It’s an average Tuesday night in Tel Aviv, Israel’s secular hub and a social oasis in the desert of the pandemic. I’m going out to meet some friends at a bar after a long day at the office; there are five shekel shots tonight (about two US dollars).
It’s around 9 p.m. and I’m standing on the corner of Rothschild and Allenby, the bustling heart of a city. I’m waiting for the light to change and listening to music with my noise-cancelling earbuds, watching the young and beautiful walk with intent on the way to their plans for the night.
They all start running — into restaurants, bars and convenience stores. A boulevard akin to Times Square, evaporates in seconds. I keep walking, perplexed and probably a little stupid.
About a minute later, I receive a text from my roommate, Joe from Leeds, England.
I can’t hear the siren, but I know what it means. My Israeli coworkers said this might happen, but that it was very unlikely.
“They’ll never bomb Tel Aviv,” my boss, Erez R. Mizrachi from Ra’anana Israel, confidently told me earlier in the day. “It’s been years. They know better than that by now.”
I start running. It takes about 90 seconds for a missile to travel from Gaza to Tel Aviv. I’m cutting it close. The bar I was supposed to meet my friends at is only a few hundred feet away. I get to the bar and finally take my earbuds out.
Now I can hear the siren.
Its haunting wail makes me recall my English heritage and the stories I heard growing up about the Battle of Britain. I never thought that I would be in this moment.
I am lucky one of my friends, Danit from Denver, Colorado, arrived at the bar before me. This is not an experience you want to go through alone.
“Holy shit,” she says. “I can’t believe this is happening.”
The bar is filled with people, mostly Israelis who are remarkably nonchalant given the incoming volley of missiles. Some are even laughing. A society where everyone is exposed to sirens at a young age and is obligated to serve in the military has that effect. The bar is also filled with glass, which, I would learn later, is the worst substance to be around during an air raid.
And then the bombs start to fall.
They are quiet at first, off in the distance, and then gradually get louder and closer. Danit takes my hand. She looks like she is about to cry, which oddly makes me feel a little less hysterical.
An Israeli woman, probably in her mid-20s, notices our distress and attempts to comfort us.
“As an Israeli, I want to tell you I have full faith in the Iron Dome and the Israeli Defense Forces — they will protect us,” she assures us with a smile. “Tel Aviv is the safest place in Israel.”
The bombs begin to rain and there are several loud explosions overhead; the low end of the rumble reverberates in my chest like I’m at a loud concert. The bar’s large windows begin to shake. The stacked glass cups vibrate, humming an eerie kind of music, like a symphony playing me off into the next life. An umbrella right outside the front door convulses violently, and in front of the bar, a parked car’s alarm shrieks like a mother who has lost her child. Danit buries her head into my chest as if she is preparing to die.
Here I am, 18 years old, confronting my mortality. I wonder to myself in those seconds as the explosions continue to intensify: “Am I ready to meet my maker? Am I ready to see what’s on the other side?”
In that moment, I fear nothing is waiting for me — that there is only eternal darkness, an incomprehensible void that is nonexistence.
“This might be it,” I think to myself.
Despite a brief lull in the bombings, the energy in the room is irrevocably changed. The locals, who were chuckling only moments ago, are no longer cool. They look around at one another, stricken with fear and speaking in panicked Hebrew. People standing by the windows and door try to take cover further into the bar, but it’s too crowded. People are becoming frantic.
The same woman who moments ago tried to comfort us is hunching over, looking like she’s about to vomit.
“I feel sick,” the woman uttered in a weak and sickly voice, eviscerating any faith I had in her previous statement. “I’m not ready to die.”
Danit is trembling in my arms. I want to cry, but I maintain a stoic facade in an effort to comfort her.
“Well if we die, at least it will be over quickly,” I say to her in an effort to ease the tension.
Danit doesn’t find that funny.
There is another siren.
More bombs, not as close. There is another lull and after a few minutes, the Israelis, much to my surprise, begin to leave.
“Are you crazy?” I asked one of the men leaving. “Where are you going?”
“To a bomb shelter,” he said. “I have to get out of this glass house. It will turn into a million little flying razors.”
Taking a “when in Rome,” mentality, Danit’s heels and my more bomb-appropriate sneakers scamper like frightened deer along the pavement to her apartment building.
As we arrive, another siren blares. A man hears us crouched in the stairwell (the next best option if there is no shelter), and leads us to the bomb shelter in the basement.
