In Jerusalem on Wednesday, March 23, 2011, the first thing you heard after the explosion was an instant of deafening silence.
And after that, a sudden cacophony of car alarms set off by the blast’s pressure wave.
And after that, anguished screams and moans, if you were close enough to those wounded by the screws and ball bearings clumped around the explosive device to increase its lethality.
And after that, sirens. Lots of sirens: of ambulances, of police cars, of fire trucks, of Magen David Adom and Zaka rescue service ambulances and first-responders on motorcycles outfitted with first-aid gear – all swarming to the scene of carnage.
And after that, the dazed sobs and shocked recounting of the previous few moments by terrified pedestrians who were nearby, but otherwise unhurt by the blast.
And after that, the tremulous voices of hundreds of people in the wider vicinity, all calling loved ones to say, “I’m ok … because there was a bombing — no, I’m alright….”
That is, until the cellphone network went dead, both from the sudden overload of calls and possibly from police electronic jamming of any radio or telephone signals that could set off a secondary cellphone-detonated bomb aimed at the first-responders.
Subjectively, all of the above took place in one extended, horrific moment after several kilograms of explosives hidden in a duffel bag exploded, strategically left at a crowded bus between the central bus station and a convention center.
It would take another six months for Israel’s combined security services to catch the Palestinian who allegedly set the bomb, along with rounding up close to 100 more of his ilk in no less than 13 Hamas cells.
By the way, the guy calmly continued on to his job working at a Jewish wedding hall in town immediately after placing the explosive device.
It’s been almost a year since the bomb shattered that Jerusalem afternoon, killing 55-year-old Briton Mary Jean Gardner and wounding some 60 others, many of them severely.
As a reporter for various news-gathering organizations, I have covered many such terror attacks in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel for more than a decade.
But this time I had “skin in the game.” In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, one of my daughters called me amid the din of sirens and shouting in the background to say she was on a city bus very close to where the attack occurred.
“The bus shook, and then the driver stopped and told everyone to get off,” she yelled into her cellphone.
She said she was shaken up, but otherwise unhurt.
I told her to come over to my office, where she would be safe and could call her mother and siblings to let them know that she was ok.
Later, in the office, I hugged her with relief. She then started furiously texting friends to say she was unharmed, while I gazed out the window at the mass of ambulances, police and onlookers at the grisly scene, a short distance away.
“Police said it was a ‘terrorist attack’ – Israel’s term for a Palestinian strike,” is how one news agency’s politically correct prattle doubtfully dubbed the deliberate placement of a bomb at a crowded bus stop intended to kill and maim innocent civilians.
The brilliantly idiotic sentence made it sound like Israel was merely misinterpreting a Palestinian labor dispute. Another, more solicitous headline, however, was simply horrified — horrified! — over the well-being of Jerusalem bus stops (as opposed to those standing by them):
Deadly bombing targets Jerusalem bus stop
My daughter and I were, respectively, about 300 ft (90 meters), and 1,000 ft (300 meters) away from the explosion.
Trust me: after you feel the supersonic pressure wave shake the bus, and rattle through the building’s walls and windows, the first words that comes to mind are” terrorist attack,” not something about a union gripe or how bus stops are coping.
Anyway, I happened to be looking out the window of our third-floor office, which faces the area, at the moment of the explosion – just long enough to see a brief wisp of dark smoke rise above the trees.
After a skipped heartbeat, I reflexively shouted, “Pigua! Pigua!” – the Hebrew word for a terror attack. And then, shaking, I tried to both stab out my three children’s numbers on my cellphone to see if they were OK, and grab my field recorder and camera to run over to cover the scene.
The owner of a sandwich kiosk at the site suffered a broken hip and shrapnel in his stomach from the blast. He ironically named his small shed next to the bus stop, which had also been targeted in a similar bombing in 1994, “Pitzutz Shel Kiosk” or “Blast of a Kiosk.”
Who ever said Israelis have no sense of humor?
She and I were insomniacs for a few days and had trouble concentrating on school or work. I suppose you could say we were both suffering from a bout of mild post-traumatic stress disordert.
I found myself, for the first time after such a terror attack, calling Eran, Israel’s national volunteer hotline set up to provide psychological counseling in the aftermath of such events.
“Yes – It’s something going around. Take two Valium and call me in the morning, if it doesn’t clear up,” I – bizarrely – mentally envisioned the counselor blandly telling me, as I dialed the number.
But the chat helped, somewhat, and both of us were soon back to “the new normal,” meaning that, to reach my office from where the bomb blew up, I walk past a memorial sculpture, and a plaque on the outside of my building in memory of two bus bombings that happened right outside my office. That’s in addition to the “sudden jihad syndrome” backhoe attack that took place right under my window in 2008.
But then again, Israelis have been in this movie far too many times before, so we’re either resilient in coping with such intense physical, emotional and psychological trauma, or just numb to it all, depending on your point of view.
