It was at a shitty pizza place in south Austin that I first realized sports dreams come true sometimes.
This kid would never play football, but he would watch many games. (the author, at Northwest Park in Austin, 1984)
I was 17 that afternoon in 1996, sitting at Double Dave’s on South Lamar with my best friend and his cousin, watching the unranked Longhorns beat #3 Nebraska in the first-ever Big XII championship. The 8-4 Horns were three touchdown underdogs against a Nebraska team that was undefeated in the peak of the Tom Osborne era, when they were every bit what Alabama is today.
They were giants and we – mighty, filthy rich Texas – were all but lost in the football wilderness, still clinging to that last championship back in 1970, perennial underachievers suddenly cast in the role of giant killers. By the time “James Brown and 4th down” happened, and tight end Derek Lewis streaked 61 yards to the Nebraska 10 yard line to seal the game, we were already high-tailing it down to the Drag, knowing that’s what you were supposed to do at times like that.
It’s a haze from that point on. The Drag was a teeming mass of disbelieving UT fans, savoring the greatest thing you can ever be as a sports fan – the victor who never dreamed he could pull it off. I remember seeing frat boys in the bed of a pickup tearing down 24th street next to the Tower Records waving corn husks in the air and honking their horns as students streamed out of every corner of west Campus, their numbers swelled by old school Austinites from Crestview, Allandale, south Austin, and all those other neighborhoods that seemed a bit more Texas than Austin back then.
That’s how I remember it and it’s hard to fact check nostalgia anyway. Nostalgia – one of the main local industries in Austin – paints everything about the Longhorns for me, everything about the city, every facet of growing up in the 90s in a college town on the cusp of becoming an actual city.
Pic of really old Austin taken by my grandfather in 1936. You can just make out a person who moved there in the 20s complaining about how much cooler the town used to be.
That Big XII championship remains my sweetest sports memory – in some ways even more so than the national championship in 2005.
Maybe that’s because it feels like 1996. It feels like being 17, like end zone tickets on game day at Randall’s for $8 (were they really that cheap?). It feels like Austin when it hadn’t yet been fully “discovered”, when it was a cool – if boring and provincial –town known to freaks across Texas, maybe even as far as Louisiana. The Drag (that I remember) was still gutter punks, runaways, and stoner kids doing Acid and playing arcade games at Le Fun all day, with the Scientology Center, Tower Records, and the Hole in the Wall the biggest landmarks on the strip.
The most popular club in our part of town (and probably all of Austin) was still Dallas nightclub on Burnet, and down the street the Denny’s on Anderson was your best bet in north central Austin at night because it was open 24/7 and you could smoke inside. We weren’t cool and we weren’t sophisticated, but we were still a city where at 2am at a gas station on I35 you had a pretty good chance of being offered shrooms by the guy behind the counter.
It was an overgrown college town without a pro team, and we were a bunch of lost kids adrift deep inside Texas, with a mediocre football team that was still coasting on the fumes of past glory.
Almost twenty years after that victory over Nebraska, on September 6th this year, the unranked Horns beat a no. 10 Notre Dame team 50-47 at home in Austin. It was another classic upset and I drove to the Drag like I’d been taught to do. Forty-five minutes after the clock ran out in Royal-Memorial Stadium I drove back and forth on Guadalupe, the only guy honking his horn on a street that was far from grid-locked. I circled through West Campus and parked in the lot of Oat Willie’s – one of the places that most makes me think of Austin and/or my pop – listened to Longhorns radio and took it all in. The Horns were still undefeated (at 1-0) after pulling off a major upset in front of a record-setting crowd, the perfect start to a season that held so much promise and ended with such despair.
After the end of the dismal 2016 season, the author met Ricky Williams at the HEB on Burnet. The legend signed a box of ptitim (“Israeli couscous”) for the author’s daughters.
The victory over Nebraska in 96 was also a short-lived moment of triumph.
Less than a month later Texas would lose to Penn State 38-15 in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day and a year later Head Coach John Mackovic was fired following a 4-7 season, which included the infamous 66-3 drubbing at the hands of UCLA. Months later the Mack Brown era began and the following season, Texas again beat Nebraska against all odds, and Ricky Williams won the Heisman and broke the all-time NCAA rushing record on a 60-yard touchdown run against A&M that I watched with my brother and my dad from the upper deck of Royal-Memorial Stadium.
Things were turning around, though we were still far from rejoining the elite of college football.
A few years after Mack Brown was hired I moved to Israel permanently, and spent the better part of 14 years watching the Horns from the other side of the Earth – when I could get a game at all, which was usually about once a season. It was the same drill on many a Saturday over those years – I’d call my pop pre-game to get the scouting report, then again at halftime and after the game if it started early enough to accommodate the 8 hour time difference.
The sweetest of all was in January 2005, when I saw the Horns beat USC – again despite the odds – staying up all night talking to my parents during and after the game, which kicked off just hours after then Israeli Prime Minister and icon Ariel Sharon suffered a catastrophic stroke that plunged the country into uncertainty.
There was the time I streamed an OU game on my phone from a memorial rally for slain Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin, trying not to cheer as we stomped the Sooners. I caught another OU game a few years ago at an expat bar on the Tel Aviv promenade (“Mike’s Place”), the only place in the city showing the game. There was a group of Longhorns fans I found at a table across the room, but they seemed creeped out by the old guy from Austin who pulled up a chair. I figured their cold reception meant they may have studied at UT but definitely weren’t actually Texans – even though they’d already told me they were from Houston. There was also the OU game I caught on the hotel TV in Taiwan while on a press junket a month after my father died. I was jetlagged and tipsy and for a minute there it looked like Tyrone Swoopes would pull off the shocker, pushing the unranked Horns past #11 Oklahoma and sending me out to the streets of Taipei to celebrate alone at 5am (he didn’t).
The aforementioned couscous, signed by Ricky Williams.
All those years as a Texas fan have come into perspective these last few months, as I’ve had the privilege to watch an entire UT season in real time from Austin, week after (dreadful) week, for the first time in well over a decade.
Living abroad, you tend to seek out things that remind you of home, something that isn’t too tough in Israel, because so much is already so Americanized.
More than anything else though, it was college football that reminded me of America. Probably because it may just be the most uniquely American thing there is, at least in sports. You can get at least three NFL games on TV in Israel each week, the NBA seems to always be on, and baseball is there on TV if you want it.
But NCAA football? Bowl Games on New Years Day? The Red River Shootout? The Biggest Cocktail Party on Earth? Don’t count on it.
College football was pure distilled Americana that was always distant, unattainable, and something almost no one around me could relate to. Even other expat sports fans I met didn’t seem to understand – they tended to be from the northeast or the West Coast, not Texas, the south, or those other parts of America where college football is something bigger than religion. A rare exception was the cashier at a kiosk on Dizengoff and Ben Yehuda in far north Tel Aviv who I used to buy jachnun from every Saturday in the winter, and who’d follow the games every week like me.
NCAA football made me think of playing catch as a kid on the turf at Memorial Stadium (back when they left it open on the weekend, before it became the natural grass, behemoth money factory it is today). It reminds me of the time Earl Campbell visited my brother’s elementary school, getting our soccer and t-ball uniforms at Rooster Andrews, and our quiet street in Allandale in Austin, where just a few doors down lived Randy Peshel – the wide out who caught a 44-yard pass from James Street in the 4th quarter of the “Game of the Century” in 1969, to help no. 1 UT come from behind and defeat no. 2 Arkansas in Fayetteville.
Memorial Stadium in 1936, taken by my grandfather while he was visiting with the LSU band. No luxury boxes, no Fletcher corn dogs.
More than anything else though, college football reminded me of my father and of Austin. He was a UT alum (he was a student in ‘63 when they won their first national championship) who grew up in Beaumont and Houston. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of NCAA and Texas High School football (along with far more erudite subjects) and a real passion to root for the underdog –which helps when you pull for Houston teams and UT.
This connection between my father and UT football became more visceral in August 2014, when he died suddenly just two days before the opening game against North Texas. That season was the first without my father, and even darker than the 6-7 record would suggest. Every week, without fail, I’d predict victory – that the Longhorns would win one for ol’ Lee Hartman – and almost every week we’d get stomped, mercilessly.
I wasn’t alone in this fool’s errand, and my closest friend back in Austin was the perfect partner in crime. Every week we’d text from Austin to Israel, both of us calling a resounding UT victory, such as the “Yom Kippur Miracle” against Baylor (UT lost 28-7), “The Shocker in Manhattan (Kansas)” on October 25th (#11 K State blanked UT 23-0), and “The Thanksgiving Miracle” in Austin (TCU over UT 48-10). Noah never faltered, and each week swore he put money on the Horns, but I couldn’t fact-check that either.
It was delusional and fruitless, but if you don’t think you have a chance of winning why even watch the game? The Longhorns we grew up with rarely ensured victory, but you watched anyway, and never let the sense of impending doom discourage you. Pulling for your team – just like believing burnt orange and Oilers powder blue are great colors – isn’t an objective, rational thing, it’s just what you’re supposed to do.
