Borderline views: Terrorism and the abnormality of normal life in Israel

To continue living a normal life under the present conditions is, for many, not an easy thing to do.

Scene of stabbing attack in Ra'anana (photo credit: screenshot)
Scene of stabbing attack in Ra'anana
(photo credit: screenshot)
It is not for me to give advice to the government or the security services on how best to combat the most recent cycle of violence and the return of terrorism to the streets of Israel. Suffice to say that when individual terrorists decide to wreak havoc in the streets of a large city, then for every 20 potential incidents thwarted by good intelligence, there will always be the possibility that one individual will get through the security controls, purchase a knife in a shop selling kitchen utensils, or steal a weapon from an unsuspecting, off-duty soldier walking down the street, and cause carnage before he/she is neutralized (whatever that entails) by an alert guard.
It is much more difficult to fight this sort of terrorism than it is to fight a war or even to combat missiles fired from over the border. Locating the enemy and his base of operations enables a clear response and strategy, while sporadic cases of terrorism which can take place, without warning, in almost every location inside Israel, from a shopping mall to a school, and from a bus station to a crowded street, are almost impossible to completely prevent.
But beyond the carnage itself and the terrible pain inflicted upon the victims and their families, terrorism is victorious in the way that it prevents people from going about their daily life. Each time an individual citizen changes his/her daily pattern is a partial victory to the evil forces of terrorism – even if the country continues to function in what we perceive as a normal manner, as indeed we do during almost every war and major security situation.
This, in itself, is an important statement to our enemies that whatever harm they inflict upon us as individuals, the state is here to stay, and adversity only strengthens our resolve, regardless of where we stand on the political map. Unfortunately, such incidents make the extremist elements even more radical in their opposition to any form of dialogue or negotiated peace, and continue to shift the Left into the Center, and the Center even further to the Right, so that any form of “peace” camp has disappeared almost entirely from Israeli public opinion. In that sense there could hardly be any more self-defeating strategy for the Palestinians then a return to violence on the streets of Israel.
But in other respects, terrorism is the winner.
It’s the winner when we are forced into erecting a concrete wall in the middle of Jerusalem, in the city our governments have told us is a city united, never to be physically divided into separate Arab and Jewish entities.
It’s the winner when a mob gathers and lynches an unfortunate passerby who, because of his appearance (a migrant from Eritrea), is mistakenly identified as a terrorist.
Terrorism and the conflict are the winner when mobs of outraged citizens congregate and, without thinking twice about what they are shouting, call “death to all Arabs.”
Terrorism and the conflict are the winner when, on the pages of this last remaining English-language outlet (following the inconceivable shutting down of the English-language news channel on Israeli TV), many immigrants who grew up in safe Western democracies where their rights as a religious and ethnic minority were always protected argue in favor of depriving Arabs of their citizen rights and, in some cases, even the deportation of those Arabs and Palestinians who declare their opposition to the State of Israel.
Terrorism is the winner when we have to call up additional reservists and professional security personnel to guard every bus stop and train and almost every public space.
Indeed, the very fact that for as long as we have ever known every shop, public institution, bus and train station and university campus has had limited points of entry and exit, at which are stationed security personnel checking our identities and the contents of our bags, is in itself a victory for terrorism – and which has become part of the normality of life for every Israeli citizen.
Terrorism is the winner when the cafes and bars are all deserted at night for fear of attack, thus causing significant financial harm to the proprietors of these establishments.
Terrorism is the winner every time it disrupts, or makes more difficult, the normal life of citizens. Every time that someone has to think twice about getting on a bus, meeting their friends for lunch at a restaurant, or simply going for an evening walk or jog in the park, then terrorism is the victor.
Terrorism is the victor when, in the face of rockets fired into Israel, schools and universities are temporarily shut down, and women and children are moved away from those areas facing the immediate danger to places considered safer and less likely to be targeted. Any form of disruption of civilian life is, in some sense, a victory for the terrorists.
Terrorism was the victor the day the Israeli government decided, just over 10 years ago, that it had no option other than to construct the separation barrier separating Israel from the West Bank, and limiting the free movement of Palestinians in and out of Israel, for fear that the daily workforce coming into Israel would include people intent on acts of violence.
Terrorism is the victor when a religious leader, Rabbi Dov Kook, announces to his followers that the real reason for the carnage being visited on Israeli citizens that the Shabbat is desecrated, conveniently forgetting that a high percentage of those murdered during the past few weeks have been Orthodox citizens who meticulously observe all religious commandments.
Terrorism is the victor when tourists and Jewish youth groups cancel their tours of Israel for fear of their own safety, and when parents of students studying in Israel – particularly the yeshivot – immediately order their children to return home.
And all of this is precisely the reason that we must go on living our normal lives, taking all necessary precautions (we would be stupid not to do so) as a means of demonstrating that whatever our political positions, violence will never result in anything other than more of the same.
The worst part of this gut response to terrorism is that what should be perceived as a deviation from normality becomes transformed into the new normality, and we take it for granted that this is the way we are destined to live. We replace the normality which we desire and aspire to with an abnormal normality and, as our children and grandchildren grow up in this situation, we forget what real normality is about.
We manage terrorism as part of the ongoing conflict, but we are incapable of defeating it altogether. The security forces do what is required and demanded of them and, as in all wars make mistakes, which is not always to their credit, but there is no such thing as a clean war. There is no such thing as a “proportional” response, just as there is no such thing as a moral war.
Killing in self-defense may be justified but that does not make it moral. Violence and terrorism can never be quantified in such a way that for every individual you kill, I will kill one in return, and for every orphan that you create, or house that you destroy, I will ensure that my response brings about an equivalence. Whoever dreamed up such a notion has obviously never experienced war.
The very fact that we are forced into dealing with these issues on a daily basis is, in itself, evidence of the fact that we do not live a normal life in Israel. That does not make the country any less exciting or enticing to live in – but it does mean that what we term “normal” is, for much of the civilized world, totally abnormal. For as long as there is a conflict, and for as long as we have to live in the shadow of violence, we will never achieve the type of normality that the state’s founders dreamed of when, against all odds, they sought a secure haven from the ravages of persecution and pogrom elsewhere.
Just as I believe strongly that Israel has to change its political direction, especially as it relates to Palestinian statehood and the end of occupation, so too I will not allow the purveyors of violence to disrupt the normality of my life. I will continue to walk the streets of Jerusalem including the Old City, travel on the public buses and trains, eat in the restaurants and attend public events.
At the same time, I will continue to tell my Palestinian colleagues and acquaintances that, however much they affect the daily normality of life in Israel, in the long term they are only shooting themselves in the foot by pushing any chances of conflict resolution and Palestinian statehood even further away than ever before.
To continue living a normal life under the present conditions is, for many, not an easy thing to do. But when we allow the abnormal normality of our lives to be even further disrupted, it is at that point that we give in to the terrorism that surrounds us, and that is something that the State of Israel can never afford to let happen.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.