This morning I was awoken at around 5am by the sound of low-flying helicopters. Half asleep, I thought I was just dreaming it, but the sound persisted and got closer. By the time I had the presence of mind to look out the window they were gone, the sound fading into the distance.
Later, on the morning news, I heard that the Israeli Air Force had hit Palestinian military facilities in Ramallah, just five miles northeast of Modi'in. The raids were in response to yesterday's Palestinian ambush of a civilian Israeli bus near the Israeli town of Immanuel. The assault with both roadside bombs and automatic rifles left 10 Israelis dead - nine civilians of all ages and a soldier who came to rescue them - and over 30 wounded.
This afternoon I took the bus into Jerusalem, as I do most Thursdays. On board, a man sitting up front was chatting to the driver. Apparently this morning the Modi'in-Jerusalem road was closed while the army checked it for Palestinian ambushes. Following last night's massacre, the army wanted to make extra sure that the road was safe. They determined that it is, but they stepped up security on the road all the same.
I don't know if it's the tense situation or the fact that I'm spending more time in front of the TV watching news, but lately I've had the urge to keep my hands occupied with something creative. Over the last few months I've been beading scarves, decorating skirts, making jewellery and pretty much trying to ornament anything in sight. Having exhausted my stock of broken necklaces to reinvent, I went into town today to buy some beads.
I don't really know how to sew, let alone bead, but I seem to be doing all right - I haven't ruined anything yet. (If anyone would like to buy a beaded or beribboned headscarf or a necklace, I seem to be producing them faster than I have time to wear them...) Right now I've been making them up as Hanukah gifts.
There are some nice bead and textile shops downtown, and the chilly but sunny weather was amenable to strolling the streets, so I took my time to find just the right thingamajig.
My walk took me up and down and across Ben Yehuda Street, Jerusalem's downtown pedestrian mall, which has been the scene of several terrorist bombings in recent years - most recently, two weeks ago, killing 11 Israeli teenagers. Every alley and side street leading to it had been barricaded off, with police and soldiers checking everyone who passed. I lost count of how many security guards checked and rechecked my bags.
Not far from the recent bombing, a busker was alternating between Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World". An elderly lady was hawking small Psalms books, blessing anyone who bought one with a special "segula", a mystical protection from terrorist attacks and car accidents, she said.
Outside each café and restaurant, bored-looking security guards stood around smoking while eyeing the foot traffic, waiting around for someone to try and enter their establishments. Weird having your bags searched just to go and have a cup of coffee or a burger.
At the Jaffa Road end of the street, near Zion Square, right in the heart of Jerusalem's entertainment district, a stage had been set up, not far from the site of this month's suicide bombing. A big orange sign read, "Banu Hoshekh Legaresh" - "We have come to banish darkness" - a line from a well-known Hanukah song. A large, makeshift-looking hanukiah, Hanukah candelabra, adorned one corner of the stage. A pair of klezmer musicians were doing last minute sound tests and a growing crowd was massing expectantly nearby.
A huge knot of people were crowding around a couple of tables set up near the stage. Standing on tiptoe I could just make out the source of the commotion - a giant sufganiah, the oily jelly doughnut traditionally eaten on Hanukah. Soon someone announced over a microphone that this was the largest sufganiah ever made. Weighing in at 22.3kg, it had beaten the previous Guinness record of 15kg. (Only he pronounced it "Jinness"....) A gaggle of photographers was swarming around it, flashing and clicking as though some mighty celebrity had been spotted. Not bad for a doughnut.
Yet even this mighty sufganiah was not the real source of the ruckus. No, the real reason the crowds were closing in was that on the next table over they were handing out free sufganiot, albeit regular sized ones. And you didn't have to be Israeli, or even Jewish, to get in on the action. Several Arab families and at least one priest were joining in the doughnut frenzy. You'd have thought no one had ever seen a sufganiah before, and, believe me, by the fifth day of Hanukah there isn't a soul in Israel who hasn't had at least one forced upon him or her at some point.
For each night of Hanukah, the Jerusalem municipality has held a festive Hanukah candle lighting at this spot, with all manner of entertainment. Tonight the city chose to honour the Bnei Akiva youth movement and the city's tourism industry. A giggly group of kids in Bnei Akiva shirts held a mini torchlit parade up to the podium. The director of the tourism ministry lit the hanukiah and the municipality's tourism chief performed an operatic rendition of Ma'oz Tzur, the traditional Hanukkah hymn, in heavily Russian-accented Hebrew. The klezmer band burst into life again and soon the crowd were enthusiastically moving along to the lively music, some tapping their toes, others dancing with their toddlers, while some garishly-clad young men swirled and swayed in an almost trancelike state. I heard a refined British accent behind me announce that Jerusalem certainly had the spirit of the Blitz, minus Vera Lynn and Glenn Miller.
"Spirit of the Blitz" described it well. For an ordinary Hanukah the scene was quite normal. Yet it was totally bizarre to consider that this lively celebration was taking place on the site where only a couple of weeks ago two suicide bombers detonated themselves, killing eleven Israelis and wounding over a hundred. But what else do you do when the enemy has made your town centre, your Times Square or Piccadilly Circus, his battleground? The only choice is to reclaim it as your own, to return it to its original purpose as an entertainment centre, as a place of joy.
I stayed a while to enjoy the music and then turned to get my bus home. As I walked down towards Zion Square, I noticed an assortment of homemade posters stuck onto walls and barricades, all around the makeshift memorial where the bomb had gone off. "Am Yisrael Hai - the nation of Israel lives", "Hazak Ve-ematz - be strong and of good courage", "Lo Nitya-esh - we will not despair!", and so on.
In Zion Square itself a large group of teenagers sat cross-legged on the cold stone, huddled around a guitar player singing Israeli songs. A man walked along with a sign proclaiming that Israel should respond firmly to terrorism. A car which stopped at the lights was festooned with Israeli and American flags, with a sign taped inside the window: "Nitgaber - we shall overcome".
Despite the bombs, despite the fear riding on a bus or walking down a city street now induces, Jerusalem was crowded and festive, just as it should be on Hanukah. Today you can be a hero just by going to a café.
After spending two hours stuck in traffic on the ride home, I arrived too worn out to cook dinner. Knowing that Jason had to work late, I stopped by my local falafel place for a bite. The owner greeted me like a long lost friend. Turning to the TV hanging in the corner of his shop he shook his head, "So, what will be? They bomb a busload of civilians and we bomb empty military buildings."
"What will be?" He repeated. That is the question every Israeli is asking right now.
Sunday evening, the first candle of Hanukah, I attended a grand ceremony at a local high school on the occasion of its renaming in honour of the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. The ceremony was in many ways a peace rally. On the stage a wall had been decorated with peace slogans, quotes from Rabin and artistic graffiti, just like the walls of the Tel Aviv square where Rabin was assassinated by a lone gunman six years ago. "Peace will be victorious", "Let the sun rise", "Only peace", "Tolerance, co-existence and dialogue are the way", "The nation supports peace", "For me peace means no hate, only love and happiness", "We always seek the dove", "A strong nation makes peace" and "Peace is compromise".
Speaker after speaker passed on a similar message, from the guest of honour, Rabin's daughter and deputy defence minister Dalia Rabin-Filosof, to the headteacher, local education ministry officials and various parents.
There was something surreal about the whole thing. The area around the school was tightly cordoned off, and Dalia Rabin was escorted in by a posse of heavily armed border guards who then took up positions around the room. With the current security risks no one was taking any chances. In the middle sat the audience, on the stage the peace wall, and above a screen showed continuous footage from Yitzhak Rabin's life, focusing on his years as prime minister, including his famous handshake with Yasir Arafat on the White House lawn and his receiving of the Nobel Peace Prize alongside Arafat. Arafat is fighting a war against us, the armed guards were there because of his war, and we were sitting there celebrating the nonexistent peace. It felt as though no one in the room had heard the news for the past 14 months.
And yet in context it was not so weird. As I wrote last time, people here are hungry for peace and many are not prepared to hastily relinquish the sweet dream that Israelis have clung to these past 8 years. The children performing peace songs and readings that evening have known nothing but the Oslo years. Last night their teachers and senior education ministry officials promised that they will continue to teach this peace curriculum as part of the legacy of the late Prime Minister Rabin.
