Shortly after dawn on my second morning in Tel Aviv, I heard a loudspeaker. Jet-lagged and groggy, I staggered to the terrace of my apartment overlooking the Mediterranean. Down below, a man inside a military-looking vehicle repeated a message that blasted out of a bullhorn mounted on the hood. My Hebrew ends at “shalom” so I desperately wanted to know what he was saying. Maybe it was “To the shelters!” or “Put on your gas masks!” — whatever is normal in Israel these days.
Perhaps I ought to have known from the bored expression of a young woman walking her dog that nothing was wrong, but I ran downstairs to ask the man in the Jeep what was so important. Turned out the city was repaving this stretch of road. “Boker tov,” he said into the loudspeaker. “Good morning, Ruppin Street. Move your cars.”
Anxiety is supposed to be a common Jewish trait, but I’d only felt it this intensely once before — a year and a half ago, when the World Trade Center nearly fell on my two teenage daughters at school three blocks from Ground Zero. Yet even then my worries were retrospective. I mourned the awful events that had already occurred more than I feared the future. After my dust-covered children marched north from Chambers Street, they would be safe until the next atrocity arrived.
Am I, in my fabulous, rented Ruppin Street digs, at the next Ground Zero? Dunno. I hadn’t been worried before I left New York. If anything, I sneered at the wide eyes and somber expressions that invariably met me when people heard that I was going to Israel for the semester. “Why?” they’d ask, and I’d jauntily defy them to confront their cowardice by replying deadpan, “Why not?”
Yet when the first three Israelis I spoke to before I went to sleep the night before my dawn encounter with civic improvement welcomed me by asking, “Aren’t you afraid?”, I began to wonder if I ought to be. Life in Israel is always interesting, and this may be a more interesting season than I bargained for.
The first person who asked if I was afraid was the novelist David Grossman. He knew I was scheduled to arrive and genuinely sad that I did. David is often sad these days, but to tell the truth, I’ve never seen him otherwise. He loves his country, and if he loves anything more it must be his children — his oldest is in the army — and both have been in danger as long as he’s known them.
He’s stuck here, can’t imagine life anyplace else, but was surprised that I apparently chose to have a “picnic on the volcano.”
Unlike David, I can easily imagine a different life for myself. In fact, it’s strange for me to think that I am, even temporarily, in residence on Ruppin Street. I hate traveling, can’t sleep well in any bed beside my own.
Why am I here then? Well, a year ago I was invited to be the first Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bar-Ilan University, near Tel Aviv. At that time, suicide bombs were exploding weekly, so the answer to the invitation was obvious: “Sure.”
I still don’t know why that was obvious. Surely it wasn’t in order to show “solidarity” because I’m an ambivalent Zionist at best. If Israel didn’t exist, I wouldn’t wish it on the Jews. If we can get Jews out of Russia and Ethiopia, why can’t we get them out of Israel? Give up this miserable little sliver. Airlift the 5 or 6 million Jews here to empty American government lands in the Mojave. They’d find the desert climate congenial. The billions of dollars of relinquished real estate would swiftly be made up by the savings in military expenditures. And if London Bridge can be disassembled and reconstructed in Arizona, we can do the same with the Western Wall. Take it with us and wail in safety over the loss of Zion for another 2,000 years. On the other hand, with 5 million Israelis in the United States, we might really see American antisemitism. But that’s another story.
In the meantime, if David and my cousins and colleagues and their families and neighbors and the woman walking her dog on Ruppin Street are stubborn enough to remain here, the least I can do is accept their invitation. My wife believes, maybe correctly, that I was wowed by the invitation’s adjective. It’s nice to be distinguished, but vanity aside, Bar-Ilan made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse.
I tried to explain this to Ilana Pikarski, the second person I contacted in Israel. Ilana’s a literary agent, but business is not good. Book sales are off as much as 45%, and she attributes this partly to the political moment and partly to long-term changes in the nature of Israeli society. After three years in the army, often in the territories, young Israelis have no interest in fey, abstract pursuits such as reading novels.
Like David, Ilana is a leftist and “ashamed” of the occupation of the West Bank. She is also suspicious of President Bush — a “cowboy chief,” she calls him — but the first question she asked after offering me a cup of coffee was, “Aren’t you afraid?”
