I've been feeling pretty safe for a while now. The highly tense environment of my first weeks here, with its constant stream of Palestinian stabbing attacks and eliminationist-rhetoric packed demonstrations by far-right Israeli activists, has settled into a routine of only mild tension, with only occasional flareups of violence. Perhaps more importantly, I've become more comfortable with the unique risks of living here. I think it's a natural human impulse to become inured to things that once scared you, and that's certainly happened to me. I no longer keep my back against walls when I'm standing in the street to ward off stabbers, I'm totally fine riding city buses even when they're packed, etc. I don't even think about the safety implications of various aspects of my life here anymore. Until last night.
Last night, there was a fire at a Jerusalem office building that houses the offices of B'Tselem, a prominent anti-occupation human rights NGO, and the Yad B'Yad bilingual school network where I teach on Tuesdays. Current reports are that the fire was accidental, but initial reports indicated that it was arson. Left-wing groups have been under siege in Israel for a while now, with a proposed law requiring representatives of left-wing NGOs that receive foreign funding to wear special badges when lobbying in the Knesset attracting a great deal of support. Additionally, Im Tirtzu, a right-wing youth group with ties to the governing coalition and to Christian Right groups in the United States, released a video depicting leaders of several NGOs as Palestinian terrorists.
B'Tselem, perhaps the most prominent anti-occupation NGO in Israel, has been recently subjected to a demonization campaign that, for my American readers, can probably be best compared to the campaign against Planned Parenthood that's occurred over the past 6 months: a previously unknown right-wing group released a hidden-camera video purportedly showing an employee of B'Tselem attempting to set up the arrest of a Palestinian who sold West Bank land to settlers by the Palestinian Authority and laughing about the possibility that the land dealer could be tortured or killed by the PA. The statements of the B'Tselem staffer appear to have been taken out of context or manipulated, but many right-wing politicians have called for investigation and/or prosecution of B'Tselem and its staff. So a tense environment, and then the fire in a building housing left-wing organizations.
I work for a labor rights organization in Tel Aviv that, while officially non-partisan, is considered to be on the left and has been featured on a right-wing website that purportedly "monitors" left-wing groups. My office in Tel Aviv is on the 4th floor of a building that houses a couple of other left-wing organizations-one organization that works on civil liberties issues in Israel and the territories, and an organization that works on behalf of asylum seekers in Israel. Today, for the first time, I looked for the location of the fire exits when I entered the office. When I entered the chaotic conference room that serves as my office, I looked out the window to see if there's some sort of fire escape, or in a worst-case scenario, something that could break my fall if I had to jump. Rationally, I don't think I'll ever need it. Last night's fire wasn't even an arson! But whether it's standing with your back to walls or thinking about whether you could jump from your office window, fear makes you a little irrational. Maybe even a little crazy.