Lebanon War, One Year Later

by Loolwa Khazzoom • August 8, 2012 • Jewish Multicultural Corner

This story was first published in The Jewish Independent on July 20, 2007.

Hagit Aviram tells Loolwa Khazzoom the story of her lost brother.

I was in spinning class at the gym when, suddenly, I had the urge to call my sister-in-law, Sharon. I don’t know why I had the impulse; I’ve never called anyone right in the middle of class. When she answered the phone, I asked if she’d heard from my little brother, Nati, who was in his third week of compulsory reserve duty in the army. “He just called me,” she answered, “to tell me he is being sent to Lebanon.” Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe.

It was Tuesday, Aug. 8, sometime between 6-7 p.m. I hung up the phone and walked out of class, as everyone continued sweating to the pounding music. My whole body was consumed by the feeling that something was very, very wrong – a feeling I hadn’t experienced when Nati had been called to battle in the past. “Hagit,” my husband Yair assured me, “not everybody dies in battle. Many people return alive from war.” My mind swung wildly from a feeling of impending doom to the hope that everything would be OK. I asked a friend for some Valium, so I could calm down enough to function.

Early the next afternoon, I was sitting in my living room, watching television, when the newscaster reported that 15 Israeli soldiers had been killed in Lebanon. Instinctively, I went to open the window that overlooks the walkway to my apartment building, and I sat by it the rest of the afternoon. In Israel, the sound of a knock on the door during wartime is very frightening, because you know what’s on the other side. I didn’t want to be taken by surprise with that horrible knock. I would be ready. If they came to tell me that Nati was dead, I’d see them on the way.

By 7 p.m., I figured they’d already contacted all the families, so Nati must be fine. “Come on,” I said to Yair, “let’s go out to have some fun, now that we’ve gotten through this.” We drove to Jerusalem with some friends. I don’t know why, but the whole way there, I only talked about Nati – his kids, his work, fun memories of him.

We got back late, and not long after, the doorbell rang. When someone rings the bell at 3 a.m., it can only be something bad. Oddly enough, though I had been worrying nonstop about Nati all week long, I didn’t think of him in that moment. The only thing that went through my head was that my mother had come to tell me she was leaving my father – which was absurd, because they have a great relationship. I looked out the window and saw my mother standing at the door, with her head hung low – confirming my suspicions.

Only when I opened the door did I see the officers standing behind my mother. They didn’t say anything, but I saw in their faces that Nati was dead. They looked at me with so much pain. I felt a hole in my stomach and this awful fear rising up from my gut. There was complete silence against the dark night.

In the Hebrew calendar, it was Av 16, 5766, the very day that my paternal uncle, Nati – my brother’s namesake – was killed in Israel’s War of Independence. My grandparents had immigrated to Israel to evade anti-Jewish hatred in Yemen, only for their son to be killed by the very hatred they thought they’d left behind. My maternal grandparents, meanwhile, had fled to Israel to escape anti-Jewish violence in Syria – one of two countries that ended up supplying the Hezbollah missiles that killed my brother.

During my brother’s shivah, Nati’s two-year-old son, Yali, turned to Sharon and said, “Mommy, let’s go home and take Daddy.” He took her in one hand and Nati’s picture in the other. He understands that this is all that’s left of his father. Noam, Nati’s five-year-old daughter, has begun sleeping with her window open every night. “I’ll speak with Daddy until he answers me,” she says.

Because I am married with children, I feel the ache of knowing that my brother will not be able to lift up his kids and tell them stories, of knowing that when his children grow up, they will have a hard time remembering him. But I will help them. Before Nati was lowered into the ground, my last words to him were, “I promise I will take care of your children.”

Right now, I’m giving first aid to Sharon – taking her kids out to play, giving her time alone to grieve. I’m also helping my little sister, Neta, because she doesn’t have a partner: if she has to speak with someone, I’m there for her. And I’m there for my parents, who are totally broken.

In addition, I’m giving extra care to my own children – Tom, 18, Gilad, 15 and Inbar, 9. Things are very hard for them right now, because everything happened at once: in June, my husband, Yair, was diagnosed with cancer and, less than two months later, my brother was killed in battle. My kids have seen what death does to a family and, to them, cancer is simply a death sentence. They are terrified.

When the war started, I said there were two wars raging – Yair’s fight with cancer and Nati’s fight with Hezbollah. Everyone was fighting their own war, and it was very hard for me. I felt I didn’t have any strength left; I was crazy with worry.

At 42, you want to enjoy what you have accomplished in life: you have a profession (I’m a Bible studies teacher), your kids are older, you want to relax. It’s a good age – the flowering of a woman. We come to our peak at this age. But I’ve been feeling dried out, because I’ve had to worry about so many people.

