In a beautifully written heartfelt diary from Jerusalem, Susi Doring Preston, a mother of four and high-tech professional, shares her thoughts and fears about her family and the country at large. ‘We are safe but broken’ she tells anyone who asks.
Saturday 7th October
I took this innocent photo right before I turned off my phone for the Sabbath last night.
The universe of war must have known that technically, we did not need to sit on our rooftop Sukka on the last day of this week-long holiday. Instead, we spent most of the morning in our stairwell.
After a long week of worrisome family challenges, from medical emergencies and matters of the soul, I had gone to bed very early on Shabbat to recharge. I woke at the break of dawn to walk the dogs and already could feel the rumblings of war in my lungs, the rumbling replaces the ring of silence in your ears. It’s a sound that you don’t hear but that you feel. When I sat at the dog park with my book, I turned to the man sitting on the bench and told him I understood there was war. But I could not confirm it since I am an observant Jew and phone and news were turned off to me.
The man on the bench assured me he read the news for a living and there is no war. I shrugged my shoulders, you don’t need to read the news to know what is happening.
After that, we tried to have our daily lives, but the sirens started immediately after my return home and seeing the stress in the children, we understood we could not live alongside war today. Instead, we stayed home and found comfort in the stairwell with our neighbors. Soon, chairs were set out for the elderly to sit in and toys were kept out on the stairs for my children to play with. Our jokes and laughter muffled the explosions above us. The children counted them under their breath – in awe and as a way to gain control of the situation.
Our lunch plans were to picnic with friends but we collectively decided it was best to stay together but inside. So we did. The children sat together talking about the popcorn of words they heard from us speaking quietly amongst ourselves. Hamas infiltrators, kidnappings, killings, reserve service. Me and my peers admitted to one another that we broke our usual Shabbat protocol of no phones to let loved ones know we were ok and to lightly skim the reality of the situation. Somehow, being together inside and talking about the situation made us feel safe, and when I looked over at my daughter sleeping on the chair, I understood how the morning insanity took it out of all of us.
War is like a dense fog, shrouding us in uncertainty. There is no way to know what all of this means. We are all veterans of war here but we know today was different. I also know that the beautiful skyscape that I have fallen in love with all week and shared online was now marked with vapor trails throughout the day. The haunting holiday melodies that floated up onto our rooftop from the concerts below has now given way to the thumping beats of medical and military helicopters, ferrying the wounded to the nearby hospital
Sunday 8th October
I miss yesterday, when I only knew about the explosions above me and there was great comfort in huddling together on the staircase with my neighbors. Today, I wanted to close my eyes and ears but when I look at the puffy eyes of my friends and watch my husband weep I know they too saw the gruesome images of women’s bodies being dragged on the streets of Gaza, Hamas militants desecrating them and kidnapping children from their murdered parents.
When I first came to Israel, I was well aware of the brutality of Hamas. I watched the news when they won the election (in 2006), and subsequently (in 2007) throwing their opponents and gay men blindfolded off rooftops. I even went to Ramallah once to help report on a story of Fatah survivors who had their kneecaps shot off. They showed me how they could still jump on the bed with their healed stumps. They smiled when they did so.
The narrative of the conflict changed throughout the years like the world did. The left became more left and the right more right. Along with it was the great sadness of how the global headlines told the story here. Omitting nuance and history at times, ignoring details in others. But Hamas pulled back the curtain to their souls and now the world is suffering at those images that are etched into our souls. Their narrative is dark and horrible. Hamas is the Sauron of the Gaza strip, lying dormant and gaining strength, stirring awake the evil.
I try to block out the scenes I know about. And it’s hard, because I see the softness and beauty of the victims, their stories and beautiful intact faces grace my feeds, sitting in their living rooms, holding babies, and there are other scenes I see, people celebrating on the streets in the U.S and in other countries at the death of children, women, the elderly. Justifying the massacre of peace-loving civilians at an outdoor nature festival. It is indeed a dark day when information is so deeply twisted that humans can celebrate. And then I rage. But the rage is inside and quiet, just like the heavy silence in the air right now. Israel is hurting and the war hasn’t even started yet. So many loved ones are missing, so much violence and pain etched on each face I see on the street. We are a tightly knit country – we are connected in more ways than one.
