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New to Israel, jolted by missiles, Barak is ready for army

My name is Caleb, but because nobody here in Israel can pronounce it, I am now called Barak. That means “lightning” in Hebrew.

A new name isn’t the only change I’ve made since moving to Israel three months ago after graduating from the University of Oregon. I now identify as an Israeli American Jew, and soon I will embrace the experience of serving my new country as a combat soldier in the Givati Brigade. I grew up, however, in San Francisco, and am a graduate of Jewish Community High School of the Bay.

I’ve picked up a few Israeli characteristics during my time here thus far. I bargain on prices, shove people in order to get a seat on the bus and pick the tomatoes out of the salad with my bare hands.

Additionally, I’ve put on an Israel Defense Forces uniform, ridden my bicycle through Tel Aviv in search of the best hummus and nourished my skin in the Dead Sea.

Several weeks ago, however, I had a different Israeli experience.

I spent a night in a bomb shelter in Kibbutz Hatzerim, just west of the southern city of Beersheva. I was woken up 16 times by a blaring siren, followed by a ground-rattling explosion. The louder it was, the closer it was — we would speculate on what it hit.

The next morning, the sirens continued to blare. I thought I could grab 10 minutes for a shower, but I was mistaken. Yes, I ran to the shelter barefoot, wearing a towel. Honestly, I thought about leaving the towel. These missiles are very real.

The political science faculty at the University of Oregon challenged me to think objectively and to argue based on historical fact, not on sympathies or passions. This process only brought me closer to Israel. I realized that a political science degree combined with army experience might help me improve Israel’s imperfect résumé and move the country toward a nonviolent era —one of the principal reasons I opted to join the IDF.

Regarding the just-concluded violence, there are multiple opinions as to who is at fault and what Israel did to provoke rocket fire. These are important questions to ask. I desperately want to know why Hamas fires rockets at me, deliberately aiming for my communities, my grandmothers, my friends.

When rocket fire goes off, here’s what happens in the south: surgeries in hospitals get canceled, schools get shut down, people lie in bomb shelters wondering when they can work or eat. There is no room in the bomb shelters for the animals at my kibbutz petting zoo — what must go on in their heads, I wonder?

There’s no way to have quiet in the midst of blaring sirens, and there’s no way to drown out the explosions. They’re very loud and they’re very real. Let’s be clear: This was a defensive war. Israel is tired of the rocket fire it has suffered for the past 12 years, more than 800 this year alone. I believe that talk and negotiations are powerful. But ultimately, the IDF has an obligation to defend its citizens from attack.

Israelis are not the only people the IDF cares about. It has dropped leaflets telling Palestinian civilians in Gaza to evacuate in anticipation of a targeted bombing, delivered myriad text and phone messages, and even aborted air strikes upon hearing civilians were in an area. Hamas has told civilians to ignore such warnings, as it gathers them in the places from which it launches its rockets: apartments, schools, mosques, hospitals, playgrounds.

Break it down: Israel is doing its utmost to minimize civilian casualties, Hamas is doing its utmost to incur more and more civilian casualties.

I write this from north of Tel Aviv; this city and its environs experienced rocket attacks for the first time since Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles over 20 years ago. I am safe for the time being. However, the past few days I spent under fire in southern Israel have left me jolted. The sound of rushing water from my showerhead sounds like the whizzing of a rocket, and any beeping noise reminiscent of an alarm is surprisingly startling.

This is my reaction to just a few days of rockets falling. Can you imagine the psyche of someone going through this in Sderot or Ashkelon? What about a child? What about a grandmother who survived the Holocaust, or a grandfather who came fleeing anti-Semitism and seeking safety from Iran or Iraq or the former Soviet Union? What about a Palestinian child in Gaza, whose family is used as a human shield by Hamas?

I want you, reader, to know this. Share home movies and personal accounts of rocket fire. Don’t just regurgitate the facts. Show how rocket fire destroys the lives of civilians, in every way possible. Share someone’s story. Share my story.

All I ask of Israel right now is to defend me.

I’m ready to defend it.

I signed up for it.

Caleb Zipperstein, a Greenbrae native, was the StandWithUs Emerson Fellow 2011 at the University of Oregon and made aliyah with Nefesh B’Nefesh in August. He wrote this piece shortly before his induction into the IDF.