As I sat in an office in Washington, D.C. a couple of weeks ago refreshing live updates of the most recent escalation in Gaza, I felt a wave of déjà vu. The last time I had read similar updates this obsessively, they had been more intensely relevant to my own life. When I decided to volunteer in Tel Aviv in 2012 before beginning college I had not expected a war, although I knew it was an ever-present possibility in Israel. And yet there I was: jumping at sirens, running for shelter with my roommates, and waiting for the boom and smoke in the sky which signaled the Iron Dome’s success in meeting a missile mid-air. The Tel Aviv bubble had been broken, and a city I had come to know and love was tinged with fear. Dusty bomb shelters were reopened and people ran for those shelters, or whatever covering they could find, when the air raid sirens wailed. I vividly remember attempting to walk my usual route to work in a defiant attempt at normalcy – it failed, because I spent the entire time scanning every block for potential shelter in case of a siren.
During that fraught period, two sets of thoughts ran continually through my head. One: how has this become normal? Why is it acceptable for people to live in fear and know that every couple of years, they may send their sons and daughters to war?
And two, a thought that had truly never occurred to me before: the Palestinians in Gaza don’t even have shelters, let alone sirens. No infrastructure to warn them of an attack and no high-tech billion-dollar defense system to protect them from a steady stream of airstrikes. I could run to shelter: They had nowhere to go. The fear and helplessness I felt must be tremendously greater for those people, who lived only a few miles away from me and yet were experiencing far more constant terror.
When the dust had settled and a cease-fire had been reached, I came away from that conflict, perhaps unlike many, with a stronger sense of the commonalities between all of us. Fear is a universal emotion. It is also one that should not have to be a constant presence in any of our lives.
When I arrived at my college campus with its large contingent of Jewish students, I expected to be able to discuss the conflict and its complexities, which I had only recently begun to explore. I found that it was difficult to find a space where my Judaism and love for Israel were not questioned if I brought up the occupation and the concerns I had for Israel’s future. Eventually and thankfully, I found that space through J Street U, the campus-organizing arm of an organization dedicated to reaching a two-state solution. In group discussions and one-on-one’s with J Street’s campus leaders, I found my group home as a pro-Israel, pro-peace Jewish American. In J Street I felt comfortable discussing my concerns about the occupation without my pro-Israel commitments being challenged.
Now, as I sit in the J Street office as an intern, thousands of miles away from the booms that I still remember so vividly, this newest wave of violence only clarifies the grave urgency of finding an end to this conflict. The death toll has reached terrible heights. Children remain fearful, scared to go to sleep for fear of sirens, or worse, their house being struck by a missile or an airstrike. Somehow, this has become a normal way of life. Every several years this conflict escalates, and we sigh and groan. Now is not the time to sigh. Now is the time to recognize the need for a permanent end to this madness. I urge us to recognize that this way of life is not sustainable and not acceptable, and that we must work towards an end to violence and fear for both Israelis and Palestinians, an end that will come only through negotiated political agreements.
I also urge us in the American Jewish community to recognize that empathy for those who suffer during this conflict cannot stop at Israel’s border. Feeling for those who suffer on both sides is not a betrayal of Israel. To the contrary, it is a necessity if we are to find a way towards ending the suffering of all.
Ruby Ritchin is a junior at Washington University in St. Louis, studying History. She is a co chair of J Street U at Wash U and an intern in the J Street office.