At the conclusion of synagogue services Friday night, there was a special announcement: “In light of the security situation, everyone who has a valid gun license and a weapon should please come to services armed. Unfortunately, not enough people have done so. So we are asking again. Those who can, please bring a gun.”
Though gun licenses are not easy to get, and many Israelis are turned down (though restrictions may soon be eased due to recent events), many do have guns; soldiers have them, officers keep their license after military service, those who travel to or live in dangerous areas can get permits. But still, the request felt surreal. Take a gun to go pray? Synagogues in Israel are typically much smaller than they are in the U.S. -- ours is hardly larger than the living room of a comfortable home, with some 200 seats packed into it. There are two small doors, right next to each other. For those on the other side of the room, there’s no way out. I imagined the scene -- gunmen make their way past the amateur guards outside and start firing into the synagogue. What happens next? In a densely packed room, lawyers, doctors, academics and a bunch of retired people are going to start shooting back? It’s ludicrous. The congregants themselves would probably kill more people than would the terrorists.
With the collapse of Israel’s government, the international media is mostly covering Israeli politics, not violence. In Israel, though, while the upcoming elections are the talk of the town, the recent murders in a Jerusalem synagogue and other attacks that have left a dozen people dead, mostly in Jerusalem, still cast a long shadow. Pedestrians move away from Arabs on the sidewalks. Many feel ashamed of that reaction -- but do it anyway. One moment of decency-driven carelessness could be fatal.
I was at friend’s office last week when an Arab woman who works with him came running into his office sobbing hysterically. Her husband had come to pick her up, she said, and he was being harassed and searched by the police. The story made no sense. I’ve never seen police in that neighborhood, and even if they were there, why would they harass a guy waiting for his wife? On instinct, I accompanied her back to the scene. Other than her husband, no one was there. Her husband was furious -- with her. He told her (in Arabic) and me (in Hebrew) that she was wrong to make a scene. “That’s how it is in this country,” he said. “We just have to take it.” I thought of Ferguson, of Staten Island, and told him I disagreed. It doesn’t have to be that way, and it has to change. He looked at me as if I were from a different planet.
The next day, her boss called to thank me. It turns out that undercover cops are now crawling all over the neighborhood (which is adjacent to an Arab village, home to several of the recent perpetrators).
“She’s great, and she might have quit if you hadn’t gone out there with her. So thanks," her boss said to me. "But make no mistake: I’m glad they searched him. When an Arab hangs around a campus entrance with an empty car, I want him searched. I’m all in favor of profiling -- it’s why we’re still alive.”
I didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t that I disagreed. Or agreed. It was just that I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. He’s right, and her husband is right. We’re trapped -- all of us -- in a city where everyone is afraid, everyone is angry. It feels like it’s going to explode any minute.
Too upset to work anymore, I drove home and poured myself a Scotch. My wife came downstairs and saw me drinking. “What happened?” she asked. I told her. She said nothing; we sat for a few moments, silent, while I nursed my drink.
“Ibrahim was here today,” she finally said, referring to the handyman we’ve used for years. He’s been around the house almost since we moved here, has watched our kids grow up. But a few years ago, when he was struggling with an exam he had to take, my wife tutored him for hours in our house. He’d probably never had a Jew do anything like that for him before. He passed the exam, and something changed. We’ll never socialize, we both know. We wouldn’t have much to talk about, and it’s taboo anyway. But you can see it in his eyes. We’re friends.
“He fixed the sliding door to the porch,” she said, “and the vent from the dryer. I paid him, and then as he was about to leave, he turned to me and said, ‘I just want you to know, I’m very sorry about everything that’s happening.’ And then he actually hugged me,” she said. “It made me want to cry.
“It made me think, for a moment, that maybe things will be OK here,” she continued.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that no, it’s not going to be OK, that things are going to get much, much worse before they get better. But I didn’t want to lie, either. “Maybe,” I said, and did the only thing that made sense. I poured myself another drink.