For those of us who have lived in Israel for a while, it is unnerving to discover just how unnerved the latest spate of violence has made us. For better and for worse, we have grown accustomed to living our daily lives with a remarkable semblance of routine and normalcy, even amidst rather dire circumstances.
In the summer of 2014, the southern half of the country continued life amidst sirens that warned of the immanent landing of Qassam missiles. In 2006, when rockets were raining down on the northern third of the country — some people left their homes, but — at least in the bottom two-thirds of the country, life went on. And of course during the Intifada of the early 90s, when busses were exploding and café-goers killed by suicide bombers, people kept on.
So why are we unnerved now, by the rather innocuous and ineffectual (numerically speaking) spate of knife attacks? It’s obviously not about statistics; fear inspired by terrorism never is. But I know my own disposition, and I know when I’m on edge. I identify easily pedestrians turning around quickly when I pass them from behind, or when my bike makes noise as I breeze by. I know that when two of my children wake up startled, having dreamt that they were stabbed, then something has shifted. Pepper spray is sold out all over Jerusalem. I see how people look at each other on public transport and in the outdoor market. It is identifiable in everyday conversations, whether between students and teachers, at the green grocer; or in the black humor at which Israelis so excel. We are rattled. Why?
First, we are on edge because of the “intimacy” of stabbing. As a friend and colleague stated, there’s a kind of proximity and carnality to stabbing. It offers a kind of “retro” warfare, back to the days when soldiers had bayonets on their rifles and would lunge at the enemy they (quite literally) faced. This is no long-distance fighting, where the enemy can send a missile from afar or even detonate him/herself from a proximity of 10 meters. This is good, old-fashioned, in-your-face enmity and violence. What’s more: the proximity of the attacker reveals just how crowded this shared Israeli-Palestinian space is, how little distance there is between us, how intertwined our lives are. And that’s profoundly disconcerting.
Second, anywhere is a good place for stabbing. If we wish to avoid being stabbed, it’s insufficient to refrain from taking busses or visiting crowded places; merely walking the street puts us at risk, or even crossing the parking lot to get into a car. True, you might argue that missiles, too, could hit us anywhere, even in our own home, behind a locked door. But we get a warning siren 30-90 seconds in advance of its falling, so there’s a possibility (or perhaps merely the illusion of a possibility) that we have a kind of safe area to which to flee.
Third, anyone can stab me. This seems to be an uprising that is at once organic (bottom-up, like the first Intifada), but also highly diffuse. It’s not even cells of terrorists that act independently, with no coordination. The perpetrators have been individuals acting alone. They may well have seen on their Facebook feed (as did our housekeeper, a resident of Jabel el-Mukhaber, who told me about them) tips for how to put poison on the tip of a knife in order to kill Jews. But they decided on their own to act, and they acted alone. The implication (for the person fearful of being stabbed, even for the liberal-minded like me) is that any and every Palestinian is a potential cause for concern. This suspicion is heightened by the fact that Palestinians are ubiquitous in Israel: on the streets, in line with us at supermarkets, working in stores and restaurants that we frequent, sharing our parks and public spaces. Even worse: knives, too, are ubiquitous. And, though not comparable with the abundance of knives in our region, the reasons for Palestinians within Israel to harbor frustration and anger are plentiful. Combine the abundance of these three things (Palestinians, knives, and reasons for angry at the Jewish hegemonic majority), and you have a situation that demands constant vigilance.
Fourth, the location of the attacks and the motivation of the attackers indicate that this is not about “the occupation” — that is, the Occupied Territories captured in 1967. Many people view the matter otherwise. A Facebook friend posted something long and nuanced about the situation, in response to which a thoughtful scholar of Jewish studies commented: “Everyone on this thread seems to be avoiding one thing. This is all happening under occupation. This does not justify the actions, but it certainly contextualizes them. Occupation is itself an act of violence. Every. Single. Day.”
But those of us who live in these parts — including folks who, like me, work to end the occupation — can’t see the occupation as the motivating cause for the rash of stabbings. The attacks have primarily been inside Israel proper. The “background noise” that seems to be filling the Palestinian street is about Israeli attempts to change the status quo on the Temple Mount/al-Haram ash-Sharif. Moreover, many of the attackers have been Palestinians who were not residents of refugee camps or motivated by economic desperation: one worked for Bezeq, the Israeli phone company, and another was a student at the Technion, Israel’s prestigious institute of technology in Haifa.
So if it’s not about “the occupation,” then it’s about Jewish presence here — and the numerous injustices towards Palestinians that are an inimical part of that presence. This understanding hardly provides a source of comfort: given the challenge of building a just society anywhere — and especially one ensconced in a mire of political, social, and religious complexities such as we encounter here — we are assured that would-be stabbers will have an interminable stream of motivations. But how can those of us committed to addressing unjust policies and attitudes towards Palestinians do so amidst a reality in which the ensuing frustrations translate into lethal violence, backed by a rhetoric — even by Palestinian members of Knesset — that “understands” without condemning unequivocally?
Fifth, and finally, we are startled — not surprised, yet nonetheless startled — by the unbearable ease with which soldiers, police, and bystanders pull the trigger or beat until senseless and dead the perpetrators (and sometimes merely the alleged perpetrators) of these heinous crimes, even after they no longer pose a threat. We law-abiding Jews are fearful of the violence that will be inflicted upon us by other Jews if we try to stop them from roaming the streets of central Jerusalem, moving store to store, restaurant to restaurant, or taxi to taxi in search of Palestinians upon whom to inflict violence.
And we are unnerved by the way in which the media — and, as a result, so many of us, in our conversations — have adopted a lexicon of dehumanization: the terrorist was “neutralized” or “exterminated,” or “terminated,” or “liquidated.” Threats are neutralized, inventory is liquidated, contracts are terminated, rodents are exterminated. Not people, especially those who no longer pose an immediate threat to those around them. Moments of honest assessment of the behavior and language that have crept into the mainstream of Israeli society leave us deeply unsettled.
So, despite our best judgment, and in spite of our usual “it will be fine” attitude, we are unnerved.
But it is physically impossible to flex a muscle indefinitely, and it is mentally and emotionally impossible to stay on edge forever. Which leads to the final source of extreme discomfort: What unnerves me most of all is not that I will get stabbed once I let down my guard but that — under visionless, timid leadership — we will continue along the disastrous course we are currently pursuing of “managing” the conflict.