March 25, 2004
An Examined Life During the Intifada
For the epigraph of his new book, Israeli journalist David Horovitz chooses two quotes. One is: "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; those who love you shall prosper. Peace be within your walls" (Psalm 122). It is followed by the words on a refrigerator magnet sold in Orlando, Fla. -- also a prayer these days: "1. Get up. 2. Survive. 3. Go to bed."
"Still Life With Bombers: Israel in the Age of Terrorism" (Knopf) is a portrait of the "grisly lottery" of life in Israel. Amid shootings, exploding buses and bombings of public places, many are killed and no one is untouched.
This wasn't exactly the book Horovitz, editor of The Jerusalem Report and a frequent commentator for the BBC, CNN and NPR, set out to write. He was preparing some revisions for his 2000 book, "A Little Too Close to God: The Thrills and Panic of Life in Israel," when he realized that minor revisions wouldn't work -- that the world had changed.
The earlier book was published at a time of optimism in Israel, now superseded by the conflict. So instead of updating, he found himself writing an entirely new book focusing on the second intifada, covering the period from the Camp David Summit in the summer of 2000 to the re-election of Ariel Sharon in January 2003.
"I wanted to describe what life has become, to correct what have been wide misconceptions about the conflict held by some reasonable-minded people," Horovitz said.
The book is powerful because of the author's vantage point. Horovitz, 41, is a journalist committed to living in Israel, not a foreign correspondent passing through en route to another assignment. He writes as a husband and father of three young children, concerned for their daily safety and for the world they'll inherit.
While he doesn't veil his own opinions, he also tries to see things as the other side might. He admitted, "The more you live in this reality, the more you understand the various voices, the more you realize how little you know for sure."
He said that the book offers a bleak view. It's a book that will make readers cry. But even bleak or grim or sad isn't without hope, and Horovitz still expressed his longings for peace encased in a veneer, even if thin, of optimism.
He remains a believer in the decency and humanity of ordinary people, although the last few years have made him immediately conscious of the "evil that men are prepared to do, and especially the threat posed by the death cult that is extremist Islam."
In his previous book, Horovitz struggled with the decision of whether to stay in Israel or, with his American-born wife and children, move elsewhere, where daily life wouldn't be full of possible deathtraps at every turn. But they're still in Jerusalem.
He writes of the "incomparable pleasure of living in one's homeland, the invigoration of a common purpose among similarly energized people."
A fine writer, Horovitz has an eye for the telling anecdote and perfect metaphor, as he teases out the truths of a still-unfolding situation. The book is a mix of personal stories about his friends and family -- the reader sees his wife shielding the eyes of their children as they drive past the site of a recent bombing on the way to school -- and historical and political analysis.
In a particularly poignant chapter, he tells the story of Yussuf, a 36-year-old Palestinian "bookkeeper by training and plumber by default" who has spent much of his life in the El-Arub refugee camp near Hebron. The two sit for hours in a cafe in the "no-man's land" between Israel and the West Bank talking passionately.
Horovitz describes Yussuf as "strikingly self-aware and unmistakably smart," and they trade competing narratives. The mutual friend who introduces them says that under other circumstances, Yussuf might have been an academic, but as Horovitz writes, "His real life got in the way."
Yussuf was arrested during the first intifada, (he says he was "in the wrong place at the wrong time") and has since found work whenever he could -- working one month out of the 13 prior to their meeting -- and trying to support his wife and four children, parents and a brother and his family.
Horovitz writes that their conversation goes in circles. "The Israeli and the Arab, the Jew and the Muslim, two protagonists professing moderation and desire for reconciliation, each convinced that his own leadership was trying to achieve it, and that it was the other side that failed. It is a dialogue of the mutually disillusioned."
He said, "I think he's completely wrong, but boy, did he have a good argument."
The story of Yoni Jesner, a 19-year-old from Scotland studying at an Israeli yeshiva before beginning medical school in London and who was killed in a 2002 suicide bombing, brackets the book. Jesner's dream had been to move to Israel to work as a doctor and save lives. Instead, he is buried in Jerusalem, and one of his kidneys was transplanted into the body of a 7-year-old Arab girl.
Jesner's story resonates for Horovitz, who had moved to Israel from England 20 years ago, at about the same age and with similar energy and idealism. Horovitz interviews Jesner's brother, Ari, and he also seeks out the family of Yasmin Abu Ramila, the kidney recipient, to complete a kind of circle.
Ari Jesner, a lawyer in London, explains that his family, although they live abroad, considers Israel their home, and that donating his brother's organs was "the most fitting tribute to him to help someone." He blames neither God nor fate nor Islam, but the murderous human beings who assembled the device and dispatched an emissary to blow himself up.
Horovitz also visits with Yasmin's grandfather, who lives in Kafr Akab, beyond the Kalandiya roadblock, at once close and far to Horovitz's home in Jerusalem. In response to the journalist's questions, the grandfather, whose own grandfather was born in Hebron, expresses huge gratitude and speaks of the possibility of peace.
When Horovitz meets Yasmin, who is doing well, he tries to press her mother, Dina -- who, as the grandfather cautions Horovitz, has had a fourth-grade education and a very hard life -- to answer his wide-ranging questions about violence and peace and her dreams for her children. He elicits only shrugs and the briefest of answers, and a gentle chide from the grandfather for asking such questions.
The scene isn't the kind of closed circle that Horovitz had in mind, but he succeeds in presenting real people with empathy in this case of death and life at the heart of the conflict.
Horovitz is critical of the international media for misrepresenting Israelis, and he also thinks the Israeli government should be doing a much better job in dealing with the press and international public opinion. While he points out that Israel has made many mistakes, he levels most criticism at Yasser Arafat for the failure of the peace talks, for promoting violence and misleading his people.
He muses about how things might have been different were Israelis and Palestinians blessed with a Nelson Mandela, rather than Arafat. "I refuse to believe that Palestinian mothers are essentially different from Jewish and Christian mothers. I refuse to believe that their faith obliges them to regard murder and bloody, premature death as the finest ambition for their child," he writes.
"After 9/11 and month and month of bomber after bomber, I didn't know that to be as true as surely as I once did. Yet I have to believe that it is true, because otherwise we Jews have no future in this bitter, vicious Middle East without killing and being killed, forever through the ages. And few good people elsewhere have much to look forward to, either."