On a Friday evening four months ago, a friend from the US came to visit me at my home in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, the closest place in Israel to Gaza.
Only 875 yards (800 meters) of open fields, with an iron fence in the middle, separate Nahal Oz from the Gaza Strip. On the other side of that fence is Shejaiya, a neighborhood of Gaza City that was almost completely destroyed last year, when the IDF and Hamas were fighting door-to-door in its streets.
Nahal Oz is a green haven, with tall, leafy trees and long patches of grass, surrounding modest one-story houses. Shejaiya is a densely populated neighborhood with barely any green spaces, where tens of thousands of people live in ugly high-rises, amid piles of rubble. From the access road to Nahal Oz, you can easily see five huge stacks of dirt and dust in Shejaiya that were once multi-story buildings, but were taken down by the IDF after Hamas used them for shooting rockets. Their ruins have remained in place ever since the latest war.
My visiting friend wanted to go and have a look at Gaza, so we went to a point at the edge of the kibbutz that offers a good look across the border. On the way we passed by the kibbutz’s pool, with its crystal clear, cool water. It was 8 p.m. and the sun was making its way into the Mediterranean, but while on our side of the border, street lamps were beginning to light up, in Shejaiya everything remained dark. Not just the streets; also the visible homes and apartments, which house hundreds if not thousands of people. Had we returned to that spot two hours later, we would hardly see anything across the border. I’ve been living in Nahal Oz for almost a year and have gone to the observation point dozens of times, but only once at night. It’s too depressing to look at the complete darkness on the other side and realize that many people actually live in it.
After staring at the destruction across the border, we returned to my house for Shabbat dinner. We sat on the wooden porch with glasses of wine and enjoyed a cool breeze coming in from Gaza’s seashore, only 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometers) away. The setting was perfect, like a scene from a tourism advertisement. Then, without any warning, the shooting started.
At first, it was just one single gun, breaking the night’s silence. Soon, many more followed, firing shots into the sky. It was a celebration, literally speaking — at 9 p.m. the Palestinian Education Ministry uploaded to its website the test results of Palestinian high school graduates for the 2014-2015 school year. Families whose kids had received good grades, good enough to go to university, celebrated by shooting rounds of bullets above their heads, not an uncommon practice in this part of the world.
While the Gazans were celebrating their academic achievements, a new set of noises came in from the south; 35 miles (56 km) from us, on Egypt’s border with Gaza, the Egyptian Air Force was bombing terrorist targets as part of its ongoing war against Islamic State affiliates in Sinai. We could barely hear the Egyptian bombings, but it was impossible not to feel the vibrations created by them. Every few minutes, our house trembled a bit. In between bombings and fireworks, we finished our meal and brought out fresh cherries and tea. Neighbors passed by, some with babies in their hands, others walking with their dogs. No one seemed even a bit disturbed.
‘This is like an amazing resort village next to a war zone’
At 10:30 p.m. we lazily walked from the house to the kibbutz pub, which was packed with people – a mixture of local residents, students from the nearby Sapir College (in the town of Sderot) and soldiers from a nearby base. “I can’t believe this place is five minutes from Gaza,” my friend said, shouting to overcome the music and the chatter around us. “This is like an amazing resort village next to a war zone,” he added.
I liked the description, but during my 11 months in Nahal Oz, I’ve coined a better one, which I use in almost every conversation about living here. Nahal Oz, I tell people, is like heaven. It just happens to be right on the verge of hell.
A safe place amid the stabbings
The current wave of terrorism in Israel and the West Bank — which some people already describe as an intifada — has been felt mostly in Jerusalem, but the Gaza border area hasn’t been quiet either. On October 4, two rockets were launched directly at Nahal Oz, the first time such a thing has happened since 2014.
In Nahal Oz, once the air raid siren goes on, you have seven seconds to reach shelter. The “Iron Dome” system, which protects large parts of Israel from rockets and missiles, doesn’t cover the Gaza border region — the distance is too short. This time, the siren caught me in the shower, which meant I had just enough time to grab a towel and run to our “safe room” (a bunker-like room installed in every house in the kibbutz). Luckily, both rockets landed in empty fields, causing no harm.
