One day in late July, we went pretty close to the Gaza Strip.  We went about as close as you can get these days, and found ourselves on “holy ground.”   

We went to the town of Sederot, into a 25 year-old kibbutz, only two miles from Gaza.  We spent a couple of hours there.

Sederot is one of those communities which — at the moment — experiences occassional rocket fire from Gaza.  However, in the past, it has experienced extremely intense and unrelenting rocket fire.  Barage after barage is more to the point!

We were visiting Nomika Zion, from The Other Voice.  (www.othervoice.org)  We were crammed into the living room of her home.  She kept us spellbound with her story of living in great fear — reaching a breaking point — deciding to do something — and coming into a constructive place beyond hatred.

Two days before we were there, Sederot fielded two rockets from Gaza.

Nomika Zion told us that there have been thousands and thousands of rockets launched on Sederot over the last few years.  In the beginning they were rather primitive, but the rockets have become more and more sophisticated over the years.

“Over the last 11 years, we are living under a rain of rockets,” said Zion, “The impact on peoples lives is enormous and dramatic.  It’s easier to survive a three week war than an ongoing conflict.”

Zion reminded us that stress over years affects immune systems and defense systems, “to the point that you cannot cope.”  The people of Sederot experienced clinical depression, and were the victims of shock and anxiety.  Many people left Sederot, and about 100 small businesses have closed in Sederot and the region.

“Twenty-five thousand people have been traumatized in one way our another,” said Zion.

“If you are lucky to not get hit or injured, you are still traumatized — traumatized by the situation.”

She explained that safety became the preoccupation of ones mind: all the time wondering if family members and friends were safe.  The overarching concern, while doing everyday tasks about town, was the problem of having only 5 to 10 seconds to get to a safe room or a shelter.

“It becomes an emotional project — which route I am going to take — can I find a shelter?  It’s like Russian roulette — you don’t have a place to run.”

Now Sederot is the most sheltered city in the world.  A great deal of money has been spent on community shelters, fortifying schools, and hundreds of safe rooms have been added to peoples homes or incorporated into new home construction. 

“How painful that the money goes to security and not other social needs,” she said.

When things were particularly bad, night after night, families had to sleep together in their safe rooms.

“That’s what happened to the family life — to the intimacy.  It’s very difficult.  People had to sleep together,” said Zion.

Over time, she became depressed, “down,” and hopeless. She came to feel guilty about raising her children in Sederot.

At one point there was some group therapy offered in the community. She says it actually saved the community. But at the same time, older children were asking, “Why raise us here?”

She said politicans came and went, nationally, and each tried to benefit politically from the situation with Gaza.  She said the dominant mood became, “Destroy Gaza! Destoy Gaza!”

Yet, somehow in the midst of all that mayhem, she remembered that Sederot had enjoyed a rather close relationship with people in Gaza people prior to the 1st Intifada.  (Dec. 1987 to 1993)

“There had been an Arabic market in Sederot, with many farmers from Gaza. Of course, I never forgot there was an occupation, we were never equal in that sense.”

In Sederot and beyond, the language of fear and hostility with each side demonizing the other, reached a fevered pitch.

“It became more and more extreme!” she recalls.

In January 2008, the rockets were 50 to 60 per day — 25 per cent of the population of Sederot moved out.

In the midst of that fear and chaos, she gathered and established a group that is now called, “The Other Voice.” It started with 20 people, of different ages and backgrounds.  In the beginning they shared their feelings and discusssed the cycles of violence and revenge.

As a group, “We are not ready to tolerate these extreme voices,” she said.

“We refuse to see the people of Gaza as enemies — but neighbours and victims as well — worse than we are — maybe 10 times more.”

“We believe in dialogue.  We wanted to reach out.  This is how it all started,” said Zion.

It took time as they began to talk to people from Gaza by telephone. They called old friends and contacts.

“We could listen to them over the telephone — share views, and feelings.”

“One contact led to another,” she recalls, “We opened a human channel of communication with Gaza.”

“We were not popular with everyone in Sederot. And in Gaza they risked their lives by talking to us.  One friend was captured and tortured in Gaza.”

“In Israeli society, over the years, there have been so many wars.  One war has led to another, all our life.”

Zion says the predominant pattern of thinking in Israeli society is “the next war, the next war, the next war…” 

“You cannot discuss an alternative!” she exclaimed.

