Still Life with Bombers: Israel in the Age of Terrorism.
Alfred A. Knopf. 266 pages. $25.00
Judith Wrubel Levy.
Babe in Arms: Dispatches from an American Mother in Israel.
I met Judith Wrubel in 1991 at Oxford University, where we were both graduate students in international relations. We became friends walking back to Balliol College each week, along the leafy Banbury Road, from a seminar at St. Antony’s College on the international relations of the Middle East. Both secular American Jews — the only ones in the class — we found in one another a measure of intellectual and ethnic solidarity against our classmates, who tended to view the region through the prism fashionable in academia: The violence and misery of the Middle East devolve from Israeli territorial expansionism and its abuse of the Palestinians. Once when a suicide bombing in Israel claimed the lives of a number of children under the age of 10 — it is often forgotten how common an occurrence these were even during the Rabin years — a fellow student, upon hearing the news, proclaimed with satisfaction, “Good. They deserve it.”
After graduating, I moved to Thailand to take a job as a journalist. Judith returned to New York to work for an investment bank. We lost touch. Years later, she found my name on the Internet and wrote to me. I was delighted to hear from her, and we soon established a prolific correspondence. I had returned to the United States and was living in Washington, D.C.; she had married an Israeli mathematician and moved with him to Rehovot, an Israeli city well within the Green Line. She was now Judith Levy. She was expecting her first child, a boy. But her romantic and maternal fulfillment came at a cost: She now reckoned each day, as she wrote to me, with the possibility of her own murder.
In 2002, at the height of the second intifada, as Judith passed through her second trimester, we wrote to one another daily. Her accounts of her pregnancy were rhapsodic, almost curiously so. I had never heard of a woman so free of complaints about pregnancy and the prospect of parturition. “Growing him is pure pleasure,” she wrote, “and the bigger he gets, the more exciting it is.” Yet the context of her letters to me was unrelentingly grim.
Two mornings ago I woke up, looked at the headlines and read that the bombing in Petach Tikva the day before had been in a cafe packed with mothers and their babies. I’ll say it again because it’s so mind-boggling: The bomber had quite deliberately chosen to explode himself in the midst of a large crowd of mothers and babies. I marvel at the depravity. I knew there had been a bombing, of course, and I knew that a grandmother and her 18-month-old granddaughter had been murdered and that there were between 40 and 50 injured, but I didn’t know that a large proportion of those 40 to 50 were small children.
The explosive was packed with metal shards so better to maximize casualties. Judith wondered whether the bomber had cased the area in advance, or whether it was an impulse — “A shop packed with Israeli kids, how tempting!”
Sometimes she would write to me in the early hours of the morning when, overwrought with fear for herself and her husband and child, she was unable to sleep. I often asked her why she didn’t return to the United States, although of course I had to concede that living in the United States no longer conferred an immunity against suicide bombers. “I’m not willing,” she wrote back, “to wreck my home life, break my husband’s heart and deprive my son of his father so that I can try to anticipate Arab violence. It can’t be done. I have to do the best I can with the choices I’ve made.” Beyond this, the intifada – and the international response to the intifada, which she found intolerably tainted by anti-Semitism — had cemented her Zionism. Never before, she wrote to me, had she been so convinced of the necessity of Israel’s existence. “Sometimes,” she wrote, “when I hear European ‘statesmen’ apologizing for Palestinian outrages against people exactly like me, I hear not just the voices of benighted, distant nitwits talking out of their depth but old-school Europeans who feel, when Jews die, that all’s right with the world.”
Judith’s letters were not only notable as a personal report from the front lines. The evolution of her political thought was telling. She had moved to Israel in an optimistic spirit, eager to believe that as a consequence of the process initiated in Oslo, she would raise her son in a relatively peaceful Israel coexisting with a fledgling Palestinian state. She had been earnestly determined to understand and sympathize with Palestinian aspirations and grievances — her ideals, she later ruefully remarked, as “innocent as ducklings.” The rhythmic and ever-encroaching violence drowned her optimism. As she witnessed Arafat’s rejection of Barak’s offer of statehood, the lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah, and Palestinians taking to the streets to celebrate the destruction of the Twin Towers, she began to doubt the ideals of tolerance upon which she had been raised. She was outraged by the international condemnation of Israel’s military responses to the terror attacks, by the sight of juxtaposed headlines such as these:
POOL HALL SUICIDE BOMBER KILLS AT LEAST 16 IN ISRAEL U.N. Assembly chastises Israel 74-4
This bombing had taken place in Rishon-Letzion, 15 minutes away from Judith’s apartment.
