We Are All Targets Now

The minute we heard the news, we knew it was bad. It was 7:10 a.m. on a Monday morning. I was sitting at the breakfast table with our daughter Julia and a visiting friend, while my husband was grabbing a few more minutes of rest in bed. I sometimes have trouble understanding the radio headlines -- the broadcasters talk very fast and often use obscure vocabulary, but unfortunately you can't live in Tel Aviv any length of time without learning the words for "assassination," "rocket," and "terrorist leader." Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, the militant, fundamentalist Palestinian movement based in Gaza, had been killed by the Israeli army, on the instructions of the Israeli Prime Minister. I groaned and put my head in my hands, and tried unsuccessfully not to show Julia how upset I was. All I could think was: That's it. Now it's really war.

My husband jumped out of bed and started to curse. Our visiting friend couldn't get over the evil of attacking an 80-year-old quadriplegic cleric. I'm afraid -- because I suppose it's a sign of how living here can deaden one's ethical senses -- that my husband and I were mostly overwhelmed by the sheer, massive, criminal, reckless stupidity of the thing. And underneath it all, but not too far down, was -- is -- the fear. We are all targets now. People are going to die. There is no question about it. All you can do is try to make sure it's not your people. I canceled a scheduled trip to Jerusalem and agreed with my husband that we need to "lay low," stay away from cafes and restaurants, be extra vigilant.

All over Tel Aviv, the reaction was the same. Everyone we spoke to knew, instantly, vividly, without a shadow of a doubt what would come next. And sure enough, throughout the day, the predicted pictures and headlines poured out on cue: Thousands of Palestinians march in the streets and call for vengeance; hundreds of young men in the occupied territories sign up to be suicide bombers; world leaders condemn the attack; the Bush White House supports it (sort of). The dance is so predictable that it feels choreographed in advance.

But there have been some surprises.

I am surprised at how empty all the buses are. Even after the worst of the bus bombings, Tel Aviv buses still stay pretty full. People actually seem to feel safer the day or two after an attack. But this time it's different. We all know we're now in the phase better known as "before an attack"; the only question is whether it's going to happen today, tomorrow, or next week.

I am surprised at how upset all our friends still are. Normally Israeli news cycles spin so fast that it takes barely thirty hours for life to return to normal, even after a bus bombing. But today -- three days after the news broke -- our friends continue to be visibly depressed and frightened. And -- another big change -- people are talking about it. Some indulge in black humor, imagining what the Defense Minister will say when the inevitable terror attack takes place: "This was calculated for. It's all part of our larger plan. We will all be safer in the long run." Others gently ask their friends, "How are you doing? How are your kids? Are you still planning on going to Jerusalem/the play/your relatives' house?" My husband reported that one vegetable seller in the shuk (outdoor market) gloated, "We got him!" But in general swagger seems to be in short supply on the streets of Tel Aviv this week.

I was truly surprised by a speech delivered by Prime Minister Sharon at the Hebrew University yesterday, as furious student demonstrators were dragged out of his path by their hair and clothes. I've long regarded him as unprincipled and dangerous, and I certainly didn't expect to hear any apologies. But I was nevertheless shocked by the mind-boggling, in-your-face bravado of his speech. Mentioning not a word about the storm around him (at least in the excerpts I heard), he praised foreign students for coming to study in Jerusalem, and called for increased immigration to Israel. All that came to mind was a quote from Pride and Prejudice: "Draw no limits in the future to the impudence of an impudent man."

There is surprisingly little outrage being expressed -- by Israelis, that is. (Outrage is all the Palestinians have left; they hug it to their bosoms as if it were their lost loved ones, and nurture it as if it were their children.) Commentators on TV yell until they're hoarse, but Israelis on the street seem more worried and disheartened than angry. I suppose that left-wingers never expected better from Sharon, and right-wingers never expected better from Palestinians.

One of the main reasons for the intense fear and distress evident everywhere here is that Passover is only two weeks away. Even if the calendar didn't say so, we would know it by looking out the window: Spring has arrived in all its Levantine splendor. The weather mocks us, and the sun shines as if the world were young. But we all feel old.

No one can forget Passover 2002, when a suicide bomber killed 28 people at a hotel Seder. My visiting friend, who has long been in despair at the Mideast situation, tells me that at every reading of the Passover Haggadah, which re-tells the story of the Exodus, she prays silently, "Lord please take us out of this Egypt." Well, Sharon is no Moses; no miracles are in sight; and it's going to be another bloody holiday.

Sara Lipton, at present on sabbatical in Tel Aviv, teaches medieval history at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. She is the author of Images of Intolerance, a study of the representation of Jews in medieval Christian manuscripts.

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