Thursday, June 20, 2002
Dear family and friends,
When I began writing this evening at about 9.30pm the number of Israelis murdered this month by Palestinians stood at 64. By 11.15pm that figure was 68. Terrorists infiltrated the village of Itamar tonight, breaking into a family home and shooting its residents. Now, just after midnight the number has reached 69. The body of another little boy was just salvaged from the burning ruins of the house. I feel like going to bed and telling Jason to wake me up when the war is over.
Yesterday, when the bombers hit Jerusalem again, I was visiting the port of Ashdod with a group of over 50 British Jews visiting Israel on a mission. My uncle had invited me to join them for a day trip to southern Israel to see some of the wonderful environmental and educational projects the Jewish National Fund (JNF) has undertaken in the desert.
As nineteen Israeli families mourned their loved ones murdered in Tuesday's bombing, I was touring projects dedicated to bringing life to some of Israel's most barren regions. Out in the middle of the desert we visited reservoirs designed to catch the flood waters of the winter rains. Around a completed reservoir we saw green fields and citrus groves. Elsewhere in the flat, scrubby desert we saw ostrich ranches, tomatoes grown in brackish water unfit for humans to drink and orchards irrigated with waste water from the major conurbations of central Israel.
It was heartwarming to see this lively, intelligent group of British men and women whose love of Israel had brought them here in these terrible times, ignoring the advice of British friends and family that the trip was too dangerous. I almost had to pinch myself. Here I was, riding around the dunes of a remote corner of the desert near the Egyptian border with a busload of tourists heartily singing Hatikva, The Hope, Israel's national anthem. It was like something out of an Israeli satire movie, only it was real, and the enthusiasm and dedication to Israel left me in awe of these people.
At the port of Ashdod we stopped at the naval base to visit the brave men and women protecting Israel's shores from terrorist incursions. I wanted to hug every one of them.
The day ended with a surprise. Instead of heading back to the Jerusalem hotel, the bus turned south once more, then east past the town of Kiryat Gat. I've come to know this area fairly well. Jason and I like to take night time drives on the quiet rural roads, looking for nocturnal wildlife, admiring the canopy of stars almost unspoilt by urban light pollution. When the bus pulled off onto a dirt road near a JNF forest, my hunch as to the night's surprise destination was proven right. The stunned visitors found themselves by a network of bell caves - ancient quarries hollowed out from small mounds, resulting in vaulted, bell shaped caverns.
Dinner was served in the caves. After the meal members of the mission gave moving accounts of their visit. Some promised to come back soon with family and friends. Others pledged their support to fund more life giving projects or to defending Israel in the foreign media. All were visibly strengthened by their visit here, impressed at how we do our best to live as usual in the midst of terror, distraught at seeing how much protection we need just to go about our daily lives, encouraged at seeing the fortitude which keeps Israel going.
When I awoke this morning I was sure that it must have been a dream.
The atmosphere at college today was subdued, with an almost palpable feeling of hurt, of loss. In my first class of the day, an overview the biblical prophets, we could barely keep to the topic. The final unit of the course was on prophecies about the end of days. Over and over, themes from our current reality cut into the theoretical discussion of topics from Isaiah and Jeremiah. Recollections from the funerals so many of us have attended over the past year mixed with commentaries on the "birth pangs" of the messianic era, reflections on the death around us alongside the prophecies of a future world without sorrow.
Upstairs in the beit midrash (study hall) I tried hard to prepare for my next class, Chronicles. It was a futile task. I could see that my teacher was upset, and as I sat reading my bible I could overhear snippets of conversation from the next table, as she and other students talked about friends killed and wounded in yesterday's bombing.
This was the last class of the year and we were studying the final chapter of Chronicles, about the death of the righteous king Josiah and the beginning of the end of the kingdom of Judah, the chain of events which would ultimately lead to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and exile to Babylon. Not the most cheerful subject matter under any circumstances. Today it was hard to hold back the tears.
My teacher did her best not to leave us only with tragedy, devoting the last few minutes of the class to sources about redemption, about hope, a little light to diminish the darkness closing in around us.
As she rounded up the session with a few end of semester words of thanks her voice faltered slightly, and in a quiet, slightly shaky voice she announced that today's class was dedicated to the memory of a friend killed in yesterday's bombing. We sat in painful silence for a few minutes, unable to just pack up and go, each and her own hurt.
And then we walked out into the Jerusalem sunshine to catch our buses home.
Across Jerusalem police have set up roadblocks at main junctions and along major roads. Police or soldiers stood guard at many bus stops.
It was an odd feeling, riding on the buses today. My mind kept going back to Wednesday's bus bombing, to the Megido bus bombing two weeks ago and to the attack on a bus stop yesterday. The horrifying news footage would not leave me. As I sat in the bus I pondered the force it took to render the solid looking vehicle into a twisted, blackened piece of scrap metal.
I felt especially tense when a young Arab man stood next to me on the bus. A young guy carrying a bag. Probably just out shopping. Maybe not.
It is madness. There is no way of knowing whether he was an innocent local Arab or a Palestinian terrorist. It is one of the most maddening aspects of this war, the way the enemies' "soldiers" masquerade as civilians so that suddenly you feel as though you can't trust any Arabs at all.
The nervousness is fleeting though. Yes, I guess it is always lurking somewhere in the back of my mind, but I find that as the war goes on the fear is further and further from my thoughts. I suppose that is the way we learn to live in such a situation.
I don't know if it is real or only my perception, but the bus drivers have seemed friendlier, more polite lately. I find that my cheery "shalom" is more likely to be responded to with a smile, my "thank you" is more likely to earn a "you're welcome". After all, who knows if this is our last bus ride.
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Copyright 2002 by Leiah Elbaum.