Our friends, who were also supposed to meet us at the bar, are packed into the muggy, dark chamber. The air tastes deserted, sick and muddy; no one has been here in years. Young children cry; this experience is a rite of passage for the youth of Israel.
Danit sobs as her best friend from home and roommate, Arielle, embraces her like a soldier returning home from war.
Everyone asks us if we’re okay and tells us how worried they were; no one had cell service in the shelter to confirm if we were alive. Had the bombs fallen a few minutes later, we all would have been in that bar. The clamour drowns out the sounds of the bombs for a brief moment.
It’s all becoming too much; the gravity of the situation hits me like a tidal wave. I start to shut down. I am struggling to function. I can’t interact with anyone.
In an effort to cope, I put in my earbuds and play my favorite album: “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” by The Beatles. It’s my happy place album, the album I listen to when something is seriously wrong. In the darkness, John, Paul and George each offer me their advice.
“Try to realise it’s all within yourself — no one else can make you change
And to see you’re really only very small
And life flows on within you and without you.”
“Picture yourself in a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly,
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.”
“Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends
with a little help from my friends.”
I take my earbuds out, a little calmer. I put my head on Arielle’s shoulder and she soothingly runs her hands through my hair.
After about an hour in the shelter, the sirens and bombs stop. Wearily, we ascend to Danit and Arielle’s apartment, texting everyone we know the exact same thing:
“Are you okay?”
Thankfully, no one I know is hurt or dead.
My mother calls me, obviously petrified. My brother, who I haven’t spoken to in months, calls me.
I get a call from my grandfather, Frank, a Jew who grew up in 1940s Brooklyn, and I ask him if in his almost 90 years he had ever lived through something like this.
“No,” he replies in his marvelous Bernie Sanders-esque accent. “Never.”
It’s about 10:30 p.m. now. No one is going out to the bar tonight. Hamas sends more rockets at 3 a.m., 4 a.m. and 5 a.m.
I slept in the bomb shelter that night and every night for the next eleven days.
Sleeping is hard when rockets, less than 60 miles away, loom deep into the night. For several nights I tried to sleep on Danit and Arielle’s couch, only to have to run down four flights of stairs to the shelter. One night, a siren from my dreams woke me up in a frenzy and sweating; a siren false awakening of sorts.
An air raid siren is the worst alarm I’ve ever had to wake up to: your blood pressure skyrockets (pun not intended) as it welcomes you back to reality with 90 seconds to frantically run for cover. Talk about being late to class. You are disoriented and let your survival instincts take over.
After being ripped from her slumber by one 3 a.m. siren, my friend Alyssa, from Glasgow, Scotland, who lives below Danit and Arielle, grabbed only a single sock — not her phone, keys or even water — as she feverishly ran from her bed to the basement.
Many nights, we stayed up in anticipation of the bombings. Sometimes, around 2 a.m., people would say, “I don’t think there will be bombs tonight,” and head to bed only to be woken up by a siren 30 minutes later. Some nights, we would stay up until 4 a.m. and there would be no bombs.
Even though I knew I was almost completely safe in an apartment with a subterranean shelter, knowing at any moment I might have to stop everything and run for my life was psychologically torturous.
During one siren, I was cooking eggs and in the panic that ensued I left the stove on. I returned to a small fire which might have engulfed the apartment had I not caught it sooner.
Pretty quickly it all became normal, and you find ways to cope. We brought a bottle of vodka down to the shelter for a round of bombing and each time we heard an explosion we would take a swig and pass the bottle to the next person. One night, we all made bets on what time we thought the bombs would fall (there were no bombs that night).
One afternoon, I returned to my apartment, which doesn’t have a shelter, to grab some clean clothes. When I arrived, there was a siren shortly followed by a bang. The entire building shook like a seismic tremor.
That was the loudest explosion I heard over course of the bombings. Two missiles, captured on video, were intercepted about 200 feet directly above my apartment. After that, I didn’t leave Danit and Arielle’s apartment until the ceasefire several days later.
Over the course of those days, my extended family and close friends repeatedly called and texted to make sure I was alive. Even my Rabbi, the amazing Rachel Timoner, reached out to me. I spoke to friends from middle school or summer camp whom I haven’t heard from in years.
There were those who chose to be less supportive. People on social media from bombless skies thousands of miles away decided to inform me of my status as a “settler colonialist.” They said they did not believe Israel should exist and some even added that they hoped my “house was next.”
Some were posting pro-Palestine infographics and wanted to engage in debate with me, which I would welcome under ordinary circumstances, but I was mostly focused on staying alive and uninterested in discourse.
