Terrorism is the ultimate anti-Zionist weapon. It subverts Israel's promise of normalcy for the Jews. One reason Israelis have learned to live with the recurring image of parents burying their soldier sons is that the death of young people in uniform isn't a violation of what humanity considers normal. But the murder of teenagers on a crowded downtown street on a Saturday night is an unbearable reminder of the absurdity of normalizing the Jews on a strip of land sacred to three competing faiths and located in the world's most volatile region.
The saleswoman at my local video store told me that the father of one of the boys killed downtown had been in just the day before. "He was worried about his son who's serving in Gaza. And then the fourteen-year-old gets killed on a street corner in Jerusalem." On Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda Street, the dead were mostly Sephardi teenagers; on the Haifa bus, mostly elderly Russians. The victims included an old man whose proudest achievement was having brought his extended family from Russia to Israel, and a young woman who'd gotten a lung transplant and celebrated every day as a gift.
Our lives now depend on random decisions. At ten o'clock on that Saturday night, about an hour before the bombings, my teenage daughter announced she was going downtown, to a café off Ben Yehuda Street. It's too late, I insisted; if you'd asked an hour earlier, I would have agreed. The café she wanted to visit was across the street from where one of the suicide bombers detonated himself.
The bombings followed about two months of what passes in Israel for quiet (shootings, stabbings, mortar attacks, and attempted bombings every day but no successful mass killings). Intensive military action during that period seemed to have put the terrorists on the run. Days before the atrocities, Prime Minister Sharon reassured the nation that a turning point had been reached in our war against terrorism and that he would now turn his attention to the economic crisis. Desperate for a return to normalcy, we seized the respite and returned to the cafes and malls--which is why the terrorists could kill and maim so many teenagers on a Saturday night in Jerusalem.
During that interlude, we indulged in the distractions of a nation that doesn't feel mortally threatened. Labor strikes, which had been largely abandoned during the intifada, shut down the universities and the airport. The feuding between secular and ultra-Orthodox, suppressed by unspoken mutual agreement since the outbreak of the intifada more than a year ago, resurfaced with its fanatical passion intact. When the ultra-Orthodox chairman of the Knesset's Finance Committee refused to approve allocations for civil defense because of a delay in government funding for yeshivas, a Labor MK denounced the ultra-Orthodox as "parasites." He, in turn, was denounced as Nazi-like. In an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood, a mob ransacked and later torched a photo shop allegedly selling pornographic movies. The secular owner shoved an old man who was instigating the riot; the old man later died of injuries sustained in his fall. He is now revered as a saint, ultra-Orthodoxy's first contemporary martyr in its war against the secular.
We even began tempting ourselves again with solutions to the Palestinian problem. Left-wing activists proclaimed September 11 an unprecedented opportunity for Middle East peace. Yasir Arafat, they said, finally understood that the world would no longer tolerate terrorism and that he must align with an emerging Pax Americana. (Of course, they'd said the same thing after the Gulf war.) Former Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami called for an internationally imposed solution, as if Israel could expect any fairer treatment from the international community than it received at the UN's anti-racism conference in Durban. Labor MK Haim Ramon insisted that the solution was immediate separation--even though unilateral withdrawal under terrorist pressure would only compound the disaster of Israel's flight from Lebanon, which emboldened the Palestinians to launch the intifada in the first place.
The longing for normalcy persisted even after gunmen fired into the central bus station and a nearby outdoor market in the Northern town of Afula last week. When the Israeli media downplayed the attack because the fatalities were relatively few, there was little public indignation. And even on the day of the Haifa bus bombing, Army Radio staged a revolt against the ritual of collective mourning--which calls for playing only sad Hebrew songs after a terrorist attack--and broadcast "normal" American rock songs, too.
Now, however, our respite is over. All workers' strikes have been suspended, and the images of the ultra-Orthodox on television are of ambulance drivers, not arsonists.
The most telling shift is a return to the realization that there is no solution to the conflict. The Israeli psyche naturally resists fatalism. The Zionist goal was to transform the Jews from recipients of history into its shapers. On the facade of Tel Aviv's twin Azreili Towers, the tallest buildings in the city, lights now form a bracing Zionist slogan, "It's In Our Hands." Most Israelis agree with Sharon that Arafat has been given one last chance too many, and that we must hit back. Still, there is widespread acknowledgment that the right has no solutions either--that if the left can't bring peace, neither can the right bring security.
Among those few who still think there is a solution are Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres. Even now, after the Israeli mainstream has repudiated Sharon's Greater Israel and Peres's New Middle East, the two old activists remain ideological optimists. Astonishingly, both still believe in the possibility of a stabilizing interim agreement: Sharon wants to replace Arafat with a new Palestinian leadership that would presumably be sobered by Israeli resolve, while Peres wants to bribe Arafat into reason. For nine months Sharon and Peres have stalemated each other: Peres has tempered Sharon's response to terrorism, while Sharon has restrained Peres's eagerness for negotiations. Now their bizarre partnership depends on Peres enduring attacks on Arafat's compound, and on Sharon refraining from killing or exiling the Palestinian leader. For Peres, Israel's response has already gone too far; for Sharon, not nearly far enough.
And yet this ugly little war may turn out to be a sideshow. Israeli military intelligence warns that if the United States hits Iraq, Saddam will likely retaliate with a chemical attack on Israeli cities. We can't bear to contemplate that new threat to the normalization of the Jews. We keep our gas-mask kits secreted in our closets; we ignore the postcards from the civil defense authority to "refresh" the kits--the absurdly upbeat Hebrew euphemism for the periodic updating of gas-mask filters and the injections contained within the cardboard boxes. Fear of exploding buses defers an even more terrifying memory of utter helplessness, when we sat in sealed rooms, wondering what the falling missiles contained and whether the plastic sheets over the windows and wet towels under the door would keep the poison gas from seeping through.
This article originally ran in the December 17, 2001, issue of the magazine.