Wednesday Night in Tel Aviv: Why I Don’t Check In
By Benji Lovitt
Last night, two terrorists opened fire at the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv, killing four and injuring sixteen.
When I heard the news around 9:40 PM, I had just walked into the Dancing Camel bar, just ten minutes away by foot. Though my initial reaction was a gasp, my close proximity didn’t make me feel any differently than when the attacks have been in a different city or when I’ve been abroad. After nine-plus years in Israel, I haven’t had anything resembling a close call, mostly thanks to the decade of relative quiet. I didn’t live through an intifada, I haven’t lost anyone close to me, and I surely react differently and have a different emotional experience than a sabra (native Israeli) or someone who has been through those things. I sense that it’s harder for me to intellectually and emotionally relate to these tragedies than for some other people who have had a “closer call.”
Having said all that, my first reaction after gasping and checking the news was deciding how to let loved ones know. I don’t have a “policy.” After the small numbers of piguim (terror attacks) in recent years, I have sometimes emailed my family, sometimes not. Sometimes, I knew they wouldn’t even hear about whatever happened because I knew it wouldn’t even be “newsworthy” enough abroad. I emailed them last night to say I was fine.
But I didn’t check in on Facebook. I rarely do unless I happen to be posting the news story along with it. Many people write a short “I’m ok” status. Somewhere between five and ten people contacted me last night via text or Facebook saying something to the effect of “are you ok?” or “check in!” which is interesting to me only in that I usually don’t hear from more than a couple.
I have complicated feelings about the “need to check in.” I don’t want to check in. I don’t like how it feels. Between my different jobs and personal feelings, I have always been part of the group who has the weird role of, on one hand, sending the message to the Jewish and non-Jewish world that day-to-day life is actually normal here and that it’s safe to come, while at the same time, fighting to direct the world’s attention to the enemies we face (while also letting our loved ones know that we’re ok).
From 2003-2006, I worked for Young Judaea in New York, recruiting teens from around the United States to spend a month in Israel on we hoped was a life-changing program. With the Second Intifada drawing to a close, I dedicated the majority of my waking hours marketing an experience which would not only be meaningful, fun, and identity-building, but also safe. Just about anyone who has visited this country, even during the “tough times,” attests that, one, it looks nothing like it does on TV, and two, they often feel safer than they do in the States. During the Second Lebanon War, I took off my “assistant director hat” and put on my therapist one, talking to hundreds of parents on the phone, doing my best to assure them that their kids were as safe as possible and, regardless of the images on CNN, having the time of their lives. Part of my job was often to decrease hysteria, not to raise it, and I took pride in being pretty good at it.
During the Second Intifida, Jewish tourism from the States trickled down to almost nothing and during the flare-ups every few years, groups and individual travelers have often canceled their trips, not always (or rarely?) connected to the actual threat level. For reasons I’ve written in other articles, it upsets me. To anyone who knows me, the outside perception of this place has always bothered me, to the degree that when I started my blog the day before I made aliyah, I called it “What War Zone???”
Which brings me to the need to check in.
Again, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to live out the traditional “resilient Israelis are going on with their lives moments after an attack” cliche during the intifada. It’s not hard for me to continue my normal routine when I haven’t personally been affected. Maybe I’d be different if I my life experiences had been. But from where I stand, being expected to check in feels to me an admission that everything I’ve been selling, everything we tell ourselves and the world, is wrong. I don’t want the default assumption to be that “if we didn’t hear from you, something is wrong.” In America, despite shooting sprees, crime, and any other danger we face from car accidents to hurricanes, we live our lives without focusing on the risks primarily because the odds of something tragic happening to us are one in a jillion. I don’t expect my friends in America to check in when a shooting takes place in their city, nor do they.
While my city of Tel Aviv is admittedly smaller than the average American metropolis, I feel the same way here about the “one in a jillion” odds. Nine-plus years here and thank God, nothing has happened to me nor to anyone else I can think of (I hope). I want to hold on to my default assumption that everyone I know is fine and that if someone didn’t check in, it’s because he’s sleeping or in a movie or has his phone off or hasn’t heard the news or just hasn’t checked in. If God forbid, someone I know is harmed in an attack, I WANT my response to be one of complete and utter shock, surprise, and emotional pain. I don’t ever want the situation to deteriorate to the point that I in any way expect or fear it. Just as our staff at Young Judaea did our best to set a tone of calm about the security situation for our families and hope they would take our cues and adapt their expectations and level of anxiety to ours, I would rather not encourage and reinforce the fear that something might have happened to me unless people hear otherwise. One of these times, I might just be sleeping or in a movie or on a plane.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am honored and touched by those who worried about me and felt the need to check in. This is just how I feel. Very few things or emotions in this country aren’t complicated. I know I’m not the only one in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv who doesn’t check in on Facebook. I’d love to hear how others feel, both from those who are choosing to check in or not and from those who are abroad waiting for the updates. And may we all continue to be safe and live our lives to the fullest.
Benji Lovitt is a comedian and educator living in Israel. He is currently booking comedy shows and workshops in North America for Winter 2017.
First published on Times of Israel Blogs