Since the current Wave of Terror that started after Rosh Hashanah, Palestinian terrorists have stabbed, stoned, shot, car-bombed, and blown up innocent people on the streets of Israel, killing 34 people, wounding 397 others, and leaving the population on edge — living in a state of fear and anxiety. However, there have also been spontaneous acts of courage and kindness in response to these acts of terror — people mobilizing into immediate action to provide aid to the victims, as well as accounts of people moving forward to extraordinary action — themes that resonate with the stories I have heard from terrorism survivors, their families, and the families of the bereaved during the Second Intifada, stories I have shared in Living Beyond Terrorism: Israeli Stories of Hope and Healing.
Are these responses merely what psychologists refer to as “fight or flight”-– our body’s primitive, automatic, inborn response that prepares the body to fight or flee from perceived or real attack, harm, or threat, bypassing our rational mind, exaggerating our fear, and moving us into survival mode? Or could these extraordinary responses be something inherited by the Jewish people through centuries of unique exposure to lifespan traumas, e.g. pogroms, persecutions, wars, and ultimately the Holocaust? Or perhaps they are about attitude — as Viktor Frankl, the noted neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor writes in his autobiographical Man’s Search for Meaning: “The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance … when facing a fate that cannot be changed.” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik further explains that there is a difference between fate, over which we have no control, and destiny, over which we do have control; and that “man’s mission in his world is to turn fate into destiny — an existence that is passive and influenced, to an existence that is active and influential.”
Here are just a few of the inspiring stories, demonstrating these extraordinary Israeli responses of courage, kindness, and action, as reported recently in the Jewish media — in Israel and abroad:
Rabbanit Chana Henkin founded Nishmat, The Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women, in 1990. On October 1, 2015, her son, Rabbi Eitam Henkin, 31, and his wife Na’ama, 30, were killed in a drive-by shooting attack with their four young children terrorized in the back seat of their car. Speaking to the staff and students about her ongoing faith in God and her newly defined role, she told them that “HaKadosh Baruch Hu put us here to fulfill a role in the world. All of us have a role. Sometimes that role is pleasant, sometimes that role is not pleasant. But we must get up to fulfill that role, that’s why we are here in this world. So the Henkin family is going to learn about a less pleasant role than it had a month ago…. Despite everything, we are marching forward, we have a role, and we will fulfill that role.” She continued, reminding the students that their role is “to learn Torah, to grow in your midot” — basic Jewish values, “to grow in Ahavat Yisrael” — the love of Israel, and to grow “in good deeds, and together we will pave the way.”
On November 2, 2015, Leah Bowman, a tour guide in the Old City of Jerusalem was struck in the head several times by a young man brandishing a heavy glass bottle. Recovering from her wounds, she was left with a dilemma — should she continue guiding tours which she loves doing? With a positive attitude towards life, she decided that “I’m not going to let terror keep me away from what I love to do, and all the more so from Jerusalem and guiding throughout Israel. I will continue to learn, explore, and guide in every corner of the city and the country … showing visitors the inspiring history and teaching about the security situation…. I think the healthiest response is to take the opportunity to strengthen ourselves in our knowledge, our commitment to what we believe in, and in ourselves physically.”
On December 23, 2015, Howard Feldman and his family had just begun their vacation in Israel and were heading out of the Mamilla Mall in Jerusalem towards the Old City when they heard shots fired. He described the scene that he witnessed from fifty steps away: “Almost immediately we heard the sirens in the background and people started to run. Not away from the scene but towards it. Shopkeepers became soldiers. Everyone was suddenly armed and the mall sprang into action. No one ran away but everyone ran towards. That was the most overwhelming impression. In a second everyone had a job to do and no one wasted time in doing it. A solitary woman who was sobbing and who had clearly been at ground zero hurried away from the scene and was comforted by strangers who held her and who consoled her. She was shaking and overwhelmed, but she wasn’t alone. And we did the same… I had a sense that we needed to be part of the collective, almost like one becomes part of a minyan, which is essentially the creation of community.”
Just a few days later, on January 1, 2016, journalist Rina Raphael witnessed the same response when she was just a few doors from the Simta bar on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street as a gunman opened fire with a sub-machine gun, killing Alon Bakal, 26, and Shimon, Rumi, 30. Raphael tweeted: “As soon as shots fired on Dizengoff, everyone on the street ran towards — not from — the scene to help. Men jumped outta cars. Real courage.” She continued to tweet: “Humbled by Israelis’ courage and strength as they all ran towards Dizengoff shooter. Not one ran away. I stand amazed amidst sirens.”
The bar reopened the following Wednesday evening with a memorial ceremony for the two victims. As one of the bar owners was reported as saying, “The aim is to hug each other and come together, because that is what we’ve done until now.” A neighborhood resident, who stopped by to pay his respects to those who were killed and the eight others who were wounded, said: “They would all want us to continue to live life to the fullest…. And we will.”
For me, this was all too reminiscent of the bombing attack on April 3, 2003 at another Tel Aviv Promenade pub, Mike’s Place. Bartender and documentary filmmaker Joshua Faudem grabbed his camera from the bar, next to his half-drunk beer, and “realized then and there that the film I was making had just taken a sharp turn.” Before it was about Mike’s Place to show the world the beautiful side of life in Israel, while living in the shadow of terrorism; now it was about a terrorist attack. As the owners did thirteen years later at the Simta bar, following the attack at Mike’s Place, Joshua and his friends immediately moved to action with purpose — rebuilding and reopening the bar within a week. They wanted to have a memorial service a week later on Yom Hazikaron (National Memorial Day) in the early evening. And then they wanted to go into Yom Haatzmaut (National Independence Day) and celebrate, “because that’s what we do here. It had to be done and everyone worked hard doing it.”
And most recently, on March 8, 2016 two Israeli civilians sprang to action to stop two terrorists in two of three separate terror attacks, within two hours. In a Petah Tikva corner store, multiple stabbing victim Yonatan Azarihab pulled the knife from his own neck, stabbed and killed his attacker. “It’s a miracle…. I immediately knew I had to engage him so he wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone else.” Repeating the Jewish proverb “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Azarihab fought off his attacker, saying the strength he found was God-given. “If God didn’t want me to be in this place right now, then I wouldn’t be here. I thought today was my last, but I’m still here.”
Several hours later, on the Tel Aviv-Jaffa boardwalk, Yishai Montgomery attempted to stop a Palestinian terrorist on a fatal stabbing spree by smashing him over the head with an acoustic guitar. “He was so stunned and didn’t know what to do with himself and then started running away.” So Montgomery chased him down the boardwalk loudly yelling “terrorist” until security forces arrived. “I knew there were wounded people on the beach, but staying there with them seemed less important then.” A day after the attack, in which American tourist Taylor Force was killed and ten other people were wounded, the Tel Aviv promenade was still bustling with international tourists. A local resident who witnessed the attack said “The only response and what needs to happen, is for people to go out and show their strength — coming out here in force to show we’re not afraid.”
The people in these few stories, among other courageous souls, did not merely accept their fates, but chose to take extraordinary actions to control their destiny and, thereby, the destiny of the people of Israel. Am Yisrael Chai — the nation of Israel lives!