Don's diary: A passover without peace

April 26, 2002

In Israel for a week of research at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial museum and archive. I am met at a deserted Ben Gurion airport by the director of the library, Robert Rozett, with whom I shall stay in Jerusalem. It is a happy arrangement: I spend time with his delightful family and he gives me a lift each morning so I can avoid the nerve-wracking experience of getting on a bus - the suicide bombers' target of choice.

An excellent first day in the library. But while Rob is driving us home he notices ambulances rushing past. He switches the car radio to the news channel: a bomb in central Jerusalem. By temperament and conviction Rob is a gentle and tolerant man. Yet the horror of the bombings is stretching all Israelis to the limit.

Rob's family is preparing for Pesach (Passover). Anyway, these days they stay at home in the evenings, so I venture out to see friends. This is no simple matter: they agonise over the safest spot to meet and always pick me up. It is impossible to understand the paralysis of Israeli politics without grasping how far sympathy for the Palestinians has ebbed among those who always condemned the occupation, who fear Sharon as much as they loathe Arafat.

I collect my family from the airport, which is empty despite the impending holiday. We drive on eerily quiet roads to Haifa to celebrate the Seder (first night of Pesach ) with old friends from England who are veteran Jewish peace campaigners. Guests arrive wearing anxious faces. Someone's 18-year-old son who is doing army service is being sent to Ramallah. A boyfriend has been called to the reserves. But not a word is said about "hitting back", or echoing the government's rhetoric. Just a feeling of "here we go again", rendered more painful by memories of the period when years of campaigning for peace seemed to have paid off.

Halfway through the meal we learn about the Netanya bombing. My parents lived there for years, so I know Netanya well. It is unbearable to think that an hour earlier men, women, and children had sat down, just like us, only to have their lives ripped apart by a suicide bomber.

The timing is stunning. Jews gathered at the Seder table are called upon to remember when the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt. But they are also reminded that "in each generation there are some who rise up against us to annihilate us". In Israel and around the world Jews could not fail to make the connection with the massacre in Netanya. The bomber's name had been given by Israeli intelligence to the Palestinian police who did nothing to apprehend him.

We journey to Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi, where my wife has relatives, and visit archaeological sites in northern Israel. Twice on these trips we stop at Arab-run restaurants. The places are deserted and their proprietors are probably grateful for the meagre business we bring. The Arab waiters, recognising us as Jews and knowing it is Pesach , offer us matzoh , the traditional unleavened bread, to eat. This act of mutual understanding and respect hints that the foundations for co-existence endure despite everything.

A bomb in Haifa. Our friends know someone who is killed, along with his two teenage children.

Meanwhile, the Israeli army storms one Palestinian city after another. Casualties mount and innocent Arabs are killed and maimed while Palestinian militia and gunmen engage in unequal combat with Israeli tanks.

No one I meet in Kfar Hanassi or in Haifa expresses any zeal for this "operation". The tragedy is that a majority on both sides knows that violence is literally a dead end, while the solution is blindingly obvious. Most Israelis want to end the occupation and repression of the Palestinian Arabs. But even the doves have lost any faith in Arafat or his administration as a responsible vehicle for the just aspirations of the Palestinians.

David Cesarani is professor of modern Jewish history at Southampton University and director of the AHRB Parkes Centre for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations.

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