In the midst of a wave of terrorist attacks that have rattled the capital – including four on Monday alone – Jerusalem’s normally bustling Ben-Yehuda Street mall took on a decidedly bleak visage by mid-afternoon.
The festive air that has long defined the popular shopping and tourist attraction was nowhere to be found. In its place were forlorn pedestrians and shop owners who expressed fear, dread and record-low sales.
Saguy Farhi, a 25-year-old computer technician and lifelong Jerusalem resident, carried a gun as he walked toward nearby Zion Square.
“We need to live with the attacks,” he said.
“This is our country, our land, and we need to do what we can to live here. This is bad, but it’s not the worst thing to happen in Israel.”
Farhi, who is also a volunteer policeman, said he did not recall such a climate of fear since the second intifada.
His friend, Roei Yatzkan, a 24-year-old student at Hadassah Academic College, said he is also armed with a pistol.
“I’m a little bit scared, of course,” Yatzkan said.
“I always carry my gun in my backpack.”
While Yatzkan said he refused to allow the fear to alter his daily routine, he added that he carefully observes everyone around him at all times.
“Everybody feels the stress, but we try not to stop our lives,” he said.
Asked if either of them would hesitate to fire their pistols at an Arab assailant, both men said no.
“I would not hesitate,” said Farhi. “And I will do what I can to save people.”
Tzvika, a 20-year-old yeshiva student who requested his last name not be published, said he also carefully watches those around him.
“I’ve been on the train today and checked every time to see who got on to make sure it was no one suspicious,” he said. “I’m trying to keep my life as normal as possible. I’m a bit nervous, so am putting my awareness on a high level.”
Tzvika added that he has avoided going to the Old City since the terrorist attacks there during Succot. “This is not a normal life,” he lamented. “I’m just praying that one day Jews and Arabs will be able to live normal lives together.”
Naama Fitoussi, a 20-year-old student walking with two girlfriends, said she was not frightened by the spate of attacks.
“I’m not afraid, but it’s terrible and wrong what [the terrorists] are doing, and I want this to be taken care of,” she said.
Fitoussi added that her strong belief in God prevents her from giving into fear.
“I don’t carry a weapon because I believe in God, and I think that He watches over me,” she said.
Asked how the crisis can be resolved, Fitoussi cited government intervention.
“I don’t know, but the government needs to do something,” she said.
Malki Zeidman, a British seminary student at Tomer Devorah Institute of Advanced Studies For Women in Jerusalem, said that her school has taken emergency measures to protect its 70 students.
“I think that it’s very, very scary,” she said. “I came here from London to study and learn, and this is not what I expected. My seminary is in lockdown, so it’s 70 girls who cannot leave the building. We haven’t been able to leave for a week; only within our area.”
Zeidman added that the students have been instructed to stay away from public areas.
“It’s very annoying and hard, as well as the terrible things going on,” she said. “Personally I feel... I wouldn’t say safe, but I feel okay still walking around. I don’t look behind my shoulders, but I have friends who definitely do.”
“I do feel that as much as things can be controlled, they are being controlled, and there is nothing more I can do except watch out,” she said.
In terms of the mood among her American classmates, she said that their parents are far more alarmed than they are.
“The parents outside the country are definitely more frantic than the girls,” she said.
“Everyone is trying to find the latest updates on the latest attacks, and what’s going on and where, and saying: ‘Can you believe this is where I was for Succot, and it happened next door, and around the block.’ So it’s a very hyped atmosphere.”
Zeidman said that her sense of fear and isolation has been exacerbated by biased international news reports.
“I’m not the type of person who goes around with all my political views, but what I’ve seen so far in the news has been quite frustrating,” she said. “To see that there are more things being published about the few Arab people who have been fortunately or unfortunately killed, with bare minimum mention of the people who have to walk around in danger, is absurd.”
In the face of the violence, Mayer Gutnick, who is visiting Jerusalem from Crown Heights, New York, said he remains heartened by the Torah.
“One has to remember that, even though it is a dire situation because people are being hurt, nevertheless the Torah tells us that the land of Israel was blessed with a special blessing, and the eyes of God are watching the land of Israel from the beginning of the year to the end of the year,” he said.
Gutnick added that while he is concerned, and remains aware of his surroundings, he will not be cowed by fear.
“At times like this, we should be here to show solidarity with the Jewish people because this is our homeland, and that’s why I’m here,” he said.
Daisy Soffer, 91, who has lived in Jerusalem her entire life, said the atmosphere is as tense as any other time in the nation’s history.
“It’s a terrible situation, I’m sorry to say,” said Soffer, adding she only remembers feeling this tense during the riots of 1929, as well as the worst periods of the British Mandate and the second intifada.
“We’ve had worse times, but now is quite bad with all the knives and killing,” she said.
Asked if she is nervous, Soffer defiantly responded no.
“Why should I be nervous?” she asked. “I live in Jerusalem – this is my country, this is my home – and I’m not going to leave it even if they come to my house to kill me.”
“I only hope we will have peace and quiet in Israel on both sides,” Soffer added.
In the meantime, several merchants on the street renowned for its many shops and cafes, said their revenue has been devastated since the violence began at the beginning of the month.
Robert Filiba, who has worked at the Judaica shop I Love Jerusalem for 25 years, said sales have gone “from bad to worse.”
“The violence in the last two weeks has brought business down, down, down,” he said.
“Business is down by 60 to 70 percent.” Filiba added that he doesn’t recall such a slow period since the second intifada.
“Even last summer during the war was better than this,” he said.
Yosi Jacobs, a cashier at a popular nearby food market, echoed Filiba’s sentiments.
“It’s been much quieter than usual, much fewer people,” he said. “The town in general has been much quieter.” Jacobs said business hit a low point over the last several days.
“We’ve lost at least 50% of our customers,” he said.
However, Yonotan Franco, a cashier at an IDF souvenir and weapons shop that has a flyer on its front window advertising pepper spray, said that business has never been better.
“Before business wasn’t good, but now it’s crazy,” he said, estimating that sales have increased by 500%. “All day people of all kinds, except Arabs, are coming in to buy pepper spray, shockers, batons, knives and brass knuckles – even children are buying pepper spray.
Franco added, “We have to go to Tel Aviv every day to get more supplies.”