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Jewish Journal

Santa Monica Tragedy Mirrors Israel Terror

by Wendy Jaffe

July 24, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Last week at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, I got a taste of what it is like to be an Israeli. Going about the ordinary tasks of life one moment, standing next to a corpse the next.

My day started out ordinarily enough. In pursuit of the perfect tile for my new barbecue center, I headed out of the scorching San Fernando Valley to the mid-70s of Santa Monica.

Thanks to the constant traffic that consumes the 101, I was half an hour late for my 11:30 a.m. appointment at Mission Tile West on Fourth Street. I spent nearly an hour with the general manager, Tom, on what seemed like the important task of selecting the perfect tile and then an additional 15 minutes discussing Tom's upcoming wedding.

Hungry and dreading my return to the Valley, I headed toward the Farmers' Market.

I browsed the booths and then walked over to the Third Street Promenade for a quick lunch. The line at Subway was the shortest, so I joined it. I gobbled my sandwich on the patio and returned to the rows of white kiosks that form the Farmers' Market each week.

A woman carrying flowers passed me, and I considered looking for the flower kiosk but changed my mind when I remembered that I had recently purchased flowers. Instead, I surveyed the various jams and jellies available at another stall.

Perhaps if the women manning the booth had engaged me in a discussion about the jam business, I would have been standing at that stall when 86-year-old George Russell Weller accelerated his way past her stand. As luck would have it, I left the stand and moved to the sidewalk that could have been, but was not, in the driver's path.

I was in Santa Monica, but the next sights and sounds were ones that more often are found in Israel. The quiet hum of shoppers was interrupted by the crash of a barricade being smashed, bodies being slammed onto the pavement, screams of victims and near victims forming a haunting chorus. Names of missing friends were called out; ashen faces pushed against cell phones, begging 911 operators to send help.

It was impossible to imagine that so much destruction and terror had been caused by a mere automobile, so I, like many of the other witnesses, assumed a terrorist act was in progress. I held my breath and waited to see if there was more to come.

When the crashing sounds diminished, I walked the 10 feet to the street that had been hidden from my view, thanks to a kiosk that had escaped the speeding car. My goal was to see if someone needed help. The sight before me was not what I expected.

A man was lying in the street perhaps five yards from the spot that I had been standing moments before -- or was it the exact spot that I had been standing? I'll never know.

His head was cracked open, and his dark, sticky blood poured out onto the payment. Seconds before, he had been buying a vegetable, innocently presuming that he would have life left to enjoy it. Across from him was another man, also dead, whose body was contorted into a shape that barely resembled a human silhouette.

Screaming and crying, I returned to the visual security of the sidewalk. Other screams joined mine, until they were drowned out by sirens from dozens of police cars, ambulances and fire trucks.

Hysterical, I called my husband as I made my way to my car. Shaking, I started the engine of the convertible and headed home to pick up my son from day camp. As I left Santa Monica, rain fell, but I did not close the roof. I was afraid to stop moving.

As I drove, I thought of how brave Israelis are to go about their daily life, knowing that they may not come home; how they can dance freely at a disco, knowing that any shimmy could be their last; shop at local markets for goods that they might not have a chance to eat, and get on city buses, wondering if they will ever reach their destination.

I was able to pick up my children from camp on July 16 only because Tom at Mission Tile West ended our conversation exactly when he did, the women who made my Subway sandwich made it quickly, I remembered that I didn't need flowers after all and the women selling jam were too tired to talk me into a jar of homemade plum jelly.

The dead and injured weren't able to pick up their children that day. And the mother of the dead 3-year-old won't have a child to send to camp.

When this happens in Israel, what do we do? We watch the aftermath, the cleanup, seeing sanitized pictures of burnt-out buses and dead bodies covered in sheets.

We don't hear the screams or see the mangled bodies of ordinary people who did nothing more extraordinary than board a bus or walk into a pizza place. We aren't privy to the Israeli child waiting at school for a mother who never comes. So we shake our heads, say what a shame and go about our day.

People complain the news is too graphic. Now I think the news is not graphic enough. Maybe a close-up in the Los Angeles Times of a young man lying in the street in Santa Monica, with blood gushing from his head, or a photo of a broken 3-year-old, with her mother screaming over her dead body, would cause people to be outraged that Weller was permitted by the Department of Motor Vehicles -- and presumably his family -- to drive a car.

And maybe some close-ups of Israeli children blown apart by a suicide bomber would awaken us all to the real horror of the terrorist attacks that have rocked Israel the last few years. If the world actually experienced the innocence of the "before" and the visual carnage of the "after," it would certainly be outraged. But then I guess that is why terrorists don't make videotapes.

I was lucky. I came home. But the next time a suicide bomber kills innocents in Israel -- or Bali or Kenya or here -- I will not just shake my head.





Wendy Jaffe is a freelance writer based in Bell Canyon. Her e-mail address is: Wjaffewrite@aol.com .

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