By Rachel L. Axelbank
As a professional journalist and an amateur student of humanity, I have preferred to believe that the interview process is a flawless one, that I can fully comprehend and recreate a situation simply by trying hard. A recent experience taught me irrevocably otherwise.
While visiting the city of Sderot during a United Jewish Communities media mission to Israel earlier this month, I and my fellow travelers experienced a pair of Kassam rocket strikes and the accompanying “Tseva Adom” (loosely, “Code Red”) public announcements that alert everyone in the area that they have 15 seconds to take cover.
I have been reporting from Boston on the situation in Sderot since early May, and during the process often felt justified in describing my sources’ plight as “terrifying.” While watching some children of Sderot perform their self-titled play in Brighton, I was alternately moved to tears and trembles by the “Tseva Adom” simulations and the stories told.
Throughout my writing on the subject, I strove to capture and convey the experience I was sure I understood, and likely even gave myself a subconscious pat on the back for a job well done. So when I learned that our trip itinerary would include a jaunt south to Sderot, I felt more than prepared.
Following our meeting and lunch with some patrons of the Elderly Day-care Center in the area, I was outside taking pictures and had just been joined by my colleagues when we heard it: “Tseva Adom,” in a voice much thinner than the recreated one that had shaken me so in the social hall at Temple Bnai Moshe. No flashing lights, no dramatic reverberations, no wailing children: just the brilliant Mediterranean sunshine, the placid landscape and the unmistakable inflection that turned the backs of my thighs cold with Pavlovian fear. As we emerged from the facility’s fortified room and headed back for the bus, it happened again.
For the next few hours, I was not myself. I spent the duration of our next meeting startling every time a nearby repairman’s walkie-talkie buzzed and casting wildly about for anything that might give me a head start on the 15 seconds granted to everyone else.
But as time went on, I got over it, as it were, experiencing a scaled-down version of what so many had already reported to me: a realization that the threat of Kassams necessarily disrupts life, but only to a certain extent. Beyond that, one has a choice to go on living life, or not. And as this epiphany settled in, I gave myself a bona fide, conscious pat on the back for having endured a harrowing experience that would, presumably, make me a better reporter.
While discussing this conclusion, a friend and fellow writer told me that he’d prefer to be left “unenlightened,” so to speak. I don’t think he’s wrong; there’s no shame in wanting to remain unfamiliar with such horrors as the Kassam attacks. Nevertheless, we as journalists – and as people – must remember that if we haven’t lived it, we have no idea.
Rachel L. Axelbank is a staff writer for the Advocate.