Friday, May 24, 2002

There but for fortune

Friday, May 24, 2002

My personal excitement for today was the cute little pink lizard which lodged itself in the frame of my open bathroom window. I managed to coax it out, only to have it flee in the wrong direction, slip on the smooth tiled bathroom window sill and land unceremoniously in the bathtub, where it ran around in frantic circles trying to escape up the slippery bath sides.

At this point the phone rang. DH told the caller that I couldn't talk because I was busy chasing a lizard around the bathtub.

Eventually I somehow coaxed the panicked creature into an (empty) plastic hummus container. Well, the first time I thought I'd caught it, I was left with nothing but its tail - they are detachable for just such emergencies. The second time I was fast enough to trap it and carry it out to freedom on my balcony. I'm happy to report that it has found itself a nice shady corner near my pepper plant and when last seen was happily gorging itself on plant bugs.

If only life in Israel could always be this uneventful.

As of about 1am this morning, Israel has a new hero: Modi'in resident Eli Federman. A 36-year-old security guard, his alertness foiled a terror attack at a Tel Aviv disco.

Standing outside the Studio 49 club, Federman suddenly saw a car hurtling towards the building. He yelled at the kids standing near the door to get down, and then opened fire at the vehicle. It erupted into a massive explosion, sending pipe bombs in all directions. Thanks to Federman's actions there were only five injuries, and the only person killed was the terrorist himself.

It was barely a year ago that a suicide bomber murdered 22 young Israelis at the Dolphinarium disco on Tel Aviv's beachfront. Had it succeeded, today's attack could easily have been worse.

Just as life in Israel seemed to be returning to some semblance of normality, just as people were feeling freer again, right after the most normal holiday Israel has known in a long time, the bombers plunge us all back into the routine of death and destruction.

Over last week's Shavuot holiday weekend, for the first time in a long while, hotels all over Israel were booked up, Israelis were travelling and hiking in numbers not seen since the war started. This Shavuot hinted that perhaps, just perhaps, this time, something was going to change for the better. The PLO would reform, the more moderate Arab states would force Arafat to behave - and Mary Poppins would come to the rescue of us all.

Only last Shabbat, as we were sitting around the table and "the situation" came up, DH was saying how it looked as though things might be starting to change, the war might be drawing to a close, or at any rate, we finally seemed to be winning it.

I've been thinking that too of late, but though I'm not superstitious, I didn't want to say it out loud. No reason to build myself up for disappointment. No reason to stop looking very carefully at the people around me on the bus or at the supermarket.

Operation Defensive Shield saved many Israeli lives, that I don't doubt. As I've mentioned before, though, I can't help observing that the Israeli army was not allowed to finish the job. As a result the terrorists still have plenty of bases, and for all the valuable intelligence that enabled Israel to prevent a series of terrible bombings, it wasn't enough to prevent all of them.

Two successful suicide bombings in four days this week. Five murdered Israelis. Over sixty wounded. Netanya on Sunday, Rishon Letzion on Wednesday. Today's foiled car bomb in Tel Aviv. Two other incidents in which suicide bombers exploded prematurely, killing themselves, but no one else. Another handful of suicide bombers-in-waiting Israel caught before they could strike. With all those planned terror attacks it is perhaps not surprising that a few should succeed.

Wednesday night we went to bed with the news of the suicide attack in downtown Rishon Letzion. A bomber detonated himself amidst a group of locals gathered in a park to play their nightly game of chess or backgammon. Only that morning we awoke to news of a bomber shot by border guards while attempting to cross into Israel.

Thursday morning we could, God forbid, have been in the midst of horrors that would even have dwarfed any of the previous terrible attacks we've suffered. Everyone is talking about the "mega terrorist attack" which miraculously failed.

As a diesel tanker pulled into Israel's largest fuel depot, Pi Glilot, an explosion ripped through the truck, sending flaming diesel fuel spilling out of a gaping hole in the tank. Thank God the onsite emergency team was well drilled and immediately leapt into action, putting out the fire before it could spread to nearby tankers.

