It may be better you didn't ask

By Robert Sarner, Canadian Jewish News, Feb. 28, 2002

JERUSALEM - Ma nishma? Are you sure you really want me to answer that question? Ma nishma? It may mean nothing to those with no understanding of Hebrew but in Israel it's heard constantly, as often as people in North America greet each other with its English equivalent "How are you?" or French "Comment ca va?" These days, however, asking someone in Israel how they are has become a loaded question, especially in Jerusalem.

Under normal circumstances - whatever that means in Israel - ma nishma elicits the same kind of banal, perfunctory, robotic answers that such a question usually does in other countries. But after nearly a year and a half of devastating Palestinian terrorism and with no end in sight, asking people in Jerusalem ma nishma touches a sensitive nerve.

On one hand, with so many terrorist attacks and so many people killed and wounded, residents feel thankful if they and their loved ones have not been caught in harm's way. Yet at the same time, no one is immune from the terrible news and pervasive sense of doom and gloom. Even in crisis-hardened Jerusalem, the collective mood seems to have sunk to a new low in recent weeks.

These days, to ask Jerusalemites ma nishma is to invite a wide range of reactions - extreme anxiety, gallows humor, religious belief, stoic determination, fatalistic resignation, or a combination of the above. The answers reflect the extremely depressed state of the nation bedeviled by an enemy for whom suicide bombers are heroic martyrs. In the face of such incredibly savage violence, the psychological and emotional toll on Israelis, Jerusalemites in particular, is incalculably heavy. To say nothing of the disastrous economic fallout.

Life goes on, of course, as it must but beneath the surface Jerusalem is traumatized and shell-shocked. How could it be otherwise in a city whose downtown area was recently described in the media, following the latest wave of terror, as the "single most dangerous place in Israel"?

Jerusalemites may be a resilient bunch but how long will it take for them to recover from such a sadistic onslaught of suicide attacks, car bombings and shooting sprees? What will be the lasting impact on people confronted with the mass murder of so many innocent men, women and children? Has the cavalcade of carnage become so routine that people's senses are being numbed? How much worse can things get?

These are some of the questions that spring to mind in light of the worst sustained urban bloodshed that Jerusalem and the rest of the country have ever suffered. For now, answers and solutions are elusive. Far more apparent are the symptoms of an embattled society under siege, fighting a war of attrition.

The signs are everywhere in Jerusalem. People walk around with shock, disbelief, anger and incredible sadness, robbed of hope for better days soon. They are on edge, fearful of unattended objects, wary of Arabs in the city. Everybody is constantly worried about the safety of their children. The sound of sirens gives way to the worst thoughts. One turns on the news with trepidation. Getting on a bus, going downtown or visiting a shopping mall has become almost an act of defiance, avoided when possible due to the heightened sense of danger. And with good reason. Earlier this month, the country's top cop Inspector-General Shlomo Aharonishky presented some highly sobering facts and figures.

"We have just been through a year of violence and terror the likes of which we have not seen in the history of the state," he told reporters at police headquarters in Jerusalem. "But it is likely to increase in 2002."

Among the statistics he cited: last year Jerusalem suffered 90 terrorist attacks,including 35 bombings and 28 gun fire assaults which killed dozens of people and wounded hundreds more.

Ma nishma? Maybe it would have been better if you hadn't asked.

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