Tel Aviv Diary December 29, 2002 - Karen Alkalay-Gut

The names of the 4 boys killed last night in otniel- when two terrorists entered the kolel anf began shooting have not been released. The 7 wounded have not been announced either. i assume it's because of the sabbath and the names will come tonight. Two hours before the bloodbath a few Israeli intellectuals were discussing terrorism on television. I took a break of some pretty amazing festivities (mote later) to watch them - These were mostly theorists like Ruth Gavison and Shlomo Avineri and I am very used to their careful abstension from opinion - but this time they were asking questions like when has there been an example of suicide terrorists operating on civilian populations. Hmm. No precedent. Now here in the Holy Land during the time of the crusaders there were a bunch of suicide warriors who took Hashish and then swept down from Beaufort castle onto the road taken by the Crusaders and attacked. The word assassin of course comes from there. Then there were the Kamikazi in WWII - but they also attacked only military targets and there has been a lot of discussion lately about the fact that these were very young boys and they were not given a choice - no landing gear for one. (We've discussed this before, I know). But there has never been a war on civilians before these past two years.

This we know - what I may not have considered in the past is that when there have been attacks on civilians - suicide or not - the government or movement or people behind it have condemned these attacks as immoral - always. when there were wrongful attacks on Palestinian citizens by Israel the Israeli people have mourned - not necessarily because they are sorry for the people killed but because they measure themselves against a moral yardstick and find themselves wanting.

Recently there have been some discussions of Fatah and even Hama stopping terrorist activity - why - because maybe its not working as well as a more peaceful mien may. No one Arab leader has condemned attacking Israeli citizens as immoral. This is what the experts said. Could it be true? I can't believe it. But there I was in the middle of a blissful vacation in the Dead Sea still wondering if i was going to be next. or who else would be next.

What does a vacation at the Dead Sea mean? Well every couple years I go there and promise I will come back every month from now on. Three years ago we drove down in less than 2 hours for the day to the spa - it cost something like $10 to get in and there were sulphur baths, hot springs, and - my personal favorite - mud baths. The closed off sections for men and women allow you to cover yourself in mud all over and bake dry in the sun. The sun, the air, the minerals, all make you feel wonderful - and the atmosphere is cut off from the world - somewhere lower down than human troubles.

Two years ago when we went for a weekend with Ezi's company, the drive was already much longer, because the shorter road goes through the outskirts of Jerusalem where and some people were killed by snipers on that road. So we went through beersheva and that took another hour.

It was a pretty rotten trip for other reasons - bad hotel - bad service - bad atmosphere - bad food - bad entertainment. The Carleton hotel I think ti was - was going through a bad transition - all the foreign tourists had disappeared and the Israeli tourists who came in their place were nervous, demanding, noisy and irritating.

This time we went to a homey hotel run by the national health service.

I wasn't expecting to like it. For starters we got stuck in traffic coming out of tel aviv because of a suspected bomb on the road and then on the way down to the dead sea we were caught in a desert thunderstorm. the thunderstorm was wonderful. lightning in the desert has no end. but it was dangerous.

anyway by the time we got to the hotel we were very tired and the small crowded lobby did not help my mood - or the little room with its two narrow beds meant for religious couples (who have to separate when the woman is menstruating). There were a lot of religious people in the lobby i then realized - women wearing what Ezi calls inverted chamber pots and men in black hats. But strangely enough there were also a large number of Russian families. the combination of the religious and the antireligious was strange - what will the three groups do together in the evening with such a small lobby i thought.

Sometimes I worry for nothing and sometimes I know how to spot trouble.

This time I was even more alerted when I spotted a tall thin black man moving hooded instruments towards the small stage in the lobby. How will the audience relate to someone like him... And when he began his program (we were a captive audience - it was pouring outside and there was nothing else going in the hotel)and introduced a zaftig russian singer as his partner i began thinking that even a book might be better than this. even a book.

then he began to interrogate the audience in a number of languages about which they speak - and at long last and with great surprise and joy found a common ground in hebrew. this surprise of a common ground was the first step - with each song this unnamed wonder brought suspicious, sophisticated people closer together - by the end of the evening he had all of us dancing hora and singing religious songs. we had all gone through an evening of disco, arabic dancing, greek dancing, mizrachi dancing, tango, mambo, rock and cha-cha - learned about all our anniversaries and birthdays and troubles with our parents and children and spouses - and we did it all together.

Since there is a new series of promos on television promoting mutual understanding and cooperation, and there is an obvious need for it in our country - it was a great joy to see it work.

December 30

the morning after the rains we took jeeps through the Judean desert to see the sudden desert growth. Sodom. Gemorrah. The usual. And pretty spectacular. The Bible and history peaking from the caverns. Maybe I'll post some poems later. I don't like spontaneous poems.

The evening was given to a sing and dance along _ something else i usually hate. Just before we went to shabbat dinner we heard the news of the terrorist attack at otniel - young men blown up and shot during their shabbat celebrations. no one said anything about it. but the atmosphere at the dinner and the sing along was ebullient - raucous - by 1 in the morning people were dancing groupdances from kindergarten and singing lullabys in ladino. a total escape into the past and more important a reaffirmation of identity. songs about peace, about loss, about love. there are no songs about revenge in our society, but we sing the songs about survival with a vengeance.

