What I learned in Israel during 10 days of war and discovery

This summer, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to go to Israel on a free trip sponsored by Birthright, an organization which sends thousands of Jews 18 and older to Israel every year. My 10-day journey started just one week after the three kidnapped Israeli boys were found dead by the hands of terrorist group Hamas, so the nation was already astir with tensions against their Palestinian neighbors.

In writing this, I resolve not to reiterate the barrage of pro-Israel facts which exist in various other news sources, nor do I have any original argument or piece of valuable information to offer as my own. I simply wish to relate my experience as a first-time visitor in Israel in light of recent events.

Upon arrival in Jerusalem, my group was welcomed to our hotel with a prompt sounding of a continuous, blaring siren. A rocket was coming our way. We rushed hurriedly downstairs, the locals around us seemingly unfazed by the emergency. We remained underground for a few minutes until the Iron Dome, Israel’s air defense savior, intercepted the rocket.

In Jerusalem, our tour guide explained, civilians have a minute and 30 seconds to reach a bomb shelter; in some parts of Israel, as little as 10 seconds.

Even a fun night out on the town served as a reminder of war. One club our group visited was an actual bomb shelter located underground.

Two days later, another siren forced us down the stairs of our hotel once again.

We spent day eight of our trip in the Bedouin Tents in the middle of the desert of Arad. It is open areas such as these where some rockets are left to fall instead of being blown up by the Iron Dome.

In the midst of what was to be a temporary ceasefire between Israel and Gaza, the warning of an imminent rocket signaled us to run to our nearest secure area and leap onto the floor, trying desperately to shield our trembling bodies. Our “bomb shelter” was nothing but a crude, bare-topped enclosure surrounding the restrooms. Guess who was first to break the truce?

Thankfully, the rocket was not nearby and the warning we received was only precautionary.

This breach in peace by Hamas demonstrates one of the many ways in which Israel has put in more of an effort to protect its citizens than its opposition, often leaving Israel to be pushed around by the terrorist organization.

British-born Lauren Cohen, a non-commissioned officer in the Israeli Defense Forces, took a break from her duties to join my Birthright group for half the duration of the trip.

“The IDF needs to know the line between fulfilling the mission to bring security to Israel and between acting 'morally' and 'humane'. As a result, the Hamas take advantage and shoot rockets from hospitals, ambulances and schools,” Cohen said.

She continued, as she believes the innocent Gazan victims would agree, that the best solution is to “get rid of the Hamas and raise a government in which the money donated to them will actually go to construction and aid of civilians and not for terror against Israel.”

“We have to the right to defend ourselves and Gaza has the right to kick the Hamas out,” Cohen added.

The last day of our itinerary called for a visit to Tel Aviv, one of Israel’s most popular hotspots, but since the city has also been a popular target of Hamas, our trip leaders barred us from visiting.

In between bomb threats, however, I used the short time I had in the Land of Milk and Honey to enjoy much of what Israel has to offer. Its thriving agriculture in such an arid climate baffled me, its breathtaking landscapes were almost beyond belief, and its hospitable peoples made me feel right at home.

Israel is the one place where, as a Jew, I have felt wholly comfortable to express my religion without hesitation. It is for this reason that the existence of a Jewish homeland is essential, as history has shown, not all other nations have been as accepting.

It therefore dismays me to see such an important religious refuge be jeopardized by an organization that wants fervently to annihilate an entire nation simply because of its beliefs.

I may not be from Israel myself, but it is impossible for me not to take its current situation personally when its enemies are calling for the death of the entire Jewish nation, and not just that of Israel.

While others may claim that I endangered myself by coming to Israel at such a time of turmoil, I feel privileged to have been a witness to history in the making. I now know the true meaning of unity, and how the bond of a people is strengthened in times of hardship.

In the words of the 21-year-old soldier, “during times like this it really brings people together and it’s amazing to see everybody united and giving towards our soldiers and country.”

“It makes you feel proud to be here and especially to be in the IDF,” Cohen said.

The insurmountable evidence in support of Israel is there, plain and simple. What I had to learn myself was how dedicated Israel is to uphold its beliefs.

Also: Israel sababa. (“Israel, all is well.”)