Scenes from the Tel Aviv terror attack (this time)

Confusion seemed the order of the day in the minutes after a gunman had opened fire on a pub and a café on Dizengoff Friday afternoon, killing 2 and wounding 8 before vanishing without a trace.

Cop hitches a ride on a bike north on Dizengoff, in a mad dash to find the attacker. (Ben Hartman)

Cop hitches a ride on a bike north on Dizengoff, in a mad dash to find the attacker. (Ben Hartman)

A rumor caught wind – from a reporter, maybe, or a random cop – that a suspect had been spotted a few blocks north on Nordau, and plainclothes cops with assault rifles started to give chase. It was then that something I’d never seen before happened – a female cop with an M-16 hopped on the back of a civilian’s electric bicycle, as did a detective and then a third plainclothes officer, their assault rifles held high as they set off on a moderately fast, low-carbon footprint pursuit of a possible attacker further up  Dizengoff.

(It seems a bit formal to say they “commandeered” the bicycles. I think in America cops commandeer a vehicle, flashing a badge as they chase a bus that must stay above 50mph or it explodes. In Israel though? I’m pretty sure the cyclist sees the cop running to stop an attack and says nu, yalla and they head up the sidewalk.)

As a cameraman and I gave chase on foot, another strange thing happened. An empty #5 bus that had been abandoned further down the street past the police tape where its passengers got off and fled during the attack began driving up the street. It opened its front door and three reporters and two detectives jumped in, their colleagues pulling them in like they were hobos jumping onto a freight train. The bus keeps driving on the way to Nordau but stops after a block and everyone gets off, the detectives included.

Cops on Dizengoff using a faster means of transportation. (Ben Hartman)

Cops on Dizengoff using a faster means of transportation. (Ben Hartman)

The two officers – who said they are stationed in the West Bank District and just happened to be in Tel Aviv on Friday – don’t actually know where Nordau is, or what report they’re following. They ask this reporter what the story is and start running towards Nordau, only to double back.

They seem confused, but they’re trying.

Speaking of confusion, Friday wasn’t the greatest display in the history of the Tel Aviv District spokespersons either.

Their first message about shots fired went out on WhatsApp to crime reporters at 2:53pm, and then they went silent until 3:12, only to report that there were people shot outside a bar/restaurant/café and some were hurt. They added that paramedics were working the scene, and it’s unclear if it’s a terror attack or criminal.

The first comprehensive report (or something approaching such) went out finally at 5:52 pm, almost three hours later. Sure, it’s important in such hectic stories to be careful and know what you’re reporting, but they seemed lost, unable or willing to answer questions in real time.

That’s certainly not always the case, and in the last attack in Tel Aviv – the stabbing attack at the Panorama building that left two dead – the spokesperson’s branch did a great job and all but one reporter praised them in the WhatsApp group. The reporter (not their first time) dissented and was roundly shut down by the rest of the reporters.

I don’t know if to chalk up today’s failure to the mass confusion and the fact that the attacker hadn’t been caught (unlike in the Panorama attack), but there was something disconcerting about the whole display.

The attacker wasn’t the first one to get away in this recent wave of terror attacks, but that fact also bears noting. With all the talk about the increased police patrols and the spike in the number of civilians getting firearms permits, there was no armed person on the street at the scene when the shooting started, or apparently nearby. The attack was only a few blocks south of the police station on Dizengoff between Jabotinsky and Nordau, but still, the man was able to flee through the streets of the country’s busiest city on a Friday afternoon and vanish.

The city was already a bit slower than usual for a Friday afternoon, it bears saying. It was the morning after New Year’s eve and all day the weather had been cold and rainy, and there was even a bit of hail earlier in the day.

Still, even in the minutes after the shooting, there were restaurants and bars further up Dizengoff that were pretty full. One could say this affirms a Tel Aviv cliché about how “life goes on” and people “won’t give in to terror”, and they’d probably be right. I figure though you can get a pass on that when the shooter is still at large, especially if you already got the check.

This is probably the point where a writer would mention how close they were to the attack in the minutes or days before. Well, turns out I was actually right next door to the pub two days ago, joining a friend while he got his hair cut at this new hipster sort of lumberjack rockabilly barber shop. Going further back in time, it was a couple doors down from the place where my wife used to get her hair done and the café was years earlier the Café Joe, where my wife wrote her MA thesis on many busy nights back in 2007. A few doors down from there is Dizengoff 148, the building where we lived on the top floor, above the Ilka, and where we had all those rooftop parties years before everybody started having kids.

Why’s that matter? It doesn’t really, and truth be told, in a city as small and packed as Tel Aviv, it’s rare that an attack won’t be near some place that has some meaning to you if you lived here.

It’s part of what’s normal here – seeing your surroundings as being touched by political violence in the not too distant past or somewhere around the corner.

The feeling of a Friday night in the city with an attacker at loose and people saying they’ll stay at home also feels familiar from years earlier, but that will pass too.

It always does.

My father in the Marines

A bugler played Taps for my father a few minutes before he was lowered into the ground on a Friday afternoon last August.

PFC Lee E. Hartman Jr, 1963.

PFC Lee E. Hartman Jr, 1963.

I hadn’t seen the bugler, standing at attention near the overpass on Hancock Lane, just beyond the tree line that separates the Jews from the Gentiles at the Austin Memorial Cemetery. It startled me when he began to play – maybe the most searing, beautiful tune I know – and all I could do was smile.

That moment – shortly before Shabbat came in, a few hours before we drank late into the night at my childhood home – was a fitting tribute to my father, and in particular, to the man he was for a brief and fateful time in his young life.

My father enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in the summer of 1963, when he was a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Texas. He’d joined a Jewish fraternity (Tau Delta Phi) a year earlier and was busy partying his way to repeated stints of academic probation. The son of a doctor who lived in River Oaks, Houston (by way of Beaumont, Vidor, and Newton, Tx but still), he’d already been on scholastic probation twice when he decided to do something drastic.

The way he told it, he needed to straighten up and get right. He’d push himself through the fire and return to UT a changed man – a Marine. After his death, my aunt Marie told me how driven he was to prove something to himself and others, and since he figured the Marines were the most hardcore, the most unforgiving, the Marines it would be.

It wasn’t easy.

He was in basic training in the dead of summer from July to October 1963 in Parris Island, South Carolina, which he’d always described to me as a sweltering cesspool of swamps and pain far beyond the grace of G-d. In one of his letters home, he wrote about how it reminded him of Wynne Farm, the prison farm outside Huntsville, Tx where my grandfather was the resident psychiatrist and a physician for 3 years. For my father, it was no exaggeration to compare Parris Island to a penitentiary.

Like a prisoner, soon after he arrived my father began plotting his escape. In one letter home early in basic training he talks about how the “Great Escape” will play out. Others have tried and failed in the past, but Lee Hartman Jr, he knows the way out. You see, most people who try to escape make the mistake of heading over the hill and down into the swamps, where they get caught. According to Lee Jr, “I’m one of the few who has figured out the only way to get away and it has proven sure-fire in the past.”

The letter gives no further details though of the way out. As for what he planned to do after he got off the island and was pursued by MPs, he doesn’t say.