The children are not in school. And most parents are home. So many husbands had to leave for reserves. We promise to not read the news and when we do, we weep at the incredulity. The numbers keep swelling and now our young soldiers are starting to join the lists. The little brothers of our friends, the nephews, the sons of people we work with. Already dead.
War is like a dense fog, shrouding us in uncertainty. There is no way to know what will happen next. What I do know is that I had set reminders on my phone to get my good friend an engineering interview at my company but he is now in the army. That I wanted to buy my motorcycle this week and that sounds stupid. We also know this is terrible. It’s very very bad. But because we need to be brave, the park we frequent on Shabbat for picnic lunches is already becoming the bubble of normalcy we are creating for our families during this impossible time.
Monday 9th October
The civilian loss that Israel is experiencing is 10x what the Americans experienced on 9/11. Here, you don’t have to fact check it to believe it to be true (I did of course). My peers still have missing loved ones and the now the massacred civilians have risen to 900. To not be intimately affected by the situation would be an exception in our tight knit tiny country.
Our morning started quietly, Ziggy’s voice filling the breakfast air while he practiced reading for his Bar Mitzvah. And then soon enough a wild wind blew in and it darkened the sky which became full of clouds. So we could no longer see the vapor trails of the iron dome that protects us or the aircrafts that have been booming above us since Saturday. It was so strong we finally dismantled our bohemian Sukka and when Dave and I turned back around to take stock of our view, it was hard to accept that the Jerusalem skyline holds a different meaning for us today versus last week.
The second barrage of terrorist rockets in the afternoon was the worst it’s been, they hit three Jerusalem targets and as I ushered my children into the stairwell, I tried not to think about how my husband was at his second funeral in 24 hours, in a wide open elevated space. Or that my peers were in a long line for blood donation at the arena nearby. But I did think about how insane this situation is and how this will change our DNA.
One of my favorite middle east experts Miri Eisen highlights in her lectures an enormous demographic truth that isn’t being acknowledged enough yet about the Middle East: half of the Arab population is under 25, under educated and unemployed. What Eisen won’t mention but I will is that they are also not getting laid. Any logical human knows what that means, just look at any 3-year male dog who isn’t fixed in the dog park. These are factors that militant terrorist organisations like Hamas count on, radicalized rage, built on a strong echo chamber makes it easy to recruit the type of human that can kill 900 innocent civilians.
And while I yell into the phone at my friends how Hamas should be dismantled and other political opinions, in my home, I am conscious of how I should move around the house as I manage my day as a parent. I explained to the children that because we are in a stressful situation, we need to bring more kindness into our home, a calmer energy. When the air sirens blare, I stop and breath before I scoop up my three-year-old, hoping to release the chaotic energy that feels like it will engulf me any moment. Here, we all know it will become more terrible soon but I want to embrace him with the love as if we are going for ice cream.
Thursday 12th October
When Hamas sent its first media into the world of its massacre and kidnapping, portraying acts of brutality, it sent shivers down the spine of every Jew. These images and videos showcased mothers cradling their children in the presence of armed men who had already taken the lives of numerous young families and elderly. They evoked haunting parallels to the World War II einsatzgruppen, the Nazi deaths squads who menacingly aimed at the very same image of a Jewish woman who is desperately clutching her infants with tears in her eyes here in Israel. The young Israeli boy, his hands raised, is being led away by masked Hamas members holding machine guns towards him. He doesn’t wear the same flat cap hat as the iconic Warsaw photograph of the young boy with his hands up, but the undercurrent of antisemitism unites these images in a shared narrative of hatred toward Jews.
We have been thrown into a different way of life. Instead of leading the content about autonomous driving at work, I am writing obituaries and announcements for mental support. There are so many dead that the act of immediate burial to honour the dead, kvod ha’met is not possible and funerals are being delayed. I worry with sickness for my peers on the front line in reserve service but I don’t want to bother them with my worries, so I check their “last seen” notification to know they are safe. The IDF is a mosaic of people, it is not an extension of our current government as much as an extension of the Israeli people. Our bravest generals are proud leftists who fight for our democracy, because during peaceful times our society should be protected but we are very also keenly aware of our existential threat.
