Defiant Normalcy

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

As I parked my car in the square by the beach I could hear the sounds of karaoke music coming from the Crocodile Restaurant to my right. I was in Herzyliya Petuach, a Tel Aviv suburb for diplomats, media types, and Israeli high-tech entrepreneurs, not the place one would expect a suicide bomber to strike, but as it was my first night in Israel in 16 years I was a bit nervous.

“Come on in, join the party,” the hostess invited. “Don’t sit alone on the patio.”

“What party?”

“It’s for victims of terrorism. See Rifka over there? It’s her birthday. So we thought we’d invite everybody and have a party.”

Rifka, now a paraplegic, was in a wheelchair. So was Baruch. Ronit had a strange tilt to her neck and kept her mouth open as though breathing were a chore. Do I have the names right? I don’t know. Can I place the victim with the incident—the Hadera wedding, the Seder in Netanya, the bus stop in Jerusalem? No. But I remember the intense joy of the evening: the good voices, people whose bodies have been spared the plastic and nails of the suicide bomber dancing with partners in wheelchairs, the empty bottles of rich red wine and Maccabee beer. Avoid the crowds and cafés? To hell with you, bombers! This is Israel. For Jews, there is no next stop.

It has not been easy. The worst thing is never being able to relax. When the kids go off to school, will you see them again? That boy at the bus stop. Why is he wearing heavy clothes when it’s 90 degrees? I wish the waiter would bring my coffee, I don’t like to sit in the same place too long.

Yet the real mood is one of defiant normalcy. The country has developed a prosperous, high-tech economy since I left. It has also taken in a few million Russians, meaning more orchestras, “Beriozkas,” and a proliferation of hookers on the dusty beach road into Tel Aviv. The tourists are gone, but, apart from that, the Ayelon chokes with traffic into and out of Tel Aviv each day. Cars and buses clog Jerusalem’s ancient neighborhoods. After a seafood dinner one night, friends suggested a walk along the stone promenade running above the Mediterranean from the Hilton Hotel to Jaffa. I heard disco music in the distance. That’s the Dolphinarium, I was told. A year ago a suicide bomber killed 21 people there. Now the dance floor is so packed that on weekend nights one can hardly move on it.

It was Saturday and a Palestinian professor had invited me to an academic conference in Ramallah on human development. I used to spend many a Saturday driving around the West Bank, seeing Palestinian friends in Nablus and East Jerusalem, dining in the beautiful garden of a Ramallah restaurant, hiking with my late ABC colleague Ali Rabaia through the wadis near Jericho. Now things were different. My Palestinian taxi driver growled when he heard it took three hours to clear the main checkpoint into Ramallah. Instead he tried some roundabout ways through the mountains. “Look at this,” he said, pointing to one of the many red-roofed communities planted on the West Bank hills since I left. “Settlement, settlement, settlement. Every place they put settlements. We’ve lost half our land in the 20 years I’ve been driving a taxi.”

The drive around the mountains proved futile as the Israelis stopped us from crossing at other checkpoints. “Why do you want to go to Ramallah?” asked the soldier examining my passport. “It’s very dangerous.” I left the cab and trudged along on foot. Hundreds of Palestinians were doing the same. The town looked like the war zone it had been. Litter, broken glass, automobile skeletons, and the remnants of barricades were piled along side streets. I made my way to the Best Eastern Hotel, where Beirzeit University was holding its incongruous gathering of well-dressed intellectuals. Several speakers complained that no human development was possible under Israeli occupation. But the Palestinian Authority came in for harsh treatment too. Even before the Intifada, it had done little to develop democratic institutions, deliver everyday services, or end corruption. Moreover, it had trampled academic freedom, telling the schools what and how to teach. When we could talk freely, my host allowed as how he thought the Intifada a strategic mistake. “We have no economy. We have no society. We have no life,” he said. “And this will win nothing for us at the bargaining table.”

After lunch the plenary session broke down into working groups. I joined three academicians and a refugee community leader discussing the development of political institutions. Transparency was one key to democratic freedom, they agreed, as was the separation of church and state. And the political system must be fully open to women, despite the prohibitions of strict Islam. This would not be easy. “How can you separate church and state when one of the largest political groups—Hamas—is explicitly fundamentalist?” one professor wondered. As for women, someone proposed a temporary quota. The others liked the idea.

A newly appointed PA cabinet minister came into the room. “He is here to show moral support for our effort,” one of my hosts whispered. “And also to explain why the Intifada must continue.”