Israeli spirit battered but not broken

September 06, 2002|By Charles R. Bronfman

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM-- This summer, of all of the summers that my wife and I have lived in this troubled city, afforded us a window onto more than one Israel.

One Israel is where we live, where we feel as safe as in any other place in the world, where we dine with dozens of others in a first-class restaurant. Whoever said Israelis aren't going to public places? That's far from the truth. When the Israel Philharmonic, under the baton of Zubin Mehta, performed a terrific "Concert in Jeans," it was to a packed house of more than 3,000.

The second is the Israel where suicide murders leave a pall over everyone.

How the news of the bombings is delivered reveals some of the tactics this society has adopted so it can cope with the killings. First come facts, delivered as matter-of-factly as possible. Details emerge later: who was killed, the identity of the bomber, the damage.

The next morning, in the newspapers, on TV and radio, the names and ages of the dead are announced and at what cemetery and at what times they will be buried.

The day after the June 5 Megiddo bus bombing that killed 17 men and women -- all army kids returning to their base -- I was at a board meeting of Koor Industries Ltd., an Israeli industrial holding company I have chaired for several years. I quietly asked whether I should ask for a moment of silence to pray for those who had been killed. I was advised that Israelis don't do that anymore. I guessed that's because it's so important for everyone to get on with things, to mourn by themselves.

How intensely lonely that must be if, in a flash of horror, you have lost your husband, your mother and one of your children while all around you life goes on: The annual book fair is held throughout the country; about 40,000 people watch the gay pride parade in Tel Aviv; the Moment Cafe in Jerusalem, hit by a suicide attack in the fall, reopens, is filled with patrons and the same bartender is serving drinks; and a friend -- perhaps an artist -- continues to produce beautiful work.

One of the major newspapers took a poll about how Israelis are feeling these days. The results: Half the nation is feeling good and the other half is depressed. An Israeli assistant of mine put it this way: "In the crudest statistical calculation, 3 million people have smiles on their faces and 3 million others don't understand why."

That half the population remains optimistic even under the constant siege of terror speaks volumes about the Israeli spirit. The mutually inflicted physical, economic and psychological pressures on both Israelis and Palestinians are intense, yet the wills of both peoples seem stronger. Something, clearly, has to give. But as long as Israel feels threatened by homicidal bombers, that something will not be the Israeli army.

Israel's recent takeover of most Palestinian cities has been named Operation Path of Determination. Yet isn't it possible that this path is another bend in the road to nowhere?

From afar, world leaders can demand that both sides make reforms. But does President Bush or anyone else believe that the Palestinians will transform their society into a democratic, financially transparent state -- the marks of other democracies that we in the West know? That corruption in Palestine will be a thing of the past? And if there is new Palestinian leadership, then what's in store for Israel and the region?

The strangest part of the Israeli-Palestinian saga of tragedy is that its final chapter already was written by the peacemakers at Camp David and at the tiny Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba -- give or take a little bit of sovereignty here, a few acres there.

The big questions: What chapter are we on now, and how many more must be written until we reach the final one? And what book are we reading, Job or Genesis?

One thing is evident. The mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians is too deep for them to finish this book themselves. So a temporary but strong editor is desperately needed. Soon.

Maybe a combination of the United States, selected European countries, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan can help write and edit that final chapter. If not, it well could be that the book will be consumed in the fire of hate.

Charles R. Bronfman, former co-chairman of the Seagram Co. Ltd., served as the first chairman of United Jewish Communities. He is chairman of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and lives in Jerusalem three months a year.

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