The escape plan is part of one of the early phases in his time at boot camp, which is depicted in 21 letters he wrote home to my grandparents, about half of them sealed in USMC envelopes stamped with the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. The rest are tucked into envelopes and written on stationary from the Jewish War Board, which he would fill out at weekly Sunday prayer service at a chapel on base.

The timeline shown in the letters should be familiar to countless men who have volunteered to serve in the Armed Forces. Initial optimism and excitement are followed by crippling shock and awe as he crashes to earth and realizes he has made the single worst mistake of his life by far. Then there’s the denial phase, where he seems to think of ways he could get out of it, how he could escape and the Marine Corps would never find him. Next begins a sort of begrudged acceptance, where he realizes that though he’s made a colossal error in judgment, he has no choice but to stick it out, even if it kills him. Next, there are the letters where he realizes he can make it, he can actually push through and finish. Finally, there is the sweet, triumphant letter where he says out loud that this is the finest day of his young life – he’s done it, he’s going to be a Marine, and no one can ever take that away from him, not even the Marine Corps.

His trials in basic training began almost instantly, when he failed to meet the basic physical training requirements and was sent to the corrective battalion – aka “the fat farm” – where he and the rest of the misfits tried to work their way back to their platoons.

He almost didn’t make it out of fat camp and was continuously sent back. In one letter he expressed real heartache at being separated from the guys in his platoon.

Maybe my favorite installment is the “breakthrough letter” from October 13th, 1963, where he finally realizes he’s going to make it – he’ll be a Marine. The redemption comes on the rifle range, in the form of his beloved M-14 rifle. A Marine is first and foremost a rifleman, and marksmanship can be the ultimate equalizer (this was the moral of the story, as my father told it, one that can be applied elsewhere in life).

In his letter home, the only one addressed solely to his father, he shared his unbridled joy:

“I qualified as an EXPERT RIFLEMAN with the M-14. Without a doubt it was the most thrilling and gratifying and certainly the proudest day of my life. It was a tight race for high shooter and unfortunately, I threw a couple of shots in rapid fire and finished in a tie for 4th place – but I was in the thick of it and am now recognized as one of “the high shooters of the platoon” – a very proud distinction. I was presented with my badge by the battalion commander (a Lt. Col. yet!)…When I came off the “big line” Friday, knowing I was an Expert I experienced feelings I’ll never be able to completely convey to anyone. First, I smiled and grabbed my rifle like it was my “one love” and kissed her and almost cried. That beauty means more to me than you can imagine. I’m really devoted to “Baby Doll” and grateful as hell for what she’s done for me. I’m only sorry that I’ll never be able to fire her again. The next two weeks until graduation are going to be more hell than all the others put together but now – I don’t care what they do to me because I know I’ve accomplished one thing truly worthwhile since I’ve been on the island….Show the letter and all the good news to mom and the gals – be sure to remind them that “little Jr.” is now a deadly, steely-eyed killer (hah!). PS. I saw a paper this morning outside the chow hall. From a glance I noticed that UT beat the piss out of OU, 28-7. That really makes this a memorable weekend!. Bye now, love – JR.”

His troubles were far from over though, and in subsequent letters he continues to dwell on his difficulties in the Corps,  and his great and ever-present fear that he will continue to fail the obstacle course and be dishonorably discharged, all due to a single obstacle he calls “the rib crusher”. At some point, reading through these I wanted to reach through the page and the faded ink, grab him by the shoulders and shake him, and tell him “calm down Hartman, just finish it”. I wasn’t there though and never have been, not at age 20, and not in the Marine Corps of the early 60s, a rough place indeed.

He also talks often to his parents about his friends back at the fraternity, asking them to drop a line to his buddies and send them his regards, saying that the 5 minutes he has to write letters is not enough for him to keep in touch with them.

He describes becoming closer to his Judaism, not only because of the tendency of the Marine Corps to put the fear of G-d in you, but also, as he puts it, it made him feel at home when he met other Jewish Marines, “even if aside from religion, we have little else in common.”

In a letter in August he talks about attending a breakfast held by the Beaufort, South Carolina congregation for the Jewish recruits, which was nice, but made him feel homesick. He also spoke of a lovely day attending Yom Kippur services with the rest of the Jewish recruits at the Mikveh Israel congregation in Savannah, Georgia, built in 1733 and one of the oldest in US. My brother Avi and I heard my dad tell this story a number of times. He’d mainly emphasized the bone-headed calculation the other recruits made when given the option to choose the reform shul or the conservative one. He said not knowing any better they figured the reform shul would be more liberal and have more young Jewish college girls in attendance, only to find a sparsely attended service of mainly elderly Jews.

There was a lesson there too, but maybe not a universal one.

Regardless, he found himself turning closer to religion, saying:

“On the island I have begun thinking a great deal more of these matters which in the past, I have neglected – that is, religious matters…Maybe it’s a genuine feeling or maybe it’s just that Parris Island puts the fear of god in you. I sincerely hope my renewed interest in my religion will outlive my time in the Marine Corps and will prove to be more than a mere crutch supporting me in times when I have nothing else to turn to or think of.”

Speaking of the fraternity, he talks about his dream of attending synagogue in Austin in uniform with his fraternity buddies, and then makes a rather humorous observation.

“I have learned a lot here about the real meaning of strength. Strength, I have found, is not brute, physical force alone. For instance, of all the boys I know back home, I think David Horwitz would be most likely to breeze through boot camp because he has agility, which is essential here.”

Horwitz, who I have known since I was a child, never struck me as the most agile guy, but I didn’t know him in his younger days. No other fraternity brother gets such a positive appraisal as a potential recruit, certainly not his old friend, country singer and folk hero Richard “Kinky” Friedman, who would probably still be in a military prison if he’d been at Parris Island  with my pop, or maybe still buried by a drill instructor somewhere in a swamp outside the base.

But amidst all his middle-class college Jewboy kvetching, there are moments where a real passion for the Marine Corps comes through, or at the very least a young man’s desire to put himself to the real test someday if duty called.

In a letter written on Jewish War Board stationary on August 1st 1963, he writes:

“Some of the guys got a glimpse of a headline about Korea and a headline about 2 US soldiers being ambushed. Rumors of course, spread, and you know how war talk is – well, we got to discussing the situation. Here is the shocker – almost half the boys I’ve talked to almost want a brushfire war like in 1950 – myself included. Whether it’s because we’d leave here in just 5 weeks and get 30 days leave or because we’re just nuts – I don’t know. At any rate, it’s an interesting phenomenon.”

Along with the love-hate relationship my father had with the Corps, there was also a sort of hagiography he had for the Marines. Like many “war babies” born in WWII with fathers in the service, he admired the military (especially his all-time idol Audie Murphy, one of the greatest heroes ever to come from Texas) and was an ROTC cadet and battalion leader at Lamar High School in Houston.

