Life During Wartime, or,
Freedom and the Ordinary

Jay Michaelson

     This ain't no party, this ain't no disco,
     This ain't no fooling around
     This ain't no mudd club, or CBGB,
     I ain't got time for that now.

Life surely is about to get worse in Israel. I'm still planning to go in May, on my annual magical mystical tour, visiting the desert, bringing friends to Tsfat. But I feel like a pointless, indulgent tourist. Oh, never mind the bus-bombs, let's go feel spiritual.


I decided to postpone an article Zeek was going to run on Israel's peculiar relationship to the music of Richard Wagner. In part, the article, too, felt like an indulgence in a time of war. But mostly I didn't want to seem to miss the point. After the whole of the European Union expressed how appalled it was at the assassination of a mass murderer (as if he was somehow less lethal for being in a wheelchair, as if he were a politician rather than a guerilla commander), suggesting that Israel should get over its old fears of antisemitism seemed a bit presumptuous.


Every year, software gets worse - especially Microsoft software. Word insists on correcting the spelling of "antisemitism" to be "anti-Semitism," as if Europeans really hate Jews as Semites, rather than as Jews. "Anti-Semitism" was coined by a German Jew hater to explain to people that, look, we're not talking about poisoning the wells here; we're doing race science. Or politics.


The real indulgence in a time of war is to suddenly become solemn and self-righteous, especially if you're not the one at risk. True freedom is trivia. When I last lived in Israel, I noticed how scared I was to ride the intercity bus to Tel Aviv when the alert level was high. That fear was juxtaposed with the fact that it was just my boring, daily commute to my boring, daily law job. "Babbitt or Bust," I called it then.


Memorialized in a U2 song: In Sarajevo, during the war, the Bosnians held a beauty contest. Luciano Pavarotti contributed an aria to the song, "Miss Sarajevo." Pavarotti just retired last month, singing "Tosca" at the Met one final time. I never heard him sing live.


I know, intellectually, that the overwhelming majority of Israelis are going about their ordinary business today: going to work, picking the kids up at the metapelet, renting movies. What most apologists for Israel seem not to understand is that most Palestinians would like it that way too. True, there are many who make the destruction of Israel their raison d'etre, and there are many more who certainly wouldn't mind waking up tomorrow to a Jew-free Middle East. But most would really just like to rent a movie, to have a decent job, to pick their own kids up at daycare without fearing that they might be hit by a stray bullet. As much as war intrudes on my musings on spirituality and Wagner, it intrudes even more when you can't even go to the grocery store. Totalitarianism and war have this in common: you are never able to escape the political.


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Image: Bara Sapir

April 2004

Persistence of Vision
Dan Friedman

Avi Levy

Reading Toqueville in An Election Year
Michael Shurkin

Dead Sea
Debra Bruno

Life During Wartime
Jay Michaelson

David Goldstein

Our 450 Back Pages

David Stromberg

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From previous issues:

Carrying Light into Dark Times
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

When I Met Humility, I Saw Letters
Abraham Mezrich

Five Groups to be Angry at after September 11
Jay Michaelson