The Terror of Terror

I entered a full city bus in Tel Aviv. As I pushed my way to the back, I found, amidst the crowding, an open space. An old Muslim woman wearing a headscarf slept with her feet propped up on the bench across from her, on which she had placed her large backpack. The remaining two seats were empty – the only empty seats on the bus. As soon as I sat down next to the backpack, I regretted my decision. There was a reason these seats were empty in a crowded bus. Obviously, everyone else knew something that had escaped my notice: I was the only passenger so naive that I had picked a seat right beside a bomb about to be set off.

As I considered whether to get up to or not, we passed the corner of Dizengoff street where twenty years ago a suicide bombing in a public bus had killed twenty-two people. I scooted to the edge of my seat, ready to get up. I didn’t want to give in to prejudice and irrational fears just because the woman wore a head scarf and carried a backpack. But I didn’t want to die either. I figured that if I moved to the back of the bus I could increase my chances of survival. Five meters distance could be the difference between life and death; or the confirmation of small-minded bias.

If the woman had been awake, I would have made eye contact and the expression on her face could have clued me to her intentions. But her eyes were closed and her mouth twitched restlessly in her sleep. Maybe she wasn’t really asleep. Maybe she had just closed her eyes to muster the courage to press the detonation button. She looked tired and worn. I studied her face to try to understand if she was indeed about to blow herself up, and if so, what kind of bitterness could have driven her to such a horrific act.

I stayed in my seat and braced myself for the explosion, suppressing the fear that burned in me. We all die eventually, I told myself. Car accidents, cancer, murder, disease, war, earthquakes... – even the most obsessive vigilance can’t keep death away forever. I tried to relax and accept my fate. That was when she opened her eyes and looked at me.
“Sorry, does this bother you?” she asked in fluent Hebrew and pointed at her feet on the seat. “I didn’t sleep all night, and I’m sick,” she explained, “I feel awful!”

“No, it doesn’t bother me at all!” I said, “You should rest and get better!”

“Todah, kapara! [thank you, my dear]!” she smiled, and she blew me a kiss before she closed her eyes again.

Meditation on a Bag Lady

I’m at my neighborhood coffee shop, where I like to write when I need to get out of the house. I’m working on a manuscript about Tibetan Buddhism – a complicated story about attachment, false ideals, manipulation, and religious politics. It’s a book nobody is waiting for, so I often feel a bit futile as I fiddle with words and try to organize characters and events into plot and narrative. I envy people who spend their time on more concrete things, like growing potatoes or curing the sick. When I feel completely useless, it sometimes helps to move to the coffee shop. I can imagine that other people around me think I’m dong something very important as they watch me type.

I have gotten to know all the regulars at the coffee shop. The first to arrive is the middle- aged Yemenite guy who always orders a sandwich and coffee and then sits for hours at the coffee shop to chat, to anyone willing to listen, about the importance of the Yemenite community in the creation of the State of Israel. He told me he is early retirement and has no other daily responsibilities than preparing his daughter’s school lunch and shopping for groceries. Then, there is the guy from Um El-Fahm, who spends his morning at the coffee shop checking out every woman who walks by and complaining to the Yemenite guy that he is bored. There is a building contractor who uses the coffee shop as his office and who shouts into his phone at clerks who are not processing his permits fast enough. Twice a week, a group of four retired ladies meet at the coffee shop to brag and complain about children and grandchildren and to advice each other in their struggles with doctors and health-insurance companies. I think we’re all looking for order and routine to justify the passing of our time. And, of course, our presence at the coffee shop sustains Bar, who runs the place together with her husband.

But in past few days the order has been disturbed. We have been joined by a new regular: an eccentric bag lady who sits down at a table every morning, taking up three or four chairs with her collection of dirty plastic bags. For about half an hour, she examines and rearranges the contents of her bags, ignoring the flies buzzing out of the bags, and then she gets up again and moves on. Over her right shoe, she has tied a plastic bag, which collects fluid that leaks from an infected wound in her foot. With each step, she leaves a wet imprint on the sidewalk.

