October 11, 2000
Dear friends and relatives,
We spent Yom Kippur with an aunt in central Jerusalem, where we davened at the Great Synagogue. Jerusalem was full of tourists as usual, including many who turned up to watch Kol Nidrei services, some wearing jeans and crucifixes. (People who daven at the Great Synagogue are used to such things) We had a star studded lineup - Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau was in attendance and gave the Kol Nidrei night sermon. Sitting in the front row were Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and sons, and, believe it or not, ABC newsman Ted Koppel. The service was led by renowned hazan Naftali Hershtik, accompanied by the Great Synagogue Choir.
Yom Kippur offered a welcome break from the news. It is the one day a year when everything in Israel comes to a complete standstill: no shops, no public transport, no television broadcasts, no radio, virtually no cars on the roads. Everyone is either at synagogue or at home. Many non-religious kids take their bicycles, skateboards and scooters out for a spin on the otherwise-empty roads and highways, while their parents are likely to stock up in advance on rented movies to pass the time. All in all, a typical Israeli Yom Kippur.
At the same time it was an odd Yom Kippur, with the feel of a nation on alert. Chief Rabbi Lau ruled before the holiday that people should leave a radio tuned to a news station, which would broadcast silence throughout the day - unless events warranted alerting the public. We saw several army helicopter transports flying over Jerusalem and smoke rising in the hills in the distance to the north, areas where we now know there was trouble.
Many synagogues were less crowded than usual. Some decided to stay home in case things got worse, others couldn't get to Jerusalem because of blocked roads near their towns, and of course many tourists cancelled. In some areas people in civil guard, army reserve or police units were called up, whether to bolster security forces or to protect communities under attack. A young woman sitting next to me in shul commented that her parents were spending the day in Tel Aviv, as her father had been called up to the army.
The strange thing is that it is war and it isn't war. Some towns in the Galilee or near Palestinian-ruled areas have been under virtual siege since Rosh Hashana, with their access roads frequently cut off, travel dangerous, and, in some places, gunfire on civilian homes. In other places further from the fighting, background gunfire has been frequently heard. Meanwhile, in much of the country it's hard to believe that anything is out of the ordinary - unless you hear the news.
Particularly shocking to many Israelis was the reaction of Israeli Arabs, especially in the Galilee. Villages which have been peaceful for over 50 years suddenly joined in the "Intifada for Jerusalem". While Israeli Arab riots have mostly subsided, this was not the case through Yom Kippur. Most main highways through the Galilee pass by Israeli Arab towns, whose residents have rioted intermittently, closing the roads to Jewish traffic by attacking passing vehicles. Day after day we would hear reports of highway closings throughout the Galilee. There were several cases of Israeli Arabs setting up roadblocks to check whether passing drivers were Jewish or Arab. Arab drivers were allowed through. Jewish drivers were at best thrown from their vehicles, which were torched; at worst set upon by a lynch mob. Last week an Israeli motorist on the Haifa-Tel Aviv road was killed when a stone crashed through the driver's window, hitting him in the chest. Travel on some of these roads remains perilous, especially after dark. Last night alone there were ten stonings of cars on the Wadi Ara Road, a major artery through the southern Galilee.
Here in Modi'in we've had extra police patrols and we've seen more border guard jeeps patrolling the main entrance roads, but otherwise you couldn't tell that anything was up. The main Jerusalem-Modi'in road has been closed intermittently due to stonings and firebombings, but that warranted only a brief mention in the local weekly newspapers, which continued to focus on their usual stories about municipal business, building permits, schools, local sports and entertainment, and all the usual small time news which is the meat of any small town's local press.
In many ways daily life goes on as usual. Jason commutes to work, we shop at our local supermarket and water our plants. I practice Flamenco, the students I'm tutoring come for their lessons, and our neighbour's dog barks menacingly at every passerby. Where Jason works in Herzliya, a coastal town north of Tel Aviv, life is perfectly normal. There's no indication that only a few kilometers away there are blocked roads and attacks. Even in Modi'in or in most areas of Jerusalem everything is normal. People go out shopping and to restaurants, kids go to school, teenagers go out on the town, tourists visit museums and holy sites. It seems impossible that within commuting distance there are Jewish towns which are being shot at every night and stoned every day. The whole situation seems surreal.
Despite the normalcy, we have made changes in our routine. Even when the main road to Jerusalem is open it no longer feels safe to Jews, as it passes several Palestinian villages. Just the other night a Jewish driver was stoned and severely injured not five minutes away. Instead, we detour through the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway to our south. The extra 5-10 minutes is more than worth avoiding trouble. On the southern route to Jerusalem, it is Israel as usual; on the northern route people are worried and fearing the worst.
