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Passed Over (and Thankful)
by Ilana Masad
Read other installments in this series here.
THE FIRST INTIFADA wasn’t called “the first” until the second came along. It’s like a World War at this point; there wasn’t a World War I before there was a World War II, there was only the Great War. History seems to be cyclical, a tornado landing in different places and times but spewing the same kind of anger and bitterness into a new place.
Ever since the petering out of the Second Intifada, Israelis have been terrified of a third. One could argue that the intifada has never ended, that there has been “a period of intensified Israeli-Palestinian violence” (as Wikipedia daintily describes it) ever since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, and even before. So what made it more heightened than usual? From my perspective, it was the frequency of loud booms and a rising, rather than steady, death toll.
IN MY MEMORY, it seemed to start long before I was 10, but then again, I probably wasn’t allowed to go many places alone anyway until then. Especially not on public transport. Although Israel is a land of buses and very frequent use of public transportation, it’s rare to see little kids riding the buses alone. Rarer than, say, seeing children riding the subway alone to school in New York City.
The complexities behind the Second Intifada are just that — extremely complex and impossible to sum up. If I had to, I’d say it’s a case of schoolyard bullying gone global. Even as a child of lefty parents, I had the feeling that there was a lot of ego involved, an unwillingness to back down, which meant that the bargaining table was empty of any real activity. This hasn’t changed: There is no such thing as “good Israelis” and “good Palestinians” or “bad Israelis” and “bad Palestinians.” Rather, in my view, as a child as well as now, there are “rational people” and “irrational people,” and it is the latter, which is the smaller group, who always end up screwing the rest of us over, on both sides of the conflict divide.
When I was 10, I was personally screwed over by not being able to go to malls. A real tragedy, I know. But it was unsafe, my parents told me. I wasn’t allowed to go see films, to go to big public places, to ride buses, nothing. I could visit my friends who were within walking distance in my small bubble-town. Only one time during the years of Second Intifada do I remember this bending: As a huge treat, my friend Yael and I went to see The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas with our moms, who let us sit on our own and even got us ice cream after. We went to see the film in Ramat Gan, at a mall that was barely a mall at all, more a collection of corridors lined with shops jutting out of a central area with a big fountain that was (surprisingly) usually working. Water is rarely wasted in Israel, but some fountains were allowed more splash than others.
We weren’t scared, not really. Not those of us who lived in the center of the country, where we weren’t getting blasted with rockets from Gaza or Lebanon. We were scared when something happened, for a few minutes, and then we stopped being scared when we found out that everyone we knew was fine. It’s hard to convey without sounding this cold about it, but it seriously was a routine. That’s why it was so morbid. We became numbed to tragedy. We lived in a first-world war zone and we ignored it completely because that’s just how it was; otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to live our daily lives.
As children, if we ever talked about it at all, we mostly parroted our parents’ opinions:
Arabs are evil!
No, Arabs aren’t evil! And they’re Palestinians, not just Arabs. Anyway, not all Arabs are like this, I mean, look, we have peace with Egypt and Jordan, right?
TODAY I BELONG to a writing center in New York, and have a friend here who is Jewish and married to a Jewish woman. We tend to have long discussions on how anti-Semitism is alive and how screwed up Israel is (contrary to common opinion, these opinions are not mutually exclusive). The other day, my friend and another woman at the center began discussing how upsetting it was to need to pass through metal detectors at the Jewish Museum and the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research in New York. I stared at them like they were crazy.
Metal detectors a big deal? Upsetting? Really? I understand and agree that they’re highly disturbing when placed in high schools (as they often are) in the U.S. But being able to walk into malls, grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals, airports and other big businesses without having a cursory check of one’s bag at the door and/or needing to walk through a metal detector is still strange to me. Ever since the early days of the 21st century, there have been metal detectors and guards opening purses and backpacks everywhere in Israel. Small shops usually can’t afford such security, but big business can and do. Every time I return to Israel, there is something strangely comforting in the ritual: Of course you can look in my bag, sir. Of course I’ll put my cellphone and keys on the tray, ma’am.
DURING THE INTIFADA my father was a complete hypocrite. He didn’t want my mother, brother, and me anywhere too public, including and especially buses, but he continued to take the 55 bus to work every single day. He worked as a spokesperson for the Red Cross in Israel; whether he was trying to prove his belief in the possibility of peace by taking the bus or just thought he was invincible, I’ll never know. What is certain, however, is that every time my family heard a boom in the distance, we’d call his office to make sure he was still there, or his cellphone (when he got one) to make sure he was all right. We’d turn on the radio and television to listen to and watch the latest reports of this or that bus having been blown up, the wreckage filmed from far enough away that blown up body parts weren’t visible but the smoldering bus always was.
It became routine. My brother and I would walk into the kitchen every morning and ask our parents, “Did anyone die last night?” It was a morbid joke, a way of dealing with the oddity of our reality.
Another strangeness, and something that I’m still not used to while living here, is the issue of size: Israel is tiny. My maternal grandparents would call from Los Angeles after every report of a terrorist attack, and my mother would tell them something like, “Oh, no, that was really far, like three miles from us.” They would screech, “Three miles?! That’s so close!” But it wasn’t, not to us, not in a country that takes eight hours to drive across the long way and two hours to cross the short way. Three miles (about five kilometers) is far enough away to hear the boom but not the screaming.
Everyone always seemed to know someone who knew someone who was killed in the latest attack, in the same way that everyone in the U.S. really is six degrees of separation (or less) from Kevin Bacon. But it wasn’t the people who knew people who died that made an impression on anyone. It was the media’s insistence on close-ups of grieving parents sobbing and calling for revenge of the “nasty Arabs” who did this. As if terrorists equated Arabs; as if “Arab” was synonymous with “Palestinian”; as if there was no humanity in anyone but the sobbing family members whose voices were unfiltered and whose intimate grievances were aired for all to hear and see; as if the suicide bombers never had family members mourning for them.
There is still a kind of hero worship of surviving family members in Israel. There are still fervent speeches by and interviews of newly bereaved family members of dead soldiers or people killed in terrorist attacks. This manipulation of grief has always been repellant to me, and though it happens everywhere, it is much harder to escape in Israel than in the U.S.
I was lucky. I never knew people on the exploding buses. I never knew people in the bombed-out cafés. I would like to hope that even if I had, I wouldn’t have turned on my political and humanitarian beliefs, but one never knows.
The numbers of dead on “our” end have always been smaller than the number of Palestinians killed in various military operations. The early 2000s was when I first learned that numbers don’t matter in wars. Perception, the media, and egos matter more.
Ilana Masad, a fiction writer, is a columnist for McSweeney’s and has contributed to The Rumpus, The Toast, and the Chicago Tribune literary supplement. Masad is an Israeli-American who spent most of her childhood in Israel, with twice-a-year visits to the U.S., and now lives in New York.