Her visits disrupt the regular order of our day. Everything we do and say seems frivolous after the sight of that pus-filled bag around her foot. We all fall silent, and the guy from Um El-Fahm stares at the sidewalk instead of checking out women.

We’ve talked about what to do. The Yemenite guy suggested that we collect money so she can get her proper shoes and medical care, but the lady doesn’t seem to lack money. She arrives with freshly bought groceries, which she eats straight out of the packet: sliced cheese, smoked salmon, vacuum-packed ravioli. Bar, who is losing business because of the bag lady’s presence, is desperate. She has called social services, but when they showed up to offer assistance and medical care, the bag lady got angry and screamed at them to leave her alone.

Of course we can’t help someone who refuses to be helped, but we can’t ignore her either. Since I saw her this morning, I haven’t been able to think of anything but her footprints on the sidewalk and the flies buzzing out of her plastic bags. And that’s why I am writing this now: to somehow get myself back into the subject of Tibetan Buddhism.

Here is the connection:  In Tibetan Buddhism, advanced practitioners are traditionally encouraged to meditate in the presence of a decaying corpse. As the practitioners overcome their revulsion at death and decay, they are supposed to realize that nothing is permanent and that decay is inherent in everything. Our attempts at order and permanence are just futile clinging to an illusion. In essence, we are all like the bag lady. She just has given up the pretense of maintaining order.




Quarreling about Peace

Shimon Peres talking about peace.

Shimon Peres talking about peace.

If you’ve ever wondered why it is so difficult to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, consider this: This week, there are two rallies in Tel Aviv to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minster Yitzhak Rabin. The reason there are two rallies instead of a single big one: the organizers cannot agree on a shared message.

Last Saturday, I attended the “main rally,” where former President Shimon Peres, now in his nineties, stated that Israel stands at a crossroad and needs to choose between peace or total war. (I felt reassured by his optimism: I thought we already missed the turn a few decades ago!) This rally was sponsored by the Israeli Peace Initiative, an organization headed by Yitzhak Rabin’s son, Yuval Rabin, and promoted a message of peace and compromise.

The second rally, next Saturday, is advertised as the “central rally” and features as its keynote speaker Reuven Rivlin, the current president of Israel, an outspoken opponent of a two-state solution but also a fierce proponent of equal rights for Arab and Jewish Israelis. (Though it puzzles me how he manages to combine his support for equal rights with his support for the occupation. I guess we all have some leaks in our ideologies.) This rally, organized by a coalition of Israeli youth movements, promotes general democratic values of liberty, equality and justice, while explicitly refraining from promoting a two-state solution. It purports to be the more inclusive peace rally, inviting people of all different ideologies; not just those who are willing to compromise for peace. [!]

A group of students has begged the organizers to combine the two competing rallies into one united rally, so as to send a more powerful message advancing peace and democratic values. But, of course, nobody is willing to compromise. Yuval Rabin, of the “main rally,” evasively explained that he fully supports the competing rally but that a “prior commitment” prevents him from attending the other rally. The organizers of the “central rally” were less diplomatic. They claimed that the call for a united rally stemmed from ulterior motives (?), explained that their rally is the more inclusive one, and implied that the “main rally” represents only left-wing radicals.

Meanwhile, most people seem to have given up. Even my “radical” left-wing friends decided to stay home. “It’s supposed to rain. I don’t feel like getting wet at a pointless rally,” they said when I tried to coax them into accompanying me.

According to Haaretz, around 15,000 people attended the rally last Saturday. Next Saturday, a similar number may show up. If the rallies had been combined (and the weather had been more sunny) they could have had a big rally with close to a 100,000 people. And even then it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.

Conclusion: making war is much simpler than building peace. If even well-intentioned, (somewhat) like-minded activists cannot rise above their political differences to organize a rally, imagine what would happen if actual enemies tried to agree on a compromise for peace!

Identity Conflict

It is strange to be back in Israel: a mix of displacement and deja-vu. We're here only for a ten-months sabbatical, but it feels as if I'm slipping back into a life that I could have had.

