Playing in the water at a Tel Aviv beach 311.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The heady talk of impossible peace and atomic annihilation gives pause for
thought at large public events. Wedged cattle-like among thousands of
young Tel Avivians that packed Rabin Square last May for Remembrance Day, the
familiar rows of nondescript apartment blocks bordering the open plaza felt
oddly menacing. A patchwork backdrop of dark, unguarded windows. A most
tantalizing opportunity, surely, for some dimly defined enemy to score a
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Surprising, then, shocking even, was the conspicuous
lack of heavy security. A few streets were blocked, a modest police presence
that wouldn’t have seemed unusual on a Tuesday afternoon in New York’s Times
Square loosely monitored throngs arriving from 10 directions, and blasé guards
at makeshift entry points administered the perfunctory and absurd oneword
interrogation that anyone who has visited an Israeli shopping mall will have
suffered – neshek?, meaning “weapon?” – to which a simple shake of the head will
almost always suffice.
And then – nothing.
No catastrophic attack
either. Of course everyone knows that real police work happens behind the
scenes. Heroes go unnamed, victories unpublished. The legendary Israeli
intelligence machine rumbles on stealthily, plainclothes officers spot the
crowd, bomb sniffers scour, wiretaps monitor suspicious activity in nearby
buildings. One assumes. I assume. My eyes skirt the surrounding roofs expecting
– what – snipers? Actually, snipers might be nice.
aside, even the most sophisticated security apparatus in the world can always be
sharpened. Another officer can be added, a more thorough screening process
implemented. Unwieldy public gatherings can be curtailed. More can be done. At
some point, then, choices are made, consciously or otherwise, about the type of
place a society wishes itself to be, will allow itself to become.
GLINTS most brightly in modern Israel is not a triumph of combat – although its
military might is well known, and a virtual eradication in recent years of urban
terror is neither coincidence nor luck – but a blissful, crying, upending triumph of life. Along its teeming pedestrian boulevards, on its packed beaches,
from the heaving rainbow-colored masses that gathered for the June pride march
to relaxed evening crowds sauntering between booths at an outdoor book fair, it
is not the wan pall of dread and fright but an unbridled cosmopolitan zest that
is palpable like the shock of midsummer heat, that can seem naively carefree, or
impossibly innocent in a region that is anything but.
When the uprisings
began in Cairo a friend from Manhattan e-mailed to say that he had “obviously”
decided to “indefinitely” postpone a planned visit here. And during
Palestinian demonstrations along the border I received a message, this time from
London, wanting to make sure that “things are okay there, right?” I am always a
little struck by these reactions. Not because they seem ridiculous, which
they usually do, but because of how rarely it occurs to me to reconcile the
intractable reality of Middle East politics, and the very real, very frightening
security threats implied therein, with the urban rub of everyday Tel
It is said, and often resentfully, that to live in this city is to
exist in a bubble, blissfully apart from the sober reality that simmers a
stone’s throw away. If there is truth in this it is not for want of social
awareness or empathy. People here are informed, conscientious and deeply
patriotic. They read the newspapers, they attend rallies, they serve in
the national army.
If they forget, sometimes – rather, if Tel Avivians
manage to persist, to flourish despite those existential threats, that political
turmoil, a most divisive history, then it is a humbling testament to the nerve
and sharp dazzle that cuts deep at this dusty place, in these prickly-skinned
people. To have lived here these past two years is to have seen that
triumph firsthand, a splendid, quiet victory that no military has known, that no
peace accord could match.The writer is a native of Sydney, Australia,
and has spent the past two years living in Tel Aviv.