The right thing

Being absorbed in our own autonomy is sometimes one of the hardest shackles to break.

Victims, families at Park Hotel, Netanya (photo credit: Courtesy One Family)
Victims, families at Park Hotel, Netanya
(photo credit: Courtesy One Family)
It’s April and Passover is upon us.
Here in Tel Aviv, the natives have spent the last month or so in restless anticipation, glancing outside their windows every day to check the weather and asking themselves the tired old question, “Will today be a beach day?” It didn’t look as if the weather would be forthcoming this year. Passover usually marks the beginning of the months-long stretch of summer sun, but this time around winter blues continued to sweep the coastline well into March and only last week the coastal city crackled and rumbled as thunder and lightning fractured the night sky.
But Tel Avivians breathed a sigh of relief when the festival finally ushered in some long-awaited, beach-apropos weather last Friday. It was not going to be a rainy Passover after all.
The last time I can recall a Passover with unseasonable weather was a decade ago in 2002. That year, the weather acted like a wild woman – thrashing and gesticulating as bullets of hail rained down on the country. I recall people observing that “hashamayim bochim” – the heavens are weeping.
And it wasn’t for no good reason. It was the year of the Passover massacre in which 30 people lost their lives when a suicide bomber blew up the Park Hotel in Netanya.
Passover 5772: Click for JPost special featuresPassover 5772: Click for JPost special features
My parents and brother had come from overseas to be with me that Passover. A few days before the festival, my brother was with me in my apartment in central Jerusalem when we heard the sounds of a blast not far off.
He looked at me quizzically, and I responded with a horror-stricken expression. “It’s a bomb,” I said definitively.
“No way,” my brother answered, “it must be construction work or a sonic boom or something.” I shook my head sadly. We were living in the epicenter of the second intifada and, like most Israelis at the time, I knew the drill.
Indeed, less than 30 seconds later, the screams of sirens pierced the air heralding the arrival of emergency vehicles at the bomb site in downtown Jerusalem.
Less than a week later, my family was sitting down to begin the second Seder when I went to check the news. The images of the Park Hotel’s bloodied frame remain embedded in my mind today. I couldn’t believe it. Earlier that month, my extended family had gathered together in that very hotel to celebrate my cousin’s bat mitzva. I picked up the phone and called my aunt, who was understandably hysterical. She told me that during their own Seder they had heard the bomb explode, after which no one in Netanya had any appetite to continue reading the Haggada. She cried, “How can we celebrate freedom when we are still imprisoned by daily terror attacks?” And then she told me it was my duty to report the attack to my family who were in the adjoining room observing the second Seder, as prescribed for Diaspora Jews.
So I did. My mother uttered a strangled cry. Her tear ducts split like the Red Sea and she just sobbed. My father put his head down and shook it from side to side. “I already knew,” he whispered, “Somebody told us in shul this morning. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to ruin Yom Tov.” And immediately I felt guilty for mentioning it. And then my guilt turned to anger. I was just a teenager; I had no idea what the “right” way was to respond in the face of such a surreal yet horrifying reality.
It was a reality that turned people into paranoid, jittery drones and made everyone suspicious of everyone else.
That Passover, my parents and I rode the 480 bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Unlike most buses at the time, there was no security check prior to boarding the 480, as is still the case today. Halfway through the journey, one passenger – an elderly woman – pointed at a dark man with Semitic features and cried out, “Mehabel, mehabel!” (Terrorist, terrorist!) A ripple of panic swept through the passengers and my mother started saying the Shema prayer quietly in her seat. The driver pulled over onto the highway shoulder and requested that the “suspect” get off the bus together with his backpack. The man obliged and the driver escorted him some distance away from the vehicle. A few minutes later they both returned; it had of course been a false alarm. By way of apology, the old lady murmured to the man, “you can never be sure,” to which he responded gallantly, “that’s all right. I understand – I often get mistaken for an Arab.” The bus journey resumed and I recall wondering what I would have done. Would it have been “right” to have said something, even if I knew for sure the man was an Arab? Was the driver’s act of heroism of escorting the man off the bus and checking his bag the “right” thing to do? The Park Hotel atrocity wasn’t the only terror attack of Passover 2002. Over the next four days, five more suicide bombings took place across the country and by year’s end, the toll of terror attacks had numbered over 130. Tel Aviv, a city that is usually known for being both insular and insulated, was not immune from the horrors that took place that Passover. On Hol Hamoed (the intermediate days of the holiday), a bomb ripped through a café on Allenby Street, killing one person and injuring 30 others.
TEN YEARS later and there has been no official commemoration of the Park Hotel massacre or any of the other atrocities of the intifada. While the US and the UK hold remembrance services for 9/11 and 7/7 respectively, Israel chooses not to remind its citizens of what happened. Is this because we’d rather forget? Is it a testament to our nation’s resilience and its proclivity to just get on with the business of living? Is it our way of saying “you can’t touch us” to those who seek our destruction? I do not know the answer and neither do I know if the “right” thing to do would be to commemorate suicide bombings on a national scale. What I do know is that something is not “right” about the disconnect between Tel Aviv and the rest of the country.
That’s not to say that all Tel Avivians live in a hazy bubble of complete oblivion, but there is an overarching attitude of minding one’s own business that pervades the city.
Just a few weeks ago, rockets were being fired into the South from Gaza.
To put things into perspective, the euphemistically termed “South” includes Ashdod, a city that is a mere half-hour journey from Tel Aviv. Yet the buzz and hubbub of Tel Aviv life belie the reality of bomb shelters and sirens only 40 kilometers away.
Indeed, I include myself in this critique; I’m wrapped up in my own life and, apart from scanning the headlines every so often, I spare little thought for the residents of the South whose lives are interrupted by rocket fire on a daily basis. The situation is so absurd that it seems that the only feasible reaction is not to react at all. The mind-boggling nature of past and current events in Israel simply invokes numbness. I’m certain that this is not the way it should be, yet once again, I’m unsure of the “right” way to react.
In the meantime, my trip to the beach to soak up the Hol Hamoed sun pushes all other thoughts out of my head, including the question of “will the rockets ever reach here?” I hope that Jews all over the world emerge from this Passover celebrating the freedom that the festival symbolizes.
Freedom from having to decide what the “right” thing to do is in the face of extreme adversity and freedom from being absorbed in our own autonomy.
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