Two weeks into my stay in Israel, the social reform protests were everywhere, even in Haifa, my hometown, known for its sedentary, law-abiding citizens. On Saturday the 20th of August, a huge demonstration for lower price housing and greater economic equality was set to take place in front of the Prime Minister’s home in Jerusalem. My eight-year-old son, who is by nature obsessed with justice and fairness and loves a good fight, was mad to go.
But two days before the rally, missiles were launched from close range at a bus en route to Eilat, a resort town on the Red Sea that is a cross between the Hamptons and Miami Beach. It’s where the people who haven’t gone abroad spend their summer. So when the missile missed the bus and blew up the car in front of it, it instantly killed two couples going on vacation. Another missile killed the bus’s driver, two passengers who sat upfront (where I always sit on buses), and a paramedic who came to treat them. It injured a couple dozen, some of them gravely.
Israeli hospital doctors have been on strike for improving their (abysmally low) salaries and reducing their (abysmally high) workload for almost two months. But when the missiles went off, all area doctors showed up at the scene or at their hospitals. Twenty minutes after the attack was announced, I got a call from my mother, who might as well be on the government’s payroll: “Now isn’t the time to strike. The protests are over; all the doctors in the south have gone back to work!” she says, not without a degree of pleasure.
“States of emergency,” which happen every other day here, have always killed social protest in Israel, so these latest developments were not a complete surprise. Still I was furious at my mom for her automatic response, furious at the media for shifting its attention from the protests to the escalating violence in an eye-blink, and worried about the coming days. By Friday, hundreds of missiles fell on Beer Sheeva, Ashdod, and Ashkelon. People in those cities went into shelters, and the Israeli air force began to bomb Gaza. More people died, including a bicyclist who was practicing for a triathlon. Newspapers were full of color photos of a bawling, very pregnant young woman being rushed into labor, with the Biblical caption: “In pain you will give birth to children”; her husband was the bus driver who was killed the day before.
[E]ven if there’s a war and everyone is enlisted, they will still have to pay their bills when they come back.
I felt totally depressed.
It’s true that Israeli media has a serious addiction to blood and gore, which serves the government’s agenda well. It’s also true that Israelis, especially the older generation, have a habit of dropping everything as soon the first drop of (Israeli) blood is shed. But the deeper truth is that terrorism works. It works on everyone in close range, no matter who they are and what their political beliefs are. Something in the arbitrary nature of it, the fact that it could have been you in the car to Eilat or on the bike, the ordinariness of it (you spend hours on Yelp reading hotel reviews, you find the perfect place, you drive to Eilat with a couple of your best friends, you’re probably listening to your favorite music in the car and zap, you’re gone) just saps the life out of you. Merely hearing about it you feel a knot in your stomach and you don’t want to talk to anyone or go anywhere, let alone to a jubilant rally in Jerusalem (where you might incidentally get blown up as well).
Did the doctors in the south have to all go back to work after this missile strike? At first I thought: hell, no. But maybe it isn’t so terrible that people show up as soon as something bad happens to their fellow citizens. For us on the left in America and the rest of the peaceful West, we are supposedly living in a post-nationalism age. I even wrote a book recently whose sensibility could be called post-nationalism. But while thinking “nationally” may make you forget the suffering of everyone who falls outside the circumstance of your nation it at least propels you to feel solidarity with and commitment to the suffering of the seven million (in the Israeli case) people who fall within it. How many strangers would we in the post-national left really risk our life for?
By Friday afternoon the Jerusalem rally was cancelled “out of respect to the victims.” Instead the organizers declared a “silent march” from Rothschild Boulevard to Charles Clore, a park adjacent to the Tel-Aviv beach. My son and I went. There was no shouting, no slogans, and no rowdiness, just 8000 sweaty people carrying signs and torches. “It’s boring here,” my son said, and we went home to sleep.
Will the social protests die, now that a new stage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems upon us? I actually don’t think so. They may take a less aggressive, less spectacular form, but as Itzik Smally, the soft-spoken, intelligent leader of the national students’ union said on Saturday: even if there’s a war and everyone is enlisted, they will still have to pay their bills when they come back.