August 28, 2013
Amid Chaos, Israelis Take a Stoic View
By JODI RUDOREN
JERUSALEM — The retired men who parse politics on Monday mornings over cappuccino at the Hadar Mall here have watched all manner of war, uprisings and chaos. To them, the chemical attacks to the north in Syria and the military crackdown against Islamists to the south in Egypt are almost comforting, a confirmation of a common Israeli view that their Arab neighbors are unready for democracy, while also offering a diversion from their own conflict with the Palestinians.
“We’re going to have quiet for many years — we can take money from the security budget and put it in education,” said Edward Reuven, 73, a former bus driver who, like the others in the cabal, is from a family that has lived in Jerusalem for generations. “I can sleep easy. They’re busy with themselves. Their armies are weakened. The world will become preoccupied with them and leave us alone.
“In Hebrew, there’s a saying,” Mr. Reuven added: “We survived Pharaoh, we’ll survive this, too.”
Not far from where the men were gossiping, the authorities distributed gas masks: by Wednesday, amid rising expectations of an American attack in Syria and attendant threats of retaliation against Israel, they had trouble keeping up with multiplying demand and fights erupted in some places. But even many of those lining up to collect the kits sounded more stoic than scared. “Just in case something happens, you have the tools in your hand,” Ariel Garcia Lozano, 31, said with a shrug, lingering for lunch with his new bride, gas mask at their feet.
Israel’s leaders have convened emergency cabinet sessions in recent days and ratcheted up home-front preparations, with military reservists being called up and air-defense systems readied on Wednesday. Still, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement, “There is no reason to change daily routines.”
The Israeli public remained preoccupied with the start of school on Tuesday morning, the finale of the show “Big Brother” on Tuesday night and preparations for the Jewish New Year next week. Recent rocket attacks from the Sinai Desert and from Lebanon were like background noise after so many years of the same. Though Israelis have “the best seats in the house” on the current chaos, as the satirist Lior Schleien put it in an interview, there is relief that for now, the problems are other people’s.
With concern growing about Israel’s international isolation after Europe’s recent move to ban the financing of Jewish institutions in the occupied West Bank, some hoped that the brutality and instability in the region might create sympathy abroad for Israel’s geopolitical challenge. At the same time, others worried that the changes in the neighborhood would make Israelis even more wary of the concessions necessary to make peace with the Palestinians — and that pressure on them would be relieved just as the American-brokered negotiations are getting under way.
“It’s another nail in the coffin in the vision of the left,” lamented Eva Illouz, a sociologist who is president of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design here.
“It’s going to rigidify the already powerful racist tendencies in Israeli society,” she said, worrying. “Most people are bad historians. They tend to ascribe the same logic to things that are not necessarily connected. That’s what I think is going to happen in the minds of most people. They’re going to comfort that Netanyahu narrative of ‘They all want us out, and we need to be very strong.’ ”
In conversations with two dozen people this week, many said this summer had spawned an “I-told-you-so” sensibility among Israelis, who had been far more skeptical than Americans and Europeans about the Arab Spring. There were repeated invocations of Ehud Barak’s infamous statement that Israel is a “villa in the jungle,” which caused controversy in 2006 but now is gaining traction even among liberals most sympathetic to the Arab cause.
“I don’t like this metaphor; it’s very colonialistic,” said Dorit Rabinyan, a celebrated young novelist. “But this is the state of mind of Israelis, especially the last two or three generations. I think this metaphor has some sort of truth in it.”
Ariel Brantz, a restaurant cook who was collecting a gas mask at the mall, said he hoped “this will open the world’s eyes and they understand who it is they’re dealing with.”
Mr. Schleien, host of the satirical television talk show “State of the Union,” said that “what’s going on in Egypt and Iran and Syria” should make people “wake up and smell the napalm.”
After months in which the skyrocketing death toll in Syria’s civil war spurred relatively little reaction here, the apparent gas attacks outside of Damascus struck a deep chord in a country still largely defined by memories of the Holocaust. Several people interviewed said they imagined their own relatives who perished in Nazi concentration camps when they saw the faces of the dead Syrian children lined up last week.
“Enemy or not enemy, it’s horrific,” said Etti Vashdi, who was visiting a promenade overlooking the Old City with a group of religious Jews from the small community of Elyakhin, in the country’s center. “I hope they would feel the same about us, but I’m not sure.”
Elyakim Haetzni, a former right-wing politician, wrote one of several op-ed articles that pointed to the world’s silence during the Holocaust to demand international action now. “Mass killing by gas makes it impossible for any of us to remain indifferent,” he said. “Every Jew must forever consider himself to have stood in line to the gas chambers.”
Still, there is a sense of satisfaction for some in watching the enemy implode. Raymonde Elul, one of three grandmothers sharing sandwiches at the mall, said: “They’re not our brothers. The more of them that are killed the better.”
Mr. Reuven, the retired bus driver, and his friends, have spent the summer jokingly saluting a member of their group whose nickname is Sisi, like Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, the military leader behind Egypt’s new government. They are happy with the result in Egypt, but wary of the method, and even more shocked by what they see in Syria. “They killed their own women and children,” Mr. Reuven said. “If heaven forbid we were to fall into their hands, they would slaughter us like chickens.”
Still, most of those interviewed Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday said the events had intensified Israelis’ feelings of isolation. They were critical of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy, and wary of a world they believe demonizes them. As for the prospect of Syrian or Iranian attacks on Israel in response to an American strike — like Saddam Hussein’s sending of Scud missiles to Tel Aviv in 1991 — it seemed to generate a kind of pride in resilience.
“When Israelis go to the shelters, then the spirit of Israel rises again, and we are all united and we have this tremendous solidarity as the persecuted people,” said Hannah Naveh, a professor of literature and gender studies at Tel Aviv University.
“We’re post-traumatic as a regular mode of living,” she said. “I’m 65 years old, I was born with the state, and it’s 65 years of living post-trauma. We don’t move from trauma to trauma. We don’t get over anything.”
Isabel Kershner and Jonathan Rosen contributed reporting.