No one knows the horrors of this war like Deputy Defence Minister Rabin-Filosof, yet she too made it quite clear that her eyes were on a future peace. "You can either be with the pessimists who say there is no hope, or you can be an optimist and believe that there will be peace" was a common theme running through all the speeches. There may be war now, but children here are still being trained for peace and dialogue with the enemy.
This week, Hanukah, marks three years since Jason and I moved to the ancient-new town of Modi'in. By the standards of Modi'in we are almost old timers; the modern city is less than six years old. In the context of history we are only the latest generation of Jews who have made our homes in this historic region.
More than any other place, Modi'in is associated with the Festival of Lights. Ancient Modi'in was home to the Maccabees or Hasmoneans, the priestly family who led the Jewish revolt against Greek Seleucid rule in the second century BCE. Hanukah celebrates their victory over the tyrannical Antiochus and their liberation of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Subsequently, they founded a dynasty of Judean kings which ruled until the Roman takeover in the first century CE.
This Hanukah is extra special for Modi'in, as the town celebrates officially being designated a city, with the population now over 35,000 residents. A variety of special events are planned this week to mark Modi'in's new status. Prime Minister Rabin laid the foundation stone for the city in 1993, not long after he laid the foundations for the Oslo Accords. It is thus fitting that this city which was born under Rabin's premiership should have a school named for him.
Later Sunday evening, the first in what it is hoped will be a series of annual seminars about the region's history was held. Like the school naming ceremony, the first lecture was linked both to Rabin and Hanukah. Rabin was amongst the Israeli commanders who fought in this area during the War of Independence in 1948. Back then Jerusalem was under siege. Already the Arab armies, led by Jordan's Legionnaires, had captured the Jewish villages to the north and east of Jerusalem: Neve Ya'akov, Beit Ha'arava and Atarot. Gush Etzion, the Jewish area to the south of Jerusalem, had also fallen to the Jordanians, as had the Old City, the ancient heart of Jewish Jerusalem.
In an attempt to break the siege on Jerusalem, a massive military campaign was launched. Codenamed Operation Danny, its objective was to link the beleaguered Israeli communities that lay between the Tel Aviv area and Jerusalem, creating a safe corridor to bring supplies to the city. Some of the most crucial battles of that campaign were fought in the Modi'in area, battles that decided the very future of the nascent state and prevented the Jews of western Jerusalem from suffering the fate of those killed and expelled from the areas which fell to the Arab armies.
As the lecturer noted, it is particularly fitting to retell this story on Hanukah. The Maccabean uprising against the Greeks was launched in Modi'in with the aim of redeeming Jerusalem; in 1948, the battle for Modi'in was crucial in defending Jerusalem.
Moving from the modern to the ancient, the second lecture of the evening was by an archaeologist who has excavated Modi'in-area sites from the Hasmonean and Bar Kokhba periods. The Bar Kokhba rebellion, the last great Jewish revolt against Roman rule, took place three centuries after the Hanukah story and also began in the Modi'in area. The archaeologist described the secret tunnels and caves used in those days by the rebels. In some of those caves, including one in modern Modi'in, coins were found which had been minted by the rebels. They were inscribed in ancient Hebrew with the legends "for the freedom of Jerusalem" or "Jerusalem, the Holy City". Again, Modi'in was vital for the defence of Jerusalem.
He also showed diagrams explaining the excavations currently taking place on the edge of town. Recently an ancient synagogue has been found dating back to the Hasmonean era, making it one of the oldest synagogues ever found. (Last summer I went with a few friends to watch the dig in progress) If funding is obtained, the site will hopefully be properly preserved and developed for visitors to see the treasures unearthed from ancient Modi'in.
One family who won't be together to enjoy all these special Hanukah events in Modi'in are the Nachembergs. The mother of the family, Chana, was seriously wounded in the bombing of the Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem last August. She remains in a coma, now in a longterm care facility in Tel Aviv. Last week I met her parents for the first time at a pre-Hanukah gift fair in Modi'in. Such warm, gentle people. They said that Chana is gently being weaned off the respirator, and they recently took her little girl, Sarah, to see her for the first time since the bombing. Little Sarah played with her crayons by her mother's bedside. I'm not in the habit of making appeals, but anyone with a little time is invited to visit the website a family friend made for Chana. The family need all the support they can get. Bring this family some Hanukah warmth. Please visit: http://www.geocities.com/racharik/chana.html
I was just getting to bed that night when I heard the news of another shooting in our area. A young man from Dolev, a Jewish village northeast of the Modi'in area, was shot in the spine while driving home on a local road. He's now hospitalised in serious condition, but responding well to treatment. Tracks from the ambush site led to the Palestinian village of Harbata, just north of Modi'in, close to the town of Kiryat Sefer. I've lost count of the number of similar attacks which have taken place on that road, a small local route, used mainly by residents of the villages of the northern Modi'in area.
Happy Hanukah from Modi'in, the home of the Maccabees.
As you probably know by now, Saturday night's Jerusalem bombings were just the beginning. Sunday morning came news of a drive-by shooting near the Israeli village of Alei Sinai in northern Gaza. A few hours later all other news was superseded by an even worse atrocity, when a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up inside a bus in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa. Other terror attacks - several shootings and another bombing - followed across the country. In less than 24 hours, twenty-six Israelis had been killed and hundreds wounded, many seriously.
Especially at times like this, after Israel has suffered such horrific terror attacks, people often make comments along the lines of "well, if only you guys would stop hating each other there would be peace" or "this conflict is about irrational hatred on both sides". The implication is that both sides have been active in fostering hostile attitudes and blocking reconciliation and that we are all equally to blame in the impasse.
I beg to differ. I belong to a generation which has been brought up to believe that peace is just around the corner. The Israeli-Egyptian peace accords and the first Camp David negotiations took place when we were in kindergarten. We were brought up with the idea that Egypt was Israel's new friend, and that soon the rest of the Arab world would follow. The Israeli song "Ani Noladati Leshalom" (I was born for peace), composed specially for Egyptian President Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem, was an anthem of our childhood.
The generation after us has grown up with the idea that peace was even closer, that Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority were Israel's friends and that Jordan's King Hussein was a kindly uncle. This is the generation who grew up with the Oslo Accords process, begun almost 8 years ago. This is the generation of Israeli-Palestinian Seasame Street in Hebrew and Arabic, peace workshops and dreams of weekend shopping trips to Damascus or relaxing in Gaza City cafes with our new Palestinian buddies. Oslo, we were told, was the start of a new age of peace and reconciliation.
Israeli musicians, at the forefront of the peace campaign, brought us a plethora of peace songs, both writing new ones and reviving old ones. "Shir LeShalom" (song to peace), written decades ago, received a new lease of life as the anthem of the Oslo era. The song calls on Israelis to forget the many casualties of past wars, for the dead cannot return, and instead to cast our eyes to the future, to sing a song to peace.
School curricula, the media and popular culture reinforced this message. We were encouraged to understand the Palestinian side of things, to feel the Palestinians' pain, to learn their perspective on history as part of this historic reconciliation. Arafat, Erekat, Sha'ath and other senior PLO and PA officials became VIPs in Israel, members of the Israeli celebrity A list. Everyone from politicians to children's show presenters rushed to Gaza City to meet them and have their photos taken. It was taken for granted by most Israelis that Oslo would end with a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and that the two states would live side by side.
Yes, we suffered terrorism, indeed the Oslo peace process brought with it some of the worst terror attacks in Israel's history, but this, we were told, was the work of fringe extremists. Peace was just around the corner. Peace was the highest goal, superseding all other goals and it was there for the taking, just a few more Israeli concessions away.
The Oslo process brought a peace treaty with Jordan, flourishing markets sprang up in Palestinian villages and new joint Israeli-Palestinian industrial zones in border areas created new jobs. These were the images we were encouraged to put our faith in, and who wouldn't want to believe this rosy side of Oslo? Israel is a nation which has craved peace since its birth, when the armies of seven Arab states massed to crush the infant Jewish state one day after it declared independence. Oslo offered the hope that life would not always be lived from one Arab assault to the next. Oslo offered the hope of normal peaceful relations with all our neighbours.
