Friday, November 29, 2002

Daniel Gordis: Dispatches from an Anxious State

In New York last week, I had occasion to be interviewed on NPR. It still amazes me how many people listen to talk radio, and of those, how many find the time to search the web in order to write email comments on what they've heard. I was pretty flooded with responses to the interview (, and rather struck by one particular theme that appeared in many of the letters. The following is typical -- I use it as the example because it was somewhat less inflammatory than many of the others:

"Listening to you on the Leonard Lopate show, I couldn't but be amazed at your disregard for the lives of your children. When the neighborhood we were living in deteriorated to the point that it was no longer safe to walk the streets we moved. We could have stayed, worked with the neighborhood association, joined the block watchers, etc, but in the meanwhile we had images of our children coming home from school mugged, bloodied, or even killed. It wasn't worth it to be heroes. . . . How will you feel if one of those suicide bombers kills your child when you could have avoided it by moving back to the States? Israel does not need you, it has many, many people who will fight the good fight, and in any event the problems are caused by forces beyond your control. Doesn't your family come first? Richard"

Well, Richard, I didn't answer that e-mail until today, because I didn't really know where to begin. But today was the kind of day in Israel that clarifies everything -- why we're here, why this isn't anything like the neighborhood that you left, and why we're not killing our children, but giving them something to live for.

We were at a Bar Mitzvah at the Kotel (The Western Wall) this morning. After the service was over, I grabbed a cab to head back to the office for a meeting. The news was prattling about something that "even we were unprepared for."

Uh-oh. That was the first I'd heard about the attack in Mombassa. Details were sketchy, and the only way the news could get any information was to speak on cell phones to Israelis who were actually at the site. One woman, just shy of hysterical, told the story of the explosion, and recounted how it took just under two hours for the first Kenyan ambulances to arrive. (Tonight, Israelis still can't believe that. We get to these disaster sites in two to three minutes, though admittedly, we have a lot more practice.) When asked what she expected would happen next, she said, "I assume Israel will send doctors, medicine and soldiers, and then they'll bring us home." And she was right. The news immediately cut to an airfield, where five IAF planes were being loaded with the medical equipment and personnel that the Kenyans couldn't seem to amass, and shortly thereafter, the planes and their cargoes were on their way.

You see, Richard, this isn't some dumpy neighborhood somewhere in the States that makes no difference to anyone but those who can't get out of it. This is what we call home. Muslim extremist evil knows no borders. We've known that for a long time. Remember Munich? Remember New York? Muslim terrorism isn't about the settlements, or the "occupation" (which may or may not be a bad idea, depending on who you ask, but certainly isn't the root cause of all this terrorism), but about Israel herself and about Israelis and Jews wherever they may be. (Truthfully, it's about Western Civilization, which the Jews for some reason are seen to represent.) And when Jews end up butchered in Mombassa, they know one thing. Kenyan incompetence will not allow them to be stranded.

We'll get there. And we'll bring whatever's left of them home.

And then we heard about the two shoulder-mounted missiles fired at the Arkia jet carrying 271 people, and how they missed. And on tonight's news, even CNN showed a home video one of the passengers had taken as the plane prepared to land. Outside the window, IAF F-16's were flanking the jet, making sure that it hadn't been damaged and was safe to land. They were so close that from the cabin window, the passenger was able to film the pilot and navigator relatively clearly. And as the plane landed, the video caught the clapping and spontaneous singing of "Heveinu Shalom Aleichem" -- a kitchy old Israeli homecoming song that no one on that plane had sung for decades. But no matter. There was no reason to be embarrassed by the kitch. Six decades ago, when people fired at Jews across the world, there was no one willing to do anything.

The F-16's outside the window showed our children, Richard, that we're not disregarding them or their safety -- we've brought them to the only place on the planet where Jews can take care of themselves.

Of course, we're not always successful, Richard. You're right. Sometimes, they get us. In the past two years, there have been 14,500 terrorist attacks in Israel. No exaggeration. What's amazing is that relatively few have killed people. Still, when two terrorists shot up a Likud Party headquarters this afternoon killing six people (so far), it was the culmination (though the day's not over, so one hesitates to use that word definitively) of a rather horrible day. But no one's running away. The Likud party primary didn't get cancelled or delayed. The polls stayed open. The countries these terrorists "represent" don't have a single democracy to their credit (save Turkey, if you call that military-in-the-shadows-government-sham a democracy), but we do. They blow up a hotel, try to shoot down a jet, shoot up a bus station and we still vote. Quietly, peacefully, democratically. And in the midst of all the sadness and grief, many of us are proud of that. I think we have a right to be.

