Why are Israelis still afraid?

Mark Lavie’s account of his career as a journalist in Israel

 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)

The question posed by this book, by a fellow veteran American-Israeli journalist, might naturally seem to refer to the fear of the ongoing COVID-19 plague. Fortunately for the reader, Why Are We Still Afraid? was published two years before the health crisis, and deals optimistically with the holistic health of Israel, despite the fears nurtured by certain political leaders.
In a sweeping narrative of his 46-year career as a radio correspondent for NPR, CBC, NBC, The Associated Press and Israel Radio, Mark Lavie presents what he calls “a true picture of Israel growing strong.” This includes examples of reports since his aliyah in 1972, the year that terrorists hijacked a Belgian airliner at the then-Lod airport (rescued by a commando unit that included two future prime ministers), Japanese terrorists murdered 26 people at the Lod arrivals hall and Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.
That auspicious beginning was followed by wars and unrelenting terrorism – but also accompanied by years of growth and prosperity, such that more than 80% of Israelis polled say they are satisfied with their lives. Of course, some fears never change, as Lavie observes: “Today’s government stirs up fears, most of them imaginary or at least wildly exaggerated, painting Israel as an isolated, lonely, threatened, little country, always on the defensive, always on the lookout for the next sign of hate somewhere, eager to overreact.” Through texts of news reports and features, Lavie presents a comprehensive survey of their contexts in a successful effort to provide an understanding of what happened. There was a lot that did, and the author’s explanations are given thematically, rather than chronologically, in four sections: Conflict, Society, People, and Media. They combine to convey an optimism that Israel will remain strong, because it must – an encouraging feeling in this time of plague.
Lavie’s reports recall Israeli broadcast journalism at its best, the kind that used to exist in 1972, when the author and I both made aliyah. I never heard his radio reports on outlets abroad, but grew accustomed to enjoying his iconic reporting on Israel Radio, from my perspective as a print journalist at The Jerusalem Post. In the words of one critic, a CBC colleague, a typical Lavie report is “one-third news and two-thirds explanation.” A good ratio, compared to contemporary Israeli broadcast media, which commonly feature two-thirds opinion and one-third news.
The section on conflict describes the wars and other violence that transpired constantly ever since the author’s arrival. His compelling reports during that period frame a reality that, decades later, seems largely unchanged, although the reasons why we may be still afraid are different. This may be small comfort during a lockdown season that began around Passover and looks like it will still be among us at Hanukkah.
The author’s intent by delineating the conflicts he witnessed since arriving was somewhat prescient: “This is a composite story of how we have progressed from really awful events that shocked our people to events that are awful but not as awful, yet they shock our people just as much, here and abroad. It’s a mentality thing.” The narrative is not chronological, but shifts back and forth among reports covering the entire spectrum of violence that constitutes our reality: from the Yom Kippur War to the terrorism of the intifadas and beyond, including the wars in Lebanon and Gaza. One report from the winter of 2006 struck a nerve: the suicide bombing of a No. 18 Jerusalem bus.
“I knew that my 18-year-old daughter was on her way back to her army base that Sunday morning after a weekend at home. I knew that she used that bus line. I knew this one would have passed by her house about the time she would have left. That was all I knew. What I didn’t know was too horrible to contemplate.” Such personal feelings infuse Lavie’s reports and are what makes his observations so powerful. It was with a sigh of relief that I read how his daughter was spared, because she took the bus that came before the one whose terrorist murdered 26 of its passengers. Then I paused to remember that a neighbor’s daughter died on that bus. And that line also passed by my children’s school.
The section on society focuses on what Lavie understatedly calls “a bizarre electoral system.” His corresponding reports frame a reality governed by elections that include more than a dozen parties. This analysis from 1972 still obtains: “A raucous, multi-party, high-volume, splintered, and antagonistic political system breeds a government that is made up of conflicting ideologies and ideologues, battling each other from day one—and that’s inside the government. The opposition, while united against the government, is just as fractured ideologically. Israelis, too, are diverse in their political, ethnic, religious, and security viewpoints, and they have little urge to compromise on much if anything. So they get what they deserve.” The sections on people contain illuminating vignettes from Israel’s wonderfully varied population, from a stevedore at Haifa Port to “all of Israel’s prime ministers, starting with Golda Meir.” The media section contains a sweeping review of bias in the world press against Israel, encapsulated in one typical example from a BBC headline: “Palestinian shot dead after Jerusalem attack kills two.” As Lavie notes: “The dead Palestinian in the headline is the one who killed two Israelis.” This is a landmark book on English-language Israeli journalism over the last four decades, but also a moving personal story from behind the headlines. Above all, it answers the author’s key question: “Not why I moved to Israel. Why I stayed.”
The writer is a former chief copy editor and editorial writer of ‘The Jerusalem Post.’ His debut novel, ‘The Flying Blue Meanies,’ is available on Amazon
Why Are We Still Afraid?
A reporter’s 46-year story of Israel growing strong
Mark Lavie
Independently published, 2019
Available from Amazon and as an ebook ($2.99)
paperback $18.99; 376 pages