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Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Beautiful letter from home:
"The Bearable Lightness of Peace" by Daniel Gordis

This morning's Ma'ariv newspaper had, as it does every day, a huge headline across the front. Today was "Ne'evak ad Mavet" [He Fought to Death]. It was a reference to Corporal Oleg Shaichat, who disappeared last Monday after hitching a ride in the Galilee, and who was finally found yesterday, a week later, buried in a shallow grave, in an olive grove not far from his family's home in Upper Nazareth.

Walking to the office this morning, I passed the little French bakery in our neighborhood where elderly men sit outside on the sidewalk, sip their Turkish coffee and read the newspaper. As I was passing them today, two were looking at the Ma'ariv headline. One said to the other, "Rak tzarot yesh lanu" [Nothing but troubles for us]. To which his companion replied, "Nachon, aval yoter tov, lo?" [True, but it's better, no?]

That little interchange pretty much summed up how people are doing with this little "hudna" we're having. Small incidents of terror continue, almost every day, and some rather large plots are still being thwarted. But the pace is undeniably lessened, and everything has changed. Life is unquestionably more comfortable, infinitely more relaxed. At restaurants, some of the guards are gone, but even where they remain, the security check is much more cursory. A glance, a pat of the briefcase, and you're through. None of the rummaging through everything you've got in there that had become commonplace, much less of the "wand" over your front and back each time you go into the bank, or a store, or an office building. There's a "time out" in effect, and while some people believe it will last and others believe it won't, most of the people we know are enjoying it as much as they can.

The sidewalk tables at many cafes, spots that used to be unoccupied because most people wanted to be inside, on the other side of the guard, are now full. Everyone is more relaxed, and no one dreads the news quite as much as they did just a bit more than a month ago. On Shabbat afternoon, just outside our kitchen window, kids from the building next door sat outside on the grass, and sang all afternoon. If I hadn't seen it and heard it, I wouldn't have believed it. But there they were, for hours, just sitting on the grass and the stone wall around the yard, laughing and playing, singing the whole day. Was it because they know about the "hudna," or because it was just a pretty day? Or because their parents are probably less stressed out? Or because everyone's taking a deep breath? Hard to know, but it was certainly welcome. It's nice to hear the kids singing again.

We've only got one kid at home this summer, but he's ecstatic. Without his even knowing why, he's singing in the shower. Add the kids next door.... It doesn't get much better than that.

After almost three years of seemingly interminable stress, grief and surprise that things could get much worse just when you thought they'd hit absolute rock bottom, this city is coming alive again. Elisheva and I went to the summer outdoor Jerusalem fair last Thursday night. Tight security, to be sure, but packed. Unlike last year, though, when security was even tighter, no one was nervous last week. Last year, we heard numerous people saying that they were unhappy about being in such a crowded space. Something was bound to happen, they said. This year, no one seemed worried. There were clowns and jugglers, and tons of kids. Lots of music. Thousands of people. And we didn't hear anyone saying they were nervous.

We got tired of the fair, and decided to grab a bite to eat. We left the secured downtown area, walked past the guards into the unprotected downtown and began to roam. The streets were filled with people everywhere. We passed Machaneh Yehudah, the outdoor market that is always packed on Thursday nights, and that has been the site of several horrific attacks in the past few years. It was a virtual Mardi Gras. There were guards, to be sure, but the place was relaxed. People shopping, eating, tasting, even laughing. There would have been no way to know that that same market has been on the front page far too many times in the past three years. Most everyone here has decided to live, even if only for the ninety days we've been "promised."

The big question, of course, is whether it will last that long, or beyond that. No one here is quite naive enough to imagine that Hamas, or the Al Aksa brigades, or the Islamic Jihad are using the "time off" to read Bialik, or to perfect their Hebrew grammar. We know, obviously, that many of them are using this period to re-arm, to re-train, to prepare for the next round. Some Israelis (the right, mostly, and particularly settlers, some of whom are likely to have to relocate if this "peace" should stick for the long run) are busy reminding everyone that "hudna" is a term that early commentators on the Koran used to refer to the treaty that Mohammed made in 628 C.E. when he attacked Mecca, but repelled by a force larger than his, agreed to a truce. The only problem with the truce was that Mohammed used it to regroup, assembled a much larger force than he'd originally had, and two years later, once again marched on the city and captured it. That kind of a "hudna," these Israelis remind us, we don't need.

