Dispatch From Jerusalem

The war is far away—and yet so close.

JERUSALEM—When we arrived at Yankees Bar the other night, my friend looked around and said, “What war?” The night was typically cool, and many diners were sitting outside. It has taken so long for the bars and cafes to pick up since the last set of suicide bombings in 2004 that going out is still a novelty.

With cities and towns in the north and south of Israel under attack, Jerusalem has suddenly become relatively secure compared with the rest of the country. I recently overheard someone shrieking into her cell phone: “Are you still scared to come to Jerusalem? It’s the safest place in the whole country!” Her tone wasn’t so much of triumph as of disbelief.

Two weeks ago, most Israelis wouldn’t have considered a journey to Jerusalem, even though the overall security situation had improved. Trying to convince friends from Tel Aviv to visit was nearly impossible—so much so that they began to tease me that Jerusalem may as well be in a different country. Now, when rockets and planes are heard across the Galilee and constant threats loom over Tel Aviv, the nights in Jerusalem are ostensibly quiet, calm, and cool. Just like any other summer night.

And yet.

Though we sit perched on our hill, we are anything but removed from the rest of the country. In Arabic class last night, when the teacher asked how I was doing, I answered, “OK,” since that’s the only response I’ve mastered after seven weeks of classes. Another student turned around and half-attacked me. “OK? How can you be OK? There’s a war going on. Don’t you watch the news?” I stared in amazement at her mastery of Arabic and was filled with shame at my lapse of war etiquette.

Of course I am not OK. Like everyone else in the country, I watch the news to a degree that is beyond obsession. Yes, the bars and cafes are open and packed, but you would be hard-pressed to find a place where the news is not constantly playing.

It’s similar and yet quite different from the atmosphere two weeks ago, when the final matches of the World Cup were taking place, and every cafe, bar, restaurant, and corner grocery store was packed to capacity. Though Israel didn’t have a team in Germany, the excitement was everywhere. The final match’s famous head butt was still the main topic of conversation when the kidnapping of Cpl. Gilad Shalit took place and the Israeli government’s reaction brought on fighting from both sides.

Though hardly welcome, the escalation wasn’t shocking. When the assaults from the north began, though, the confusion was immense. The reaction to the Katyusha rockets falling in the north of the country is still, “Where did this come from, and why now?” The scale is so overwhelming that the events in Gaza were pushed into the background.

I’ve noticed that all interactions now begin, “Did you hear the news?” Or, if it’s someone I haven’t seen in the last few weeks, “Do you have any friends or relatives in the north?” Though we may stray from the war for a few minutes, it seems to be a sort of artificial distraction, a way of taking a break until we can once again run through the details or the politics of the latest developments.

Talking is easy, no matter where you are or who you are with. I have had in-depth conversations with friends waiting in line for the movies, with co-workers via e-mail, with cashiers in supermarkets, with bartenders, and (on days when I am scared of taking a bus) with cab drivers. During the recent Jerusalem wine festival, I am not sure which word popped up more often: cabernet or Katyusha.

Although it is generally accepted—or perhaps falsely hoped—that Jerusalem won’t be hit by a rocket, I can’t help but wonder, watching them fall over the rest of the country, when our turn is going to come and from where.

The apparent calm in Jerusalem makes going out for coffee or beer all the more eerie. When, at one point during our evening in Yankees Bar, my friend and I noticed that two policemen had appeared and were weaving their way through the tables, our superficial conversation quickly ended. We wondered what they were doing, why they were there, what had happened. Though we eventually discovered they had come to escort a slightly aggressive customer off the premises, we decided to finish our beers and leave. “Oh, right,” my friend responded to our reaction, “that war.”