In the following weeks, there were a number of violent demonstrations on the border fence, resulting in casualties on the Palestinian side. We could clearly hear the protesters’ cries, the shots being fired by the IDF to keep them from taking down the border fence, and the ambulances arriving. And just this week, we once again had to run for shelter when a siren suddenly went off at 7 p.m. on Sunday evening.
But unlike in many other parts of Israel, the tense situation hasn’t changed our daily lives here. Amid the stabbings and the car attacks in Israel’s cities, the kibbutz — as close as it is to Gaza — actually feels like a safe place to be. Life goes on, and most of the time, it’s pretty good. But of course, that could change in a heartbeat.
Come when the war is over
The first time I came to Nahal Oz was in August 2014, while the war of that summer, officially called “Operation Protective Edge,” was still going on. It was a ridiculously hot day, and a short-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas had just been announced.
After spending an entire month in the live broadcasts studio of Walla News, the Israeli website where I work as a diplomatic correspondent, I was eager to get out of Tel Aviv for a glimpse of the front line. My editor gave me a day off from the diplomatic beat, so I could travel around the “Gaza envelope” region and see things with my own eyes.
The Israeli border with Gaza is dotted with 21 agricultural communities — 20 kibbutzim and one moshav — that are located less than 1.8 miles (3 km) from the actual border fence. Two of the kibbutzim are religious (Alumim and Sa’ad), and the rest, including Nahal Oz, are home to a secular and mostly left-wing population. Of the 21 border communities, Nahal Oz is the closest to Gaza, and for the last 15 years, has also been one of the most bombarded places in Israel. During the war, it was under nonstop fire.
‘Nahal Oz has land that literally touches the border fence’
I got to the kibbutz shortly after noon, and was greeted by Itai Maoz, the manager of the kibbutz’s agriculture fields. A strong, bald man in his 50s with a soft voice, Maoz took me on a tour in the devastated fields. Nahal Oz has land that literally touches the border fence, and ever since its creation in 1951, taking care of those fields has been an ideological issue; they are plowed all the way to the last furrow, meters away from Gaza. When Operation Protective Edge started, the IDF took over the fields and turned them into a parking lot for tanks. Maoz wanted to use the temporary ceasefire in order to show me the damages caused by six weeks of fighting. Entire fields had been run over. Others had suffered from fires that erupted when mortars landed in them. Water irrigation systems were broken, and large amounts of waste were scattered everywhere.
“I’m not angry at the soldiers,” Maoz told me as we looked at the piles of trash left in the fields by battalions of IDF fighters on their way to Gaza. “They didn’t have a choice, and besides, they have bigger things to worry about right now.”
What about the Palestinians, I asked him. Are you angry at them?
“I’m obviously angry at Hamas for shooting at us and for digging tunnels into our fields, but I’m not angry at the average Palestinian living in Gaza,” he replied. “They suffer from this war just as much as we do, if not more. We have to protect ourselves, but we also have to remember that there are ordinary people on the other side.”
‘You should come after the war is over. You’ll see what a special place we have here’
After touring the fields, I took a walk inside the kibbutz itself, which resembled a ghost town. Most of the residents had been evacuated to other kibbutzim across the country, who volunteered to host the “temporary refugees” until the war would be over. Out of approximately 300 residents, less than a hundred were in the kibbutz. The war had taken a toll on the place. Lawns and gardens had dried up, houses that were hit by rockets had been left ruined, and new housing projects that started right before the war, as the kibbutz was planning to accept new families, were stuck in preliminary stages.
Still, even in the middle of this mess, it was easy to see that Nahal Oz is a beautiful kibbutz. “You should come after the war is over,” Maoz told me. “You’ll see what a special place we have here.”
Safe to return home?
When I got back to Tel Aviv that evening, I couldn’t stop talking about my visit to Nahal Oz, and how impressed I was by the people who hosted me there. A large part of the public debate in Israel at that point, two weeks before the end of the war, revolved around the question: “How will we know who won?”
The visit to Nahal Oz and the other border communities gave me a clear answer to that question. While it’s true that during the war, Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza shot rockets all over Israel, these rockets didn’t bring any real “achievements” to the terrorists, thanks to Iron Dome. Hamas attacks on the border communities, however, were slowly creating a symbolic victory for it, as families all across the region were telling Israeli television channels night after night that they won’t go back to their homes, even after the war is over.
