This is War: Notes from Tel Aviv

Noise itself – the sirens and the booms – produces fear and anxiety. It creates a feeling of danger, of violence and of imminent destruction. However, for those in Tel Aviv, this violence and destruction never came. It was felt only through these everyday noises, these sounds that remind Israelis that their “right to exist” is threatened and create the illusion that this is somehow a “fair fight.”

By Alexandra Schindler


I. sirens as soundscape

The first time I missed the soft crescendo of the siren, hearing only the “booms” of the Iron Dome rocket interceptions, following one after the other in quick succession. I paused at the unfamiliar sound and vibrations and went out into the hallway of the apartment. I found my roommate standing by the front door.

He looked at me quizzically, unable to comprehend how I could not have heard the sound of the siren, a sound that Israelis have become deeply sensitized to over the years, a sound that elicits fear, panic and anger, and a sound that justifies violence, racism and mass killings. As the frequency of the sirens grew and the sound of the booms intensified over the weeks I was in Tel Aviv this past July, I noticed a change in the everyday language of the Israelis I spoke to – hate speech against Palestinians increased and the tragedy of the extraordinary loss of civilian life on the other side was mentioned less and less, even as the number of deaths in Gaza continued to climb.

By the time I left Tel Aviv, any sound that vaguely resembled a siren made me jump. Planes sounded menacing and I was acutely aware of my position within the city space. As much as I tried to resist these government-produced feelings of anxiety and fear, my intellectual and affective responses did not always match up. While I recognized clearly the overt political project by the Israeli government to produce a fearful and thus supportive population, resisting this affective response felt nearly impossible at times.

Noise itself – the sirens and the booms – produces fear and anxiety. It creates a feeling of danger, of violence and of imminent destruction. However, for those in Tel Aviv, this violence and destruction never came. It was felt only through these everyday noises, these sounds that remind Israelis that their “right to exist” is threatened and create the illusion that this is somehow a “fair fight.”

Many Israelis that I spoke with during my three weeks in Tel Aviv referred to the current attack on Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, as a “war.” The “war” was disrupting their everyday lives, the “war” was preventing them from going about their business as usual, the “war” was making life impossible. Very few acknowledged the extraordinary discrepancy in what war meant for the other side.

One morning, walking along the Tel Aviv beach, I watched as military planes flew low over the water towards Gaza, noting that no one flinched or even looked up. No one lying in the sun or involved in a high-stakes game of Matkot seemed unnerved by the planes that flew towards Gaza, where thousands had been killed or injured, where hospitals, schools and shelters were being destroyed. Suddenly, without the ninety-second siren as warning, the sound of rockets crashing rang through the still, humid morning. People on the beach began to scream, grabbing young children and running towards the other end of the beach where cafes and hotels lined the boardwalk. Hotel doors were opened as the entire beach streamed into their lobbies, talking quickly and panting heavily. Presumably because the rockets were headed for the ocean, there had been no sirens and no Iron Dome interceptions, and therefore no warning before they landed nearby. I looked around at the crowd in the hotel lobby, most still in bathing suits, the room full of energy and adrenaline. I thought about the scenes of utter destruction and devastation unfolding just eighty-five kilometers south in Gaza, images that many in this room had not seen, even on the news. For many in this hotel lobby however, this seemed irrelevant. In this moment, their lives were disrupted, threatened and endangered. In this moment, this is war.


II. disruption

On the night of the World Cup final, I attended a get together to watch the game. In the midst of this “war,” a group of young lawyers had gathered to drink beer, eat falafel and watch football. Notably, a few days before, nine Palestinians had been killed and fifteen injured in an Israeli airstrike on a popular seaside café in Khan Yunis, a neighborhood in Gaza, while watching the semi-final match of the World Cup. This story had circulated far and wide across social media and international newspapers – it was impossible for me to imagine that even a casual reader of this ongoing situation could have missed this story. But as I discovered during my time in Israel, except of course for those who sought out alternative news sources, many Israelis in Tel Aviv were truly getting a different story.

I bet Khamas will fire rockets at Israel tonight just so we have to go inside and miss the game.

The reception on the large screen showing the game faltered and the picture went blurry, the crowd let out a loud noise of exasperation.

Haven’t we suffered enough?

This is just like Khamas to do this!

The night air remained still and silent throughout the evening, a night without sirens.

Here in the Middle East, we have an understanding about football. The last time we had a war during the World Cup, both sides respected a cease-fire during the final.

Unable to restrain myself, I intervened:

You know there was an attack on a group of young men watching the world cup semi-final in Gaza a few days ago? At least nine people were killed.

Blank stares. No one knew. No one had heard.


III. overheard: Khamas as dark force

Khamas is attacking, Khamas is building tunnels, Khamas is shooting rockets, Khamas doesn’t accept Israel as a state, Khamas is coming, Khamas will kill us all, Khamas is a terrorist organization, Khamas must be exterminated, Khamas threatens our existence… Israeli human rights violations – oh please! – we are fighting Khamas!

