Jerusalem — Would you consider having a long, leisurely lunch on a glorious spring day at an outdoor, trendy Jerusalem cafe an act of bravery, defiance or just stupidity?
I would have thought all three a week ago, but after meeting a friend at Caffit, the well-known restaurant that was targeted by an unsuccessful homicide bomber a few weeks ago, I composed this news flash: Life goes on here. Not as normal, for sure, but not in hiding, either.
That’s my revelatory bulletin based on spending a few days here this week.
Israelis, like the colorful and abundant flowers of spring all around, have reappeared after a long hiatus.
There were about 15 adults and two infants dining at what used to be the busiest time of day at Caffit, which seats close to 200, in the heart of the German Colony. Looking past the armed security guard at the entrance of the restaurant — a common sight everywhere around town — I counted seven of about 50 tables in use.
“This is definitely an improvement over a few weeks ago,” my lunch partner observed. “Things are starting to come back.”
That doesn’t mean that if there was to be another terror attack — there have been more than 30 in Jerusalem in the last year — people would not go back underground. But for now, spring is in the air.
I must admit it came as a shock to see Jerusalemites going about their business, walking to and from work, taking buses and cabs, even smiling, and young couples holding hands and smooching on park benches. My impression, based on watching TV at home and reading the press, was that few ventured outside here and those who did moved furtively and quickly, constantly looking around for would-be terrorists in puffy raincoats.
That may well have been true a few weeks ago, but friends and colleagues tell me that since the recent army incursion into the West Bank, widely supported here, there’s been a slight easing of the ongoing angst, if not anger.
There’s no easing, though, of the feelings of despair regarding Israel’s predicament, politically and diplomatically. The matzav, or “situation,” as Israelis refer to the Palestinian conflict, isn’t the No. 1 topic of discussion — it’s the only topic, at least for starters. People have strong feelings and express them passionately, but there’s a certain circularity to conversations because every option already has been discussed, analyzed and dismissed. In conversations here with friends, colleagues and Israeli officials, I have yet to meet anyone optimistic about the future. The feeling of hopelessness is palpable.
Israelis, no strangers to crises, traditionally ended conversations with yeehiyeh tov, “it will be good.” Not anymore. Now they speak more fatalistically, as in “What can we do?” or “What will be will be.”
Polls are fascinating but meaningless in the sense that two-thirds of Israelis seem to support every option put to them, often contradictory. They support Sharon and the incursion, but they also are ready to give up the settlements. They are convinced no good can come until Arafat is out of the picture — killed, captured or exiled — but understand why the prime minister had to concede to American pressure to free the Palestinian leader.
Government officials talk increasingly of the need for a buffer zone of several kilometers’ width, rather than just a fence, to protect Israel from the Palestinians. A prime worry is still Iraq, the one Arab power that may be itching for war and prepared to march through Jordan to attack Israel. All the more reason for the United States to go after Saddam Hussein, an act the Israelis are hoping the U.S. will commit to whether or not it has the support of the Saudis, Egypt, Syria and others.
One lesson Israel has learned, again, from this battle with the Palestinians is that the Arabs respect power, and officials here are hoping the U.S. comes away with the same conclusion.
Israelis praise, resent, admire and are frustrated by President Bush and his administration. American Jewry is not so fortunate. Israelis are either angry at them for not visiting in larger numbers in this time of crisis — acknowledging such views are more emotional than rational, given the danger here — or worse, simply write off American Jews as irrelevant. The French Jewish demonstrations in Paris and other cities received far more media attention here than the U.S. national rally in Washington, though one colleague explained the French story was more newsworthy because American Jewish rallies are expected.
One colleague I spoke with felt it more important for American Jews to “hold more rallies and demonstrations to sway public opinion rather than come visit us now,” adding that they weren’t going to come in significant numbers anyway.
One group that did come this week, in impressive numbers, was a New York Solidarity Mission of UJA-Federation, which arrived here Monday afternoon with 165 people for a four-day visit. The purpose, organizers said, was to visit victims of terror, see firsthand several UJA-funded projects, like the Trauma Coalition to help Israelis cope with the long-term crisis they face, and most of all to show support for and solidarity with Israel. Participants, many of whom had never been on a UJA mission before, said they were seeking a tangible way to show their concern for Israel by being here.
And Israelis appreciate such visits, even as some suggest that it is time to redefine the relationship between American and Israeli Jews. They note that American Jews have reverted to the old model — philanthropy — during this crisis. But after it passes, they say, strong and creative efforts must be made to prevent the continuing drift between two societies whose children share only a common interest in pop culture, not religious values or Jewish identity. That relationship must be based on better understanding of and appreciation for each other on a personal level, it is argued.
Some Israelis believe a benchmark event took place the other day, little noticed outside of Israel, when Irit Linor, a best-selling author and columnist who is a leading feminist and key figure in the Bohemian scene in Tel Aviv, publicly canceled her subscription to Haaretz, the leading intellectual daily newspaper of the left. Linor called the paper a “radical left” and “anti-Zionist” publication.
“I don’t want to be a subscriber to a newspaper that tries in every possible way to cause me to feel ashamed of my Zionism, my patriotism and my intelligence,” she wrote, citing in particular the paper’s Palestinian affairs reporter for “holding Israel responsible for Palestinian suffering as well as Palestinian murderousness.”
Amos Shocken, publisher of Haaretz, defended his paper as Zionist, noting that if being left means support for swapping land for peace, “then we are left.” But the shockwaves of Linor’s strong statement reverberated throughout society, deepening the belief among some that the current Israel conflict, a result of the Palestinian rejection of Ehud Barak’s generous offer of land for peace, may signal an end to the post-Zionist revisionist phase and a return to a national pride. Society clearly has taken a shift to the right, rearranging old definitions and mind-sets.
“After Oslo,” noted a senior government official close to the prime minister, “we were racing toward cosmopolitanism and running away from ourselves.” But now that Israelis realize the conflict was not just about settlements and borders but the very existence of a Jewish state in the Mideast, “we are returning to a deeper sense of our history, our roots, our Israeliness. For the first time we feel we were right and we had to defend ourselves.”
That may be wishful thinking, but Israelis are fighting for their lives and their way of life. We who claim to love and identify with them must find new and deeper ways to express our commitment, not just through our wallets and thoughts and prayers but in ways that speak more directly to our brothers and sisters. Whether or not my visiting Israel helped anyone here is questionable, but it did help me. It certainly doesn’t make us heroes; it just makes us Jews. But that’s a start