On Walla’s morning broadcast a few days later, I voiced my personal opinion that the answer to the “who won” question will become available only half a year after the war, and it will be determined by one factor more than any other: How many people will leave the border communities, and how many new ones will arrive there?
“If places like Nahal Oz will be half-empty a few months from today, Hamas will be able to declare victory,” I said. “The people in Gaza will still live in rubble, but Hamas will tell them that their suffering paid off, because for the first time since Israel’s creation, Israelis have been pushed away from places that are within the 1948 borders. They will be able to tell their people — we’ve set a precedent.”
After the broadcast, Walla’s then editor in chief, Yinon Magal (today a member of Knesset from Jewish Home), approached me and told me with a smile, “You were talking in there like a settler!” Coming from him, it was a compliment, but it made me angry, because it represented an unfortunate reality.
For many Israelis, there is a very clear dividing line today within Israeli society, between “leftists,” who are stereotypically urban, secular and focused on career and self-fulfillment above anything, and “Mitnahalim” (settlers in the West Bank), who represent Zionism, a connection to the land, and a willingness to face danger and hardships for their ideology. This stereotypical division places all of Israel’s founding principles on one side of the political map — the right-wing religious side — and it leaves no room for people like the residents of Nahal Oz, who are secular and mostly leftist, but no one in Israel can doubt their commitment to the land.
I tried to find the right words to answer Magal’s well-intended sting, perhaps to tell him that the settler movement had no ownership rights over Zionism, but I couldn’t really get a coherent response in place. And anyway, the ceasefire collapsed once again, and we had to get back into the studio. My visit to Nahal Oz was soon forgotten.
Daniel Tragerman’s death put the entire country in a state of grief
Nahal Oz, however, returned to the center of events under very tragic circumstances a week later, on Friday, August 22nd. In the days leading up to that Friday, residents of the kibbutzim along the border began returning to their homes, as the end of the war seemed near. Rockets were still flying above, but the diplomatic process led by Egypt was on the verge of reaching a breakthrough, and the IDF was also signaling to the local residents that they can come back.
At approximately 4 p.m. a mortar from Shejaiya landed inside Nahal Oz. It hit a parking car, and the debris flew into a nearby house, killing a four-year-old boy by the name of Daniel Tragerman. The Tragermans were one of many families who decided to return to the kibbutz, feeling that the end of the war was near.
“We just wanted to come back home,” Daniel’s father, Doron, explained in an interview a few days after losing his son. Daniel’s death put the entire country in a state of grief.
Five days afterwards, another temporary ceasefire was announced, and this time, it lasted. The border has been mostly quiet ever since — that is, until the events of the last three weeks.
In Nahal Oz, at least 17 families (out of a total of 80 living there) decided to leave the kibbutz following the war, including the Tragermans. No other place along the border witnessed a crisis of this scale. The right-wing newspaper Israel Hayom published a story about the situation under the headline “Save Nahal Oz,” calling for the government to devote extra resources to strengthening the kibbutz, or else it will become a weak, aging and deserted community.
A crazy idea
Two weeks after the end of the war, I received a call from Nir Meir, the national chairman of the kibbutz movement (the organization that unites all the 260 kibbutzim in Israel). “I want to talk to you about Nahal Oz,” he said. “I heard you speak about it during the war. Talking and writing is good, but if you really want to do something, why don’t you move there? They need young people right now. If you move there from Tel Aviv, it will be more significant than any article you publish about it.”
One evening, I shared the ‘crazy idea’ of moving with my fiance
My first reaction was that it’s a crazy idea. My work as a diplomatic correspondent is divided between Tel Aviv, where the foreign embassies and almost the entire media industry are located, and Jerusalem, home to the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the “peace process industry.” Leaving my apartment in Tel Aviv and moving to the south sounded just too complicated. I remembered that driving from Nahal Oz to Tel Aviv took me exactly 60 minutes — not that bad — but couldn’t imagine myself wasting time in traffic every morning.
