This week, a bomb was detonated near Binyanei HaUma, a large convention center in Jerusalem. The bomb killed one woman, Mary Jean Gardner from England, and injured many others. The explosive went off near bus number 74, which is a bus line that serves my neighborhood. Not only that, but all of the buses that pick up passengers at that bus stop come to and from my neighborhood. Later that evening, I received an email from a neighbor reporting that a little girl from the neighborhood was undergoing surgery on her head as a result of injuries she sustained at the bomb site. After that, another message landed in my inbox with a quote from Jerusalem’s mayor Nir Barkat that really took me aback. I did some research, and discovered that its source was an interview with Neil Cavuto from FoxNews. I suggest that you click on the link and read the interview, but here is a quote that I believe gives the basic gist of Barkat’s position:
Mayor, what’s the latest there?
NIR BARKAT, MAYOR OF JERUSALEM, ISRAEL: well, the latest is that, in Jerusalem, we’re going back to normal life.
And, naturally, the Israeli security forces are, I believe, will hunt the person and the find the root of the terrorists and pursue the maximum under law. And it’s very imperative and important for Jerusalem to go back to normal life as fast as possible, which we’re doing.
CAVUTO: Well, you guys are very good at that. And you have been sadly used to these kind of things, but lately not. And maybe since the building of that wall, these incidents have dramatically been curtailed. What now? What do you do if this is a sign of maybe more increased violence to come?
BARKAT: Well, I think terrorism is a global problem. And if anybody, here in Israel and in Jerusalem, we know how to deal with it.
It’s a local incident. And I believe that when we find the terrorists that is putting death in the — as — as — is the most important thing in a city that promotes life, I believe we’ll find the roots of it and get things back on track.
Israel and the world needs quiet. And we mustn’t get the terror to have any gains, zero gains for terrorists, and go back to normal life. It’s the best way to deal with terror.
Whether or not Barkat carefully crafted these statements just to sound good for the American media, while he secretly felt the gravity of the situation is irrelevant for the simple reason that everyone is responsible for what he or she says, no matter what the motivating factor. Therefore, I reserve the right to take these statements at face value.
If I was the mayor of Jerusalem, I would have issued a completely different type of message, not only to the world but to the people whom I had been privileged to govern, the residents of Jerusalem. I would have described the situation for what it was: a tragedy. I would have made it clear that their pain was my pain and that their loss was my loss. I would not glibly suggest that the best way to deal with terror is “to go back to normal life”, and then go on to talk about the upcoming Jerusalem marathon.
You don’t have to be religious, a rabbi, or even Jewish to have that kind of sensitivity.
You see, those people are not going to return to normal life. When the media describes people as “hurt” or “injured”, that can mean anything from scratches and bruises to 3rd-degree burns and having one’s limbs blown off, G-d forbid. Some people who are “only” injured live the rest of their lives in a vegetative state as a result of “mere” injuries. Even those among the injured who will hopefully be restored to a state of perfect health will not return to normal life as it was before the bombing. Nor will their respective families and loved ones. Nor will the people who were in the vicinity who heard the blast, saw the glass shatter and witnessed the throng of ambulances and paramedics whisking the victims away to the city hospitals. There are many, many people whose lives have been changed forever by that “local incident”, as Barkat describes it.
And when there is a directive to simply return to normal life, victims are turned into pariahs, because they stand as living reminders of that which we would like to ignore on our rush to resume our everyday affairs. These are people who have been horribly traumatized, who need support and sympathy, and who will suffer terribly if their needs are perceived–and resented–as an imposition on others’ normal lives. This is precisely what happened to the residents of Gush Katif, many of whom till this day have not been able to resume normal life. And nobody wants to hear about it anymore.
I am an American living in Israel, and I have observed that a defense mechanism employed by many people here is lo kara klum, “nothing happened”. Because of the intense pace of living here, and the often chaotic, sometimes explosive interpersonal reality of this culture, people develop an incredible amount of body armor; they go to great lengths to demonstrate how they are totally unaffected by things: unfortunate events, criticism, outrageous behavior, and in Barkat’s case, terrorist attacks. But to brush these things aside in order to maintain the increasingly canned image of Israeli toughness is a form of existential neurosis. Because tragedies are meaning moments, opportunities to take a stand towards inescapable fate, to reflect upon life, upon values, and to decide how to suffer without losing one’s human stature.
Frankl said, regarding the prisoners of the concentration camps, that, “the best of us did not return”. I had trouble understanding this statement; did Frankl mean that those who did survive were of lesser caliber than those who did not? If it was the strongest who survived, whether through their physical endowments or their ability to psychologically adapt to their insane circumstances (i.e. choose to react to the stimulus in a way that affirmed life), is one to conclude that a Divine injustice was done, or that the world we live in now is populated by stronger, worse people?
I have concluded that what Frankl meant was, survival is not the litmus test of human victory; upholding one’s human stature, adhering to one’s values even under the most adverse of conditions is. Thus, there were people who perished in the camps, but whose righteousness exceeded that of others who survived but were not able to maintain their values or character traits at the highest level. The former were the true victors.
Similarly here, I do not believe that denying terrorists victory is the highest value, nor is displaying one’s toughness by simply resuming normal life. Rather, trying to understand how we are being commissioned by this tragedy, seeing which values we can realize through this event, at the very least coming together to support and nurture the victims of the attacks and their families in the most empathetic way–this is a proper response to a very meaningful happening. And I believe that it is the human response. We do not need quiet; we need meaning.