This piece was contributed by a CAMERA Israel Trip alumnus. It was also published in The Jewish Press. Originally from Portugal, the author, Romeu Monteiro, is now a Ph.D. candidate at Carnegie Mellon University, and is a dedicated pro-Israel activist and writer.
Jerusalem is known as the City of Gold because of the way the sunlight reflects on the white stone facades, especially at sunset. It is a beautiful, bustling city. Just by watching it breathe and live one can hardly imagine the dark memories it stores.
“Kids today, they can do everything they want,” Neta told me as we were having dinner in a Jerusalem veranda at sunset. “They can take a bus, go to the cinema, to the concerts. In my days we could not do any of that. In Israel, 10 years ago, a teenage rebel was the boy or girl who boarded the public buses. Or went and sat in coffee shops. Our lives were like Russian roulette. You never knew which bus was going to explode.”
I remember watching the news in Portugal 10 years ago. The TV would show news on suicide bombings happening again and again in Israel. It was dramatic and yet just another episode of Middle Eastern violence. Listening to Neta’s first-hand experiences in Jerusalem was the exact opposite.
“It was 2003. I was 17 and was on line number 14 here in Jerusalem, my hometown. I had just broken up with my high school boyfriend and was mostly thinking about that when my cell phone rang. I picked it up and saw he was calling me. Things had not ended well between us and I thought perhaps he was calling to apologize. After a few short words he asked where I was. When I answered that I was on the bus he immediately demanded I get off. It was the time of the Second Intifada and every couple of days there was a terror attack in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. I started arguing with him but he kept insisting until finally I got off. It was not long until the bus exploded. A suicide bomber exploded himself killing and wounding dozens of innocent people. I found out when my phone rang once again. This time it was my family asking where I was. Today I am 28 and every time a bus drives near me my heart shrinks and in my mind I see the bus exploding.”
In my mind I feel privileged. I do not know what it is to have to choose between not living life and risking not having a life to live. Actually, I do know that every day I choose to live I risk my life. Death happens around us constantly. The real problem is that there are certain ways of dying we cannot accept. Accidents and diseases are horrible, but they are an unavoidable part of life. They are inherently fair. But it is never fair when someone decides to take the destiny of random people into his or her own hands and play god with life and death.
Mila told me one day when we were both studying in Pittsburgh, “When I was in the 11th grade my classmate was murdered by a suicide bomber on a bus.” She did not elaborate and I did not have the chutzpah to ask for details. Israelis have this ability to talk about horrifying events in brief and dispassionate ways, as if years of terror and war made it all too banal. Later I did ask her to share that story.
“It was Wednesday, March the 5th, 2003. Suicide bombing attacks were almost part of the routine back then. They were happening almost every other day, and if a few days went by without one it seemed weird. People were afraid to go to crowded places: buses, shopping malls, restaurants. I was at a driving lesson with the radio on when the music was interrupted by breaking news reporting that a suicide bomber had just blown up on a bus line 37, in Merkaz HaCarmel in Haifa, a spot we had passed by moments before. The terrorist got on the bus in the early afternoon, knowing it would be packed with school students. My instructor and the other students in the car did not freak out. After all, this was not an unusual event at that time. I called my parents to let them know I was fine and the lesson continued. That night, when I was almost asleep, I received a phone call from a classmate with whom I was good friends. She said she heard that Daniel was one of those who were killed on the bus; he was on his way to pick up some paperwork for his driver’s test when the terrorist blew up his belt packed with 10 kilograms of explosives. But hearing it from her it was hard to believe, as she sometimes made up stories. And how could Daniel be dead? We were sitting next to each other in class; how could he not be sitting there anymore? The conversation ended and I knew she was not lying. After all, every person in Israel has their turn in knowing someone who died in a terrorist attack. That was my turn. The next day Daniel’s chair remained empty. The teachers were trying to play psychologists. I was probably not even listening to them. What would be the point? Nothing could bring him back. All I could think of was how unfair it had been.”
It was unfair and now it is even more unfair. The terrorists responsible for Daniel’s murder have been released: Israel agreed to release them and other Palestinian terrorists in exchange for one Israeli soldier who was kidnapped by Hamas and held hostage for over 5 years. Mila’s wish for justice keeps echoing in my head: “Why do the terrorists deserve to carry on with their lives while Daniel did nothing wrong? And what about Daniel’s parents who miss him every single day?”
My friend Ronit is also from Haifa. She is proud of her hometown’s ethnic and religious plurality. “Haifa is a beautifully mixed city. I grew up with coexistence on a daily basis. Religious Arabs, Christians and Muslims, riding the bus with me, waiting with me in line for the supermarket, studying with me at the University and enjoying the Mediterranean shores, just like me and my family.”
I love diversity and plurality, but I cannot imagine what it is to make a daily life knowing there is so much hate in the people you are trying to coexist with, in the minorities you are trying to treat equally. A degree of hate so deep that they might be plotting to kill you based on the circumstances of your birth.
“Our tolerant way of life was severely harmed during the Second Intifada, from 2000 to 2004. I was a teenager at the time. One day, I heard the terrifying sound of an explosion. One of Haifa’s leading restaurants, managed by a Jew and a Muslim, was bombed by a female terrorist who hid a massive bomb inside a baby cart. I cannot describe how terrorist attacks, many times aided by Arab citizens of Israel, destroyed our trust in our Arab neighbors and made it difficult to keep our belief in peace. I remember numerous times when I got off the bus 3 to 5 stops before the one I wanted because I saw a suspicious person coming up and feared he was a suicide bomber. Haifa had about 3 major and deadly bus suicide bombings that killed tens of citizens, many of them kids on their way to school. Honestly, until this day, 10 years later, I still look for the scary guy on the bus, as a precaution.”
The Second Intifada ended around 2004, as Israel built the security barrier between itself and Judea & Samaria, also known as the West Bank of the Jordan River. In its wake, the Intifada left more than 1000 Israeli civilians dead, many more maimed and wounded. Terror did not stop there, but a particularly horrifying chapter came to an end.
Walking the streets of Jerusalem recently I saw many buses. Buses filled with people. Each full bus a demonstration of the people’s renewed sense of security and hope. The passengers, Jews and Arabs alike, with their tired and bored faces after a long day of work, did not seem to share my enthusiasm with the overcrowding. And yet I could not avoid but smiling each time a crowded bus went by.
With each bus that passed me, I would make a private wish: May the people of Israel enjoy many more boring and overcrowded bus trips.