I wondered if this was some weird test that locals give visitors to determine if they’re insane.
“No,” I insisted, because the overwhelming odds are that I am going to return home okay. Thinking anything else is irrational. And extremely unpleasant. Aside from September 11 and a nasty mugging in the entry to our house near Columbia University, neither I nor my wife nor our children have ever personally encountered danger.
All Israelis know danger; they’ve all been to funerals. Nonetheless, they seldom acknowledge fear. Ask any of them about the possible — likely? inevitable? — war in Iraq and they respond with a combination of resignation and bravado. They can’t afford the psychic debilitation of fear and therefore fetishize toughness.
I wondered if they’d actually prefer me to exhibit fear, if I wasn’t depriving them of a vicarious emotional luxury they dare not experience for themselves. But pretense is foreign to my nature and so is fear, even if it’s only because of the comfort — academics call it privilege — that an American passport provides. I can theoretically leave any minute, but the Israelis have nowhere to go. They might as well have a picnic on the volcano. The bars are hopping.
After leaving Ilana, I decided to mull things over at Molly Bloom’s, an ersatz Irish pub around the corner from Ruppin Street.
Everyone smokes at Molly Bloom’s, as nearly everyone does everywhere here, where the awareness of imminent catastrophe is omnipresent. Hence the last person I met on my first day, Ari, an engineer at the bar, asked me the apparently inevitable question, “Aren’t you afraid?”
Third time lucky. I replied, “Should I be?”
“Oh, yes,” he assured me. According to Ari — every Israeli seems to have a secret source in Washington — the war will begin five days from now.
Tomorrow I intend to introduce myself to the folks at the American embassy — I assume that they have air filtration systems and, if the need arises, a helicopter launch pad on the roof. But today, the Tel Aviv traffic department has finally driven me into the frenzy that I must have sublimated for months prior to my departure from America. Before catching a taxi to Bar-Ilan to meet my class — I promised my wife that I wouldn’t take any buses — I devour several days’ worth of the English version of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz sitting on a cafe table. I read that 48 attempted suicide attacks have been foiled recently. But it’s not the suicide bombers that I am afraid of now. It’s chemical or biological warfare as a direct consequence of America’s invasion of Iraq — retribution from Saddam Hussein. It’s gas.
Over the last few months at home, I’ve been the only hawk among my family and Upper West Side circle of friends. Personally, I distrust our president’s motives — and don’t get me started on his economic or social policies — but I feel certain that this war began in a cloud of dust over Lower Manhattan 17 months ago. Not that the attack on the World Trade Center was plotted in or abetted by Baghdad, but the mania roiling the Arab and Muslim world is all connected. The tyranny and poverty that most Arabs live under are obviously the root causes of their misery, but Les Miserables become poisonous when they discover theology and lethal to others — to us — when they gain access to technology. Frankly, I’d rather the 101st Airborne parachute into Riyadh than Baghdad, but that’s just a question of tactics.
In the meantime, Saddam Hussein is bad. I don’t like the way he kills Kurds. I don’t like the way he tortures dissident – and innocents. I don’t like his psychopathic sons. I don’t like his moustache. No longer cynical, I’ve become sentimental about liberal democracy, even if it takes a conservative petrocrat to accomplish it.
Since I espoused this hard line from a distance, it would have been hypocritical of me to refuse to come to Israel. But I’m afraid now and I’m lonely and my loneliness exacerbates my fear. If I was religious, I might even pray that President Bush will kindly wait until I come home before he acts. If you’re reading this, Mr. President, my spring break begins in April.
Yes, I’m afraid, but I’m writing. Why? Because I don’t know what else to do. And at least 11 other people in this country are doing the same thing as war talk dominates public discourse. My 11 students at Bar-Ilan are producing stories and would-be novels that wrestle with their personal demons. They’re thinking about plot structure and character development and language. They’re thinking about metaphors.
Of course, they also asked if I was afraid, and, for the first time, I admitted as much in public. There are times when to be fearless is to be stupid — a quality I despise more than any other human trait. But to live in fear is no life at all.
Boker tov, Ruppin Street.