Yet there was and is a dark side to Oslo, a side which the media, politicians and intelligentsia worked hard to play down. While Israeli schoolchildren were being raised on a peace curriculum, the nascent Palestinian Authority, the Palestinians' government in waiting created by Oslo, was building a state founded on hate. The new Palestinian Authority schools and youth movements teach a curriculum which presents Israel as the enemy, which drips anti-Semitism and encourages Palestinian youth to kill and die for the Palestinian cause. Summer camps for children as young as eight feature weapons drills and train them in guerrilla tactics for use against Israeli towns.
Official Palestinian television from its inception broadcast children's shows in which, against a background of cute Disney characters, little Palestinian boys and girls sang about their desire to be martyrs in the struggle against Israel and of how they hoped to die gloriously in battle. Suicide bombers are role models for Palestinian tots. Palestinian media and television, closely controlled by Arafat's Palestinian Authority, broadcast programmes filled with hate, holocaust revisionism, classic anti-Semitic stories about blood libels and Jews poisoning the water, and false histories denying that the Jews ever had a religious or national connection, or indeed any other, to the region. Palestinian songs, including those sung at public events attended by Arafat and senior Palestinian negotiators, featured verses about recapturing Haifa, Ashkelon, Petah Tikva and Safed - cities within the internationally-recognised boundaries of Israel.
The Palestinian Authority launched an all-out campaign to deny Jewish history. Suddenly Jesus was a Palestinian Arab - even though the Arab conquest of the region took place many centuries after the birth of Christianity, and Jesus was, of course, a Jew from Judea, as described in the Christian bible. Palestinian leaders claimed there had never been a Jewish Temple on Jerusalem's Temple Mount. At the same time they began destroying archaeological remains at the site - attempting to wipe out millennia of Jewish and Christian history in the region. Palestinian propaganda maintained that traditional Jewish holy sites such as Joseph's Tomb in Nablus / Shekhem, the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem were "Zionist myths" and were in fact exclusively Islamic sites.
When in 1999 I took a tour to the Nablus region organised by the Palestinian Authority's tourism wing, the official Palestinian Authority guide omitted virtually all Jewish connections with the region, rewriting history to exclude the ancient Israelite period. As anyone who has read the Bible knows, the ancient city of Shekhem features pretty prominently in ancient Israelite history. All this formed the basis for a Palestinian campaign to portray Israel as a relic of European colonialism, a foreign interloper in the Arab Muslim Middle East, and so avoid according any legitimacy to our presence and the existence of a Jewish state here.
The Israeli public had looked upon the Oslo Accords as an historic mutual reconciliation in which Israelis and Palestinians accepted one another's legitimacy and agreed to historic compromises for the sake of peace. The Palestinians meanwhile looked upon it as the first phase in their victory over Israel. The Israelis had 8 years of peace education. The Palestinians had 8 years of war education.
When, during the summer 2000 Camp David peace talks, the Palestinian leadership decided to reject Israel's openness to painful compromises and willingness to reach a negotiated settlement - refusing even to respond with a counteroffer - the Palestinian people were ready for violent confrontation, which in their eyes had never ended. For them the Oslo peace process was a tactical move, not a rejection of their "armed struggle". When Yasser Arafat began his latest war against Israel, the Palestinian people were well prepared.
The Israeli public, on the other hand, were not. Years of peace education, peace songs and reconciliation projects had left the Israeli public expecting peace, not another war. Israelis were looking forward to the day - some time soon, Prime Minister Barak had promised us - when Israeli men would no longer have to do military reserve duty. Suddenly, with Arab attacks on several fronts, many Israelis received emergency call-up papers. The dream of Oslo had turned into a nightmare.
Too late we now realise that peace was never even on the Palestinian agenda.
This is not about hating each other. This is not about a failed peace process. This is about a Palestinian leadership which never had any desire to change its ultimate goal of destroying Israel. There never was an intention on their part to commit to real peace. It was just a tactic, as the late Palestinian "moderate" Faisal Husseini put it recently, to bring an armed Palestinian army into the heart of Israel in the guise of the Trojan horse of peace.
And we Israelis fell for it hook, line and sinker. We wanted peace, real peace, Belgium and Luxembourg peace, so badly, that we were prepared to overlook everything, even to help arm a tens-of-thousands-strong Palestinian army. Now we're paying the price, and, sadly, so once again are the Palestinian people, led down the path to war by their leadership.
I remember the euphoria when this all began in September 1993 when I was 18. I spent Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, with friends in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. Their parents took us on a nighttime walk over the roofs and walls of old Jerusalem and told us enthusiastically how finally this ancient city would know peace. They pointed out the Muslim areas which would be part of a Palestinian state and the Jewish areas which would remain Israeli and we would all be happy, having finally settled all the old disputes.
Walking down to Shiloah, the spring which fed ancient Jerusalem, for the traditional tashlikh ritual, we passed the Arab houses of Silwan, once a Jewish village, now Arab, which borders the southern edge of the Old City. The Arabs greeted us with shouts of Shalom and Salaam, and we responded with the Arabic Merhaba (hello). They waved Palestinian flags and we smiled back, confident that this was a sign that we were on the road to the longed for peace and reconciliation.
Little did we know that their aspirations and understanding of peace and ours were so different.
We were just getting to bed tonight when we heard the news. Just want to let you know we're fine.
Tonight the Palestinian bombers really outdid themselves. Two suicide bombers detonated themselves in one of central Jerusalem's prime entertainment districts, Zion Square and Ben Yehuda Street, Jerusalem's equivalent of New York's Times Square or London's Piccadilly Circus. Shortly afterwards, as rescue workers were tending to the wounded, a car bomb exploded in a nearby side street, one of the main evacuation routes to the closest hospital.
There are no words. I don't think that I need to describe the nightmare scene one more time. Once again it's the scene from the Sbarro restaurant in August, and Tel Aviv's Dolphi Disco in June and downtown Hadera a few weeks ago and the Afula central bus station this week, the Netanya shopping mall in May, too many other dates and places to remember I think by now you know it as well as I do. Right now they're talking about well over 170 wounded, many critically, and at least 8 dead. By tomorrow the numbrs will probably be worse. Another day of funerals ahead.
I could have been there. Any number of friends, family or neighbours might have been there enjoying an evening out on this chilly, but beautifully clear Saturday night. Any one of us might have been sitting at Cafe Rimon, the Blues Brothers Steak House or the Patriot Cafe, or just window shopping or listening to buskers or watching the Breslev Hassidim hold an impromptu street concert / dance party in Zion Square.
How many times have we met up with friends at a cafe in the area, or decided on a whim to stop by for a soup on our way home from the movies or a concert. Not long ago, while they were still coming, tourists crowded these lively thoroughfares, and Cafe Rimon in particular was popular with English speaking visitors and remains a popular meeting place for foreign students. At this late hour I don't even know if or where to start phoning friends and family to check that they're OK, the list is just too long, the possibilities just too terrible to think about.
Once again the Palestinian terrorists have chosen a "soft", civilian target. They seem to revel in attacking places of entertainment, specialising in targeting Israel's youth, the kids at the disco, schoolbuses, pizzerias. Sometimes I wonder whether this is part of the Islamist message, attacking these very western symbols. Sometimes I think that it motivated by the demographic "struggle" to overwhelm Israel's Jewish population: they want to attack Israel's future mothers and fathers. Sometimes I think it is just an easy target, an easy way to kill and maim a lot of Israelis in one go. In the end it doesn't matter, the bottom line is that they want to kill, destroy and maim, and it doesn't matter if you are a newborn baby, a granny or a combat soldier; any Israeli, any Jew is a legitimate target for them, any time, any place. We might as well walk around with bullseyes on our chests saying "kill me, I'm an Israeli."