When I left Israel to study in the US, I didn't intend to settle there permanently, just as I had never intended to stay in Israel when I first moved here from Amsterdam when I was eighteen. I don't know how it is for other people, but my life seems to be a chain of haphazard decisions that have led me to places I never expected to be. And in each of these places I am a different person.

A few weeks ago, for example, when the war was still raging, my sensible American self had deep reservations about our decision to go for a year to Israel.  From the peaceful safety of Vermont, it seemed insane to take our children to a country as tumultuous and conflicted as Israel. But as soon as I arrived here, my irrational Israeli self emerged, and I remembered again how much I love the sights, the sounds, and even the trash and the problems of this land. Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to just stay here permanently.

I can never count on my attitudes staying constant because, like Zelig, my personality always adapts itself to its surroundings. And maybe it is like that for everybody. Others just don't move as much as I do.

Talking about identity, I started a new project: I am trying to create a picture of Israeli society by photographing and interviewing random people. Every day, as I go about my normal activities, I approach a few people for a photo portrait and a short interview about their identity and their hopes and expectations for the future.

Most people are ready with a narrative. They can tell me where their family is from, where they belong, and what their purpose in life is. But what's really remarkable is that all the people I interview are living completely unrelated and contradictory realities within a few square kilometers of each other.

An orthodox French Jewish immigrant is awaiting the arrival of the Messiah and the gathering of the Jews at the end of days, while a young man from Tel Aviv plans to move to the US because he is fed up with the growing influence of the ultra-orthodox in Israel. A left-wing Israeli Jew holds on to hopes that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can be resolved peacefully with a two-state agreement, and just 500 meters away I interviewed an Israeli-Palestinian Muslim who declared that he opposes the Jewish state and that there will never be peace until all the Palestinians can return to their ancestral villages. A wealthy high-tech worker told me she flies out to Europe almost every week for work, while an Ethiopian Jew told me he has never left Israel since he arrived here as an 8-year-old in 1984. A young Palestinian woman talks to me about peace and forgiveness, and a Libyan Jew whose parents immigrated to Israel in the 1950s tells me that Arabs can't be trusted.

This schizophrenia of worldviews almost matches my own identity confusion.

Talking to all these different people, I realize I'm most comfortable when I don't have to choose an identity but can just listen and try to understand other people's experience.  

But, of course, it's a luxury not to have to commit to an identity. Ultimately, when the stakes get high, there is no neutrality.


War and Peace

The defeat of the Amorites, by Gustave Dore

The defeat of the Amorites, by Gustave Dore

Last Saturday, Dina did her bat mitzvah at our local Jewish synagogue. As Dina recited the Biblical verses about God's wrath against the Israelites who had taken foreign women as lovers ("...and he drove the spear into both of them, through the Israelite man and into the woman’s stomach.."), I was glad almost nobody in the audience understood the meaning of her beautiful chanting.  In a Jewish community as peaceful and tolerant as ours pretends to be, the violence of the texts we read is a bit jarring. It takes supreme denial skills to reconcile the Tenah with our humanistic, inclusive worldview.  

Equally jarring was the knowledge that, as we sat in our best clothes in the sunny new synagogue, listening to the recitation of the story of Balak, King of Moab, and his war with the Israelites, riots were raging in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and children just a little older than Dina were being killed and tortured in back-and-forth revenge attacks.

 Since then, in the week since Dina's bat mitzvah, the conflict has escalated to an Israeli bombing campaign that has already killed more than 150 civilians in Gaza (many of them children) and a barrage of rockets from Gaza that keep our friends and family running to bomb shelters. 

 Next month, we are moving to Herzliya for a one-year sabbatical in Israel. This winter, when we made the decision to go, it seemed like a good idea to give our children the chance to spend more time with their grandparents. But as the bombs are falling and the revenge attacks escalate, it almost feels perverse to voluntarily move our children into this violence when we have the option to stay safely in peaceful Vermont. Of course, nobody voluntarily submits their children to this kind of violence. Most Palestinians and Israelis would prefer to live in a nice, peaceful place. 

