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.

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