Upon our arrival on July 12, Nurit Gross, a friend of my mother’s from preschool and an active member of the Israeli human-rights organization Women Against Occupation, greeted my mother and me at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport. My mother and Nurit had seen each other only once in the 30 years since my mother, an expat living in America, left Israel. As Nurit grabbed some of our luggage and led us briskly toward her car, she proclaimed that there had been a special performance to greet our arrival — an attack by Hezbollah that left eight Israeli soldiers dead and two missing.
This wasn’t what anyone — not my mother, her Israeli friends, our family here — had imagined back in April when we purchased our tickets.
“We’re going to be real tourists on this one,” my mother had said as she gleefully flipped through an Israel guidebook. It was to be her first real vacation since a postdivorce flight to Bali in the early ’80s. “It’s going to be all about fun.”
Nurit wasn’t very optimistic about that.
“Now it’s going to get bad,” she said. “It’s going to get bad for the Israelis, and it’s going to get bad for the Lebanese.”
I asked her why Hezbollah had chosen to start an attack on Israel’s soil. With the characteristically Israeli manner of being righteous and aloof at the same time, she tapped the ash off her cigarette, flicked her wrist and said, “Because that is what they are trained to do.”
The rest of the trip played out like a checkers match between us, the willful tourists, and the Katyushas — the rockets of Soviet origin that Hezbollah was lobbing at Israel by the dozens per day. Plans to visit family in Nahariya and Haifa turned into extra days in Tel Aviv. Our sojourn to the beautiful and tranquil Kibbutz Mizra ended one day before a rocket hit the neighboring city of Afula — four days before Mizra itself was struck. My relatives living on Mizra, a kibbutz so secular that we ate homegrown pork chops on the night of the Sabbath, had been so confident in their 100-kilometer distance from the northern border that their bomb shelters were still locked at the time of our visit.
Friends from home contacted me, wanting to know if I was scared. After all, people were being killed at bus stations, on their balconies, even while running for bomb shelters. But I found that soon after arriving, I subscribed to the silently understood pact of Israel’s residents: You go about your business for as long as you possibly can.
Yet daily life in Israel constantly reminds you that you’re in a war zone. Every mall, bank, restaurant, hotel and mobile-phone shop has security in front, equipped with metal detectors. Every television set in every household and every business is continuously fixed on the local news channel, and not five minutes go by without the image of a young soldier carrying an M-16. And, as our trip progressed, the hotels emptied out more and more, giving the advantage to tourists looking for a deal on a cushy room.
The one occasion when I did have a clear twitch of doubt came on our first day in Jerusalem. The taxi driver’s car stereo blared with the news of the day on our ride over to the Old City section of Jaffa Gate. Since the news was in Hebrew, I tuned it out and fixed my eyes on a sexy young soldier carrying a large, semiautomatic weapon. I started to make a joke about walking softly and carrying a big gun, when my mother interrupted me, saying, “They caught a suicide bomber at Jaffa Gate.”
My expression must have changed quickly, because the driver looked at me from his rearview mirror and said in heavily accented English, “Don’t worry. Suicide bombers are much easier to catch in the summer. They wear those big coats.” Once at Jaffa Gate, we got out of the taxi, paid our driver the 80 shekels and made our way down to the Western Wall.
On the climb back up, the stairs split into two directions. One led back the way we came, past the armed security booth; the other weaved through an open-air bazaar where Muslim, Jewish and Christian tourists alike buy their souvenirs. I quickly scanned the area for some sort of security personnel, but couldn’t see any. Then it hit me. I yelled for my mother, who was already ahead of me, walking toward a display of colorful hanging beads. She turned around, and I locked eyes with her, shaking my head.
Together we walked back up the other way, discussing whether we should have falafel or shawarma for lunch.