When I was nine years old, my family and I, all wearing gas masks, would huddle in our bomb shelter, which doubles as my parents’ closet. It was the Gulf War, and Saddam Hussein was lobbing Scud missiles at Israel in retaliation to the US and its allies invading Iraq.
In 2003, in the ramp-up to the second Iraq war, tensions were high again: I took my gas mask to the bar in which I worked. People sat with their brown boxes to their sides, sipping beer and waiting to hear whether the air siren would sound.
It’s been this way ever since I can remember. Besides the direct daily conflict with Palestinians and tensions with our neighbors, every time the White House gave out a “special statement” about the region, we Israelis began to brace ourselves for the unknown.
It was no surprise that this week, as tensions between Iran and the US were higher than they’ve ever been; as the prospect of another war that would devour the region seemed imminent; as family members from all around the world messaged each other on Whatsapp groups about World War Three, Iran threated to destroy Haifa, my birth town, as revenge against the US. Haifa is known as a place of coexistence. It is the town of Ayman Odeh and Emil Habibi, where ex-Soviet immigrants, Arab communists, factory workers, and theoretical physics students from the Technion institute drink beers together in small bars on the port.
Israel is one of the US’s most reliable and most loyal allies and in the Middle East, US policy is seen as almost synonymous with Israel’s. When protests break out in the Middle East, the Israeli flag is burned together with the American one; we are known as the “little devil”, while America is the great demon.
The reaction in Israel to the threat of annihilation was minimal. The Israeli army announced it was closing Mount Hermon, the ski resort located in the contested Golan Heights, a site on the border with Syria that’s a potential target for rocket fire by pro-Iranian militias. And many Israelis dismissed the threat, saying Iran would never attack Israel because our air force would destroy Tehran.
Yet, in this almost-catastrophic moment, what has gone unquestioned is the fact that Israel has bound its fate with the US. It seems like Israelis have gotten used to being threatened by proxy, to being the pawns used by others in a larger geopolitical game. By accepting this reality, we are losing both a grip on our security and the potential benefits of being a genuine and essential part of the region.
This situation didn’t happen overnight. It is a culmination of a lot of complex moves in our region.
Israel’s alignment with the US has not been since time immemorial. Even though there was support for the state in its early years, past American presidents made cold and calculated decisions before they came to Israel’s aid, also intervening on behalf of its enemies, like in the Suez Canal Crisis. It was after the 67 War that Israel became one of the biggest recipients of foreign aid, and the relationship subsequently tightened, at times, to the point of a gordian knot.
In Israel, the problem begins with the fact that some in the Israeli-Jewish population haven’t fully grasped that we’re a part of this region, not a “villa in the jungle” (a sad statement made by former PM Ehud Barak). Then, there’s Israel’s half-a-century occupation that makes it a non-partner with all the countries in the region. It’s easy for leaders in Iran and the UAE to blame Israel for many things because it is guilty of the charge of controlling an Arab population. Any acceptance is dependent on Israel ending the occupation.
But aligning with the West isn’t entirely Israel’s fault. It’s easy to categorize Israel as “colonial,” but it has struggled hard to be accepted in the Middle East. Unlike old colonial powers, even early Zionist leaders saw Jews and Muslim Palestinians living side by side. In Israel, Jews still speak Persian and Arabic, proud of their roots; they tell stories about their family histories in Baghdad, Tripoli, Aleppo, and Shiraz.
Despite ebbs and flows in relations between our neighbors and us, there is a sense of wanting to belong; it is no surprise that even Israel Katz, the hawkish minister of the exterior, talked about restoring the Hejaz railway between Tel Aviv and Jeddah. And this feeling is reciprocal: even in 2002, at the height of the second intifada, the Arab League offered to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for recognizing a Palestinian state. Instead of calling for our destruction, they reached out for peace. They recognized that Israel isn’t going anywhere.
For many Israelis, this is apparent: the language we speak and the culture we hold dear is much closer to our neighbors in Beirut than to the Protestant ethos and mores of the people of New Hampshire. And even as the horrendous conflict continues between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as an occupation, there’s still a sense that our fate is dependent upon and alongside our neighbors nextdoor — not with our American allies overseas.
To me, this shared sense of destiny became crystal clear Tuesday night: as the crisis unfolded, I was sitting in my apartment in New York, texting back and forth with one of my closest friends since I moved to the US, an Iranian journalist. We both felt the same dread, sparked by similar memories of war. The feeling was that if Tehran goes, Haifa will go as well. In the midst of this conversation, I got a text from my neighbor, a Syrian artist, a Christian who grew up in the Jewish Quarter of Damascus, asking me how I was doing.
Even though all of us live in the US now, our families, our history, our language was on TV, just behind the NBC reporter standing the Middle Eastern night. And not only Israelis or Iranians or Palestinians: Iraqis and Lebanese and Syrians and Kurds and Yemenites all have been caught in the crossfire at one time or another.
For Israel to find its place in the region, it needs to step out from the American shadows and reach out to its neighbors directly and boldly, not as an act of capitulation, but with the confidence and belief that no one is going anywhere. Israelis need to make clear that, just like many Iranians aren’t fully aligned with their government’s actions, so do we oppose the most nationalistic and militaristic tendencies of our elected officials. Of course we need to protect ourselves from malign actors — but we can do this by aligning ourselves with moderate forces in the Arabic world. Israelis need to offer solidarity to the citizens in the region and work with organizations that want to accept us. We Israelis are strong, but we need to be courageous and take more risks, not for the sake of some utopian “new Middle East” but in the realization that on the world’s battleground, we are all targets.
When Israel becomes a part of the region, it will stop being synonymous with the west and US interests and instead become a real bridge between east and west.