why—despite it all—we stay

  1. 5,748 Posts.
    Jun. 13, 2003
    Why—despite it all—we stay, By Daniel Gordis

    Over the past few years, particularly on days like Wednesday when life in Jerusalem was anything but idyllic, people have asked us more than once why we stay. It's the kind of question I'm never entirely certain how to answer.

    It's about Zionism, of course, and the belief that the Jews need a place to call our own. And it's because there are specific qualities of our lives and our communities here that we could never duplicate anywhere else. And it's because you don't run and hand them a victory.

    And it's because there's something indescribable about living in the very place that the texts of your tradition refer to hundreds of times.

    But it's more than that, something far less cerebral, and I've always found it hard to communicate to those who asked why, when you get right down to it, virtually no one we know admittedly a narrow slice of Israeli society is even thinking of leaving; even this week, when the sadness and fury in this city are so overbearing that neighbors scarcely look at each other, when kids tiptoe around the house, when everyone walks on eggshells because everyone is about to cry.

    I got a letter a few weeks ago from someone I don't really know. She was writing about her own complex feelings about Israel, living here versus not living here and the like, and told me that she'd written to the mother of a child killed in the violence of the last few years.

    That mother wrote her back, and in reflecting on why she still lives in Israel and has never once thought of leaving, told her that in America, she and her family had had a wonderful life, but always felt that there they were essentially watching life go by. Here, she wrote, life doesn't go by you it goes through you.

    That notion that this is a place where life goes through you hit the nail on the head. It captures that je ne sais quoi so many of us feel, that explains our collective love of living in a place many of the people we know are too frightened to even visit.

    There's an intensity about life here tragic at times but compelling at virtually every moment that most of us simply couldn't imagine walking away from.

    And it's no surprise that that intensity is felt at the horrible moments.

    When five soldiers are killed in one day, just hours after the signing of another alleged peace accord, or when a bus blows up (a kind of euphemism, of course, because buses don't just blow up on their own) killing 16 people on the spot, sending 100 to the hospital and terrorizing (and infuriating) the rest of the city, you expect that intensity.

    Those are the kinds of things that might bring any society together, and they do so in Israel with an immediacy and regularity which, frankly, most of us would obviously much rather do without. None of that is surprising.

    What is noteworthy and has so many of us so in love with this place, is that this intensity strikes at seemingly the most mundane moments. The American press won't cover the mundane moments. They're not sufficiently interesting; advertisers won't have it.

    So we'll made the network evening news Wednesday, when Americans could gawk at our burnt-out bus, the line of a dozen body bags neatly laid out on Jaffa Road in the center of the capital. It confirmed everyone's impression of what life is like here and fortified those alleged supporters of Israel who are secretly thrilled to have it confirmed that they're right not to want to come, even for a visit.

    But that is not the stuff of which life here is made, and especially during a week like this one, it's important to remember that. It's important for us to recall, and for others to begin to understand, that to live here is to live in a place where very little gets taken for granted, where even the simplest things are often seen for the miracles they are.

    MY PARENTS were recently here for a brief visit. When they arrived my father told me about their flight over. They were flying El Al, and as the plane began its descent into Tel Aviv, the pilot got on the PA system that's PA for "Public Announcement," not "Palestinian Authority" and said in English, "Ladies and gentlemen, we will shortly be landing in Tel Aviv. Tomorrow is my 65th birthday, and thus I'll be retiring. This, therefore, is my last flight as an El Al pilot, and I wanted to thank you and wish you the very best."

    Then, in Hebrew, the same thing, with this addition: "I chose to make this announcement in English first, in a departure from general El Al practice, because I wanted my last words as a pilot to be in Hebrew. Shalom u-le-hitra'ot."

    My father thought, and I agreed, that there was something extraordinary about that moment. This is a country where even the language we speak strikes many of us as a miracle.

    A couple of days after my parents arrived I thought it would be fun to take them to an outdoor Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Reunification Day) concert being held in memory of two American students who were murdered last year in the bombing of the cafeteria on the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University.

    A couple of good bands were scheduled to perform and it sounded like a nice way to both honor their memories and celebrate Yom Yerushalayim without getting caught up in the annual debate over whether it's good to celebrate the "conquest" or the "liberation" or the "unification," all words that have so many overtones in Israeli life that I just usually sit the day out and avoid the stress.

    But this seemed important, and potentially fun, so off we went to the Sherover Promenade where the concert was being held. If nothing else, I figured, we'd get a great view of the city from west Jerusalem to the Old City to Scopus and then Jordan beyond on Jerusalem Day. That, too, seemed appropriate.

    Thankfully and appropriately, the place was mobbed. The press later reported that 3,500 people attended the concert, a huge number for Jerusalem. It was a very mixed crowd. Young and old, from pre-teens to senior citizens, a few haredim and lots of "national religious" and secular, the dreadlock crowd to the yeshiva-dress-code of black pants and white shirts.

    People without kippot, with knitted kippot, with Bucharan kippot.

    People who were there to dance up a storm, and those who were content to listen and watch. People who knew Ben and Marla and were there to honor their memories, people who didn't know them, but still felt it important to go, and people who were there to honor and celebrate a city which much of the world still says we're going to have to split, or share, or return. Or whatever.

    It must have been a security nightmare, so many people gathered so densely in an outdoor space so close to so many Arab villages, so the area was ringed with cops and other security personnel. But none of that prevented people from having a fabulous time.

    LOOKING AROUND at this scene, thousands of people out to celebrate a city and to mourn a horrific loss of life, dancing and singing, swaying to the music, connecting with friends, marveling at the flickering lights of this ancient city visible from there as it is from nowhere else, it struck me: This country is an unmitigated success. It's an achievement of cosmic proportions.

    True, we've got an economy in tatters with unemployment, poverty and hunger.

    True, we're still light years away from a workable peace agreement and too many people have died in the past three years and as Wednesday proved again, will continue to die.

    True, the roads are far too dangerous and the streets too dirty. The public education system is a catastrophe.

    Israeli Arabs don't get their fair share, and neither do Jews of North African extraction. Yes, the democratic tradition here needs a lot of bolstering. And no question, the army has to be more careful, more disciplined.

    Those are all critical issues, and we have to address them.

    But they are minor issues. They can be fixed.

    WHEN THE first of the two bands ended their set and played their best-known song "Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu" (rough translation: "peace will come some day"), a song in which the refrain is one Arabic word, "salaam," and the crowd went wild, cheering and singing along, I could scarcely believe my ears.

    Ringed by security personnel because there really are people out there who would like to kill them as we were gruesomely reminded Wednesday these kids were still singing and clapping to songs about peace.

    Looking from the promenade into an Arab village from which they probably wouldn't emerge if they actually walked down into it, they were still singing "salaam" and swaying to a song they didn't want the band to stop playing.

    Too bad the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad couldn't have been there for a few moments to witness this. If they had been, maybe they would have gotten it.

    They'll never, ever win. No matter how many buses they blow up, how many people they kill. This is not a population or a generation that will be scared into leaving, or into despair. The hope of this place runs too deep.

    You go to a night like that and you know we're ok. Despite everything, despite all the scars, despite the blood still wet on the streets of our downtown, we're going to be fine.Why would one stay in this country? Like our friends, we never wonder.

    The writer is vice president of the Mandel Foundation - Israel. He is the author, most recently, of If a Place Can Make You Cry: Dispatches from an Anxious State (Crown) and can be reached at www.danielgordis.org.
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