getting sold for vodka and sugar and then tortured, deported, shaved, branded, enslaved, starved, gassed, and burned. These are not the impersonal threats of Nazism or fascism, the specters of which haunt the politics of an America not seriously endangered by either. The horrors Israel prevents are very concrete, and we have (for a few more years anyway) the survivors to prove it. There is none of the solemnity - which borders on maudlin - of the Holocaust memorials I remember from my youth. The point of the gathering is not to wallow, but to recall that without a state, we'll survive - if we survive - precariously. An invigorating thought. If the little boy whose parents lay unshrouded in a mass grave in Warsaw felt strongly enough about life to help build a family and a country, then that country's young citizens can do likewise.

America has responded to its generous inheritance with a listless hysteria, palliated by sweet poisons that, if we get the doses just right, may help us sleep without finally killing us.

Americans live free from armed invaders under a masterful, basically peaceful constitutional system. Things have been good for a long time. The republic's achievements seem commonplace, so commonplace they aren't even recognized as achievements. The instinct to rip it all down, the declaration that everything is broken - it's difficult to credit either when the wretched of the earth hand over their life savings to violent smugglers for a chance to make it to America. America has responded to its generous inheritance with a listless hysteria, palliated by sweet poisons that, if we get the doses just right, may help us sleep without finally killing us.

The lack of common purpose is an oft-mentioned problem, and rightly so. The desire to avoid violent death is not enough. Life is for more than just life - even for the life of a third or a fourth generation. We need something to aim for.

Shabbat afternoon, a few weeks ago, I run into a young friend on leave from the Israeli army. For half a year he's been sweating in a tank in Gaza. And all I want, he says, is to sit with my books and study. He's a devoted yeshiva student, has a restless heart, an exuberant mind, is the sort of person who would scream objections at a noted scholar, then wonder why the 200 other students chased him out of the room. I like him a lot. He wants to get back to yeshiva. He says the army doesn't need him anymore. I say it might - he's battle-hardened now. But - I think but I don't say - he's battle-hardened in just the right way. At a moment's notice, he'd fight. At a moment's notice, he'd put down his gun and get back to his studies.

The warrior scholar. My favorite variant of the Israeli ideal. Israelis celebrate their writers, artists, scientists, jurists, industrialists, and statesmen who fought wars of life and death. And of course there are other ways to serve - caring for the mentally ill, for abandoned children, for the elderly and sick. I am grateful for all of these exemplars. But for me, it will always be specifically the young men and women who go to the army intending to return (many, alas, do not return) to their studies when their missions are done. These people go on to have families, large ones, and jobs of all kinds, and different hobbies and interests and vocations. Their commitments are ordered by a conscious dedication to the Lord of all flesh.

One such commitment must be the country of one's birth, and I was born an American. Whatever ails the United States, it is not poor native resources. The American heritage is embarrassingly rich. I remember it being passed on to me. My father singing "America, the Beautiful" to me before I went to sleep. My mother explaining how to talk about your wartime president however much you dislike his choices. My stepfather explaining, one Saturday night at the Lincoln Memorial, how the sixteenth president understood the Civil War to be "testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." The great encapsulations of America are still essentially true: a shining city on a hill, the land of the free, the last (and in some sense) best hope of earth.

Even so, I got on a plane five and half years ago, from Newark to Tel Aviv. At first, I intended to return. Americans don't usually become immigrants: America is where you end up, not the place you leave. Immigration is kind of giving up, and I believe in America.

I realized, flying back and forth to see friends and family, that my heart had migrated east and stayed there. I was homesick in Jerusalem, but lovesick in Maryland. I couldn't quite put my finger on it until the current war. Something about a country that, knowing what life is for, takes death more seriously, and with less fear. A country that beats the murderers and laughs.