Had the emergency crews not reacted so quickly, I don't even want to think of the possibilities. A huge depot, tons of highly flammable gas, petrol and diesel, all in the middle of Israel's most crowded population centre. The northern Tel Aviv suburbs are to the south, the Herzliya industrial zone to the north, and the country's busiest highways surround it. In the worst case scenario, had the main depot exploded, the resulting fireball could have extended for half a mile in all directions. Police estimate that if, God forbid, the attack had succeeded, casualties may have been in the hundreds or thousands.

Thank God, we were spared all that. As of that afternoon the fuel depot was closed until further notice pending security upgrades.

Thursday, May 16, 2002

Average Israeli's dream in a nutshell?

Thursday, May 16, 2002

Hard to believe, but Shavuot, the feast of weeks, is already here. Fifty days after the horrors of the seder night massacre in Netanya, and in comparison life has been relatively normal. Who would have believed that we'd come to consider "only" a couple of successful suicide bombings a month to be relatively normal?

Yet we have lately felt things returning to normal. The radio news a few nights ago opened with announcer Esti Perez: "Like any normal country, we begin tonight's news programme with a slot about the weather." The average Israeli's dream in a nutshell.

The weather was indeed the most striking story of the day. Towards the end of what until then had been a pleasantly balmy May evening, we suddenly felt drops of rain. The wind shook the palm trees, and a moderate but steady rain was falling. The cool drops soaking through our thin summer clothes, dampening our hair, were deliciously refreshing. Driving home, the sky in the distance was sporadically brightened by flashes of lightning. Rain in mid-May. Yes really, rain in mid-May in Tel Aviv.

Only that afternoon we'd been experiencing the harbingers of the Israeli summer. In Jerusalem the heat was dry, though not yet the scorching, searing heat of summer. Overhead, swifts raced through the sky hunting flying insects, skimming the rooftops, their piercing cries slicing through the noise of the traffic on the busy street.

From behind their cool sunglasses a pair of soldiers kept a watchful eye on the scene from the relative shade of a shop awning. A middle aged cop sweated into his sticky dayglo vest as he directed traffic in the strong afternoon sunshine. Caught out by the changeable spring weather women gazed with renewed interest at shop displays of strappy open sandals and wispy cotton dresses.

The approach of summer means the arrival of Shavuot. Over the past few weeks television and radio have been full of ads for cheeses, cream and cheesecake, while commercial jingles are pastiches of Israeli folk tunes. Florists are selling fresh garlands for children to wear at the traditional harvest festivities, and there are special deals on bouquets for Shavuot decorations. Display windows look like mock barns, full of straw, milk churns and plastic produce. Clothing stores feature rack upon rack of pristine white.

More than our other festivals, Shavuot at home in Israel is much richer than in the lands of the diaspora. We may not have been able to bring our harvest offerings to the Temple since its destruction nearly 2000 years ago, but the spirit of the harvest festival is alive nonetheless.
Just look around and you can see the fields full of wheat, others covered in the stubble from the freshly harvested crop. As Passover celebrates the spring, Shavuot commemorates the start of summer. The summer flowers are in bloom, but the spring greenery is already fading to summer's browns and yellows. The pomegranate trees are covered in gorgeous red, bell-like, blossoms; the fruit itself will only ripen by late summer or early autumn. The fig trees have regained their foliage and the first tiny unripe fruits have appeared. Look carefully at the grape vines and olive trees and you will see miniscule seed like clusters - embryonic grapes and olives.
For the average Israeli, Shavuot is a time of folklore and harvest festivals, celebrating an older, more rustic Israel, the rural Israel of the kibbutzim and rural villages, of moustachioed farmers driving red tractors, of young men and women in "kovei tembel" (the floppy sunhat - Israel's national headgear) rising at 4am to work in the cowshed.

