In January 2017, I found myself scrambling for the phone to call my friend, a cadet in officer’s training course at the time. He’d informed me that he’d be in Jerusalem on a tour that day, and that was the day when Fadi al-Qanbar decided to ram a truck into the group of green uniformed soldiers, all on their way to becoming the next leaders of the IDF. My friend didn’t answer the phone at first, which definitely upped my blood pressure, despite the fact that my friend was not listed among the dead: Lt. Yael Yekutiel, 2Lt. Erez Orbach, Lt. Shir Hajaj, and 2Lt. Shira Tzur. We spoke later that evening. My friend had run for his gun and loaded his magazine, but a fellow soldier had taken out the terrorist before he could do further damage. At the end of our conversation, throughout the course of which his voice had remained quiet and reserved, my friend said simply, “I guess this will just be another thing we have in common.”
That’s the flawed existence in which we live, where friends have common ground not just in which books they read, films they enjoy, or circles of friends, but in what they’ve survived. For us, it was the ramming attacks. His was targeted at soldiers, mine was targeted at civilians. Three were killed in mine, four in his. But it doesn’t matter. You don’t count bodies or circumstances to determine the effect such an event has on a person.
Especially when things change so much after such an abrupt event. You don’t walk the street in the same way after an event like this. In my case, I was on my way to a course in the Hebrew University. Waiting at a light rail stop, I’d just gotten off the tracks and was standing near a lamppost. Less than a minute later, Ibrahim al-Akri ran a van through the lamppost and the group of people on the platform, killing a Druze Border Police officer, Jedan Assad, a 17 year old yeshiva student, Shalom Aharon Baadani, and Abd al-Karim Natith Hamid, a resident of the West Bank, and injuring 13 others.
What do you do in that minute afterwards? I wonder if my feeling during those seconds wasn’t unlike the feeling some people feel during an air-raid siren like the ones we hear on Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron. In those moments after the incident, unless you’ve been trained for this, you don’t know what to do or what is expected of you. All you know is to call an ambulance, call the police, call someone who can help. But during the event, you’re in shock, you have no idea how to react. From that shock I was awakened when I heard the gunshots ring out from the end of the track, telling us all conclusively that the threat had been neutralized. Now what?
You see the people lying on the track, bleeding, writhing in pain. Do you run and administer first aid? Do you run? Do you stick around to see if the cops show up? And what do you do after? How do you spring back into life after seeing all this?
I decided that maybe now was not the time to go to class. I went to Meah Shearim, picked up the cheapest falafel I could find, and bought a couple new books. I then made my way back to my Yeshiva in the old city, to hugs and questions from concerned friends. After a few minutes, one of the older students noticed that I was still shaking from the events which had transpired. He pulled me aside and we went out for a chai latte in a local café. Over the calming beverage, we discussed trauma, hurt, shock, and what he had experienced in Protective Edge the summer before. He kept the conversation open and gave me the space to vent and calm down. If you ask me what the most important parts of the event were for me, besides the attack itself, I’d say that cup of chai, and one other matter, the way that someone else, at the scene of the same attack, dealt with the events which transpired.
When I wasn’t sure how to deal with the shock and surprise, I was not alone. But of all the things a person could do in those minutes, I thought the last thing which would cross anyone’s mind would be groceries. No going to buy them so as to let off some steam, like my falafel and books, not cooking them into something comforting, like my cup of chai. I mean the groceries in their hand at the time of the attack, a cart full of vegetables, most noticeably eggplants. The old lady standing near me had also just nearly been killed, but what did she care? Who cares that the man in the van had just rammed over a dozen people! He dared knock over this old woman’s grocery cart! And the first thing this lady did upon hearing the gunshots, was wander onto the track, amid the injured, place her cart back straight up, and begin assessing the damage; not dealt to the injured, but to her eggplants.
I’ve spent five years in this country, and those few minutes were some of the most important moments in these past five years. And if you ask me the most Israeli thing I’ve ever seen, it was that woman picking up her eggplants. The cup of chai tea is my Yom HaZikaron, and the eggplants are my Tekes Maavar (transition ceremony). We have those moments in our lives to process what has happened, and think, calculatedly, about what we’ve seen and what we’ll do with it. But then, we need to walk into the arena of our lives, and pick up what we can, and, carrying the memory with us, move forward.
This country is built on the sacrifice of people like officer Jedan Assad, and the loss of people like Shalom and Abd. It is built on the scarred consciousnesses of young people who have seen these attacks, and the threat of crimes like those of Ibrahim al-Akri. But it is also built on cups of chai between friends, bruised eggplants from the scene of the crime, and the people who will step onto the tracks to pick them up, head held high.
If that isn’t what the beginning of this state was, and what the seventy years since it began have been, I don’t know what is.