The morning after I went back to Tanya the masseuse (joints, back, etc). The day before I had tried to engage her in conversation and found her reluctant. This time I was determined. the day before i had elicited monosyllables: where are you from - kiev. how long have you been here - 3 years. why did you come here - i always wanted to come here but my husband didn't. he finally broke down.

this time i went for the personal - she told me she has a problem with languages - her memory is not good - ever since Chernobyl. She began to tell me of her family in Kiev and the results of the nuclear fallout.

Slowly I began to realize why she came to israel - to live in a country that doesn't lie to her.

Even from a massage I emerge more patriotic.

December 30, 2002

I'm afraid I may have damaged my computer from all the schmaltz in yesterday's entry. what luck that i don't read it.

Last night on the program I sometimes participate in - Laila Laila - the five people sitting around the table discussed the corruption in the Likkud elections with great glee. Ehud Manor, Tali Lipkin-Shahak, Haim Beer, Edna Mazia, and Alex Libek. They are all people I consider 'friends' and i could very well have been there. They were speculating that this exposure (a great sign of democracy) might be the beginning of a political revolution, that people who had been vascillating about voting for Sharon would now realize the lies at the basis of the political system and would move left. Apparently people started sending in warning faxes because they were told to change the subject - this might be the end of the program, they laughed. But my concern was that we as a group are certain that time will bring every one over to us. There was no dialogue or presentation of facts. For example, I would be very interested in a detailed analysis of the economic damage done to Israel by the policies in the past 2 years - the economic damage. Notice i assume that Likud has destroyed the economy - but how? I don't seem to be as worried about these crucial details.

I find it impossible to engage in a discussion about nuts and bolts at all, just like my friends. When I asked my hairdresser who he was voting for he said Shinui and I said - fascists. That was the end of the discussion. I was very wrong.

Not only because I closed off the possibility for dialogue. But also because I just gave up on the facts in advance. And the facts are all over the place. are available on the web. for example, Naomi Blumenthal's expenses last year: click here . Wasn't that easy. So why am I not better informed?

On the other hand, the human details overwhelm me. Think of the terrible attack Friday night on the Yeshiva in Otiel. Noam Apter is in the kitchen getting ready to serve dinner to his dancing colleages in the other room along with 3 other 'waiters' when the terrorist break in with grenades and machine guns. What would you do? I think of this 20 year old boy who automatically runs to the doors to the dining room and LOCKS THEM so his friends will not be killed. It was certain death for him. His selflessness in the face of the 'selflessness' of the terrorists is constantly before me. HE will always remain a real hero for me - and I will always measure those who murder in the same of selflessness against him.

December 31, 2002

So the program was cancelled. Here I'd been thinking all week about what kinds of issues to raise that might help people think and investigate their lives and their potential further, and channel 8 decided to stop the program.

Did they have bad ratings? I doubt it. Too many people told me they saw it. Was it interesting? Debby said it was just like having people over for coffee without the washing-up. So why was it cancelled?

Well, it's a new year and new programs will come up.

The news about this new year is very uncertain. War? Peace? I may be one of the few people who think that everything is still possible. While we train our children in how to put on a gas mask and inject atropin, the possibilities of the Labor party waking up and influencing the political and economic direction here is greater than it has been in years. Their economic program is good - solid. It faces the fact that our crisis is based on the military policy, unlike Likud whose economic platform ignores both the economic crisis and the military one. Also I still believe that the economic designers of the likud are going to be implicated in all the corruption and buying of votes in the primaries. So their credibility will disappear. Let's see. We can get back to this in a month.

For now it is the last day of the year. Three years ago - on New Years' Eve I was so weird and blase that when the Canadian Radio Program "as It Happens" called (as they used to - nobody ever calls me any more....) and asked how we were celebrating the Milennium I told them about Shlomzion's idea... Wait - I'll send you to the poem about it. You'll love the idea! it's here. Oh God I just read it - it is so accurate - maybe not a great poem but such an prophetic one.

I was looking for a photograph of the event - we actually videoed the whole thing - but while i was looking for it i found something more compelling for today - my father's pass to sleep in the underground in london during the blitz. Maybe this picture is more to the point:

This is a reminder of how life CAN be - And London was my parents' REFUGE yet.

Notice the attention paid to detail in the instructions - as if obsessive perfect obedience could save you. I will keep this in mind.

Happy New Year!

January 1, 2003

There are many ways I would like to change the world and the government. Most of them are the standard ways. But one is totally off the wall. Still, I can't stop thinking about it. I would like to have elections where people run on the basis of their character. Not policy - because flexibility is often necessary, and the world changes every minute. I'd like to vote for nice people. Of course they have to be smart too, but niceness is a major plus. People who get along with others are definitely better leaders than people who don't - no matter how smart they are.

Tomorrow I'll probably regret having said this, and revealed the extent of my absolute naivity.

