March 4, 1996
The stuff that I’m scrambling over used to be plate glass windows lining the street. The whole street was windows, and every window in the mall blew up in a second of flame. There are mountains of glass chips no bigger than a thumbnail surrounding the entrance to the mall. And it’s slippery. Not just because it’s glass pieces piled shoulder-deep, but because the glass is covered in blood.
And I’m pulling cables and running extra tapes and batteries over this stuff, skidding and sliding on my way over the heaps into the mall and up the stairs because somebody wants a shot from the bridge between the two buildings that used to be a mall. It’s the wrong shot, I think, because from that angle the buildings still look like buildings, only surrounded by broken glass. Most of the mall still stands, and from here it makes it look like things aren’t too bad. You wouldn’t think, from this angle, that they still don’t know how many bodies got torn apart in the blast, or if they’ve found everybody yet. You wouldn’t think that close to a hundred people were wounded in an explosion right here less than an hour ago.
In times like these, I find that my body does most of the work without waiting for my orders. This is good because it gets the job done, and if I had to rely on conscious control I’d never be able to operate, because right now my mind is not functioning at all. I can’t put together anything even close to a coherent thought. I’m just getting random signals, things like:
That’s a piece of somebody.
We need to get some lights out here.
Why would anybody do this on purpose?
Where did all this glass come from?
How is it possible that every single piece of glass is covered in blood?
What does this guy want? Oh, he’s telling me not to step there, because there’s a body there under the glass. Okay, man, I’ll go around. Did we get a shot of that?
Do we want a shot of that?
How could anyone do a thing like this on purpose? Am I capable of doing something like this? Do I have it in me? I don’t think I could do that. Even if it didn’t involve blowing myself to pieces.
And to this day, I don’t have any very solid memories of the Dizengoff Centre bombing. The whole day is veiled in smoke. The smoke clears from time to time, and I can see a piece of a scene for a few seconds, and then the smoke rolls back in. This is the day that changed my life, more than combat, more than losing my virginity, more than losing my own father, and you would think I would remember every second in crystal clarity, but no.
Go back a bit. Once upon a time, I worked in a TV studio in Tel Aviv, about five minutes away from the Dizengoff Centre shopping mall. It was a pretty good studio, and we filmed a lot of Israel’s favourite shows there. These were the early days of commercial television in Israel. They were running a lot of talk shows and comedy sketch shows. The studio didn’t have a news team, but we did live events every once in a while. Fashion shows, concerts, stuff like that. And news events that we happened to catch.
We happened to catch the Dizengoff Centre bombing because it was close enough to echo through the building. We were putting together partial sets for some skits, part of Gidi Gov’s show. It was, if I remember correctly, the day before the show’s live broadcast. There weren’t many people in the studio, just me and a few other stage workers, a couple of technicians downstairs somewhere. At about three in the afternoon, there was a soft, rolling boom, like distant thunder but short. I thought a piece of a set had fallen down the stairs or something – we had the most half-assed storage system for the sets you could possibly imagine, and they had to be lugged up three flights of stairs and back down again for every show. It wouldn’t have been the first time somebody dropped part of Gidi’s office set. I went down the stairs all ready to yell at somebody, but nobody downstairs knew what had happened. Then we started to hear sirens.
Hearing sirens in Israel is not like hearing sirens in any Western country. In America, if you hear sirens, your first assumption is some old man had a stroke, some kid pulled a fire alarm in his school. It was different for a few weeks following 9/11, but it went back to normal pretty quick. In Israel, life is different, and sirens frequently mean something more malevolent.
But we had no idea what it was, and didn’t realise how close it was. We went back to our work, while more and more sirens started going off. We began to wonder if we should go look for whatever it was, but before we went anywhere one of our freelance cameramen came running into the studio shouting for a shoulder camera and a guy to help him out. He had been walking down Dizengoff Street, about two blocks away from the mall, and seen a huge explosion at one of the entrances. Gate Five, I think it was.
We gave him a camera and some tapes, and one of the guys went with him back to the mall. Our broadcast van was in Jerusalem that day, but a few minutes later one of the engineers realised that we had enough cable in the studio to reach to the mall and hook up a live broadcast direct from the studio, so we started running coaxial cable and lights up one block and down towards the mall. We had to connect a series of three or four cables, as I recall, and we worried that people would mess the cables up because the whole street was people running away or running to see what happened or standing there hugging each other, but they never did. By the time we got there, the police were already setting up barricades to keep the crowds back, several ambulance crews were working with the survivors, and the body recovery guys were starting their gruesome work. I’ll tell you one thing, having done a lot of dirty jobs, the job I want least out of all the jobs in the Universe is combing wreckage for pieces of bodies.
What I saw that day was bad enough for me.
There was a lot of yelling going on. People were yelling what’s happened, fucking Arabs, I saw the whole thing, I can’t believe it I was supposed to wait for my friend at Gate Five but I was late, and screaming at me to not push, show some respect for the dead you fucking vulture, do you have a press card, I’m sorry I can’t let you through without a press card. And I’m telling people excuse me, pardon me, let me through, come on man the entire country wants to know what’s happened and we’ve got the only news camera here holy shit look at that girl come on man please. Then they let me through the barricades and they said you’ve got to stay inside the perimeter now, we’re going to get a lot more forensic-type crews here, it’s going to be a mess and we can’t have civilians going back and forth.