Waiting for an anti-missile battery in Tel Aviv to fire during the November, 2012 war. That Longhorns hat witnessed a lot, and is somewhere on a bus in Tel Aviv now.
I got a chance to take part in this parade of delusion this year one Saturday at a time on Central Standard Time in Austin, for the first time since college.
At seasons’ end Charlie Strong was fired just three years after becoming the first black head coach at Texas, the University in “liberal” (and very white) Austin, with the dubious distinction of fielding the last all-white national championship team in 1969. His firing followed a loss to Kansas (in football!) and the worst three-year record in UT history. It clearly wasn’t just racism that doomed Charlie, but no one can tell me it wasn’t a factor – I wasn’t born in Texas yesterday and there was too much “coded language” that welcomed him from day one on the 40 Acres.
Up close watching from Austin you see a lot of the baggage and mental gymnastics that come with being a Texas fan and sometimes, pulling for UT can be like pulling for the Empire in Star Wars. We have more money than some UN member states and see ourselves as a power program second to none – no matter what the record books say.
We are Yankees fans – just without all the championships.
Texans aren’t known for modesty and have a self-indulgent obsession with our state that isn’t always rational. This is just as true in football, where we’ve never seen a program we don’t feel superior to, a problem we can’t throw a pile of money at and still fail, a defeat we can’t snatch from the jaws of victory.
Watching the 2012 OU game on the projector outside Mike’s Place on the Tel Aviv seafront. Those guys never turned around to look at the screen, and we lost 63-21.
Being a Texan and a Longhorns fan reminds me a bit of that scene “In the Name of the Father”, where some inmates break out a jigsaw puzzle world map soaked in LSD and Daniel Day-Lewis says “just don’t give me Northern Ireland, I don’t want to have a bad trip.” Texas can be a bad trip but there’s no use fighting it, you just got to ride it out and wait for the peaks.
These past 14 years, New Year’s Day was always the time I wanted most to be teleported back to Austin for 24 hours, to watch the bowl games with my pop, when the weather’s cold outside and the Horns just might be playing for something.
A week or so ago on New Year’s Day, as college bowl season started coming to a close, I was rifling through old letters my father sent to my grandmother in Houston when he was a young man in Austin, adrift like the rest of us.
I grabbed one postmarked December 8th, 1969, with the return address a building on Avenue A in Hyde Park, just a few doors down from where I’d live in college 30 years later.
A young Lee Hartman speaks of better days for the Longhorns football program.
He’d written it the morning after “the Game of the Century”, shaking off the hangover from the night before, several hours after the pass from Street to Peshel that sealed the national title and pop and his friends charged the Drag, and later, joined thousands swarming the team plane at the Austin airport.
He writes “Well, last night was a big night in Austin. From the end of the game Saturday afternoon till after 3am this morning Guadalupe St. was a Carnival scene – street dancing, horns honking, etc. You couldn’t really avoid the enthusiasm of the moment.”
I never have, and don’t see any reason to stop now.
I rear-ended some settlers in a mini-van in the West Bank that afternoon, just before pulling into the settlement of Talmon for the funeral. There was no damage and we parted ways with a smile, joining the convoy snaking up to the ceremony.
Hundreds of people were waiting in Talmon to bury 16-year-old Gil-Ad Shaer, murdered 18 days earlier on June 12th along with teenagers Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrah, after they were kidnapped at a hitchhiking post in the West Bank by two Palestinian men. Their bodies were finally found the night before, bringing the national agony to a new stage as the last glimmer of hope was snuffed out.
A prayer session held by classmates and friends of the three abducted teens on June 15th at Makor Hayim yeshiva in Gush Etzion. (Credit: Ben Harmtan)
Shaer’s was the voice heard in the 100 dispatch call to police, the one whispering “they kidnapped me” from the back seat. At the funeral he was described as a kind-hearted kid who threw a birthday party for his pet goldfish and a young man who showed courage beyond his years.
“From the moment we heard your courageous whisper, I stood tall,” he said, describing the recording of the 100 call played for the family by police.
“How did you show such courage, someone who was not yet 17 years old?”
He said he never expected the quiet schoolboy to become a hero of the nation before he was old enough to drive, and minutes later his sister Shir-el prayed that maybe her brother’s death would bring the people of Israel closer to redemption.
Ofir Shaer, after eulogizing his son Gil-ad at his funeral in Talmon on July 1st, 2014 (Ben Hartman)
A half hour or so after that I’d somehow found the car and gotten away from the funeral gridlock. I was on my way to my sister-in-law’s in central Israel when WhatsApp started exploding, amid news that the recording of the 100 call had been leaked.
I pulled over to the side of the highway, and finally heard what all the fuss was about.
You could hear it clearly – “They kidnapped me”, and then a voice saying “put your head down”. Then there were gunshots, Shelly Yechimovich giving a radio interview in the background, some chattering in Arabic, and the sound of singing, as the killers danced to celebrate the slaughter of three defenseless young men, including the one I just saw buried.
I must have played it back five or 6 times. We all knew about Shaer’s whispering and the gunshots, but “put your head down”? The singing? It was much worse than I’d imagined.
My sister in law was hosting a Pidyon HaBen for her son, born a month earlier. It was just the siblings, the husbands and my mother in law, and a heavyset Sephardi rabbi who kept imploring me to come back inside from the balcony where I was furiously – and rudely – trying to file a handful of stories before deadline.
That afternoon summed up much of the 2014 Gaza War for me – stories of heartache and young lives lost – often mixed with moments of real fear – all taking place during my wife and I’s first months as proud parents of a little baby girl.
I went to sleep that night still trying to make sense of it all, and in the morning woke up in our old apartment on Nordau Street in Tel Aviv to the news that a teenage Palestinian boy had been found lynched and burned in a forest outside Jerusalem.
That was the moment the summer that changed my life began.
THIS TIME IT ACTUALLY WILL BE DIFFERENT
The 50-day IDF operation that began on July 8th was similar to others that came before. There were rounds of Hamas rocket fire and IDF retaliation (and vice versa) escalating in force until the IDF announced that the operation has a name (“Protective Edge”), signifying that it’s now official.
Reservists walk towards a Hamas attack tunnel set for detonation on July 30th, 2014. (Ben Hartman)
In the end there were 72 fatalities on the Israeli side – 66 of them soldiers – and over 2,000 killed on the Palestinian side, an unknown number of them combatants. The war was proceeded a month earlier by the 18-day “Operation Brother’s Keeper”, which was launched to find the three kidnapped teens, and resulted in the arrests of hundreds of Hamas members in the largest crackdown in the West Bank in years. Immediately after that saga was over, the murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammed Abu-Khdeir by Jewish extremists launched a wave of rioting across the country, as things began – again – to tilt head-on into the abyss.
A week before the ground operation was launched on July 17th, I was feeling clever. I penned a piece for Tablet Magazine – where I was doing regular freelance work at the time – about the “Déjà vu” feeling among journalists as yet another Gaza summer war was unfolding. In the lead I actually likened it to “Groundhog Day”, all but saying that we’ve seen this movie time and again, and the only thing that changes are the dates.
I didn’t know that a full-on ground operation would begin in a week, that less than 2 months later there would be dozens of Israelis and thousands of Gazans killed, and that 2 years later, two Israeli soldiers would yet to come home.
In hindsight, it’s strange that I wrote about Deja Vu. The kidnapping and murder of the three teens and that of Muhammed Abu-Khdeir were two events of remarkable cruelty and trauma for the two separate sides, two highly disturbing stories that had already played out well before the war began and don’t have counterparts in any previous round.
On the Thursday night that the operation was launched, I was at “The English Pub” on Allenby and Hayarkon, one of the few proper dive bars in Tel Aviv. I was drinking with a British journalist friend and watching the news on the TV above the bar when the announcement came in by WhatsApp and then on TV – the ground operation had begun. We stepped outside to smoke, and saw dozens of American college students on a Birthright Israel trip walk past the bar towards the beach, most of them in shorts and flip flops, some downing beers, all seeming to be blissfully unaware of what was going on around them. We laughed, and yes – may have shouted something along the lines of “there’s a war starting, run!” Not my proudest moment, but the whole night was odd, and for some reason unexpected.
There would be a series of developments that war which countered my “Groundhog Day” assessment early on. Mainly, there were the tunnel infiltrations by Hamas, a new, “sum of all fears” weapon that would be used with deadly effectiveness over the course of the war.
There was the way Tel Aviv was targeted by rockets seemingly every day. Sure, it had happened during the 2012 war (“Operation Pillar of Defense”), but then it was limited, only a few times, and other than the apartment building in Rishon there was little damage caused.
A female soldier walks next to the two Iron Dome batteries in Tel Aviv during a break between the rockets on July 12th. (Ben Hartman)
I remember the first time a rocket was launched at Tel Aviv in the November 2012 war. I was in the south chasing rocket strikes and heading back to Tel Aviv when the news came in. It seemed so mysterious, so hard to pin down. Some said it had landed in Hatikva in south Tel Aviv, others said they witnessed it from Jaffa landing in the water a couple hundred meters from the shore. We made repeated calls on the way back to Tel Aviv that evening trying to reach any journalists or cops who knew where it landed, to no avail. It was a bogeyman, a phantom, a rocket that everyone heard explode in the air or crash to the earth or sea, never to be found.
