by Yossi Klein
date 10.05.01 | Issue date 10.15.01
With the autumn festival of Succot, Jerusalem
turns into a shantytown. Succahs--shacks made
of wood and cloth that commemorate the desert
wanderings of the children of Israel--crowd
Jerusalem's porches, courtyards, and sidewalks,
overwhelming the solid stone buildings with
reminders of fragility and transience.
And it is not the holiday alone that reminds
us. Once again we have entered what Israelis
have called the waiting period--like the weeks
before the Six Day War and the months before
the Gulf war. There's an acute awareness of
impermanence; daily life seems mere prelude
for the next onslaught of history. Though Washington
is trying hard to make us peripheral, few Israelis
doubt that we will soon find ourselves on the
front line. Israeli military intelligence is
focusing on three threats: Saddam Hussein (who
might retaliate against a U.S. strike by attacking
Israeli cities with nonconventional weapons);
Hezbollah (which could strike Israel's northern
towns, provoking both retaliation against Syria
and an Arab-Israeli war); and Osama bin Laden
himself. We watch with foreboding as America
tries to include in the anti-bin Laden coalition
states like Iran and Syria, which sponsor terrorism--repeating
the fundamental mistake of Oslo, which co-opted
Fatah terrorists to fight Hamas terrorists.
(The two groups have been fighting side by side
for the last year.)
Still, as we wait for our fragile normalcy
to be overwhelmed, Israelis feel some comfort
knowing that we no longer face unspeakable threats
alone--that we're not victims of some historical
curse that continually lures the Jews into pathological
entanglements. Israeli tabloids report, almost
with relief, the gas mask sales in New York
and London. One headline read, "THE
WORLD IS IN PANIC"--it's not just us
anymore. My neighbor, an immigrant from France,
told me that for the first time since the intifada
began a year ago, she feels at peace. "All year
I've been tormenting myself about the decision
I made to raise children here," she said. "But
since September 11 I realize that there is no
`here' or `there.' Terrorism isn't just our
The destruction of the World Trade Center
has partially rehabilitated, if only by default,
the Zionist promise of safe refuge for the Jewish
people. In the last year, it had become a much-noted
irony that Israel was the country where a Jew
was most likely to be killed for being a Jew.
For many, the United States had beckoned as
the real Jewish refuge; in a poll taken just
before the bin Laden attacks, 37 percent of
Israelis said their friends or relatives were
discussing emigration. That probably changed
on September 11. I was among the thousands of
Israelis who crowded Kennedy Airport on the
weekend after the attack, desperate to find
a flight to Tel Aviv. "At least we're going
back where it's safe," people joked. Everyone
seemed to have a story about an Israeli living
in New York who just barely escaped the devastation.
If this could happen in Manhattan, the reasoning
went, you might as well take your chances at
But the new attitude is stronger than resignation.
Bin Laden's atrocity has confirmed the resolve
that even before had been gradually returning
to Israeli society. We haven't become flag-wavers,
but the army's elite combat units are inundated
with volunteers--more than at any time since
the beginning of the Oslo process, which let
us imagine an end to national sacrifice. Rock
star Aviv Geffen, whose songs once mocked Israel's
military ethos and who boasted of his own medical
military deferment, has now volunteered for
reserve duty--serving in the entertainment corps
to boost soldiers' morale. A newspaper headline
announcing his turnaround read, "WE'RE
A MOBILIZED GENERATION "--a take-off
on his anthem, "We're a Screwed Generation."
Even as Israelis pull together, however, they
see their national unity government--until now
the country's last refuge of emotional stability--straining
to the breaking point. Not since the unity government's
creation in February have its internal inconsistencies
been so blatant. The partnership between Ariel
Sharon and Shimon Peres was based on compromise:
Sharon grudgingly accepted Yasir Arafat as the
Palestinians' legitimate leader, while Peres
grudgingly refrained from negotiating with him
until he stopped the violence. But September
11 revived each man's old instincts: Sharon
saw an opportunity to delegitimize Arafat by
linking him with bin Laden, while Peres saw
an opportunity to revive Arafat as a partner
by prying him away from the terrorist stigma.