Khamas – the dark force – is coming from the south, threatening and foreboding. It is powerful and mysterious, shrouded in mystery and embodying pure evil. Khamas is not women and children, Khamas is not families, Khamas is not the people of Gaza who struggle daily to maintain some semblance of a human experience as their homes, schools and power plants are bombed to the ground, as their families are maimed and killed, as the lives they build are demolished time and time again.

There is no human in Khamas, there are no individuals, there is no complexity, there is no context. There is no occupation, there is no pain, there is no anguish. There is only Khamas as dark force, coming, attacking, and threatening – any day, all day, until they are exterminated, once and for all. If we just get all their rockets, then Khamas will disappear, vanish into thin air. What will be left then? Only demolished neighborhoods, orphaned children, and more young people willing to risk everything to regain some semblance of human dignity in their lives.


IV. safe/unsafe

Don’t walk in that neighborhood by yourself.
Near the central bus station is the only neighborhood where you can’t go at night in Tel Aviv.
Tel Aviv is safe except for one neighborhood.
Why would you want to go there?

As I stepped off the bus in south Tel Aviv, the familiar sound of a siren rang through the air. However, no one walking in the streets or waiting for the bus ran for shelter, like they did in other neighborhoods. The booms of interception did not seem to unnerve anyone here. South Tel Aviv, in particular near the central bus station and Levinsky Park, presents a sharp contrast to the rest of the city. In a city of white Jews, it is a neighborhood of non-white, non-Jews, primarily asylum-seekers from Sudan and Eritrea (as well as the long term community of Mizrahi Jews), and has been the target of extreme and racialized violence in the past few years. While various NGOs located in the neighborhood that work with African asylum-seekers had put out announcements on social media with directions for what do during a rocket attack in the native languages of the migrants, primarily Arabic and Tigrigna, this seemed to change little in the reactions of those on the streets. Did the violence and persecution faced by many of these asylum-seekers in their home countries, and now in Tel Aviv, make the daily routine of sirens seem mundane and irrelevant?

Often when I told Israelis about my research project on African asylum-seekers in Tel Aviv, they responded with confusion and concern. They told me the area around the central bus station was dangerous and the people violent. This discourse is not unfamiliar – many cities have neighborhoods that are perceived as dangerous or unsafe, whether due to poverty or the black and brown bodies that inhabit them, or more often, both. South Tel Aviv is no exception, however the division is particularly stark and the language extreme. In violent riots by right-wing Israeli Jews, African migrants have been beaten, storefront windows smashed and racist slogans chanted in the streets of south Tel Aviv. One of the more extreme incidents to date was on May 23, 2011, an incident that Max Blumenthal has referred to as the “Night of Broken Glass” in his recent book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, a reference to Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany. The violence is best documented by David Sheen and Max Blumenthal in this video and in Sheen’s work generally.

Starting in January of this year, the Israeli government began to bus many African residents of Tel Aviv to the newly opened Holot detention center where they are to be indefinitely detained without charge, unless they agree to leave the country (with the promise of thirty-five hundred dollars). The detention center, which the Supreme Court has just ruled illegal and ordered to be closed by the end of the year, was built out in the Negev Desert, secluded and ill-equipped to provide proper care to its inhabitants. Some say that the Israeli government has adopted an unofficial policy of taking the most long-term African residents first in order to disrupt community and familial ties.

As I stepped off the bus near Levinsky Park, the site of mass protests by African asylum-seekers against their treatment by the Israeli government in the past year, the sirens and booms continued. However, the state project to produce fear was not intended for these people walking around the central bus station. They feared racist attacks or indefinite detention in Holot, not rocket attacks that never came. They themselves were part of the shapeless entity, another dark force, to be feared by Israelis – “infiltrators” in Hebrew or a “cancer in the body” of the nation.

As the siren diminished and the booms shook the air, no one screamed or ran for shelter. I noted how my own reaction was shaped by those around me. I felt the most at ease since I had arrived in Tel Aviv.


These ethnographic notes are meant not as political analysis, but rather as personal narrative to counter and even to disrupt some of the dominant narratives that have circulated in the past month about what it was like to be in Tel Aviv during Israel’s attack on Gaza this summer. Life was not a series of sirens and bomb shelters (in fact it was, for the most part, business as usual), but nonetheless I saw the toll that anxiety and fear took on the people around me, and even on myself. This fear, while produced and often exaggerated, generated anger and hatred. This is not meant as a comparison between Israeli and Palestinian experience, because there is of course, no possibility of comparison. One side experiences a massacre and the other perceives a war. But the production of two profoundly different, yet parallel realities is, in and of itself, worth understanding. These notes, therefore, are a small gesture towards this kind of project.

Alexandra Schindler is a PhD student in Cultural Anthropology at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She spent three weeks in Tel Aviv this July doing preliminary research on African asylum-seekers in Israel.