In 2014, it became clockwork. There was the anticipation for the salvos that would accompany the prime time 8pm news broadcast, so you’d wait in the stairwell or shelter until 8:05 or so after the siren and the explosion, and then go run your errands. There was also one night when Hamas threatened to bring a salvo to shake Tel Aviv to its knees, but the only thing I remember from that night was Neil Young cancelling his upcoming concert.
The rockets on Tel Aviv became normal, and not the “game changer” people thought they’d be (but weren’t) in 2012.
What was different for me was the timing. This time I was a parent, and repeatedly caught in rocket sirens with my daughter. For the most part this was ok, my daughter or both of us were either at my mother-in-law’s in a small town in the Sharon region or at my wife’s sister’s place, and at both there’s a shelter and at least a minute or so flight time from Gaza for the rocket. In Tel Aviv at our apartment there was less time, but still enough to get down to the shelter in our building. Only once were we caught outside during a siren, and I raced two blocks pushing the stroller until we got to our building and got her to the cellar, fumbling first with the shoulder straps on the stroller and then with the door code.
The author, touring a bomb/rocket disposal unit’s headquarters in Ofakim in July 2014. (Ben Hartman)
Luckily, she was only 7 months old at the time and clueless about anything happening around her. Two years later, she’s very aware, clever, and hard to fool. The next time there’s sirens and rockets on Israeli cities – and it’s only a matter of time – she’ll be even more aware, and we’ll have two little girls to rush to safety. I know a lot of parents dealing with this come up with games to explain the sirens and explosions overhead, and joke about it with their kids, but I don’t want to have to do that.
THE SONG OF THE WAR
Like every war (or at least the last two), during this one I had my own personal theme song. In 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense, it was Tyga’s “Rack City”. It’s a terrible track, but a photographer friend and I thought it was hilarious and addictive and the hook is perfect to sing while racing around Ashkelon or Sderot or running for a bomb shelter during a rocket siren.
In the 2014 summer war though, my personal theme song was “Just Like Candy” by 8Ball and MJG. I can’t explain why or when that got to be the case, but it was during a slow moment early in the war, I think in Kiryat Gat, and I was watching videos on Youtube and it just stuck.
Almost every day of the rest of the war I’d play it at least once in the car, turned up loud on the phone, but not too loud that I couldn’t hear the monotone voice on Israel Radio break into the non-stop news broadcast to announce rocket siren locations.
“Rap Genius” may say otherwise, but I’m pretty sure the lyrics go something like:
“Leanin to the left, gold Daytons on that thang”
CODE RED HOF ASHKELON, NITZANIM
“As the sun goes down, I’m gettin dirty”
CODE RED ZIKIM, KARMIYA, YAD MORDECHAI
It’s not the ideal way to listen to music, but it’s kinda nice to picture MJG sitting in the studio with the Code Red app going off every time he tries to record the track.
Why that song? It’s pretty dope, but also it’s a track that couldn’t be farther from the reality during those two months. The song and the video (which is filmed on a beach somewhere that for damn sure aint Memphis) are all candy paint and thick women, wood grain and southern things, and couldn’t be further from Gaza or sound any less like a chazan chanting at a military funeral.
That’s another mystery that I’ve never figured out – what’s the best way to drive? Is it better to have the radio off with the windows cracked to hear the siren, or to have the windows closed and the radio on to hear the voice cut in with the alert? They say if you’re on the freeway and the rocket’s coming your way it’s best to pull over to the shoulder, get clear of the car and hit the ground facedown with your hands on your head. That makes sense in Tel Aviv, where you’ve got a minute or so to find a spot, but in the south where it’s a matter of seconds, I always had my doubts. Slamming on the brakes and diving out onto the ground next to the shoulder may be more dangerous than the rocket. It might be safer just to floor it – that’s what 8ball and MJG would do, because they come out hard.
KFAR AZAR AND THE POMERANTZS
Some unexpected inspiration came on July 24th in a town I’d never heard of, that isn’t really a town at all.
Kfar Azar is a moshav that’s home to a few hundred people, squeezed between two highways and Tel HaShomer Hospital. It’s considered a neighborhood of Ramat Gan for all intents and purposes, but once you pass the little wooden welcome sign, it seems pretty detached from the urban sprawl surrounding it. A nowheresville speck on the map like dozens or hundreds of other villages in Israel, you probably need a good reason to find yourself there.
Golani Brigade soldiers lower Daniel Pomerantz into his grave on July 24th, 2014 (Ben Hartman)
Sergeant Daniel Pomerantz was a 20-year-old infantryman in the Golani Brigade when he was killed on the night of July 19th in Gaza City’s Shejaia neighborhood. Daniel and six other Golani soldiers were riding in an aging, Vietnam era M-113 APC that was hit by an RPG fired by a Hamas gunman, and probably died instantly. Killed along with Pomerantz was First Sergeant Oron Shaul, whose remains were seized by Hamas body-snatchers, and are still being held for ransom. (In April, Oron’s father Herzl announced that he had been diagnosed with Cancer, which he blames on the stress and anxiety of trying – and failing – over the past two years to get his son’s remains returned to Israel for burial.)
Also in the APC were two Americans serving in the IDF – Sgt. Max Steinberg, originally from Los Angeles, and Shawn Carmeli, from South Padre Island, Texas.
They were all from the 13th battalion of the Golani Brigade, and earlier that same day, in a staging area on the Gaza border, soldiers from the same battalion killed time in the shade as me and three journalist colleagues walked around taking pictures and making small talk with them (I remember speaking for a few minutes with one soldier from Maryland, who shouted at me from atop an APC when he saw my Longhorns hat) with the soldiers, most of whom looked like they’d barely just finished basic training. I scanned my photos in the days to come, but didn’t see any soldiers whose headshots were in the paper after the “APC disaster”, which only made me wish we’d stayed longer.
Soldiers from the 13th battalion of the Golani Brigade relax in a staging area near the Gaza border several hours before the APC disaster. (Ben Hartman)
There were several funerals I covered in that war, as well as who knows how many in the years before at the Jerusalem Post. Most were for soldiers killed in skirmishes or wars in Gaza or on the Lebanon border, but there was also musicians Arik Einstein and Shlomo Krauss, and six members of the same family – including an infant – from Rishon Letzion who were stabbed to death in their home in one of the most brutal crimes in Israel’s history – the first article I covered for the paper.
These stories tend to play out like clockwork, but this one was different. For one thing, there was the voice on the public address system instructing that in the event of a rocket siren, everyone should remain calm and hit the dirt (a notice broadcast before every funeral during the war). By then though, I’d already been to a couple funerals in Operation Protective Edge, and the novelty of that had worn off.
What was unique here, and left me stunned, was the family.
Daniel’s mother, Varda Pomerantz, was the former head of the IDF’s casualties department, the branch responsible for – among other things – notifying families that their sons had died during their service. She paid countless house calls over the years, knocking on the door to tell parents their family would never be whole again. Standing over her son’s freshly dug grave, she said “after I hung up my uniform, after using up all my strength through the years of trying to comfort bereaved families, I have to stand here and tell everyone that I knew, I always knew that the day would come when those people in uniforms would come knock on our door. I never told you of this fear, but I always knew.”
She pushed through, and said how already on Friday night she had the premonition that her son’s days were numbered, and decided to record her last conversation with him. Then, in front of the stunned mourners and press, she played her last phone call with her son, and moments later, the letter he wrote his family before heading into Gaza, which he saved on his phone and decided not to send.
“If you’re reading this, it means my career [in Golani] has come to an end… All of you must be happy. Stay happy for me,” he wrote, before telling his family he loves them and to be proud.
At the very beginning of the funeral, Varda walked alongside her son’s coffin as the pallbearers carried it to the gravesite. When she got there, she saw his platoon commander, a lieutenant barely older than her son, sitting in a wheelchair after having demanded he be taken from the hospital to the funeral. The commander blamed himself for the deaths of his soldiers, and later said he was terrified to face Varda. His fear was misplaced – when Varda spotted him she rushed over, saluted, and hugged and kissed the commander.
The funeral was also remarkable because it was never supposed to happen – at least not there. Kfar Azar has no graveyard and residents – including soldiers – are buried in Ramat Gan cemeteries. Varda, for her own reasons, insisted that he be buried in her village, near her home, and when she was met by refusal, she moved up the IDF command chain using every connection she’d made over her decades of service. She refused to take no for an answer, and said later that she told the army and the municipality that they could continue to refuse, the family will just get a backhoe and dig the grave themselves.
This aspect of the story is perhaps troubling – a classic case of an Israeli using protekzia to get something that the rules don’t allow, and which less connected Israelis couldn’t achieve. Still, I was moved, struck by a mother moving heaven and earth just to keep whatever was left of her son as close to her as possible.
