I Am in the U.S., but My Heart Is in Jerusalem

Watching the violence back home, I recall the various ways we have learned to cope with terrorism since immigrating to Israel, and realize why this time it's different.

A Palestinian man attacks a Jewish man with a knife after ramming his vehicle into him, as a civilian security guard with a gun closes in. Jerusalem, October 13, 2015.
Screengrab / AP

I am in Florida visiting my parents, a trip I make twice a year. Normally, I enjoy the family time, meeting old friends, walking on the beach, shopping. But this time, it's different. My home, Israel, and in particular my city, Jerusalem, is under attack. I am physically here, but my mind, my thoughts, my heart and my fears are elsewhere.

My wife, Debbie, and I have lived in Israel since 1996. We arrived after the Rabin assassination, a time of intense soul-searching for Israel as a nation. Not long after, Palestinian terrorist organizations began the bus bombings of the second intifada.

Our three children were all enrolled in school in Jerusalem. Our son’s high school was on the other side of the city and his preferred method of traveling there was via the number 18 bus because it was the shortest commute. The Hebrew word for life, chai, has a numerical value of 18. As though they were intending to convey a deadly message, those directing the suicide bombers seemed to target this bus line more than others, and it appeared to us that attacks occurred more frequently on Sundays.

We made a “deal” with our son: He could continue to ride bus number 18, but not on Sundays. In retrospect, it was crazy, but we human beings tend to do whatever we can to feel as though we can live life “normally” – even when that means normalizing the abnormal.

Over the years, we Jerusalemites have experienced various modes of attacks – most recently, last summer, they took the form of missiles – but there has always been a feeling that despite its randomness, the violence could be held in abstraction. Reasonable precautions could be taken. There were risks, but our safety was not beyond our control. Our ability to internalize these rationalizations kept us moderately at ease.

The difference now lies in our perception of the violence. It is viscerally frightening to imagine falling prey to a knife attack. This image in our minds is very difficult, if not impossible, to compartmentalize. The unpredictability of these attacks causes an anxiety that is hard to control. Most of the attacks of the past week have been stabbings with knives. Every kitchen has knives. And men, women and children are all participating in the bloodshed.

Our revulsion to this method of assault is not solely directed at Palestinian perpetrators. We also felt disgust for the Jewish man who murdered Shira Banki at the Jerusalem Gay Pride parade in July. To stab another human being out of ideological rage represents a level of cruelty that for most people is utterly repulsive.

As I sit in Florida reading stories online about the attacks, watching a video of an imam in the Gaza Strip exhorting Palestinians to kill Jews and demonstrating how to do it with a knife, speaking more frequently with my wife back in Jerusalem, and hearing how her and our friends' daily lives have been radically altered, a voice inside me longs to be home.

I just bought pepper spray canisters to take back to Jerusalem. While they are unlikely to protect me or my family if we are attacked from behind, they will give us something to carry to feel as though we can somehow control our fate.

Yossi Klein Halevi, an American-born author, thinker and social commentator, has been quoted as saying that for many of us in Israel, depending on what is happening in our world, we wake up each morning to discover where we are in our national bed. On some days we wake up on the right side of the bed, sometimes on the left side. Predictably, I am getting up these days on the right side of the bed. I long for the blissful sleep of uncertainty where I wake up in Israel and discover where I am.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a member of the David Cardozo Academy Think Tank and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. The opinions expressed are personal and not representative of any organization with which he is associated.