In the 14 months of this terror war, over 200 Israelis, most of them civilians, have been killed by Palestinian terrorists. On the scale of the United States with nearly 50 times the population of Israel that would be the equivalent of over 9,000 killed, or more than twice the September 11 attacks. And we still haven't even tried doing to the Palestinian Authority, which harbours and arms these terrorists, what the US has done to the Taliban and Bin Laden's cronies. Every action Israel takes against Palestinian terrorists is met by worldwide condemnation and threats of sanctions and other measures against Israel.
America and their grudging European allies are allowed to fight terrorism, but the natural order of things is that Israelis are supposed to be terrorised. Murderers of American and British civilians must be punished, even killed; murderers of Israelis must be "understood" and negotiated with. Each time we try to defend ourselves, to stop this Palestinian open season on Israelis, we are chided by the enlightened leaders of Europe and America: "All we are saying is give peace a chance". Well we've given peace a chance, however slim that chance has sometimes seemed. But since the 1993 Oslo "peace accords" Israelis have been dying in ever increasing numbers, victims of a peace process that has granted the Palestinian terrorists an army with bases next to every Israeli population centre.
Well, American peace envoy General Anthony Zinni's mission to the region is going well. Aside from tonight's bloody attack, since his arrival on Tuesday Palestinian terrorists have shot up the central bus station in the northern Israeli town of Afula, shot up several cars and a schoolbus in Gaza, Samaria and in other border areas, blown up a bus near the northern Israeli town of Pardes Hanna, opened fire on the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Gilo, and engaged in scores of other attacks. As of Thursday night seven Israelis had been killed since Zinni arrived, and dozens wounded. My hunch is that Arafat is upping the violence now to give him more "wiggle room" in declaring a ceasefire: Compared to this week's carnage, we should be satisfied if "only" one Israeli is killed a week and a dozen wounded, perhaps a few cars shot up and a few homes mortar bombed. Sounds like a ceasefire, no?
This evening, as on every Saturday evening, we made havdala, the little ceremony marking the end of Shabbat , the Sabbath. As on every Saturday night we sang traditional havdala songs wishing one another shavua tov, a good week, and the hymn listing the many blessings we pray for in the coming week, prayers for protection and well being and the hope for imminent redemption and peace.
On nights like this it is hard to have faith, hard to believe, and yet we do, somehow despite it all we still hope and pray that the nightmare will end one day. Last night the rains came hard and furiously and this morning we awoke to green hillsides and the first crocuses and narcissi. There is so much to live for. All around us the land is rejuvinated from the rains. The plants and flowers call out for our blessings, and all around we are dying and our blessings over the rain and the thunder are mixed with the prayers for the dead and wounded.
I spent last Sunday (October 28) in Bethlehem, along with thousands of other Jews. To be more accurate we went to one of Judaism's most important holy sites, Rachel's Tomb, a tiny Israeli enclave which borders southern Jerusalem and Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem.
On any ordinary day there are many visitors to the tomb, people who come to visit our matriarch Rachel, who died in childbirth on the way to Bethlehem, in the hope that her tragic story will help to inspire their prayers. Others come to symbolically console the matriarch, described in the bible as weeping for her exiled and dispersed children. For others the physical connection, visiting the ancient tomb itself, is an important part of their connection with Jewish history and the Land of Israel. That Sunday, the eleventh of the Hebrew month of Heshvan, thousands made the traditional pilgrimage to commemorate the anniversary of Rachel's death.
Last year the Israeli army prevented worshippers from making their way to the tomb, then under constant Palestinian bombardment. Since then the army has worked out a tighter security regime around the site, including huge concrete walls and organised bulletproof buses to shuttle visitors on the minutes-long ride from southern Jerusalem through the very short, but dangerous corridor which is in firing range from Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem.
On the eleventh of Heshvan extra buses were laid on to accommodate the huge crowds flocking to the site. Every half hour an armoured bus left Jerusalem's central bus station, packed to the gills, not even any standing room left. At the Gilo Junction in southern Jerusalem, thousands more Jews waited for the armoured shuttle buses.
Even though there was no room for more passengers, my bus still stopped at the junction. The driver asked everyone to make sure the bulletproof windows were closed, as we were about to run the potentially dangerous gauntlet on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Through the dust-encrusted windows of the battered bus I saw several Israeli tanks and armoured vehicles parked by the roadside. Ahead we had a bulletproof army jeep escort. Only the night before, gunbattles had raged in the area, as Israel hunted down terrorists in Palestinian Bethlehem.
Arriving at the site was like entering an armed compound. Between the tomb and Palestinian Bethlehem huge concrete blocks shielded the structure and adjacent army positions formed a protective cordon. The bus parked outside the site, with the doors lined up with the entrance to the building, the bus itself shielding us from possible snipers in the nearby Palestinian-controlled sector. Israeli soldiers and police quickly but calmly rushed us into the building, shouting at us to hurry and get inside. No one was taking any chances.
Inside, the thick walls of the building created a cavelike atmosphere. The heavy security made me think of some deep underground bunker from a Cold War movie. A short elderly woman, her hair bound in a colourful kerchief, blessed each soldier and policeman as they gently ushered her inside, reaching out to each one with her book of Psalms and touching him lightly on the shoulder. "May God bless you, and all those who protect Israel, and all their families, and all of Israel, and all the world, and may He bring peace and His Messiah speedily in our day, and may we all be blessed, Amen and Amen."
Entering the shrine was like entering a place in which all the mothers of the world had been gathered together, crying for God's children. The small, stuffy stone room was crowded to bursting point. All around me women swayed fervently as they recited Psalms. Many wept, some sobbed uncontrollably, others paused occasionally to wipe away a tear with the corner of their headscarves. In one corner a woman stood, eyes clenched shut, reciting Psalms in a whisper, begging God to save His people from the enemies surrounding us. Another woman stood, as if in a trance, a beatific smile on her face, an ornate book of Psalms in her hand, joyfully murmuring the words to herself. A woman with a strained look on her face turned out to have spent the night in prayer at the site. Mother Rachel would have been proud to see the sincerity and the piety of the throngs who flooded Bethlehem to honour her memory that Sunday.
That Sunday we needed every prayer. I arrived home to news of a terror attack. Two Palestinian terrorists opened fire on passengers waiting at a bus stop in the northern Israeli city of Hadera. Four Israeli women were murdered in that attack and over 40 people wounded. Only that morning there had been another shooting in the same region, in which Palestinian gunmen opened fire on an Israeli car, killing the driver. This after a week in which mercifully no Israelis had been killed, as Israeli security forces successfully caught several terror cells red-handed, and arrested many others. However tight the borders though, there is always a chink the terrorists manage to exploit.
That night we were invited to sheva brakhot, a festive dinner for the bride and groom, part of the traditional week-long wedding celebrations. This mix of sorrow and joy, the extremes of sorrow and joy, typify life here now. In some ways it might seem obscene to go out and party after news of a massacre. On the other hand life has to go on, and what better way to express our determination to live than to celebrate the creation of a new Jewish family, the founding of a new Jewish home in Israel. Our enemies believe in destruction, our way of life is founded on creation. Our response to those who destroy life is to create new life. A few days later we were invited to another festive occasion, this time it was a brit, the circumcision celebration for eight day old baby boys. How wonderful to initiate another Jewish child into the covenant of Abraham.
A week later, Sunday November 4, a Palestinian terrorist opened fire on a bus in Jerusalem's bustling French Hill junction. It seemed unreal, like a replay of last week's ghastly attack in Hadera. Two Israeli schoolchildren were murdered, 16-year-old Shoshana Ben-Yishai and 14-year-old Menashe Regev. Over 50 other people wounded.
I made dinner this evening to reports on the condition of the wounded. The bus driver, a Jerusalem Arab, was amongst the wounded interviewed from the hospital. As his headscarfed mother leaned anxiously over him he pleaded with the terrorists to stop their campaign of killing. "Enough of the war, enough of the killing. I had a bus full of innocents, of schoolchildren and elderly. The terrorists don't care if they kill Jews or Arabs, they just want to kill as many people as possible."
And we want to live as much as possible. God willing I'll be attending three more weddings this month.
Perhaps our prayers for peace have not yet been answered, but at least our prayers for rain seem to have had some effect.
