When Tel Aviv streets don’t feel safe anymore
Personal security has always been the silver lining of the stresses and difficulties of living in Israel.
After an enjoyable evening on the town in Tel Aviv, at about 11:30 P.M. last night, I cheerfully made my way to the parking garage to retrieve my car. As I pulled out my wallet to feed money into the parking ticket, my mood abruptly changed. I became nervous. I found myself glancing behind me, and felt an alien sensation. It was fear: something I had almost never felt on a city street in Israel before.
In that split second, I had remembered to be afraid. My mind had suddenly made a connection between the sight of the empty underground parking lot and the images of a very similar one that I had been seeing on the evening news for the past few days. I had realized that I was only a few blocks from the parking garage where a horrific assault and rape had occurred after midnight on Friday, in a location that I had considered even safer than the one I was in at the moment.
The attack came on the heels of a tidal wave of violence on the streets over the past two weeks that have left many of us used to moving around confused, upset, worried, and nervous. Before the Tel Aviv rape, the country was buzzing over a shocking spate of murders the previous weekend, and specifically the case of the death of a 36-year-old father, Gadi Vichman, a Be'er Sheva man who was stabbed to death because he went to the park below his home to tell loud loitering youths to be quiet.
Personal security has always been the silver lining of the stresses and difficulties of living in Israel. “I know it sounds crazy,” I’ve explained to overseas friends in the past, “But one of the big perks of the Middle East is how safe it feels.”
Yes, we’ve had to worry about terrorists and wars. But we didn’t have to worry about getting mugged. In major cities in the U.S. and Europe I always have my guard up and considered walking alone late at night to be reckless behavior. By contrast, I’m used to walking the streets of Tel Aviv at odd hours, and have never felt threatened, even in low-income neighborhoods. Unlike cities in the U.S., in Israel, I never equated "poor" with "dangerous," either in the Jewish or Arab sector.
Violent crime has been so rare that when heard that violence wasn’t perpetrated by a terrorist, that it was "only" a criminal attack, people reacted with relief. Especially when the parties involved were “familiar to the authorities” - code word for hardened criminals.
But at least with terrorism, with political and nationalist violence, there is some kind of explanation for the tragedy, some kind of meaning behind the loss and some form of signpost for a possible solution or resolution. But what do you do when the violence has no meaning? Israelis are less experienced in coping with senseless shootings and stabbings; tragedies that occur because people happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or because they make one foolish move. The talking heads come on television, trying to ponder what has gone wrong. Insufficient police presence? An uptick in alcohol consumption? The presence of the foreign workers on the streets? The economic climate? The failure to impart values in schools? The random explanations sound like a guessing game.
For those of us with kids, the most troubling trend is the young age of some of the perpetrators and the victims of the violence, like the recent murder of a 17-year-old in Rehovot by his peers.
The assumption of safety has created a culture in Israel where teenagers are regularly out on the streets until all hours unsupervised. Curfews are a rarity, and when they exist, a joke. During summer vacation, teens leave the house at 11 P.M., hang out all night and return the next morning, when the rest of the world is getting up for work.
In my sleepy community of Ra’anana, like suburbanites everywhere, we parents reassure ourselves that our children are fine no matter how late they stay out; nothing truly bad can happen in our boring town. Boring is comforting. Boring is safe. I thought of this, exhaled, and relaxed as I drove across the town line on my way back from my excursion in the city. Seconds later, the midnight news update was broadcast on my car radio. The lead story: in Ra’anana, blocks away from my house, in the heart of supposedly peaceful suburbia, a 21-year-old soldier had just been stabbed.