Agricultural communities across Israel hold Shavuot harvest celebrations, with swirling folk dances, white dresses, floral crowns and all. Last week Jerusalem got a taste of the festivities when farmers from across Israel brought their produce to the city in honour of Jerusalem Day - a ceremony recalling the Shavuot pilgrimage to Jerusalem of Temple times.
A village in northern Israel built a giant basket and invited communities and individuals to fill it with local produce. The filled basket was then taken to Jerusalem and presented to the Rabbi of the Kotel (Western Wall), for distribution to the city's needy.

Walking through downtown Jerusalem this week I was taken aback to see a giant basket of produce sitting in the middle of Zion Square and next to it a huge statue of a couple sitting at a festive table, glasses of wine in their hands. The basket was courtesy of Israel's produce marketing board and the couple had been donated by the Barkan winery, one of Israel's largest.
All this isn't to say that here in Israel we forget that Shavuot is also the festival celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Increasingly, the custom of staying up and studying Torah all night is not restricted only to the religious or the more learned. Community centres across the country offer Shavuot Jewish Studies programmes, and an increasing number of study sessions are organised even by secular Israelis. For example, at the Metullah poetry festival in northern Israel they'll be devoting tonight to the study of the Book of Ruth, traditionally read on Shavuot. Each poet is expected to turn up to the session with a five minute commentary on the biblical book, and they intend to keep going for as long as they can hold out.

In previous years we've stayed with relatives who live in walking distance of the Kotel, the Western Wall, where we joined the Shavuot early morning prayers. Now that is a sight to behold: hundreds of thousands of Jews streaming into the Old City through all its gates at about four o'clock in the morning, filling the Kotel plaza. The walk back afterwards is exhausting, but well worth the effort for an inkling of what the ancient pilgrimage must have been like.

Wishing you all a happy Shavuot,

Friday, May 10, 2002

Was Uri Tzvi Greenberg a prohpet?

Thursday, May 9, 2002

This is a week of celebrations in Jerusalem. Friday is Jerusalem Day, commemorating thirty-five years (according to the Hebrew calendar) since the city's reunification during the Six Day War. In honour of the anniversary there is a week long programme of special events in the Israeli capital, with concerts, exhibitions and the like.

Last night we attended a festive evening in the Jerusalem Theatre. The highlight was the world premiere of a new symphony by renowned Israeli composer Gil Shohat. It was flanked by two lighter events in the lobby: a performance by the Jerusalem School of Flamenco and a trio singing French chanson. The music of Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf make many an Israeli go dewy eyed.

We were pleased to see such a full house, like the "old days", before the war, with not a seat to spare in either the lobby cafe or the auditorium. At the entrances guards with machine guns kept watch. Everyone entering the building had to pass through a metal detector.
We had good seats, a few rows back from the stage. Amongst the VIPs in the audience was Gil Shohat himself, the 28-year-old composer, dapper and most un-Israeli looking in his suit and silk evening scarf.

Jerusalem was the repeated theme of the event. The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in the Jerusalem Theatre performing two works based on texts by Jerusalem poets in honour of Jerusalem Day.

The first, shorter, piece was excerpted from a symphony whose texts were commissioned from poet Hayim Guri, also present in the audience. The centrepiece followed: the premiere of a symphonic arrangement for a poem by the late Uri Tzvi Greenberg.

Greenberg was one of the leading Hebrew poets of the twentieth century, and one of the most controversial. His work is often called prophetic, having foreseen the destruction of European Jewry many years before the Holocaust. Unlike many of his contemporaries, while a staunch Zionist, he did not see Jewish statehood as the panacea for his nation's suffering. For him sovereignty was necessary in part as a means of enabling Jews to defend themselves, a need which would not vanish anytime soon.

Last night's symphony was based on a 1930s Greenberg poem entitled "Kodesh Kodashim", "Holy of Holies". It tells the metaphorical story of a Jewish mother, representing the helpless pogrom-ravaged Jews of Europe, and her son, representing the new generation taking shape in the Land of Israel, committed to sovereignty and self-reliance.

As the mother lies dying in her son's arms, they dream of being carried together to Jerusalem. The mother advises her son to remain always on alert:

"Even when the Redeemer comes and the nations beat their swordsTo plowshares and throw their guns into the fire,You - No, son, not you!"
"No, mother."
"Lest the nations arise again and collect iron
And once again set upon us when we are unprepared
As we have been unprepared until now... Woe!"