I'm writing this to the reassuring accompaniment of heavy rain thudding down exuberantly in sheets, drumming on the pavement outside the open window, streaming off the roofs, balconies and tiered gardens down into the valley. Finally the yoreh, the first rain of the year, has arrived. Lord knows we've been waiting so long for this rain, it's already late October and so far in most parts of the country all we've had is the briefest of teasing drizzles, tantalising us with the intoxicating scent of damp earth.
And now it is really here. Those of you in temperate climes, or in damp tropical regions will think me quite mad to make such a fuss over a little rain, but any of you who have spent time in arid regions such as ours will understand the craving for water after the parched 5-6 month long dry season. By late July, certainly by August you feel as though you can no longer even remember what rain is. The nighttime sprinklers, the only way to keep the municipal parks green, are the only reminder. Sometimes you wake in the middle of the night to a drumming, thudding sound, and half asleep you think for a moment that it is raining outside, and then you realise that it's just a hot dry wind beating the dust caked shutters against the window over the bed. Little wonder that so much of our religious traditions revolve around the cycle of the rains.
I can hardly describe the thrill I felt Friday night when out walking in the park I felt the first drop on my cheek, scarcely daring to believe that it was really rain. And then the drops started falling more regularly and we realised that it really was raining. The Bnei Akiva teenagers hanging out on a nearby bench went wild with excitement, literally jumping for joy as they revelled in the light shower.
We also felt a little lightheaded, frisking along the path like kids, dancing in the rain. As it grew heavier we headed for home, passing another group of children frolicking in the downpour. As we turned down our street two toddlers ran out of their building grinning impishly, hands outstretched, palms up, gazing bright eyed at the heavens, wide-eyed, at the rain. A look reminiscent of American or north European children's anticipation of the first snow. We arrived home, wet, but invigorated, and stood for a long time under the sheltered entrance of our building watching the rain get heavier and heavier, beating the dry summer dust from buildings and streets, bringing the promise of green hills and autumn wildflowers.
Unfortunately rain wasn't this week's big news story in Israel, but right now I'm not going to let the more depressing events spoil my gladness that the rain has finally come. Perhaps if I have the time I'll write more later tonight.
May the rains bring us only blessings, and may it be a good week despite events.
I haven't written this past month mostly for positive reasons, the Hebrew month of Tishrei is Israel's main festive season, and between holiday preparations and a vacation up north I have spent very little time with my computer of late.
I'm torn between a desire to write about all the fun and interesting things that I've done this past month and the obligation to tell you about all the terrible things that have happened too. As with the summer months, this autumn has been bittersweet, a roller coaster of enjoyable trips and special events, mixed the continuous Palestinian onslaught which never abates, providing a constant backdrop of anxiety and pain to the most joyous occasions. I don't know what is reported abroad, suffice to say that here the terror continues and the festive season was marred by several attacks, including the infiltration of an Israeli village on the edge of Gaza by terrorists, a shooting spree by a Palestinian terrorists disguised as an Israeli soldier in the northern town of Afula and a car bomb at the northern kibbutz (communal village) of Shluhot.
I could spend this whole letter telling you about each tragedy, every Israeli killed and wounded, every miraculous near miss, but I won't, because despite it all, this was our festive season, and I want to write about the joy of yom tov, the celebrations that we and millions of other Israelis managed to enjoy, despite the pain the terrorists tried to imbue.
We spent Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, at a small religious agricultural village on the Golan Heights, just as we did last year. It has become something of a tradition for us, escaping to Israel's rural north-east wilderness for Rosh Hashana.
There is something about the rural tranquility, the simplicity of the place which seems appropriate to the New Year, also referred to as the Day of Judgement, when we stand before God in solemn repentance. I find the rugged, volcanic landscape of the Golan inspiring, the barren wilderness of autumn reminding me of the wonders of creation, the land a pristine canvas waiting for the coming rains to bring new life to it. The village synagogue was comfortable and friendly, and the prayer service simple but beautiful. Not that I needed much help concentrating on my prayers after such a difficult year, but the sincere atmosphere of the place was certainly conducive.
On both afternoons a local guide took us for walks around the area, visiting nearby water reservoirs, surveying the landscape from volcanic outcrops and visiting the cows, of which there are a great many, along with what must be the largest population of Jewish cowboys in the world. Aside from learning a lot about cattle raising, we also had some glimpses of usually elusive local mammals: rock hyraxes (imagine if you can a cross between a groundhog, a rabbit and a chipmunk), gazelle, boar, jackals and a very cute long-eared hedgehog. Israel's sparsely populated northeast is always a good place to see birds of prey, but the autumn migrations are an extra good time and we saw several species.
No matter how many times I see them, I will never cease to be impressed by the sheer size, majesty and beauty of the Griffon vultures (the biblical nesher) which are common in that region. They are incredible birds, and the casualness with which one sees them in the northeast is amazing - 17 soaring overhead one morning as I walked to synagogue.
Later that month, during the Sukkot festival, we visited the region again, visiting not only the Golan but also the fertile valley below it, the flat Hula Basin, a warm humid swampland area, now mostly drained and turned over to farmland. A small pocket of the old Hula wetlands remains as a nature reserve, a haven for all manner of unusual plant and animal life, representing Israel's diverse mix of African, Asian and European species which converge here, the land the ancients thought of as the navel of the world.
Autumn is a wonderful time for the Hula just as huge flocks of migrating birds are passing through, some remaining in the area during the winter, others just stopping by on their way to Africa. Few things compare to seeing these giant flocks, sometimes consisting of thousands of birds, pelicans, storks, cranes and ibis to name but a few, blackening the sky like a swarm of giant bees or stirring up the usually calm Hula waters as while taking off en masse.
In general I think that the last year has brought home to me how important nature is for me as a refuge from the craziness that surrounds us. Not that nature can't provide terrors of its own, but still, studying the flowers, watching the birds and photographing the landscape gives me a chance to forget the news for a while. The Palestinian terrorists may be making our lives hell and the Americans and Europeans may want to sacrifice us for their war against Bin Laden but it is comforting to remember that the birds still migrate in the autumn, the seasonal flowers still bloom and the clouds still gather as the festive season draws to a close.
For much of Sukkot we were in the holy mystical town of Tzfat, one of my most favourite places in Israel. This historic town is perched atop a mountain, its steep tortuous streets winding down the slopes. The heart of Tzfat is the old quarter, a maze of narrow cobbled alleys and staircases jam packed with an impressive selection of beautiful synagogues, religious academies and art galleries. Drab modern neighbourhoods have sprung up along with comfortable lush suburbs all around the old town, dwarfing it and blocking the view in places, and when you're in the old town you are in another world. Modern Tzfat is a typical provincial Israeli town, but with an ancient core unlike that of any other.
For me the highlight of any visit to Tzfat is spending Shabbat there and going to pray at the Beirav synagogue, Tzfat's Carlebach synagogue. This building is not one of Tzfat's most outstanding, in fact the little stone synagogue is rather cramped and in need of repairs, but the mixture of exuberance, warmth and sincerity of its congregants, the the beauty of the services there, is simply outstanding. The synagogue is so popular that on a typical Friday night or Shabbat morning people are packed into the narrow street outside - the small shul hopelessly inadequate. The late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach would gain a lot of pleasure from seeing the way his teachings and music are put into practice at Beirav. I grew up in a similar synagogue and for me praying at Tzfat's Carlebach shul is in many ways a nostalgia trip, the singing, the mix of people, the crowding brings back a flood of childhood memories. When I come to Beirav I feel as though I have come home.
Though we try to visit Tzfat at least once a year, we have never been there for any of the festivals before. I love wondering around Tzfat's old town on Friday night. The streets are quiet, save for people in their Sabbath best out for an evening stroll and the sound of Shabbat hymns wafting down from open windows. Sukkot is even more beautiful, with families sitting outside in their Sukkot, temporary shelters built specially for the festival. Through the thin walls of the Sukkot you can hear even more music: complex trills and lilting oriental melodies, contemplative or catchy Hassidic tunes or the simple traditional festival songs belted out by an over enthusiastic younger generation who have yet to realise that louder does not necessarily mean better... Even walking past secular homes near the centre of town everyone we passed seemed to be singing, a pair of middle aged men cheerfully humming an old ballad as they walked home from a festive meal or a young woman whistling along to a hit Israeli pop song on the radio accompanied by the sound of running water and clattering plates while she washed up from supper.
