Calling It Like It Is

Not long ago, we were invited to friends for Shabbat lunch. They’d recently moved into a new apartment, in more or less the same neighborhood, and over the course of conversation, someone asked them how they liked the new location. Our hostess, a refined and relatively private person, said that she liked the new location much better. She mentioned a number of reasons, following which she added that from the new apartment, they didn’t hear as much of the shooting at Gilo during the night. "And in the old place," she added as a kind of afterthought, "I just couldn’t stand making love to the sound of gunfire."

A complete showstopper. All the adults at the table (the kids, thankfully, seemed not to have heard her) were silent, and you could see all the spouses looking at each other. Everyone knew exactly what she was talking about. No one ever mentions it, but now, this incredibly strange side of life in southern Jerusalem had just been made explicit. There’s no dimension of life that hasn’t been affected by this now-admitted war, but there’s also no sense that anyone has a way out of it.

Sharon’s speech to the nation tonight, Feb. 21, was pathetic. In the absence of anything concrete to suggest, he reminded Israel’s citizens how we’ve made the desert bloom, have built a medical system second to none, a top rate-educational system, a first-rate military, yada yada yada. "The country is not collapsing." Direct quote. How inspiring. The only thing that people wanted to hear was a sense that he had a solution or a plan. That, of course, was not forthcoming.

Interestingly, the only thing that most people in this country agree about is that he’s got to go. The left thinks that the way out of this is to talk to our erstwhile peace partners, and since Sharon would rather bomb them than talk to them, he’s got to go. The middle, which does not believe that there is anyone out there worth talking to and therefore more or less prefers some sort of unilateral separation, knows that Sharon doesn’t have the stomach or the political stability to allow him to withdraw from the settlements that such an approach would require, so they think he’s got to go. And the right, which says, "if we’re going to have a war, let’s at least win it," believes that Sharon is a prisoner of American interests on the eve of the war against Iraq (scheduled, according to the Israeli press, for May), and thus, he’s paralyzed, and has to go. Sharon, of course, plans to stay.

So in the absence of any good news on the horizon, we decided to leave the kids in Jerusalem for two days and go to Tel Aviv overnight. Some museums, some shopping, sleep late — a mini-vacation. But it turns out that it’s not as simple to get away from it all as one would expect.

The night before we left, there was a suicide bombing on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. A policeman who had pulled over a suspicious car and ordered the driver out of the car was killed when the driver detonated the explosives by remote control. The news mentioned that it happened on Highway 1. Later that evening, when we’d long forgotten about the report, our son, Avi, asked how we were going to get to Tel Aviv.

We told him the regular highway. "Isn’t that Highway 1?" he asked. He turned white as a sheet, but we had no idea why. When we finally figured it out, it made no difference that we explained that it’s a completely different part of the road, and that nothing has ever happened on the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway. Avi was petrified about our leaving, this time not because he’d be home alone, but because he figured we’d get killed just trying to go on vacation. We promised to call when we got there, and did.

We didn’t get shot on the way to Tel Aviv, but traffic was slow at times because of a large number of tanks being trucked from Jerusalem somewhere north. Unusual, even here. We got to Tel Aviv in the middle of the day, checked in at the hotel, and walked to the outdoor market at Nachalat Binyamin, which has a wonderful outdoor crafts fair every Tuesday. Signs of the effects of the hostilities and of the collapsing economy are everywhere, quite obviously. A lot of bumper stickers for sale, many reading "ein shalom, ein parnassah" — "with no peace, there’s no income."

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around, and then eventually walked to dinner at the Azrielli Towers.

As we were getting ready to go into the Towers, some teenagers approached us and offered us a bumper sticker. It read: "Transfer — A Step in the Right Direction." Disgusted, I handed it back to one of the kids, probably about 18 years old or so. "Why don’t you want it," she asked me.

"Because you’re revolting," I told her.

My wife, Elisheva, was appalled. "Why were you so rude to her?"

"Because she’s old enough to have a brain. Here’s what I want to know. When she hands out bumper stickers about transfer, what does she think? That they’re all going to go willingly? And if they don’t, how do we get them to move? How many is she willing to kill? And what about the fact that they, too, live here? And to where will she send them, since no one else wants them? And what does she think transferring millions of Palestinians by force will do to the image of Jews in the world? Actually, I think I was nice to her, relative to what she deserved."

A bit of a downer before dinner, so we walked through the mall for a while. And I told Elisheva about a conversation I’d had the night before with a friend when we went out for a late-night beer. An academic sort with great liberal credentials (very involved in foreign workers’ rights groups, interfaith dialogue, etc.), he said that there’s never been a worse period in the 25 or so years he’s been here. And he sees no way out. And he just can’t take it anymore. "You know what we should do," he said. "The next time they do a suicide bombing, we should pick a midsize village, and just wipe it out. Every man, woman and child. No one survives. And we tell them that the next time they do it, we’ll take out two villages. And then three. We’ve got to put a stop to this."

I was completely stupefied. This, from the person who more than anyone else is responsible for our decision to move here. "That’s a great idea," I told him. "First of all, what good will it do? Just make them hate us more? And why do you think the world will let us do that? But more than that, is that the kind of country you want us to be? I thought you moved here because you want to create a different kind of society. You want to sink to their level? What will you tell your kids about why you moved here?" He hesitated for a second, and then muttered, "I already have nothing to say to my kids when they ask why I moved here." So we ordered some more beer and left it at that.

The next morning, we’d missed the morning news when we woke up, and got stuck with one of those horrific Israeli talk shows, in which everyone (left and right) agreed that Sharon had to go and that yesterday had been a terrible day. But what, I asked myself, was so bad? We had heard that one couple had been "moderately wounded" in a drive-by shooting in the West Bank. But something else must have happened. We decided to buy a paper before heading to breakfast in the hotel dining room. And then we saw the headlines: six soldiers shot dead at the checkpoint. One wounded. One survived.

As we listened to the hum of conversations in the hotel dining room, in which every single person was reading the paper, it was clear why this was such a big deal. It wasn’t only the tragic loss of life, or the fact that Marwan Barghouti, seen by many as a possible successor to Arafat, had sent "blessings" to the gunmen. It was that this wasn’t terrorism, but guerrilla warfare. And we’re not winning. They blew up a tank a few days ago, ending the myth that the kids we send out there in armor are safe. They attacked a checkpoint, and using impeccable military tactics, wiped out more kids. "Fourteen soldiers killed in seven days," said the paper. War, was the clear message. But not one that we seem to know how to win. Which was why everyone was so hopeful — even though we basically knew better — that Sharon would have something to say tonight. But he didn’t. "The country is not collapsing." That’s it? For a moment, I wasn’t even sure I was hearing right.

Making our way back to the hotel later that day after a visit at the Tel Aviv Museum, we saw a handwritten sign taped to a nearby store window. At first, we both thought it was something about the store. But it wasn’t. It said, "yihyeh tov — ein vada’ut legabei ta’arikh ve-sha’ah." Rough translation: "Things will be OK. But no information is available as to the date or time."

It was, it suddenly struck me, possibly a bit too optimistic.