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20 Years After a Bus Bombing, the Inspiration of Two Lives Unlived

My world changed on February 25, 1996. But how it changed a few months later was more important.

On February 25, I was just back from a hike in New Haven’s East Rock Park when I got a phone call telling me that Matt Eisenfeld and Sara Duker had been killed in the bombing of the No. 18 bus in Jerusalem. At age 25, it was my first encounter with the death of someone I’d known. Matt and I had become friends at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires and remained so when he visited Yale, where he’d gone to college. I’d met Sara too, though I didn’t know her as well.

What happened to them could easily have happened to me. I’d ridden the No. 18 bus from the German Colony to the old Central Bus Station many times. Turns out, they were on their way to Eilat and Sinai, a tiyul (trip) that I and many other Americans had also taken. In many ways, Matt and Sara were any of us: studying at Pardes, getting to know Israel, shopping at the shuk, inviting people over for the Sabbath.

Yet, Matt and Sara were also not just any of us. Matt, in particular, was a lot more earnest, sincere, diligent. Sometimes it was almost off-putting; he was one of those people around whom I occasionally felt a little too crass or too sarcastic. One of the ones who, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, would actually take seriously the process of teshuvah, repentance, and apologize for wrongs that the rest of us didn’t even remember.

I thought this might be projection on my part, especially after Matt and Sara died. It was almost cliché to eulogize them. Too perfect. But as the new anthology of their writings, edited by my friend Rabbi Ed Bernstein, shows, the image was real. Of course, they were also young twentysomething Americans, not saints. But reading their words, there was that sincerity, kindness, intelligence — almost too much to bear.

As the shock wore off, my reaction quickly turned to rage. On one level, this seemed so meaningless, so outrageous. And yet on another level, it wasn’t meaningless at all; this was an act of terrorism. I seethed with anger at the piece of human garbage who had robbed such beautiful people of their lives. It seemed perverse: the least of humanity taking away the best. I had thoughts so murderous and genocidal that, today, I am afraid to put them into words, lest they be quoted out of context. F—- them all, I thought.

At the funeral, I raged. At my computer, writing a novel, I raged. Fortunately, there was no social media in 1996, because I would have raged there too, and left a record. The hideous evil of this terrorist act — and for what? To explode not just a bus, but also the very possibility of peace. This was not long after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and it felt like forces on the Israeli right and the Palestinian right were colluding to destroy everything that gave us hope. F—-them all, too.

Gradually, though, I became stuck. My bloodthirsty rage against the terrorist scum that did this to my friend — was that what Matt would have wanted? Was that honoring his memory or dishonoring it? And where did it leave me — wasn’t I, in my rage, also doing my small, impotent part to oppose the cause of peace as well?

Thus began the second way my life changed in 1996. I didn’t heal, exactly; that’s too tidy and too New Age a word. I was still hurt and angry and lost. But over the next few months, I began to distrust and devalue those feelings. In a way, they came to be the real enemy. They were the emotions that inspired Yigal Amir, Rabin’s assassin, and the No. 18 bus terrorist whose name I still haven’t looked up. They clouded my better judgment and made me into the kind of person I was supposed to be against.

Maybe this sounds a little namby-pamby to you, a little too left-wing. But the mistake right-wingers on all sides make — be they American, Israeli, Russian, Arab, whatever — is that liberals don’t feel the same anger and fear that they do. Reading attacks on “leftists” today, one gets the sense that, in the eyes of their critics, liberals don’t feel patriotism, or love of Israel, or outrage when innocent people are killed, including our friends and relatives.

Actually, I feel plenty of outrage, whether the aggressors are Palestinian terrorists or Israeli soldiers under orders, whether they are criminals or cops. But not only is acting out of rage not the solution, it is the problem. Again, this sounds a little soft, maybe. It didn’t feel soft in the spring of 1996, after terrorist scum blew my friend to bits and I groped for a way to get over myself.

Do I wear a bracelet asking “What Would Matt Do?” No. But in the months after his death, it helped to think about what he and Sara would have wanted as a response to what happened. The next attack would happen, and the rage would boil up again, and it was righteous indignation, all right, against inhuman acts — and yet I refused to allow the terrorist to recruit one more Jew into the anti-peace camp. It wasn’t for the sake of some noble idealism. It was for Matt and Sara’s sake. I refused to dishonor the memory of my friends by becoming a lesser person.

As the 20th anniversary of the bombing approached, and as I read over the book Ed has put together, I’ve been struck mostly by a sense of loss. Not grief, but the loss of a family that never came to exist and two careers that never developed. The essays in the book are sweet — they have that certain earnestness. But they’re also young. We’ve lost what those minds would have become.

I remember Matt and Sara whenever an act of violence takes place, and I feel the familiar anger at the enemy. But I honor that memory when I come back to a better human nature, which their lives, more than their deaths, exemplified.

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward. Follow him on Twitter @JayMichaelson

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