Over the next weeks, however, my thoughts began to move from a firm “no” towards a curious “maybe.” Nahal Oz left a very strong impression on me during my visit, and I found myself thinking about it almost every day. One evening, I shared the “crazy idea” with my fiancé, who had lived in Tel Aviv most of her life. “I like one part of this idea, and not sure I like the other,” she replied. The part she liked was getting out of Tel Aviv. Ever since we’d met, she had been talking about a distant dream to get out of the city and move to a greener, smaller place, ideally “a kibbutz which is an hour’s drive from here.”
The part she wasn’t sure about, however, was moving specifically to Nahal Oz, a place she’d never been to before. “There are 20 kibbutzim near the Gaza border and another dozen a bit farther away,” she said. “I’m just not sure that we should go specifically to the most bombarded one.” After some back and forth, we decided to go down for a visit in Nahal Oz, and see what it feels like.
On Friday, September 26th — exactly a month after the end of the war — we took the one-hour drive from Tel Aviv to the border region. The night before it was raining, so the sky was clean and visibility was perfect. When we got to Nahal Oz, we could clearly see the Mediterranean Sea to our west, and the hills of Judea in the West Bank to our east. In the fields, tractors were already working to repair the damages left by the war. We were greeted by Oshrit Sabag, an optimistic and energetic woman who is in charge of “demographic growth” in the kibbutz, or in other words, of convincing new people to move in.
“A number of families have already moved here since the end of the war,” she informed us as we were walking around, looking at vacant houses. “Some of them arrived as early as ten days after the ceasefire.”
‘The crazy people are the ones in Tel Aviv’
I replied that “it’s good to know we aren’t the only crazy people in this country.”
“It’s the other way around,” Oshrit said. “The crazy people are the ones in Tel Aviv.”
It took two more visits before we finally settled on coming to Nahal Oz. We actually visited some other kibbutzim in the region, but none of them offered the same sense of community that we felt over there. Nahal Oz is a small place. Every spot in the kibbutz — from the grocery store to the clinic to the main lawn where holidays are celebrated collectively — is within immediate walking distance from our house. Once you return home from work, you never need to use your car again. We also felt good about our immediate neighbors, most of whom quickly became close friends of ours. Some of them arrived like us right after the war, while others lived in Nahal Oz before the events of last summer, and decided to come back. Since our arrival last fall, 10 other families have already joined the kibbutz.
A home welcoming to remember
Our first weekend in Nahal Oz was a two-day demonstration of life in the border region. It started when, on Friday morning, while we were busy unpacking our boxes, a rocket was launched from Gaza into Israel. It fell in an open field near a kibbutz to the south of us. There were no sirens activated in our area, but in the hours afterwards, our phones didn’t stop ringing, as friends and family were anxiously calling. Some were relieved to hear that the rocket fell far away from our area, while others — perhaps looking for an exciting story to tell — sounded a bit disappointed. In the afternoon, after we went for a walk in the forest next to the kibbutz, a string of neighbors began arriving, each bringing with them something tasty as a welcoming gesture.
Some of the visitors were members of the founding group — men and women who in the 1950s, as teenagers, came here on a Zionist mission to set up a new kibbutz on the border. Back then, the Israeli government had a policy of building kibbutzim next to “problematic spots” along Israel’s borders in order to deter the young country’s enemies from trying to attack it. Talking to these old men and women, now in their 70s or early 80s, about the kibbutz’s history, was fascinating and inspiring.
The wild divergence of our weekend, which started with a security incident, continued with serene hiking in the nature surrounding the kibbutz, and ended with a very warm welcome from our new community, turned out to be no coincidence. In fact, this was our new normal.
The weekend afterwards, we woke up on Saturday morning from the sound of an explosion which literally shook our house. When we asked about it, our neighbors explained that Hamas is experimenting with some new rockets by shooting them into the sea, and that what we heard was the launching moment. After we calmed down, we went out for a three-hour hike in the fields, enjoying the perfect weather only an Israeli winter day can offer. The rocket experiments were forgotten.
Same security concerns, different voting patterns
While we were busy getting used to our house shaking from time to time, other things in Israel were also shaking. In early December, Benjamin Netanyahu decided to dissolve his own government and declare early elections. Covering these elections from the Gaza border area, a part of Israel’s southern periphery, was an eye-opening experience for me.
