We heard the news over the radio at my office in the West Bank. The initial reports were more detailed in Hebrew, but more confusing for it – a suicide attack in Jerusalem turned out to be an unattended bomb outside a bus stop across the street from the Central Bus Station. Two people dead. No one dead. Shootings in other parts of the city (which also ended up being false). Eyewitnesses had seen conflicting events and were speaking Hebrew way too fast for me to understand all of it. I sent off a quick e-mail to loved ones back home before the cell phone system crashed, which it did about 30 minutes after the attack. I couldn’t get phone calls, e-mails, gchat messages or BlackBerry messages after that. Throughout the office and on the drive home, everyone’s phones rang intermittently as a family member or friend succeeded in getting through, everyone picking up with the same line – “Ani beseder, I’m ok.” Getting back into Jerusalem proved to be slow; the checkpoint was crowded and the traffic trailed far behind in a line I’d never experienced in my 6 months of working in the West Bank. I noticed on the way in that soldiers were wearing nametags. I don’t know if I just never looked at the soldier at the checkpoint in the past, but evidently Israeli soldiers wear their names prominently on their uniforms in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The line getting out of Jerusalem was even worse; not only was the checkpoint full, but soldiers had set up another checkpoint about a mile into the same road. They were checking everyone thoroughly, regardless of license plate.
I grew up in the Inland Empire, but, with family in Israel, the Second Intifada had cured me early in life of the belief that terrorism couldn’t touch me. If anything, being in the country at the time of an attack made me feel a bit more in control of an uncontrollable situation; I experienced the attack in real-time and could get assurances of safety from friends and family much more quickly. Also, every person around me was doing the same thing. In that sense, there’s a feeling that everyone is going through this together. Thankfully, what happened yesterday at Binyanei HaUma can’t be compared to the destruction and loss of life caused by over five years of suicide attacks. The shock and lack of control you feel whenever any of these attacks happen, however, is the same. So once you hear, you start calling. And you don’t stop until you hear that your loved ones are ok. After that, the stories start to pour in.
The woman who was killed in the attack was in the ulpan of a friend’s friend. She was about the same age as the Russian bubbe in my ulpan. That’s the biggest difference of being in Israel; everyone knows everyone who knows someone else. The interconnectedness of society here is real and makes most news events much more personal. My heart goes out to her family.
A friend of mine told me she heard the explosion. She works about 10 minutes away from the site of the attack. She described feelings of helplessness, followed by anger and an even stronger commitment to make aliyah. This staunch feeling of living without allowing terrorism and fear to make your decisions is something I saw in my coworkers and those on the street throughout the city.
The bus to the center of town that afternoon, about two hours after the attack, was just as crowded as it always is, with standing room only. Jerusalem last night was definitely quieter. Ben Yehuda still had its crowd of tourists and vendors, but there were fewer locals. The unseasonably cool weather could have been to blame, but being home to talk to loved ones may also have played a factor. At the bars, I heard Israelis talking about the other attacks they’d lived through. The tractor attacks of ’08 came up regularly. But for the most part, people were taking the advice of the mayor. Nir Barkat had implored Jerusalemites to keep their eyes open to avoid future attacks, but to most importantly go about life as usual. Changing routines or living in fear allows terrorism to win, he explained. The overarching analysis I kept hearing, from taxi drivers to university students in pubs, is that these sorts of things are a part of life in Israel. Although it’s a harsh reality and one Israel cannot and will not accept, these attacks are a part of the Israeli fabric of experiences. Though in another country, the normal reaction would be to stay home on a night like Wednesday, getting a beer at the local pub downtown was the most important, and the most satisfying, thing I could have done that night.