Rockets, Bombs and Babies: Wartime in the Maternity Ward
I spent the recent 11-day war between Israel and Gaza in the maternity ward in Soroka hospital in Beersheva, I was looking after my daughter, first for a few days of labor and then following the birth of her twin girls. I was sleeping on couches, in chairs, or on a mattress on the floor, either at the hospital or at the apartment of my younger daughter who lives nearby. These were days when Beersheva was in Hamas’ crosshairs, especially at night, and sirens regularly announced incoming rocket attacks – hundreds of them – giving residents 15 seconds to find a safe room or, in the case of the hospital, a semi-safe hallway. This meant days of contraction-siren-run-contraction-siren-run to feed-siren-run-diaper-siren-run. Or, when I was sleeping out of the hospital, it meant constantly running to a neighbor’s flat, where we squeezed into a tiny bedroom and waited it out. It was an unusual way to get to know the community.
In the maternity ward, women from all walks of life in the Negev who all had in common that they very recently gave birth, were constantly jostled along with their newborn babies. Any woman who has ever given birth will appreciate the challenge of trying to run either during heavy contractions or during those first days of recovery. The images of all these new mothers running for cover with their newborns will stay with me for a long time. Perhaps the entire, severely anxious, experience just added one more layer of pain, discomfort and strangeness to the already arduous process of childbirth.
Yet, despite its intensity, the experience was also oddly divorced from politics. During those 11 days I didn’t spend much time following the news – though I was living smack in the middle of it. As we stood in those hallways, the Muslim, Jewish, and Bedouin women of all ages and skin colors, were more likely to comment on the beautiful hair of each other’s babies than to even mention politics or war. I had lots of mini-chats with other women like me – mothers of mothers, the caretakers in the ward— as we shared our own experiences in this role, which is new to me. We weren’t talking politics, even as the war took place overheads, punctuating our conversations with the booms of Iron Dome. We were just people–women, mostly, especially during the night attacks, when men were not allowed to sleep over in the hospital–trying to get through this shared human experience of childbirth, with all the challenges presented at us. In that setting, it didn’t even make any sense to frame the rocket experience as particularly aimed at Jews. It was just part of the violence aimed at humanity.
Even though I lived through a very particular location on the Israeli “side” of the war, my heart was also on the other “side”. As much as I was shaken by the constant sirens and booms and running for cover, I could not help but think about what the people of Gaza were going through, the ones without safe rooms and Iron Dome, for whom a ten-minute warning meant not that a rocket was being shot out of the sky but that a bomb was about to land in their actual home. As bad as people in Israel had it during those 11 days, the people of Gaza had it much worse, and it is going to take them a long time to recover, if at all. The families of the dozens of children who died may never truly recover.
I am so tired of this endless cycle of violence. I have been living in Israel for nearly 30 years, and I have lost count of how many of these violent eruptions we have lived through during that time. It’s always the same. One side escalates, and the other responds with macho posturing as crowds cheer. The other side responds with more macho posturing to please their constituents, and more bloodshed. All this noise and violence that leads to the exact same place over and over. It is precisely the insanity of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We are living a war created inside insane minds.
What’s more, I am tired of the rhetorical battles that accompany every one of these violent eruptions. All these words that have been repeating, over and over again, for decades. The same arguments I have been hearing since I was in high school in Orthodox Brooklyn – “they” all want to kill “us”; “they” started; for “us” it’s just self-defense; “we” are the most moral army in the world. These words go nowhere, and reflect abstract manufactured narratives more than they do real lived experiences. It is language created by men in power who are completely disconnected from the actual lives, especially of women on all sides, women who are tasked with the everyday work of sustaining life rather than destroying it. When the IDF announces that they have achieved all their “strategic targets”, that at least “half” of those killed were terrorists, ignoring the fact that many “strategic targets” were people’s homes and that the other half of those who were killed were innocent and in many cases children, I shudder at the inhumanity.
What are we doing? What have we become? All because we have an army of words to sanitize our actions.
I feel completely unrepresented in the political discourse that surrounds me. Even though I’ve dedicated my entire life and career to Israel and Jewish life, I do not feel that “my people” are Jews, and the “enemy” are the people living in Gaza. I don’t believe that at all. No. My people are not Jews but are rather those who simply want to live life, with joy and creativity and relationships and without hurting anyone else. And the enemy of my people are those who think that a solution lays in violence. The enemy of my people are those who believe that the correct response to flying rockets over people’s homes is bombing someone else’s home. That because someone else threatens civilians, it’s okay if we kill some civilians in response. That argument is not morally sustainable. And I’m tired of hearing it justified. I’m especially tired of those ideas claiming to represent me—me as a Jew, me as an Israeli, me as a person who was running for cover. I am all those things, and yet I do not want to be bombing anyone else on my behalf.
There are other solutions, and we have never tried them. One obvious solution is to treat Palestinians like equal human beings and address their real needs with compassion instead of with fear and hate. One way we could have avoided all this death and bloodshed would have been to force the right-wing extremists buying up land in Palestinian villages to back down. Had we taken any steps to hear the voices of the people living in Sheikh Jarrah, we could have avoided all of this. This is just one example.
The lesson Israeli leaders should be taking from 3000 Hamas rockets in 11 days is that there may always be weapons ready to be aimed at us. Hamas clearly could have done this any time – but until Sheik Jarrah, they chose not to. We need to be studying that dynamic instead of just planning bombastic air strikes. We may never be able to control what weapons Hamas builds or stockpiles, but we can control whether or not they want to use them against Israel. That is where our real power lies. The best way to avoid war is to reduce the amount of hate in the world. We can birth life instead of birthing violence. We have that ability, but we rarely use it.
We need new leadership, on all “sides” of this conflict. If there is one lesson that I took from spending the war in a maternity ward, it’s this. We need voices that consider all life sacred. All life – no matter what religion, ethnicity, or skin color. That must be our starting point. It’s time for new thinking, new approaches, and new solutions. A new concept of being human first. Even for Jews.