Wednesday, April 03, 2002

Letter from America

Tuesday, April 2, 2002

Looking back on last Pesah (Passover), our first in the shadow of this war, it all seems like a dream in contrast with the blood and horror this year.

Last March I considered three Israelis killed in three days, March 25-28, to be a lot. What should I say about over 30 murdered Israelis in that same time period this year?

Last Passover we sat down to the festive seder meal with the radio reporting a lull in attacks. This year we sat down to the feast shrouded in mourning, fresh from the news of the seder night massacre in Netanya.

In total this March over 125 Israelis have been murdered, the worst Israeli death toll of the war so far.

I'm writing this from the tranquility of suburban Washington, D.C., but my heart is home in Israel and I'm aching to be there, to be back with my fellow Israelis, especially during these days of agony. DH and I are in the US to spend the eight-day Passover holiday with family who live here.

It is terribly hard being so far from Israel, especially in time of crisis.

More than anything I'm thirsty for news from home. Three days of Yom Tov and Shabbat seemed like an eternity, disconnected from phone and Internet connections, relying solely on the superficial reports from the daily American newspaper.

Finally connecting to the internet after Shabbat I discovered that a couple of friends have received emergency draft notices from the army.

The peace and quiet of suburban America seems unreal to us. The unguarded shopping malls and bustling thoroughfares devoid of police and soldiers are like something out of a past life, perhaps straight from a Hollywood fantasy. People here come and go as they please, no one carries a gun and even airport security was something of a joke.

It feels odd to see the throngs of people enjoying the cherry blossoms in downtown Washington, ambling carefree in the city centre, hardly a policeman in sight, no heavily armed guards on every street corner. There are no checkpoints, no one searches us before going into a store or restaurant.

And of course this is America post-September 11, yet the only noticeable security change has been that passengers are required to remain seated on the flight from New York to Washington and you can't carry tweezers or knitting needles in your hand luggage. It is all a far cry from Israeli-style security, even before the war, and this is supposedly America on alert.

The main visible change is the flags. They are everywhere. Every other person's lapel has a Stars and Stripes button, every house, every car, every store - the flag is everywhere like never before. I feel strange for not wearing the American flag, almost buying one just to fit in.

We've spent most of our time visiting relatives and friends, doing some sightseeing, and of course getting in some birdwatching, but today we went to an anti-terrorism rally organised by local Jewish and Christian groups outside Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organisation offices in downtown Washington. A few hundred people attended, a mix of friends of Israel from across the board: Orthodox Jews, secular Zionists, messianic Christians and some ordinary Americans passing by who stopped and offered their support.

It was a strange sensation to stand there, almost unguarded, holding a sign, in a dense crowd clearly identified with Israel. I felt exposed, because there were no soldiers with M-16s at the ready protecting me. I found myself scanning each passerby, wondering if they were a suicide bomber or gunman. In Israel people now avoid crowded places, certainly no one would think of holding any kind of public gathering on a street corner like that, without barricades or armed guards, with passersby free to come and go as they please.

I kept thinking of the anti-terror rally I attended a few weeks ago in Tel Aviv, the aim of which was to express public unity and fortitude. It was the first demonstration or rally of any kind I'd attended in a long time. All around Rabin Square, the site of the gathering, police cordons had turned central Tel Aviv into a "sterile zone". Security forces were everywhere, no one was allowed through without being searched with handheld metal detectors and having their IDs checked.

On the giant screen behind the podium notices flashed up regularly with directions on what to do in case of a terrorist attack. Those with guns were warned not to use them in case they accidentally caught innocents in the crossfire. Police on the rooftops trained their guns on the streets around the square. And in the middle of it all the crowd sang songs of comfort, of faith and of defiance: "The nation of Israel lives".

The crowd was a diverse mix of Israelis from all backgrounds, religious, secular, kibbutzniks, settlers, immigrants and old timers, hip Tel Aviv women in scanty clothes alongside traditional religious Jerusalemite women in long dresses and headscarves. And all of us, despite the security, nervously scanning the people around us, just in case.

Today in Washington there was also a mixed group of people, but they were carefree, and unthreatened, with just one or two cops on hand to make sure that the sidewalk wasn't completely blocked. That was it. Outside the PLO offices in DC.

Visiting America brings home to me again and again how during the last 18 months we in Israel have come to accept and adapt to the abnormality of life in the midst of terrorism, and the realisation is frightening.

At home I have become horribly used to the idea that when I go into Jerusalem for the day, or when I go out to a Tel Aviv restaurant one evening, I may not return. It is for the most part an unspoken, subconscious knowledge, something that is always there, but which I put to one side in order to get on with living my life.

Here in the US this realisation is constantly at the fore. I understand how much living with terrorism has become part of the way I look at the world and suddenly the relative safety and complacency of the US is what seems abnormal.

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