Before moving to Nahal Oz, I was a resident of Tel Aviv for 12 years, and essentially spent my entire journalistic career living in the city. Tel Aviv was the only one of Israel’s 10 largest cities which gave more than 30% of its votes to the Labor Party (under the Zionist Union umbrella) and less than 20% to Likud. In all of the big southern cities — Ashdod, Ashkelon, Beersheba and others — Netanyahu and the right-wing bloc won a decisive victory. The right-wing also crushed the center-left in the two closest towns to the Gaza border, Sderot (which is less than a mile from Gaza) and Netivot (which is approximately 8 miles away).
In Nahal Oz, 85% voted for the left-center bloc
Many analysts in Israel described these election results as a sign of Tel Aviv’s detachment from the rest of the country, and particularly from the south. The fact that most of the Tel Aviv-centered media predicted a victory for the Zionist Union only strengthened this distinction. While some of the post-mortem analysts explained that the difference between how Tel Aviv voted and how the southern cities voted was mainly a result of the war, another interesting take was offered by Israel’s leading financial newspaper, The Marker.
Two days after the election, the paper put two graphs on its front page — one of them showing how people voted in Sderot, and another showing how people voted in Nahal Oz. In Sderot, 43% voted for Likud, and more than 80% for the entire right-religious bloc. In Nahal Oz, 56% voted for Labor and 85% for the entire left-center bloc. Only 5% voted for Netanyahu’s Likud. “Under the Same Qassam Rockets,” the headline said, emphasizing that what determined the results of the election wasn’t the parties’ security policy but, as the paper described it, “Israeli society’s tribalism.”
Nahal Oz and Sderot were not an exception. In all the kibbutzim right on the Gaza border, the center-left won by a large margin; in all the towns nearby, it was the other way around. The same voting pattern was seen along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. In Kibbutz Misgav Am, right on the border, Labor and Meretz together received 72% of the vote. In the nearby town of Kiryat Shmona, Likud and its partners from the religious-right wing bloc received more than 65%.
People in both the kibbutzim and the border towns went to the polls with security being their first and foremost consideration; and yet, they voted so differently, even though their security conditions were exactly the same.
The days after the elections were very gloomy in Nahal Oz. Some of our neighbors and friends, who returned to the kibbutz after the war insisting that “Hamas won’t decide for us where to live,” were now seriously talking about leaving the country because of Netanyahu’s victory. All of them eventually stayed. One of the founders of the kibbutz told me he was worried that his grandchildren won’t have a country to live in because Netanyahu’s policies will turn Israel into a bi-national state.
There was one thing, however, which was clearly felt in most parts of Israel during those days, and I didn’t feel even once in Nahal Oz: hatred. Israel was swept with enmity and bitterness in late March, as all the terrible comments that were made during the election season were causing tensions between right and left, Jews and Arabs, secular and religious, residents of Tel Aviv and those of “second Israel.” It was hard not to overhear, or participate in, a conversation where people who belonged to one of these categories, were blaming those who belonged to another for all of Israel’s problems.
But life in a place like the Gaza border makes it harder to speak in generalities. For example, one person who has moved mountains for Nahal Oz in recent years is Pinchas Wallerstein, a famous activist for Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Wallerstein, a religious Zionist, was one of the founders of Gush Emunim, the movement that built the first settlements after the Six Day War. A few years ago, Wallerstein decided to devote his energies to encouraging Jewish settlement in the Negev (which is entirely within Israel’s internationally recognized borders). Nahal Oz became a “favorite son” of his, and he helped the kibbutz receive government support for new housing projects.
Last summer, in an incredible act of solidarity, he decided in the middle of the war to rent an apartment in the kibbutz and spend half of every week in Nahal Oz, away from his family that lives in a settlement in the West Bank. There are less than 10 people in the entire kibbutz who agree with his political and religious views, but whenever I asked my new neighbors about him, all I heard were positive words, like “we’ll never forget what he’s done for us.” In the aftermath of one of the most divisive elections in Israel’s history, there was something comforting about it.
