This piece is one of an ongoing series that we will be sharing in the coming days from Israeli authors and authors in Israel.
It is critical to understand history not just through the books that will be written later, but also through the first-hand testimonies and real-time accounting of events as they occur. At Jewish Book Council, we understand the value of these written testimonials and of sharing these individual experiences. It’s more important now than ever to give space to these voices and narratives.
In collaboration with the Jewish Book Council, JBI is recording writers’ first-hand accounts, as shared with and published by JBC, to increase the accessibility of these accounts for individuals who are blind, have low vision or are print disabled.
I went into our Jerusalem bedroom at a little after 8 a.m. on Saturday morning to get dressed for synagogue. My wife Ilana sat at a small folding table by the window, a headset over her ears and her eyes intent on her laptop screen. She had just begun one of her volunteer shifts fielding calls from lonely and troubled people from all over the country for Eran, Israel’s emotional first aid service.
I could overhear only Ilana’s responses to her first caller. “Where are the booms coming from?” she asked with practiced and sincere empathy. I caught her eye and we nodded at each other. Ilana has been with Eran for many years now, and sometimes the callers are people suffering from mental illness. We assumed these “booms” were hallucinations.
Then the air raid siren went off — piercingly, close by. Not delirium at all.
Our apartment complex was built in 1980, long before security rooms were mandated by the building code. There’s a bomb shelter in the basement in a distant part of our U‑shaped building, but it’s not in great condition and in any case it’s much too far away and dangerous to run to if missiles are falling. The civil defense protocols advise us to take shelter in the stairwell, which is supposedly the strongest part of the building (I’m not convinced this is really true) and to stay as far away as possible from windows. The chances of a direct hit by a missile are small, but one that falls nearby can send sharp shards of glass flying with great force. My daughters, daughter-in-law, and my granddaughter, Ya’ar, were staying with us and followed these instructions; Ilana stuck to her post.
I took Ya’ar to our synagogue, just across the street. It’s a newer building and safer than ours. The siren sounded again soon after we arrived, and we decided to move the worship down into the secure basement. It was both Shabbat and Simchat Torah, marking the end and the beginning of the yearly cycle of Torah reading. Usually the services are very long and many community members are called to read from the Torah and we dance with the scrolls. We shortened the service.
The enormity and the horror of what was happening started to hit us over the course of the day. (We don’t usually listen to the radio on Shabbat, but we turned it on and kept it at low volume so that we could understand what was happening and receive any instructions that the army might broadcast.) My first reaction was anger — at Hamas and its followers, but also at my own army and government, which had clearly fucked up. But I reminded myself that the facts would come out only slowly, after the war was over, and that speculation at this time is useless. Fear came fast on the heels of my anger. Fear not so much of Hamas, but of the fact that this emergency was in the hands of a government in which I have no confidence, and which I have been protesting against from its inception, as it is manned by extremist and incompetent ministers intent on destroying the fundamental institutions of Israeli democracy and the rule of law.
My elder son was called up for reserve duty on Sunday and sent to the south to battle the terrorists. We lost our younger son, Niot, to an accident during his army service twelve and a half years ago. Everyone is frightened that they will lose their sons and daughters. I can’t say any more than that we feel incapable of losing another child.
I teared up during President Joe Biden’s speech on Tuesday. Never has a US president given Israel such eloquent, powerful, sincere support. Israel is receiving similar backing from other Western countries. But we can’t take that for granted as the war progresses. There is much we can do that will turn the world against us. To make sure that does not happen, we must set aside the illusion that we can do as we wish, without regard for international law and our moral compass.
We’re in the midst of a war to defend ourselves and victory in that war is the first priority. But the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip — not all of whom support Hamas — have also suffered, and will inevitably suffer much more in the current war. The thirst for revenge is a natural and understandable reaction, but we need, as we bury and mourn our dead and tend to the wounded, to keep a level head. We must fight but we must also think about the day and the years after the war is over. To respond to Hamas’s atrocities by adopting its methods would be a victory for our enemies. Anger, fear, horror — we can’t help but feel these things. But they can’t guide us because they lead nowhere. We must breathe deeply, look up from our screens, and think about the lives we want to lead when the war is over, and how to build those lives even as we fight to preserve them.
Haim Watzman lives in Jerusalem and is the author of three books: Company C: An American’s Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel; A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel’s Rift Valley; and a story collection, Necessary Stories, a selection of the more than 150 he has written. His play The Chair won the 2021 Theater Institute Award of the Contemporary Jewish Drama International Competition sponsored by the Estera Rachel and Ida Makinskie Jewish Theater in Warsaw. He has translated more than 50 books from Hebrew into English, among them works by Shlomo Avineri, David Grossman, Hillel Cohen, Amos Oz, and Tom Segev. He edited the English-language version of Yuval Noah Harari’s worldwide bestseller, Sapiens. Subscribe to his Substack newsletter here.