Run to the Roar

Home Land

By Moriel Rothman-Zecher ’11

Jerusalem—

It’s mid-July 2014. In a taxi, winding through this ancient city’s hilly streets, I ask the driver how he’s doing.

“I’m super,” he says. “Everything is honey.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yes. It looks like all of the Middle East’s problems will be solved soon.” Here in Jerusalem, bomb sirens have been going off sporadically; they’ve been going off multiple times a day in Tel Aviv. More than a thousand Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been killed, as have three Israeli civilians and dozens of soldiers. (And by the summer’s end, that number rose to 2,131 Palestinians and 72 Israelis killed.)

I tell my driver he doesn’t sound convinced, and he laughs drily. “We’ll take out Hamas and there will be peace. And whatnot.”

“I don’t think it will work like that,” I begin, then realize the conversation already exhausts me. I’ve spent this last month in a haze punctuated by moments of adrenaline and fear.

“You know,” he says, pivoting. “No one likes the Palestinians. Not in the Arab world, not here.”

These days especially, I’ve grown accustomed to sweeping statements, to casual racism, and to callous disregard. Still something inside me says I should try.

“Sort of the way people felt about Jews in the past, right?”

He pauses. “You know,” he says, his tone still light, “you might be right.”

The conversation shifts to his interpretation of history—“Everyone’s racist!”—and to his son, who wants to be a country singer in Texas. We arrive at our destination, and he turns to me, his eyes now serious.

“Hey, listen. Don’t be too worried. We’re not so bad, our people.”

“I know,” I say. “But I’ve been really disappointed lately.”

“I’ve been disappointed, too.”

“You have?”

“I have,” he says. “We shouldn’t have bombed that hospital in Gaza.”

I’m no stranger to being out of synch with the mainstream. In the fall of 2012, Israel began a bombing campaign of the Gaza Strip (“Operation Pillar of Defense”) the day after I’d been released from military jail for refusing to enlist in the Israeli Defense Force. I was born in Israel and spent my childhood both there and in Ohio. I’d always dreamed of becoming a combat soldier, but at 18, I decided to delay my army service until after college—a privilege derived from my American citizenship and upbringing—and by the time I’d graduated from Middlebury and returned to Israel, something in me had changed. Some accidental encounters had hardened into a more determined sort of conviction.

One of these encounters took place halfway through my sophomore year at Middlebury. It was the beginning of 2009, during Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead”—the first of three recent Gaza operations—and I was working as a waiter at the Arabic language tables, stumbling over my newly acquired vocabulary with the student diners and other waitstaff. The head of the Arabic tables was senior Amer Shurrab ’09, a Palestinian who would gently tease me about my grammatical mistakes and Hebrew-inflected accent.

During that monthlong operation, I read the news obsessively and felt nauseated and angry. But it was all distant: conceptually tragic, but personally vague. And then on January 16, during a lull in the fighting, Israeli soldiers opened fire on a car carrying three Palestinian men—a father and two sons—who were driving home from their farm near Khan Yunis in Gaza. One son, Kassab, leapt from the car and was killed after being shot at least 18 times. The father, Muhammad, and the younger son, Ibrahim, were both wounded: Muhammad shot in the arm; Ibrahim, the leg. For almost 11 hours, Muhammad and his wounded son were isolated in their car, and while Muhammad frantically telephoned for help—calling the local ambulance service, family members who in turn reached out to the Red Cross, the media—his son slowly bled to death. Ibrahim died around midnight. It was another 11 hours before the Israeli Army allowed an ambulance driver to evacuate Muhammad.

These were Amer Shurrab’s brothers and father.

The week following, at the memorial service held in the Axinn Center, I told Amer I was sorry for the loss of his family members. He thanked me and shook my hand. Later, sitting alone in my dorm room, I wondered what it would mean for me to express my condolences to Amer and then join the same army that had killed his brothers. Five years later, I stood at the front lines of a protest, supporting other Israelis who refused to enlist during the recent “Operation Protective Edge” and thinking of Amer and his family.

Lately, I find myself clinging to shards: the conversation in the taxi, the handshake—little splinters of hope that maybe, after all, the future of this place is not written. That maybe tomorrow still depends on what we do today.

Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Huffington Post, Sojourners Magazine, the Daily Beast, Haaretz, and the Jewish Daily Forward, among other publications. He is currently working on a book.

After graduating from Middlebury, Amer Shurrab went on to earn a master’s degree from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in international policy studies.

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