We have conscription in Israel and if you look inside the IDF there is left and right, gay and straight, male and female – emos and hawks. What makes us cohesive in this type of situation is our primal understanding that we are not safe and must protect ourselves because no one else will.
There is another war online that has reached my own inbox, where people I love have turned on me for my choice to live here because it was always nicer to live here. There is an insatiable need for people that they feel the need to must take a political stance for or against Israel. I have been accused of being racist, a settler, and someone who supports genocide. I have always been willing to address these accusations. I am obviously none of these things, but I understand the conversation and what needs to be discussed. After all, I worked in international politics for over a decade, I know my shit.
But right now, it’s hard to receive that kind of vitriol, because I am already on my knees and I can’t sleep at night because those children from down south could easily have been mine and that is the success of the Hamas. They knew it would bring us to our knees, unable to breathe and not know what day it is.
What I can say is that those who know me know me. And they know that I would never live in Israel if those things were true in the way they read it online. But I can also say that Gazans have terrible lives from Hamas and Israel policy has faults and that Bibi’s acceptance of Ben Gvir and Smotrich into the government empowered settler extremism in the West Bank and brought shame to a lot of Israel. That’s why we protested every week for what seemed forever.
But there is also Iran and the impending normalization with Saudi Arabia and here is a recipe for total destruction. We could never have imagined it could turn into this nightmare. But it did. This is the recipe for war.
I really don’t mind discussing policy failures in the middle east and how Israel can do better. But there are some truths right now. This week Hamas displayed terrorism in its purest form – an unequivocal act of evil against Jews and those who affiliated with them. Their acts of cruelty and disdain have sparked the big truth that they must be dismantled, and we will pay a heavy price for that truth.
But I will still run outside for the sunset.
Friday 13th October
My downstairs neighbor is an astronomer who researches binary stars and extrasolar planets. When he and a team of scientists discovered a pair of planets revolving around a binary star system in a habitable zone, our common friend asked him over Shabbat dinner what that could possibly mean. He leaned over, tufts of white hair poking out from the side of his head like a true scientist and announced, “So the Jews have somewhere to go when they don’t want us here anymore!” The table laughed, disguising their thoughts and emotions at this version of truth.
20-25% of Israelis have dual citizenships. Those with Tunisian and Algerian backgrounds have French passports, and then the European Jews who had their passports and identity stripped in 1938 gained them back posthumously. Others have dual citizenship from different reasons for immigration. Others were already native here. Many enjoy the benefits of these passports; it makes traveling easier and allows talented Israelis to thrive in other economies – not that they need to, we are a successful nation ourselves – but that benefit disguises the thoughts and emotions that as Israelis, as Jews, there may be a time where we need to be able go somewhere else, whether it’s leaving Israel or to be able to go Israel for refuge.
The Israelis who recently returned to thrive in the artistic culture and affordable living of Berlin, have long complained that the situation again is intolerable. The threat that Hamas supporters in Germany pose, the antisemitism of the migrant community that Germany absorbed, none of this is a secret. But the German politicians have nodded along and chosen other topics to confront. It’s just too hard to talk about the Jews again. Back in the heart of the conflict, UN agencies promised to remove content containing material that encourages jihad, violence and martyrdom, promotes antisemitism or hate, intolerance, and lack of neutrality, but they only did so on their online portal, in areas with limited internet connectivity.
It is not lost on me which of my friends have bravely stepped up to offer assistance personally to me and my family, or have reached out despite their political opinions. I used to scoff at national acts of solidarity, but today, the flags make me emotional. Coming from a strong US Navy family, I somehow feel safer that the Gerald Ford Strike group has arrived in the same sea I visit on Fridays for calm and fast food delivery.
But when I look out from Israel, I see the world is being divided by those who are against terrorism and those who are attempting to justify it. They have seen the news and the truth that last Saturday, Hamas massacred hundreds upon hundreds of innocent people, one sees their bodies in front of you every day and know this truth. I read how 30+ Harvard student groups immediately released a statement holding Israel solely responsible for all unfolding violence. Prominent CEOs who seem to carry the moral clarity these elite students lacked called for the release of their names so they could be blacklisted for supporting terrorism. Many of those students backtracked and admitted they never saw the statement before it went out, and in some cases, those who approved it did not understand exactly what they were approving. Now, they do not want their names released because they are afraid of the danger it poses for them.
