It had been quiet for a while. Shootings every day, of course, and a couple of people killed every week, but nothing "major." We’d gone to sleep pretty early on Saturday night. And since I’d bought us a little Radio Shack Sound Machine on a recent trip to the States to drown out the nightly sirens, we didn’t hear the wailing of the ambulances that many of our friends later told us had woken them up.
So when I got up at 5 a.m. on Sunday to go bike riding with a friend, and decided just to check the Web before heading out into the frozen Jerusalem morning, I’d had no idea what had happened the night before. For a moment, after I logged on and saw the pictures, I literally felt nauseous. I thought that Tali had been home when we went to sleep, but I couldn’t remember for sure. I ran up the stairs to her room, opened her door, and thankfully, found her fast asleep in her bed. She’s been known to go to the Ben Yehudah scene, or some other public spot, at night with her friends. Thankfully, that night, she had too much work.
It seemed virtually sacrilegious to be going bike riding after news like that, but my friend was already on his way over, and at 5:10 in the morning, you can’t exactly call his house to cancel. There was something perverse about going out to have some fun just hours after all this, when the hospitals were still filled with mutilated teenagers whose only mistake had been forgetting that we live in a war zone, and that they’re the targets. That’s the strange thing about this place. It seems so normal most of the time that you can actually forget you’re at war. Then you feel guilty for forgetting.
After a couple of months of relative quiet (more than three months since the Sbarro Pizza bombing, for example), we’d all forgotten. And that made the reaction that much stronger.
At the office, one of my secretaries looked completely washed out. Turns out her sister lives at the corner of Ben Yehudah and Jaffa, the precise spot of the first bombing. And she couldn’t reach her until 4 a.m., so she, too, was awake all night. I told her to go home and get some rest. "What should I go home for? To watch the news and cry?" she asked. And she started to cry.
After a couple of hours of work, I decided to take a break, and flipped on the television. Israel doesn’t have a 24-hour news station, so I was preparing to change the channel to CNN, when I suddenly realized that there was live news being broadcast. The Haifa bus had just blown up, and there were more pictures of more bodies, more disconnected limbs, tattered clothing, a shredded bus that had been blown clear across the boulevard onto the sidewalk of the opposite side of the street, and sobbing soldiers doing their best to get people onto stretchers before they themselves began to throw up. And then, of course, the rising death toll. Seven, with 15 pezu’im anush (mortally wounded). Then 10 dead, 10 very critical. Then 12, then 15.
Now, hours after Sharon’s speech and the beginning of the responses, it seems obvious that something had to be done. But it wasn’t obvious. We did nothing after the Dolphinarium, nothing after Sbarro. People here were afraid that the same thing would happen — or more precisely, wouldn’t happen — again. How much has changed it’s really still too early to tell. But at this early stage, having called the Palestinian Authority a terrorist state, it seems (but who knows) that the peace process is now officially dead. There’s no partner, and, Sharon is suggesting, something new is about to happen.
No one really knows anything about where we’re headed. But it’s the only thing on people’s minds. My regular Monday morning chavruta (study session) is with a guy who’s a dyed-in-the-wool left-winger. He was part of the student takeover at Columbia in the ’60s — pretty counterestablishment, in many ways, decades later. As we were finishing up our studying for the morning, I said to him, "Well, let’s hope we hear some good news."
"Good news," he said, "would be war. And yeah, let’s hope."
That’s the irony, these days. With peace having collapsed, lots of intelligent people are genuinely hoping for war. But war’s a hard thing to hope for, it still seems to me. The costs are horrifying, on both sides.
Days before the latest bombings, Israelis were wrestling with the deaths of the five Palestinian kids who were killed last week when, while on their way to school, they stepped on, or played with, some explosive device that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had left not far from their homes. At first, the IDF denied having anything to do with it. Then they admitted that they had put it there, but said that it had been intended for terrorists trying to cross over the border. But, lots of Israelis wondered, what kind of a country puts explosives where kids might get to them, "hoping" that only terrorists get killed? Is this what we’ve come to, lots of Israeli asked? A serious debate was just beginning to emerge.
Now, of course, no one seems to care anymore. After all, the IDF didn’t actually intend to kill those kids, but Ben Yehudah Street was targeted precisely because it was filled with kids. Ten dead, the youngest, 14, and the oldest, 20. Tragically, most people have now forgotten about the dead Palestinian kids. There’s a limit to how much you can worry about.
Last week was Nov. 29, the anniversary of the United Nations vote on the "Partition Plan" that ultimately created the State of Israel. There were years here when Nov. 29 was a pretty big day, marked with celebrations. This year, it was hardly noticed. A very few people (my wife among them, not surprisingly), put Israeli flags on their cars. A few schools mentioned it. But beyond that, nothing.
Why is that? Because 54 years later, nothing about the United Nations (which knew the fate of the three kidnapped soldiers captured in October 2000, but let their parents wait for a full year before learning that their kids were dead) seems worth celebrating. Because 54 years later, after five or six wars (depending on how you count), we’re still bleeding, we’re really not any closer to a workable solution, and we may be headed back into war. Because 54 years later, there’s 10 percent unemployment; the hotels are completely empty; there are literally no tourists; there’s no peace and no peace plan — no one’s quite sure what to celebrate.
Even Chanukah might be tough this year, because we’re about to do it all again. The Jews are going to try to get the bad guys out of here, whatever that means. But the truth is, we really don’t know what that means. Thousands of years have made the Chanukah story seem simple — we were right, and they were wrong. We were smaller in numbers, but we won. That kind of confidence, about all sorts of issues, is hard to find here these days. No one here thinks we’re 100 percent right, and no one has any idea how you win this.
But I still believe in this place. I’m a dinosaur, one of the last classic Zionists. I believe that the Jews are better off because we have this little spot of territory, because in the end, everyone needs a home. I really believe that this nutty, scary place is the only response to Jewish history that makes any sense. I do believe that though we’ve got a long way to go, we’ve built something pretty miraculous here.
And most of the time, I also believe we’ll be OK.
Rabbi Daniel Gordis is Director of the Mandel Foundation’s Jerusalem Fellow Program. His next book, on the demise of the peace process, will be published by Crown/Random House in the fall.