We’re calling it the Gaza War, or the Hamas War, so far. What the books will call it remains to be seen. But it was a Jerusalem War, too, with its own sad sort of wreckage.
We’d almost forgotten – the fury after the three kidnapped Jewish teenagers were found murdered, how gangs of Jews chased Arabs downtown on Ben-Yehudah Street. We’d almost forgotten that in their rage after the revenge killing of a young Arab man, Arabs destroyed the light-rail stations in Shuafat, the East Jerusalem Arab neighborhood where the boy had lived, essentially cutting themselves off from the rest of the city. When the municipality rebuilt the stations, thugs from Shuafat stood guard, preventing people from boarding the trains.
To the best of its unofficial ability, Arab Jerusalem seceded from the rest of the city. And plenty of Jews were perfectly happy to see it go.
Just over a decade ago, at the height of the Second Intifada, I met an Arab woman at work. A graduate student at one of Israel’s leading universities, she was interested in some of the same issues I was. Our friendship developed, and I mentioned to my wife how much I enjoyed the cultural bridge, especially at a time of such violence and fear. We had her over for a Shabbat lunch. One of our sons, then in middle school, had a friend over as well. When our Arab guest had departed, our son’s friend said, “Wow, I’d never met an Arab before.” This from a boy born and raised in Jerusalem.
It wasn’t entirely true, of course. He’d met Arabs before, or at least had seen them. They probably cleaned the floors at his school or stocked the shelves in the supermarket his parents used. He might also have been treated by an Arab doctor at any of Jerusalem’s hospitals or emergency clinics. What he meant was that he’d never met Arabs in a social setting, had never heard them opine on matters of substance.
In the ensuing years, it had sometimes seemed that things were changing. There’s a park in our neighborhood, where every Friday night, for years, the same young Arab men play soccer. Each week, we would walk past the park on the way to synagogue, and they would play. We spoke Hebrew or English, they spoke Arabic. We never actually spoke to them, or they to us, but their mere presence in that exclusively Jewish neighborhood felt like progress.
When Jerusalem converted the old British train tracks in the south of the city into a walkway/running path (akin to New York’s High Line), I started running there. And if I headed towards Beit Tzafafa, the closest Arab neighborhood, I would pass Arab couples walking hand in hand, and Arab women in traditional headdress with iPods and earbuds, jogging as well. We came to recognize each other. Still, we didn’t actually talk, but first we nodded, then some of us smiled.
When the light rail was launched, Jews and Arabs were suddenly commuting to work together. Not a lot of conversation, but more of a sense of a shared city. It was far from perfect, but it felt a lot better. So much better, in fact, that one could at least venture a hope that in a decade there might not be Jewish boys who could say, “Wow, I’d never met an Arab before.”
Then came this war. We walked to synagogue one Friday night shortly after it started, and my wife said to me, “Look at that. No soccer game.” The Arab players had vanished, and so far, have not returned. When I run in the still-cool Jerusalem mornings, the Arab couples and joggers are mostly gone. My friends who ride the light rail to work tell me that there’s hardly an Arab on board.
The wreckage extends far beyond Gaza, far beyond the Gaza-adjacent Israeli ghost towns to which many residents are still too frightened to return.
Not long ago, I got back from a run on which I’d seen no Arabs, and saddened, emailed my old friend. We hadn’t been much in touch recently, mostly because I’d changed jobs a few years ago. “Are you in the country?” I asked her. “How about a cup of coffee, in the midst of all this?”
She didn’t reply. But then, a few days later, I was online and saw the little green dot next to her name indicating that she was, too. So I pinged her. “Hi,” was all I said, knowing that she knew that I knew that she was there.
No response. I waited – maybe she was just away from her computer. Still nothing. I waited a fairly long time, then tried again the next day when, once again, I saw the little green dot. But I still got nothing back. She was out there, I knew, but that was where – at least for now – she was choosing to stay.
Everything here is different now, I realized, as I closed the browser; the sad, scarring wreckage of war haunts us virtually everywhere we turn.
Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jersualem. He is the author of “Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul” and “The Promise of Israel.”