Back to the Future
Just over a decade ago, my now-18-year-old triplets walked past the large plate glass window of a Sbarro restaurant in downtown Jerusalem shortly before a Palestinian suicide bomber detonated a 10-kg. charge concealed in a guitar case, slaughtering 15 diners and wounding 130 others.
“The Arab grownups have no lev (heart); they put their children, instead of themselves, out in front of soldiers,” my daughter said not long afterward, as Israel entered a period when it seemed that city buses were blowing up nearly every day, and the security forces and army were doing everything humanely possible to stop the terrorists first.
But, “Why does the whole world hate the Israelis?” she asked, bewildered at the seething animus aimed against the Jewish State.
On another occasion during the same period, after listening to a news update during a drive with my other daughter, she turned to me and innocently asked, “Aba, How long will this go on? I mean the terrorists – will it last as long as the Shoah (Holocaust)?”
That one floored me. And I am afraid to say that I don’t have a good answer for her anymore.
It was a tough question then, and an even tougher question now, bracketing a decade of growing up with terrorism. Along with everything else in an Israeli teenager’s life is the certain knowledge that somewhere, determined monsters are planning ways of eradicating you, and cheering the deed to an often indifferent world.
In a sharp counterpoint to the above events, at the tail end of high school, my son took part in a “March of the Living” trip to Poland with his classmates.
In the week-long educational visit, thousands of Israeli and Jewish youth from around the world visit Auschwitz and other death camps, as well cities where Polish Jewry sojourned for nearly 1,000 years before being turned to smoke and ash, and meet with Polish high school students for a carefully scripted kumbaya moment.
The stated goal of the visit is “for these young people to learn the lessons of the Holocaust and to lead the Jewish people into the future vowing ‘Never Again.’”
But nowadays I can’t help but wonder.
Lately, closely monitoring the world media, particularly that of the United States, I feel more and more as though world Jewry got a 60-year “reprieve” after the extent of the Holocaust became widely known. But now, the ominous white noise of toxic anti-Semitism – including in the trendy guise of anti-Zionism – is slowly but surely keening louder in a world seemingly growing tired of us.
Yes, we have many friends and supporters among the nations, and yes, my “radar” sensitivity to this issue is pegged on high. But in all my professional experience, I can’t ever remember such a level of open hostility against Israel and openly practicing Jews, worldwide.
But, as I said previously, I may be prejudiced, being both.
Over one Sabbath after his return, my son recounted the briefing his group received from Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency, which meticulously oversees their security arrangements throughout their visit.
“We get the kind of security the prime minister gets,” he noted with amazement, as he detailed the layers of security enveloping their 90-student group from the moment they leave Israeli soil until their return.
And, not unlike an Israeli prime minister, they travel more like prisoners than free men and women. His description and the parents’ briefing of the specific elements of the heavy-duty security — which I won’t mention here — at first left me with an odd mixture of both parental pride and concern.
But the more I thought about it, the more those two emotions morphed into a slow burn.
We have accustomed ourselves to an appalling, outrageous situation where even Israeli youth cannot make a pilgrimage to see where our people were slaughtered without traveling under head-of-state-level security arrangements against possible attacks.
While the Passover Haggada says, “In every generation they rise up to annihilate us,” we are not enjoined to respond like – excuse the expression – a lobster thrown into a lukewarm pot of water that gradually heats up until it’s too late.
And while “The Holy One, Blessed be He, rescues us from their clutches,” God also helps those that helps themselves.
When non-Israeli high-schoolers go on a spring-break trip abroad, the biggest security worry they and their parents have is about briefly taking off their shoes for the airport x-ray scanner.
Israeli youth, on the other hand, are drilled before they leave the country to shout “HATZILU!” (“HELP!” in Hebrew) so that Polish police who are trained to recognize the word, and their Shin Bet security guards who accompany the delegation can come to their rescue if locals – “anarchists” as the security official put it – try to attack them during their visit to Poland. This 66 years after the end of WWII.
And when they arrive, the March of the Living is no spring-break party, either, but rather an intense week of learning just where such malevolence and terrorism aimed at Jews has lead — and could again, but this time with a politically correct happy face, or, more to the point, an Iranian leer.
Trying to lighten his – and my – concerns about the level of security protecting their group, I joked about a wry photo I’d seen on the internet showing a squadron of Israel Air Force fighter jets in a row on the tarmac, with the droll caption, “Jews: Not so easy to f**k with anymore.”
But when one daughter compares Palestinian terrorism to the Holocaust, another wonders why she has a bullseye on her back as an Israeli, and my son tells me that the most important fact in the runup to a spring trip to a place where we were helpless to protect ourselves against the monsters trying to kill us is their secret security detail… well, I just don’t get it anymore.
A sovereign Jewish state with an army, air force and security services second to none was supposed to put an end to the other age-old sport of kings: Jew killing.
So I and my kids, who, by the way, were born on Holocaust Remembrance Day 18 years ago in the sovereign State of Israel, really want to know: how and why have we allowed ourselves to become the ones who are fearful at home and abroad, instead of instilling that dread in the hearts of those trying to kill us?