Monday, January 4, 2016

Life is Precious...but so is Living

As I have mentioned many times, living in Israel means living in a complex and unpredictable reality. Sometimes this has a positive connotation, meeting eccentric people and having unique experiences that can only be visible in a place where so many cultures and narratives collide. Other times, however, the connotation is one of shock, sorrow, and fear. This, unfortunately, has been the case since last Friday afternoon, when a shooter attacked innocent civilians and killed two at a bar on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv.

For those who know Tel Aviv, you know that Dizengoff Street is one of the most lively and exciting areas of the city. It has some of the best shopping, restaurants, and bars in the city, and it is one of the best places to see the trendy nightlife and youthful spirit that gives Tel Aviv its infallible reputation worldwide. I know this area very well, and I have gone there many times during my time on Yahel to explore and have a fun time with friends. I was most recently there Wednesday night, when I took visiting family friends to an excellent seafood restaurant near the corner of Dizengoff and Gordon Street. Little did I know that two days later, right next to where I sat and enjoyed a nice meal would be the site of tremendous terror and despair.

I could not help but think that I could have been a victim of this shooting if I chose to go out on Friday instead of Wednesday, or if the shooter decided to proceed with the attack on Wednesday instead of Friday.  At the same time, I had many friends who were staying in Tel Aviv for New Year's Eve, and were only a couple of blocks away from the shooting. What would have happened if they decided to enjoy a drink on Dizengoff as part of their New Year's celebration and happened to cross paths with this killer? It turns out they were all perfectly safe, but we had no way of knowing until they texted us saying they were out of harm's way. In a small country like Israel, when something this severe happens, it is likely you know someone who was affected, and it is essential to know that everyone close to these incidents is secure.

It is a feeling like no other to know that a place you feel the most comfortable and care-free in one day can turn into the most insecure and deadly place the next day. My heart is filled with sorrow for the victims of this tragedy. I also feel much fear, knowing that a place I spend a lot of time in can easily become a center of terror. However, my dominant emotions right now are anger and frustration. I am angry at how unfair it is, that the people of Israel cannot perform the most leisurely activities without the threat of being murdered by a lunatic. I am frustrated that during the course of the current wave of terrorism in Israel, I have not been able to go anywhere in the country without fearing a possible terror attack, which makes me much more reluctant to be independent and go to places I would normally go to without question. No one should feel afraid to go through their daily routines and do the things they are passionate about. For this reason, I strongly empathize with all Israelis going through this turmoil, and I am strongly committed to working toward a viable solution that allows Israelis and Palestinians to coexist peacefully and maintain normal and relaxed lives.

This was not the first time in my life I have felt insecure due to terrorism. This incident brought to mind many shootings in the US in public spaces such as houses of worship and movie theatres, which have greatly increased my anxiety and vulnerability when going to such places. I have, of course, also been largely affected by the numerous stabbing and shooting attacks that have occurred in Israel throughout my time here. However, this shooting resonated with me much more significantly than similar attacks have before. With the attack occurring in the exact location I was at just two days before, I couldn't help but insert myself into that context, and even think of myself as a victim. In my mind, that killer was after me and all others who would have been at that bar enjoying drinks and the company of friends. In my mind, I could have easily been killed that day, and if this violent trend continues, any next day I spend at a bar or restaurant could be my last.

Though at any other time I would be undoubtedly willing to spend a night in Tel Aviv, knowing the shooter had not yet been caught understandably made me very concerned for my safety. Therefore, when I was invited to go out for dinner Saturday night in Tel Aviv with some family friends, I had no idea what to do. On one hand, I was excited to try a new restaurant and get a taste of home, especially with one close family friend who I had not seen in a while. On the other hand, with suspicions that the killer was still in the area and the realization that I would need to travel alone to reach my location, I was so scared of the possibility of something happening, and I knew that being alone would make me much more vulnerable.  As with other instances when I have planned to travel to places in Israel soon after attacks were committed in those locations, this was not an easy decision to make. Very confused and emotional, I eagerly sought the advice of my parents, who had negative predictions of the safety conditions in the city but told me I needed to look at what others in the area were doing and decide for myself what the best course of action would be.

Ultimately, after hearing that my family friends would be able to transport me to and from Lod, I decided it would be best for me to proceed with my plans in Tel Aviv. I understood the security threat I was under with a killer still on the loose, and I recognized the importance of protecting my life over less important priorities such as a random night out. However, I also felt an obligation to prove to myself and others that this is the same Tel Aviv that existed before the attack, and at its essence it is not a place that should be associated with disaster and terror. I am always profoundly moved by the resilience of Israelis following terror attacks, and this has taught me something very important: If Israelis gave into fear every time Israel was attacked, no Israelis would ever leave their homes, and the fun, dynamic public sphere Israel has created would be nonexistent. In short, life is precious and worth preserving, but it is also worth actively living, especially in the aftermath of terrorism.

