In the middle of a class I was giving on Renaissance poetry, the students uncharacteristically started checking their phones all at once. Another siren, I learned afterwards, was warning of an incoming missile, this time one fired at Jerusalem.
My day had passed at Bar Ilan, the university where I teach near Tel Aviv, surprisingly enough, without the shrieking siren that has become part of the daily routine for so many of us in Israel. But when I heard about the latest missile, sharing the concern of my students, I made the round of phone calls home to Jerusalem before my next class.
My youngest daughter, who is 12, was in the house, stoic, somehow finding herself comforting the hysterical neighbor from downstairs who had ran up with her two little girls. My 14 year old had been at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station where, though terrified, she had resolved, with her two friends, not to cry in fear. I heard the rest of the family’s stories that night, They were over the shock of the first siren at Sabbath candle-lighting last Friday and by then were able to pretend not to be shaken.
My children have come to believe, however reluctantly, that there is no danger in Jerusalem. The missile that fell harmlessly on the outskirts of the city succeeded only in one way: instilling terror, in, after the last week of conflict, over half of Israel’s population who have run frantically to their bomb shelters.
In my Twitter stream, which I read on that day of the first rocket fired at Jerusalem, the shock registered: ‘OMG, they are attacking Jerusalem!’
This was not only fear, but incredulity. For me, more the latter: all of the assurances I have been giving my children over the years, that Hamas would never endanger their own people, never risk their own holy places, fell away. I shared that Friday at dusk, the tweeted ‘OMG’ of incredulity, as I was herding my crying daughters — ‘Where is Shmuel?’ our 10-year-old was still nowhere in sight — into the protected room, our bomb shelter at home.
Yesterday, after classes, I went home to watch Israel television, which was reporting from the scene where the most recent missile had landed, an Arab village outside of Bethlehem. The men from the village had not gathered for a political demonstration. Without prompting, they did shout out for the Israeli reporter: “Let them shoot more rockets! Let them shoot more!’ The reporter, asked, also with evident incredulity, ‘But wouldn’t that mean endangering yourselves?’ Their response was, “Ain baya! (No problem). We don’t care, let them shoot more!’
The current new cease-fire notwithstanding, the conflict here cannot be solved with common sense (would that it could), or the approach of the former Secretary of State James Baker, who famously remarked, ‘Let’s get some coffee and donuts, sit around a big oak table and hash this thing out.’
For me there was a new acknowledgement with the thud of the missile landing, dusk falling upon Jerusalem. The actions of not only Hamas of the past eight days, but also Iran, the power both militarily and ideologically behind the Gaza-based terror organization, offer evidence of values and priorities dangerously different from our own.
‘We liberals,’ to paraphrase the philosopher Richard Rorty, are the kind of people who want to ‘avoid cruelty.’ Sometimes cruelty and suffering cannot be avoided as evidenced in the heartbreaking photos of destruction and displacement in Gaza. It is the place from which missiles continue to launch, and where candies and sweets are passed out to celebrate the success of a blown-up bus on the streets of Tel Aviv.
The missiles fired on Jerusalem, and the comments of the man in Bethlehem are even more chilling. What I have been telling my children now for two decades (that we are safe here) has been exposed as fiction. With the cavalier proclamations about death, still another lie is revealed. That lie is that Iran would never use a nuclear weapon in an attack that would kill their own fellow Muslims. This is the gulp I felt in my throat, repressed, as I reported back to my parents in Long Island that we are all ‘fine.’ It’s the knowledge that Hamas and their Iranian backers are not liberals like us.
So this crisis is an existential one for me. My liberalism dictates that I should talk about how complex things are, that I should refuse the allegories of good and evil that, admittedly, have been reinforced by a sometimes fraternity like loop of pro-Israel tweets and Facebook updates. But resisting allegory also means discriminating between kinds of cruelty, and the values that inform them.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be unpalatable, his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman an outrageous embarrassment. But they do not advocate, or actually murder supposed traitors, and then drag them through the streets, as some Hamas loyalists did in Gaza. The image of that corpse in the streets of Gaza City, and their backers in Tehran with their nuclear ambitions, should give us alll pause, even after the cease-fire.
We as liberals should have the courage and maturity to distinguish kinds of cruelty and realize that the battle fought against Hamas, and by extension the one against Iran, is a liberal cause. We liberals may find right-wing politicians — both Israeli and American — unpalatable, even offensive. But we may also recognize, before too late, that the fight against Hamas and Iran should not be ceded to the right. We liberals – aside from our antipathy to cruelty – also value a democratic public sphere, freedom of expression and demonstration, a separation between Church and State.
So the battle against Hamas, put on hold for now, and the future one against Iran is our battle as well, maybe even first and foremost. And when we win it, we will not celebrate with gunfire or triumphalism, but gratefully relish our freedoms, among them, perhaps, reading sonnets undisturbed.
William Kolbrener, professor of English literature at Bar-Ilan University, is the author of, most recently,“Open Minded Torah, of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love” (Continuum, 2011).”
Poetry Can Wait, the Siren Is Blaring