The other side didn’t get the memo
The post-election despair didn’t last for long. None of our neighbors left, and life continued, as it always does. The spring arrived, and it convinced us once again that moving to this region was a smart decision. The fields and forests around blossomed, and on every weekend, we had a full schedule of friends visiting from other parts of the country, hoping to catch some of the magic that they were seeing on our Facebook and Instagram accounts. Two of our friends, a religious couple from Jerusalem, moved to a moshav nearby, after spending a weekend in Nahal Oz as our guests.
On April 21 last year, Israel marked its Memorial Day. In Nahal Oz, as in many other places around the country, it was especially painful, since it was the first one since Operation Protective Edge. A few minutes before the Memorial Day siren went off, the entire kibbutz gathered next to the memorial wall in the center of the kibbutz, on which the names of residents who have died in Israel’s wars are inscribed. Daniel Tragerman’s name was already added to the wall, but for many people, this was the first time they actually stopped to look at it. Dozens in the crowd were sobbing and crying. When it was over, people went back to their homes in complete silence, without saying a single word. An official ceremony was held the next day, but on that tearful evening, there was really nothing left to say.
How will we know who won?
Memorial Day in Israel is immediately followed by Independence Day. The shift from total grief to complete joy is always a bit awkward, and for me, it was especially so when a day after the heartbreaking gathering next to the memorial wall, we joined the Independence Day celebrations in the kibbutz’s main lawn. Our friends and neighbors, who only yesterday were crying, were now singing and laughing, while watching the kibbutz children putting on a funny dance show on an improvised stage. From the same stage, the kibbutz’s chairwoman later asked everyone to applaud the new families and couples who had moved to Nahal Oz in the eight months since the war, including us. The scene reminded me of my thoughts from the war period, about the question of “how will we know who won?” If the test was population growth in the kibbutzim along the border, then maybe the answer was right in front of me. Maybe we did win, after all.
But even if we did, the other side didn’t necessarily get the memo. The next evening, when we and our neighbors were cleaning up the remains of a joint barbecue party, two large booms were clearly heard from across the border, and then two rockets flew over our heads. They landed a few kilometers to our east, close to a main road. It was like a reminder from the people on the other side, who were telling us — you can celebrate as much as you want, but we’re still here, and we aren’t going anywhere.
In July, Israel commemorated the first anniversary of Operation Protective Edge. For me, the one-year mark was a good opportunity to return to where my personal story began: the fields around the kibbutz, which I came to examine one day last August, unaware of what an adventure I was about to enter.
I asked Itai Maoz who showed me around during that visit to take me on another tour, to see if anything has changed. On a Tuesday afternoon, we took off in his truck and drove west, towards the border fence. What I saw was nothing short of a miracle. The same fields that last year were completely devastated, after being run over by tanks and blown up in search of attack tunnels, were now producing wheat, fruits and vegetables once again. “We managed to repair each and every field”, Itai said, “even the ones that were hit the hardest. We had to dig garbage out of the ground with bare hands, to fix underground irrigation systems and to replace some crops, but it worked.”
This is wonderful, I told Itai. He agreed, but told me there is something else I need to see. We drove closer to the border fence. “Look at Shejaiya,” he said. “I see it every time I go out to our fields, and I can tell you that over the last year, nothing good has happened there. No new houses have been built. It’s like a time bomb waiting to explode.”
He was right. Even though Israel is allowing hundreds of trucks full of cement to enter into Gaza every day, the reconstruction process has been very slow so far. Countries that promised to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to Gaza, have so far kept the money in the bank. Gaza today is just as miserable as it was last year. And despite constant rumors about secret negotiations between Israel and Hamas, supposedly held in order to avoid the next round, it seems that so far, no understandings have been reached between the two sides.
‘For us, a new war would mean that all the hard work we did over the last year would go to waste’
“For us, a new war would mean that all the hard work we did over the last year would go to waste,” Itai Maoz told me. “To prevent such a war, we need to find a way to improve the situation on the other side of the border as well. If we don’t do that, the next disaster is just a matter of time.”
The events of the last few weeks have made this warning even more relevant. In fact, it might even be too late: when lies and incitement are spreading fire in Jerusalem and the West Bank, it’s very hard to keep it from eventually reaching Gaza. Today, when I Iook at Shejaiya from the fields of Nahal Oz, almost a year after moving here, the debate over who won the last war, suddenly feels meaningless. If another war breaks out tomorrow, everyone will lose — once again.
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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