Even better was Simhat Torah, the festival which comes at the end of Sukkot. The sound of lively singing came from every synagogue, but, and perhaps I'm biased, the liveliest of all came from the Beirav synagogue. If an ordinary Shabbat is wonderful there, then Simhat Torah is heavenly. I don't think I've had a Simhat Torah like that since I moved away from my childhood synagogue. The dancing in both the men's and women's sections whirled on for hours - anyone who wanted a quick service and dinner had come to the wrong place.
I can't comment on the men's section, but in the women's section the atmosphere moved beyond the simple joy of celebrating the completion of the annual reading of the Torah, and onto something far deeper, a prayer in dance and song instead of words. Between the fast whirling circles and the complicated steps of popular wedding dances there were slow, almost meditative dances and songs, time to remember that more than ever our celebration this year was mixed with deep sorrow.
That evening, after the festival had technically ended, the municipality held a Simhat Torah celebration in the town square, a practice common throughout Israel. To the accompaniment of a live wedding band locals and visitors of all backgrounds prolonged the festive spirit for a few hours longer, dancing with the Torah scrolls to the jubilant strains of religious dance music.
Despite the festive atmosphere, despite the crowded synagogues, one could not escape from the emptiness of many of the hotels and tourist shops. While there were still many Israeli visitors over the festival, foreign tourists were hard to come by. The provincial towns of northern Israel in general are amongst those hardest hit by the economic recession, the security situation and the consequent plunge in tourism has hurt this scenic area even more with many hotels closing and others which just about made it through the peak festive season, but now face closure with no foreign business to see them through until the next Israeli vacation time. I have never seen Tzfat so devoid of tourists. They don't know what they were missing.
Tonight will be the eve of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year for the year 5762. In Israel you can feel the spirit of renewal emerging from the harsh, barren, rainless summer. The cracked earth, dried up river courses and ever shrinking Sea of Galilee cry out for rain. The heat is starting to break, the nights are getting cooler, the air is getting more humid, the mornings are often cloudy - the first hint of rain is in the air. On otherwise brown hillsides across Israel white hatzav (squill) flowers are in bloom, harbingers of autumn.
Early autumn produce is coming into season: fig trees are heavy with their bounty, fruits on the date palms and olive trees are starting to ripen, the last of the summer grapes are being harvested and the fire engine red of ripe pomegranates creates splashes of colour in urban gardens and rural orchards. The shops are full of beautifully fresh locally grown mangos, apples and a variety of cactus fruits such as prickly pears and kobos. No shortage of the season's new produce to make the shehekhianu blessing on at the festival meal.
According to the Hebrew calendar it is now a year since the Palestinian war began with the bombing of an Israeli jeep in Gaza in which an Israeli soldier, David Biri, was killed. One year and many Israeli deaths later we are wiser, less naive as to our peace partners' intentions and I believe also more resolute in our efforts not to let terrorism destroy our way of life. Perhaps to some extent we have become used to the attacks, but we have not become inured to the ever rising death toll of our countrymen and women. We are anxious but strong, fearful but determined.
Our prayer this year, more than ever, is for the impending winter rains to wash away the curses of the past year and to bring with them blessings both for the parched land and for a nation thirsting for peace. More than ever we wait with breathless anticipation for the new life and fertility that the winter rains bring with them, the rebirth of the shrivelled crops of the field and the greening of the now scorched hillsides. The rain that brings with it the message that the tangled, menacing jungle of thorns can once more become a meadow of wildflowers.
May God grant us a good new year, a year of peace, health and prosperity. May He open the gates of Heaven and accept our heartfelt prayers during these Days of Awe. May He open the skies and send us much needed rain, blessed rains, and not destructive floods. May we merit peace in the Land and in the world and happiness in our homes. May we all be written and sealed in the book of life.
Despite all the terrible weeks we've been through this past year in Israel, the sheer scale and horror of this week's events in America is beyond compare with anything we have been through here.
News of the terror attack on the World Trade Centre came through in Israel just as it happened in the US. I heard the news while on a bus riding along Tel Aviv's La Guardia Street, named for the New York mayor. I wasn't entirely awake and at first couldn't make out the details, confused over how a plane could have crashed into a building in Tel Aviv, trying to work out where terrorists had struck this time. Then over the noise of the bus I heard the terrible news and my heart froze in shock and terror.
My cellphone was useless. Only minutes after the attack, 4pm Israel time (9am US eastern time), the phone lines to the States were already jammed.
Upon arriving at the Tel Aviv central bus station I noticed groups of people huddled around TV screens and radios in the station's many shops. Though the centre was bustling as usual there was a sense of anxiety in the air. People were standing around looking stunned, many, like me, anxiously trying to phone friends and relatives in the US. In a dress shop I passed, a saleswoman turned white as someone burst in and announced the news. Leaving a customer she was serving she dashed out to the public phones in panic, crying that her daughter was in Manhattan. At a nearby electronics store a silent crowd stood glued to a TV. There we watched the footage of the second plane crashing into the WTC, along with reports from the Pentagon. A Habad hassid manning a Tfillin stall encouraged people to join him in reciting Psalms for the victims and rescuers.
I had to catch a bus to Herzliya, to meet Jason for his department's annual end-of-summer beach picnic. In light of the news I was in no mood for such a gathering. On the bus to Herzliya I sat near the front so that I could listen to the radio. The station was transmitting non-stop news reports from the US. The news seemed unreal. Suddenly local news was almost insignificant, with a brief report on the day's Palestinian attacks on Israelis meriting less than a minute of the hourly news report.
As Israelis we were going through yet another terror attack. We knew the routine, the pain, the fear, the anxious wait for the list of the victims' names, the desperate attempts to contact any friends or family who may have been at the scene. The scale was unprecedented, too huge to comprehend, but the feelings and responses were the same as if a suicide bomber had attacked a city centre somewhere in Israel.
Arriving at Jason's office I found him pale and tense, neither of us having managed to contact any of our many American friends and family. Little work had gotten done that afternoon with many employees too shaken, gathered around TV news reports or desperately trying to get a line to the US. The picnic had been cancelled due to the circumstances, as were sporting and entertainment events throughout Israel.
We decided to drive over to Jason's aunt in Jerusalem for the evening. We all felt the need to be together at such a time. We stayed up late into the night, trying to contact our family and friends in the US, eventually getting through in the early hours of the morning Israel time. Thank God all is well, though many saw what happened from their Manhattan office windows.
People here are still in shock. Hundreds of Israelis and many immigrants of American origin have been flooding the Israeli foreign office with requests for help in tracking down missing loved ones. Wednesday was declared a day of mourning in Israel, with flags at half-mast and schools holding special sessions. Israel's chief rabbis and other senior rabbis held special prayer vigils for America, while today synagogues across Israel have added special prayers for America in their regular Sabbath services.
Israelis have been flocking to the US embassy and consulates to show their support for the American people. The street in front of the US embassy has been closed to traffic because so many Israelis are holding prayer vigils outside for the victims and their families. In general there has been a tremendous outpouring of sympathy. I've seen many shops with big signs outside with messages along the lines of "Israel and the American people are one" or "We are all the American people". Tonight a solidarity rally for America was attended by thousands of Israelis in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square. Jerusalem's central Jaffa Road, scene of several Palestinian terrorist attacks in recent months, has been renamed New York Road for the next month, as another symbol of solidarity with America, and Tel Aviv has temporarily renamed Kaplan Street, where the Defence Ministry is located, to Pentagon Street.
