Sayed Kashua Watches His Son's Old Classroom Burn From Afar

It was hard not to be in Jerusalem this week after seeing images of the charred classroom at my son's school.

I don’t know what it feels like to you over there, but from afar, during the holiday and shopping season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the events unfolding in Israel look really off-the-wall. Like a traveling circus in which the pole of the Big Top is wobbling and threatening to fall on the heads of both the clowns and the gaping audience.

The news about the regime in Israel seems like the cheapest kind of TV reality show – a bunch of people who want to stay in the game at any price, people with a special type of personality that made them want to be in the spotlight in the first place.

I’ve been in the United States for almost five months now, five months in which I’ve been reading the local press, and I don’t recall this kind of massive preoccupation with elected officials, not even in the midterm elections.

A perusal of the media outlets in Israel shows that the big story is the politicians. They’re the real celebs, the stars of reality shows, driven by quarrels, intrigues and sheer voyeurism. Well, maybe it’s time to ignore them? Maybe it’s time for the politicians’ photos to stop adorning the front pages, and for their inanities to stop leading off the evening news?

Still, these reality show participants are deciding people’s fates – not only of those citizens of Israel who are deemed more worthy and those who are unworthy. They are holding hostage an entire nation that is rotting in a “Survivor” series set in a vicious jungle, a whole nation whose people are extras with no control over the brutal rules of the format.

Maybe it’s time for the press to start running real stories, to start dealing more with the implications of the actions and decisions of the elected representatives, and to ask for responses only within the realm of the latter’s responsibility, leaving the tall tales of the cabinet ministers and the MKs to the back pages, amid the gossip columns where they belong.

But how can we ask that of court jesters – oops, I mean journalists – who have been hired by the royal house? And how can we expect people to pass up the tremendous ratings boost they get in return for a mess of pottage?

Still, despite the hullabaloo over there – while here the houses and the streets are starting to be decorated with colorful trees and lights – this week was the first time since I left that I was sorry not to be in Israel, more specifically in Jerusalem. On Sunday all I wanted to do was to take my son like I used to, to hold his hand and escort him to his classroom in the bilingual Hand in Hand school.

There were images of the small, burnt chairs there, of the coats the first-graders always forget to take home at the end of the day, even though the parents always tell them to. The all-too-familiar letters of the alphabet in Hebrew and Arabic, some of which fell off while others, blackened, remained stuck to the boards with magnets.

I so much wanted to hold my little son’s hand very tightly and, together with the other parents, take him to the burned building. I was so sorry that I couldn’t stand there alongside the administration, the teachers and the parents on Sunday morning, and smile at the Jewish and Arab children as they entered the school; a false smile like you sometimes use to lie to children in distressing situations, a smile that says there’s still hope, that going to school together is allowed, that one day we will be truly equal.

I tried this week to bring to mind the innumerable mornings on which I escorted my kids to school, only to be greeted there by graffiti scrawled on the wall: “Death to the Arabs.” The guard, Guy, was well-practiced in painting over the slogans that wished death on my children. I smiled at my son then, too, and held his hand tightly when he read – in the Hebrew he learned to recognize just like Arabic – the slogan that became routine for the schoolchildren and for the parents, who wanted only to reject the rules of separation and tell their children a fairy tale in which Jews and Arabs could hope for a happy ending.

But now it doesn’t really matter – not the burning of the school, not racial laws, not the millions of Palestinians who are being held in Israeli captivity. Now we’re headed for an election, now the three-ring circus is getting underway. It’s always a stunning event, in which everyone who is anyone in the local entertainment industry takes part. Soon it’ll start: intimidations, threats, grim smiles, unrequited loves, old hates and lots of juicy betrayals.

There won’t be any surprises after the balloting – favorable surprises, that is. The election will be between “Zionism and extremism,” as outgoing minister Tzipi Livni put it.

What exactly is Zionism? Am I supposed to wait, fingernail-biting tense, until the election and hope that Zionism will triumph at last? Am I supposed to hope that Ze’ev Jabotinsky was right, not Rabbi Meir Kahane?

When I think about the Arab MKs, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry – not to mention the Palestinian Authority, the European Union and the Americans.

It’s insulting and sad that a country that took momentary fright because it might have entangled itself is deciding to take a time-out, to put a spoke in its own wheels in order to divert attention from the main thing.

So, we’ll blow a little smoke in their eyes in the form of an election. That will spare us temporarily from having to waste time dealing with negligible matters like boycotts for practicing apartheid, discrimination, poverty, Jewish nation-state legislation and the burning of schools.

That’s the way it is with elections. Sometimes they turn out to be the only good thing about democracy.