Autobus means “bus” in Hebrew — pretty easy to remember!
Before we departed to Israel from MIT, all the MISTI-Israel students attended a day-long retreat to learn more about the Israeli culture, history, and language. We learned about the Zionist movement, about the history and current division of Jerusalem, what it meant that the West Bank and Gaza were contended territories. Most importantly to the MISTI program, we were drilled in where we weren’t allowed to go — the Old City on Fridays, the West Bank, Gaza, any of the bordering countries except Jordan — and what we weren’t allowed to do — attend or spectate at political demonstrations, take pictures of military installments, hitchhike, ride buses. All of the restrictions made sense, except for “you can’t take buses”. I asked about the reason for that rule, and Kylie (the MIT MISTI-Israel coordinator) told us that it was because of official U.S. transportation regulations for its tourists in Israel, which had made the rule because there were several incidents with bus bombs about thirteen years ago. Although the restriction was pretty outdated, we still had to follow it because it was, after all, a government policy. The takeaway was that while Israel was in general a pretty safe country to live in, that there was still a lot of ethnic tension and that we should just be aware of our surroundings and exercise common sense. When we arrived in Tel Aviv, we had another orientation with Omri (our Amal school network representative; Amal is a group of schools that train students in technical subjects) and he gave us another briefing on safety. He essentially told us the same things Kylie did, but with a little more scorn for the no-longer-relevant U.S. bus policy, saying that the U.S. “is always behind on things”. For the last three weeks I did my best to obey the silly and highly inconvenient rule, only taking the bus to and from Jerusalem and once with our school guide. But today, I got a rude reminder why the rule existed, and why buses are inherently risky places to be in Israel.
This morning, on the taxi ride to our school, Holtz (the aviation-focused school, where all the students wear IDF military uniforms), our taxi driver was listening intently to the Hebrew radio. When we were on our way, he used a combination of exaggerated miming and broken English to explain to us that half an hour ago, an Arab had stabbed 7 (this number varies depending on the news source) people in a bus (his hand signals and facial expressions for “sword” and “stab” were priceless), including the driver (his miming of “driver” on the actual taxi steering wheel made me a little nervous), and that 2 people were in critical condition (or as he said, “no good!”). He informed us that the police had shot the Arab (“pew! pew!”) and that nobody was dead. After piecing together the basics, we all checked the news on our phones, and saw that the taxi driver had actually done an amazingly accurate job of describing the events. We were somewhat worried — would this result in a cancellation of classes? How would our students, who all took buses to school, be affected? Would the U.S. government impose any more travel restrictions?
As we started class, though, it was obvious that the events weren’t actually a big deal to the students at all. We asked if they’d heard the news, and they all said something to the extent of “yeah, it happens all the time.” There didn’t seem to be any effect on normal operations — buses continued as usual, classes were on schedule, nobody was fazed. One of the students had been nearby when the attacker was shot. He told me nonchalantly about how just a month ago, an officer had been stabbed to death very close to their school. I asked my group if they felt more targeted or in any way unsafe because they wore their uniforms to and from school, and they said yes — but that they just had to exercise common sense and be alert, not wear headphones, and not be on their phones while on the bus. (On a side note, this explains why at Lady Davis, many students wanted to make mobile apps to fill the time during their commute to and from school, while at Holtz, they had no willingness to do so. The students at Holtz were just more safety-conscious in general; when one of them suggested making an app to find people to play soccer with, the response from other students was that it would be unsafe to have a public app disclosing where large groups of people were congregating in public, as if the groups were asking to get targeted.) My students reassured me that “life goes on” and not to worry about it too much, it was all just part of living in Israel. I understood much better why my Israeli friends seemed so unfazed after the Boston marathon bombing — for them, it was something they’d gotten used to growing up, while for the sheltered Americans, it was a shattering of the expectations of safety and security in the modernized world.
After class, I read more about the details of the incident, curious to learn how it had all gone down. I was extremely impressed with everyone who had been involved in apprehending the terrorist. The terrorist had attacked the bus driver first, and the bus driver had fought back and pepper sprayed the man. The bus driver sustained serious chest injuries, but after a while managed to open the bus doors to let passengers out. (When we had just arrived in Israel, Eric Klinkhammer observed randomly that all the bus drivers looked like badasses; the bus driver of the #40 bus definitely was). In the meanwhile, the terrorist attacked other passengers, including an 8th grader who reportedly threw his backpack at the man to keep him from coming closer, and who then shattered a window of the bus to allow other passengers to escape. Luckily, directly behind the bus was a car full of officers from the IDF’s prison control unit; these officers jumped out, identified the target, and took him down by shooting at his legs as he ran away. They handcuffed the man, and waited by for the normal police to arrive. I now appreciate the presence of armed officers all over the city. It makes me uneasy when I walk by them, with their semi-automatic rifles slung casually over a shoulder, but I know that they are there, and armed, for a very good reason. I also know that random citizens, from bus drivers to 8th grade students, know how to fight back and will do so readily. And despite the racial tension, the political instability, and the events that unfolded today, that makes me feel safe.
Originally published at shalomsohard.wordpress.com on January 21, 2015.