You weren't proud of that neighborhood you left. Probably because it didn't stand for anything too important. Because it reeked hopelessness. So you left, and rightly so. But this place does stand for something important. And even on dark days like today, in which everyone I know was sullen, recovering from one bit of news only to hear another, this place pulses with hope. Those doctors flying to Mombassa are what this place is all about. The F-16's shadowing the 757 making its way home are what this place is all about. And the quiet, orderly voting is what this place is all about. What kind of a person in their right mind would leave this, Richard? This isn't a neighborhood. It's home. And with all its faults, and there are many, it's a dream come true. Walk away from that? How would we get out of bed in the morning and look in the mirror?

The chit-chat over dinner tonight was fascinating. Micha, our youngest and nine years old, was trying to understand the difference between Sharon and Netanyahu. Apparently, today's Likud primary had been much discussed in his fourth grade class. His older siblings were trying to explain. When they told him that Sharon has said that he's willing, in principle, to see a Palestinian state, Micha asked incredulously, "given them LAND?" To which his brother and sister explained that "they" need someplace to live, too, which is why Sharon says that. But then, they continued, "the Arabs probably won't stop killing us for a long time, which is why maybe Netanyahu's right." Elisheva and I didn't say much, and just listened to this rather lengthy discussion.

They had most of it right, some of it wrong. But guess what, Richard? They were talking about the future, a future they believe in. In just a couple of years, our daughter will get to vote, too. (That, of course, would not be the case if she lived in the Palestinian Authority. Or Lebanon. Or Syria. Or Jordan. Or Saudi Arabia. Or Egypt.) And she'll vote about stuff that really matters. The direction her country takes will be her choice, too. You're right that we can't completely stop the terrorism, and you're right that there's some danger here. But here's what our kids have learned: Life isn't about staying alive. It's about believing in something that matters while you're alive. And at the dinner table tonight, watching our kids think out loud about how much you should trust people who've been doing this to you for two years, but what you'll have if you're not willing to risk anything, I realized that it works. They actually still believe in the future. There wasn't a grain of hopelessness in their conversation. I bet that wasn't true when people talked about your old neighborhood, was it? And that's what makes all the difference.

Yes, Richard, our family does come first. And that's why we're here. To raise our kids in a place that's all about them, about their history, their future, their sense of being at home. To live in a place that unlike that old neighborhood, matters very much. Not because we're heroes, for we're not. But because we know just a bit about Jewish history; and because we have no right to expect other Israelis to "fight the good fight" if we're not willing to.

On the news this afternoon, they interviewed some alleged aviation expert about the attempted attack on the Arkia 757. He explained how these missiles work, and gave a whole dissertation on the ease of operation of heat-seeking shoulder-launched missiles. When he was done, the interviewer asked him, "Then how did they miss? After all, a lumbering 757, barely off the ground? How do you explain this?"

His answer, I thought, was telling. He said, "I can't explain it. Either they fired without priming the heat-seeking element on the missiles, or they were faulty. But normally, there's no way to miss. It was a miracle."

He didn't mean anything theological by the comment, of course, but today's the day before Hanukkah. In your old neighborhood, and in your new one, too, it's Thanksgiving. I remember it well. College football during the day. Beer and pretzels, and chatting with friends. Turkey and stuffing at night. Not bad at all.

None of that here. Just a regular old dinner. But not so tomorrow night. Tomorrow night, when you look outside our living room window, in the windows of virtually every other apartment within sight, there are going to be Hanukkah candles flickering. Religious families, secular families. Left wing families, right wing families. Native families and immigrant families. American families and French families. Young families and old families. Sharon families and Netanyahu families. They'll all have candles in the window.

Because Richard, somehow, in spite of everything, we still believe in miracles. Some of them happened a long time ago. But others are still happening. We understand them in different ways, and we disagree passionately about how to keep them going. But after a day like today, somehow we find ourselves still believing in them.

It's a crazy, dangerous place, this neighborhood of ours, Richard. But it's home. And it's a miracle. It really is. And from that, you see, you just don't walk away.

Now do you get it?

Happy Hanukkah.

(c) 2002 Daniel Gordis The first four years of these dispatches, along with other brief essays on life in Israel, have now been published by Crown Publishers as "IF A PLACE CAN MAKE YOU CRY: DISPATCHES FROM AN ANXIOUS STATE."

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