Still, a self-taught historian with hundreds of volumes of military history crowding our childhood home, it was the history of the Corps that seemed to interest him the most (I’d wager that of the Israel Defense Forces being in second place). He could recount a constellation of facts, anecdotes, and lessons learned by legends like Smedley Butler and Lewis “Chesty” Puller, and tales of valor won and lives lost from the “Frozen Chosin” to Khe Sanh to Veracruz. He also always relished any occasion to speak to a young Marine and swap stories, especially my cousin Rafael Geisler, a Lance Corporal who served his country with distinction in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of whom my father was very proud. (Rafi wore his USMC combat utility uniform at my father’s funeral, and saluted his uncle’s casket as the bugler played taps)

This appreciation was forged in part by the experience at Parris Island, and in a letter from mid-August he writes:

“Reading the accounts of Guadalcanal I more than ever realize the immensity of the reputation of the corps and the responsibility for upholding that reputation that has been fostered upon my shoulders. I’m just one man but 190,000 others like me have the task of living up to the heritage of the WWII and Korea Marines. Sounds a little gung ho on my part huh? Well to be perfectly frank, I don’t care for the Marine Corps but if the occasion ever rises in which I may be forced to submit to the ultimate sacrifice I want to do so as a member of the Marine Corps.”

He also relates how sometimes in physical training in the sweltering heat of boot camp, he’ll find himself humming the Marine Corps hymn, and thinking of battles like Iwo Jima and Tarawa and that “you would be surprised at the strength it gives me.”

Along with the moments of pride and newfound strength and spirituality, there is the humbling realization that there are many men who are simply better than he is at this and will always be. It’s a realization made clear to him by young men without his smarts or his education, who are excellent Marines and leaving him in the dust.

“Brains and education haven’t done me a damn bit of good, there are boys in the platoon with 8th grade educations who are outstanding marines. This is the first time I’ve ever been in an environment where intelligence counts for naught, zero, nothing.”

Lee Jr. may have been a bit hard on himself, but passages like this are part of a recurring theme of self-doubt and admonishment, as he tries to force himself through a desperately trying experience that he chose for himself.

There is also a theme of guilt and regret about his hard-partying ways and his failure to do right. In one of the letters home he penned a poem that he wrote during a low moment of boot camp, which Rabbi Neil Blumofe read graveside at his funeral.

             If all my yesterdays were yet to come, how glorious would my future be

            Vanished would be the trials and tears

            Which plagued my clouded past

            And no more would I weep upon the altar of my mistakes

            The gnawing pain of neglected opportunity

            The memory of a hasty rebuke

            The disgrace of a thoughtless act

            Gone forever the pains of the past

            If all my yesterdays were yet to come.

My father went to Parris Island only a few years younger than I was when I moved to Israel. Like him, I chose a strange and extremely challenging redirection that zero of my friends back home chose and most probably could not relate to. For both of us, this was a defining and life-altering experience, and the setting for so many of the stories we would tell in the years to come.

For my father these stories often dealt with hard ass wisdom imparted by drill instructors, such as the DI who told the recruits before a week of leave “don’t go home thinking you’re tough now, if Johnny could kick your ass before the Marine Corps, Johnny can kick your ass now” (sure enough, one guy came back with his arm in a sling after trying to fight his ex-girlfriend’s new love), or the one DI who looked over my dad as he stood inside a pit smashing rocks at fat camp, and asked him “this sure beats college doesn’t it Hartman?” Of course, there was also the story he told of the time when he was doing his reserves duty out on the west Coast in 1967 and news of the Six Day War came in. As he told it, standing inside a barracks full of Marine reservists, a sergeant called out from across the room “well Hartman, guess we won’t be going over to Israel after all, those Jews are kicking some ass!!”

While he eventually left Parris Island and infantry school at Camp Lejeune, I never left the island. Though the two experiences are radically different, I see something of myself at that age in his letters, something of the same struggle.

So often when we’d speak long distance from opposite sides of the globe, I’d relate what I was up to and the interesting and strange things I’d witnessed, especially after becoming a journalist. He’d often find it fascinating and would say “you’re so brave Ben; I could have never done this at your age.”

Truth be told, I could not have done what he did at age 20. I don’t believe I could have finished boot camp on Parris Island in 1963, leaving behind everything to push myself through such a severe and brutal challenge.

He never gave himself much credit for it, but it took courage and great willpower, especially after all the setbacks.

My father was fond of saying of his time in the Marine Corps that “I served in peacetime; I was never within a hundred miles of a shot fired in anger.”

That’s true, but when the Austin branch of the Jewish War Veterans of Texas heard that my father had been in the Marines they hastily organized an honor guard to be graveside the next afternoon at his funeral, complete with bugler and a US flag draped across the coffin. It was a very real and touching honor that would have moved my father very much. He would have been humbled and said he was undeserving, but I think inside he would have known that wasn’t true.

He only served in peacetime, but my father was proud to say he was a marine.

It was something no one could take away from him.

For all citizens, facing off against police is an uphill battle

If you’ve seen the video of the assault, you may have found the penalty for the officer left something to be desired. Underage Jewish settlers who are resisting arrest but posing no threat are beaten repeatedly by a well-armed border policeman who seems to have no regard for the young age of the victims or the fact that it’s all being caught on video.

The officer in this case, Mordechai Mehager, was sentenced in July to six months’ community service at the Armored Corps’ Memorial and Museum in Latrun, and even that was considered an especially stiff sentence by the presiding judge, who said “the defendant didn’t stop with a single blow, but instead struck with his baton again and again and also kicked [the complainants].

The defendant did not hurt only one person; rather he hurt three minors and caused severe injury.”

That incident took place almost a decade ago during the February 2006 eviction of the illegal outpost of Amona in the West Bank, but it came to mind last week, when a Border Police officer was sentenced to six weeks’ community service for beating 15-year-old Palestinian- American Tariq Abu Khdeir on July 3, 2014.

The case garnered international headlines last year not only because Abu Khdeir was an American citizen and a cousin of Muhammad Abu Khdeir – the Palestinian teen kidnapped and burned to death by Israeli extremists last summer – but also because of the images taken of Tariq after the beating, an awkward teenager with eyes and lips swollen and blue from the beating.

Last week, in the hours and days to follow, the sentencing was seized upon as clear evidence of a glaring double standard in the Israeli justice system, proof positive that in a Jewish state there is no reason for Muslim citizens to expect equal protection under the law, or for police to fear the consequences if they harm them.

That conclusion is understandable, but it misses a bigger picture that is potentially more troubling.

According to figures published in a report by the Justice Ministry in March, the ministry’s Police Investigative Department (PID) – tasked with investigating complaints of wrongdoing by police – reached indictments against only 116 police officers out of more than 4,500 claims filed by civilians. The ministry said that a third of the cases were closed without even launching an investigation after the complaints were found to be “incoherent” or without any indication of wrongdoing or “public interest.”

Another third were investigated but closed after they were found not to have a basis for a criminal case. In around a third of the cases they opened an extensive investigation, and in 732 of those, they questioned one or more officers under caution.

In other words, only around 16 percent of the complaints filed to the PID in 2014 resulted in an officer being questioned under caution. Of these, in 116 cases an indictment was filed. Once an indictment is filed, the conviction rate is very high, with 92 out of 116 cases resulting in conviction.

In their defense, the PID investigators tasked with following up these complaints must take into account what are often very complicated situations carried out in the very often dynamic and difficult world of police work. They have to piece together what happened where often the evidence at hand is little more than the testimony of a citizen versus that of a police officer.

Nonetheless, for the average citizen unlucky enough to be a victim of abuse at the hands of Israeli law enforcement, the statistics are not encouraging. Furthermore, the weak penalties even in cases where the incidents are caught on video and the abuse is plain as day, give the impression that even for those who are victorious, justice can be rather toothless.