This, for Greenberg, was the central lesson of modern Jewish history: That Jews unable to defend themselves would always be potential targets. No amount of self-abasement and gestures of goodwill would bring any lasting security for the persecuted nation. No one but the Jews would look out for their survival.

Classically, Jewish poets have turned to Jerusalem as a symbol for the eternal peace at the time of the redemption. In Greenberg's poem, though, that Jerusalem is elusive. The City of David, for him, is the city of David the warrior, who fought all his life to defend his kingdom from the surrounding nations. It was only his son, Solomon, who enjoyed the fruits of his father's success and ruled in a time of peace. In this poem, Jerusalem is the Jerusalem of David, not of Solomon, of vigilance, not tranquillity.

Perhaps we, too, must accept that we are, metaphorically, the generation of David, not of Solomon. God willing, our children will enjoy the peace that we can only dream of. For now though, we have no choice but to fight the vicious enemies who seek our destruction. The only peace we can foresee is the peace of deterrence.

Greenberg was no stranger to the horrors of war, having fought in the trenches of the First World War. As he wrote in another poem, he understood the yearning for the day when "night creeps softly on tiptoe and nightingales gather at my window - instead of death." Yet he was ever aware that longing for peace does not bring it about.

Today, his pragmatic, Hobbesian view of the world seems particularly relevant. Those who saw peace just around the corner have had their hopes violently dashed. The expectation of peace led to far worse tragedies than the suffering it had been purported to end. Maybe this is why interest in Greenberg's poetry has undergone something of a revival recently.

On our way home we were just in time to catch the 11 o'clock radio news. The headline was about a family in an Israeli village in Gaza who had miraculously escaped physical injury when a Palestinian mortar shell slammed into their house, plunging through the roof, spraying their living room with shrapnel.

A few minutes later regular programming was interrupted. An explosion in the Rishon Letzion industrial zone, preliminary reports say many injured. In my mind's eye I could see the area; last year we were at a wedding in a hall right nearby.

Dear God, not again, not again.

Once again the radio was repeating those dreaded numbers, the phone numbers for the hospitals, and for the national morgue. How many dead, how many dying, how many wounded. By morning the toll was sixteen Israelis murdered, over fifty wounded.

Three weeks had passed without a suicide bomber succeeding. It felt like a glimmer of hope. A hope we knew would not last. We knew that the Israeli army was forced to end Operation Defensive Shield early. Every Israeli knew that sooner or later we would have to pay for leaving the job half done, for leaving part of the terror network intact in the face of international threats.

Every day for the last few weeks the Israeli army has prevented a suicide bomber from reaching an Israeli population centre. Thanks to intelligence gathered from the raids on Palestinian terror bases and from interrogating the terrorists apprehended there. But there was so much more to be done.

Was it only yesterday that we were enjoying the stupidity of a football referee scandal, the mundane headline about the budget?

And now there is nothing left for us to do but to stand in front of the TV, watching the terrible pictures from Rishon, while we recite Psalms. May our tears and prayers open the gates of Heaven.

Uri Tzvi Greenberg has rarely seemed more prophetic.

Thursday, May 02, 2002

Bombshelter birthday - A quiet evening in the West Bank

Thursday, May 2, 2002

I spent last night at a friend's birthday party in a neighbourhood bomb shelter in a remote Israeli mountaintop village between Ramallah and Shekhem/Nablus.

Well, the only reason we were in the bomb shelter was that it is a convenient large room for community events, parties, kids' activities and the like. Across Israel there are synagogues and kindergartens located in bomb shelters. When peace breaks out we'll just be left with loads of soundproofed reinforced concrete dance halls. I'm surprised that no Israeli songwriter has penned a peace song like that yet.

We took the bus, bullet proofed as all buses on this route are. Our friends had advised against taking our car. The road from northern Jerusalem, bypassing the outskirts of Ramallah, and winding its way up into the Samarian mountains has been the scene of several fatal shootings over the past 18 months, though thank God it's pretty quiet lately.

