Visiting Sderot felt a bit too much like disaster tourism. I kept wondering how those who live there felt when we drove by in our bus. Are they used to it? Do they consider visitors flooding their town to be a second wave of disruption, preventing them from getting on with the normal lives that I’m sure they want to live? I would have liked to ask that question to someone in Sderot, but unfortunately the group wasn’t given this opportunity.
We did however, have a fascinating meeting with the mayor of Sderot, David Buskila. Buskila has the difficult role of trying to restore order to a town filled with constant disruption. He can quickly quote the number of rockets that fall in a given year, and describes vividly the 15 seconds between when an alert is issued and the rockets land. Of the statistics that was most difficult to hear, we learned that 25% of the residents of Sderot are afflicted with post traumatic stress disorder. But what was most surprising was what he said next:
The children in Gaza are also suffering. Do you think they are responsible for this violence either? How can their parents vote freely with guns to their heads? I know them, they worked with my father. They want peace.
Unfortunately I didn’t take down the words verbatim, but I think this summary accurately captures the gist. What it doesn’t capture is the tone, strong, sincere and hopeful. I was not expecting a man who is responsible for a place where even the bus stops double as shelters to have such a perspective.
Often, all that we hear is the rhetoric, sound bites created for media or twitter, their authors perhaps thinking that whichever side has a more catchy or more compelling slogan will be winning the battle of propaganda. At other moments of the trip I found myself wondering if those who utter such statements think them to be compelling arguments. How can you even have a proper argument, one where each side tries to engage with and learn from the other when everyone is just repeating sound bites?
All too often the discussions are about right vs. wrong; us vs. them; religious vs. secular; Jew and non Jew or Jew vs. Jew. But to truly engage with Israel we have to go beyond the catchphrases and tweets. We have to get to know the parties involved and to listen to one another. For a moment, after hearing Mayor Buskila speak, I was able to truly realize the complexity of what Israel is about.
Israel is a place where the mayor of a town who has lost citizens to rocket fire can be concerned about the children of the ones doing the firing. Israel is complicated and deserves more than sound bites.
Israel deserves our engagement.