There are some signs of encouragement though. A series of highly publicized sex scandals in the Israel Police this past year and the resulting public outcry have made the PID by some accounts much more vigilant in its investigations.

While in those cases the vigilance is in regard to complaints of sexual misconduct by female officers, nonetheless, it’s a potentially encouraging sign.

Earlier, this year, protests by Ethiopian- Israelis against racism and police brutality broke out after a video was published of an Ethiopian-Israeli IDF soldier named Damas Pakada being attacked by a police officer in Holon. The subsequent protests and rioting briefly captured the attention of the media and public, shining a light on abuse that an entire sector of Israelis had for years said was rampant. While the protests have long fallen off the front pages and among Ethiopian-Israelis there is widespread dissatisfaction with the results of the demonstrations, they nonetheless managed to bring the issue of police brutality to center stage.

Finally, as early as January, police say patrol and traffic officers are to begin wearing body cameras while on the job.

The measure is meant to safeguard both sides – police from complaints of abuse or from videos shot by civilians that don’t show the entirety of incidents – and civilians from police who now know that every interaction they have on the job will be caught on camera.

In the cases of the teens from Amona and that of Tariq Abu Khdeir and Damas Pakada justice of any sort would have probably been impossible without video evidence, though even with proof of wrongdoing, without proper punishment meted out by the courts little if any deterrence can be established.

While Arabs in Israel face a wide range of disadvantages and discrimination, to see the punishment for the officer who beat Tariq Abu Khdeir as simply a case of yet another double standard for Arabs in the Jewish state is to miss the wider picture.

Any civilian facing off against the police, the army or any other security agency – even with video evidence – is facing an uphill battle.

Variants of Vigilantism

It would be funnier if it wasn’t real life and the stakes weren’t so high: a vigilante who tried to lynch a terrorist is arrested by police and then set upon by a mob which now mistakes him for the attacker. That scene actually unfolded last Monday evening in Netanya, minutes after an attacker stabbed an elderly woman and was shot and subdued by police.

A mourners at a candlelit vigil for Eritrean Haptom Zarhum in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park on October 21. (credit: BEN HARTMAN)

A mourner at a candlelit vigil for Eritrean Haptom Zarhum in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park on October 21. (credit: BEN HARTMAN)

The vigilante – who in trying to get to the terrorist scuffled with police – was charged the next day with assaulting a police officer, but as it turns out, maybe there isn’t that much separating him from the rest of Israeli Jews.

According to a poll released last week, 53 percent of Israeli Jews believe that Palestinians who perpetrate terrorist attacks against Jews should be killed at the scene, even if they have already been subdued and no longer pose a threat.

The Israel Democracy Institute poll was based on 600 respondents, 70 percent of whom said that Israeli courts are too lenient with Palestinian terrorists.

Coming weeks after the fatal beating and shooting of an Eritrean asylum- seeker mistaken for a terrorist during an attack at the Beersheba Central Bus Station, the poll reveals that while there isn’t a universal consensus for summarily executing subdued terrorists, there is still a majority – a slim one but a majority nonetheless – that does not shy away from saying that they believe in killing enemy combatants who are taken alive.

This decrease in shame came to mind when watching a video last week of yet another incident of violence caught on tape in Israel.

Compared to the avalanche of snuff videos that has covered Israel since the stabbing Intifada began in early October, the images weren’t too impressive.

There were no knives, no cars slamming into bus stops, no frenzied attackers cut down by gunshots as they chase after victims. Still, the images were troublesome.

Roy Sharon – Channel 10’s correspondent for the West Bank – was attacked, insulted and shoved by a group of far-right extremists, until he and his crew left the scene.

Sharon was one of many journalists in the West Bank settlement of Givat Ze’ev last Wednesday to cover the planned demolition of a synagogue that the High Court ruled had been illegally built. The young men at the scene set their sights on Sharon though, calling him a traitor because of his past coverage of settlers and forcing him to leave. The presence of the cameras did not seem to deter them in the slightest from throwing rocks at a Jew and fellow countryman, much less a member of the press.

It wasn’t the first such ugly incident to occur recently. On October 8, Channel 2 reporter Furat Nasser and his soundman were assaulted by onlookers while reporting on a stabbing attack in Afula. Police took the case seriously and arrested the main suspect just a couple of days later, but there was still reason for concern.

Talkbacks online ranged from insulting the thug who attacked the soundman to questioning why Channel 2 had decided to send an Israeli-Arab reporter to the scene of a stabbing attack – the implication being that it was almost to be expected that such a reporter would be attacked.

The press has been a scapegoat many times in Israel, especially during times of escalation. The Second Lebanon War comes to mind, when the media were blamed for broadcasting sensitive information picked up by Hezbollah, if not for outright losing the war.

Still, the incidents in which journalists were attacked, and the cases of Hadas Shteif of Army Radio and Arad Nir of Channel 2, who were labeled “traitors” for comments they made online, perhaps are part of a wider theme during the knife intifada – that of a terrified populace with a failed leadership finding itself at war with “enemies within.”

The press in Israel – with the exception of Israel Hayom and outlets to its right – is seen as overly sympathetic to the Arabs and as agents of an even worse enemy, leftists. The backlash to the press can be seen in the comments online after almost any event, but it’s been particularly noticeable following a recurring feature of this wave of violence – the vigilante attacks and attempted lynches.

In these instances, the press is seen, at best, as a sort of killjoy trying – as part of an anti-Zionist agenda – to dampen the public’s enthusiasm, if not actively trying to make Israelis look bad for taking the law into their own hands.

In comments on Facebook and talkbacks on Israeli websites, the Left and the press are subject to virulent hatred and even calls to violence that, while they may not represent the majority of Israelis, certainly seem to no longer be solely the provenance of some lunatic fringe.

The vigilante actions of a number of civilians and security guards in the past two months have at times stopped attacks and served as examples of true heroism.

Along the way, though, there have also been cases of abuse and unnecessary violence whose images have been hard to shake, adding to the collective trauma of the recent wave of violence.

Watching these scenes of violence – especially the footage from Beersheba – there is a feeling that something primitive has emerged within the fear of the Israeli public. While most Israeli Jews were disturbed by the slaying of the Eritrean man and would not support random terrorist attacks on Arabs, perhaps there isn’t as much daylight between the hatred and celebration of violence in Palestinian society and that of Israeli society as we thought.

Considering these cases – and the celebratory talkbacks written by some Israelis in past cases when journalists have been attacked, or after terrorist victim and coexistence activist Richard Lakin died of his wounds last month, or after Palestinian school children were killed in a school bus crash in the West Bank in 2012 – perhaps there is less that separates us than we think.

There’s something of the night about this terrorist wave, something brutal, vicious and personal that may be with us longer than we think.

After the knives are put away

The uniforms and pistols make them look like police, but they aren’t cops.

They’re members of the Tel Aviv municipal public order patrol – set up by the city this past year to deal with public disturbances, noise ordinance violations, and petty quality of life issues.

A gun store in Tel Aviv. (Ben Hartman)

A gun store in Tel Aviv. (Ben Hartman)

After a terror attack in the city earlier this month and as the daily attacks known as the “Knife Intifada” continue across the country, the patrol members are now receiving firearms, to be force multipliers for police facing possible “lone wolf” attackers on the streets of the city.

