The Quiet After the Siege

JERUSALEM -- ALWAYS A CITY to send bolts of recognition through your mind, Jerusalem is even more electric now, but in a ghostly way.

JERUSALEM -- ALWAYS A CITY to send bolts of recognition through your mind, Jerusalem is even more electric now, but in a ghostly way.

The streets are deserted, the cafes shuttered. A lone pedestrian hurries along, a cellphone at his ear. No children are in sight. This corner is familiar to you from television footage of a major bombing. On that corner, your friend says, stands the hotel in which a terrorist opened fire. A helicopter motor pounds into earshot, and then you see the thing arcing in from the east. A siren sounds, screeching, then fading.

Everywhere you look, blue-and-white flags hang from poles and windows - vestiges of the celebration of Israeli Independence Day. But the atmosphere is close and still, dampened by recent rains, and the flags, not festive, sag as if inanimate objects, too, are given here to grim introspection. Jerusalem exudes an air of aftermath and prelude both.

Your friend tells you that at the Seder massacre, something snapped in this country. The sacrilege of the suicide-mass murder at that holiest moment of the year spawned in many Jews a transforming grief and rage that were given expression by the brutal West Bank incursions of the Israeli Defense Forces.

The explanation seems familiar to you - how blind emotion can be cloaked in the language of justified strategies. In October your own grief-struck, enraged nation went after terrorists by terrorizing a whole people. Even now the air war casualties in Afghanistan are as uncounted as the new, still faceless armies of zealots who will avenge them.

There is broad American indifference both to those whom the US bombing killed and to the September terrorists who got away. It is impolite, even unpatriotic, to bring up Osama bin Laden. The ease with which he and his network slipped from US cross-hairs lays bare the war's real purpose - not protecting the American people from sworn enemies but giving vent to a visceral urge to strike back, no matter the consequences to the world, including this world here.

And so Ariel Sharon has duplicated the Bush approach, laying siege to whole Palestinian towns, terrorizing the innocent while efficiently recruiting yet more suicide murderers for Hamas, earning from Bush the sobriquet ''Man of Peace.'' It takes one to know one.

The primal Zionist dream was that Israel would be a nation like every other. Surely in this season of the war on terror, it is a nation like America. Yet Israel is held to a different standard, with its European critics especially taking glee in the Sharon-sponsored fall from grace while leaping to stern judg ment about the whole nation, about ''the Jews.'' Such critics seem deaf to objections that Jews themselves are lodging against Sharon - including nobly defiant soldiers.

Meanwhile, a self-appointed legion of Christian ''truth-tellers,'' who had nothing to say as Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade bombs desecrated Jewish holy days by killing children are now screaming in defense, as one Christian dissenter put it to you, of the stained glass windows of the basilica marking the birthplace of Jesus.

And so you go there - or as close to Bethlehem as the war will let you get. The Israeli siege in Manger Square means to many that ''the Jews'' are simply doing it again - assaulting the Christian Savior of the world. And you? What do you think? You are standing on the roof-terrace of Tantur, the Roman Catholic retreat where you once stayed. Tantur, presided over now by your old friend, is still admirably present to both peoples. Its vantage seems broader than most. At the foot of the hill is the army checkpoint, where a dozen tanks and half-tracks sit. Again the blue-and-white flag. You hear two gunshots - distinct, then gone. In the near distance is one of the refugee camps that the Israeli Army has left badly damaged, its people grossly humiliated. Yet more boys and girls for Hamas.

In the far distance, above the roofs, are the two towers that enable you to locate the holy place that honors Jesus. The town is quiet. The Israeli-imposed curfew means that no one is out, not a soul to be seen. A light rain begins to fall. Across the faux tranquility of a Biblical scene, you try to imagine the standoff pitting Israeli soldiers against Palestinian fighters, with Christian custodians of the sacred place caught between. And you wonder, why should the memory of Jesus be exempt from the tensions of this place?

Then you recognize - a final bolt - that if Jesus were here, to the discomfort of many, he would still be what he was until the day he died - a faithful Jew, that's all. He would be questioning violence, you presume to assert, yes. But from within his beloved Jewish people. Not against it.

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