Sunday, January 12, 2003

Chronic Condition

When two suicide bombers exploded themselves near Tel Aviv’s old Central Bus Station a week ago, killing 23 and injuring many more, it shattered an illusory “calm” that has subtly shifted our thinking these past weeks. How long had it been since the last suicide attack? Six weeks? And before that, wasn’t it another six weeks?

As I grappled to put the attack, the largest single day of Israeli casualties since April 2002, into perspective, I found myself sinking into despair. The ever-repeating pattern of attack, counter-attack, relative quiet, attack, more quiet got me to comparing the situation in Israel today to that of a body suffering from a chronic illness.

I should know.

I’ve had a chronic inflammatory disease since I was a kid. And the way I relate to it says a lot about the way I relate to the security situation as a whole.

When I was first diagnosed, I didn’t know the extent of what I was getting into. I didn’t know that this was going to be something I’d have to live with for the rest of my life. I was only 13. Who thinks that far ahead?

The nature of my illness was that I would suffer periodic “attacks” where I would be riveted with pain. In those moments, I’d believe that the harsh decree I had been dealt would never end, that I would never be free of such intensity and discomfort.

But the attacks would end, either by themselves or through medication, and then I would have a period of quiet during which I would forget about the pain and return to my normal life.

As time went on, and I “got used” to the pattern of attack and quiet, I became less fatalistic. I knew I could live with it. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but the attacks were always followed by some quiet.

Unfortunately, there was no way of knowing before an attack began which way it would go. Would it be a single attack, followed by a long quiet? Or would there be a series of attacks, one after another, draining me of the strength to go on?

As my teenage years faded and young adulthood took over, I learned how to savor the good times. To see the positive in the days, weeks, months, when I wasn’t feeling sick. To even have some optimism.

Israel is suffering from a similar chronic condition. We have long moved past the initial diagnosis. We are no longer shocked by each attack and we have learned to live as normally as can be in such times between attacks.

Still, with each new attack, we wonder: will this be an isolated incident, or are we returning to the horrible days of last April, when the attacks were coming once, sometimes twice a day. When the pain was intense. And we believed that it would never end.

A nation suffering from a chronic illness learns how to compartmentalize its feelings. The six weeks of relative quiet we just experienced were not truly quiet by any means. Sure, we’ve been free of the “big” attacks, but there have been less "spectacular" murders no less horrible: four Yeshiva students shot in their dormitory kitchen; a man burned to death in his car, and most recently, yesterday's infiltration into Moshav Gadish.

But we file these away as small eruptions, not the main event. How callous we become when we know the condition is here to stay, for the rest of our lives.

Lest this analysis become too unbearably gloomy, I am happy to report that I have been in remission for over twenty years. My doctor says my illness is just about gone, “burned out” is how he described it.

But I can never rest. I know that it could come back at any point, when I least expect it. I am always on guard. My innocence was stolen at too young an age.

So it is too with Israel. Our children have long since lost their innocence; our country, already known for its innate cynicism, has become unnaturally jaded. We’ve had our periods of remission: most recently in the early days of Oslo when we dreamed and played and strived to become a nation like all others, a boy no different than any other on the playground.

And we will certainly have another remission – that’s the nature of chronic conditions. But sadly, neither science nor politics has yet discovered a permanent cure.

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