In a Channel 2 item earlier this week, a group of municipal officers was shown receiving handgun training at a shooting range in Kfar Saba, as part of a fast-track process to arm them and prepare them to use deadly force. For many of them, it is the first time they have ever used a pistol.

The officers join an untold number of Israelis who have applied for or received new permits for firearms since the recent wave of terror attacks began. Early on in the violence, the Public Security Ministry said they had seen a “double-digit percent” increase of citizens filing requests for permits or applying to renew preexisting ones.

SINCE THEN, calls to arm have only grown. Armed civilians can potentially save lives, and so far in this terror wave, intervention by armed civilians has had a positive impact during a number of terror attacks.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has urged those with permits to carry guns, and has been photographed carrying an assault rifle while touring the city. Education Minister Naftali Bennett has taken to wearing a pistol tucked into his belt, even though as a minister he is provided with his own highly-trained, wellarmed security detail at all times.

The charge has been led by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who has introduced a series of steps since the knife attacks began in earnest to ease the permit process in order to get more qualified civilians armed and on the street.

This is a drastic departure from Erdan’s predecessor, Yitzhak Aharonovich, who helped finalize a series of new restrictions to limit private gun ownership and increase firearms safety, after a former security guard in Beersheba killed four people and wounded several others at a mass shooting at a local bank branch in the Negev city in 2013. The murderer – Itamar Alon – had a permit for the pistol through his former job as a security guard, a permit which was never rescinded and allowed him to legally attain and carry a firearm long after he had a job that required it.

After a single tragic and highly covered event, the spotlight was on Aharonovich and the ministry to take action, and they wasted little time doing so. A regulation that allowed people to maintain a firearm more than 10 years after receiving a permit was rescinded, as was a criterion allowing jewelry store owners to carry guns. The ministry also began to enforce a directive forcing security guards to leave firearms locked at their place of work after their shifts, a move that is owed in large part to the women’s rights group “Gun- Free Kitchen Tables” which highlighted the frequency with which women have in years past been murdered by their partners who were security guards with access to legal firearms.

Now it appears the tide has turned back in the opposite direction, and there’s no way to know how – if ever – these restrictions will again be tightened and these guns that are now out on the street will be safely locked away down the road.

AFTER THE knives are put away, what happens to these firearms? How many will eventually be stolen in burglaries or snatched from armed civilians on the street, making their way into the arms of organized crime families, petty criminals, and would-be terrorists alike? What happens with these unarmed policing units like the Tel Aviv public order patrol once things cool off? Police and other enforcement bodies don’t have a habit of disarming themselves; will they in this case? How many women could potentially be killed by their spouses with more licensed firearms on the street? According to figures from “Gun-Free Kitchen Table,” between July 2012 and July 2013, eight women were killed by partners who had licensed firearms because of security jobs. Since then, according to the group’s figures, there have been no such murders, as regulations forcing security companies to lock up guards’ gun after their shifts went into effect.

This is where gun rights advocates say that anyone who intends to kill will find the means regardless: you take away their guns, and they’ll use knives, their hands, anything that is available, the argument goes. Research has shown that that’s not quite the case, though. Crime and acts of violence are often opportunistic; the aggressor who loses his or her preferred means is less likely to commit the contemplated violent act.

The ministry said that since the current wave of violence started, they are fielding between 6,000 and 8,000 phone inquiries about firearms permits, as opposed to around 150 per day previously. Due to the skyrocketing demand and the still quite rigorous approval process, many – if not the majority – of the new applicants will only receive their firearms a month or two from now, potentially after the daily violence abates. Will they all then lock them up in safes until the violence returns? It’s not just firearms. Earlier this month the cabinet passed a bill that would allow the police to search anyone in a place deemed prone to violence if they have reason to think he or she may use a weapon, even without probable cause. The bill would mean police would only need “reasonable suspicion” that the person is about to commit a violent crime.

It’s unclear how this bill would be applied on the street, but any law legalizing searches with a lower standard of suspicion has the potential for abuse, violations of privacy, and possibly to be used as a means to search for drugs or other contraband under the cover of looking for weapons.

THESE ARE dangerous times and these are emergency measures – but emergency measures sometimes have a knack for becoming permanent after the cannons go silent.

The fear and anxiety we are experiencing today is justified and completely understandable.

Many feel helpless, targeted, and at risk, with no way of knowing where the next attack may come from or how to protect themselves and their families.

It has been years since there was this sort of public fear here, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. Nor should it be seen as simply a hysterical reaction fueled by the media and populist politicians.

Nonetheless, our nation seems to be lacking a confident voice that can calm the situation – a voice telling the public that we will weather this storm and there is no need to panic, that we have seen much greater desperation in the past and have always emerged victorious.

We also need someone with a vision about what happens the morning after, when a traumatized, terrified, exhausted nation starts to pick up the pieces.

Knife bait at the park – watching my daughter’s blind spot

Ask yourself: Could you fend off a crazed attacker armed with only a stick of sidewalk chalk?
My daughter - as seen from my guard post at Hayarkon Park (Ben Hartman)

My daughter – as seen from my guard post at Hayarkon Park (Ben Hartman)

Could you subdue a man with a knife, hold him until the police arrive, and give a man-on-the-street interview that will go viral? Most crucially, could you spend an hour and a half at the park with a group of toddlers, without checking your cell phone even once?
All these questions went through my mind on Tuesday morning, when it was my turn for guard duty at my daughter’s day care.
In light of the recent wave of stabbing attacks, a decision was made to keep the toddlers inside for the time being, and to stop the daily visits to the park. That was, until one father at the day care suggested last week that “as a remedy to continue normally, despite current events, to have one of the parents accompany the group when outside. This will allow the teachers to be with the kids without having to constantly look over their shoulders.”
Now, I’ve never been one to think that “maintaining normality” is a suicide pact, but he had a point. Kids, like plants, need sunlight and fresh air to grow. Also, locked inside a Tel Aviv day care all day they could descend into a sort of toddler “Lord of the Flies.” In this toddler dystopia my daughter would obviously emerge as a malevolent overlord of some sort. I don’t want her to turn out that way.
I was on board, and so were the rest of the parents.
The emphasis was on having the fathers put on guard duty as much as possible, though the moms would also suffice. My wife, eight months pregnant, received a pass, though she did offer that if she somehow managed to sit on a knife attacker she could save the day.
“Guard duty” may be an exaggeration. I’m unarmed (though I have a can of bug spray and a toilet brush at home, both of which I could use if needed) and have little, if any, self-defense training.
If I were intoxicated I’m sure I could pick a fight with a terrorist and then try to befriend him later in the night and bum cigarettes off him. But cold sober in the park on a Tuesday morning? My best bet is probably to be “knife bait,” to either run the other way with my daughter or fall on the attacker and hope he has a seizure.
In recent days, I try to size up my fellow civilians out in public. Will they be of assistance, will they fight back, will they run in the opposite direction forcing the attacker to give chase and allowing me to sneak away? Not to jump to conclusions, but I’ve been operating with the assumption that it depends on where you are.
A friend recently posted on Facebook that she was planning her daughter’s sixth birthday party at a park in the working class suburb of Bat Yam and was concerned about safety. I found that understandable, but also thought, at least in Bat Yam there’s probably a fair number of bystanders who know how to handle themselves in a knife attack.
In the tzfoni north Tel Aviv neighborhood around our daycare though? I’m less confident.
That said, in event of an attack at Park Hayarkon, there are potentially dozens of personal trainers and yoga coaches who could come to the rescue, overpower the attacker, and bind him in those bungee ropes I always see people training with in the park.
Being north Tel Aviv, after the attacker is subdued, he would be scolded, made to feel inadequate, unfriended on Facebook and then subjected to a series of furious Yelp reviews.
In the end, the first shift on guard duty went off without a hitch. My daughter was both confused and overjoyed by my presence during day care hours, and I got to spend the morning in the park doing something approximating exercise.
After Sunday night, when an asylum seeker in Beersheba mistaken for a terrorist died after he was shot and brutally beaten, my faith in fellow citizens facing an attack has ebbed somewhat. There’s an ugly side, a potentially murderous and disturbing potential that can rear its head when terrified, vulnerable people think they’ve turned the tables on an attacker. The chances of finding yourself in one of these events remains minuscule, but I find myself hoping it becomes even more so after Sunday night.
In the meantime though, I find myself doing what many residents are doing these days – keeping my head on a swivel, and hoping this all ends soon and I never have to do guard duty or be knife bait for a toddler again.

