Life in a war zone, swamped by panic and memes

Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod and her family

I’m drowning in memes. My favourite from the last two days has been, “The world has COVID. Only here in Israel, thank God, are we back to business as usual.”

What a business as usual it is. I keep looking back, wondering when it all went wrong.

Maybe things snapped as Ramadan progressed with renewed terror in the south, like a seasonal allergy. With death balloons and fields on fire and rockets instead of sneezing.

I’ll admit, I’m a bad Israeli. I couldn’t tell the difference between a rocket and a bomb and a missile if they stared me in the face. Which they do, often, in my dreams.

My husband’s boss, and many of his co-workers, are Arab Muslims. Not speaking much Hebrew and zero Arabic, his answers are annoyingly laconic when I ask how things are at work. No sign of unrest, nothing out of the ordinary. Just like at home.

Some people wouldn’t work with Arabs right now. Many are calling for boycotts, while others point out the many Arab doctors, nurses, cashiers, and others who make life possible here in northern Israel, where Jews are less than 50 percent of the population. The neighbourhood women’s WhatsApp is abuzz because Arab grocery drivers aren’t showing up for work.

WhatsApp is a blessing and a curse. Bringing in the funny memes and letting me know what’s on fire where. In Israel, if winter is over, fire season isn’t far behind. On Monday morning, it was the grass over by the train tracks, which run from here down to Tel Aviv.

Arson, arson, arson, came the WhatsApp whispers. Arabs, Arabs, Arabs. But after almost eight years here, I suspected dumb Jews. Two years ago, our upstairs neighbour dropped a flaming pepper from his barbecue, setting fire to the dry grass beside our apartment.

But facts can’t stop the flood of social and asocial and antisocial media. Today, with 1,303 security alerts issued by the Home Front Command all over Israel, everyone was sharing, “I can’t focus. I keep checking online. I can’t work.” Something had snapped for all of us.

For me, maybe things snapped back in April when a Syrian missile landed near Israel’s nuclear site at Dimona. I woke to this Haaretz headline: “Israel strikes in Syria after errant missile hits southern Israel.” That’s Haaretz for you, as if Syria had made an honest mistake and Big Bad Israel was being mean. With Jews like these, we don’t need Hamas.

Maybe things snapped after Meron on Lag b’Omer. Following a night of subdued barbecues and bonfires after a year and a half of isolation, we woke to find that for 45 people crushed to death, it was less a party than a massacre. My good friend’s 18-year-old made it out just fine; some did not.

For my daughter, 16, something definitely snapped at Meron, even though she wasn’t there. Fearing crowds, she decided not to go on her school trip to the big Jerusalem Day parade. So she was safe with me, just north of Haifa, when we found out sirens were going off, that her classmates in Jerusalem were down on the ground with their hands over their heads.

“Shraggie’s in a bomb shelter.” Instead of working, my son-in-law was chilling with his new co-workers somewhere cramped and musty-smelling. I worried about his allergies. I worried about my daughter and their new baby alone together at home, 15 minutes outside Jerusalem. Yes, in the settlements. This is Israel; it’s all controversial. Haters don’t know the difference between Kfar Tapuach and Haifa and don’t care.

You know when things definitely snapped for me? When Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, the head of ZAKA Search and Rescue, a man I’d met, interviewed, respected, admired, was charged with horrific abuse. Not by police, who never charged him, but by the media, who were all too quick to sentence him without trial. And then, in what everyone sees as the ultimate guilty plea, he attempted suicide the same day as that pesky errant Syrian missile landed. I’m still reeling.

Meron, flaming peppers, Meshi-Zahav. Arabs aren’t the only threat here in Israel.

This week, after three failed elections, an outta-nowhere left-right-Arab coalition seemed poised to dethrone Benjamin Netanyahu. Two men whom Israelis had insisted for years that they did not want to be prime minister… would both get the job. A truly solomonic solution, enough to make anyone snap.

Then again, things had maybe already snapped for me in repeated encounters with people so far from my wavelength we probably need an interpreter. Like the non-Jewish high school friend who reminds me that I chose to live here and not Toronto. Which I guess makes it my fault rockets are falling.

Or the friends here in Israel who, as city after city is swallowed by flames and riots, chant, “We should have killed them all while we had the chance.” We all know who them is.

And then there was today.

Last night, due to the aforementioned delivery driver problem, we had to order from our distant-third-favourite grocery store. Our delivery timeslot was between 2 and 6 p.m. today. Sometime this afternoon, WhatsApp started buzzing—Hamas would bomb Haifa at exactly 6. You have to admire the precision.

At 5, we had our daily family Zoom with my mother in Toronto. Which was when I realized that our bomb shelter—and we’re lucky to have one—is also our 13-year-old’s bedroom, meaning it was paved in disgusting pyjamas and underwear with nowhere to sit down, since his bed is six feet off the ground. And no running water.

So I left our family Zoom to drag a spare bed in there, along with a few big water bottles and a fan. Then I went back and informed my sister that either the groceries or Hamas would be here by 6.

Neither one happened. The delivery driver got lost and showed up at 6:45. And Hamas postponed until 9, then put it off indefinitely… until next time.

Even though things are very quiet now where I am, something must have snapped. Because I’m utterly exhausted.

If this is life in a war zone, it’s a life swamped by WhatsApp, by memes, by stickers, by fake news, by one person’s panic feeding into another’s and escalating until in the end—just as with COVID—we’re more beaten and bruised by the news of it than by any outside enemy.

Another meme I noticed yesterday: “Suddenly, 2021 is starting to look not too bad…” With COVID seemingly behind us, it turns out the stuff waiting around the corner was even more overwhelming. At least, when you experience it as yet another non-stop digital barrage.

A friend asked me tonight, “Do you sometimes wish you didn’t live in Israel?”

Israel isn’t the problem. But sometimes… I really wish I didn’t live in 2021. Yes, seeing my family every day, across an entire ocean, is a blessing. So is the ability to work from home.

But this technology that yanks me into the heart of every single riot, fire, funeral, or flaming wheat field all over the country, the second it unfolds? Maybe one of these days, I’ll snap, shut down the screens for good, and truly find peace.

A journalist, editor, translator and writer, Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod made aliyah with her family from Toronto to northern Israel in 2013. She’s a PJ Library award-winning author of Jewish children’s books and has written for various incarnations of The Canadian Jewish News for over 20 years.