But others focus on the fact that "hudna" in everyday Arabic also means just plain old "truce." What we don't know, obviously, is which form of "hudna" we've got. If it's the former, we could be in trouble. But if it's the latter, life here could get much better. And no matter which you believe, it's a dangerous proposition. If you ignore the right, who said the same thing about Oslo and the Palestinian authority, you run the risk of being wrong, and then, very, very sorry down the road. But if you believe the right, but they were wrong when there really was a chance to make some progress here, then you've squandered what might be the last chance for some sort of peace, or at least something better than what we've had, for quite a while. A hell of a choice.

So people here live in a kind of surrealistic world of hope and fear, optimism and petrified caution fueled by a remembrance of the last time that their sanguineness led to heartbreak, and then to a lot of death. That's why you can have that conversation between the men at the bakery. "We've got only troubles." Sort of true. "But things are better than they used to be." True, too. If you ask me, they're much better, at least for now.

I got to the office, and met with a (rather young) recently retired Air Force Colonel who's interested in making a transition to Jewish education. Bright, articulate, with kind of a "Top Gun" affect about him. OK, he's earned it. Big time. A really nice guy, very thoughtful and interesting. On the way into my office, we lingered for a moment in the lobby, where there was a copy of Ha-Aretz on a table. In that paper, too, Oleg Shaichat was a top story. We started talking about the soldier, his disappearance and murder (possibly, according to some of the press, at the hands of Israeli Arabs, though that potentially devastating development hasn't been confirmed, and hopefully, will prove false). I said something trite, like it was a pretty horrible thing.

Well, yes, in some ways, this pilot said to me. But in some ways, not. After all, for his family, it's much better to know that he's dead, than to live with the years of wondering and dread that other families endure when they don't find the body, or when their son is taken into captivity. And, he added, "I went to help with the search yesterday. And it was very moving."

One of the unusual aspects of this whole episode was that the security forces asked for the public's help in searching for the missing soldier. It was already suspected that they were looking for a body, not a live person, but they apparently needed help. On the radio, they asked anyone with a four wheel drive vehicle to come to the military base near the Golani Junction in the Galilee to sign up to help. The guy I was meeting with told me that yesterday morning, a friend of his who has a jeep called him up and said, "We should go." So they did.

He told me that they signed in, were paired with two other people who'd shown up without a four wheel drive vehicle and were handed a map with rectangles, one of which was highlighted. "That's your rectangle," they were told. "Look for anything, no matter how small." Despite the rather unbearable heat, he told me, the place was packed with volunteers. There were five hundred people waiting to be assigned a rectangle. A bus filled with Israelis from Tel Aviv who were on a three day tour of the Galilee and the Golan pulled over, and on the spot, they decided to cancel their touring for the first half of the day, and volunteered. It was, he said with no small degree of pride, an incredible show of solidarity.

He and his party went out to the field, not easy terrain, and began to search. They'd been out for two hours, combing their rectangle, when the call came to pack it in. The search was over. In the very next rectangle, it turns out, they'd found something. First they found a shell from a gun, which Oleg probably intentionally dropped as he was being led into the field. Then they saw a drop of blood (perhaps one of the indications, not yet revealed, that has led authorities to say that he "fought to the death"). They knew they were closing in. And then they saw some earth that looked not quite right, dug a bit, and found him.

What does one make of all this? It kind of depends on what you think they mean by "hudna." If you're the "I told you so" cynic, who may well be right, then you see this as proof that they've toned it down for a while, but still, will kill us whenever they can. If you're more optimistic, as I am by nature, then you say, "This is horrible, and unforgivable, but he's the first soldier to die at the hands of the enemy in a month. When was the last time we went that long?"

So what's the right approach? Enjoy the peace, or dread its end? Truth is, strange as it sounds, you don't really have to choose. You can do both. Even the press can't decide what to make of all this. On Ha-Aretz's English website today (www.haaretzdaily.com), I saw a headline so interesting that I actually printed it out on the spot. It read (and this is a precise quote):

SECURITY OFFICIAL: SAFE TO PREDICT TRUCE WILL LAST MORE THAN THREE MONTHS -- Says Abbas believes it possible to dismantle terror groups without bloodshed. IDF Chief Ya'alon braces for next wave of violence.