Deadly force in deadly times

The video that went viral in Israel on Monday left little room for debate. Three Special Patrol Unit police officers are standing outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, when one of them asks a young man for his ID and all hell breaks loose. The man, later named as Muhammad Ali, 19, from Shuafat, takes a knife and stabs the neck of one of the police officers and then jumps and stabs a second one, before he is taken down in a hail of gunfire and surrounded by at least nine officers training their guns on him.
Muhammed Ali stabbing cops during the attack at Damascus Gate. (CCTV screenshot)

Muhammed Ali stabbing cops during the attack at Damascus Gate. (CCTV screenshot)

 
The clip went public just a few days after footage of the shooting of a Palestinian woman in a separate attack in Afula began to make the rounds. In the previous clip, 30-year-old Nazareth resident Asra Zidan Abd can be seen holding a knife and a handbag, as several police officers surround her and point their guns at her. She continues to stand still, and within seconds several gunshots ring out and she hits the ground, badly wounded in the lower body and taken to hospital for treatment.
 
Though she was only wounded, she was not approaching the officers at the time of her shooting, which was quickly seized upon as an “execution” in the Arab sector and elsewhere.
 
The recent wave of stabbing attacks isn’t entirely new – there was a series of “ramming attacks” and stabbings last year – but this time they are much more frequent and many more of the attacks and their aftermath are filmed and go viral in Israel, with Israelis cheering their security forces and Palestinians mourning “the martyrdom of a shahid killed by Zionists.”
 
Even in the most clear-cut cases, the shootings will be criticized – especially by those who feel the terrorist attacks are justified; by fringe types who claim that the attacks aren’t even taking place; by those who claim that it’s open season on Palestinians who are being gunned down for no reason; and by those who call the stabbings Israeli “false-flag” operations. This is obviously discounted by the figures – which by midday Tuesday had 11 Palestinian attackers killed and 18 apprehended (most also wounded) in 27 attacks since October 1, though even statistics can be subjective in the Middle East.
 
So far, even with all of the footage floating around, there doesn’t appear to be a clear-cut case where a police officer could be charged with the wrongful death of an attacker. As much as the police are on high alert, over-stressed, and also, to some extent afraid like the rest of us, there hasn’t been a “Bus 300”-style incident. (In 1984, four armed Arabs hijacked a bus. Two died fighting when the bus was stormed to free the captives, but the other two were killed after they were cuffed and apprehended.) According to police rules of engagement, shooting is permitted “in order to stop an attack that presents a clear and present danger to the life of the officer or others.” The danger must still be ongoing and shooting must be a last resort.
 
In property crimes, shooting is not permitted.
 
In regard to Afula – in which the attacker was wounded but not killed – the female attacker had already shown intent to cause bodily harm with a deadly weapon, and was refusing to disarm. A person with a knife can pose a deadly threat even if their target has a firearm, though obviously much less so if the gun is already drawn and pointed at the attacker.
 
Still, her actions up until the moment she was shot should be enough to stave off any Justice Ministry investigation of the police and the prospect that anyone will face charges.
 
It’s also unlikely that charges will be opened for the shooting of Fadi Samir Alloun, a 19-year-old who, according to the police, had just stabbed a teen in Jerusalem before he was shot late on the night of October 3 in east Jerusalem. In videos of the incident, he appears to be walking away from Jews who are shouting “terrorist” and “shoot him,” before he is shot by police. In the video, he seems to advance towards the police before he is shot, but it is hard to see, and hard to make out a weapon.
 
Regardless, just because a shooting falls within the boundaries of the law doesn’t mean it’s not questionable or the wrong thing to do. The Afula shooting, for instance, has been widely criticized – by Arabs and Jews alike – including by former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) director Yuval Diskin, who in a Facebook post on Monday wrote “after watching the video over and over, I feel that she could have been arrested without a serious risk and without shooting.”
 
In that same post, however, he said “a terrorist who is carrying a firearm or other weapon and poses a threat (they have the means and the intent to pose an immediate threat to their surroundings) must be killed as quickly as possible. I would like to see the court in Israel that will jail a security officer or citizen who operates according to these rules.”
 
At the end of the day, the courts and the court of public opinion – among Jews at least – are going to side with those who use deadly force in instances where the attacker is still armed and could still pose a threat. The longer this wave of attacks continues, the greater the possibility that we will see a clear case of someone wrongfully killed or even murdered – especially with more and more licensed civilians deciding to carry firearms at all times, and with the public on edge and afraid to an extent they haven’t been in years.
 
In the meantime, we have more and more videos emerging that are open to interpretation. Even the seemingly unambiguous attack carried out at the Damascus Gate on Saturday has its doubters who say it “looks like a set-up.”
 
Police seem to be concerned about the trend, because on Monday they put out a press release to every media outlet just after the Damascus Gate video was published, saying that the faces of the police must be blocked out for security reasons.
 
They said the officers would return to these same areas on patrol and must remain anonymous for their own safety.
 
Though arguably, as uniformed officers in east Jerusalem, they are targets regardless.
 
This is much different from the situation a little over a decade ago. During the second intifada, police officers who stopped attacks were on a number of occasions presented to the press by the police spokesperson’s branch and interviewed with their names and faces unobscured. The stories were good for morale, good for the image of the police, and the interviews were a way for cops to get public recognition for acts of bravery under fire.
 
In today’s age of smartphones and CCTV cameras on every corner, police seem keenly aware that they can no longer control the narrative of every arrest of an attacker, and also of the fact that with footage floating around, their officers could potentially be targeted by Palestinian extremists, or even face potential legal problems abroad.
 
In the meantime, we’ve had a series of videos emerge, including some that are truly difficult to watch – in particular the clip of a 13-year-old attacker in east Jerusalem left to bleed on the street as ambulances are en route, as some Israelis curse him and wish him dead. Of course there were also the Afula residents who held an attacker until police arrived, protecting him from a mob. Both represent the Israeli public in these strange days – terrified, on edge, and not sitting idly by, while trying and not always succeeding, to stay human and act rational in irrational times.

