Mind-numbing terror pervades Israeli life, diplomatic writer says

American journalists preparing to cover a war in Iraq might do well to consult with Jerusalem Post writer Herb Keinon.

Speaking before the World Affairs Council of Northern California last week in San Francisco, the Post's diplomatic correspondent said that, within his apartment complex alone, he knows of four people who had been killed or injured in suicide attacks.

"Unfortunately, I feel much safer when I'm doing reserve duty in the West Bank than I am as a civilian going about daily life in Jerusalem," he said.

Keinon wore several hats during his March 5 lecture, which was titled "The Israeli Elections: A Nation in Crisis Speaks." He spoke as a father concerned about the safety of his four children, as a member of the press and as an observant Jew who wears a kippah.

"The violence impacts all the political thoughts you have," said Keinon. "It's an atmosphere of mind-numbing terror, where going to buy a falafel in downtown Jerusalem could be a deadly mistake. It's also very difficult to raise children with liberal values, and to teach them not to hate in a world so full of hate."

The tall, angular journalist, whose talk was co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco and the American Jewish Committee, also offered a bizarre snapshot of how life has changed in Israel during the last two years. Among the illustrations he cited were wedding invitations announcing that "security will be provided," restaurants that had a built-in tip for security staff and theatrical productions warning audience members that any explosions they heard were part of the show — not terrorist bombs.

Given this environment, it's no wonder the Israeli government is being pulled in so many different directions.

The subtitle of his talk could be "Israel: The Land of the Weird and the Home of the Strange," Keinon quipped, adding that the description has never been more apt than at present.

"The Sharon government is like a wild beast," he said, adding that if the political enmity of the Sharon Cabinet were transformed into energy, it would provide enough wattage to supply the entire world with power.

The Denver-born correspondent said one salient result of the elections was the demise of sectarian parties. He said many far-right parties barely outpolled the pro-marijuana party. Having said that, Keinon added that Labor leader Avram Mitzna veered too far to the left, guaranteeing a victory for Ariel Sharon.

"The Israeli public is not intoxicated with the myth of a new Middle East right now," he said. Without any viable solutions to the problems vexing the country, Israelis turned to a person "who seems like a leader," even if Sharon's record of success has been mixed.

Another ramification s was to drive another wedge between the secular and Orthodox communities, manifested in the success of Yosef "Tommy" Lapid's Shinui party.

"Although Shinui gained a number of seats, I don't necessarily see that as a repudiation of religion per se," he said. "Rather, I think it's an economic decision — the Israeli public is, by and large, tired of shouldering the tax burden and footing the bills for the haredim," the fervently religious.

Although Keinon did not focus on non-Jewish residents of Israel, he did emphasize that one of the most noticeable and unfortunate outcomes of the current intifada is the frayed relationship between Israeli Jews and Arabs.

When asked about media bias, Keinon said many factors color the coverage of Israel and the Middle East. Europe often sees issues through the prism of its own collective "colonial guilt," he said, and chastises Israel for acting in a manner that defined Europe for much of its 20th century history.

But unlike the situation between Israelis and Palestinians, "the difference is that France never had a presence in Algeria before it attempted to colonize it, and the Algerians never wanted to throw the French into the sea."