When Israel entered Jenin, much of the international media accepted Palestinian charges of an Israeli massacre without skepticism. These claims were later shown to be lies. Judith was incredulous at the world’s willingness to believe the charges and to condemn Israelis out of hand:
[W]ho else would wait for 23 suicide bombers from a single city to assault civilian populations for years on end before taking serious action? We go in house-to-house, at maximum danger to our own soldiers and getting a couple of dozen of them killed in the process, and kill only about 50 of the enemy, the vast majority of them armed militants. And we are universally condemned for taking this action in a kind of global orgasm of anti-Semitism (there was a distinct tinge of relief in the gushy torrent; it’s obviously been bottled up for quite some time). Can you imagine if we really took them on — especially while they’re still a stateless David to our (hamstrung) Goliath? I shudder to imagine the global reaction.
I thought Judith’s letters, with their startling account of bringing life into the world in a region where children themselves are armed with suicide belts and weaponized, would make a fascinating book, particularly for an American readership newly sensitized to the meaning of terrorism in the wake of September 11. I encouraged her to write it. She wrote a proposal and several sample chapters. Her literary agent sent the proposal to several dozen New York editors. Every one of them turned it down: They agreed that her writing was eloquent and powerful, but the subject, they reported, was depressing. One editor — herself a Jew — declared herself “allergic to Israel.”
Upon reading David Horovitz’s book, Still Life with Bombers, I was struck by its uncanny similitude in tone, vocabulary, and texture to Judith’s letters and by the way Horovitz’s thoughts about the prospects for peace in the region have evolved in exact tandem with Judith’s. I was also struck by the fact that it was published at all: Congratulations to Knopf for overcoming New York’s evidently collective literary allergy to Israel. The past few years in Israel appear to have shaped the thinking of secular émigrés to the country in very similar ways, and the thoughts that occupy the minds of those who have voluntarily chosen to raise children in a land that, as Judith put it, “eats its young” are similarly conflicted and anguished, to the point where it would be hard to distinguish one writer’s work from the other without prior knowledge of authorship. Horovitz’s discussions with his wife about the morality of raising children in a land where they are considered suitable military targets and where, inevitably, they will be conscripted into the army are echoes of Judith’s discussions with her husband about this very topic.
Horovitz’s views have been shaped by the same focal events — the language he uses to describe the international condemnation of the alleged massacre in Jenin could easily be mistaken for Judith’s:
Israel could, of course, have bombed the camp, or at least the core of the terrorists’ hideouts, and spared all its dead soldiers, but it shrank from the casualties this would have caused the Palestinians. The gunmen, of course, could have surrendered and saved everybody’s spilled blood. Arafat, needless to say, could have sent his troops into the camp months or even years earlier to root out the bombers from what Israel called “the capital of the suicide bombers.” . . . In early May, 2002, undeterred by the fact that, mere hours earlier, a Palestinian suicide bomber had killed fifteen Israelis in a café-billiard parlor in Rishon-Letzion . . . the United Nations General Assembly voted, seventy-four to four, to condemn Israel. . . . The condemnation made no mention of the latest bombing, of the two dozen suicide bombers dispatched from Jenin, or of the Palestinian attackers and Israeli victims of any kind. Yes, the whole world can be wrong.
Horovitz, the newly installed editor of the Jerusalem Post, has written two books about everyday life in Israel; Still Life with Bombers is his second. They are political books, inevitably, for as he observes, to be Israeli is to be political: Ask one hundred Americans or Britons whether they are passionately interested in politics and a few will say yes; most, no. Ask one hundred Israelis, he observes, and they will not understand the question: Political questions are for them existential questions; the details of the peace process are anything but abstractions. The success or failure of the proposals on the table will determine whether their country will survive. Judith too has been struck by this. She and her husband, for example, went to a barbecue with friends:
A conversation sprang up at the party about the quantifiability of the existence of the state: in other words, the statistical probability that the country will still exist in 20 years. One person, a physicist, put the odds of total destruction at about 25%, a forecast he pronounced thoughtfully while stroking the hair of his four-year-old daughter. There was mild dissent at this pessimistic view. While the rest of the group gave Israel better odds, all took it for granted that the worst was entirely possible — that there might not be a country to discuss when our children reach adulthood.
I listened, incredulous. I come from a country that is so indelibly there — with an influence so pervasive, in fact, that the rest of the world swings between profoundly resenting it and profoundly admiring it, yearning, indeed, to imitate it — that the tableau of a group of people casually discussing the prospect of national annihilation made me feel a little woozy. The sangfroid of Israelis is well-known, but this was ridiculous.
Still Life with Bombers chronicles the failure of the July 2000 Camp David summit and the subsequent depraved orgy of suicide bombings in Israel. Horovitz places the blame for both squarely on Yasser Arafat. His political account accords with that of many observers of the summit, that of Bill Clinton and Special Ambassador Dennis Ross most notably, and, while cogently argued, is not new. It is his account of the everyday consequences of living with this failure that is particularly compelling.
