July 31, 2002 Update

Letters from Israel

Wednesday, July 31, 2002

Dear family and friends,

I was standing by the Kotel, the Western Wall, reciting Psalms when it happened, when the bomb exploded at the Frank Sinatra cafeteria at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus.

The day was searingly hot, chokingly dry. As a friend noted, it made you feel like a pita bread baking in an oven. There is precious little shade by the Wall, and we were huddling under one of the larger caper bushes growing in the cracks between the stones.

I had spent the morning with visiting relatives at the City of David archaeological park. We climbed up and down the steep steps, through underground tunnels, over platforms above deep cisterns, jumping across the millennia of Jerusalem's history.

Here was the Gihon Spring, which had watered Jerusalem since the city's birth. Above it we saw the steps Solomon walked down during his coronation as described in the Book of Kings. At another site lie the ancient ruins of an Israelite house destroyed in the flames of the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. The house was uncovered under a layer of ash. From atop one of the modern Israeli houses we had a panoramic view of the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives; beyond that the sparkling gold onion domes of the Russian convent of Mary Magdelene.

Worn out by the punishing sun we headed up to the Old City for lunch in the Jewish Quarter by way of the Kotel. The midday heat is not an ideal time for standing in the exposed Kotel plaza, but who can walk past the Western Wall without taking a few minutes to pray or recite Psalms?

Immersed in my Psalm book I suddenly became aware of sirens. First one isolated wail and then more, insistently, not fading into the distance, but constantly renewed, breaking the relative quiet of the stifling midday heat. Something terrible had happened. I added a silent prayer for the victims of whatever new tragedy had occurred and walked hurriedly back to my visitors, who, frazzled by the sun had sought shelter by the police station at the edge of the plaza.

As I walked back to them I passed an ashen faced family, one son anxiously talking on his cellphone, the word "pigua" (terror attack) cropping up repeatedly. A couple of women were anxiously asking a policeman for details. Instinctively I found myself dialling Jason's number at work to check for information. He hadn't heard. It wasn't being reported on the news yet. As I approached my relatives Jason called back. A bomb in the main cafeteria on the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University.

My relatives clearly hadn't heard. They looked relaxed, tired but excited after the morning's fascinating tour. How could I shatter their mood? And yet the words came automatically and all at once their faces fell, hands moved to cellphones to check on Israeli friends and relatives, to tell the folks back in the States that they were fine, to check for more details.

And I was calm. Almost too calm. While they were going through the shock, the pain, I found myself almost detached. I didn't even know if God forbid any of my friends or family had been hurt, and yet I had set the whole thing aside, because there was nothing I could do now, no radio on hand, the cellphone lines were already clogged with anxious calls, no way I could help. I had taken a moment to grieve when Jason told me the news, and then, somehow I had just gone back to what I'd been doing earlier, guiding my relatives around the Old City. I was shocked at myself, shocked at the way I was just accepting the bombing as a fact of life.

And yet I was hurting, I was angry, but it was somewhere locked away inside. For now, I had to look after my guests. For now I didn't want to upset them too much, and wanted them to still somehow enjoy their day in ancient Jerusalem. I wanted them to feel and love the ancient stones, the special people and history, the sanctity. I didn't want reality to intrude.

I took them up to a cafe with a panoramic view of the Mount of Olives. You see that ugly concrete tower with the antenna, yes, there, on the far left, you see it? That is the Hebrew University campus. Yes, right there, that's what they just blew up. I couldn't believe I was saying the words, pointing out the site of an atrocity casually as I explained the Mount of Olives skyline, as I named the churches and the mosques and the Jewish cemetery and the hotels as we sat there over lunch, the table piled high with salads and main dishes.

I was screaming inside but outside the routine took over. How many times have I taken visitors to this site, sat in this café or stood at a nearby viewpoint and pointed out sites of interest? It is almost second nature.

My phone rang again. Jason had more details. He wouldn't say much though, only that it was bad, very bad.

We walked back through the Jewish and Armenian Quarters, through the Zion Gate, past Mount Zion, through the calm of a sleepy Jerusalem summer afternoon.

Arriving back at my relatives' apartment they switched on CNN. Seven dead over 80 wounded. The flat English voices reporting matter of factly from the scene. Over and over they emphasised that last week Israel killed Hamas leader Saleh Shehadeh. The implication was that the bombing was simply legitimate retaliation. As if Hamas hasn't been doing its best to kill as many Israelis as possible for years now. Maybe CNN forgot that only a few days before Shehadeh was assassinated Hamas ambushed an Israeli civilian bus, intentionally murdering nine civilians? But the world seems to have a very short memory.

My relatives sat in a row on the sofa in sombre silence, absorbed by the horrors unfolding before them. I watched for a bit but couldn't take more than 15 minutes. I walked out into the kitchen to check in with Jason again. I reminded him to contact our mothers. I tried calling his aunt. No reply on either her home or cellphone. I tried calling another cousin. Again no reply. Logic decreed that they were very unlikely to have been anywhere near the scene but my heart wanted to hear their voices nonetheless. It was only several hours later that I was finally able to reach everyone. Thank God all were fine.

That evening Jason picked us up in the car and we drove out to a picturesque rural restaurant. Sitting in there, enjoying the breathtaking view of the coastal plain at sunset I kept thinking about all those who would never be able to enjoy these simple pleasures again.

Outwardly I kept up the conversation, enjoyed the banter, the wonderful meal, the festive atmosphere. But each time I looked out over the view I felt the hurt surfacing. This is such a beautiful country, there is so much potential, so much good, so much hope. Here, atop a forested mountain, above serene fields and villages, with lights of the coastal cities twinkling in the distance, it was hard to believe that terrorists are killing people almost every day. It seemed the perfect escape from the reality of bombs, checkpoints and fear. Only the occasional rumbling of warplanes and helicopters overhead intruded on the tranquillity.

I wondered what it must be like to sit down one evening, perhaps in one of the Palestinian villages with a similarly commanding view of Israel's densely populated coast. What is it like to sit down with a map and plan intentionally to kill college students? To sit there and choose between blowing up a schoolbus or a pizzeria or a disco or a shopping mall or a hotel.

What does it feel like to want to kill, just to kill anyone, man, woman or child, and to feel no remorse, to feel glorious in the act of looking a child in the eye and shooting her at point blank range. To stand in a crowded cafe, look at the innocents around you and then push the button and annihilate them. I wondered at the crowds in Gaza and Jenin and Lebanon and elsewhere in the Arab world who this very night were celebrating the murders of seven innocent Israelis and Americans.

Still I kept my thoughts to myself. Only on the way home with Jason in the car did we begin to talk. And as we talked the tears welled up, tears which had been inside me all day, hidden and buried by my routine, by my activity. Calmly, quietly the tears trickled down and all that was left was the silence, deeper than our words, a silence of common sorrow, common hurt.


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Copyright 2002 by Leiah Elbaum.