Other funerals of the war were remarkable as well, part of a new phenomenon that I had never seen before the 2014 Gaza War. Call it the “flashmob funerals” if you like, but it began with the funeral for Sean Carmeli in Haifa. He was a Maccabi Haifa fan, and when he died in the APC disaster the football club put out the word that he was a fan and a lone soldier in Israel without family (his sisters were living here at the time), and called on the public to come show their support. In the end, there were something like 20,000 people from across the country that came to pay their respect to Carmeli, a young man most of them had never met or even heard of. A similar scene unfolded for Max Steinberg at the LA native’s funeral in Jerusalem, and also, at the funeral for Hadar Goldin in Kfar Saba, which was remarkable not only for the thousands of strangers gathered at the cemetery, but also because it was a funeral without a body, the “burial” of a soldier MIA in Gaza.
Givati Brigade soldiers at the funeral for Hadar Goldin. (Ben Hartman)
How to explain this phenomenon? I’m sure there’s a cynical take that attributes it to rising nationalism or the unchallenged dominance of the right-wing in Israel, but I’m not sure. It seemed to come from the heart, a desire to show solidarity with the families of these young men, an outpouring that was probably much less likely before the era of social networks. It also, I think, reflected a certain helplessness felt during the war, the first since the 2006 Second Lebanon War in which dozens of young men were killed. It probably matters little to their families, but the strangers who came to salute the dead probably felt through their gesture some sort of control, that they’d had some impact on the tragedy that had befallen them.
WHAT DOESN'T KILL YOU MIGHT MAKE YOU WEAKER
The tunnel warfare continued into August. After a series of ceasefires fell through almost before they’d even begun, I decided to take a chance on August 1st and go to the beach, leaving my phone in the car. I went into the water a little before the ceasefire was to go into effect, and came out to see that three soldiers were killed in an ambush near Rafah and that at least one (Hadar Goldin), maybe more were kidnapped through a tunnel deep into the Strip. Within minutes I started seeing chatter that one of them was a close relative of the defense minister, and things seemed to yet again take a turn for the worse.
By the next morning the term “Hannibal Doctrine” (a controversial procedure in which the Israeli military, in event there is a chance a soldier has been kidnapped, can use overwhelming force to stop the kidnapping, even at risk of killing the soldier) had blanketed the foreign press. In the days to come, the IDF would eliminate dozens of attack tunnels, the destruction of which had by then become the main – stated – objective of the war.
Some little Haredi kid selling rocket shrapnel in Ashdod outside a synagogue hit by a rocket on one of the last days of the war. (Ben Hartman)
Fast forward about a week later, and driving north from the Gaza border one evening, I got a call from my dad in Austin. He’d been driving to the Randall’s supermarket on Balcones Drive earlier in the day when he heard me on NPR being interviewed about Hamas tunnel warfare and the new infiltration threat on Israeli communities. It’s a short drive across the MoPac highway from our house to the supermarket so he stayed in the car out in the parking lot so he could finish hearing the segment on the ongoing war and the young man on the line from Tel Aviv. It was only after I signed off and the anchor said “that was Ben Hartman of the Jerusalem Post”, that he realized it was his son. Knowing him I’m sure he related this to a few people in the checkout line. This was a highlight of that summer for both of us.
Later that month, on August 22nd, my wife and I went with our daughter to see a daycare inside an apartment in our neighborhood. It was an absolute shitshow – kids all over the place, cribs stacked up like a little toddler prison, no apparent framework, a strange smell, and all of it run by a frantic Israeli middle-aged woman and her teenage daughter.
His family had just pulled into the parking area outside their house, and when the siren sounded, they only had three seconds to make it out of the car and into their safe house. Daniel never had a chance, and was killed on the spot.
Border towns like Nahal Oz were the scariest places to be during the war, and not only because of the attack tunnels that Hamas used to such deadly effect. Because these areas are so close in, Hamas often just fires mortar shells – patzmarim – which typically fly too low and too short to set off the rocket alarm. They just land, without a warning, often leaving ruin and death on the ground. They were one of the most devastating weapons of the war – especially when used to target staging areas where reservists and active duty soldiers waited en masse like sitting ducks days and days on end to receive orders.
Places like Nahal Oz were all but abandoned during the war, when life became absolutely unlivable, just like during every other flare-up between Israel and Gaza.
The death of Daniel Tragerman was a shock, but one that was – outside of Israel – eclipsed by the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian kids in Gaza during the war. In a wider sense, by any objective consideration the suffering in Gaza was much greater than that in Israel, but I don’t live in Gaza, and neither do my wife or kids. As an Israeli I cannot visit Gaza and therefore can’t really report on it. It’s the Israeli side I can see, understand, and unpack. It’s the only one I experience and the only one I know.
My 2014 Gaza War didn’t take me to Gaza, just like the ones before didn’t and just like the ones to come won’t either. Gaza was and is a violent dark shadow on the other side of the fence. It’s close enough to hear the muezzin in the mosques when you stand in the stillness of abandoned Nahal Oz, but for all intents and purposes, it might as well be on the moon.
Compared to journalist colleagues and friends who’ve reported in Gaza – or Syria, Libya, Iraq and beyond – I haven’t been touched by death too much. At all the murder scenes, terror attacks, and car bombs I’ve covered, the bodies were already bagged up or at least behind the police tape with the ZAKA guys. I’ve been in very close proximity to death many times in the job, but rarely face to face, and certainly not in an overflowing Gaza morgue, where the blown apart bodies of children are being stored in refrigerators because of the lack of space.
It’s not a competition though, and any helping of something terrible is too much.
Since the 2014 Gaza war, I no longer think whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Many things that don’t kill you can still make you weaker and the repeated bouts of trauma and fear can wear you down and poison you. Israelis like to say someone has “the skin of an elephant” to signify their toughness. True, it may take a high-caliber round to kill an elephant, but even a .22 slug can break its skin and make it bleed.
IDF combat reservists taking a break near the Gaza border. (Ben Hartman)
With a series of wars since independence, countless terror attacks and now 3 (or at least 2.5) Intifadas, Israel would seem to embody a country strengthened through warfare, a nation tempered like steel through so many passes through the furnace. Maybe, but I don’t think it’s that simple. I think we long ago passed the point where we needed to stop counting shock victims among casualty stats – everyone here is a shock victim, everybody in this country carries the burden of trauma.
–AFTER THE CEASEFIRE, A FINAL, FATAL MORTAR STRIKE
On the evening of August 26th, the final ceasefire came and just like that the war was over. I filed statistics given by police and the home front command on rocket strikes and casualties during the war, and then went to get a pizza.
The next day at work was for Monday morning football takes on the war and an occasion to decompress.
Mohammed Deif may have survived, but we did too.
I remember nothing else from that day, except the phone call the following morning.
It was my mom, calling at 6am from Austin, the phone call which for years had been my greatest fear. She spoke in a strange, deliberate monotone, saying the words “I’m so sorry to tell you this, your pop has had a stroke, he’s not going to make it, you need to come home.”
We got a ticket in the next hour or two and that night I was on my way to Austin, the whole time thinking “this is just like a patzmar – there was no warning, no siren”, over and over.
My father, Lee Edward Hartman Jr, with my older daughter at a wedding outside Austin a few months before his death. (Ben Hartman)
The next day, after the funeral in Austin, I remember standing on the street outside the house my mom was renting in northwest Austin, talking to a friend from Israel (who flew in from Seattle because he knew my father well) and one from college at UT. I kept telling them “this is just like a patzmar” and for some reason, relating to them the story of Varda Pomerantz (when you’ve just buried your father, people don’t interrupt you).
More than anything else though, during and after the funeral, and that night drinking at my pop’s house with friends of my brother and I the same words kept coming out of my mouth – “I’m not supposed to be here right now, I’m not even supposed to be here”.
My father’s death had nothing to do with the Gaza War, and absolutely everything to do with it. It was a stressful, frightening, and exhausting two months, and when it finally ended, I was hit by the worst tragedy to befall my brother and I in our lives.
It will always be like a patzmar, and we’ll always be shock victims.
My Gaza war didn’t take me to Gaza, nor did any of the ones that preceded it. That summer changed my life though, and I think in some way it changed all of us.
One of Israel’s most famous haircuts – and also a singer – did not emerge victorious at the 2016 Eurovision contest in Sweden on Saturday night, but it wasn’t due to a lack of effort.
Ivan the naked wolf whisperer (left) realizes that his antics won’t be enough to make the finals (Ben Hartman)
Sparkling like he’d been attacked by a 12-year-old with a spray can of foam on Independence Day three nights earlier, he took to the stage with “Made of Stars,” a ballad that was either dark or uplifting, and packed with nonsense lines like “You ride a black horse in the rain” and, “Silver fragments falling, we are made of stars.” Hovi was joined on stage by two acrobats trapped in a giant spinning metal hoop, though they could not rotate him to victory in Stockholm, and he finished 14th out of a field of 26.
A departure of sorts from the disco Euro pop techno show tunes that make up most of the fare at the singing contest, “Made of Stars” was written by Doron Medalie, who also penned “Golden Boy,” (“I’m a Golden Boy, come here to enjoy”), which Nadav Guedj and his golden winged sneakers rode to a ninth-place finish last year.
