Voices from the Middle East: Israel
Juniors Elana Widmann and Amanda Packer are students in the John M. Olin School of Business currently studying abroad at Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel. They live about 10 miles north of Tel Aviv, one of the most distant targets of Hamas rockets in the recent conflict between Israel and the Gaza Strip. They sought shelter in a sunglasses shop when the city’s Iron Dome missile protection system shot down a rocket aimed for the city and have stopped taking the busses since one was bombed about a week ago. Below, Student Life speaks with them on how they’re getting on with their study abroad experience and their reflections on the violence of the past couple weeks.
Student Life: What does the atmosphere in Israel feel like right now?
Amanda Packer: Honestly, if you just walked around and did your daily life, you couldn’t even tell anything happened after the cease-fire. And I mean…if we weren’t reading the news and if we weren’t paying attention, not much changed, at least where we live. And even in Tel Aviv, where there was about four or five sirens that went off…
Elana Widmann: It was pretty incredible to see because when we heard the sirens, we were in Tel Aviv for, I think it was the second siren, and I started hysterically crying after the siren because I was terrified. There was a siren, and we heard the explosion of the Iron Some intercepting the rocket. We heard an explosion, but we didn’t know at the time what happened. And I’m crying outside this coffee shop and the coffee shop owner comes up to me, and he just looks at me like I’m ridiculous. He was, like, “Why are you crying?” I was, like, “You’re serious? Like, there’s a rocket.” And that’s just so Israeli to be so calm in such an absurd situation. Like, they call their loved ones and then they move on, and that’s it.
AP: It’s their way of coping because if they get scared. If they change how they’re living their lives, that’s what makes terrorism win…If they go live their lives like nothing’s happening, that’s how they fight it.
EW: And I think that was something that both Amanda and I noticed and were shocked by. That life goes on; business goes on; class goes on.
SL: Is that hard making the connection between the rest of the world seeing it as a top news headline and people there just going on with their daily lives?
AP: Everyone’s talking about it all the time. You don’t act differently but every conversation surrounds it…59,000 people were actually called [to the reserves]. But even then, that affects everyone. We have friends from class—some of our best guy friends went into the reserves and were in the army for that week.
EW: We were getting pictures of them sitting on the tanks, like, sleeping in the tanks tonight, on the border.
AP: They’re our friends I sit with in class, and last week they weren’t in class, but this week they are.
EW: —they’re back; it’s weird.
AP: And it’s just weird to put a face to that when every other time this has happened, we’re in the safe. I guess we pay attention because obviously both of us care about Israel, but it’s completely different living here and knowing people and just witnessing it firsthand and how people deal with it, it’s completely different.
SL: Is living within miles of a major conflict something you were able to transition to?
EW: I think we became more numb as the time went on, and we became a little bit more relaxed. I remember the first two or three days we could barely sleep. We couldn’t think about the next 10 minutes, let alone the next day, just because it was so tense, like…are there going to be bombs?
AP: We sat on our computers all day just [hitting] refresh, refresh, refresh. I literally sat in my bed on my computer for three days straight doing nothing because you couldn’t stop to breathe to go away from your computer or go away from your phone and live your daily life. As an American, that’s how it was, but a lot of Israelis were, like, “You’re ridiculous. What are you doing?” And it really depended on who we were talking to because we know Americans here from other schools and when we talked to them we’d start panicking—
EW: But then the Israelis would be like, “Don’t worry about it. You’re safe; you’re safe.” But what we were saying is, “We know we’re personally safe, but we’re worried about all those people on both sides who aren’t safe, and that’s the fear.”
SL: Do you know anyone who was injured in any of the conflict?
EW: Personally, no, we don’t know anyone who was affected, but I think people we do know is people who had to drop work, drop class, drop whatever their plans were and just suit up and go to the army. That was what hit us the most.
