A Huge National Singles Bar of Terror

Traveling to Israel is not what it used to be. After Sept. 11, we had deluded ourselves into believing the airlines had all become security-conscious. I long ago grew accustomed to the friendly El Al strip search/inquisition, so yesterday’s polite British Airways welcome was, frankly, terrifying. No one questioned us; no one so much as peeked into our luggage. While everyone at the airline did a tremendous job of pouring perfect tea and being named “Nigel,” if they’ve increased security at all since September, it was not in evidence.

Oh. Except their planes now make an unannounced stop in Cyprus prior to landing in Israel. This happens so the crew doesn’t have to stay in Israel overnight and so hundreds of terrified Jews can sit for an hour, quaking on the Tarmac, wondering if the guy who urinated on the Church of the Nativity is in charge of refueling the plane.

I lived in Israel for almost three years, and I haven’t been here in four. But having arrived only yesterday, and through the fog of jet lag, it feels mostly unchanged. There are fewer tour buses. The customs line at the airport for non-Israelis was deserted. There is a man with a metal detector outside every restaurant and supermarket. Everyone looks into everyone else’s eyes on the street now, like a huge national singles bar of terror.

The news seems to be exclusively about funerals. Where the woman and her granddaughter blown up Monday in Petach Tikva are being buried. Where the three boys from the yeshiva in Itamar, killed yesterday while playing basketball, will be buried. Whereas news at home focuses on the killings, news here focuses on the interments. The killings have become almost too similar to bear scrutiny.

But there is also a strangely exuberant sense of negative space. Whereas in North America the map of Israel exists only to highlight the locations of the suicide bombings, here one is keenly aware of all the places where bombings do not happen. Like the place you just ate ice cream. And the place you just bought groceries. Walking through downtown Beer Sheva last night, all I could think was, “Well, there’s no bomb here” and then, two steps later, “Aha! And no bomb here either.” It’s not simply morbid denial. (Although the rates of morbid denial here are skyrocketing.) It’s just the best answer most Israelis can muster to terrorism.

I’ve started to think of this, perhaps too fancifully, as “life bombs,” these illogical explosions of living that happen on the streets and in the markets and swimming pools, where ordinary people go out each morning with ordinariness strapped around their middles. Somehow, it keeps the terrorists from getting the last word in if Israelis detonate life with even more force and vigor each time a Palestinian child detonates death.

You cannot mistake this for happiness. People are grim-faced and more anxious than the Israelis I grew up with. But they are out on the streets being alive, which is, I suppose, something.

We are headed to a party in Jerusalem on Sunday. A family celebration in a city braced for attacks said (via bland government warnings) to be almost certain. Yet, somehow, in only 24 hours, we’ve internalized the strange mix of denial and fatalism that allows one to get together with family in restaurants in Jerusalem without being considered either suicidal or insane. We’re going because it will be, in the end, a small controlled detonation; a family life bomb. This is the only weapon we’ve brought to Israel.

And we even managed to sneak it past the crack security team at British Airways.