My daughter was in Israel on a Birthright trip last week, along with 3,500 other Jewish kids who thought it would be cool to get a free 10-day trip to a place where you can ride camels and swim in the Mediterranean Sea. They didn’t plan to be the target of more than 1,000 Hamas-fired missiles, or to experience their first air raid sirens, or to run from the pool at their kibbutz hotel to a nearby bomb shelter as white contrails streaked the sky.
As a parent, I sure as hell didn’t plan it either. I was an exposed, vibrating nerve of anxiety, devouring news reports and obsessively following the posts on her group’s Facebook page.
These were sprightly as only a group of teenagers who think they’ll live forever can be. One picture shows several kids outside a cafe snapping iPhone photos of a missile exploding in midair: it bears the caption, “Today’s rocket interception brought to you by Iron Dome.” Another comment, liked by many, notes “[t]hat awkward moment when you find yourself in the middle of the Middle East conflict.”
I received several e-mails from my daughter; explosions aside, she was really enjoying the trip. She wrote: “My group does outrageously cool things every day. So far we’ve gone rafting on the Jordan River, hiked Masada, and floated in the Dead Sea. We’ve ridden camels in the desert and slept in Bedouin tents. We’ve also had tea with a Palestinian family and visited Israeli retirees. Tonight we’ll be one of the first groups to explore the tunnels beneath the Western Wall.”
In regard to the bombing, she said, “Everything is under control. Not only are we traveling with soldiers (who are our age), but they are keeping us updated and aware of the situation. We are pretty far from the news out here, but I have heard that the American media is making the situation seem a lot more dramatic and devastating than it really is. According to the Israelis, this stuff happens all the time.”
Pretty optimistic for someone who just learned that her Birthright includes a substantial number of people who hope to kill her. Or maybe not. The more I think about it, the clearer it seems that Hamas doesn’t expect many Jews to die from these attacks. The Iron Dome technology is so advanced, and Israeli intelligence is so effective, that most of the rockets explode in mid-air or cause minimal damage.
What they do is throw Israel into turmoil and goad responsive strikes at Hamas missile bases, which are usually located in civilian areas. Many, many more Palestinians than Israelis die from these bombings. And that’s Hamas’s strategy: to whip their own people into a frenzy of hatred by creating innocent martyrs.
It’s chilling in the extreme — especially, perhaps, for kids whose greatest concern up until now was getting into a good college. I wish I could have shielded my daughter from this experience, the same way I wish she never had to have her heart broken or lose a classmate to suicide. But she’s an adult now, and it is right that she engage with questions of life and death. It is time for her to enter the crucible of joy and sometimes, pain, that tempers us and turns us to fine, bright steel.
I just wish someone had told me how hard it would be to watch.
My daughter returned safely on July 14, ignorant of the shells fired at Ben-Gurion Airport three hours before her departure (there was an unspecified two-hour delay). Her experience was everything Birthright could have hoped for: a transformative journey that created a deep connection to Israel and a passionate desire to return.
But although I share her commitment, I’m secretly relieved she won’t be returning in the next few months. And I am praying harder than ever for peace.