“We just lost our ability to see the other side.  We lost our capacity to see the Palestinians as human beings.”

“When we lose our empathy, we lose part of ourselves as human beings.  The majority just don’t care anymore!  It’s like we are on different planets.”

“Palestinians are treated as invisible, as if they don’t have faces, voices, an identity.  They are treated as if they have ony one identity: as terrorists or political terrorists. This is why you lose your empathy.”

“You only hear in the news when there is a violent incident.  In the news there are many manipulatiosn — many spins.”

“When you stop seeing the other as a human being, eventually you stop being human yourself.”

The goal of The Other Voice is to “make the invisible visible.”

“We are trying to not see Hamas as a dark demon on the other side.”

In late 2008, with the Israel invasion of Gaza, she found herself quite torn emotionally. She found herself concerned for her own mental codition, for her community, her children, her friends,  the Israeli soldiers she knows, and her contacts in Gaza.

“Who is going to come back and out of the army? Even if they come back, what will happen to their minds and souls? War just poisons your mind and heart — they pollute your soul.”

“We heard terrible stories from Gaza.  The walls here were shaking from the rockets.  The Israeli army crushed Gaza for 24 hours a day,” she said.

“It’s the largest prison in the world.”

“I lay in bed and I thought more for the people of Gaza than for the people of here.  The music of war (bombing) was non-stop for three weeks — the music that comes from Gaza.”

Eventually, in January, she “couldn’t contain all the sides.”  She couldn’t bear it.  She had to stand up, and speak out. 

So, she wrote an eloquent and passionate open letter to Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as  a letter to the editor in a major newspaper.  She believes it was her civil obligation.

In part, she said on April 30, 2010, “Not in my name and not for me you went to war. The current bloodbath in Gaza is not in my name and not for my security. Destroyed homes, bombed schools, thousands of new refugees – are not in my name and not for my security. In Gaza there is no time for burial ceremonies now, the dead are put in refrigerators in twos, because there is no room. Here their bodies lay, policemen, children,

“I got myself neither security nor quiet from this war. After such an essential calm, that helped all of us heal emotionally and mentally and experience some sanity again [Nomika is referring here to the first 5 months of cease-fire, which were observed by both sides – Assaf] – our leaders have brought us back to the same wounded, anxiety-ridden place. To the same humiliating, terrified sprinting to shelter.”

“Don’t mistake me. Hamas is an evil, terrible terror organization. Not just for us. First and foremost to its own citizens. But beyond that wretched leadership there are human beings. With hard labor, ordinary people on both sides build small bridges of human gestures. This is what the Kol Aher, a group of people from Sderot and elsewhere on the Gaza border of which I am a member, has been doing. We have tried to lay down a human route to the hearts of our neighbors. While we have won a five-month calm, they continued to suffer under the siege.”

“I was ready to pay the price of isolation, but I was not ready to pay the price of fear,” she said.

To her surprise, words of support and encouragement flooded in from Israel and around the world.  She realized she was not a lonely voice. 

Zion proudly displays a humanitarioan award — the Niarchos Prize For Survivorship — which she shares with the survivors of Rwanda and Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, who wrote, I Shall Not Hate.

(Abuelaish lost his three daughters and a neice, and two of his other children were bably injured in the war on Gaza which raged from  Dec. 28, 2008 to January 18, 2009. Thirteen Israelis and 1,400 Palestinains were killed in the war.)

Today she recognizes her own actions as a “courageous thing”  — given her family history.  She is third generation descended from Holocaust survivors.

She asks what is the lesson from her own family’s “dark history.”

“Now we victimize others.  (But) My lesson is, never, never, victimize other people.  This is my lesson from my history as a Jewish person.”

After our conversation in her home, and a brief tour of the kibbutz — complete with safe shelters in the childrens park, we went to an open expansive field — a kind of no man’s land — between us and Gaza.  

Knowing the plight of the people of Gaza, that it is like a large P.O.W. camp, and that everyone in and around Gaza longs for peace — it’s hard not to gaze across at Gaza with a certain sadness and longing. 

That yearning is a yearning for peace with justice, and the rebuilding of relationships. 

It is a yearning for the madness to end!

My spiritual guts tell me that The Holy One might also like to cry out, “Not in my name, not in my name!”

Instead, The Holy One sends prophets — female and male!

Hallelujah!

I am greateful to have sat at the feet of this prophet! 

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