On top of everything else that was going on, my son Tom was conscripted into the army – as all Israelis are at age 18 – just a few months before Nati was killed. Tom is young, so Nati’s death was a shocking wake-up to the reality that army duty is not just about training and service, but also involves the possibility of killing and being killed. I think that really surprised Tom. In addition, he saw what Nati’s death did to my mother, which frightened him. He suddenly understood what could happen to me.

The death of a father or brother hurts like hell, but you deal with it. But the death of a child – parents having to take their child to the grave – is just not natural. What my mother is going through now, I am very frightened, G-d forbid, may happen to me. What will I do? No matter how much we take care of our families, we can’t protect them. In my neighborhood, there is not one family who has not suffered a death from a war or terrorist attack.

Nati was beside himself with worry about leaving Sharon and his children behind, but he felt that fighting back was the right thing to do. For years, Hezbollah had fired rockets into northern Israel, but our military had not responded – specifically because we are trying to live quietly with our neighbors. But then Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers.Though my entire family lives in the centre of Israel, which was not directly affected by the war, Nati said, “There are parents and children in the north, too, and they need to be protected.”

The families up north actually have a similar history to that of our family: many arrived in Israel as refugees, after fleeing anti-Jewish violence throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The residents of Kiryat Shemona, a border town hit hard by the Hezbollah missiles, are predominantly Moroccan Jews – the second largest ethnic group among Israel’s Jewish population.

That may come as a surprise to many Americans. For complex political reasons, Westerners remain unaware that the majority of Israel’s Jewish population is indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa: we literally have never left the region since the beginning of the Jewish people, 4,000 years ago. We are, in fact, called Yehudim (Jews) because of the name of the ancient kingdom of southern Israel, Yehuda (Judah).

Since our land is smack in the middle of key trade routes between Asia, Africa and Europe, we have been attacked from all sides since ancient times. Sometimes, we’ve been occupied and ruled by the invaders; other times, we’ve been exiled and enslaved by them.

In 586 BCE, for example, when the Babylonian Empire conquered ancient Israel, we were scattered throughout the region. That’s how my paternal family ended up in Yemen. In 70 CE, when the Romans conquered ancient Israel and renamed it Palestina, my maternal ancestors were taken as captives to the European continent – ultimately leading my family to Spain in the Middle Ages.

Following the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of Jews in 1492, my family then fled to the Ottoman Empire – at the time, a safe haven. In the wake of Turkish hostilities against Jews in the early 20th century, however, my grandparents were forced to mount donkeys and escape in the dark of the night – riding through deserts to Syria. A wave of violence years later forced my grandparents to flee once again, this time to Israel. And so we came full circle.

Of course, there was always a Jewish presence on this land, even after the Roman conquest, but our people were militarily weak and, therefore, controlled by the occupying forces, from the Romans to the Byzantines to the Ottomans. As long as we were meek, things seemed relatively quiet. It’s only once we regained autonomy and succeeded in transforming the land – turning desert into fertile fields – that all hell broke loose.

From Hezbollah to Hamas, I can’t shake the feeling that we’re being attacked today not in the name of Palestinian liberation, but in the name of Jewish oppression. When Kfar Kana in Lebanon was hit, nobody in Israel was happy: it was a very hard day for us. But when an Israeli bus is blown up, packed with people, you see Palestinians celebrating in the streets, handing out candies.

And take the issue of Gaza: as a gesture towards peace, our military forcibly remove Israelis from their homes, our government handed over a prime strip of land and our farmers left intact hothouses worth millions of dollars – with some of the best exportable produce found anywhere in our country. All the Palestinians had to do was walk in and turn on the water, then sit back and make a fortune – enjoy the lands, build homes, work the fields. But no. The hothouses were built by Jews, so the Palestinians burned them all down and destroyed the land. Now, they have nothing.

There is no way to solve this conflict, this problem in the Middle East, when so many of our Arab neighbors just want to destroy us – even if they destroy themselves. We are left without answers in the face of hatred. If this is the starting point, I don’t see a solution.

Loolwa Khazzoom has published internationally in such outlets as theWashington Post, BBC News, Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire. She is also the editor of The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage.

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Loolwa KhazzoomLoolwa Khazzoom has worked with leading media outlets, including The New York Times, CNN, Rolling Stone, and ABC News. In addition, she has published two books and has lectured at prestigious venues including Barnard Center for Research on Women, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Harvard University. Loolwa is passionate about health, music, dance, multiculturalism, and Judaism.

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