By Rabbi Jonathan Greenberg
Today is the tenth anniversary of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem that killed 11 of my neighbors, forced my school to cancel classes and send my classmates home, and forever changed my understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On the evening of March 9, 2002 I was sitting in my apartment listening online to the last minutes of the Indiana-Iowa basketball game in the Big Ten Tournament when a loud explosion shook the building. Realizing that the explosion had been no more than a few blocks away and that it had come from the direction of my then-girlfriend’s apartment, I called her. When she didn’t answer, I ran out of my apartment in the direction of the sound.
As I rounded the corner of Keren Kayemet and Ben Maimon into Kikar Tzarfat, I heard screaming and shouting. I saw police lights and smoke. I ran down Ben Maimon toward my girlfriend’s apartment on Derech Aza until I came to the intersection of Ben Maimon and Aza and saw that our neighborhood café, Moment, was gone. In its place stood a heap of twisted, smoldering metal, shattered glass, and pieces of tables and chairs. My neighbors – dozens of them – were being attended to by military and civilian medical personnel.
Later that night, after confirming that all of our classmates were alive and accounted for, I took a walk with a friend to see the site of the attack and we got there in time to watch as the men from ZAKA, the rescue and recovery workers who make sure that every bit of victims’ remains are gathered for proper Jewish burial – scoured the site. It’s gruesome work, as you can imagine. But the love and care implicit in this act – chesed shel emet, the truest form of kindness – was an island of beauty in a vast, awful ocean of butchery.
Ten years later, I can close my eyes and see it. I can smell it. I can hear the screaming and the chaos. I can feel the shockwave of the blast. That night, I sent this email to my family and friends:
A few hours ago, a large bomb destroyed Moment, a popular cafe across the street from the Prime Minister’s residence here in Jerusalem. As many of you know, I live about two blocks away near the YMCA. I and my classmates are fine. So far, eleven are known dead and over 50 wounded. Also tonight, three gunmen opened fire on a crowd of people out for Saturday night in Netanya (between Tel Aviv and Haifa). In that attack, so far, one is known dead and over 50 were wounded.
All my classmates are accounted for. All are fine. Those of you who have friends in our class will know that three of my classmates live directly across the street from the cafe…mere yards away. ____ is in Istanbul. _____ and ___ are fine but, obviously, very shaken up.
Moment is a place I go/went frequently. It is on a street I walk down nearly every day. My girlfriend, _____, lives on the street. Many of my classmates live there. Things are very very bad here. I just don’t know another way to describe it. I’m just so very angry and worried.
I am dreaming about home. I’ll keep safe and see you all very soon. Meantime, I ask for you to pray for the strength of Israel and her people and for peace. J
The next day, my seminary cancelled classes. Our class fractured – some left immediately, some stayed for a while. I was single and childless and had a brother and a baby nephew in Israel so I stayed. At the time, I chalked up my decision to a refusal to be driven out of my own homeland. Today, with a wife and two small children, I can’t honestly say I would make the same choice. I hope I would.
As I look back on that time, I now realize that it was then that the reality of the conflict sank in for me: that Israel’s enemies have no interest in peace. That Israel’s enemies would rather murder young people sitting in a café than build the institutions necessary to create their own state. For Israel’s enemies, the conflict has become about hatred and revenge rather than about land and self-determination.
It was a hard realization for me. When I moved to Israel in June of 2001, I was a hard-core leftist. I believed in the Oslo Accords and the process that had led up to them. It took that night 10 years ago – it took watching them pick pieces of my neighbors out of the bushes – to realize that there was a war on and that I needed to choose sides. 10 years ago, and every day since, I’ve made that choice. It was the right choice that night. It’s the right choice today. It’s an easy choice. I choose Israel.