We passed the spot where, exactly a year ago, a friend's husband was murdered one morning by Palestinian terrorists while on his way to work. Further on we passed the old police post where last March a Palestinian sniper killed nine Israelis.

Inside the bus, though, most of us weren't concentrating on the dangers of the route. Many commute this way every day.

For those of us en route to our friend's surprise birthday party it felt a bit like a school outing, or perhaps a reunion. Already at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station we were looking out for old pals, greeting one another as we boarded the bus, waving as we caught sight of friends.
The seats inside the bulletproof bus are more cramped than on regular buses, the armour adding extra thickness to the walls and windows, making the window seat especially cramped. Good thing I was sitting next to my husband. It was still cramped but at least those were my husband's elbows poking me in the ribs.

Getting into the bus station itself was a hassle. DH hadn't been there in a while, and was surprised by the x-ray machines checking every bag brought into the building. Imagine going through airport style security every time you want to get a bus.

Above the x-ray machines and the escalators a verse from Psalm 122 is inscribed: "Seek peace, Jerusalem; your lovers will find serenity. Let there be peace in your precincts, serenity in your palaces. For the sake of my brothers and friends let me wish you peace. For the sake of the House of our God I will seek good for you."

Perhaps since my visit to the States I note the craziness of all this even more, the juxtaposition of our everyday, ordinary routines with the trappings of a state under siege.

It seems even crazier to me that such a beautiful bus journey should be marred by concerns about snipers. The scenery is so rustic and biblical. Rugged mountains, their stony slopes still green from the winter rains, dotted with bright patches of yellow wild mustard, white wild carrot, red poppies and the bright pink flashes of wild hollyhocks and snapdragons.
In between we passed fields, vineyards, olive groves, shepherds with their goats and sheep, a family harvesting their barley crop with scythes, a donkey tethered in a roadside meadow.
Every so often we passed a village. The Israeli villages are mostly on hilltops, the compact red roofed houses neatly arranged in tight rows. Some have vineyards, date palms, olive trees or orchards. Most have tidy shrubs or pleasantly disorganised flowerbeds. A few have goat pens or pet donkeys in the yards.

The Palestinian villages sprawl, usually in the valleys. In some there are large ornate homes haphazardly scattered between large lots, some with beautiful gardens, others with yards full of old cars and building junk. Other villages are more modest, simple concrete box shaped houses nestling in the valley, or perched on stilts with storage space underneath.

In some of the Palestinian villages they have copied the tiled red roofs popular amongst Israelis. In some of the Israeli villages the houses have the concrete balustrades and ornamentation popular amongst the Palestinians.

The scene is so pastoral, it's hard to imagine that there could be a war going on. I've taken this road so many times before, the landscape is an old friend. It feels ridiculous to have to think of it as a potential danger.

Arriving at our destination, we passed through another checkpoint and then the bus wended its way up a narrow road to the village. We hurriedly made our way to the bomb shelter/function hall, where more friends awaited.

Assorted children chased each other round the room, munching on pizza and playing under the tables. The grownups caught up on each other's news, talked politics and kept an eye on the kids. Tables were piled high with salads, falafel, pizza and soft drinks. The otherwise stark room felt warm and cosy, with the odd balloon taped to the ceiling. You could almost forget it was a bomb shelter.

The night time return route felt a little spooky. The moon hadn't yet risen and the nightly mountain mists were closing in, swirling around us. Much of the route was lit only by the twinkling lights of the villages, neat rows of orange lights for Israeli ones, random white lights for Arab ones.

By the time our bus pulled back into the Jerusalem bus station it was nearly 11pm. We reached our car just in time for the news. Will Arafat leave his Ramallah compound? British and American guards escort the murderers of the late Israeli minister of tourism out of Ramallah to a jail in Jericho. Palestinian attacks continue on Israeli villages and roads in and around Gaza. Diplomatic manoeuvring proceeds at the United Nations. Back to the real world. During our quiet evening in the West Bank, it seemed a world away.