August 29, 2002
On Statistics and Heroes
The current conflagration in Israel and the territories is now two years old. News of each explosion in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv alarms me and fills me with a dread that does not retreat until I hear on the phone the voices of my friends in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Countless times now I have woken my friends in the middle of the Israeli night. I confirm their voices, and then my dread recedes into statistics.
We've been inundated by the numbers of dead and wounded in the second Palestinian uprising. Charts show us dips and rises in casualties on a weekly and monthly basis. Media reports follow a strange and similar pattern: the incident itself, followed by eyewitness accounts, followed by politicians commenting on either the tragedy or inevitability of such a thing. And weaving them together is an ongoing debate over whether this particular incident was based on retaliation or revenge, whether it was preemptive or responsive.
Innately I know that each statistic reflects a human life and grieving families and friends on both sides of the conflict; without my knowing the deceased and their families, the statistics let me quantify loss.
And then suddenly, on July 31 everything changed. Janis Coulter was one of nine killed at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The two-year loss of life for me is now qualified.
Because Janis was my friend and my colleague. Because Janis took my position when I left the Hebrew University. Because Janis and I had an e-mail correspondence and saw each other at meetings and conventions. Because Janis was a convert to Judaism and I was born a Jew, and in many ways, I think, she was more passionate about her Judaism than I am. Because if you play the what-if game, if I had kept my job with the Hebrew University, that could very well have been me on the campus on July 31.
Janis and I shared a particular realm that connects so many of us: alumni of the Hebrew University's program for international students. A passion for Israel. A love of Jerusalem. A desire that goes well beyond the definition of work, encouraging students to breathe in an experience something similar to what we have known.
Jerusalem: It's an ungraspable city. The beauty, pain, joy and melancholy in Jerusalem defy description or containment or words. Yet, we know the feeling when we are there. It's not a secret, it's there for all who breathe it in, but that feeling simply does not leave Jerusalem.
In some ways, both horrific and comforting, Janis has not left Jerusalem. Her spirit is now part of the life of an indefinable Jerusalem.
In other ways, Janis is very much part of my life here. Over the course of the weekend preceding her memorial service in Boston, Janis' boss and I spent time with the Coulter family. In the two years prior to losing her own life, Janis lost her uncle, her brother-in-law and her mother. Despite this -- or maybe because of this -- the Coulters have an extraordinary, humane resilience. The Coulters have taught me how to breathe with, and through, the loss of Janis. The Coulters have become my local Jerusalem -- I know the feeling I have when with them, but I can't readily describe it to you.
In his novel "Continental Drift," Russell Banks writes, "We must cross deserts alone and often perish along the way, we must move to where we can start our lives over, and when we get there, we must keep knocking at the gate, shouting and pounding with our fists, until those who happen to be keepers of the gate are also moved to admire and open the gate. We are the planet, fully as much as water, earth, fire and air are the planet, and if the planet survives, it will only be through heroism. Not occasional heroism, a remarkable instance of it here and there, but constant heroism, systematic heroism, heroism as governing principle."
I embrace the memory of Janis Coulter. Now, especially now, I think of her not as a martyr, not as a sacrifice, but as a hero -- a woman whose passion, smile, work and life so unpretentiously embodied heroism as governing principle.Hal Klopper is director of Tel Aviv University's office of academic affairs in New York.