Fourteen people died at Dizengoff Centre, and I can never remember if that includes the bomber or not but what the fuck, why should we count him anyway? But they do, in fact, usually include the bomber in the body count.
There were pieces of people everywhere. A nailbomb doesn’t do all that much structural damage, I guess, but it makes a hell of a concussion and makes pieces of people go everywhere. It turned out later on that the security guards at the mall had been suspicious of the guy, and they were giving him the eye while he hung around outside, I guess he was waiting for the designated time or trying to work up his nerve or just hoping they wouldn’t stop him because he had a mission, god damn it, and it wouldn’t be nearly good enough to just blow himself up outside the mall. He wanted to get inside it, where the concussion would be really awesome and kill a few dozen people and make a bang big enough to light his path to Heaven. But for whatever reason, he never got inside, and had to be satisfied with blowing up just outside the gate, right under the bridge where I would be an hour later, helping our guy get a shot of the street, my knee all bloody from where I accidentally surfed over a floor strewn with glass, and I’m thinking what the fuck, what the fuck what the fuck.
A lot of people turned to the dark side that day. Terrorism is a weak, uncontrollable weapon because you never know what people’s reactions to something like that will be. Dizengoff Centre was the heart of Tel Aviv’s shopping district and a popular hangout for teenagers not quite old enough to go anyplace hardcore, so there were five kids in their early teens amongst the victims of the bombing. A thing like that hardens people’s hearts, and people who were previously only theoretically your enemies will suddenly become fanatical haters. I can understand that perfectly well. You look at a front page full of little rectangular photos of dead children, and you wonder what they were going to do on the day they died, whether they had brothers and sisters, were they good students or class clowns, and the only thing you know for sure is that none of those kids had their political opinions set in stone yet, none of them had ever held a weapon yet, none of them were the enemy yet, and you think fuck this, fuck the people who did this, kill every fucking one of them. It’s easy to forget that one man did this, or maybe a small group of men, because they kill us indiscriminately and by god we’re going to do the same thing to them. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a child for a child. Thus it has always been.
Other people, they stay on the site until about three in the morning when there’s nothing left to film, and they go home and cry until the dawn breaks. I didn’t know much about Buddhism then, but on that night I had a vision of samsara, and I realised that this kind of thing went on and on, and one day it was their turn to blow up kids in a shopping mall, and the next day it was our turn to raze the fucker’s house and lock down his whole village for a few days so that nobody could work or buy groceries. And his brothers would remember the day we knocked down their house forever, and they would join the same organisation that sent him to blow our kids up, and the brothers of those dead kids would do pretty much the same thing and it would never end. It was a wheel going round and round, and the wheel was made of pain and fuelled by hatred. Killing more people didn’t stop it or even slow it down. Killing spun it faster.
And I had seen this before, many times, but it had never been like this. I’d known people who were killed by terrorists, I knew the history of the country, knew all about the bloodthirsty attacks on Jewish settlements going all the way back to the Nineteenth Century before the Jews displaced anybody. I grew up with the Holocaust, not as a word in an encyclopedia but as something that had really happened to real people I knew, people with ugly, long numbers tattooed on their arms. As a child I believed with all my heart that the Jews needed Israel, and that Israel needed to be strong, as strong as it could be, and I went willingly to my Army service, despite claiming to be an anarchist and a peace-lover, because we needed to be strong. And I saw enough “action” there to know that you did what you did and that was that.
I’d seen the Shouting Hill, which was a deeply saddening experience even though I was still naive enough to tell myself it was nobody’s fault, it just happened, that’s how the cards fell, things were probably even worse on the Syrian side. Nonetheless, it left a mark on me, and over the course of time, I started to hear even sadder things that were never mentioned in the high school history I had learned, and eventually I realised what might seem totally obvious to anyone who’s never been there and knows nothing about the situation – that both sides were equally guilty and equally trapped by destiny and that blaming one side, either side, would never be fully honest.
An obvious point that helps no one. I understood it years before the bombing of Dizengoff Centre, and I did my best to make things better in whatever little ways I could. But in the end it comes down to this: there are no neutral pieces on a chessboard. You’re black, or you’re white. I spent years trying to be a gray piece. On the night of March 4, 1996, I decided that I didn’t want to be on the board at all.
Many, if not most, Israelis would be filled with scorn for my decision, saying that terrorism beat me and that I was doing exactly what the savages on the other side wanted us to do. The Hebrew word for emigration from Israel is laredet, to go down, and it has always carried connotations of defeat, wimping out and generally being a schmuck and a loser. I don’t care. I didn’t leave because of terrorism. I left because my nose had been rubbed in grave dirt a few too many times and because I did not believe that any piece of land was worth killing for and dying for, again and again and again until there was nobody left to kill. Because I felt that we, as a people, had lost the moral high ground long ago, and with it the goodwill of most of the world’s nations. Because the reality of fighting over this miserable patch of land had cost us our innocence and our children, and we had become exactly the sort of xenophobic, racist monsters that had plagued us throughout history. Because I hated the fucker that had killed five Jewish children at Gate Five of Dizengoff Centre, and I never wanted to give anyone an even remotely legitimate reason to hate me in the same way.
Five months later I was gone.