A May 21 cease-fire ended 11 days of conflict between Israel and Hamas, which rules Gaza. Jeffrey Green, author of this article, is a Wisconsin physician who was there during the conflict. More photos at end of article.
As an emergency physician and a dual American and Israeli citizen residing in Tel Aviv, I want to live life, raise a family and contribute what I can. The recent battles in Israel and Gaza have thrown that quest into disarray. This conflict has analogies to our other war, against COVID-19. This is a report from the front line of both battles …
“I made it to the neighborhood without getting bombed.”
I composed this message to my daughter when I reached Tel Aviv on my commute home from Ashdod. Then I didn’t send it. Too dark.
After dinner I headed to bed early. Abruptly, like a loud and unwelcome guest in my window, the sirens growled and then screamed. Neighbors flooded the stairwell, so many unfamiliar faces, in a mix of worry and anger filing down to the safe room.
Bomb shelter etiquette: first keep quiet and avoid eye contact, then break the ice a little. I got to know a few of them by name. It was very pleasant for a moment and then I remembered why we were there.
Not far from our sanctuary we heard deep low booms and we felt a few of them. There was a shake of the walls and the unfinished ground under our feet. It was a brief man-made earthquake, coinciding with the peak of a feeling of no control over our fate.
For 10 days the front doors of the apartment buildings in Tel Aviv were kept open so that anyone could duck into anyone’s shelter. In a taxi, I pondered, “what if it happens now and after all these years my path comes to an end with this random cabbie in this Mercedes.” I was traveling on an electric scooter during one attack. I stopped and crouched beside a concrete wall with a few others and hoped for the best. I never thought so often about dying with strangers.
When things got uglier here, I never thought to flee to Milwaukee, to the lake and the tidier life. I could hit the road and enjoy home, family and work without the threat of annihilation by neighbors. Instead of leaving, I asked our co-op committee if we could get our shelter cleaned up. I did not wish to relocate, retreat and disengage when the situation got hot. I am already engaged with this place. Safety that is far from these people and things that matter to me is of limited benefit.
So much love abounds for this captivating land, this hub of spiritual currents, natural wonders and incredible people. Jews and Arabs will always be here, every strain and offshoot, as well as Asians and Africans and a global span of ethnicities that find their way here and make it their home. Down on the ground, in our hospitals, on our farms and in our neighborhoods, we are making it work for the most part. I actually have hope for this place. In the emergency department I am elbow-to-elbow with Arab teammates, high-fiving and hurling medical orders and wisecracks at each other for 12 hours at a time; sweating, crying, and laughing together. We have true love and respect for one another. We don’t talk politics. We share our home cooking and our greetings on each other’s holidays. We jam at the open mic. That’s what the Arab-Israeli “conflict” looks like to me.
We must make it work, because no one of these nations or people will relinquish the land, vacate and move elsewhere. And no nation or people can be erased just because another wishes it so. It is immoral and unfeasible. Let’s move forward with that in mind.
Parallels with the coronavirus plague are intriguing, although military conflict is an intentional threat to life from other humans, not an epic Darwinian struggle for the planet against a microbe. Israel won against COVID-19. Theory and practice came together, we rocked it, and we are back in business. Even during the bombing, I rejoiced that we no longer needed to wear masks and we could see the faces around us. We could pile into indoor shelters together without fear of superspreaders. Despite those dark days, I was grateful to be, for now, done with COVID-19. How demoralizing to triumph over the coronavirus only to be forced back into isolation by this both ancient and new conflict with our Arab cousins. For the COVID lockdown, we had to remain within 1,000 meters from home. Now we stayed within a 90-second sprint to the shelter. We were no longer isolating infectious patients in COVID wards, rather now closing ourselves in the basement.
From the pandemic we learned uncertainty – that many of our assumptions regarding control and autonomy and mastery of the physical world are based on illusions. We acclimated to cancelling major plans and drastically altering routines. Resources developed in the past year to handle COVID-19 are now redeployed to handle terror attacks. We again closed the schools and airport and established free day care for the hospital staff. One generous donor offered flak jackets and combat helmets to the medical staff for our drive to work, strangely echoing the PPE fiasco a year ago. We have an Iron Dome missile defense system, like the vaccine, which protects people from lethal consequences by targeting the threat.
As during the pandemic, we went back to weighing risk and benefit at so many decision points each day. Was your need for a hug enough to risk transmission of the virus to your grandmother? Would you take a chance at an outdoor venue for a burger and a beer before we had vaccines? I recall the innocent days when I would not weigh the pros and cons of mundane choices like that, now heavy with the risk of death.
These impressions are not a framework for peace or a solution to the riddle, but a view from the trenches and a plea for sanity and cooperation.
Dr. Jeffrey Green typically splits his time among MercyHealth Medical Center in Walworth County, the Milwaukee VA Medical Center and Assuta Ashdod University Hospital in Israel. He has previously served as director of the Milwaukee VA Medical Center’s emergency department.