In a three way Skype call with my daughters Julia and Molly this past weekend, Julia announced her intention to travel to Oaxaca in December.
“I don’t want you to go to Mexico now,” I said. “It’s too dangerous.”
My irreverent daughters burst out laughing. “Mom!” they said, almost simultaneously. “You’re in Jerusalem …. Right now, you’re in the most dangerous city in the world…. How can you say that?”
Funny, it doesn’t feel all that dangerous, relatively speaking anyway. A cursory online survey of the most dangerous cities in the world for homicide, drug lords, gangs and street crime revealed a whopping nineteen cities in Brazil, ten cities in Mexico, several in Columbia and Venezuela, a few in South Africa and four in the United States (Detroit, Baltimore, New Orleans, and St. Louis). As a resident of Texas, I am closer to Ciudad Juarez (Number 1 on at least one list) than I am to Kabul or Bagdad, which is about as close to Jerusalem as dangerous cities get.
Failing to earn the questionable distinction of a most dangerous city, however, doesn’t diminish the significance of what has happened in this latest round of violence.
“Now we have children killing children.”
In case your local newspaper hasn’t fully covered the recent violence in Israel, here’s the unhappy summary: In response to how-to lessons from anonymous ISIS-inspired videos on social media, incitement by Gaza mullahs calling for people to become heroes by stabbing Jews, and silence from Palestinian leaders, Israel has experienced the specter of grisly acts of random violence. The cold-blooded murder by gunshot wounds of parents in front of their four children ages nine and under; stabbing deaths of a fathers and husbands and soldiers; a grandfather hit by a car, then stabbed to death. Rock-throwing and cars crashing with the intention of running drivers off the road. And of course, the old terror trick of attacks on public transportation, including a Jerusalem bus not a half mile from where I attend classes all day. Among the gallery of some thirty or so recovering victims: A few 70-year olds run over at a bus stop. A Dutch-born Christian foster mother in East Jerusalem. A young mother and her 2-year old toddler. (Yes, someone stabbed a two-year old toddler.)
A 13-year boy who is to become a bar mitzvah next month, stabbed by another 13-year old boy as he rode his bicycle. “Now we have children killing children,” noted one friend.
With some pundits declaring a third intifada, Jerusalem closed into itself. Since government cuts had taken away school security guards in many places, parents, teachers and students reduced school days to pressure the government to restore school security to the budget. Empty buses ran down empty streets. Nighttime Jerusalem, usually full of people walking, playing, eating in sidewalk cafes, children riding bicycles and scooters, became a like a ghost town. Restaurant owners saw business go down by more than half. A friend who works at an Old City museum said the tours were beginning to cancel, and people were avoiding the museum. If it wasn’t an intifada, it certainly felt like one. I was here during the second intifada, and a closed and inward Jerusalem is not completely unfamiliar to me.
Israeli friends and family tell me that this time, it feels “different.” Why? Most of the Jerusalem stabbers are not Palestinians of the West Bank or Gaza; they are Israeli Arabs who reside in East Jerusalem. These aren’t Hamas fighters firing rockets at ambiguous, unseen targets. These are neighbors, or the children of neighbors, who harbor a rage so intense that they are capable of making hand to body physical contact required to stab someone to death.
Iron Dome may be smart enough to save cities from mass casualties from rocket fire, but it can’t anticipate a random face in an ordinary crowd with the rage and the will to stab a random Jew.
My American Numbness
If I were watching this spectacle from my comfy home in Austin, I would be worried and appalled. Oddly enough, I didn’t know what I felt until I heard one of my American classmates say she, “felt numb.” That was it! It wasn’t fear, it wasn’t denial…it was…nothing. Numb, except for the irritation for interrupting my daily routine — especially because I rely on public transportation. What’s with the persistent drone of helicopters circling overhead? They’re drowning out the endearing neighborhood sounds of children laughing and playing and bawling when a siblings hurts them, parents barking orders, babies crying, horns honking, the serious daveners at the little Na-Nach synagogue across the street. I thought, screw it! From my comfortable distance in Austin, I’ve always admired the plucky Israeli ability to survive terror attacks by getting on with life. Haven’t we always heard that to stop living in the face of terror hands the perpetrators a victory?
Perhaps stupidly, I decided I would not be scared to do what I want to do, day or night, despite the empty streets. Then one night, looking to the left and right and behind my shoulder, I felt a twinge. How did I get to be so good at night walking? My old Houston days, or nights in New York City in the crime-plagued late 1970s? The 1980s dusk walks on Austin’s Town Lake after a plague of rapes? All those focus groups with victims and perpetrators of violence against women in the 1990s? Urban Americans know violence, we see it all the time on television and the news.
For just a little moment, I tucked away away Jerusalem’s troubled history, with its multi-layered religious cultural context. If I thought of it like any other city experiencing a violent crime wave perpetrated by misguided young people, it didn’t seem so dangerous. The numerical odds would be in my favor. Seven people killed out of over 800,00 in the greater Jerusalem area; what’s that compared to 10 in one day in Roseburg, Oregon, population approximately 22,000? Skip the political, social, emotional motivations for a moment: what makes this singular crime wave any worse or different than the one created by an epidemic of misguided (mostly) young men? Incited by the Internet, fed by mental illness, poverty, joblessness, hopelessness and frustration–guns, knives, what’s the difference? Whether in a community college classroom or a bus stop, movie theater or house of worship, it seems the perpetrators have a lot in more common with each other than their random victims.
