Diaries From Wartime: Crippling Interruptions to Institutional Trust

Image by IDF

Anchoring Truths is proud to bring you Jana Paley’s Diaries from Wartime, a multipart account of her experience in Israel in the wake of the attacks by Hamas in October 2023. Anchoring Truths Co-Founder Hadley Arkes, Paley’s one-time professor at Amherst College, provides a preface to this multipart series here.

December 26, 2023

Jerusalem, Israel

81 Days Since Hamas Brutally Attacked Israel

Last night I had the privilege of dining with a dear friend of one of my oldest friends, Carice Witte. We finished the evening, at least in my opinion, feeling like we had known each other forever. While en route to meet her in Tel Aviv, I developed a set of questions to pepper her with regarding Israeli politics, Hamas, the war, what to do about Gaza, and what it is like to have a child in the IDF. As we began to speak, however, I realized that life goes on in Israel despite the war.

Carice is a New Yorker who made Aliyah to Israel in the late 1980s. She has worn many hats working in and running family businesses with her former husband, while raising five children. Now without husband and with her children grown, she has embarked on an effort that she has been intrigued by since her Yale days — China’s role in the world and specifically, China-Israel relations. She founded SIGNAL, a think tank whose name truly states its aim: Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership. Carice’s group focuses on how China’s policies, in areas as diverse as defense and education, may impact Israel and the Middle East region, and vice-versa. She quickly explained that it may seem to the West that China’s rise to the top of the world stage happened rapidly, but Carice envisioned it for years and recognized that there are many misconceptions about China’s policies toward Israel and the Middle East. Her endeavor is to educate around misconceptions by building relationships with academic and foreign policy communities for the purpose of creating coalitions. For example, she invites Chinese educators to come to Israel to learn Israeli teaching methods; in turn, they bring those modalities back to China. It may be as simple as explicating the Socratic method prevalent in Israel in hopes that it will one day help to erode the more pedantic methods prevalent in China, which may help future generations learn to work together seamlessly.

What Carice’s group hopes to achieve is much better explained on SIGNAL’s website, but what I want to bluntly convey by telling all of you about her is that the Israeli people continue to pursue their businesses and their passions. Two large problems for many is the uncertainty around institutions like Israeli universities reopening, and a restoration of confidence in travel. Diplomatic travel that does not concern the war, I am told, is almost non-existent, and that tracks with what I see on the ground.

The Jerusalem Civilian Command was busy today, but we had a full compliment of volunteers, so restocking the store and taking in new inventory went quickly. The extra hands allowed me to leave early and walk over to the Israeli Museum which houses art, antiquities, Judaica, and, of course, the Dead Sea Scrolls. Tuesday is usually the busiest day for the Museum and it stays open til 8pm. When I arrived  before 6pm, I was almost sure the museum was tight shut, but a soldier told me that though the lights were low, the museum was open. 

On days when the Metropolitan and MOMA are open late, throngs of visitors walk through before bustling off to dinner. I am sad to report that the Israel Museum was as empty as an insincere promise.  Though I tried to sign up with an English speaking docent, after a wait, I learned the guide had canceled because she figured no one would show. More disappointing was learning that the Shrine of the Book which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls was closed due to security concerns and a dearth of staff.

A self guided tour was available via app, so I forged ahead on my own. The collection is phenomenal, especially the Safra Gallery for contemporary Israeli art filled with artists that I did not know, but with whom I must become familiar. There was some amazing talent, including the work of Ziva Jelin, who hails from Kibbutz Be’Eri which was massacred on October 7. Observing her work, “Curving Road,” a saturated red landscape, sent an electric shock through my body. You must view this work made in 2010 on the Museum’s website!

December 27, 2023

Jerusalem, Israel

Just like the human body seeks to return to homeostasis after it has been stressed, socio-economic systems tend to do the same thing. That became evident today when one of my favorite Jerusalem Civilian Command Center co-workers bade farewell to me, telling me she’d be starting her semester at Hebrew University this Sunday. Israeli colleges and universities typically begin their school year right after the observances associated with the Jewish New Year — Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. Had the attacks not happened, most schools would have begun session on or about October 15. Of course, with so many students and faculty called up for reserve duty, known as Miluim, it was impossible for the school year to launch.

Oren tells me that the start of college and university classes this Sunday is actually quite controversial. Though some young people and their teaches are itching for a return to some sort of normalcy, many feel that this is unfair to the other fellow students and teachers who are performing reserve duty. Oren explained to me that there have been several false starts to the school year; she actually thought that school would begin around December 3rd and then there was a delay until December 24th. When that did not happen, she began to wonder if the school year would be delayed until the spring. Though Oren has already served in the IDF, she will be called up for her reserve duty in May, and she is already concerned about how this will interfere with her studies in Environmental Strategies.

Many students feel that their classmates who are serving will be left behind and perhaps that they may even lose specific grants and aid packages for student housing. According to local news sources like THE TIMES OF ISRAEL, the Association of University Heads are in concert with the IDF Administration to do their utmost in ensuring that reservists will receive a diverse basket of aid along with creative individual solutions, to enable student-soldiers to continue and complete their educations. In a combined statement, university leaders and the IDF committed to ensuring that no soldiers will be left behind and that faculty members will be able to go back to their various grants and projects, as well as to their classrooms. By the way, an estimated 30% of Israeli students and teachers are serving!

