Far from Normal, I am Tel Aviv

I am Tel Aviv.

In an age of social media, it is easy to just add a hash tag or temporarily change a profile picture.  Show your empathy, express your condolences, then in a day or two, move on. Life returns to normal. People resume their lives. But in Israel, its pretty clear that “normal” does not mean what it does for me in Normal, Illinois (and yes, there is no small irony that I live in a town called Normal). Today, as I write, my thoughts are far from Normal, but are with Tel Aviv.

A few weeks ago I argued that freedom for Israelis is freedom from terror. It was when I was enjoying the pleasures offered by Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tel Aviv, when the precarious and fragile nature of life in Israel became a reality for me. That at any time bad things could happen.

Of course, bad things happen to people everywhere.  For Israelis, however, the threat of terror is a constant presence. People don’t let it paralyze them, and they go about their lives, but it is still there. As a result, there is a strong desire — a longing — for “normality.” A normal life shouldn’t mean having to go through security just to enter a shopping mall. A normal life shouldn’t presume that any ride on a bus, or trip to a cafe could be the last one.  As I wrote in my column, “I realized that freedom for Israelis is really about the desire to live a life free from the threat of terror. That is something most Americans only grasp in an abstract way.  For an Israeli, it is woven into the fabric of life.”

Those words have new meaning for me. This afternoon, I turned on my computer to learn that there had been a terror attack in Tel Aviv. Details were sketchy. Later, I learned that the attack was at Sarona Market. My jaw dropped. I had twice visited Sarona a mere four months ago.

The vibrant feel that this arcade of restaurants, food stands, and shops had was so welcoming that I ventured back a second time. After eating a great burger and fries at the Meat Bar, I decided that since it was my last day in Tel Aviv, that I would spoil myself with dessert — at Max Brenner’s Chocolate restaurant.

At Max Brenner’s Chocolate restaurant. Where today, two terrorists ordered dessert, and then opened fire. Killing four, and injuring many more.

What I wrote in the abstract about the precarious nature of life and the desire for freedom from terror had suddenly become real. I have never had greater empathy for my Israeli friends then I do at this very moment. I realize I was only a tourist when I was there. Sure I was trying to explore the city and get a sense of how people lived, but I was a guest. Yet, what happened today in Tel Aviv somehow felt personal, even though it is half-a-world away, in a place I had only been for a brief time. In a small way it is similar to how I felt after the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting. I had once been in that very same movie theater, when I took my son to see a Harry Potter film. It was different from other shootings, it was somehow personal. Tel Aviv had become personal.

Sadly, the world will probably not pay much attention to this act of terrorism. In terms of mass shootings, it was small. There were no bombs. And let’s be honest, it happened in Israel. Not Paris. Not Brussels. Not London. But Tel Aviv. A bus bombing in Jerusalem one month, a mass shooting in Tel Aviv another.

But the world should care. These were innocent people living their lives, only to have them ended, or forever changed, because of hatred. It is terrorism, it is cold-blooded murder.

So, today,  I am Tel Aviv. I feel the pain for my friends in Israel. I also know that the hard work of co-existence and reconciliation must continue, in spite of this horror. I know that active empathy gets exponentially harder when something like this happens. It does not help when Hamas is stirring up crowds in Gaza cheering for the terrorists. But if we give into hatred, the terrorists win. They can’t win. The next time I return to Israel, I will go back to Sarona Market, and I will get a huge chocolate shake from Max Brenners.

I am Tel Aviv.

About the Author
Michael Gizzi is an active member of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, and an elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). A political scientist and professor of criminal justice at Illinois State University, Gizzi is actively involved in research on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. His opinions are his own, and not those of Illinois State University.
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