The title is a pun — the book is a series of snapshots of contemporary life in Israel and is in that sense a still life; the title also suggests, as in the traditional Jewish toast, L’Chaim — “to life” — that life in Israel, despite the suicide bombings, insistently goes on. These snapshots include a sketch of the perverse daily calculations made by Israelis in the effort to minimize their chances that it will be their name and passport photo featured next on the grim account of the latest casualties on the front page of Ha’aretz. Horovitz and his wife canvas the entrances and exits to restaurants and cinemas, trying to determine whether the security guards are sufficiently alert, or whether perhaps they are distracted by their cell phones. They admire, for example, the “long and awkwardly proportioned staircase” leading to the entrance to the movie theater to which they have taken their children as a treat:
[W]e figured a bomber would have to make an extra-special effort to schlep down all those stairs, and might opt for somewhere closer to the main road. If that sounds amusing and a little flippant, it isn’t meant to — the inconvenience of the staircase was something we earnestly debated . . . .
Judith’s letters to me contained similar accounts of bizarre daily calculations. She and her husband, for example, attempted to quantify the point at which she would take their baby and leave the country:
We decided that if there are two events within 12 months in which 800 people are severely injured or killed, I will take the baby out of Israel. Why two and not one? Because a one-off doesn’t mean they’re equipped to do anything else at that level and Arnon won’t have us running away after one incident (“Should the population of New York have moved away after September 11?”). And how did we hit on 800, you might reasonably ask? This was just so ghoulish that we started laughing. He said 1,000 casualties. I said no way; it’s gotta be 500 casualties. He said he’ll give me 850. I said 700. Finally we settled on 800. Then I said I wanted that figure to include injured, not just dead, and he said no way; that wasn’t what he’d meant. So we negotiated some more, finally agreeing on the phrase “severely injured or killed.” We’ll go by news accounts here since Hebrew medical terminology, like English, clearly breaks down casualty figures by degree — light, moderate, serious, critical/severe . . . .
A London-born Jew, Horovitz emigrated to Israel because of the “palpable bond” he felt for the land. It is a failure of the book that Horowitz does not engage as honestly as he might with the central moral dilemma of modern Israel. He observes that Israel cannot and will not ever concede the right of return to the Palestinian refugees, for to do so would be, demographically, to sign a collective national suicide pact. This is true. He argues that Arafat’s failure to accept, and to prepare his people for, a settlement that would not involve the repatriation of refugees queered any possibility of a settlement that would accord the Palestinians a state of their own. This is also true. He deplores Arafat’s lack of vision in this regard and his fundamental indifference to the suffering of the Palestinian people in rejecting the only terms for peace Israel can ever offer. This is fair. Yet when Horovitz writes that he sought and accepted Israeli citizenship because of his “connection [to Israel] born of an awareness of my family and my people’s religious and historical roots, a fierce identification with the fate of my people, a desire to be part of the rebuilding of our homeland, the shaping of our modern destiny,” he fails to explain why, in his view, Palestinians of his generation with identical sentiments do not have an identical right to act as he has. Clearly, he believes that they do not, and he may well have sound historical or philosophic reasons for this belief, but he does not share them with the reader. The book would have been stronger had he done so.
Judith, once, was keenly sympathetic to the emotional ties Palestinians feel to the same land. But with their relentless, deliberate assassination of children, she decided, the other side
forfeited its right to any concern I might once have had for the justice of their cause . . . once they made an explicit policy decision to murder Israeli children — to quite deliberately hunt them down and kill them — I said, “That’s it. That’s the end of my trying to make a peacemaker out of you in my mind. You don’t get to threaten to tear my family apart and retain my sympathy. You’re on your own.”
Horovitz’s book is a meditation of extraordinary pessimism. In fact it is hard to imagine two more depressing portraits of contemporary life in Israel or two more depressing accounts of the past decade’s squandered and mismanaged opportunities for peacemaking. Although Horovitz concludes by asserting his refusal to believe that Palestinian mothers are essentially different from Jewish mothers, he then adds that he must believe they are not essentially different “because otherwise we Jews have no future in this bitter, vicious Middle East without killing and being killed, forever through the ages.” Horovitz offers only these two choices: Accept an assertion that is flatly contradicted by the arguments and evidence of the 244 prior pages, or accept that the Jews have no future in the Middle East.
Judith, too, avers that those on the other side of the conflict must have higher aspirations for their children than to send them to their deaths as improvised explosive devices. “[I]t cannot be otherwise,” she asserts, addressing the Palestinians directly. “I cannot believe that when you look at your children you see anything other than magnificent treasures that must be preserved.” Yet this forced optimism, too, seems more a desperate expression of yearning than a natural conclusion to her argument.
I am glad that Horovitz’s book was published. It is important that the Israeli side of the story be told, and he tells it well. Yet I wish that Judith’s book had been published too: This is a story to which Americans have no right to be “allergic,” if only because this story is also ours. As Judith wrote to me:
I . . . feel a near-certainty that the us has not seen the last of terror on its own ground, and when it comes, it will — again — be on a dramatic (possibly monumental) scale. I worry about the us, my beloved country and Israel’s only friend, which still doesn’t quite get the magnitude of the danger it faces from its enemies.
We should be listening to Israeli voices, the more of them the better, even if those voices appear now to be converging upon a singular sentiment of despair.