This is in contrast with many of our Palestinian neighbours who are, as we say in Hebrew, "dancing on the blood", celebrating the murder of thousands of Americans. We''ve of course seen some of them celebrate the murder of Israeli civilians with street parties, and that is sick enough, but with the scale of this terror attack, the nature of it, it defies all sense of humanity to celebrate such horror. The Palestinian leadership, realising how bad it looked, threatened foreign journalists covering the Palestinian reaction, telling foreign networks that if they dared air the footage of Palestinian police and thousands of civilians celebrating the American deaths, the lives of their journalists and cameramen would be in danger. Associated Press duly withheld the footage, citing the safety of their crews.
A few months ago I wrote of my impressions from my visit to the United States this year. Above all I was struck by the lax security in the US. In Israel it is second nature that when you enter a public building, say a shop or train station, you open your bags for inspection. You expect there to be a guard at the door and for him to scrutinise you as you enter. In Israel security is a fact of life. In the US security was reserved for government buildings, military installations and flights to Israel.
More than anything this attitude to security indicated the national state of mind. Israel is a country which has been the target of Arab terror for decades, and precautions against terror are a necessary inconvenience to be taken for granted. America as the world's strongest nation revels in a feeling of freedom and security. Who on earth would try to invade the US and threaten the safety of Americans at home? For Israelis America symbolises safety and stability. America is peace, prosperity and freedom from the terror and everpresent threat of war we face here in the Middle East. America is a reassuring sign of what Israel could strive for, one day, God willing, when and if we ever have peace here. If terrorists could strike at the very heart of American financial and military power, how can we, in Israel, have hope for peace and stability?
The week feels as though it began from scratch on Tuesday. The attacks on the United States have dwarfed anything happening in Israel to a pale irrelevance. Even here in Israel we barely remember that the week actually began last Sunday with fatal terror attacks against Israelis. Sunday morning Palestinian terrorists opened fire on a school minivan taking teachers to work in the Jordan Valley. The driver and one teacher were killed and three others wounded. Not long after, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a train station in the northern town of Nahariya; three Israelis were killed and scores wounded. Later that day another suicide bomber exploded himself at Beit Lid junction near Netanya, miraculously only killing himself, but wounding several Israelis.
Monday night Palestinian gunmen infiltrated an Israeli army base just over the border from Palestinian-ruled Tulkarm, killing two Israeli border guards. Wednesday night an Israeli woman was murdered in a drive-by shooting just east of Kfar Saba, close to the Palestinian-ruled town of Kalkilya. As I'm writing this, reports are coming through of an Israeli critically wounded in a Palestinian attack in northern Jerusalem. Even on the Israeli news these reports come low down on the list, after the reports from the US. One week in Israel which now seems trivial in comparison with the thousands of Americans killed on just one day.
One small bright spot in all of this was the re-opening this Wednesday of the central Jerusalem branch of Sbarro's pizzeria, destroyed by a Palestinian suicide bomber last month. May this fitting response to terrorism serve as a message to those who would destroy us, and as an inspiriation to the American people in their time of crisis. Rebuilding and creativity is the best response to those who believe only in destruction.
I hope that you are all well. Condolences from Israel to the people of New York and Washington.
May you all be inscribed for a happy, healthy, safe and peaceful new year.
Yesterday morning when I heard the radio-alarm clock click on at 05:58 with the daily recitation of the Shem'a prayer I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. In a dreamlike state I vaguely heard the prayer, followed by the six o'clock news and then the reassuring dulcet tones of Hayim Zissovitch, the morning news programme presenter. Then I drifted off soundly to sleep again.
I woke up at 07:06 in a panic, remembering that a) I was attending a course in Jerusalem this week b) that classes started at 09:00 c) that yesterday the 07:30 bus didn't get me there in time and so this morning I had planned to take the seven o'clock bus. Frantically I jumped out of bed only to stop suddenly as my foot hit the floor and pain seared through it. I tried again, more gently this time, acutely aware now of the tenderness of the ball of my foot.
The night before, my flamenco classes had resumed again after the summer break, and my teacher had erroneously been assigned a classroom with a slippery stone floor. I had slipped during warmup and stubbed my foot. Now it was coming back to haunt me. Course or no course I wasn't going anywhere. I crawled back into bed, propping up the injured foot on a couple of pillows, and drifted off to sleep again.
Just before eight o'clock the regular broadcast was interrupted by news of an explosion in Jerusalem. A Palestinian suicide bomber had detonated himself on Nevi'im Street, with several people injured, including a policeman who placed himself in front of the bomber, saving passersby. Nevi'im Street. All at once I was wide awake again. I checked the clock. I remembered the bus I was supposed to take that morning. If I had caught my bus I would just be getting off on Nevi'im Street at around 08:45.
Reports started to come in about exactly where the bomber had exploded himself - right next to the Bikur Holim Hospital and the adjacent Yad Sarah offices, an organisation which distributes medical equipment to the needy. I relaxed slightly, realising that my bus stop was a few hundred yards from the site. Still I felt jittery butterflies in my stomach at the thought of how close I would have been had I caught my bus. Never have I been more relieved to have overslept - or to have a bruised foot.
This morning, Wednesday, my foot was feeling better, so I went in to Jerusalem. Just as I arrived at a bus stop on Jerusalem's central Jaffa Road to catch my connecting bus, a police bomb disposal van sped past, sirens wailing, driving in the direction of the Central Bus Station. Then all the traffic was stopped, creating a massive jam and stranding people at bus stops, while more police gathered to prevent anyone travelling towards the bus station.
About twenty minutes later it was all over, a false alarm - this time. Eventually the buses got through the chaos and I was on my way again. As the bus continued through the heavy traffic down Jaffa Road another police bomb disposal van passed us, this time heading in the opposite direction. Judging by the lack of mention on the evening news it was thankfully another false alarm.
On Monday, however, four real bombs exploded in residential Jewish neighbourhoods of Jerusalem. Miraculously they caused "only" minor injuries. Police have been on extra high alert ever since. Security was tight all over the city, with armed police and soldiers everywhere and police and army jeeps making regular patrols. The cafes and hotels I passed on the bus all had security guards outside and in, as does the women's college I'm studying at. Having your bags searched is a way of life here.
I also noticed something else on Jaffa Road. The bombed out remains of the Sbarro pizzeria has been boarded up with wooden planks, and the hoardings have been painted blue and white, the colours of the Israeli flag. On one side elegant Hebrew calligraphy proclaims "Sbarro loves Jerusalem". Around the corner a hand-painted sign announces that Sbarro will be re-opening on Elul 24 5761 / September 12 2001. A fine example of the Jerusalem spirit.
The sky last night looked like something straight out of the X-Files. Five eerie orange lights hung in the sky as though suspended on invisible lampposts. They were way too bright and too large to be stars or planets, easily outshining the many constellations in the clear summer skies. Driving along a rural road toward the brightly illuminated Lod industrial zone, which on any night looks like the set of a sci-fi movie, the strange lights in the sky created a surreal atmosphere.
Then it struck me what the strange glowing balls looked like. Flares. Military flares.
At first they seemed to hang in place. Then a couple of them started drifting downwards and two new lights shot up into the sky to take their place.
Definitely flares. Flares floating just east and north of Modi'in and Makkabim. Of course.
We remembered why we were out driving through the countryside in the first place. It helps relieve the tension and heartache of an especially bad news day. And last Saturday was a very bad news day.
The motzei Shabbat news roundup brought news of the Palestinian attack on an Israeli army base in Gaza in which three soldiers were killed and several more wounded.
Later a news flash reported another shooting on route 443, the Modi'in-Jerusalem highway. A family - two parents, their baby girls and the mother's brother - were ambushed by Palestinian snipers near a gas station, less than ten minutes from Modi'in. The parents were killed, the brother mortally wounded and the babies escaped with light injuries.
I know that I shouldn't be shocked anymore, death has come to so many familiar places, but this brutal multiple murder so close to home hit extra hard, just because it was so close to home, just because all of us who travel to Jerusalem know that road so well, just because it was yet another Israeli family wiped out by Palestinian terror, both parents murdered before their childrens' eyes. This evening, Sunday, the mother's brother died of his wounds. Ironically the family's name is Ben-Shalom - son of peace.
You might think that Israelis should be immune by now, after all this has gone on for nearly a year, but the only way to become immune to such things is by losing one's soul, one's very humanity. Thank God we are not immune, we are still stunned by each attack, each time another life is lost, another person is maimed.