Talk about surreal. What, exactly, does that headline mean? Which "hudna" do we have? Depends on whether you believe the (unnamed) "security official" or Ya'alon. The right wing email lists, of course, have been forwarding quotes of Ya'alon all day. The left, as always, is rudderless and incapacitated. We simple folk are just enjoying the quiet, and having fun watching Israel's most sophisticated newspaper making no sense. Kind of a commentary on the times.

Add to this convoluted headline the statement by Egyptian "President" Mubarak two days ago that "only Sharon can bring peace," because he (Sharon) was the one who oversaw the evacuation of Jewish settlements and one major city when the Sinai went back to Egypt. Mubarak uttering a sentence with the words "peace" and "Sharon" in it? This place can make you dizzy. Or the restoration of diplomatic relations between Israel and Austria, as (tentatively) announced today? And cozying up, finally, with Pakistan, also as announced today? Or Jordan and Egypt talking publicly about sending their consular staffs back to Israel? And then, tonight on the news, Sharon and Bush at the White House, without any mention of the "fence" that was supposedly going to be such a bone of contention. How good would things have to get for people here to actually believe that they'll be OK?

The problem, of course, they will tell you, is that things were good before. And then it all dissolved into horror. And they're right about that. We know that. But still, when does one say that things are good enough to at least merit some hope?

Talia, our daughter who's away for the summer at a program at Brandeis University, called a few days ago and as we were chatting, asked, "So what's in the news?" "Nothing," I told her. "Nothing at all?" she asked. "Nothing." She was quiet for a second, and then said, "That's amazing. It's really amazing." We hung up a few minutes later, and I found myself trying to calculate. When the "hudna" had started, when she'd be home. And whether she'd be here for any of it.

And then, I realized that I didn't actually know which would be better. To experience some of this, only to risk the devastation that we'll all feel if it ends, or not to have seen it at all, to stay used to what she's gotten used to.

She'll be home in time, I realized, and I'm glad. This thing may not last, and if it doesn't, we'll be devastated. No question. But I want her to see it, at least a little bit of it. I want her to open the paper, every morning, day after day, at least for a couple of weeks, and to see that there don't have to be pictures of blown up buses, destroyed restaurants, mug shots of the people to be buried that day. I want her to see that this place, too, yes, even this place, can be normal. Can be happy.

For some reason, wondering whether she'd get home in time reminded me of the snow we had here in February. Everything was closed -- schools, offices, stores. The streets hadn't yet been cleared, and the entire city was covered in a gorgeous blanket of white. We decided to take a family walk, got all bundled up and headed up the side street right by our house. Everyone in the neighborhood was out, people were laughing and kids were having the time of their lives. Tali and I were out ahead of the pack, walking smack in the middle of the street, taking it all in. Suddenly, Tali reached for my hand, not a common occurrence with a sixteen-year-old, and said to me, "This is so great. I wonder if this is what peace is like."

And then, I realized. My sixteen-year-old kid doesn't even remember what peace is like. So, yes, I want her to come home in time. I want her to see what this place can be, even with all the worry, even with the dread lurking around every corner. I want her to see the laughter, the lightheartedness, the sloppy security. I want her to hear the singing, to see the cafes full again, to go downtown without being afraid. I want her to see the place we once thought we were bringing her to.

Will it last? I don't know. If it does, it will be another one of those miracles that living here sometimes allows you to see. And if it doesn't, we'll try to remember it, I suppose, holding on to the dream that if this "hudna" didn't last, maybe the next one will. Lots of people here will say that's naïve, that it's dangerous, that it invites more of the same horror. Maybe they're right.

But the way I see it, if we've lost the ability to hope, they've won. This place was built on hope and as we've seen in the last few weeks, it thrives on it. So I'll go with hope, with kids singing on the grass, and with my daughter getting a chance to remember what peace is like. If nothing else, I guess, seeing what we've got now may just give her the courage to keep on hoping.