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Holy Terror
by Yossi Klein Halevi

Post 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 problem."

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 home.

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 abyss.


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," he said.

"And will that bring us safety?" I asked.

"Nothing will bring us safety," he said.


YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI is a contributing editor at TNR.






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