Peres won the first round. Sharon, who dreads
a renewed left-wing opposition that would undermine
national unity and invite international pressure,
yielded to Peres's threat to resign and permitted
him to meet with Arafat the day after Yom Kippur.
But for all his desperation to maintain the
partnership, Sharon may soon be forced to choose
between unity and security. He can't tolerate
continued violence against settlers and soldiers
in the territories, which is the kind of cease-fire
Arafat has in mind and that Peres appears ready
to accept. The unraveling of the unity government--our
fragile political shelter--would drag the Likud
and Labor Parties to their ideological extremes
and revive the schisms over territory and religion
that most Israelis hope to leave behind. It
would deny us our single victory of the last
year: our coming together at the edge of the
uccot is the season for such apocalyptic thinking.
In the rabbinic imagination, Succot was identified
with the messianic era, a world safe enough
for people to leave their homes and live in
fragile booths. Many of the devout sleep in
their succahs to emphasize their faith in God's
protection. But Succot also encourages the darker
religious imagination. And so, like every Succot,
the few dozen misfits of the Temple Mount Faithful
will be back this year, transporting two massive
stones, each weighing six tons, intended as
"cornerstones" for the future temple. And, as
every year, they will be barred from the Mount
by police wary of igniting a Muslim holy war.
Still, the eschatological imagination has
almost been outpaced by events. Some apocalyptics
now speak with an unnatural reluctance, perhaps
frightened by the seeming approach of events
they've so long anticipated. "Stay away from
Tel Aviv, brother," a longhaired American man
selling candles on a Jerusalem street corner
whispered intensely at me. "Tel Aviv is next."
A taxi driver wearing the black velvet skullcap
of a Shas recruit told me that, according to
the Kabbalah, 80 percent of the Jews will be
killed before the messiah comes. "Do you know
how many observant Jews there are in the world?
Twenty percent. But God willing, the rest will
soon repent and avert the evil decree."
The Zionist evangelicals of the International
Christian Embassy were back on Succot for their
annual Feast of the Tabernacles: about 3,000
celebrants from more than 50 countries--a smaller
contingent than usual but still the largest
group of tourists to arrive here since the intifada
began. The feast opened in Jerusalem's convention
center with the blowing of a shofar. "Say to
the daughter of Zion, behold salvation comes,"
the faithful sang, waving their arms. They take
their inspiration from the prophet Zechariah,
who envisioned a world war against the Jews
of Jerusalem, after which the chastened gentile
survivors would gather in pilgrimage to the
holy city on Succot. Over the stage was suspended
a Jewish wedding canopy, a reminder that Israel
is protected from above.
The guest of honor was Prime Minister Sharon.
Ever since the annual feast began in 1980, every
Israeli prime minister, including Yitzhak Rabin
and Shimon Peres, has attended--an indication
of how desperate Israel has been for affection,
whatever its source. Only Ehud Barak snubbed
the feast, perhaps assuming that Israel was
heading toward peace and no longer needed the
support of fundamentalists whose theology placed
us at the center of Jesus's apocalyptic return.
Sharon announced that terrorists had just attacked
a settlement in Gaza--two were dead, many more
wounded. There were audible gasps. "We demand
of the free world to declare Hamas, the Islamic
Jihad, and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations,"
he said, and the crowd cheered and waved the
flags of dozens of nations--a counter-U.N. where
Israel wasn't damned but revered.
On the street outside, I talked with a border
policeman about the news from Gaza. "In the
end we'll have to bomb the whole Middle East,"
"And will that bring us safety?" I asked.
"Nothing will bring us safety," he said.
YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI is
a contributing editor at TNR.