It used to be easy to ignore news of the world’s horrors. All those accounts of wars, famines, earthquakes, those pictures of fly-swarmed children with distended bellies, of mothers weeping over open graves — they all happened out there. By the time we saw the photographs and read the stories, they were usually days old. We could justify averting our eyes with the thought that the world had moved on and so, probably, had those people.
Not anymore. In an age of instant information, out there has emphatically become here; those people are us; their humanity, ours. Now we watch world events unfold in real time. We are all intimately and immediately connected — for better or worse, as I have come to learn.
As a teenager growing up in Detroit in the early 1970s, I couldn’t wait to leave home. My parents were in the midst of a messy divorce; I wanted nothing to do with their muddled lives. Throughout high school, I worked in a bakery on most afternoons and weekends. While my peers were experimenting with drugs and having sex, I was shoveling éclairs into small white cardboard boxes and plotting my escape.
Friends of mine, a couple of years older and wise in these things, told me about how you could live and study on a kibbutz in Israel for free in exchange for work. You just had to get there. They shoved copies of O, Jerusalem and Exodus my way, and these romantic renderings of history seized my imagination and inflamed my wanderlust. I sped through my classes, piling on extra credits and arguing with the principal about letting me graduate early. He finally agreed that I could leave a year ahead of schedule.
The dark-eyed official at the Israeli Embassy didn’t seem to notice that I wasn’t even close to the required age of 18. The next opening on a kibbutz ulpan (work/study program) is here, he said, pointing to a small speck on a map of Israel. Upper Galilee, near the Golan Heights, he said. Very beautiful.
I said: I’ll take it.
Like it was the last car left on the lot.
Despite my parents’ vehement opposition, I bought an airplane ticket with my bakery money and went. The geography of the place awed me. Beyond the kibbutz’s eastern boundary, the terrain snaked steeply down to the now not-so-mighty Jordan River, then up to the Golan Heights, snaggle-toothed against the heat-hazed sky. Mount Hermon, of biblical renown, loomed moodily to the north. Damascus lay just over the horizon. I couldn’t have been happier.
Yom Kippur, 1973, I awoke to a khamsin, the suffocatingly hot wind that blasts in from the Arabian desert. Khamsin is the Arabic word for 50: the wind supposedly blows sporadically for 50 days. It drives people to madness. Legend has it that during the Ottoman Empire, when Turkey ruled that part of the world, a man couldn’t be held responsible for killing his wife during a khamsin. (Those Ottoman women must have trembled at every breeze.) A few hours later, massive explosions shattered the echo-quiet of the holiest day of the Jewish year. The Syrians breached the border and bombed the Golan Heights; in the south, the Egyptians crossed into Sinai.
Israel was at war.
That night, lying on my back on a wooden bunk in a bomb shelter deep underground, I watched the sleeve on my shirt fluttering, as if in a strong wind, from the concussion of the artillery above. I watched for hours, fascinated, unable to sleep for the noise and the excitement. This is how it would be for the duration of the three-week war.
Nights we hunkered outside the shelters until it was time to sleep, listening to static-swooshed reports of the BBC from London. Days, we popped up above ground for air, meerkats-from-our-burrows, during lulls in the fighting. Pairs of Israeli Mirage jets screamed low over the Galilee and into the Golan, the earth quaking as they dropped their load of bombs and screeched back overhead to base. Of course I understood, in an abstract sort of way, that people were dying. But my solipsistic and immortal teenaged self was thrilled to be at the center of world events.
My parents obviously did not feel likewise. My mother had a rather fuzzy concept of geography and was thus spared instantly understanding how close the Syrian soldiers were to my kibbutz. She followed the war’s progress through stories in the Detroit News which, given that it didn’t have a Middle East bureau, relied mostly on wire- service stories or pieces from the New York Times and Washington Post wires — accounts that were at least day-old by the time she read them. Television news was only slightly less stale; film had to be physically transported to a relay station outside the region, rendering it several hours old at best.
My father, who had moved to London after his divorce, did manage to contact me. (This, after calling the U.S. Consulate and demanding that the Pentagon send a military transport to evacuate his daughter.) It’s quaint now to think of how we managed to talk. One night a runner from the kibbutz’s communications bunker appeared in my shelter to say there was a telephone call for Lynda Schuster. Bemused, I followed him into the total blackout, stumbling along blindly, the thwump, thwump, thwump of cannons at my back. My heart was making almost as much noise as the guns.