This year’s Eurovision was notable in part because it was the first time in the contest’s 60-year history that the final was broadcast in the United States (and in China). The spectacle – which is almost a hyper-concentrated version of nativist American stereotypes about weird, campy Europeans – seems tailor-made to win votes for Donald Trump, though the finale was shown on the gay-friendly Logo network, probably not a popular station with his base.
Future historians though will teach our children that the real highlight was at the semifinal on Thursday night, in the form of a naked Belarusian named Ivan, singing on stage to a wolf. In reality, it was a projected image of Ivan and the wolf, though the Belarus singer had actually performed naked with real wolves before, including, according to a Daily Mail article from April 2015, during a concert in Moscow in which “the wolf, named Shakira, didn’t miss an opportunity to take nibbles out of the naked performer.”
The article quotes Ivan – who apparently performed in Tel Aviv in April (#BDSfail?) – as saying of his lupine sidekick that “the most important thing is to feed her sausages on time.”
Alas, Ivan did not make it to the final, proving that it takes more than performing naked with wild dogs. For an event known for its over-the-top performances, this feels like a betrayal.
In general the semifinals were more enjoyable – partly because they were shorter – but also because of a number of acts like the naked wolf whisperer.
One act that did make it through to the final 26 was Georgia’s indie rock band “Nika Kocharov and the Young Georgian Lolitaz,” with “Midnight Gold.” The title sounds like it’s a song about drugs, but the lyrics – including, “When I came to, your smell on me,” and, “Stains of mud on your skin,” sound either like they were written after a barnyard tryst with a pig, or by a man who had just murdered a woman he met on the Tinder dating app (available in Georgia). Luckily for Nika and the Lolitaz, Sweden’s process of extraditing suspects to non-EU countries is rather complicated, and requires approval of the government and Supreme Court.
The acts brought to mind an article on Slate earlier this week prepping Americans set to watch the extravaganza for the first time, which said, “This is the pop that cool forgot, born from countries that never had the black American traditions of blues and spirituals to draw on.” It’s a bit strange that even though hip-hop is one of the most global genres of music (and fashion), especially in European countries such as France and Belgium, on Thursday and Saturday nights in Stockholm it looked and sounded like pop music moved to Sweden in the ’70s, bypassing the South Bronx completely.
For the sake of full disclosure, this is not my first Eurovision viewing. A few months after moving to Israel, I watched Lior Narkis perform “Words for Love” (in the chorus he sings “I love you” in six languages – if you’re a female tourist on the beach in Israel, you’re likely to meet guys who can do this) at the May 2003 contest in Latvia.
In my defense, I was at my then-girlfriend’s family home in Beersheba, and thought this is what everyone does in Israel, much like I thought Nafis and Shipudei Sof HaDerekh were the country’s finest restaurants, and the Forum the hottest nightclub in the Middle East. (Seven years later I would meet Narkis and his entourage in Uman, Ukraine, where on the banks of a lake we performed tashlich and he said a prayer for my recently deceased grandmother – in one language.)
In the end, with all of the theatrics and corny Euro pop, it was a deeply serious and political song that won this year’s contest. Ukraine’s “1944” by Jamala is about the deportation of Crimean Tatars by Stalin’s USSR in the 1940s. Jamala’s great-grandmother and her five children were among those deported to Central Asia, and her experiences were reportedly reflected in the lyrics in Crimean Tatar that Jamala sings in the song. The fact that it went down to the wire, and Ukraine was head to head with Russia, winning with a song about Crimea, brought a bit of poetic justice to a competition that had by then stretched hours into the night.
For Israelis though, there would be no such triumph. Still, perhaps they could take solace in the performance of Amir Haddad, a French-Israeli singer, dentist and IDF veteran who grew up in Herzliya, and finished in sixth place with “J’ai Cherché.”
In the meantime, like generations before us have said, “Next year in Ukraine.”
In my experience, when people announce a protest against the IDF and the security establishment, it’s a small group of far leftists in Tel Aviv. They usually number in the dozens, maybe a bit more, and when the protest actually happens, it’s mostly the same faces from the time before.
This week presented a much rarer spectacle though – a mass rally against the IDF, not organized by the far-left bloggers and activists of Tel Aviv, rather by uber-patriots, former MKs, and nationalist rappers with a bone to pick.
Elor Azaryas parents Oshra and Charlie in front of the stage. (Ben Hartman)
The rally in support of Sgt. Elor Azaria – the 20-year-old Kfir Brigade soldier indicted by IDF military prosecutors this week for shooting and killing a subdued Palestinian attacker in Hebron last month – was of course not billed as a protest against the IDF but as a show of solidarity for an embattled young man and the other soldiers barely out of high school and their families who wait for them to return home on Shabbat.
There is also a desire to embrace his family, a sense that the story of the Azarias could very well be their own if their son was in the wrong place at the wrong time during his military service.
Still, something much more troubling appears to be at hand in this rally and all the other solidarity efforts held in the month since Azaria cocked his assault rifle and fired a single bullet into the head of a Palestinian man who lay motionless on the pavement.
There appears to be an “us against them” sentiment to all this. The “them” here includes B’Tselem (whose volunteer filmed the shooting), Breaking the Silence, the Supreme Court, the Arab parties, and the Israeli media as a whole – not just Haaretz.
Whatever the reason – be it the result of incitement or ideology – a sentiment has risen among the wider Israeli public that groups like B’Tselem and their leftwing enablers in the Israeli media are not only wrong, they constitute a real threat to the country despite the virtually unquestioned control the right wing exerts on the Israeli political system.
The enemy amongst us, no matter how small or marginal they are in reality, are leading the country astray, and leaving young soldiers like Sgt. Azaria as collateral damage.
The sentiment betrays a troubling lack of perspective, if not outright paranoia.
It creates a situation wherein real debate about the actual circumstances of this situation becomes terribly complicated as they fracture along party lines. Though organizers and supporters of the rally have said it’s not a Right vs Left issue, anyone planning to discuss the case at their Passover Seder knows that your opinion regarding Sgt. Azaria says so much about where you stand across the board in Israel.
That’s a shame, because at the most basic level this is a legal story about rules of engagement and the conduct expected of IDF soldiers. Even the most sympathetic supporter of Azaria should be able to look at the film and say that even if you don’t think he is a murderer, he is certainly not a hero. He did not risk his life to further an operational goal or protect his fellow soldiers; he did not show initiative or creativity that strengthened the army. Rather, he made a cold, conscious decision that cannot be justified operationally, something his own commanders and the entire IDF leadership have said since day one.
It should be said, though, that there is another reason that many Israelis would attend a solidarity rally for Azaria, and it has to do with a sentiment borne in blood and resentment.
The resentment is towards what many see as an exaggerated emphasis – by the local and foreign press – on a single act of violence by an IDF soldier. This, after dozens of Israelis have been murdered in stabbings and shooting attacks across the country the past several months, not to mention Monday’s bus bombing, the first of its kind in nearly three years, and one which brings up memories of the Second Intifada. The sentiment is that the victim was a Palestinian who had just tried to murder these soldiers, and even if the soldier violated the rules of engagement, this man was on a suicide mission, unlike the Jewish civilians cut down while waiting at a bus stop, or standing in the entryway of their home, like Dafna Meir.
The resentment is borne by the awareness that it is Azaria who will most likely become the face of the stabbing intifada, and not the Henkin family or Richard Lakin or any of the other Israelis brutally murdered in some of the most vicious violence unleashed on Israeli civilians in years.
This is understandable, and it makes sense that people who feel this way would want to stand up and be counted.
Nonetheless, in these solidarity rallies we can see how divisive the discourse in Israel has become and how difficult it is to carry out a cold analysis of even quite simple events like the shooting in Hebron amid an atmosphere of such roiled emotions.
The outpouring of sympathy for the soldier also shows a lack of faith or outright dismissal of the legal system, a suspicion towards the security establishment and the media, and a serious difficulty looking ourselves in the mirror.
That, in its own way, could be as troubling as the gunshot fired by Sgt. Azaria.
The quiet that Israel had experienced for over a week was shattered by an attack on Sunday that was more pathetic than terrifying.
Video of the attack in Rosh Ayin shows a 23-year-old Arab woman from Kafr Qassem awkwardly flailing around with a knife in hand, trying to find a victim before she is overcome by a group of bystanders.
She did manage to lightly wound a woman from Kfar Saba who she stabbed in the shoulder, but her victim was taken to hospital fully conscious and released later the same day.
In the video one bystander throws a rock at her and scurries away, another tries to fight her off with a chair, and a motorist in a slow-moving car tries to block her path, to no avail. Finally, a security guard from a nearby building arrived with his handgun drawn and pointing it at her head he and a group of civilians managed to put her on the ground and disarm her, holding her until the police arrived.
Hours later, a Palestinian man approached a group of Israelis at the Tapuah Junction in the West Bank while carrying a knife and was disarmed by Border Police officers and taken for questioning.
In both cases the result was about as good as it gets for such instances during the “Stabbing Intifada”, which has seen more than 30 Israelis murdered in stabbings and shootings across the country the past six months.
