Here and there: The fear factor

How do we cope in a situation where we know that our fellow citizens are being attacked almost on a daily basis – and it might be us tomorrow?

A launderette remains closed two days after an attack close by, in central east Paris, on November 15, 2015 (photo credit: KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)
A launderette remains closed two days after an attack close by, in central east Paris, on November 15, 2015
(photo credit: KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)
Just one week ago Paris experienced a major terrorist attack – one that evoked immediate attention worldwide. Our TV screens projected the president of France, the president of the United States, Britain’s prime minister and our own prime minister, amongst others, expressing horror at the murder of innocent civilians who were out enjoying a concert, eating at a restaurant or simply walking along the streets of Paris.
The effect has been trauma, shock and even surprise. How will the individual in France deal with this phenomenon? Sadly, we in Israel have been experiencing terrorism for many years.
During these past weeks of horrific stabbings, shootings and vehicles ramming into pedestrians, the media – both international and national – have posed the question as to whether the third intifada has arrived. How are we in Israel coping with this situation? In fact how does anyone cope when living in an environment of personal danger?
Having made aliya in 1998 I have vivid memories of the second intifada, which followed the breakdown of the Camp David talks convened in July 2000 by US president Bill Clinton with prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat. Memories from that period are hard to shake off, such as the massacre carried out by a suicide bomber at the Park Hotel in Netanya, where the lives of 30 guests celebrating Seder night in March 2001 were barbarically cut short, with many more severely wounded.
On June 3 of that same year, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the midst of teenagers as they queued to enter a disco at Tel Aviv’s Dolphinarium; 21 were murdered. This intifada claimed the lives of more than 1,000 civilians.
In August 2001 I was in South Africa on a speaking tour for WIZO. At my first stop, Johannesburg, my WIZO colleagues issued me with clear instructions.
I was told not to walk outside on my own even during the day; it was not safe. Of course I was aware of the stringent security arrangements that each household had to make. Many white people’s homes stood behind high walls protected by armed guards.
One evening, seated around the table with colleagues, the conversation focused on what was happening to members of the community in Johannesburg.
My colleagues began to talk about their friends and relatives who had been injured and murdered while returning to their gated communities.
On arriving home, as they opened the electric gates, their car would be followed and then they were attacked.
Suddenly – as if my presence was just noticed – a colleague turned to me and said, “You must be very afraid living in Israel?” My spontaneous response was that I would have no problem or fears going for a walk on my own anywhere in Israel, even at midnight.
It was only when I returned home, after three weeks of shlihut in South Africa, that I began to think of that evening when the conversation focused on the reality of living in Johannesburg and how I had reacted to the question suggesting that I must be afraid to live in Israel. How could they have possibly believed me when I implied that what was happening all around me did not affect my fear level? Yes it was horrifying to see, time and again, the TV screen showing pictures of buses that had been blown up. On one occasion we saw what had happened an hour earlier in Jerusalem: a young child with blood pouring down her face, near a blown-up bus, clearly in a state of panic and desperately seeking her parents. How was I able to blank out this painful reality when responding to my South African colleagues?
History is repeating itself (as it does so often here). We are in the autumn of 2015, once again facing terrorist attacks – different from previous ones, but nevertheless just as shocking. Who cannot fail to be sickened at the thought of Israeli Arab youths of 12, 13 and 14 knifing Israeli Jewish boys or Jewish adults? How could we not be moved to learn of the Palestinian Arab gunmen who murdered Eitam and Naama Henkin last month as their four horrified children looked on?
A week ago I received an email from a friend living in London. She expressed anxiety and deep sympathy for what was happening here. “We hope you are safe and feeling okay with everything that is going on in Israel – we worry about you and your family.” I responded immediately, saying that we were fine and life goes on as normal in spite of all the terrible things they see in the media. I also wrote that we here were worried about her and her family, knowing of the unprecedented increase in anti-Semitism in the UK – both verbal and physical.
After I responded, I asked myself why it had been necessary for me to say “life goes on as normal here” and, at the same time, express my anxiety for my friend and her family living in a country where anti-Semitism has indeed created the need for an more stringent security measures to protect its Jewish community.
It was almost as if history was repeating itself. I was reacting just as I did back in 2001 in South Africa. Then, my South African WIZO colleagues seemed to accept living behind high walls as well as being unable to walk around in Johannesburg for fear of being attacked or even murdered. Life goes on just as it does here in Israel.
A few days ago, friends originally from South Africa told me that their Johannesburg- based children are worried about them and have instructed their parents to avoid journeying on buses. I could not help but wonder how the South African Jewish community must be feeling with the recent visit of Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal. At a government-endorsed rally, Mashaal compared the Palestinian cause to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Referring to the current terrorist attacks in Israel he stated that “the uprisings will continue until freedom is achieved and the land is for Palestine and its people.” African National Congress secretary-general Gwede Mantashe declared that his party had signed a “letter of intent” with Hamas. He went on to say, “We have an intention of building a long-lasting relationship.” Surely this must have a negative impact on the Jewish community.
How do we cope in a situation where we know that our fellow citizens are being attacked almost on a daily basis – and it might be us tomorrow? It would seem that wherever we live we endeavor to protect ourselves by burying our heads in the sand. On one level we are aware of what is happening, the stabbings and shootings, but on another level we need to protect ourselves by blocking out the painful reality and endeavor to continue with our daily lives.
A few days ago we sat around our dining table with a group of friends, talking about how our government was fairing, the diminishing number of tourists, and the new and shocking phenomenon of child murderers. We simultaneously enjoyed our food and drank our wine. This may seem strange, yet this is how we cope. We continue life as normal even when it is at its most abnormal. We look around the world and, for the most part, would not wish to live elsewhere.
Israel is our country – a place where we feel at home because it is home.
The writer is co-chairperson of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli Society. She is also active in public affairs.