“Here,” came the command in the darkness. A light suddenly illuminated an open doorway, and I followed the runner down the stairs to a bank of telephones.
I said: “Hello?”
“Lynda, this is your father. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. We’re in bomb shelters.”
“You have no idea how worried I’ve been.”
“Dad, I’m fine. Really. It was just a little scary to come out and take this call. I can’t believe you got through.”
“I’ve been trying for days. Lynda, you should come to London.”
“I can’t, Dad. There’s really no way out of here. And the roads aren’t safe.”
“Well, then don’t leave your bomb shelter.”
“I won’t as long as I don’t have to take any calls.”
Fast forward a few decades. My teenaged daughter wants to go to Israel for the summer with her youth group. This doesn’t seem an opportune moment in which to embark on tourism there; the neighborhood is restive. The Syrian government is — quite literally — slaughtering its own citizens; Iraq, fracturing along sectarian lines; Iran, engaged in its nuclear kabuki dance. Seen through the prism of parenthood, an adolescent foray such as this – such as mine — seems a thing of folly and peril.
My daughter says: You, of all people, should understand.
Somewhere along the way into adulthood, I — like many adults — lost the hot-breathed urgency of youthful experience, that almost overwhelming drive to discover the world. I recognize it again, the shock and pleasure of seeing an old friend, in my daughter’s gaze past the door to departure. There is one difference now: instant communication. Unlike my parents, who had scant and tardy resources to rely on for news of me and the rest of the world, I am awash in electronically imparted information. I cling to this idea. It is like a totem: having instant knowledge of what is happening in the world will somehow empower me to keep her safe. Magical thinking, I know, but still comforting. This, and the fact that unlike me, she will be on a tightly controlled and supervised program in which even blowing her nose will have to be scheduled.
So some might say it was karmic justice that just after she and her comrades arrived in Jerusalem, rioting started in the eastern part of the city. Palestinian youths were protesting the murder of an Arab teenager, who had been killed apparently to avenge the murders of three Israeli youths. My daughter was able to text me her whereabouts in the western half of Jerusalem — nowhere near the clashes — and that provided a modicum of reassurance.
Then Hamas started shooting rockets from Gaza into Israel. And the Israeli air force began hitting Gaza with air strikes. My daughter and her group were in the southern part of the country; just as they were about to embark on a desert hike, a rocket exploded in the vicinity. I knew this because I had started checking news sites. Quick, frantic text to her; quick text back to me: the southern part of trip was being postponed; they were being moved to the north, ostensibly out of rocket range.
I have since become a crazed news junkie. I downloaded alerts from the New York Times, Washington Post, wire services, Israeli newspapers, Al Jazeera. My phone now sports an app that tells me, in real time, where rockets are hitting in Israel. It features an insistent, hairs-raised-on-the-back-of-the-neck alarm that I can turn on if I want to make myself truly crazy. That’s how I knew the other night that rockets were fired from Lebanon at the area in the north where the kids had been moved. Panicked, I texted my daughter, who was staying in a youth hostel. She answered:
There was just a code red (siren) here We ran to the kitchen where we still are
Why the kitchen?
Are your counselors with you?
Yeah. Did the rocket get intercepted?
Can’t tell. How are you doing?
Okay I’m shaking.
Her messages then ceased — and I, along with about a hundred other frantic parents, bombarded the program’s director with phone calls and texts. 45 minutes later, I received the following message from my daughter:
Sorry we were in the bomb shelter and there wasn’t wifi. We’re back now
Do you want to come home?
What I’m experiencing obviously pales in comparison with the terror felt by Israelis and Palestinians. My daughter and her comrades were moved the next day to a part of the country that has been free from rocket attacks. The kids all want to stay in Israel; the directors of their program are keeping them out of harm’s way.
But it’s telling that all this instant information I presumed would be a comfort is making me feel much, much worse. Of course, I could stop compulsively clicking onto news sites and turn off the apps and alerts and alarms and bells and whistles. And I do — occasionally. Chances are my daughter and her buddies are going to be fine, so do I truly need to know — in real time — that a rocket is going off? My mother had no idea of the magnitude of the danger I faced during the first few days of the Yom Kippur War. Even if she had, what could she have done?
Here’s a heretical thought: a little bit of ignorance might, at times, be bliss.