The next several posts will be excerpts from a week spent in Israel as a participant in the Wexner Heritage Program. In reporting what I saw, and not so much what I think, I hope to convey the vivid and incredibly complex patchwork that is life in a state that doesn't know the meaning of "normal".
Our bus leaves the town of Sderot and pulls up at the Black Arrow monument. It reveals the combination of aggression and precaution that is everywhere on display in Israel: guard towers, barbed wire, cocky 18-year-olds in Army fatigues and Hum-vees -- and a commanding view of hostile territory: the Gaza Strip. Although only a few hundred yards away, Gaza is separated from us by two fences, hovered over by a surveillance blimp, and watched from a thousand invisible angles.
Just in front of the Black Arrow, bulldozers are knocking down trees and flattening the earth, and a low barrier wall designed to thwart shots at patrols is being erected: here, every battle is anticipated, and every dance begins with a deadly acknowledgement of the inevitable: in clearing this ground, Israel is saying that before long, tanks will be rumbling into Gaza, and the hunt for rocket-launchers there will intensify.
From here we head to Kibbutz Nir Am, an agricultural settlement less than two kilometers from the Gaza Strip. We file into the community room, where we're met by Shai, who is in charge of all agricultural work at Nir Am. Shai has blunt features, a clean-shaven head, a classically loud, hoarse Israeli voice, and he speaks excellent English, the result of having lived in South Carolina for 15 years. He peppers his speech with words you don't often hear out of an Israeli -- words like "y'all" and "yonder." He remembers life in the U.S. fondly, but he also remembers being called "desert nigger." Even under the circumstances, he is glad to be back home.
"Life here was paradise," he said. "You had beautiful land, fresh clean air; in the morning, the air was so fresh and still ... You had work to do, and you had a beautiful place to raise your kids. Then, in 2000, the Qassams started to come."
Shai has just come in from his work, and even though it's still morning, his entire skull is beading up with sweat. He takes a well-worn handkerchief from a pants pocket and employs it like a windshield wiper. "You know, it is not easy when your kid -- a lovely, happy child -- becomes angry and withdrawn. When, at 9 years old, all of a sudden she starts wetting her bed at night. But that comes with the territory."
"The territory" is Gaza, a neighbor teeming with 1.5 million people, the vast majority of them unable to find employment, come and go, or feed themselves without massive shipments of UN aid that come in through Israel every day. Almost every morning and evening, the rocket alarms sound at the kibbutz, and people head for their safe rooms.
The results, often terrifying, are not without their absurd humor: Shai notes that only a few days ago, the rocket alarm sounded -- about 15 seconds after a rocket hit.
Recently, a horse on the kibbutz was killed by a Qassam rocket. When Shai was asked if the government compensated the kibbutz for such losses, he smiled sadly.
"Sure," he said, "but look: you can get compensation for the value of the horse, but what about the time? For years you fed it, raised it, trained it ... your kids loved it ... This horse was wonderful with kids. How do you get compensated for that?"
To add to the absurdity, Shai says that the insurance agent dispatched to examine the remains of the horse tried to minimize the claim by claming that the dead animal was, in fact, a mule. One remembers the classic debate from Fiddler on the Roof and sees how little we've changed over the centuries.
Before we leave, Shai takes us to see a house on the kibbutz that was recently damaged by a Qassam. Its concrete roof looks like it's been worked over by a jackhammer.
The Qassams fall dozens of times a month. This one came around 11 PM, skipping off the roof of the house and hitting another but inflicting little physical damage. It did, however, terrify the elderly inhabitants of the house it first hit.
Shai was asked what he would have the government do with Gaza. Without hesitation, he raised his hands, palms up, slid them forward, and said words that were echoed verbatim by several Israelis we met on our trip:
"Give it to the Egyptians on a silver platter."
Shai waved goodbye and blew kisses as we drove away. Only after we were back on the road did I learn that Shai's wife recently left him and their two children: they love Nir Am too much to leave, and she loves peace and quiet too much to stay.