AP: I was talking to my friend the other day who was in the reserves during that week, and he was saying there weren’t enough beds for everyone. He was sleeping in cars—he was sleeping wherever—and what would happen is he’d go to sleep and then a few hours later he’d be woken up by a siren, have to go running, go to a shelter. And he said there was one time they didn’t get to a shelter and there was a rocket that exploded about 100 meters from them. There was someone on his base who got hurt, and it’s just so interesting because he’s so calm when he’s talking about this, and he was someone who was texting both of us—
EW: —asking us if we were OK while he was on the border.
AP: These people are 22, 23. They’ve been here for the last 20 years, and a lot has happened in Israel in the last 20 years, that this isn’t the first time they’ve had to deal with a situation like this. They lived through all the suicide bombings that happened 10 years ago, they’ve done this.
EW: It’s frustrating, but they know how to deal.
SL: There had been a major push on campus to look past the partisanship of the conflict. Is it hard being in Israel where you are physically on one side of the divide?
AP: The people vary on their opinions. There are people that are very extreme about it. They are very harsh how they talk about the Gaza situation, how they talk about Palestinians.
EW: For instance, our friend’s boyfriend was a newly inaugurated officer who would have been one of the first units to go in, so she was super right wing [in favor of a one-state Israel]…but then you have Israelis who are so liberal and totally understand that something needs to change.
AP: And it is hard because I think both of us try to keep very well educated in this and especially being here and witnessing this. I’ve been reading the news and already had a pretty good base of it, and I would never call myself right winger. I feel so bad for what is going on in Gaza right now…The numbers are really bad. If you look up the American media a lot of it was like pretty…
EW: Because the numbers are like we only lost about five or six people, and they lost about 160.
AP: But what you have to understand is that [a lot] of the 160 were Hamas collaborators. And where they decide to put themselves and civilians in danger…They literally put themselves and put their rockets in like a residential building next to a bunch of residential buildings. And so when Israel and the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] goes in to target the missiles or the collaborators, or what ever you want to call them, civilians get hurt.
EW: There are also second- and third-degree explosions because Israel will target a place where there are explosives, and then the explosives that are then there explode.
AP: I would never I say I agree 100 percent with everything that the Israeli army does. It is horrible what happened there for the people who aren’t supporters of Hamas and are just people who live in Gaza, and this is there home. There’s innocent people who were really hurt by this and by no means would I ever be like “I stand with Israel 100 percent no matter what they do.” It’s a conversation that needs to be had, and the whole problem with this over all these years is that people won’t have the conversation. There are extremists, and there are very right wings on [each] side, and they refuse to have the conversation that needs to be had and to listen to the other side.
EW: What I believe now more than ever, for me personally, the way to be a true supporter of Israel is to be able to criticize where criticism needs to be. I never would say something to an Israeli while this is going on. If their brother was getting called up for reserves I would never say something like, “Oh, this is a really bad idea; people are going to die.” I am supportive of the troops just like I would be with America . But now, looking back I can totally criticize both sides and see where both sides are wrong and Israel definitely needs to make some changes and hopefully attempt to collaborate with Egypt who will collaborate with Hamas.
AP: But I hope the other side sees that, too. There are people who are pro-Palestine whether they be in Israel or at Wash. U. Israel is not this oppressor—
EW: —Israel wants peace. It’s just a matter of getting the right people to the table.
AP: It was hard during the week because you really can’t talk about it…I had cousins in the army, and I had Shabbat dinner with them on Friday night, and one of my cousins who is our age—he literally is like two minutes older than me—he just turned 21. He was in Gaza during it and you sit there, and it starts springing up in conversation, and you look at his mom. And his mom is just, like, she doesn’t want to talk about it because this is probably one of the hardest weeks of her life. So it’s, like, you can’t bring it up when every single person you know knows someone…almost everyone knew someone who was on that border who was in danger. And like, yes, people want to move on with their lives, but it’s always in the back of their heads that they know someone is in danger.