I have attempted to follow this message many times throughout my time in Israel, even in tough situations when others were more reluctant. One such situation was on Christmas, a day when there are many celebrations among Israel's Arab Christian population. As one who has grown up in a society that glorifies Christmas and has never missed a Christmas celebration, I thought it be meaningful to observe the holiday this year in a place with significant sites pertaining to the life of Jesus. However, when talking to friends and family about where to go, most of them thought it was risky and unpredictable to go to a largely Arab area at this time. So, just like with my Tel Aviv dilemma, I knew that I would need to trust my instincts and make a rational decision on my own. Knowing that there had been incidents in Bethlehem and Jerusalem soon before, I decided that Nazareth would be the safest option for me. Even though no one was going to go with me, which I knew would make more vulnerable, I decided that it would be worthwhile to go on a short afternoon trip to Nazareth to see the major sights and observe the holiday.

Even after all the uncertainty I had about traveling to an Arab city in the midst of such an unpredictable time, I realized from the moment I entered Nazareth that I was about to have a very meaningful experience. I have always been into learning about different religions, and since the semester I spent in Jerusalem I have become very committed to exploring important religious sites. I knew that Nazareth, a place where Jesus lived for much of his life, would be the perfect place to connect to Christianity's early history and continue my exploration of Israel's overall religious significance. My journey started soon after my arrival when a bus dropped me off right next to the Basilica of the Annunciation, a massive complex under which Catholics believe the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and said she would give birth to the son of God. While walking around the city and learning about the main sites, including numerous churches from the time of Jesus, I learned that there is also a Greek Orthodox church that connects itself to the Annunciation, and that story conveys that the angel Gabriel confronted Mary at a well instead of a cave. I, of course, needed to walk the extra half hour to see this church, which was very small but was connected to a large plaza with a big Christmas tree decorated beautifully for the holiday. I found this debate to be very interesting because it shows the extent of diversity within Christian theology and how different Christian sects choose to depict their sites and the stories connected to them.

Additionally, I was very surprised to see that though it was one of the most important days for Christians in one of their most important cities, not many people were actually there. While walking around Nazareth's beautiful churches and discovering their stories, I only saw a handful of tourists witnessing these sites alongside me. My assumption is that similar to my concerned family and friends, many people thought it was too risky to go to Nazareth, even with the extra meaning that comes with being there on Christmas. Though I think everyone is entitled to their concerns, I have to say from being in Nazareth in that moment, this feeling of worry seemed like the farthest thing from the truth. Even when I was walking alone through Nazareth's large outdoor market and crowded streets, I felt just as safe as I would walking in any other part of Israel. Though I got nervous whenever I was spoken to in Arabic and was unable to respond, I was mostly able to communicate in English or Hebrew and I was comforted seeing both languages on the street signs and on shops and restaurants along the roads. I understand why people feel insecure when traveling to such areas at this time, but I think it's important for people to think rationally and realize that not all Arab areas are dangerous, and taking a leap of faith and going to one can provide you with a very meaningful and beneficial experience. In this regard, I learned that a big part of actively living life is taking chances that in the long run could allow for significant benefits, in terms of experience and perspective.

The Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation

Remains of the ancient village of Nazareth

The cave where Catholics believe the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary

Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation

A wishing well in the Church of the Annunciation

The well where the Greek Orthodox believe the Annunciation occurred

Mary's Well Square

The Synagogue Church, a former synagogue where Jesus presumably preached
Christ Church, an Anglican church in the city center

In the midst of the unpredictable and concerning nature of the current wave of terrorism, I believe my work with Yahel is more relevant than ever. In order to restore calm and security to the people of Israel, we need to come to a permanent end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and establish a lasting peace between Jews and Arabs. One way to do this is by creating ties between Jewish and Arab communities through working toward common goals and discussions about the topics that connect them. This is exactly what I have started doing every week with Juzur, an organization that seeks to strengthen Lod's Arab population and provide them with increased opportunities in areas such as education and employment. Every Sunday night, my group has started to join together with a group of bright, bubbly, charismatic, funny, and goal-oriented Arab university students to discuss our common interests and projects we can collaborate on to improve conditions in Lod. From our interactions, I have found these young Arabs to be some of the most interesting and relatable people I have met throughout my time on Yahel. Not only do we share many common interests such as movies, foods, and television shows, but we also share common goals of equal opportunity and lasting stability within our communities. If more people were to have experiences like what I have with these Arabs, they would know that peace is not only possible but it can also be durable if we take the time to truly understand the bonds that we share.

A group shot of us during our first meeting with Juzur

The situation in Israel can often seem dire, especially when contemplating recent events like the shooting in Tel Aviv. However, it is important to know that life goes on in spite of terror, and no attack can prevent committed Jews and Arabs from reaching the durable peace both sides deserve. Living in Israel has taught me to value life, but through living it to the fullest by stepping out of my comfort zone and accepting new experiences I can benefit from tremendously. Life is precious...but so is living.

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