There would be no shots fired, no blood on the pavement, no “snuff” video rocketing around social media.
Considering the timing, it’s hard not to link Sunday’s attacks to one carried out in Hebron last week during which a soldier was lightly wounded. Of course it’s what happened several minutes later that is most relevant – an IDF soldier arrived on the scene, cocked his rifle and fired a single bullet into the head of a subdued attacker who seemed to pose no threat, killing him instantly.
Though disturbing, the discourse in the days that followed was not surprising. The soldier was met with a wellspring of supporter from the majority of Israelis, and his actions were condemned mainly by the security services and a number of very senior politicians. Meanwhile, among everyday Israelis, a Channel 2 poll found that 42% believe that the soldier acted responsibly in shooting the subdued man, 24% said his actions were natural considering the pressure of the situation, 19% said he violated regulations, and only 5% said the shooting constituted murder. The soldier – who by any analysis violated IDF regulations – has been widely described as a hero, nothing less, even though he did not risk his own life in order to further an IDF objective.
Rarely do you see such a clear dissonance between the political and security class and the public. In Haaretz last week, columnist Ari Shavit contrasted the public response to the Hebron shooting to the “Bus 300 affair”, the 1984 execution by the Shin Bet of two Palestinians arrested after hijacking a bus. As he notes, the incident sparked uproar and a media circus that shook the government to its core. This response is radically different to that which we have seen after the Hebron shooting, in which it is the public, not the security establishment that seems to be justifying – if not outright celebrating – the wrongful use of deadly force.
The public – as many have noted – are to some extent following the lead of a number of politicians who have since the Stabbing Intifada said in no unspoken terms that attackers who come after Israelis with knives deserve to die, with no hints of nuance to be found.
Judging by these statements and the Channel 2 poll, it appears that the security guard and the bystanders in Rosh Ayin on Sunday failed. They left the attacker alive, basically unharmed, and in the hands of the security establishment. In the court of public opinion, it was a dereliction of duty for the security guard to have kept his finger on the trigger without shooting the attacker dead.
In a widely-shared post on Monday, a Facebook user uploaded a photo of the January 3rd, issue of Yediot Aharonot, which showed IDF officer AviBuskila on top of a tackled terrorist with the headline “the officer who stopped a massacre”.
The terrorist in question was one Noam Friedman, a 21-year-old IDF soldier in civilian clothes who had just fired his M-16 into a crowded market in Hebron, wounding seven Palestinians. In court after the shooting, he said he had no remorse, and that his attack was meant to scuttle security talks between Israelis and Palestinian over IDF deployments in the city.
As the user writes – sarcastically – “the question is – should Buskila have shot Friedman in the head right after overpowering him, or hand him over to police?”
There is nothing bold or shocking about noting that there is often a double standard in Israel applied to Arabs, but if we were to put that double standard aside for a moment, by today’s standards, Buskila failed in the moment of truth, just like the security guard in Rosh Ayin on Sunday.
Entire doctorates could be written about the political and social changes Israel has undergone in recent years, as it has taken a strong rightward tilt. There is also the effect of social networks and smart phones on the discourse, which has become shallow, kneejerk, and often angry and cruel.
Regardless of the reasons, what we see today is a public debate that is radically different than that which followed the Bus 300 affair, in which racism is openly expressed, the unlawful use of force is shamelessly defended, and those who disagree are tarred as leftists and traitors.
Israel is a strong enough country to prosecute a soldier for wrongdoing and allow a sound legal process to uphold the legal standards of its military. And while these stabbing attacks are very dynamic and don’t follow a set script, those who have shown restraint under the most extreme moments of stress and fear, are worthy of commendation.
The words of a bereaved mother can often pierce the heart, and this time was no different. Sitting in a Knesset committee hearing last week, Farnus Salamsa shouted “I’m burning!”, and told a senior police commander to shut her mouth and hear the pain of her loss and that of her children, who she said no longer sleep at night.
Salamsa’s son Yosef committed suicide in July 2014, months after he was abused by the Israel Police during an arrest in Zichron Yaakov. You may not have heard his name but he’s famous, at least in a certain Israel.
Last Sunday the Justice Ministry announced that they had decided to close the criminal case against the police officers who arrested Salamsa, though they pointed out that police falsified aspects of their report and committed disciplinary violations that should be addressed, including failing to warn Salamsa before using a Taser on him multiple times.
On Monday, the day after the Justice Ministry’s announcement, the Knesset’s State Control Committee met to discuss police treatment of Ethiopian-Israelis and Salamsa’s family embraced the opportunity to confront the police directly.
Already in the hours after the decision social media was abuzz about the ministry’s failure to prosecute police, and a flagship case of police abuse began to take on new proportions, at least under the surface.
Activists began promoting a protest rally outside the Justice Ministry on March 1st, to mark two years since Salamsa’s arrest, and to demand the ministry reopen the case and other abuse cases that were closed “due to a lack of public interest”.
On Facebook, young Ethiopian-Israelis expressed their outrage at the decision, with the images and statements taking on characteristics familiar to any who have followed the “Black Lives Matter” movement in the United States.
One Ethiopian-Israeli, Avi Yalou, wrote on Facebook “the protests last year in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and the ones that will be held this year are meant to send a clear, sharp message – no more institutionalized racism, legally or socially against the Ethiopian community.”
His message was clear – the protests weren’t just about Damas Pakadeh, the IDF soldier who was assaulted by police in Holon or Abera Mengistu, the Ethiopian-Israeli from Ashkelon who has been missing in the Gaza Strip ever since he climbed the fence into the coastal territory on September 7, 2014, and who many in the Ethiopian-Israeli community think has been all but forgotten because of his skin color. Rather, it’s much bigger than that, it’s a deeper structural problem of racism at all different levels of society.
In what is hopefully a step in the right direction, the Justice Ministry on Tuesday held the first meeting of a multi-ministry task force founded to deal with racism against the Ethiopian-Israeli community. The task force is split into three smaller teams who will deal with mapping the problem, examining the tools currently at the state’s disposal to deal with the problem, and a team that will focus on public awareness. The teams include a number of prominent activists, leaders of Ethiopian-Israeli NGOs, and officials from government offices dealing with housing, immigrant absorption, and the legal system.
That follows the founding of a special police task force last year to examine issues dealing with the Ethiopian-Israeli community, which later issued the recommendations that police reexamine a number of controversial cases and appoint more Amharic-speaking staff and recruit more from within the community.
Whatever the good intentions may be of police, from the protests last year it was obvious that the problems go far beyond police brutality, and deal with deep-seated problems of racism and discrimination in Israeli society. It deals with discrimination in housing, higher unemployment and lower rates of education, a shortage of prominent Ethiopian leaders in Israeli government and society and so on. These are not problems that police can solve on their own – nor are they trying to go it alone –they represent the bedrock of serious discontent that can easily be sparked by a single act of police misconduct, such as last year with Damas Pakadeh.
The rioting that took place at Rabin Square last May after the protest march against racism shocked many in Israel, and led to the founding of the police task force. The images from that night forced the issue to the forefront for a short, fleeing moment last spring, before the momentum died down and the wider public moved on.
Though sequels rarely live up to the hype, an incident like the closing of the Salamsa case can force it all up to the surface again, with the potential for the protests to become more violent, more painful the next time around..
During the Knesset hearing last week, the head of the Police Personnel Branch, Deputy Commissioner Gila Gaziel said she “believes that an injustice is being done to police here”, sparking the outburst by Farnus Salamsa. Gaziel was lamenting what she said are sweeping generalizations about police, as opposed to focus on “bad apples”. This is understandable, but if police are being wronged, are being denigrated wholesale, the blame lies with they and society’s failure to safeguard and provide for the weakest among them, and not with those who have been wronged and whose children cannot sleep at night.
The landscape of Israel is so thick with memorials to fallen sons and daughters that you almost feel that if you stacked them all, you could build a staircase of marble, concrete, and metal far beyond the clouds.
On Wednesday a new name was added to that list, when 19-year-old Border Police officer Hadar Cohen was killed in a terror attack at the Damascus Gate, just two months after she’d enlisted in the service. Another Israeli in uniform cut down while still a teenager, another family left in shambles.
There’s an extra aspect to Cohen’s story that has heaped controversy onto the tragedy. Cohen and another female officer were patrolling the worst hot spot of the “Stabbing Intifada” before they had finished their basic training, and commanders confirmed after the attack that they were deployed after only the bare minimum of training. The two were sent to the Damascus Gate as part of a three-officer patrol led by a more experienced male commander, though he was only a couple years their senior.
Cohen and her fellow recruit were quite literally thrown directly into the fire, into perhaps the most dangerous spot in Israel in recent months, and faced one of the most difficult attacks of the current terror wave – a combined assault by three attackers armed with guns, knives, and pipe bombs.
Since the terror wave began in earnest late last year, there have been around 2,000 Border Police officers deployed to Jerusalem to patrol the city, as well as reinforcements of police from across the country. The question – or accusation – that has been posed to police is why with all of that seasoned manpower, were these two teenage girls thrown to the wolves at Damascus Gate? Why couldn’t they have relieved more seasoned officers serving at sleepy corners in West Jerusalem?
