August 26, 2002

Israelis are showing an uncanny ability to balance contradictions.Labels are maddeningly important in Israel. How one eats, prays, votes – all aspects of life confer a category and a membership, even when the membership isn’t warranted or the categorization is tough to swallow (left-wing and religious? Still?). One of the methods by which one can live comfortably within the ambiguity of his/her existence here is the hyphenization of one’s choice of self-definitions. And there are no oxymoronic combinations – hence one finds “fearful-optimists” (not too many of those around, even with the modifier) alongside “flexible-hardliners.”

In a burst of self-clarity, I realized last week that I had stumbled upon a trifecta ? three existential states of being, which on any other planet might appear to be mutually exclusive, but which co-habit happily in Jerusalem. I was sitting in the back of a city bus (the better to scan for the danger signal of a jacket worn during summer, and other such illusory safety precautions) making its way toward the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus. I had already heard about the suicide attack on the bus in Safed that morning (I wouldn’t know until much later that there would be five more “incidents” that day, and a total of 13 Israelis killed, with dozens more wounded). It was just days after the bombing of the Student Center’s cafeteria – a building away from where my own summer class is being held – and I found myself almost unconsciously wrapping my cell-phone strap around my wrist. Nearly positive that the bus in which I was riding was to be hit, I didn’t want the explosion to separate me from my phone, which I would need to call my wife in order to reassure her that I was all right.

It dawned on me that, at least for that moment, I had acquired an almost quintessentially Israeli label: I was a pessimistic-practical-optimist. All but sure of a piguah (all-purpose Hebrew for terrorist attack) and nearly equally positive of my surviving, I sought a practical way of moving to the next step: letting my family know that I was OK.

That my attempts at coming to grips with what passes for reality around here are intertwined with the recent unexpected deaths of my parents is clear to me; prior to these very personal losses, I had forever been accused of not only wearing rose-colored glasses, but of being awarded the patent for them. Yet I’m absolutely certain that this assault on my natural optimism would have been underway even if my parents were still in Los Angeles, still glued to their television watching for any word of “the situation.”

Not only do people here hedge their bets by combining their labels – they change their outward affiliations with great frequency, in search of a worldview that makes more sense – if just for a moment. Returning from Mt. Scopus, I had two conversations in quick succession that succinctly epitomized the political uncertainty felt by just about everyone here (there are a few true believers left, on various parts of the spectrum – what, you expected just “two sides”? – but again, not too many).

A woman who had immigrated from Finland 20 years ago, who had been a Likud supporter for all her Israeli adult life, told me that at least for her, it was clear that Ariel Sharon had no – and was no – answer. Land – even Homeland – was just not as important as finding some way to get back to the diplomatic table. The obvious lack of trust in Arafat notwithstanding, she wanted her government to speak clearly about some of the smaller, more far-flung settlements, and to move heaven and earth to get back to the diplomatic table. If anything, she said, because we were the more powerful, it was our responsibility to not let up, to keep trying to find a political way out of “this nightmare.” She is now a confirmed-but-reluctant (there’s those hyphens again) Labor supporter.

The taxi driver taking me down from Mt. Scopus – there would be no more bus rides for me that day – was her political mirror image. Growing up in a left-leaning household in Israel, he’s now to the right of Sharon, and offered his unsolicited advice (Israeli cab drivers are like cab drivers anywhere, only more so) on how to respond to the recent wave of suicide bombings. “Hitting them harder than they hit us,” is the only way out. Showing any willingness to compromise was tantamount to inviting more attacks.

Rabin to Netanyahu to Barak to Sharon. Left (OK, Center) to Right to Left to Right. Optimist to Pessimist to Pragmatist and back again. The wildly fluctuating election swings point to a sad Israeli political truth: Few seem completely comfortable with any leaders – or their plans or programs for the future. So they vote, with great hope and great anticipation, for someone who offers a way out – even if that way is different from the last person on whom their hopes were pinned.

Since we moved to Jerusalem a little less than a year ago, there have been countless examples of how daily life in Israel is a Marc Chagal tapestry come to life: all manner of symbols and meanings, some truly profound with amazingly bright and powerful colors, and others just plain routine, almost blending into the background – but all of them mingling and swirling and colliding into each other, inevitably affecting each other. And just as there are no impossible political hyphenates, there are no impossible images.

A week after the bombing in the Frank Sinatra cafeteria, and on the same day as the University’s memorial service dedicated to the victims and their families, I took our son to his horseback-riding lesson.

Josh is speaking soothingly to his horse in English, while his teacher is giving commands in Hebrew, and I’m achieving a new level of humility as I consider that the horse is more comfortably bilingual than I am. It’s anything but the typical, idyllic scene repeated at countless riding stables in the West, but it hits me that for all its improbability, it feels perfectly normal. Beautiful Jerusalem hills in the background, a pair of Israeli fighters streaking across the sky, and a nervous 10-year old in the nearby corral getting lessons from a wrangler in cowboy boots, spurs and tzitzis flapping in the breeze.

There was a popular theme used (maybe slightly over-used) by youth groups in the 60s and 70s for their Israel conventions: “Israel Is Real” (the pun got old after the first few times, but the message was genuine enough – Israel was a real place, with real problems and real people).

Today, as I consider the blending of images and the existential cognitive dissonance it takes to live here, I think “Israel Is Surreal” might make a better conference title. But “surreality” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Herzl wanted a “state like all others” – and while there has been movement (not necessarily the same thing as progress) in that direction, he’d have to admit that this place is not like any other state. I don’t know about Teddy, but for me, that’s how it should be.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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