There is something strange, say some visitors to Israel, when, every hour on the hour, a whole country stops to listen to the news. There is something wrong, they remark, when the sound of an airplane makes a whole nation look upward and sigh with relief when the plane is recognized as a friend.
Some observers call this attitude paranoia. It is actually both less and more than that. The Israelis are not suffering from any excessive, irrational fear. Rather, they are displaying a suppressed tension, a constant readiness, which is actually quite understandable considering the state of war Israel has experienced throughout her history.
This tension does not keep the Israelis from having what on the surface appears to be a normal national life. In fact, when you are traveling through the cities and even along the borders, it is hard to believe that the nation is at war. There are many soldiers, and Arabs are stopped at road blocks and their cars are searched while you zoom by. If you are not busy thinking how humiliating this must be for the Arabs, you might begin to think about what the Israelis are looking for. Yet there is little sense of actual physical danger; in fact, the danger is slight. The terrorist attacks within Israel are pretty much under control, and the chances of a full-scale war at this time are minimal. It is probably safer there than in New Yourk.
Except for the omnipresent uniformed and armed soldiers, Israel may not look like a country at war, but it is pre-occupied with war. The stores sell soldiers dolls; the women-soldier dolls are especially popular, but only tourists buy these. Burned-out tanks from the Israelis' campaign to capture Jerusalem in 1968 line the road from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, left as a monument to those who died.
There are also Six-Day War jokes and military parades and quiet nods of approval over the bombings in Egypt and countless movies and books dealing with the glory of Israel's victories.
Underlying all this is a profound sense of tragedy. There is no way for an Israeli to objectify the war, to somehow distance it so it becomes less painful. Few Israelis would want to detach themselves in this way, but even if they did, it would be impossible. For the country is small (2.5 million) and the war is everybody's war.
Everyone. fights in the war-and they fight because they want to, not because they have to: it is truly impossible for an Israeli to conceive of the draft resistance movement in this country. Men serve for three years when they are 18, women for two years. The men then serve in the reserves until they are 55. During their reserve duty, which ranges from a few weeks to more than a month per year, depending on what skills are needed, they participate in the war and some of them fight and die.
Everyone participates by paying huge taxes, by being unable to travel in any of the lands they see from their borders, and some participate by dying.
Each death is a national tragedy. It seems amazing that the Israelis could have sustained this emotion for all these years of war, but the whole country mourns every death. "They were my brothers," said a man next to me on the bus as he cried over the deaths of two soldiers he had never known.
The deaths are so real because the dead never become just numbers. In a country so small, it is likely that if an Israeli does not know the person killed, he knows a relative of his or a friend. Also, because the country is so unified in emotion and in experience, everyone can identify with the dead. They died for a cause everyone believes in, in a place everyone has seen, in a situation nearly everyone has experienced.
Most Israelis seem to sense the tragedy in their enemies' situation as well as in their own. Surprisingly, the Israelis do not appear to hate their enemies. They may hate Syrians and some of the Arab leaders, but they feel sorry for the majority of Arabs. Many Israelis communicated with captured soldiers in the '67 war and allegedly found them unhappy with their governments and their way of life. I heard from several people that many Egyptian prisoners didn't want to leave the Israeli camps, where they were getting enough to cat. It is also rumored that, when these Egyptians were released by the Israelis, they were shot by their own men as they swam across the canal to return home, for the Egyptian army did not want the country to know what really happened.
This sympathy for the enemy may be misdirected and should perhaps be extended to the Palestinians, but it does suggest that Israelis are still human enough to feel the tragedy in their enemies situation.
But this sense of tragedy is often overshadowed. Less than a year after the six-day war, I attended the gala 20th Independence Day military parade in Jerusalem and found the whole country going wild over captured tanks. Soon afterwards I went to a movie depicting the six-day war in bloody, tragic, and all too real terms; the Israelis loved it.
It is events like these, as well as the "aggressive" foreign policy and "expansionist" sentiment that make the Israelis seem like hawks and imperialists. But the Israelis do not-and cannot-see it this way. Except for a minority who view an expanded Israel as a fulfillment of God's promise to the Jews and advocate any force necessary to acquire this Promised Land, most Israelis sense themselves and their nation in mortal danger. With this assumption they can readily justify almost anything to keep their country safe.
This "defense" strategy may seem to be a bit more offensive since the 67 war. Part of this new "aggressiveness" and the almost morbid fascination with the June war stems from what I consider Israel's real surprise at the nature and extent of its victory. Israelis can watch a painful movie not only for the catharsis of reliving the most important event in their lives, but also to remind themselves that it really happened, that they really did it.
But more important, even though the hope for a quick peace disintegrated soon after the Israeli victory, the Six-Day War gave Israel a 'sense of security for the first time in its history. For the first time, Israelis felt safe. They achieved that feeling of safety through military power, and they are willing to justify almost any use of power to keep that strength that insures their security.
But the Israelis want more than security. They want peace. Yet they don't know how their war will end. "We are in a tunnel," said a university student. "It is dark, and we cannot see the end. But we cannot live without believing that there is an end."