There are about 14 million Jews in the world today, which represents about 0.2% of the world population. Before the Holocaust, there were about 17 million Jews, representing about 0.8% of the world population at the time. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where 22.4% of the population is Jewish and being Jewish never seemed like a big deal; it never differentiated me from others. Being Jewish, if anything, was cool. But I’m not in Brooklyn, I’m in the Middle East.
Hamas, which the New York Times has defined as an “Islamist militant group,” issued its first Charter in 1988. The Charter outlines the organization’s religious, social and political goals. Article 7 of the Charter, translated from Arabic, states: “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees.”
“The (Jews) have been scheming for a long time and have accumulated huge and influential material wealth. With their money, they took control of the world media… With their money they stirred revolutions in various parts of the globe… the French Revolution, the Communist Revolution and most of the revolutions… With their money they formed secret organizations such as the Freemasons… in order to destroy societies and carry out Zionist interests,” reads article 22 of the Charter. “They stood behind World War I and formed the League of Nations through which they could rule the world. They were behind World War II… There is no war going on anywhere without them having their finger in it.”
Article 13 of the Charter also states: “(Peace) initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement… There is no solution for the Palestinian problem except by Jihad.”
On May 7th, a few days before the bombings, Hamas Political Bureau Member and former Minister of the Interior Fathi Hamad made the following remarks in a public address which aired on Al-Aqsa TV:
“People of Jerusalem, we want you to cut off the heads of the Jews with knives. With your hand, cut their artery from here. A knife costs five shekels. Buy a knife, sharpen it, put it there, and just cut off (their heads). It costs just five shekels. With those five shekels, you will humiliate the Jewish state.” Hamad was designated as a terrorist by the U.S. State Department in 2016.
In Brooklyn, I never experienced antisemitism, let alone being under attack due to my religion, my ethnicity, my identity.
In Tel Aviv, sitting in that bomb shelter, was the first time I really realized that I was Jewish.
I grew up in a bubble, a bubble where, right now, Jews are treated like white people and have white privilege, but a bubble nonetheless.
Similar bubbles have existed throughout history in merciful empires like Babylon, Rome, Egypt, Russia and Germany, and, if we study history, we know those bubbles popped in cataclysmic fashion.
Much of the world, to varying degrees throughout history, has hated Jews, and, sadly, I don’t see that changing soon. It is human nature to hate those that are different, especially minorities.
Although some say the Holocaust won’t happen again, as a Jew, part of me fears that sentiment is incorrect. The human race is capable of horrific things. Just look at what is happening, as you read this, in China to millions of Uyghur Muslims– and the international community is virtually silent. The United States, the leader of the free world, has taken no concrete action whatsoever to prevent the internment of and religious persecution against China’s Muslim minority.
As a Jew, I worry the bubble that exists in America, the current merciful empire, could pop under the wrong circumstances. And, in the digital age, with nearly all of our personal information available online, it would be virtually impossible to deny one’s Judaism. This stuff keeps me up at night; I fear violence against my children, my people.
And who are your people if not your children?
My father is not Jewish. He grew up in Birmingham, Michigan in the 1970s and 80s and went to Law School at the University of Michigan. He moved to New York City in the 1990s where he met my mother, a Long Island Jew.
My parents raised my brother and I as secular reform Jews, and we both had Bar Mitzvahs. I’m not very religious and, at this time, I’m not sure if I believe in God; depending on my mood, I’m either agnostic or an atheist. I’m a cultural Jew.
My family doesn’t eat Kosher or keep Shabbat, but we celebrate and go to synagogue as a family on the High Holidays, and after close to 20 years of services my father knows the prayers just as well, if not better than I do.
I used to joke with him and say, “Like it or not dad, you’re a Jew now.”
He would always respond, “I’m FOT: friend of the tribe.”
The other day, in between sirens, I spoke to my father about my revelation with my Jewish identity and I asked if me, his son, being bombed made him feel more Jewish.
“I’m definitely MOT now, a member of the tribe,” my father said. “My whole family is Jewish. If your family is not your people, then who is?”
After days of bombings and trying to keep it all together, when he spoke those words it all hit me. I started crying.
It’s funny how sometimes all it takes is a little bombing to realize, in both my and my father’s case, who your “people” are. When I spoke to Rabbi Timoner, she used the word “peoplehood,” and that’s what this is about; the Jewish people are my tribe and I’m proud to be Jewish. Not a perfect people, just like everyone else, but unequivocally mine.
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד
Jared Dougall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.