These are relevant questions, and should be answered, but they seem perhaps short-sighted.
While Damascus Gate has been arguably the most dangerous spot (though parts of Gush Etzion or Hebron may have it beat), there is ultimately nowhere on the Homefront that is not the frontline when security personnel are facing an Intifada of “lone wolf” attackers who strike randomly in civilian areas across the country. Also, as dangerous as Damascus Gate has become, it’s worth remembering that it’s remained popular with tourists and civilians all through this terror wave, and is only a short walk from areas where Jewish Israeli families walk with a far greater feeling of personal security.
Furthermore, when are they supposed to get this baptism by fire? If it was a month from now, three months from now, would Hadar have lived? Would she have fought off the attackers without being mortally wounded, or would she have accrued the know-how to approach the terrorists in a way that would have subdued them before they launched their attack?
The Border Police often prides itself on being HaShachpatz shel HaMedina – the bulletproof vest of the country. Anyone who enlists in the Border Police knows they will be sent to highly dangerous, unglamorous assignments where they are a buffer between civilians and those who seek to harm them, all while serving in an oft-maligned force where the hazards don’t pay off in prestige. Other than the officers from their mistarvim undercover unit, Border Police don’t operate in the shadows – they are out in the open, specifically in locations of serious friction between the Palestinian civilian population and Israeli authorities, places like Damascus Gate.
Hadar and her comrade wounded in the attack are ultimately much like countless other Israeli youths sent into terribly dangerous situations only months after they stopped being civilians, and before they stopped being teenagers. Take for instance the 13 soldiers of the Golani Brigade’s 13th Division who were killed in Gaza City’s Shujaya neighborhood on the night of July 20th during Operation Protective Edge. Of these, at least 6 were inside a lightly-armored, Vietnam era M-113 armored personnel carrier that was hit by an anti-tank missile fired by a Hamas fighter. They had no chance, and were most likely killed instantly.
Most of the 13 were 21-years-old or younger, including 2 who were as young as Hadar and her colleague. All of them were young men sent into a neighborhood Hamas had turned into a fortress of attack tunnels and heavily fortified homes full of fighters. Some had been in basic training only months earlier, and were sent into a lethal environment with insufficient tools at their disposal. Like Hadar’s family, their loved ones deserve answers too.
Many people feel an extra measure of pain and loss when the young person cut down in the line of fire is female. There is often more outrage about the loss, more questions directed at commanders. This is perhaps understandable, but ignores the fact that in the Border Police women are constantly deployed to these front-line positions where they face the same threats as their male colleagues.
After her death the condolences came in from the entire senior police leadership, as well as from Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Prime Minster Benyamin Netanyahu. Hadar was praised as a hero who helped fight off the terrorists and saved the life of her comrade, a 19-year-old new female recruit like herself.
There’s no reason to doubt the official account, but after tragedies like this, the tales of heroism feel at times like a salve hastily thrown on a devastating wound in an attempt to ease the pain. There may be comfort taken in knowing that a loved one died a hero, but it can’t change the fact that they’re gone, or that like Hadar, that their lives were taken before they had truly begun.
It reads like a real life suburban horror story, and the reaction has been in kind. Over the past week American immigrant Jay Engelmayer’s post on The Times of Israel about a police drug raid on his family’s Modi’in home has been shared more than 7,700 times. Along the way, it has been discussed by countless Anglos in Israel, who see it as an indictment of the brutality and lack of professionalism of the Israel Police, or, like Engelmayer, as almost a reason to question living here at all.
A marijuana grow room busted by police in Kiryat Malachi in mid-February. (Credit: Police)
He describes an early morning raid earlier this month by detectives who he said verbally and physically abused him and his four children ages 13 to 19, keeping them in custody for hours after executing a search warrant due to information that there was marijuana in the house. He said he was strip-searched, kept shackled and cuffed; and that under interrogation police smacked him around and insulted his family, calling his daughter a “whore.”
The story is indeed disturbing, though by no means is it a rare, strange or extreme example of Israeli police conduct.
Engelmayer, a native of New York, said that every Israeli he’s told his story to says this type of thing happens all the time and relates a story of a friend or relative who went through a similar ordeal. For Anglo olim though, the reaction has been shock and bewilderment.
“The Israelis just say this s**t happens, but Americans are outraged by this,” he said this week, admitting that he was shocked by the whole incident, and that he thought this sort of stuff happened to truly bad people – violent criminals, terrorists; people like that.
Engelmayer said Israelis told him he should be thankful he wasn’t Arab or Ethiopian or things would have been worse.
He said that while he’s aware of that, he can only vouch for his own personal experience, which was bad enough.
He said the raid was part of a misunderstanding, perhaps relating to a text message one of his daughters sent a year-anda- half ago joking to a friend that her father grew marijuana.
Ch.-Insp. Leah Zohar, spokeswoman for the Shfela subdistrict police, said the contention that the raid was based solely on a text message is “completely false,” but would not give further details as the investigation is ongoing. In an official statement she said that as part of a juvenile drug investigation police executed a court-issued search warrant “during which the suspect was present and confirmed that no damage was done to his person or property.”
Engelmayer contends that he signed the forms after police threatened to keep his family in custody.
In a statement earlier this month, Zohar said that for two months the juvenile crime branch of the Modi’in station has carried out an undercover investigation into suspected drug dealing and use among local teenagers and that police working the case raided a house a week earlier and questioned two teens on suspicion of selling drugs. They said the investigation also dealt with a 16-year-old who allegedly stole medical marijuana from one of his parents, which he then sold to other youth. Engelmayer denies any connection to these allegations.
Criminal defense attorney Coby Margolov said after reading the blog post that the one thing that sticks out as a violation is the fact that an underage daughter of Engelmayer’s was questioned by police without a guardian present, but said that unlike in the United States, in Israel Engelmayer himself has no right to have a lawyer present while undergoing police questioning.
He said that he hopes the judge who signed off on the search warrant was shown more evidence than a text message.
Margolov said that while it’s clear the police should have been more understanding and sympathetic, for the most part he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary for Israeli police executing a court-approved drug search warrant. He said allegations of police violence could justify filing a complaint with the Justice Ministry’s Police Investigation Department, though it would be Engelmayer’s word against that of the officers regardless. He did say, however, that he could see reason to file a conduct complaint with the police complaints commissioner regarding the officers’ behavior.
Immigrants from the US are constantly comparing the workings of the state to what they were used to back home. The police are one of the institutions most often held up for comparison, and for good reason – on a daily basis they are one of the arms of the state that many citizens are most likely to encounter, and for normal everyday citizens, on the rare occasions we interact with them directly it’s often as part of a traumatic, jarring or just expensive and annoying experience. The NYPD is often held up as a shining example of a police department that “serves and protects” and should be emulated by the amateurs in Israel.
There’s something to all this, but at times it can also be a case of the grass seeming greener on the other side (or just that nobody asked an African American to weigh in). One only has to mention Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Jonathan Ferrell, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose or Freddie Gray, and the list goes on.
While the Israel Police lack much of the professionalism, prestige, formalities and pageantry of their American counterparts, they also have – especially in recent years – a much less bloody track record.
Having said that, the simple fact that police brutality is in many ways worse in America should be of no comfort to someone who is mistreated by the police in Israel.
In comments on Engelmayer’s blog and on Facebook, a number of people looking to defend the Israel Police (or Zionism or the country as a whole) said that not only is his case an extreme and rare example (it isn’t) but also that one must remember that police put their lives on the line every day for Israelis as the first line of defense against terrorists and one of their top targets.
This is definitely true, and something that Engelmayer himself said on the phone this week. But these two things are not mutually exclusive. The same cop who will rush to your aid against a knife-wielding terrorist even if he’s without his sidearm could also, while executing a search warrant, act like a bully and a thug and humiliate you in front of your kids. The inverse is true as well.
It’s no accident that terrorism and the security situation tend to enter this debate.
The police are in the unique position of having to fight terrorists and external enemies within the country and to also enforce the law against their fellow citizens, for crimes that have nothing to do with the conflict. This has been especially true in recent months, as police from across the country have cycled through reinforcements helping stop stabbing attacks in Jerusalem and elsewhere. There is no switch they turn off when they leave that deployment to return to petty drug arrests and answering noise complaints. The lines at times may become blurred.
The impression often given by police – in Israel, but not only – is that they don’t seem to fully grasp how disruptive and traumatic it can be for your everyday citizen to enter the criminal justice system.
It comes across in the drive under former commissioner Yohanan Danino to push for more arrests until the end of legal proceedings and more indictments. It comes across in the language, the press releases almost daily that show pictures of marijuana growing operations – some very impressive but many laughably small and pathetic – along with descriptions about the “drug dealers arrested for trafficking dangerous drugs.” Each one of these people could be your neighbor, friend or even a relative who may now have to pay a very serious price.
That’s before we even take a look at those who get caught up in the system due to mistaken police work, false testimony or just being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
People often like to talk about being tough on crime but perhaps don’t fully grasp that it isn’t a matter of us versus them or a black-and-white issue. Any one of us can potentially get caught up, and even if the case is closed, the scars can take a very long time to heal.
