We no longer ask “How are you?” Within a matter of days, those three little words of courtesy have gone from an empty greeting to a rude, un-answerable question. How the hell can anyone be? Being fine now in Israel means that the people you know that were murdered are not the ones sharing your dinner table. You’re fine if your friend from high school was murdered, you haven’t really been in touch those past few years; you’re fine if a relative’s neighbor was shot while hugging his grandchildren; you’re fine if your former student is missing, your classmate’s uncle kidnapped to Gaza.
My husband’s co-worker, an American ex-pat in her sixties, was murdered last Saturday. We watched her ordeal as it slowly unfolded. She locked herself in her residential safe room, reporting on WhatsApp, calling for help for hours and hours: There are terrorists all around us, they are shooting us all, they have entered our house, we are holding the door shut. Please. Can someone help?
Later that afternoon, she sent her last message: “They managed to break into the safe room,” she wrote. The messages sent to her later were never read. For five days we hoped that she’d been kidnapped to Gaza. This is the world we now live in: people hope that their loved ones are held hostage by Hamas.
On Thursday we learned that she wasn’t. I asked my husband: Did she have any grandchildren? I didn’t know what else to ask. I didn’t know which answer would make me sadder. She retired about a year ago, but they did work together for over fifteen years. Are they considered close? How sorrow-stricken is he allowed to be, when people have lost their entire families? How are you, my husband?
This is not the worst story. I feel guilty for that, too. The news tells of a nine-year-old boy who hid in the closet for fourteen hours with no food or water, holding his six-year-old sister’s hand, keeping her silent, while Hamas walked around their apartment. They didn’t know that both their parents were no longer alive and their sister kidnapped. If they had, would that have made them more or less resilient? How have all the answers become wrong?
When the soldiers finally came to rescue them, the children didn’t open the door. They were afraid the terrorists were posing as Israeli soldiers, as they’d done all day, luring families out of their safe rooms with false promises and then killing them all. In some cases, they used an Israeli hostage, sometimes a teenager, a neighbor that the families knew and trusted: he promised in Hebrew – at gunpoint – that it was safe to come out, only to later be murdered himself. The nine-year-old boy was wise to not open.
Finally, they called the children’s uncle. It’s me, he said, it’s Amit. The boy unlocked the door, blinking into a new kind of darkness, the one that has covered the land since October 7th, indifferent to sunlight and sunrise.
OVER 1,300 MURDERED, AROUND 4,500 injured, 224 kidnapped. As writers, we are taught to believe that good literature, the kind that maps the human soul and sheds light on its most intimate corners, is always relevant. And yet it seems reality has finally defeated art, and this is not a victory one wants to witness.
The newspapers’ weekend books sections are desperate for materials: all the articles they prepared for the next issue suddenly seem irrelevant. Their emails ask: Does anyone have a short story that somehow has to do with the situation? A poem, maybe? About war, about death, about despair, about hell?
I don’t. I wonder if I ever will. I picture myself sitting down in my study, re-opening that prehistoric file I was working on on October 6th, BC, writing into the unknown. We are used to perceiving writing as a form of pain, deriving from the past. I now realize that it requires hope, demands a future.
Meanwhile, I hand out free copies of my books, offer free lectures. It’s all made of second-hand, used words. Who the fuck needs a lecture now? I wonder. I’m glad to see you all here, I begin, and immediately correct myself: Well, not glad, of course. I feel like an idiot; the listeners stare at me with blank Zoom eyes. At night, I write a single sentence, over and over again: Sorry for your loss.
WHEN WE WAKE UP, if we ever do — what kind of an Israel will we wake up to? Will it be the one led by its citizens, the people who, for the past two and a half weeks, have stepped in where their government failed with thousands of initiatives to help refugees from the war-torn southern region of Israel, providing everything from housing to diapers, free therapy to home-cooked meals? Or will it be the one led by Benjamin Netanyahu?
I watch him on the news. I wonder how he sleeps at night. We all do. He deserves to never sleep another night, and that still won’t begin to compensate for the loss of a single child. This is the man who has entrusted our lives in the hands of incompetent, messianic opportunists, all for the sake of his political survival. This is the man who was willing to sacrifice Israel’s democracy on the altar of his upcoming trial, while ignoring all professional warnings that his judicial coup was weakening Israel’s army, economy and civil society by the day. This is the man who has consistently propped up extremists — the most violent Jewish settlers in the occupied territories, the parties representing ultra-Orthodox Israelis who neither work nor serve in the army, the racists and the inciters — at the expense of the sane, liberal, hard-working, tax-paying citizens whose children’s blood is now flooding the streets.
We now have a war on our hands — a war against a murderous, inhumane organization that has ruthlessly tortured and massacred our sons and daughters. But if there is ever to be a new, better Israel, bringing Benjamin Netanyahu to justice must be the corner stone it is built upon.
MEANWHILE, THE FATES OF OVER 200 kidnapped children, women and men still depend on Netanyahu’s judgment. His judgment and Hamas’ goodwill. As I write these words, I feel like crying. I join the parents of the kidnapped children as they weep on TV. My iPhone reports laconically: Your screen time was up 77% last week, for an average of 11 hours, 25 minutes a day.
I read that one of the young women abducted to the Gaza Strip has Crohn’s disease. She needs biological treatment and special care, otherwise she faces unbearable pain, possibly death. But they all have something, don’t they? We all do. We all need special care.
My hairdresser’s mom, an 85-year-old, is there in the Gaza Strip, without her medication. And men. There are men there, too. Young, old. And they’re all facing their end, whether sick or healthy.
Death is irreversible, but those people are still alive. They should be brought home, all of them, now, at any cost, before it is too late. Before their lost lives are added to that bottomless ocean of sorrow.
Noa Yedlin is a best selling and award-winning Israeli author. Her novel Stockholm will be published in the US 11/14 by HarperVia.