They were not afraid of the danger their support for terrorism posed for me and my family when they released that statement.
Even if we do leave Israel with our second passports, we will still be Jews out in the world, and those who support terrorism will make our lives hard.
For those who are silent. I finally understand Martin Luther King’s quote in its most true form: There comes a time when silence is betrayal. It wasn’t long ago when the world let Jews die by closing their borders with their quotas and those who had a voice remained silent. To finish his quote: ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’
If this is you my friend, I pray that you will never have to find a binary star system.
Pictured: A photo Dave took this morning as he entered the large – usually bustling – outdoor market where we shop for our fresh fruits and vegetables every week. It was only last Friday that he couldn’t tear himself away from his vegetable vendor who told him about the best hotels in Turkey, or our fish monger who always sneaks specialty fish into his bag to experiment with. When Dave returned home this morning, he first wept in our kitchen at the sadness inside the market today.
Our hearts are heavy. We are safe, but we are broken.
Sunday 15th October
It’s a second week of a war we never anticipated. We are all still in shock and horror from what we know of what happened last week. Dave and I are balancing work from home and home schooling our children. It’s a corona-familiar juggle, but this time instead of feeling claustrophobic in our small urban apartment, I feel the need to keep my children close to me. I need their hugs and their sibling bickers, having them near makes me feel like I could protect them, even though I know survival in horrific situations is a matter of many quick decisions that only in hindsight give you the luck of life. Until then it’s still a game of roulette.
Hamas terrorists slaughtered over 1300 Israelis – women, children, elderly holocaust survivors. They raped them. They burned the children alive. Handcuffed and then shot parents in front of their children. They beheaded babies. The IDF spent 48 hours fighting waves of terrorists infiltrating Israel.
Hamas has been able to adapt its image without changing its fundamental Islamist beliefs of violence and destruction. This allows western supporters to relate to them and become echoes of their brutal extremism. Those who justify the barbaric actions of Hamas have watched too much game of thrones and seemed to have skipped over the horrific reality we are living in to quickly focus on Israel’s response.
But that is out there. Here, my feed is still filled with funeral announcements. Missing faces, dead faces. They are not news stories from international news outlets, these faces are the shares of my own network from sons, cousins, sisters, children, fathers and mothers of the victims.
There are so many faces of the beautiful dead that I assume everyone posting happy family pictures abroad are also dead.
For us living in it, we are still living in horror. Never in your life have you seen a nation become broken all at once. Nothing is normal, inside our homes or out on the empty street. The most normal things now are our corona-familiar juggles, the constant arranging of video schedules, the internet slowing down because we are all trying to be online, the constant cleaning to manage so many people indoors all the time. But our lives and what they were before the massacres, are foreign to us now. And while we are all on edge because we don’t know what will happen, we still find a way to connect.
Israel has always been a place of first responders, this is the historical legacy of this nation. The world saw it during our corona waves and how well we handled it. The Hamas destroyed a lot inside of us last week but you can clearly see the glimmering of light in that darkness that is beaming through all of us: People are arranging housing for displaced residents, fundraisers for equipment, mental health support meetings and companies offering support and assistance as well. Food is being cooked not only for the front lines but for the women at home who are juggling work and single parenting while their husbands are in reserves. Animals who are left homeless from the violence are being rescued and re-homed.
This is not about our politics right now, it is about being a nation of survivors. And every day all day, we keep checking in with one another. When I am on my patio I yell down at those I know on the street, and when they look up, there is a moment of relief for both of us to connect. There are numerous whatsapp groups online, constantly coordinating- so much relief happening. So much love.
In Jewish philosophy, the word light is used to mean divine influence, on the ground, that divinity is seen in every single beautiful action Israelis are doing for one another, it doesn’t take away the grief we are experiencing but it does give me hope.
Picture: waiting outside soccer practice because I won’t leave my kid alone outside.