In the summer of 2003, I found myself on a bus in Jerusalem with a friend, on our way into town to share coffee together. As the bus began its way down Jaffa Road, I gathered my purse and bags, and prepared to get off. Just before Zion Square, my friend and I stepped down from the bus, and noticed an eerie quiet. Although this was usually a bustling, loud area, the street had fallen silent. The crowds on the street were all facing one direction, all turned toward the downtown area, toward Davidka Square.
As they put cellphones to their ears to dial their loved ones, I started to understand what was happening. There had been a suicide bomb down the road, in Davidka Square. And in their shock, everyone had stopped to take in the horrific moment.
Although this was in no way the first suicide bombing I had experienced in Israel, I had never been quite so close. Close enough to hear the blinding sirens fill the air as ambulances streamed from all directions. Close enough to wonder “what if?” Close enough so that when I saw the pictures of the charred bus frame later that day, I could feel the searing heat of that fire on my skin.
The details emerged over the next hours. The bomber was dressed as an ultra-Orthodox Jew, and had boarded the bus at Mahane Yehuda, the open market. He had then walked through the bus, and waited until the bus arrived at Davidka Square in order to detonate the bomb. The bomber didn’t blow himself up immediately, but rather held out until he had reached the middle of the bus, where maximum damage could be done, before pulling the trigger. Seventeen people died on bus 14A.
I found myself wondering: What thoughts were going through the bomber’s mind during the delay between boarding at Mahane Yehuda, and the actual detonation at Davidka Square? There were at least 2 minutes of being on a crowded bus, packed with all colors and shapes of people. The grandmothers were surely in the front seats with their wheeled carts and enormous, potato-filled sacks. The kids were teasing each other, the foreign workers were discussing their dinner menu after getting supplies at the shuk. Did the bomber see the first grapes of the season, still hard and tart, in a buyer’s bag? Did the bomber smell the rich oil from the falafel store near the bus stop where I bought my hatzi-mana on a regular basis? Did he see hints of his own family in those around him?
Surely the pure humanity of the 14A bus would have stopped him in his tracks. Who could look into the eyes of a savta or the bus driver and not have even the smallest doubt regarding the suicide mission? I found myself wondering how this person had actually managed to pull the cord, after spending those extra two minutes marinating in the beautiful humanity that is personified by Jerusalem public transport.
The only answer I could think of was that there was a deep, coal-black core of hatred inside the heart of this person, capable of screening out the life and vitality of the situation. The hatred was completely immune to the emotions that seemed so strong to me. This hatred had a mission, and did not see other human beings breathing and living together on that bus. Rather, it saw obstacles to a goal, sub-human organisms, people not worthy of life.
Over the last two weeks, the tables have turned.
On August 16, Jews threw a firebomb at a Palestinian taxi in the Gush Etzion area, injuring a family of six.
On August 17, a mob of Jews surrounded and brutally attacked four Palestinians in the middle of downtown Jerusalem, incidentally, at the same place I got off my bus in June 2003.
I find myself looking in the mirror at my own people, wondering what has happened to us.
Did my Jewish brothers, somehow, in some twisted way, come to inherit the hatred of the bus bomber, but in reverse?
What deep errors did we make in the education of the teenagers accused of perpetrating these attacks? As I thought about this, I came up with a few possible answers:
- Perhaps this generation was not handed down a humanist world view. One generation more distant from the Holocaust, perhaps these 13- and 14-year-olds do not sense the specter of violence and what it is capable of. Maybe they were too young during the Second Intifada to have clear memories of that as well.
- Jewish pride has been distorted. As a people that has chased out of countless countries, it is understandable that we Jews are almost obsessed with our separate identity. Now that we are blessed with our own country, army, and self-determination, the danger of hubris looms large. Now that Jews are armed in a Jewish state, will we use our power for growth and inclusion? Or will we play the role of cowboys, excited to finally be in charge, trigger-happy and ready to pounce? While there are extremely good sides to tribalism and protecting one’s own, the dark side is no less real.
- The Israeli, and specifically Israeli-religious, education (both inside of school and in society in general) has missed the mark. Rightfully, they have placed a strong emphasis on Jewish sources, Jewish history, and Jewish importance. However, an enormous deficit has been created in non-Jewish knowledge. Both experientially (meeting with non-Jews in daily life) and ideologically (understanding the importance of non-Jewish involvement in history). The implication is that non-Jews, and specifically Arabs, are relegated to the status of “other.”
- Religious particularism makes this type of violence “acceptable.” In the biblical story of creation, God created Adam “in his image” (b’tzelem Elohim). We learn from this that every human being is created in God’s image. Not only Jewish people have the privilege of being God’s creation. But when we are faced with young teenagers firebombing a Palestinian car, it is hard to imagine that these kids believed that the same God created them and their enemies. For some reason, they felt they had a cosmic “thumbs up” to take human life, for no apparent reason other than the ethnicity of the victims.
Yes, these two incidents of violence are fairly rare and isolated. However, we take an enormous risk as Israelis by not condemning them immediately and totally, both in the press and in our homes, families, and communities. Our identity as Jews is on the line.
Let us gather up the universalist and humanist values and show ourselves that we are better than that.
Let us begin making those deep changes in the Israeli psyche, the religious education, and the upbringing of our children, so that they will grow up with opinions, but without hatred.
Let us take this opportunity to make sure that we do not begin a perilous slide into the hatred exemplified by the bus bomber in Davidka Square.