In 1967, one month after the conclusion of the Six-Day War, I visited Israel for the first time. Clearly, the visit made a deep emotional impact and a lasting impression on me. But one of the lighter moments I recall came while traveling on a public bus. Being somewhat fluent in Hebrew, I enjoyed engaging in conversation with the local residents who, invariably, preferred showing off their English proficiency to deciphering my American Hebrew. One afternoon, a gentleman struck up a conversation with me and, upon learning that I came from New York, commented, incredulously: “And you haven’t you been mugged yet?” I gently explained that the picture you get from the news reports does not reflect the normalcy of life in the “big city,” but only the exceptions to that normalcy.
Over the years, while sitting in the United States and watching news coverage of the events in Israel, I realized that my comment on that bus ride was quite accurate. The oft-quoted 19th century statement (the precise source is in dispute): “When a dog bites a man- that is not news but if a man bites a dog-that is news,” explains well why we get a skewed view of reality by relying only on media reports, and seeing only the exceptions and not the rule. It caused heightened concern and tension for us who were 6,000 miles away from the events. And that is certainly true of the current situation in Israel as well.
Despite this fact, I hesitated recording my view of the “truth” because so many have already shared their views about this subject, and their opinions can be found throughout the social media. However, I decided to accede to the many recent requests, and attempt to give you an “on-the-site” report from a Jerusalemite (it feels wonderful to describe myself as such) and to share my impressions of what my life is like here during this latest outbreak of violence.
Let me begin by telling you that my wife and I are no strangers to the tense and difficult times in Israel. We were here in 1995 during the emotional demonstrations against the Oslo accords, we led missions during both the first and second intafadas, we were present when Jews were removed from Gaza, we experienced life in Israel during the Hezbollah shelling in the Lebanon War of 2006 and we toured the southern front during the 2014 war against Hamas (“Tzuk Eitan”). We, therefore, had something with which compare the mood and emotions that were engendered by this latest uprising. In those years, we were tourists and we knew we would be leaving within weeks so whatever tension or agita we may have felt was only temporary. Now, thank G-d, we are permanent residents, citizens who have no plans to leave. So how do we see this violence now directed against innocent civilians, against us?
We got our first indication just a week ago.
My wife and I were sitting in our living room having a conversation when we heard the sirens. Not one; not two. The sirens continued while we watched the ambulances speed by. Not one; not two. And the scenario played out that day again. Not once; not twice. And it continued for some days. Not one; not two. So we sat at our dinner table, or our desks or on the porch and waited for the dreaded sound of sirens. Because we knew that sound meant someone was hurt-or worse. My emotional tranquility had been broken. And that bothered me.
And the second indication:
Twice weekly, I give a Talmud class (Daf Yomi) just some three bus stops from my home. I happen to love the short bus ride when I have the opportunity of seeing citizens doing business on the phone, eating a late breakfast or reciting tehillim. That morning, there was an attack on the number 78 bus, a bus I take at times on my way back from the class. That day, I made the decision to drive to the shiur rather than take the bus. I had been made to change my routine. And that upset me.
And the third indication:
After Shabbat, we decided to stroll some two blocks from our apartment to a new ice-cream parlor that had recently opened and enjoy some post-Shabbat desserts. As we stepped onto the main street, a major thoroughfare in the city, we were both taken aback by the eerie silence that greeted us. We looked down the street, both northward and southward, and saw absolutely no one walking on this usually busy boulevard. We glanced at each other, nodded, turned around and took our car to drive the two blocks.
These were, I believe, common-sense and responsible decisions. Yet, these decisions angered me.
And then other events occurred that allowed me to see the situation in a very different way. As a citizen of Israel. As one who was no longer on the “sidelines” of history but who was part of Jewish destiny. As a Jew who looked up to heaven and repeated the words of King David (Samuel II; 7): “And who is like Your people Israel-a unique nation on earth.” For as I sat studying on my mirpeset (patio) one afternoon I heard sounds of music that got louder and louder. I ran outside wondering where the music came from and I saw four flat-bed trucks with huge speakers blasting the words of R. Nachman of Breslov “… v’ha’ikar-lo l’fached klal “, “most importantly-do not fear at all!” I stood in awe as the trucks continued driving through the streets and neighbors ran out to their porches singing and clapping hands. And I smiled.
“Who is like Your people Israel?”
I saw young students distributing cakes and drinks to the many soldiers and policemen who were stationed throughout Jerusalem, and witnessed many adults thanking these courageous men and women who put themselves in harm’s way to protect us citizens. And I laughed.
“And who is like Your people Israel?”
And then, just this week, I turned to see scores of cars decorated as if it were Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Israel Independence Day, with Israeli flags flying from their windows and their horns blasting through the streets. In this time of mortal danger for Jews, who risk having a knife thrust into their necks or a car drive over them simply because they are Jews, I saw these people proudly display exactly who they were and, by doing so, spread that feeling of pride to all who saw them. And I rejoiced.
Indeed, “Who is like Your people Israel?”
And so, please know that all is well with us here. These times are more difficult; these days are more challenging and we may even suffer more tragic losses, G-d forbid. We must, therefore, be more cautious, more alert and, perhaps even change our routine. But there is no other place that we would rather be, sharing our fate in the land we prayed for with our brave people who sing and dance and take pride in who we are.
“… V’ha’ikar-lo l’fached klal “, “most importantly-do not fear at all!” because, this week we all should realize……………….
“And who is like our people Israel?” truly “a unique nation on earth.”