The spy who came in from the cold – to lead the police

Roni Alsheich, deputy head of the Shin Bet (Israel security agency) was introduced – somewhat – to the Israeli public last Friday as all but a shoo-in for the new chief of police, finally, mercifully bringing the hunt for a new chief to an end.

Alsheich (whose name can now be printed, saving us the silly requirement of calling him simply “R”) brings impressive credentials – a former company and deputy brigade commander in the Paratroops – he has spent over two decades in the Shin Bet, including in the agency’s manpower, strategy and planning departments. He was also, reportedly, a top candidate to replace the current Shin Bet head, Yoram Cohen, when his term ends next May.

Since last Friday, a series of statements has been made by politicians and security officials who know Alsheich personally, attesting to his talents and suitability to head the Israel Police, the message appearing to be that, this time, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan found his man.

The selection of a top official from the Shin Bet does indeed make more sense than a former IDF brigadier-general like Gal Hirsch, whose candidacy was rescinded by Erdan last week after weeks of controversy and questions about an international corruption probe indirectly involving Hirsch’s security company.

The Shin Bet, like the Israel Police, deals with internal security and collaborates on a daily basis with the police on an untold number of investigations around the country. Its officers and field agents are investigators first, using a vast network of informants, sources and state-of-the art technology to work security cases and prevent terrorism.

That’s where the similarities end, though. The Shin Bet is a clandestine organization – Israel’s secret police and internal spy agency. It works in the shadows, far from the public eye. It is run by the Prime Minister’s Office and has an aura of secrecy and entire range of tools at its disposal that the police can only dream of.

On the state security ladder, the Shin Bet is second to the Mossad when it comes to prestige and public acclaim, with the police a very distant third. Being employed by the Shin Bet – whatever the capacity – affords an Israeli a certain cachet with friends and family, something that, to put it lightly, is not the same for cops.

This is one of the reasons that beyond his very real credentials and relevant experience with the Shin Bet, Alsheikh’s appointment should go smoothly. The Israeli public loves its spies and has for decades grown accustomed to an entire “shadow state” of security agencies, gag orders, military-censor decrees and pixilated men and women, named only with single letters. The secrecy affords greater prestige to agencies whose daily operations also involve monotonous data collection and gritty fieldwork, with often questionable standards of conduct.

The shadow organizations are a fact of life and are given certain freedoms from public scrutiny not afforded to the Israel Police. They’re held up to a different standard and not seen for what they are – large agencies full of very human people who, no matter how talented they are, have the same frailties and selfish concerns as the rest of us.

Now that Alsheich has emerged from the shadows (though anyone who can Google in Hebrew should have known his name prior to last Friday), all that will change. He’ll no longer be a spymaster working behind closed doors; instead, his will be the very public face of an organization the public does not think very highly of these days.

He won’t have the prestige or secrecy of the Shin Bet to lean on next time a senior cop is accused of sexual harassment or caught posting a ridiculous status on Facebook, or next time a flagship case crumbles just before indictment.

The scandal will play out in the public sphere and the media will have a field day. Alsheich will be judged by the blue uniform he’s wearing, and it won’t be pretty. He will learn that managing the police – even with its penchant for gag orders on investigations – is a very public affair, and one the media love to take to task.

That’s not to say that he won’t be up to the challenge. By all accounts, he’s a highly talented commander and one of the best officers the Shin Bet has. He’s also reportedly an expert at hi-tech investigative means – something of great interest to the Israel Police, which in recent years has invested heavily in, particularly for its cyber investigations department.

Another reality Alsheich will have to face is that many of the investigative means at his disposal in the Shin Bet will be unavailable in the police – in particular, the use of “enhanced interrogation methods,” legions of Palestinian informants and wiretaps that don’t need warrants. He’ll be heading an organization that has to play by the letter of the law and is not given the leeway afforded a clandestine agency tasked with Israel’s internal security needs.

For the public, this is one aspect of his appointment that could be of concern.

This summer, the state began using administrative detentions against Israeli citizens accused of security crimes in the West Bank – in particular after the July torching of a Palestinian family’s home in Duma, which killed three.

In recent years, police commanders have pushed for more and more “investigative tools,” including administrative detention and fewer restrictions on wire taps and search warrants, as well as what must be disclosed to defendants on trial.

With Alsheich as head of the force, the path to these means could be closer – and not just for security suspects, but for organized crime.

The West Bank – where Alsheich was commander of Shin Bet operations – is in many ways a twilight zone, not separate from Israel, but very clearly part of a separate reality. Will he decide that the Israel Police needs the same tools as the Shin Bet if it wants better results? If so, it could be another indication of how the alternative legal reality in the West Bank has seeped into Israeli society within the Green Line, much like the appointment of the deputy head of the Shin Bet to lead the country’s police.

They came to watch the bridge explode

Judging by the pre-game hype in the national press, something akin to the moon landing or the planting of the US flag on Iwo Jima took place in Tel Aviv on Friday morning, as hundreds gathered in the center of town to see the iconic Ma’ariv Bridge blown up and brought to Earth.
The demolition of the bridge which was never really a bridge to begin with. (Shlomi Mizrahi)

The demolition of the bridge which was never really a bridge to begin with. (Shlomi Mizrahi)

 
The situation on the ground at judgment hour didn’t live up to the hype, but it was a carnival of sorts nonetheless.
 
Ori Benaim was sober as a judge on Carlebach Street at 5:30 a.m. when she said she thinks her children will learn about the demolition in history class 20 years from now. The 18-year-old came with three of her friends from Pardes Katz in Bnei Brak just to see the action. “We all got dressed up for this and took pictures before and we’ll take some after. This is history,” she said.
 
When asked if she had any particular memories from the bridge or the intersection it passed over, she said simply, “No, the junction and the bridge it’s just rats and trash there.”
 
There was well over a hundred bystanders on Carlebach Street facing the bridge at the junction with Menachem Begin Boulevard, and similar-sized crowds on Lincoln and Yitzhak Sadeh streets. A large projection screen was set up for the crowd on Carlebach, and a few Chabad Hassidim had set up a table for bystanders to lay phylacteries, while a promoter handed out flyers for parties starting after the blast.
 
Though this reporter did smell marijuana smoke wafting through the crowd, there were far fewer drunk people than some would have expected to find on the street in this part of Tel Aviv at 5:30am on a Friday, and no one visibly on cocaine, even though the viewing spot was only a few doors down from one of the city’s most infamous nightclubs.
 
That said, Sharona Levy’s friends seemed to be having a good time. Sharona was the sober one, they all agreed, and she said she’d convinced her three drunken friends to stay up the rest of the night after bar-hopping in Tel Aviv to come see the blast.
 
She said “it’s a historic thing we’ll all remember,” but her three girlfriends didn’t seem to be in any condition to remember much.
 
With all the talk about history, one thing should be said – The Ma’ariv Bridge was never much of a bridge, arguably just a glorified two-lane overpass that skipped over a single intersection and would save you 10 or 15 minutes during rush hour. To put it differently, I delivered pizzas in college, but no one called me a restaurateur.
 
Still, nostalgia is a funny thing, and in a city where a business that stays open for five years is an institution, the Ma’ariv Bridge was an icon.
 