I asked Oren if soldier-students receive any academic credit for their service and she said that many do, but she shrewdly went on to say that though schools may allow them to graduate in a timely manner, they lose out on their actual education. Some schools will offer pass/fail options which means some students will choose to get by doing the minimum. Even more compromising is that the university heads made the decision to drastically shorten the academic year to two shortened semesters of 11 weeks each, which means that the school year will be about 90 days shorter than usual. Oren believes that many courses to which she looked forward will be streamlined to such a point that she will only receive a cursory education this year. She rues that the same thing happened during the Covid pandemic.

The bigger concern among all of Oren’s fellow classmates is knowing what will happen to the school year if the war expands into the North. Hostilities along the Israel-Lebanon border have heated up. There is great concern that the conflict will widen especially since many believe Hezbollah, which is rooted in the North, has basically received a blank check from Iran. Israel has been resolute that it wants to finish its work in Gaza before opening up the front in the North, but sometimes the spread of conflict is not within the control of the nation that is defending itself.

One thing is for sure, though the system may seek homeostasis, it will not be business as usual at colleges and universities. Many students and faculty will be dealing with the effects of war, and the trauma associated with the initial attacks and the ensuing conflict. I wished Oren “mazel!”

December 28, 2023

Jerusalem, Israel

When I took my afternoon break today to get a Diet Coke—from one of the few stores which stocks them instead of Coke Zero which is the preferred Israeli drink—,I bumped into two young women who could not be more than twenty years-old. Having come into the Jerusalem Civilian Command Center a few times to look for warm clothes, they immediately recognized me. They told the shopkeeper, who already knew my name and knew that I am a volunteer, that they met me at the JCCC and that they are grateful to me and other Americans for coming to support Israel. They spoke a little bit of English, but the vendor was bilingual, so a four-way conversation began and, boy, did I finally get a new view of the IDF.

The twosome were members of an IDF unit known as the “Tatzpitaniyot,” an all-female group which literally serves as the “eyes of the army,” conducting border surveillance of both Gaza and the West Bank.  These young women explained through the shopkeeper, now serving as a full-fledged interpreter, that they had been embedded at the base in Nahal Oz near the kibbutzes massacred on October 7. They explained that their unit had reported up through the proverbial chain of command about how Hamas had been preparing an onslaught for months, maybe even longer. Every day, these army women, who frankly still look like teenagers, and co-workers sit for 9 hours in front of a computer screen linked to security cameras and sensors in Gaza and they are responsible for observing stretches of land encompassing just a few kilometers. Their job is to report anomalies. They both humbly said that they watch their screens like hawks.

Through my interpreter, I learned that some of the clues they witnessed firsthand were incredibly subtle.  Some of their co-workers, for example, began to notice that the people they constantly followed completely changed their work routines. But what these two related was far from subtle — both of them witnessed training exercises where men practiced jumping out of moving trucks with their guns ready to shoot. They related that others saw men train with explosives while they watched men rehearsing to capture hostages. Also, they saw more and more drones being flown each day from Gaza, which one can only assume were deployed to spy on the very kibbutzes that Hamas planned to massacre. At this point of their story, I found that I had to sit down and take a deep breath. Of course, I have heard much of this on the news, but it is incredibly different hearing it directly from the people who were there.

One of the pair was much less communicative than the other, so I asked my interpreter if talking about her experience was too upsetting and maybe I should let them go on their way. They spoke in Hebrew for a bit, and he explained to me that the quieter young woman was feeling a sense of survivor’s guilt, but that making sure people know her story actually makes her feel better. So, we continued to talk and I asked what I thought were tough questions: Did these women feel that the their commanders ignored their warnings because they were women or did the superiors ignore the warnings because they were not officers?

I wish their answers shocked me, but as I have read quite a bit about the “Tatzpitaniyot,” I was hardly surprised to hear that they both felt factors combined into a perfect storm to create the dismissal of their warnings. They both reported that there is definitely sexism present in the IDF and the more vociferous of the two said in broken English that if she were a man, she would have been taken far more seriously. They both also expressed it to be a matter of rank; the “Tatzpitaniyot” are not officers and are often given short shrift by command.

Through discussions over the last ten days, I have also learned that what these watchers reported simply did not fit the narrative that top Army officials and the Intelligence services wanted to hear. No one thought Hamas was fixing for a major confrontation. Let us just hope that the IDF has learned a lesson and that the reports of these women are never overlooked again. I thanked them both and tried to pay for their snacks — they were too proud to accept. 

Jana Paley has become a leading figure in business as the CEO of Ark Properties, building “affordable work-force multi-family housing,” and Ark Ventures, becoming a “foundational investor” in such companies as PM Pediatrics, a chain for pediatric urgent care. She is a graduate of the Wharton School of Business and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, but even before that she was a student of Prof. Arkes at Amherst College.

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