At noon today, I shut the book on my final Talmud lesson for the week left Machon Meir, my yeshiva, still mentally chewing on the Jewish legal problems in which I had been immersed all morning. Each stream of contemporary Judaism, be it Hassidic, Litvak (Lithuanian,) Modern Orthodox, or, in my case, National Religious, has its own system of yeshivas, each yeshiva fulfilling a different role. Machon Meir's role is to take in those with little or no Jewish education and start teaching from the beginning, to work with those from a secular background who want to enter into a serious Torah environment compatible with a strong commitment to living in the Land of Israel. Most, like me, learn for the sheer spiritual uplift, and to fulfill the mitzvah (commandment) of Torah study. Most of us will eventually leave the yeshiva, though never our commitment to learning, to follow our respective paths in life. Some, like my cousin Rafi, will decide to follow through with more intensive learning and eventually obtain smicha, rabbinic ordination, for which they will go to Merkaz HaRav. Merkaz Harav means literally, "Center of The Rabbi", "The Rabbi," having been the yeshiva's founder, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Cook. The first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, he was considered the forefather of the National Religious movement. As I left Machon Meir and hung a left on Tzvi Yehuda street, I passed Merkaz Harav, the "Flagship of the National Religious Movement," just a block away, on my way to go about my errands for the day.
Spinning the radio dial, I hit the news as it listed the latest attacks; the daily rocket barrage on Sderot, attempted attacks on Jewish municipal workers in East Jerusalem, riots targeting Jewish motorists. Yes, we know the Arabs want us dead. That's why every Israeli has to spend three years in the army, and the next twenty in the reserves. These individual acts of petty violence are the usual background noise to life in Israel, like the morning news' list of violent crimes and traffic fatalities the average American ingests with his oatmeal breakfast. Eventually, it becomes white noise; but during the last few months, the noise here has grown louder.
Last week, the rocket barrage on Sderot was increased to such an unbearable level that aid organizations had to step in. Residents had to stay indoors for days. A child had his legs blown off, and an adult student at a local college was killed. The students of Machon Meir spent last Shabbat in Sderot to strengthen the community, which I regrettably, did not attend. Unlike last year's uneventful visit, this year they were forced to spend most of the day taking shelter from the ceaseless rocket barrage.
This week, I went jogging in my usual spot, the promenade dividing East Jerusalem from the rest of the city, but this time it was spotted with border guards lining the entrances and exits. Over the past few weeks I had seen the Arab teenagers gawking and glaring at me as I jogged past. Over the last month or so they've gotten a more cocky, sometimes jogging alongside me for a while trying to stare me down, or wildly gesticulating, jumping on benches, chairs, and through the bushes. I remember this sort of behavior from when I first landed in Israel during the summer of 2000, before the previous "Intifadah," or uprising against Jewish statehood. Not a good sign.
If this were in the states and an area I was used to visiting were to become dangerous, I would simply adjust my route. But here, things are different. Were I to stop jogging, I would be handing the enemy a private victory, even if only he and I know about it. If Jews stop visiting the promenade, this area then becomes de-facto annexed to East Jerusalem. It's part of what I think of as the, "Gradual Islamic Apartheid" system, in which, not through official law or legislation, but small acts of petty intimidation, a de-facto system develops whereby adherents of Islam are granted superior rights to others. Israel already has two separate bus systems, one connecting Arab locales and one for all Israelis regardless of ethnicity. Arabs use the Israeli bus service at their pleasure, but no Jew dares set foot on an Arab bus. Arabs needn't pay for land, they simply start building. The courts occasionally even rule against Arab land claims in East Jerusalem, but the police are too terrified to actually enter these neighborhoods to enforce evictions or demolition orders, and the government fears world condemnation. Already over half of Israel's land reserves in the Galilee have been stolen. Meanwhile, their Jewish neighbors a few blocks down the road pay full price. Entire cities, like Acco, which were once considered "mixed" have now become Arab-only, enter at your own risk.
I asked one of my rabbis for advice about my jogging route. On the one hand, one's life is his most precious asset, and there is a strong mitzvah to avoid unnecessary risk. On the other hand, the mitzvah of Kibush Haaretz, conquering the land, often entails a degree of danger and sacrifice.
"Can you buy protection?" (a gun.)
"No, I've only been here a year and a half. It takes another year and a half."
He gave me the address of a gun shop where I can buy mace. Still, it's hard to see what mace, no matter how potent, will do against bullets. In the end, I decided to modify my route slightly, keeping higher on the promenade, staying within view of the border guards and not taking the trail that leads through the trees. And I left out the loop that runs around the United Nations building and out of sight of the main promenade, near the Arab settlement of Jabel Mukaber.
Finishing my modified jog, I got back to work crunching numbers on my computer. Until the phone rang at about eight thirty.
Major attack at Merkaz Harav. Four dead.
A few minutes later, it was six.
A member of the Islamic death cult had come from his home in Jabel Mukaber, walked into the yeshiva with an automatic rifle and unloaded into the high school children learning there that evening. First comes the worry… do I know anyone learning there? Rafi learns nearby.
He picks up.
Okay, heart rate may now slow down.
"You're not mixed up in this thing?"
"May their names be erased."
I've been through this dozens of times. Here I am, worried about my workload, my studies, the dating scene, and all the little inconsequential details of life, when something comes to drag me out of my own self absorption. Most people have the usual reactions; shock, followed by anger that these creatures who steal our lives and waste their own have looted us of our most precious again. The anger will pass and the sadness will fade, and everyone will go back to their daily routines, minus the eight stolen souls and their families. But I think it's important to hold some of the anger and sadness without allowing it to consume our lives. I'll place mine well-sealed cardboard box and store it in a cool, dark place, somewhere in the attic of my mind. It is important that we, as self-respecting people who place value on our own lives and those of our loved ones, focus on pragmatic methods for removing this savage presence from the holy land. We will need the memory of such attacks as today's to internalize the justice of our existence when the rest of humanity condemns us for acting on our survival instinct.