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The Illusions of London

Sixteen years ago, the Israeli folk-rocker Chava Alberstein went platinum with a searing song of despair about the unbearable uncertainty of life in Israel and the yearning to move someplace else where life could be simpler and safer. It was called “London.”

“Goodbye, I’m going,” she sang. “Not that I have illusions about London. I’ll be lonely there, too. But at least I can despair in comfort.”

Anat Rosenberg was one of the Israelis that Alberstein was singing about. She had moved to London two years earlier, at age 21, partly to pursue a career in art and partly — mostly, her friends suggest — to get away from the violence that had erupted with the outbreak of the first intifada. Over the years since then, she had taken to visiting her parents in Jerusalem with decreasing frequency and growing unease, avoiding Israeli bars and never riding buses. In London she felt safer, her British boyfriend told reporters this week. The last time he spoke to her, in a cell-phone call last Thursday morning, July 7, she was trying to get the Underground to work. Finding her station curiously closed, she hopped onto a double-decker bus. The last thing he heard from her was a scream. She was 39.

Alberstein was wrong. We all have illusions. We imagine that there’s someplace to run and hide, someplace we can be safe, and we find it isn’t so. The bombs follow us to London, to Madrid, to New York, even to far-off tropical resorts like Bali and Mombasa.

We think that the terror will cease if we are kind and understanding and attentive to its root causes, but it does not stop. We think we can stop the terror by hunting down the terrorists mercilessly, but it does not stop. Terrorists attack in England, which has troops in Iraq, and Morocco, which does not. They kill on the streets of tolerant, freewheeling Holland and of repressive Saudi Arabia. Their leaders are arrested or killed and new leaders emerge. And still we strut and pose and flatter ourselves that we know the answer, if only the others would listen.

Ariel Sharon, who knows something about fighting terrorists, wisely told his ministers and diplomats in the first hours after the London bombings to restrain any natural impulse they might feel to draw quick lessons and share them with the world at large. Express sympathy for London’s suffering, the prime minister’s office ordered, but don’t compare it to Israel’s experiences or imply that Israel knows something it can teach England. It’s in bad taste and won’t be well received. Besides, some Israeli officials added privately, Londoners know a thing or two themselves about living through bombings. They survived the Nazi blitz. They lived through two decades of Irish Republican Army bombings. Their intelligence services are among the world’s most highly regarded.

Some Israelis and their supporters around the world wanted to see the July 7 bombings as evidence that Londoners and Europeans in general were insufficiently alert to the dangers of radical Islam. For days afterward, they railed against the political correctness that impels Europeans and other liberals to seek coexistence and understanding rather than confrontation. They argued, too, that Europeans were foolishly seeking to address the Islamic terrorist threat through the tools of law enforcement, rather than treating as a military threat and declaring war, as the right-thinking folks in Jerusalem and Washington have done.

Israelis have a term for the flood of moralizing and political posturing that seems to follow every terrorist incident in that tortured land. They call it “dancing on the blood.” By this they mean the almost celebratory passion with which advocates on all sides seize on such incidents to prove the truth of whatever political or military approach they already favored.

Sharon understood correctly in the first moments after the London bombings that such an impulse would serve Israel poorly in the current instance. Yes, Israel needs to show its solidarity and sympathy. Yes, it needs to have such feelings reciprocated. But no, Londoners would not have responded favorably to the voluble, garrulous Israeli approach. This was a moment, Sharon knew, to emulate the British stiff upper lip.

Just four days after the London attacks, suicide bombing returned to the streets of Israel, ending a five-month lull. Two women were killed instantly outside a Netanya shopping mall; two others died later of their wounds. Israeli press accounts suggest that the bombers, a cell of Palestinian Islamic Jihad from the Tulkarm area, were known to Israel’s military intelligence and security forces, but that they could not be interdicted under the current rules of engagement. In return for a cease-fire accepted last February by Hamas and the main Fatah groups, Israel has informally agreed to refrain from targeted killings of suspected terrorists and to limit major troop movements in the main Palestinian population centers. Both sides, Israel and the main Palestinian groups, share an interest in maintaining quiet — to ensure the success of the upcoming Gaza disengagement and to give their suffering populations some rest. The agreement has been largely effective. But it has had the perverse effect of giving freedom of action to Islamic Jihad, a small, extremist group that never accepted the cease-fire.

Israel, understandably, wants the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas to take responsibility for enforcing the cease-fire and breaking up the armed gangs. Abbas has been appallingly weak and ineffectual, particularly as Islamic Jihad has stepped up its efforts to mount attacks and trumpeted its contempt for the very goal of coexistence pursued by the two sides’ main leaders. Islamic Jihad is a threat first of all to the stability of the Palestinian Authority, and only secondarily to Israel. It is in the interest of Abbas and his aides to quash the threat. Israelis understand Abbas must do more. But they understand that there is not much he can do. And so they grit their teeth and work with what they’ve got. In effect, they find themselves in a position strikingly similar to the Europeans: surveilling the known targets, watching for signs of trouble, hoping to head them off soon enough. Law enforcement.

Terrorism is a condition of our modern age. It has been with us for decades in various forms and guises. It can be inhibited by various means. Hunting down the leaders and securing public places have dramatically reduced terrorism in some hot spots. Elsewhere, authorities have achieved good results by negotiating with guerrilla armies and addressing the grievances that drove populations to support the desperadoes. There is no single answer, but there is one truth: Terrorist violence will not go away. Rage and hate breed violence, and no one has found a cure for rage and hate. In our age of high-technology, the effects of violence can be awesome. We must reduce it to a minimum, by all practical means. And we must know that there will be more violence to come. On this, no illusions.




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