Revealing reactions

Posted: Sep 02, 2003 12:00 AM

Jerusalem, Israel - “I lost three friends, close friends in the attack.  I am so depressed,” he said as his chin dropped into his chest.  The Orthodox Jew—or “ultra” Orthodox Jew as the New York Times would label him—was noticeably shaken as we walked up to the site of the bus bombing in Jerusalem that killed 23, including six children.  Nearly three days had passed, but his pain had not.

  There was no blood on the street.  The severed body parts and burning flesh had been removed from the street within hours of the blast.  That is common here in Israel—a way of showing gritty determination to persevere and not buckle under to terrorism.  But what the clean-up crews could not remove were the nightmarish memories of those who witnessed what is known as the “children’s attack.” 

  With no visible traces of the mass murder, I needed two Israelis—one of whom had been there at the time of the blast—who were talking nearby to show me the exact location of the tragedy.  Though they were clearly somber when discussing an event in which six children perished and 40 more were wounded, they did not seem as profoundly disturbed as a similarly situated American might.

  Maybe that’s the result of the torrent of terrorism that has made everyday activities—like shopping, eating, or a riding a bus—potentially life-threatening.  Maybe it’s impossible not to become at least partly numb from the never-ending string of seemingly random mass murders.  The residents of this devout and tight-knit community appeared to be going back to normal, everyday life—but it was clear that life was not back to “normal.”

  Roughly fifty feet from the location of the attack was a small, makeshift memorial.  There were approximately two dozen-candles—perhaps representing the number of murders—sitting on a couple small boxes.  At several corners in the neighborhood were simple white posters with just the names of the victims written in black ink.  Crowds gathered around to read the names, while children were playing in the streets just behind them.

  Less than an hour later, I was in inside the “ultra” Orthodox synagogue, surrounded by hundreds of worshippers there to mark the start of Shabbas, the Jewish Sabbath.  Given that several of the victims had belonged to this synagogue, I was intensely curious as to what I might hear at the prayer service.  What was not said, though, was ultimately far more revealing.

  Almost every one of the several hundred worshippers at this overflowing synagogue was swaying back and forth, seemingly consumed with an intense and unswerving faith.  While their fathers were praying—I could not see the women, who were all on the floor above—little boys passed around chocolate bars and Gummi Bears.  Aside from the occasional break to keep the boys from running out into the narrow aisle, the men spent the entire time praying the same prayers that have been prayed every Friday night for centuries.

  There were no calls for “death to Arabs” or “death to Palestinians.”  There were no calls for revenge.  Afterward, I specifically listened for any tone or temperament that suggested people venting in a way they couldn’t during the prayer service.  I heard no such thing.

  After the service, people were shaking hands and hugging.  They were smiling and greeting each other by saying, “Shabbas,” which starts at sundown on Friday and ends some 25 hours later. 

  Dozens of men—mostly with long beards and either skull caps or strange-looking hats (the likes of which I had never seen before)—approached me.  This was understandable since not only had they never seen me before, but I was dressed in long khaki pants and a casual blue button-down shirt—a far cry from the black slacks and pressed white dress shirts almost everyone else was wearing.  But rather than scorning me as an outsider, they embraced me and welcomed me to their house of worship.

  Less than 48 hours later, at a funeral for a Hamas terrorist responsible for repeatedly plotting mass murders of innocent Israelis, this was the scene as described by the New York Times:

“‘We want martyrs, more sacrifice,’ blared a voice amplified through loudspeakers as more than 1,000 Palestinians marched through Gaza City today during the funeral procession.”