Tuesday, September 18, 2001

New Year's Prayers

Monday, September 17, 2001


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.
Wishing you all shanah tova, a happy new year.

Sunday, September 16, 2001

Israel mourns with America

Saturday night, September 15, 2001


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.

Thursday, September 06, 2001

There but for a stubbed foot...

Wednesday, September 5, 2001

Dear family and friends,
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.
Good night, and may it be a quiet one.