Cousins in a village not far from here are organizing the the annual family get-together on hol hamo'ed Sukkot, but it seems unlikely that everyone will be able to attend. Some relatives cannot leave their homes easily, certainly not after dark, for fear of attacks by Palestinians. Others are army reservists and have been called up to serve their country. For soldiers in regular service, Sukkot leave has been cancelled, as was Yom Kippur leave.. Planned events are being cancelled daily, from the Arab-Jewish alternative theatre festival in 'Akko to the Carlebach music fest down the road from us.
There are places we once would have visited without hesitation, such as Efrat or Tekoa south of Jerusalem, Talmon northeast of Modiin, or Givat Zeev on the road to Jerusalem, but now we would think carefully before driving on their roads and pay close attention to the traffic reports warning of attacks and road closures.
As if we didn't have enough trouble, rioting began Saturday night among Israeli Jews in a number of cities, instigated by local ruffians. It started in Tiberias, which has been under a great deal of pressure since the start of the violence on Rosh Hashana. The main highways leading in and out of town pass by Israeli Arab towns in Galilee, and were closed intermittently throughout the week, effectively cutting Tiberias off from major population centres in central Israel. In one incident last week, a Tiberias resident was dragged from his car and severely beaten by Arabs. Then came Saturday's news, with the savage destruction of Joseph's Tomb. Finally, one of the three Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hizbullah Saturday at the Lebanese border was from Tiberias. An enraged mob decided to take matters into their own hands, and tried to set fire to a mosque in central Tiberias. By Yom Kippur, Jewish riots had spread to other towns affected by Arab rioting: 'Akko, Upper Nazareth and Tel Aviv's Hatikva neighbourhood, which borders on Jaffa.
Unlike the Israeli Arab riots, which were encouraged by leaders in the Israeli Arab community, including Arab members of Knesset and religious leaders, the riots by Israeli Jews have been roundly condemned by all Israeli leaders (from the far right to the far left), who have called for their immediate cessation. Chief Rabbi Lau and political leaders have issued calls for calm and restraint, insisting that it is wrong for citizens to take the law into their own hands. Most of the areas where there have been Jewish disturbances are poor neighbourhoods or areas with a history of social or criminal problems, areas where there are a lot of youths hanging around with nothing to do. For them the latest Arab violence may have just been an excuse to go out and wreak some havoc themselves.
In contrast, in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) the Jewish response to Arab attacks has been mostly peaceful. While roads have been closed to Jewish vehicles, especially after dark, and some Jewish communities have been besieged by day as well, Palestinian motorists have been free to travel on the road in complete safety. This has infuriated many Jews, some of whom have set up (peaceful) roadblocks, insisting that if Jews are unable to travel on the roads, Palestinians shouldn't be able to either.
We hope that things will get better, but quite honestly I'm really not sure how. If we can get Arafat to call off his army and go back to negotiations, what then? Do we just agree to more concessions just to stop the fighting, including giving up the Old City and many areas of Jerusalem? Do we give in to the intimidation of the recent fighting and say, OK,. anything for peace? And if we do, how can we trust the Palestinian Authority again after these events, especially the destruction of Joseph's Tomb, the besieging of Jewish communities and the coordination with Israel's Arab citizens? But if we don't manage to bring Arafat back to negotiations will we end up with a full scale war or perhaps months or even years more of the sort of war of attrition we are experiencing now? Or is there some chance that despite the severity of the situation somehow this will all blow over as the 1996 tunnel riots and May 2000 Nakba riots did, and in a month or two most of us will forget that it ever happened?
And what about the terrible damage done to Arab-Jewish relations within Israel? How can things return to normal after we've seen our Israeli Arab neighbours, fellow citizens and co-workers, shop keepers and religious leaders attack us while chanting 'death to the Jews' and pledging to destroy the State of Israel? How can we continue to allow some of the prime rabble-rousers, including many Israeli Arab members of parliament, to continue to be members of parliament when most of them have been 'stirring up' the Israeli Arab community for months now with calls to attack the police, jihad for Jerusalem etc, and who during the riots did nothing to quell them and continued to mark Israel as the enemy?
And one final note, ironically perhaps a hopeful one, perhaps a point which will show just how confusing this all is. One of the three soldiers kidnapped by Hizbullah on the Lebanon border last week is a Beduin Arab from the village of Salame in the Galilee, near the Jewish town of Karmiel. He is one of a significant number of (Muslim) Beduin from the Galilee and southern Israel who are loyal to the state of Israel and who volunteer to serve in the Israeli army. While the kidnapping is a terrible event, another tragedy to add to the week's litany of tragedies, perhaps it also serves to prove to Israeli Jews that even as we sit in shocked, horrified silence and ponder this terrifying outpouring of violence on the part of Israeli Arabs, we should not forget that there are some Israeli Arabs who have thrown in their lot with the Jewish state and are prepared to risk their lives for it. Even as Israeli Arabs were in places continuing to attack Jewish communities, synagogues across the country were praying fervently for the safe return of Sgt Omar Sawayid.
All the best to you, and Gmar Hatima Tova,
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Copyright 2000 by Leiah Elbaum.