Dedicated in 1976, it was originally named the “Eagles Bridge” in honor of the soldiers who took part in that summer’s Operation Entebbe rescue mission in Uganda. To most Israelis, though, it was the Ma’ariv Bridge, named for the headquarters of the Ma’ariv newspaper, which occupied an equally iconic building at the junction of Carlebach and Menachem Begin for decades until the paper was sold in 2012 and vacated the premises.
 
The demolition is part of the construction of the Red Line of the Tel Aviv Light Rail – the first in the system – which began earlier this month. On the former site of the bridge will be an underground station on the Red Line, which is set for completion by 2021.
 
The demolition was scheduled for 6 a.m., at which point a man in dark clothes surrounded by henchmen would blow up the local landmark before hundreds of rapt citizens of Gotham. Playing the role of a Batman villain in this instance was Transportation Minister Israel Katz, who at 6:23 pressed down on a detonator straight out of a Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner cartoon as an engineer detonated the actual explosives.
 
By that point, dozens of onlookers had been holding their phones aloft filming since 6 o’clock, their arms cramping up by the minute. Finally, several rather muted explosions went off, and the bridge fell to the pavement.
 
No countdown could be heard at the viewing spot on Carlebach Street and it was over in moments, at which point throughout the crowd people could be heard telling their friends, “No countdown? That wasn’t worth it,” before heading home to end their night out.
 
One young man, Vic, was gathered with several friends watching the explosion, his crew carrying cans of Red Bull and a portable box speaker. Like others, Vic seemed less than impressed.
 
“I was hoping there’d be a countdown and then my friends could film me while I turn my back to it and run away slow motion like in a movie with flames everywhere,” he said, a bit dejected, before asking, “Do you think we could do it again?”

Blackface as racial solidarity?

Every protest movement needs a great song.
The members of Ma Kashur in blackface in the "Ayalon Darom" video. (Screenshot)

The members of Ma Kashur in blackface in the “Ayalon Darom” video. (Screenshot)

 
Earlier this month the famed comedy trio Shlishiyat Ma Kashur released a protest video, a clip full of anger ripped from the front pages. A serious departure for the trio, “Ayalon Darom” (the title taken from the Ayalon freeway, which was blocked during rush hour during a protest by Ethiopian Israelis in May) depicts the three actors as Ethiopian Israelis fed up about racism in Israeli society, sick of being seen as nothing more than dishwashers who run fast and shouldn’t be let into the nightclub.
 
The clip comes a few months after a protest movement was launched by Ethiopian Israelis across the country, in response to racism and police brutality, and sparked by a video of a police officer attacking an IDF soldier of Ethiopian ethnicity.
 
Showing solidarity with this struggle is all fine and well, except that all three actors in the clip are in blackface, speaking with exaggerated, ridiculous accents, and bouncing and shufflin’ their feet like they were ripped straight from a minstrel show.
 
Blackface is rather common in Israeli satire shows. One example I remember well was on Eretz Nehederet, where in a recurring role, Mariano Idelman would play Condoleezza Rice with his face given a brown hue. Most embarrassingly, for some reason Idelman’s Rice would spontaneously break out into Aretha Franklin-style riffs and song and dance numbers, because maybe that’s what the writers figured a Stanford professor and former secretary of state acts like, if she’s black. More likely though, it was just a cheap gag, a lack of creativity or wit that manifests itself in a racist trope, at least to American eyes.
 
That may be the crux of the issue to a certain extent. Blackface simply doesn’t have the same cultural weight in Israel that it does in the US, not even close.
 
There is not the same history of racial violence between black and white Israelis, during which blackface was a feature in the darkest days of this history. Seeing it through American eyes though, the natural reaction is to cringe, to feel almost a punch in the gut at the obliviousness of the writers and actors who thought this was a good idea.
 
The use of blackface outside the United States was also written about this week in a column on Vox about a high-brow Dutch newspaper’s review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book on race in America Between the World and Me.
 
The review opens with almost a fullpage picture of a big-lipped caricature of a black man dark as pitch, above the headline “Nigger are you crazy?” in English. The editor of the newspaper, NRC Handelsblad, said in comments to The Washington Post that the drawing was meant to illustrate stereotypes and “white aggression” and not meant to be offensive, and that thinking they were would be stupid.
 
The Vox article then draws a connection between the tone-deaf (to Americans) article and the Netherlands Christmas tradition of Zwarte Piet – “Black Pete” in Dutch. During Christmas time, many white Dutch people put on blackface to depict “Black Pete,” a helper of St. Nicholas often depicted as a black Moor from Spain, or a former slave from a Dutch colony, or a chimney sweep, to explain his blackness. Besides being a terrifying thing to run into at an Amsterdam department store if you’d never previously heard of the tradition (speaking from personal experience), it is often defended by supporters as a cultural tradition and most importantly with the assertion that “it’s not meant to offend.”
 
I don’t think “Ayalon Darom” is meant to offend. All three members of Ma Kashur grew up in working-class neighborhoods in Ramle and elsewhere, Mizrahi and Georgian guys who were not part of the racial elite growing up.
 
Their video and their lyrics speak to a very real struggle now being waged by many Israelis, and I think their hearts are in the right place.
 
The clip brings to mind another Ma Kashur skit from a few years ago, about an Ethiopian-Israeli pilot who is hypersensitive about race, and constantly, mistakenly taking the air traffic controller’s requests as bigoted. Again, whatever message about racism they may have been trying to get across is obscured by the fact that actor Tzion Baruch is, again, in blackface and speaking with a thick, laughable accent that one wouldn’t expect from a pilot.
 
That doesn’t mean that a blackface skit is incapable of making intelligent social satire. In a skit a few years ago on the Israeli comedy show Shavua Sof! a group of Hamas terrorists bring their commander a kidnapped Israeli soldier bound with his head in a burlap sack.
 
Once they lift up the sack to reveal the soldier (an officer with the rank of captain) is black, the commander upbraids the terrorists, and the soldier – played by a white actor in blackface – is told apologetically that he is free to go and that Hamas knows they can’t get anything from Israel for a black soldier.
 
Watching the clip today, with Ethiopian-Israeli Avera Mengistu in Hamas captivity after climbing the fence into Gaza and with little public debate about returning him, the clip makes a strong (if heavy-handed) statement about race in Israel, even with the blackface.
 
There’s often a tendency among Americans in Israel to imprint their own social, cultural, and racial constructs from America onto Israeli society, almost expecting an exact fit. There’s a sort of unspoken belief that something that’s offensive there should also be out-of-bounds here, without taking into account the very different histories and cultures of the two countries.
 
When it comes to race, this can be glaring, and blackface is a classic example of something that simply doesn’t carry the same weight here.
 
Nonetheless, even without that same history, there are certain things that are universal, and at its very core, blackface – in America – is about laughing at black people, making them out to be objects of ridicule who talk and dance funny.
 
Israeli comedy is rife with ethnic humor, lampooning Jews from the East and the West, as well as Arabs. Still, something feels different when the ridicule is directed at the lowest rung on the social ladder.
 
Did Ma Kashur mean well even with the blackface? I think so, but maybe it’s better to let Ethiopian Israelis speak for themselves, and for everybody else to listen.