Somehow driving through the tranquil fields to the south of us soothes the nerves and reminds us of that rugged old Israel, the kibbutzim and moshavim of 50 years ago, the rural landscapes of the early days of the modern state of Israel, the land of fireside singalongs, pioneering agriculture turning the barren hills green and a simpler, more austere way of life. The people of that old Israel endured far worse than we have, even during the past 11 months.
In the early years of the state there were shortages, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees to be resettled, Arab armies threatening from all sides and Jewish communities, including Jerusalem, struggling for survival under Arab siege. A drive through some of these historic areas to the south of us is a lesson in history, a reminder that we have faced far worse and survived, battered and bruised, but nevertheless mostly intact.
Lord knows this Saturday night we felt battered and bruised. The flares in the distance were there to illuminate the scene of the shooting while the army attempted to track down the terrorists.Turning towards home we found ourselves driving towards the flares. They were right over the Jerusalem-Modi'in highway, near the Palestinian village of Beit Ur A Tahta.
Monday, August 27, 2001
Unfortunately the terrorists got away, probably escaping to the nearby Palestinian controlled city of Ramallah, a major base for terrorist operations throughout the greater Jerusalem region. The gunmen struck again tonight, opening fire on the Jewish village of Beit Horon, situated on route 443, halfway between Modi'in and the Jerusalem suburb of Giv'at Ze-ev.
In response to the renewed attack on the road Israeli security forces have once again increased their presence along the road. Tanks have returned to several strategic hilltops, patrols have been increased and abandoned watchtowers restored. Exactly as happened after the first fatal shooting on the road last December.
Still, it is going to take a long time to restore public confidence in the security of this route. By the light of day many local residents still drive on route 443, not only because it is a straight, modern road and the fastest route to Jerusalem, but also as a matter of principle, a refusal to give in to intimidation. However only a brave few dare to drive it after dark. While we in the Modi'in area have alternate routes, residents of Jewish towns along the road, such as Beit Horon and Giv'at Ze-ev have no choice - after dark they must either risk the road or be cut off.
God willing next letter I'll be able to write about the more cheerful events of the summer.
We were up late last night. I was engrossed working on an old skirt I was repairing and Jason was relaxing in an armchair in front of the TV, enjoying the cool breeze blowing in from the open balcony door. A typical lazy summer evening at home. Our evening's excitement had been our trusty fan which for no apparent reason started to burn - Jason saw flames licking around the motor and unplugged it just in time.
The day's big news had been a large car bomb on Horaknos Street in central Jerusalem which thank God failed to explode. A smaller bomb next to it, apparently meant to trigger the larger device, did go off, and this is what alerted police to the main bomb, 10 kilograms of explosives hidden in the trunk of a car and packed with nails, bits of metal and a few mortar shells. It took police 7 hours to defuse the bomb, during which time the surrounding streets were closed. If the bomb had gone off on the busy street, close to several popular cafes and police headquarters, we'd be counting the death toll now, making the round of anxious phone calls - you know the drill by now.
The midnight news brought more reports of close calls. Tonight there were two shootings in the Modi'in area. One was a few kilometres north of us, on a road which connects the town of Kiryat Sefer to several villages to the north and east. There have been several attacks on this road recently, and only a few weeks ago a family we know from one of those villages was shot and wounded nearby.
The other shooting was even closer to home, on the Jerusalem-Modi'in road, this time at Makkabim Junction, roughly 5 minutes drive from my apartment. Thank God the man whose car was shot up escaped physically unhurt. His car was damaged, his nerves jangled, but otherwise he's fine.
This is the first shooting near the Modi'in end of the highway since January. There have been one or two stonings, but the road has been pretty quiet for months now, ever since the Israeli army caught the terror cell responsible for attacks in the area. Ever since the army moved tanks into position on embankments dominating the highway, added several new lookout posts at other strategic vantage points along the road, and blocked the access roads from local Palestinian villages to the highway to make it harder for terrorists to mount attacks on this shared road.
In recent months the quiet in this area has perhaps lulled us into the belief that maybe in our little corner life really had returned to normal. Many people have gone back to driving on the road as usual, even after dark. Palestinian fruit sellers from neighbouring villages set up their stalls along the highway as they do every summer, selling prickly pears, grapes and figs from their orchards.
Over the summer I've noticed that many of the new Israeli lookouts have been removed. First the tanks disappeared. Then some of the guard towers were no longer manned, consisting simply of an Israeli flag on a cliff top. I understand that the army is stretched at the moment, and there are many roads far more threatened than ours. Still, it was worrying to see the army downscale their presence here. Finally, with the threat of local terrorism diminished, Palestinian access roads to the highway were re-opened. As this latest shooting indicates, the terrorists are already taking advantage of this.
Saturday night a week ago, just after havdalah, Jason decided that we were going to the movies in honour of my birthday and I confess, also to ease some of the tension of recent weeks. As we parked at the shopping mall in Petah Tikva I noticed a branch of Sbarro's next to the cinema.
Personally I hate their food - we tried them a couple of times and vowed never to eat there again - but somehow, after seeing their big Jerusalem branch blown up by a suicide bomber only a few days earlier I felt like I wanted to give them my business, just because, to show solidarity, just to thumb my nose at the terrorists. In Friday's newspaper Sbarro had a big ad with condolences for the victims and get well wishes for the wounded, concluding with a promise to re-open their Jerusalem branch as soon as possible in defiance of the terrorists. Jason looked at me, obviously thinking the same thing and said "Shall we have a meal at Sbarro?" I wrinkled my nose in disgust. "I know" he responded, "sometimes war makes you want to do the stupidest things..."
I wonder if we'll ever just look at Sbarro as just a chain with mediocre food or whether in our mind's eye we'll always see it as the bombed out branch on the corner of Jaffa Road and King George Street. Last night as we drove into Jerusalem to visit relatives we passed the wreckage of the pizzeria. A crowd of people stood by the boarded up ruins, some lighting candles, some reciting Psalms, others just standing and staring. I think that I know what they were thinking, what many of us have been thinking - that could have been me walking past this corner, crossing the road at this zebra crossing or eating in this restaurant. There but for the grace of God.
In Modi'in we are certainly not about to forget the bombing in a hurry. Among the wounded is Hanna Nachenberg, a young mother from Modi'in. She had gone out for pizza with her two and half year-old daughter Sarah. Sarah escaped the bombing virtually unhurt. Hanna's heart was pierced by a fragment of the bomb and since then she remains comatose in critical condition at a Jerusalem hospital. Her husband David spends his time by her bedside, as do her parents, also residents of Modi'in.
Local people are doing what they can to help the family. Shops at the nearby Modi'in shopping centre are donating food and toys. On the Modi'in e-mail list people are organising a baby sitting roster for little Sarah, the recitation of Psalms and get well prayers, meal arrangements and fundraising to cover the transport costs to and from the hospital. The Modi'in town council has allowed friends and family to appeal for donations at this summer's events in the town's parks. Only yesterday a note went out on the list asking for volunteers to help man the stalls.
Not long after, another message went out on the list, this time raising funds for another local family, the Schijveschuurders from the village of Neriah, just north of the Modi'in bloc. Five members of the family of ten, including both parents, were killed in the Sbarro bombing. Now five orphans are left to be cared for, three young adult sons and two little girls.
Despite it all we're doing our best to keep our spirits up. Long breezy summer evenings are a popular time for outdoor concerts, many of them free. While watering my plants on the balcony tonight I was deafened by loud pop music and cheers coming from the end of summer children's festivities sponsored by the Children's Channel. In the background sirens wailed, part of a civil defense rescue exercise, but they were drowned out by the monster sound system as teeny bopper stars belted out upbeat numbers about making the world a better place full of peace and love.
Just so you don't think we're sitting around moping the whole time, we've also been out and about enjoying the summer events, taking in some free concerts in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Modi'in, an artists' fair in Jerusalem, Tu B'Av celebrations in Shiloh and the Ben Shemen forest and a conference on Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University. Maybe I'll tell you about some of the fun stuff next time. God willing.