The news that December morning broke with a bang, and for good reason. An Israeli gunned down in a vehicle strafed with automatic rifle fire near the seam line with the West Bank in southern Israel, with all signs pointing to another shooting attack in the “Lone Wolf Intifada”.
Within minutes though, everyone could breathe a sigh of relief – it was a criminal shooting, part of a blood feud in the nearby Beduin village of Hura. Just Arabs killing Arabs, feel free to change the channel.
The next day, police located the car used in the drive-by shooting, abandoned next to a cemetery in Hura. As detectives began to cordon off the scene, they were attacked by a mob of rock-throwing locals, and one local man even tried to use the volley of rocks as cover to sneak up and torch the vehicle in a failed bid to destroy evidence, according to police.
Ever since Israeli Arab Nashat Milhem killed three in a shooting spree in Tel Aviv on New Year’s Day, the issue of firearms in the Arab sector has suddenly, mercifully become a national priority issue, after years in which it was mainly discussed only by local Arab leaders, the police, and security officials. Until Milhem began spraying Dizengoff with automatic fire, the guns were mainly confined to the Arab sector, part of homicidal clan violence, organized crime feuds, and the drug trade. But with an Israeli Arab shooting up the heart of Tel Aviv – now we have a problem.
The two incidents in Hura speak volumes about crime and the Arab sector and how difficult it will be for the government and the security services to carry out the sort of large-scale anti firearms operations in the Arab sector that politicians have been pushing for the past week.
The drive-by shooting came less than 24 hours after a Hura man was killed in the village during a brawl between two rival clans. The drive-by the next day was seen as a reprisal killing for that murder, and though the same patch of southern Israel saw two murders in less than 24 hours, there was little coverage because murders and gunplay in Beduin villages are about as dog-bites-man as you can get.
The attack on police at the cemetery the next day was a microcosm of the difficulties law enforcement faces in these communities. Officers working to solve a murder – in a community where locals and their political leaders routinely accuse police of not caring about solving murders – are attacked by locals who risk arrest and injury in order to obstruct justice and thwart police efforts to catch a killer.
Without interest from the wider Israeli public and the media, there will be little political impetus for the government to make fighting crime in the Arab sector a national priority. And even if it does remain a priority, as long as police do not receive sufficient cooperation from those very same communities, their efforts to fight crime and rid their streets of firearms will be dramatically more difficult.
The rock-throwing mob is perhaps an extreme example, but it is still part of a wider atmosphere of animosity. In communities across the Arab sector, enlistment in the police is almost non-existent, working for the police brands you a “collaborator”, and there is a strong culture of silence preventing people from cooperating with authorities. Add to this also the very real and understandable fear of violent retribution from criminals, and one can see why cultivating police informants in the Arab sector is such a difficult task.
This is consistent with the issues inherent to minority policing in countries around the world. In minority communities, police from the majority population are very often the most visible arm of the state, and the source of fear, suspicion, and often, abuse. Thus there is often an almost impossible situation where the very community that has the most volatile and loaded relationship with police is the one that also needs them the most, and from whom police need the strongest working relationship.
Israeli Arabs are disproportionately the victims and perpetrators of violent crime, with over 1,100 fatalities from gun violence in the Arab sector since 2000. According to figures presented at a Knesset hearing in 2012, Israeli Arabs – who make up around 20% of the population – were involved in 67% of homicides and 70% of attempted homicides, and made up about 40% of homicide victims.
This is a problem that mainly ravages their communities and not ours, but must remain a national priority nonetheless.
Another recent story showed the difficulties of dealing with the scourge of crime in the Arab sector.
In the first days of the manhunt for Milhem, when investigators suspected he may be hiding in North Tel Aviv, officers fanned out across Ramat Aviv, home to Tel Aviv University and a large number of Israeli Arab students who study at the institution. In a series of Facebook posts that went viral in Israel, Israeli Arab students from the university described how police and Shin Bet agents came and searched their apartments without warrants, rifling through their belongings and interrogating them as part of their search for Milhem.
The students said some officers were nice, some were rude and intimidating, and all of them left them with the feeling that they are being treated as criminals simply because of their race, even as they are college students without criminal records or any connection to Milhem.
Even with the support of politicians and increased police manpower and resources, fighting this problem will remain impossible if law enforcement doesn’t receive greater cooperation from the Israeli Arab community.
Treating them as second class citizens and criminals until proven otherwise, is not going to help this campaign.
Confusion seemed the order of the day in the minutes after a gunman had opened fire on a pub and a café on Dizengoff Friday afternoon, killing 2 and wounding 8 before vanishing without a trace.
Cop hitches a ride on a bike north on Dizengoff, in a mad dash to find the attacker. (Ben Hartman)
A rumor caught wind – from a reporter, maybe, or a random cop – that a suspect had been spotted a few blocks north on Nordau, and plainclothes cops with assault rifles started to give chase. It was then that something I’d never seen before happened – a female cop with an M-16 hopped on the back of a civilian’s electric bicycle, as did a detective and then a third plainclothes officer, their assault rifles held high as they set off on a moderately fast, low-carbon footprint pursuit of a possible attacker further up Dizengoff.
(It seems a bit formal to say they “commandeered” the bicycles. I think in America cops commandeer a vehicle, flashing a badge as they chase a bus that must stay above 50mph or it explodes. In Israel though? I’m pretty sure the cyclist sees the cop running to stop an attack and says nu, yalla and they head up the sidewalk.)
As a cameraman and I gave chase on foot, another strange thing happened. An empty #5 bus that had been abandoned further down the street past the police tape where its passengers got off and fled during the attack began driving up the street. It opened its front door and three reporters and two detectives jumped in, their colleagues pulling them in like they were hobos jumping onto a freight train. The bus keeps driving on the way to Nordau but stops after a block and everyone gets off, the detectives included.
Cops on Dizengoff using a faster means of transportation. (Ben Hartman)
The two officers – who said they are stationed in the West Bank District and just happened to be in Tel Aviv on Friday – don’t actually know where Nordau is, or what report they’re following. They ask this reporter what the story is and start running towards Nordau, only to double back.
They seem confused, but they’re trying.
Speaking of confusion, Friday wasn’t the greatest display in the history of the Tel Aviv District spokespersons either.
Their first message about shots fired went out on WhatsApp to crime reporters at 2:53pm, and then they went silent until 3:12, only to report that there were people shot outside a bar/restaurant/café and some were hurt. They added that paramedics were working the scene, and it’s unclear if it’s a terror attack or criminal.
The first comprehensive report (or something approaching such) went out finally at 5:52 pm, almost three hours later. Sure, it’s important in such hectic stories to be careful and know what you’re reporting, but they seemed lost, unable or willing to answer questions in real time.
That’s certainly not always the case, and in the last attack in Tel Aviv – the stabbing attack at the Panorama building that left two dead – the spokesperson’s branch did a great job and all but one reporter praised them in the WhatsApp group. The reporter (not their first time) dissented and was roundly shut down by the rest of the reporters.
I don’t know if to chalk up today’s failure to the mass confusion and the fact that the attacker hadn’t been caught (unlike in the Panorama attack), but there was something disconcerting about the whole display.
The attacker wasn’t the first one to get away in this recent wave of terror attacks, but that fact also bears noting. With all the talk about the increased police patrols and the spike in the number of civilians getting firearms permits, there was no armed person on the street at the scene when the shooting started, or apparently nearby. The attack was only a few blocks south of the police station on Dizengoff between Jabotinsky and Nordau, but still, the man was able to flee through the streets of the country’s busiest city on a Friday afternoon and vanish.
The city was already a bit slower than usual for a Friday afternoon, it bears saying. It was the morning after New Year’s eve and all day the weather had been cold and rainy, and there was even a bit of hail earlier in the day.
Still, even in the minutes after the shooting, there were restaurants and bars further up Dizengoff that were pretty full. One could say this affirms a Tel Aviv cliché about how “life goes on” and people “won’t give in to terror”, and they’d probably be right. I figure though you can get a pass on that when the shooter is still at large, especially if you already got the check.
This is probably the point where a writer would mention how close they were to the attack in the minutes or days before. Well, turns out I was actually right next door to the pub two days ago, joining a friend while he got his hair cut at this new hipster sort of lumberjack rockabilly barber shop. Going further back in time, it was a couple doors down from the place where my wife used to get her hair done and the café was years earlier the Café Joe, where my wife wrote her MA thesis on many busy nights back in 2007. A few doors down from there is Dizengoff 148, the building where we lived on the top floor, above the Ilka, and where we had all those rooftop parties years before everybody started having kids.
Why’s that matter? It doesn’t really, and truth be told, in a city as small and packed as Tel Aviv, it’s rare that an attack won’t be near some place that has some meaning to you if you lived here.
It’s part of what’s normal here – seeing your surroundings as being touched by political violence in the not too distant past or somewhere around the corner.
The feeling of a Friday night in the city with an attacker at loose and people saying they’ll stay at home also feels familiar from years earlier, but that will pass too.