Canadian dispatches from Israel at wartime: Seeking escapism amid an Iranian attack

Canadian dispatches from Israel at wartime: Seeking escapism amid an Iranian attack Aron Heller

Published in The Canadian Jewish News.

One would think that news of an impending, widescale attack from your nuclear threshold, sworn enemy nation would set off a panic. But that’s not what happened when I heard that Iran had finally unleashed its first direct assault on Israel.

After living through the horrors of the murderous Oct. 7 Hamas infiltration there was something less intimidating about this distant, forewarned onslaught even if, on paper, it had the potential to cause far more damage.

To be clear, my wife and I were hardly cavalier. We shut the sliding steel window that seals our shelter room and put in an extra mattress and bottles of water to prepare for a prolonged stay in the safe room if necessary. We made sure our phones were charged in case of a blackout and pulled the apt “emergency kit” I got from work off the shelf. The military ordered schools and kindergartens to be shuttered the next day, so we made backup plans. We were all set for the supposed apocalypse.

But once we put the kids to bed, I was in no mood to watch hours of TV news speculation about the various doomsday scenarios that could unfold as hundreds of Iranian drones and cruise and ballistic missiles hurtled in our direction. If I had learned anything from the trauma of the brazen Hamas attack six months earlier, it was that binge news watching did you no good.

No, I wanted an escape, anything to avoid the news, so I turned to the first HBO comedy special I could find. And that’s how I stumbled upon Alex Edelman’s Just for Us.

Turns out, this wasn’t the type of escape I had in mind. In the 90-minute standup show, Edelman, a Jewish-American comic, hilariously describes his experiences at a meeting of white nationalists and his exposure to American antisemitism. It offered a reminder of my upbringing. I was also born in Boston, as Edelman jokingly described, “during a time when it was hard to be a Jew there—which was like between 1500 and 1991.” My mother even taught at the same Maimonides school he attended. I too had lived in New York and later even dabbled in comedy (albeit in the most amateur variety possible: the Israeli English-language circuit). In short, his life represented a path mine could have taken had my Canadian parents not decided to make aliyah when I was a child.

It all touched upon the rawest of nerves in our post-Oct. 7 reality: What’s a Jew to do in 2024?

Do you stay in an Israel that has seemingly lost its way after enduring an unspeakable tragedy, has a murky long-term future and is led by a corrupt leader who is beholden to extremists and is turning it into a pariah state? Or do you return to the Diaspora, where the rise of antisemitic forces on the right and the left have forced Jews to often conceal their identity, endure humiliation and face increasing threats to their safety and wellbeing?

Neither is an enticing option, which helps explain the high number of Jews both leaving Israel and moving to it since the Oct. 7 atrocities. This two-way transatlantic highway reflects the worldwide angst among Jews who, 80 years after the Holocaust, find themselves once again wandering in search of a haven to call home.

In Israel, I’ve had friends butchered in their bedroomsa classmate of my child taken hostage to Gaza, a teenaged soldier I know killed in the resulting war and innocent Palestinian colleagues killed in that same war. Oh, and now Iran was firing missiles at us.

This is not a normal life and we don’t know if it is going to get any better.

But how about the life of my Jewish friends and family in Canada? They increasingly feel unsafe, their symbols have been vandalized and they are being blamed and shamed for the costs of a war that is not their own. Their children must either endure abuse in their schools and colleges or gather in clubs and synagogues that need to be guarded like fortresses. They too wonder what the future holds.

The assumptions that we grew up upon—Israel’s long-term survival and the continued safety and prosperity of North American Jews—have been shattered and we have been thrust back into our ancient insecurities. There are no easy answers.

Thanks to Edelman’s witty anecdotes and charming delivery, I was able to somewhat shelve this existential angst and laugh through the next hour-and-a-half before briefly switching back to the news to monitor the progress of the Iranian attack.

It was past midnight, so I sent my brother a happy birthday message, greeting him upon turning 40 and joking that he was welcoming the new decade with a bang. And then, to the sounds of buzzing Israeli drones and whizzing aircraft overhead, I drifted off to sleep.

It was only in the morning that I learned about the spectacular Israeli success in zapping nearly all these various Iranian projectiles out of the air. My neighbours here in central Israel told me they pulled all-nighters to watch the show. Some heard explosions, others, a bit to the east, saw the actual fireworks of the interceptions above.

It was a rare moment of satisfaction in an otherwise awful year. With its impressive performance, our military had reclaimed some of the honor it had lost on Oct. 7. We were safe, for now. Until the next time.