A Neurotic Normalcy

Sara Lipton teaches medieval history at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, and is the author of "Images of Intolerance." A longer version of this article can be found at www.tomdispatch.com.

Our family and friends thought we were crazy to take academic sabbaticals in Israel. But we were undaunted. During the first intifada, we'd lived only steps away from the Old City in Jerusalem, and we never felt in any personal danger. We know how misleading TV news images can be and were curious to see how the country had changed in the 10 years since we'd last lived there.

One change became clear even during our planning. "You have to go to Tel Aviv this time," an Israeli friend told us, echoing the sentiments of many others. "Between the terrorists and the ultra-Orthodox, Jerusalem isn't livable anymore. In Tel Aviv you can lead normal lives." So we found our 12-year-old daughter a highly recommended public school, bought an airline carrier for our dog and left for Tel Aviv.

They were right. Life here is normal: bizarrely, disorientingly normal. When I buy a loaf of bread or a newspaper, the salesperson says chirpily, "Yom tov!" -- the Hebrew equivalent of "Have a nice day!" That's an improvement. In the more than three years I lived here during the '80s and early '90s, I never once heard a single "Have a nice day!" I don't even remember being smiled at by a salesperson.

Ten years ago, the main Israeli television channel seemed to broadcast Zionist history quiz shows two nights out of every three. ("For 10 points, In what year did Ze'ev Jabotinsky found the Jewish Legion?") Now there are sitcoms and soap operas and travelogues. My daughter's favorite movies are all playing in English, and her favorite flavor of ice cream (Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk) is readily available.

When I last lived in Israel, the entire country went rigid with suspicion in the presence of a hefetz chashood -- an abandoned package. Heaven help the poor student who forgot her backpack on a bus; before she knew it, the bus would be emptied of passengers and the bag would be surrounded by police and emergency workers. Now, I see pedestrians walk calmly past old suitcases heaped up on the sidewalk, or bulging shopping bags languishing in garbage cans. Terrorists don't leave their bombs behind anymore.

But the strangest thing of all about this once passionately, obsessively political country is that no one seems to want to talk about politics. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is under investigation for bribery, and I've neither held nor overheard a single conversation about it. In the three months that we've been here, a Palestinian government has fallen, the United Nations has debated a handful of resolutions against Israel, the prime minister of Malaysia has resurrected a hundred-year-old slander against the Jews, yet Israelis -- at least the ones we come into contact with -- seem to have nothing to say.

They still meet in cafes; they still have large, warm, food-filled Shabbat get-togethers; they still talk incessantly -- but now it's about kids, soccer, weather, real estate prices. One friend suggested the problem is sheer exhaustion. Israelis are tired of bad news, tired of bad governments, tired of failed hopes. And they're tired from the effort it takes to lead such "normal" lives.

In the last three months, we've gotten at least a small dose of what Israeli families have to do to maintain the veneer of normalcy. Before coming, my husband and I promised our families that we wouldn't take any buses and that we'd stay away from "danger spots." But how do you decide what's a "danger spot"? Do you tell your daughter not only not to take the bus but to skirt bus stops by 10 feet? Do you tell her to move away from the sidewalk if a bus happens to get stuck in traffic near her? Just wondering about such things makes me feel a bit like that poor friend-of-a-friend I've been told about who's so afraid of city streets and public places that he huddles in terror in his Haifa apartment surviving on takeout.

We've taken a different route. Like most other residents of Israel, we recite comforting mantras and formulate talismanic rules. "They've never attacked north Tel Aviv, so this neighborhood is safe." "Lightning never strikes twice in the same place, so Hillel Cafe is probably the best place to go." "The mall entrances are well guarded, so it's safe to shop there." The October attack on the Maxim restaurant in Haifa was deeply shocking, not only because of the dreadful toll it took in lives -- Arab and Jewish -- but because it broke all the rules. Haifa, a socialist-leaning town with better Arab-Jewish relations than elsewhere in the country, was thought to be relatively safe. Certainly, no one ever imagined that an attacker would target a restaurant of joint Jewish-Arab ownership.

I was in the Tel Aviv museum gift shop with my daughter when it happened, and somehow, instantly, everybody knew. The woman at the cash register cried silently. Most visitors -- my daughter and me included -- rushed home to turn on the news. And then, like most other people, we began to make up new rules to replace the ones that had been shattered. "Everyone knew Maxim was always crowded on Shabbat; better to stick to emptier restaurants." The armed guard hired by Maxim's owners was said to have been inside the restaurant when the bomber arrived: "Better make sure the guards are outside." My daughter doesn't feel frightened because her friends are not frightened. There's very little street crime here, and from an early age children learn to negotiate the city streets without their parents. The "situation" -- the euphemism of choice used when security considerations must be addressed -- has not changed that. Some parents still allow their kids to take buses; those kids who are aren't allowed share taxis.

Most children in Israel over the age of about 5 -- our daughter included -- have cellphones. No one in my hearing has ever articulated precisely why, but I suspect it's for the same reason that we've come up with: "Just in case." However irrational, as long as my daughter can call me and I can call her, I can "calmly" go about my daily routine.

Sometimes all this normalcy seems perverse, an accessory to bankrupt policies and untenable positions. I want to stand up and scream, "Why do you put up with this? Why don't you rise up in rage?" But I look at my friends and I think I understand. Israelis' lives are like an exhausting, draining, all-consuming balancing act, and the last thing someone walking a tightrope wants to do is look right or left. Much less start shaking the wire. Even fervent supporters of the peace process seem reluctant to rouse themselves, afraid of having their hearts broken yet again, or of causing the tensions simmering within Israeli society to explode into a full-blown firestorm.

In spite of everything, my family and I are happy to be here. Fall in Tel Aviv is like a perfect New York summer. Our friends are warm and welcoming, my daughter is rapidly soaking up a new language, and this is a lively, stimulating, and -- yes -- safe city. But every once in a while, I do find myself wondering who's crazier: that poor friend-of-a-friend paralyzed with terror in his apartment or the group of friends we meet at the local hummus joint after our kids' youth group every Tuesday night.

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