I regret it already.

My Israeli friends looked at each other when i began - half in jest - to suggest my theory, and changed the subject. Not completely - they began to imagine what the next parliament will really look like. With all the stupid people who are in line for seats when the Likud gets in.

But let's go back to my model. I would put Aryeh Deri in my government. I would. A crook but a good man. Naomi Hazan definitely. Tamar Berzhansky. Yael Dayan. Maybe Azmi Beshama (How could I say that? He doesn't even believe in a Jewish State! Yes, but he does believe in humanity. Dan Meridor. I'd bring back Lipkin-Shahak. of course Mizna (even though Barak seems to be trying to screw him). of course Peres. Of course Ofer Pines.

All right, there are kinks in my theory.

January 2, 2002

Kept thinking about a fantastic Margaret Atwood poem a student introduced in class today:


Confess: it's my profession

that alarms you.

This is why few people ask me to dinner,

though Lord knows I don't go out of my way to be scary.

I wear dresses of sensible cut

and unalarming shades of beige,

I smell of lavender and go to the hairdresser's:

no prophetess mane of mine,

complete with snakes, will frighten the youngsters.

If I roll my eyes and mutter,

if I clutch at my heart and scream in horror

like a third-rate actress chewing up a mad scene,

I do it in private and nobody sees

but the bathroom mirror.

In general I might agree with you:

women should not contemplate war,

should not weigh tactics impartially,

or evade the word enemy,

or view both sides and denounce nothing.

Women should march for peace,

or hand out white feathers to arouse bravery,

spit themselves on bayonets

to protect their babies,

whose skulls will be split anyway,

or, having been raped repeatedly,

hang themselves with their own hair.

These are the functions that inspire general comfort.

That, and the knitting of socks for the troops

and a sort of moral cheerleading.

Also: mourning the dead.

Sons, lovers, and so forth.

All the killed children.

Instead of this, I tell

what I hope will pass as truth.

A blunt thing, not lovely.

The truth is seldom welcome,

especially at dinner,

though I am good at what I do.

My trade is courage and atrocities.

I look at them and do not condemn.

I write things down the way they happened,

as near as can be remembered.

I don't ask why, because it is mostly the same.

Wars happen because the ones who start them

think they can win.

In my dreams there is glamour.

The Vikings leave their fields

each year for a few months of killing and plunder,

much as the boys go hunting.

In real life they were farmers.

They come back loaded with splendour.

The Arabs ride against Crusaders

with scimitars that could sever

silk in the air.

A swift cut to the horse's neck

and a hunk of armour crashes down

like a tower. Fire against metal.

A poet might say: romance against banality.

When awake, I know better.

Despite the propaganda, there are no monsters,

or none that can be finally buried.

Finish one off, and circumstances

and the radio create another.

Believe me: whole armies have prayed fervently

to God all night and meant it,

and been slaughtered anyway.

Brutality wins frequently,

and large outcomes have turned on the invention

of a mechanical device, viz. radar.

True, valour sometimes counts for something,

as at Thermopylae. Sometimes being right --

though ultimate virtue, by agreed tradition,

is decided on by the winner.

Sometimes men throw themsleves on grenades

and burst like paper bags of guts

to save their comrades.

I can admire that.

But rats and cholera have won many wars.

Those, and potatoes,

or the absence of them.

It's no use pinning all those medals

across the chests of the dead.

Impressive, but I know too much.

Grand exploits merely depress me.

In the interests of research

I have walked on many battlefields

that once were liquid with pulped

men's bodies and spangled with exploded

shells and splayed bone.

All of them have been green again

by the time I got there.

Each has inspired a few good quotes in its day.

Sad marble angels brood like hens

over the grassy nests where nothing hatches.

(The angels could just as well be described as vulgar

or pitiless, depending on camera angle.)

The word glory figures a lot on gateways.

Of course I pick a flower or two

from each, and press it in the hotel Bible

for a souvenir.

I'm just as human as you.

But it's no use asking me for a final statement.

As I say, I deal in tactics.

Also statistics:

for every year of peace there have been four hundred

years of war.

copyright 1995 by Margaret Atwood

Now I hope I'm not violating any copyright laws by reprinting it - it comes from It's just that in some ways it is so much like what i try to do sometimes here.

only better of course.

Today. What happened today - the body of some guy who used to sell clothes to the Palestinians was found. This hasn't happened lately because most people have learned that even if they had been dealing with Palestinians for years, they can't do it any more. A number of people have been killed this way. Hamas proudly announced it before the family even realized something had gone wrong. he was 70 and had 9 kids.

Today. Some tidbits. Bishari's Balad party was outlawed.

A Swiss family was invaded by a terrorist - but the husband managed to overcome him. He had a kalachnikov and lots of ammunition. could have done lots of damage. we have more luck than brains.

the trilingual student anthology continues to grow. but dialogues among Arab-Jewish students seem to continue to diminish.

A number of people in Likud are to be indicted for bribery during the primaries. One Labor member too. I think the labor accusation is a misunderstanding.

I think i've given enough background for my rotten mood.

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