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Jewish Journal

Letter from Israel:On the Road

by David Margolis

March 1, 2001 | 7:00 pm

As you might imagine, living in Israel right now feels schizophrenic. We continue with our regular lives -- going to work, eating dinner, shopping, praying, catching a movie -- and meanwhile, not far away, our soldiers are at war. The newspapers appear, the soccer games go on, people chat over coffee in the cafes, and the war goes on and threatens to get bigger. The most abnormal thing about it may be that one begins to accept it as normal.

For me, the psychic effect from this low-intensity war expresses itself as a kind of obsession with the matsav, the situation. I wait for the news, talk politics too much or pointedly avoid political conversation. I sometimes feel during the day like someone driving with the emergency brake partly engaged -- something is pulling at me all the time.

At the same time, a sign of the insanity is precisely that so many of us are able to compartmentalize that we're at war. I rationalize that a shooting on the road I never drive has nothing to do with my safety; I lock the threat of violence away in a corner of my mind. But my wife and many others, probably more sanely, are unable to escape the pressure -- they're scared all the time, worried for friends and family, angry at the Palestinians, angry at our own government, gloomy with what the future possibilities are.

During the past month, four Jews have been murdered on the road between Kiryat Arba and Jerusalem. That's the second half of our regular route from the small village we live in, an hour south of the capital. Now we call that road "the short way," as opposed to "the long way," which is inside the Green Line and takes more than two hours. Sometimes we go one way, sometimes the other, depending on whim, how much time we have, how lucky we feel.

A week ago, a motorist was "moderately" wounded in the leg only three miles north of us, near the next Jewish town, on a peaceful stretch of road we believed completely safe. Is it an obvious mistake to drive in the Territories, even in a rural area close to the Green Line? But the same things happen on roads inside the Green Line, so maybe it's nothing special, just another shiny fact about the situation to file away and hope to forget while going about ordinary life. Schizophrenic, indeed.

The government of Israel suffers its own kind of schizophrenia. My favorite detail in the news today is that the charedi parties, including Shas, are refusing to enter into a government coalition unless the prime minister-elect guarantees that yeshiva students won't be drafted. Is it crazy or merely very tasteless, while your country is at war, to be wangling military exemptions for your own children at the expense of forming a government to deal with the crisis? I guess they're compartmentalizing, too.

Last night, my wife invited some friends from Jerusalem to spend Shabbat with us. The other wife refused. She said it wasn't because of either danger or the long drive around, but -- well, she didn't want to go into it. That means she won't come because we live a kilometer on the "wrong" side of the Green Line. If, huffily ideological, she's decided the war is our fault or that she compromises herself by visiting us -- well, schizophrenia comes in many forms.

She, who won't visit us in the Judean hills, lives, like many of our left-wing Jerusalem friends, in Baka, a lovely neighborhood with narrow side-streets and beautiful old Arab houses facing onto gardens. Jews live in those lovely houses now. During the War of Independence, the Jews, albeit for good strategic reasons, drove the Arab residents out. My village, on the other hand, stands on land that wasn't taken away from anyone.

It's hard to put all the pieces together. Some Jews in Jerusalem won't go beyond the Green Line. Some Jews in Tel Aviv don't want to go to Jerusalem. And a lot of Jews in America won't go to Israel at all.

When there's violence or threat in Israel, the tour guides tell me, American Jews cancel their trips, while American Christians keep coming. It's not so surprising, perhaps. To many Christians, after all, Israel is much more important than it is to a lot of Jews, and their support is unwavering.

Of course, a percentage of them have their own agenda -- hurrying the Second Coming and, for some, the conversion of the Jews. I don't mind that, really. The Jews won't convert, and the Messiah, when he comes, will turn out to be the Messiah of everyone. Meanwhile, they care deeply about Israel; they want it to prosper and be strong. And they see that biblical prophecies about the ingathering of the exiles and the restoration of the Jewish commonwealth are, after all, coming true.

Maybe not enough Jews believe that any more to keep them coming to the Jewish homeland or keep them committed to strengthening it. In the 1980s (according to an article in Israel Studies, a journal put out by the Ben-Gurion Research Center in the Negev), the United Jewish Appeal in America refused to allocate funds for projects outside the Green Line; around the same time, Christian Friends of Israeli Communities in Denver paired 40 churches with "settlements," for both fundraising and moral support.

If the war doesn't do it, that's the kind of detail that can drive a person nuts.


David Margolis, a novelist and journalist, made aliyah from Los Angeles in 1994. He can be reached at dm@davidmargolis.com.

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