We arrived less than two weeks after the "end" of the war. I put "end" in quotes because everyone we spoke to government officials, soldiers, and ordinary citizens feel that another round will soon be coming. All Israelis take Iran at its word that it wants to wipe Israel off the map. So there is a real sense, perhaps for the first time since the Yom Kippur War, of an existential threat.
It’s hard to describe what this war meant in human terms. One of the firefighters we spoke with said that hundreds of Katyushas fell in the Western Galilee alone. They couldn’t believe that there were only a handful of deaths. But while the number of civilian casualties was miraculously low at the time of the ceasefire, 43 Israeli civilians and 116 members of the IDF had been killed, proportionately less than in other Israeli wars the effects are far greater.
The Katyushas were each packed with up to 30,000 ball bearings, which shot out with such force that they could go through metal, walls, and, of course, human bodies. To me, the Katyushas and the ball bearings are a metaphor for what happened as a result of the war. The actual fighting in Lebanon has stopped. But the effects of that fighting the impact of those thousands of ball bearings continue.
One million Israelis were displaced during the war; the economy of the north came to a complete halt. It is estimated that some 70,000 small businesses in the north may go under. Most of these businesses relied on their daily income to survive. Summertime was their season. For five weeks, they had no income at all. In Haifa, we met with the leaders of the Neve Yosef Community Center, a project supported for years by UJA NNJ. Because Haifa’s citizens were told to stay at home during the war and not to gather in any large numbers, the center had to close for the duration. The facility, however, serves a very poor population, consisting of many Ethiopian and other olim. The center staff, at great personal risk, went out daily to provide services to the residents.
We asked how the residents fared. Most receive daily wages, and many were unable to work during the war. The center prevailed on the local grocery store to extend credit so residents could have food to eat. Of course, they can’t pay the grocer back yet. Now the grocer is in danger of losing his store because he can’t pay his bank debt.
In addition to the economic effects, there is severe psychological damage some of it to people who were injured or who lost loved ones. Others were in the midst of the attacks or had to live for over a month in cramped shelters. Still others are facing a crisis over whether they did the right thing during the war.
Should those who remained have stayed? Did they subject their children to unnecessary risk? The mother of one family of six told us she was home with three of her children on a Shabbat when the Katyusha attacks started. While her husband was in shul with the other kids, a Katyusha hit her neighbor’s house. Putting on a brave face, she hurried her children into the shelter. She didn’t know whether her neighbors were alive or if her husband and other kids were safe in the shul. She was an oleh from America and said this was the first time, since she’d made aliyah over a decade ago, that she knew she was a real Israeli. Others who stayed told us their children now insist on sleeping with them at night. One father told us his 1′-year-old daughter would not go to the bathroom alone.
Those who left ask themselves if they should have gone. Were they betraying their country? Their neighbors? And some ask themselves, should they continue to live in the north, or even in Israel?
Psychologists and social workers feel that there will be a substantial increase in the need for their services as a direct result of the war. Post-traumatic stress syndrome often takes some time to manifest. This need will have to be met despite anticipated government budget cuts of more than ‘0 percent to meet expanded military needs.
In a strange way, one of our most uplifting experiences was a visit with soldiers injured in the war. We met with a ‘0-year-old soldier who had lost both legs in the fighting. He wheeled himself out to us and said, "How are you guys doing? I’m doing great!" He then proceeded to talk about heavy metal music. He was a true inspiration. We also met with ‘1-year-old Ofer. On the day the war started, when Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, a tank went in after them. That tank, in turn, was destroyed. Ofer led a Nahal unit in an attempt to rescue the men in that tank. His unit came under heavy fire, and he was wounded. While he was healing, he volunteered to go to the U.S. on a speaking tour. He had just returned to Israel.
Ofer kept repeating how much the support of American Jewry meant to him and his comrades. He was quite emotional, and we were a bit embarrassed. He had put his life on the line for the Jewish people, and all he could do was keep thanking us for what we were doing.
It says in Psalm ‘7, read during the month of Elul, "You have been my Helper, abandon me not, forsake me not, O God of my salvation." The psalm concludes with a petition of hope, "Strengthen yourself and He will give you courage." Let us, and our brethren in Israel, strengthen each other and give each other courage, and let us pray for the peace of Israel.