At the end of my little moment, I am present; in Jerusalem it can’t be that simple. With its sirens, helicopters, checkpoints and young soldiers guarding buses, mall entrances and busy street corners. After week or so at Hadassah Hospital, the bar mitzvah thankfully woke up from his coma; just down the hall on that very same day, his 13-year old stabber, injured in his attempted to getaway, was released and promptly arrested. He retracted his original confession in which he said his 17-year old cousin, shot dead by an armed bystander, had invited him to tag along, stab some Jews. He pleads not guilty, he’s just a kid. Can there by any doubt that two sets of Jerusalem parents returned that day to their separate Jerusalem neighborhoods, relieved their children are alive, aggrieved at their fate, and undoubtedly wondering, as we all are, when and how this can ever end.
I met a nice couple today from Marin County who spend extended periods of time every year in Israel. Like us, they come for long enough to pretend they live here; they attend different kinds of synagogues to experience new ways, network with various people and have friends and family here. Israel is a home away from home. There are many like us not only from the U.S., but from England, Australia, South Africa, and Canada; in Israel we are called “Anglos” because we speak English (though not in any other context would I ever describe myself as “Anglo”). I asked them how they felt about what was happening, and every answer they offered quoted an Israeli or American-Israeli friend or relative. While they didn’t describe the same numbness I have felt, like me, they take social and emotional cues about “how to express feelings about the matzav”, or “situation” as it is called here. By and large, my new friends agree with me that the overwhelming aura here is one of a deep, sighing (but not yet groaning) sadness.
How do Israelis deal with it? They leave the country for vacations or to visit friends and relatives in other countries to take a break from the stress and the news. Some move to other countries. Most heavily sigh and go on with their lives. They watch TV, and the news; popular Israeli talk television hosts give tips to parents on how to talk to children. After a few days of calm, people return to normal life albeit with more caution and suspicion. A few of my ever-hopeful friends march in solidarity rallies with Arab neighbors to show that they won’t bend to hate. Mostly, there seems to be tacit agreement that, “Even if the Arabs hate us, we must keep trying, even though many continue to believe they will eventually drive Jews ‘back to where we came from.'”
“I’m not going back to Poland, that’s for sure,” says one.
“I have nowhere else to go,” says another.
“We have always been here, why should we go anywhere?” says my own family.
“Why do they hate us so much?”
“I can’t believe that my friend so and so really believes that we are occupiers like the British or the Ottomans. She really believes that one day, we too will give up and go away. I just don’t get it.”
Among most of my friends and fellow-students, there is deep antipathy to the ultra-Orthodox and that directional tilt in Netanyahyu’s government. I have heard bitter criticism about bad public policy regarding settlement in the West Bank from some of the most patriotic Israelis. Israelis complain with good reason about the unreasonably high cost of housing in desirable areas, the lack of government funding for interior Israel infrastructure in the north, budget cuts for school security, and gross errors in handling “the matzav. ” Has destruction of the homes of families of terrorists worked in the past? When they put up concrete blockades in East Jerusalem to create checkpoints, they effectively shut off ordinary Israeli Arabs from going to work and school within any reasonable timeframe. Suddenly, the “undivided capital of Israel” became divided, and many people screamed loud enough about it that the strategy was abandoned.
A Lamed on the Car Roof
In the past few days as a tentative calm has returned, the student drivers are back on the streets. Learner cars all tote a big ל on the car roof for the Hebrew word for “Learner,” making them hard to miss. I noticed that one thing that both Israeli and Arab and probably most student drivers have in common is how they clutch the wheel tightly with both hands and keep their eyes intently on the the road. When I saw the students today, I thought that it’s too bad their leaders aren’t as cautious as they are. They are neighbors, after all.
I think of my neighbors in Austin, and the importance of those relationships in the day-to-day pleasantness of our lives. Our relationships with our neighbors are of primary importance because we share a yard, a roof, a pool, a road. To have healthy relationships with neighbors (or anyone for that matter), we have to listen to each other’s story even if it conflicts with our own. Equally, we have to acknowledge that there will be conflicting but equally valid points of view, and that everyone’s point of view will be, by definition, self-serving. The practice of self-restraint, listening, sharing, and empathy … these are lifelong quests in all close relationships.
Compromise can’t be harder than violence, can it? No doubt compromise can be uncomfortable, but can it be more uncomfortable than mourning dead relatives, or hospitalizations for knife and gunshot wounds, or the wounds to so many souls living with continuous strife?
As a 40-year veteran in the Israeli world of social justice, Levi Lauer said in a lecture this week, “Doing nothing is no answer. Saying ‘I don’t know what to do,’ is no answer. Saying Hashem will answer is foolish. It is not feasible to believe that 4 million people will like you or disappear at your will. We have to synthesize emunah (faith) with human action and communal discipline. It may be uncomfortable, but we have to engage with our discomfort if we are to have collective salvation.”
What kind of action do you think will help? What will hurt? What can we do? Let me know your thoughts.