It was in the middle of Sukkot, that loveliest of holidays in Israel, set aside for family time, when even the most devout and serious yeshiva men can be seen with their entire families visiting the zoo or traipsing through nature trails in Galilee. We had woken up that Friday morning to the shocking news that, the night before, young parents had been murdered in their car on their way home from a festive reunion, shot in cold blood by Palestinian terrorists as their four terrified little boys sat watching from the back seat.
It is hard to explain to anyone who doesn’t live in Israel and travel these roads every day what such news brings: grief, fury, fear and a fierce desire for a response that will deter the next such heinous and inhuman act.
Along with everyone else in Israel, I grieved. But then I heard their names: Eitam and Naama Henkin.
Henkin, I thought, flooded by a sudden, terrible shock that was like a blow to my stomach. Oh, no!
I remembered that lunch not so long ago with Rabbanit Chana Henkin, founder and dean of Nishmat, a revolutionary advanced Torah study program. We sat in one of those comfortable little coffee houses that line German Colony, two Orthodox women who had come to Israel from America, discussing how Nishmat was changing the face of Orthodoxy by offering the first study program approved by the Orthodox rabbinical establishment to qualify women to become halachic advisers in the area of intimate women’s issues — issues that many religious women would be embarrassed to discuss with a male rabbi.
I remember leaving that meeting feeling I had been granted a rare privilege. This petite, passionate woman in her head-covering and modest clothes was, in her own quiet, courageous way, making history improving the lives of countless Jewish women.
Eitam and Naama were Chana Henkin’s son and daughter-in-law.
That her grandchildren had been spared was nothing less than a miracle. For a moment, my heart wanted to believe that even Palestinian killers and terrorists had some shred of decency and compassion. That they were, after all, descendants of Abraham.
A few days later, when the suspects were caught in a spectacular demonstration of amazing skill by the Israel Defense Forces, the truth was brutal. The terrorists had been about to kill the children too when one of them accidentally shot the other, forcing them to abandon their plans and rush to a hospital, where the injured terrorist was picked up days later by an elite IDF unit.
It made me feel much better that they had been so quickly apprehended. But before I could feel any real relief, terrorist attacks in Jerusalem, Ra’anana and elsewhere followed at a rapid clip, thrusting me back into the terrible memories of an earlier homicidal rampage to strike Israel, when I experienced terrorism firsthand as I sat with my family on Seder night in the Park Hotel in Netanya.
Oddly, when I remembered those days of suicide bombers blowing up hotels, Bar Mitzvah ceremonies and buses, the current spate of stabbings and savage hit-and-runs seemed less threatening. After all, you couldn’t see a bomb coming, and you couldn’t defend yourself. With a knife attack, you had a chance to run, or, if you had a gun, to shoot. As devastating as these attacks were, they were small potatoes compared to the bad old days of Oslo, where there was no security fence to keep killers and their bombs out of the country.
The bus attack in Armon Hanatziv was another matter altogether. Two passengers stood up and started stabbing and shooting. It wasn’t a bomb, but it was close. But worst of all was the news that the suspects were Israeli Arabs, residents of East Jerusalem, citizens of Israel.
I have lived in Jerusalem for 45 years. This is something new. There is a delicate fabric of life in our city, interwoven threads of Arab and Jew that exist side by side. We shop in the same malls and supermarkets, sit together on the grass in our parks, watch our children playing in the same playgrounds. Palestinian Arabs have delivered my groceries, built and renovated my homes, and been my doctors and nurses in Hadassah Hospital.
One terrorist, who plowed his car into a crowd in the center of ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Geula, then got out of the vehicle holding a meat cleaver and started cutting the injured, had worked for the Israeli phone company Bezeq for twenty years.
I wondered if our building cleaner, an Israeli Arab, would show up for work, and if the workers putting the finishing touches on my neighbor’s apartment would show up. And I wondered how I would feel about it.
When I encountered them in the following days, the answer became clear:the routine flow of normal life was stronger than any propaganda or isolated terror attack. I was not really surprised that I nodded hello to our maintenance man as he mopped the lobby floor, and that he nodded and smiled. Nor was I really surprised that the sounds from the sixth-floor renovation continued as usual, the Arabs congregating in front of the building. But what had changed was how we looked at each other, warily, searching each other’s faces for confirmation that all was well, and we would be exempt from the madness. Or not.
What did surprise me was my own reaction. With little or no fear, I took a public bus into the center of Jerusalem, walked calmly down Ben Yehuda Street and turned into the nearest army surplus store.
“We are all out of tear gas,” the owner said before I could even open my mouth.
“That’s OK,” I answered. “I want a knife.”
He showed me a few. I tested a blade gingerly against my palm. “Something bigger,” I told him. “Something sharper.”
I walked out with it in my purse, feeling better. As ready as I was to smile at innocent workmen, I was also ready to defend myself and my loved ones from those whose religious fervor sent them out to kill people like me and my family. I thought of every thrust: One for the Jews killed in the Holocaust. One for the Jews killed in every terror attack. And one very personal one for me and the Park Hotel.
That Shabbat, sans knife, we took our usual walk along the path built over the old Turkish railroad. Ordinarily crowded with kids on bikes and skateboards and with families pushing baby strollers, it was practically deserted, except for a group of French tourists. One of them wore a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Proud of Israel.”
I was disappointed. Surely, Jerusalemites were not that easily spooked? We felt better when we reached the First Station, a lively collection of stores, cafes and play areas for children. It was slightly less crowded than usual, but still bustling with young families. Would the same be true of Liberty Bell Park, which every Saturday throbbed with Arab families and their laughing children from East Jerusalem, whose picnics of barbecuing lamb scented the air for blocks?
Unlike the First Station, it was absolutely deserted, as was the Lion’s Fountain across the street, which normally on such a warm day, would be packed with Arab families watching their kids jump in and out of the water.
We walked back to the First Station and took a bench across from the newly imported merry-go-round. Its painted horses and lively music filled the air, mingling with the laughter of children. When we got up to go, a young woman pushing a double baby carriage approached us.
“Did you see how empty Liberty Bell Park is? Good! Why should they take over the park every Saturday? Let them be afraid to come here. This is our country. Let them stay home. They teach their children to be murderers and then they cry when they get shot trying to murder our children! They have no business here!”
An old Arab walking nearby carrying a large bundle turned around, staring daggers at her.
“Let him stare!” she said loudly. “This is my country. Mine. I’m not going anywhere!”
As I walked away, I looked over my shoulder. The merry-go-round was still turning. It went around and around and around.
This article was originally published in Jewish Journal.