 The theme of Dina's bat mitzvah happened to be peace and trust. For her mitzvah (charity) project, Dina had organized a fundraiser for a Jewish-Arab youth circus in the Galilee. The philosophy of the circus is that kids will forget political and cultural differences when they have to trust and rely on each other during balancing and acrobatic acts.

During our visit to Israel in December, when we attended the circus show in the Israeli-Arab town Dir-el-Asad, Dina remarked that she couldn't tell the difference between the Jewish and the Arab kids. She had known in theory about the conflict between Palestinians and Israeli Jews, but for someone who can't even distinguish between Jews and Arabs (and what actually is the difference?) it is indeed difficult to understand why they don't just reach a compromise and make peace.

 For her Davar Torah, the little Torah lesson that each child prepares as part of mitzvah ceremony, Dina continued on the theme of "trust". In her talk, she interpreted the violent wars between the Israelites and the Amorites and Moab as a misunderstanding that could have been resolved if they had just trusted each other, and she drew a parallel with the current situation. She concluded that if King Balak of Moab had trusted the Israelites, he would have realized that they meant no harm, and a war could have been avoided.

 If only it was this simple: The Israeli Palestinian conflict interpreted by a twelve-year-old from Vermont: just trust each other so you can reach a peaceful compromise. In a way, it is indeed this ridiculously simple: just trust each other. But, unfortunately, to trust each other after years of aggression, revenge, and violence, requires such extraordinary generosity and open-mindedness, that to expect millions of people to simultaneously embrace peace is as realistic as waiting for the appearance of the Messiah.

 What seems obvious here in quiet, peaceful Vermont – a place so gentle that children are not allowed to say that they "hate Brussel sprouts" because "hate" is "not a nice word" –seems laughable in a war zone.

 I'm afraid my kids will be in for some shock when they adapt to life in the Middle East. They'll pretty soon learn to distinguish between Jews and Arabs, and they'll quickly find out that the values they learned in kindergarten – to be peaceful and tolerant and kind – are not so easily applicable outside our beautiful, progressive Vermont town.

 But I don't think it's bad to have your ideals tested on the harshness of the world. It's easy to be tolerant and peaceful when you're already living in peace. The real test is to hold on to your humanity and compassion at a time of conflict, when your life and the life of the people you love is at stake.



From: The Prison Series, Giovanni Piranesi (1761)

I used to have a recurring dream in which I was trapped inside a city.  I would be walking through the back alleys of my old neighborhood in east Amsterdam, all the way to the harbor. As I reached the edge of the water, I’d see Hong Kong on the other side of the bay and realize everything was one enormous connected city.

In my dreams, I’d board a tram in Amsterdam and get off at the next stop in New York. Trying to cross the tracks to the opposite platform, I’d find myself in a meadow in France where, through a gap in a fence, I could sneak into Tibet. The Tibetan highlands and the French countryside were just parks inside the city.

Sometimes I’d be driving on a bypass road around the city, trying to get away, but whichever exit I took, it would lead me to another bypass road that got me entangled even further in the city’s network of highways.

I would explore New York skyscrapers – climb along the steel framework behind the walls, or crawl through air-conditioning ducts – and I'd discover that all the skyscrapers in the world are connected through secret passages.

Every time I went to sleep I would find myself in different places: Paris, Amsterdam, New York, Beijing, Tel Aviv… But they were all actually just one big dream city.

I have a whole shelf of journals in which I recorded those dreams. I thought that if I carefully documented them all, I could map the city and find a way out.

But for the past ten years or so I haven’t dreamed of the city, and I no longer write down my dreams. In fact, I barely remember them at all. When I do remember them, they are often just confused reruns of mundane daytime events. Often, my waking life itself seems as unreal as a dream: for hours on end I stare at a screen through which I connect with a world created in other people’s minds. I have given up trying to find my way out of the city.

But the dream has caught up with me in real life.

Last week, I read in the news that the Chinese government is considering to build a railroad that would connect Beijing to the United States. The railroad would stretch from Beijing through eastern Siberia, would traverse the Bering Strait to Alaska via a 125-mile-long underwater tunnel, and would then cut through Alaska and Canada to reach the US.

The city is closing in.