Jerusalem Stories and Tips

Living in the Shadow of Terror: Lessons from Ben Yehuda

Based on my own memory, Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in West Jerusalem has been the object of terror attacks--or attempted attacks thwarted--since the 1980s. One such incident occurred in December 2001, less than 3 months after the events of "9-11" here in the United States. Taken in this light, Ben Yehuda, at least for me, provides a symbol for some of the worst perils of living in the shadow of terror: Innocence and the innocent are destroyed. Peace is mind is shattered and restored piecemeal, but perhaps always a bit more precariously than it once had been.

Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda pedestrian area is not a mall in the modern American sense of the word. As with Steep Hill in Lincoln (England), High Street in Fort William (Scotland), the historic district of Weimar (Germany), and downtown Cape May (New Jersey, USA), Ben Yehuda is a long-established commercial area that has been largely closed to vehicular traffic. It provides an inviting location for typical urban pastimes such as shopping, cafe-ing, and gossiping with friends.

Ben Yehuda is a gathering place for the young and the young at heart. It is a place to find jewelry and sandals, costly oriental rugs and bargain-priced headscarves, ice cream cones and falafels, Israeli folk music and silver Sabbath candlesticks. It is a place for strolling along at an easy pace, for window shopping, for bending to examine inexpensive sketches lain out on the pavement, and for sipping Turkish coffee or cafe latte at outdoor tables. It is a place of innocent pleasures--or at least it should be. Nonetheless, early one Saturday evening (Jerusalem time) in December 2001, Ben Yehuda became a place of terror and murder.

Saturday in Jerusalem is a day of rest, contemplation, and worship. Shops are closed and buses do not run. It's a time for home and family. But since the Jewish day starts at sunset rather than at midnight, Saturday night is no longer the Sabbath. It is instead a time for socializing, dinner out, merrymaking, movies, and evening walks. For young people, it is a time for "hanging" with other young people--like Saturday night in any major European or American city. And for young Jerusalemites, Ben Yehuda is a favorite meeting place--both as a destination in and of itself and as a place to go until groups of friends decide what to do next. Ben Yehuda is crowded on Saturday night, thus making it a perfect target for terrorists who care only about how much carnage they can cause.

I learned about living in the shadow of terror while taking a graduate course in history at Hebrew University. Those were the days before suicide bombers became commonplace. Instead, bombs were simply left as unattended packages on sidewalks and in buses. Children learned at an early age not to touch, but rather to call a policeman or soldier to examine any suspicious parcel. As for me, all too quickly I found that armed and uniformed soldiers on the streets of Jerusalem seemed both ordinary and reassuring. Submitting to searches of my purse and backpack at public events became routine. Vigilance evolved from a virtue to an obligation.

On a hot August afternoon in 1985, as I browsed the shops in Ben Yehuda, a fellow shopper discovered one of those ubiquitous abandoned packages. Within minutes police had cordoned off the immediate area; those of us at the scene were guided back to a safer distance; and a special unit wearing protective gear arrived to disarm and dispose of the threat. In this particular instance, the package was not a bomb, no explosion occurred, and no casualties resulted. Still, we all recognized the potential for harm, and for a time on that hot August afternoon, the sense of oppression had nothing to do with the summer heat.

In December 2001, the crowd in Ben Yehuda was not so lucky. Children died and parents were left to grieve. Other children were gravely wounded. Blood stained the pavement. Young people seeking a Saturday night's reprieve from living in the shadow of terror instead found themselves face to face with their worst nightmare. Terror came out of the shadows.

A friend in Jerusalem told me that despite their long experience with such events, Jerusalemites were stunned. They were not so much angry as they were profoundly saddened. Where and when will all this terror and loss be brought to an end?--for them and for the Palestinians? The only immediate answers they have in recent years have included the expectation of still more terror and the determination to somehow carry on without losing too much of themselves in the process. Even at a distance, there seem to be more lessons to learn from Israel.

How could I know that all these lessons about living in the shadow of terror would someday prove so useful here in the United States? Here in post-9-11 America--in my Washington-area backyard--the targets of terror may differ, but the victims are essentially the same: innocence and the innocent are almost always in the front ranks.

Now we are all Israelis.

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