Sitting on the beach during my first weekend in Israel listening to a new colleague talk, I felt so weightless I wondered if I might just float away. I was swapping stories with Ron Ben-Yishai, the military reporter who would assist me in the first half of my nine-year stint as Time's bureau chief in Jerusalem. His tale began with the loss of his father, when Ron was 4, in Israel's 1948 War of Independence. Ron himself fought as a paratrooper in the 1967 and 1973 wars and covered numerous other battles as a military correspondent. His left arm is a centimeter shorter than his right because of a Syrian shell he took in 1970. That hit, and an earlier fusillade from the Jordanians in 1968, left an array of shrapnel pieces and bullets that protrude from Ron's legs in little blue wedges. He lost two-thirds of a finger in yet another army action.
After hearing all this, it was my turn. I thought, what has ever happened to me? By comparison, nothing. I felt silly, insubstantial, or as Hebrew speakers say, k'kleepat ha shum, like the skin of a garlic clove.
That sense of inadequate gravity reasserted itself in nearly every new encounter. The bureau's photographer, David Rubinger, left Europe for Palestine as a teenager before the Holocaust, escaping the doom of his entire extended family, save one cousin, Annie, a camp survivor whom he found and brought to Jerusalem as his wife. Ron's successor as military reporter, Aharon Klein, was born to Holocaust survivors; his father, though a man of 21, weighed just 36 kg when he was liberated from the Ebensee Camp in Austria. As a boy, Jamil Hamad, the bureau's Palestinian reporter, was driven from his family's land in the 1948 fighting and became a refugee in the West Bank. In 1967, in their Bethlehem home, his wife Raeda was beaten unconscious by Israeli soldiers more or less for the heck of it. Another soldier in 1982 shot a tear-gas canister directly at the head of Jamil's son Souheil, splitting it open and condemning him to death but for the remarkable efforts of a team of Israeli doctors — a twist that nuances the Hamads' view of that episode and the conflict in general.
This was just my staff. In my early months of reporting on Israelis and Palestinians, I was struck by how virtually every person I met had been personally touched, if not brought low, by the tragedies of their respective peoples. The terrible stories were everywhere, often accompanied by distrust and rage. When I arrived in 1991, Palestinian fury was being expressed through stonestorms that compelled me to install rock-proof plastic windows on my Israeli-registered car. Later came the suicide bombings that would kill and maim dozens at a time and send all of Israel into paroxysms of fear. Israeli intelligence drew a profile of potential bombers: male, young, single, unemployed, devoutly Islamic and scarred by a personal experience of the conflict — a brother jailed without charge, an uncle shot by the army, a house demolished in some collective punishment. The last category applied to nearly every Palestinian I met.
The Israelis have their ferments also. An organization called Victims of Arab Terror is among the groups most opposed to peace. Holding the upper hand in the conflict, most Israelis don't feel a need to actively lash out at Palestinians. But their distrust demands an exhausting vigilance. Israeli police keep their blue revolving lights on at all times, as if constantly prowling for bad guys. Israelis have a preternatural sense of when the hour has struck so that they can flip on their radios to check whether disaster has arrived anew. I observed the phenomenon everywhere, even at the beach.
Over the years, I grew to regard such intensity as normal. I stopped getting anxious when a group of green-clad army boys would settle near me at a cafe, dropping their M-16s noisily to the floor. I started taking it for granted that an abandoned knapsack might contain a bomb. I also came to appreciate that despite all the psychological damage around me, on both sides of the Green Line, the cultures were basically intact, offering the improbable benefit of a real sense of security. There were the cycles of terrorism and once, as the U.S. prepared a major bombing of Iraq, the horrifying prospect of an anthrax retaliation by Saddam. But those were spasmodic fears, easier to bear, I think, than the constant disquietude in my native U.S. over violent crime. There are no carjackings in Israel. You don't have to worry that someone is going to steal your child.
Even in a climate as psychically overburdened as the Holy Land's, there are irrepressible lightnesses. The mother of an Israeli friend once said, "Even at Auschwitz, we were young." The activists I met from the terrorist group Hamas were among the most hospitable people I've known. In person, Yasser Arafat is charming. Ehud Barak is hilarious.
The pull of the conflict was constant nonetheless. In Mideastern cultures, what you are is always an issue. Palestinians I met wanted to know first, in Arabic from Jamil who often accompanied me, whether I was one of their "cousins," that is, a Jew. At a dinner party once, a prominent Israeli diplomat queried me relentlessly about my religion (I practice none and neither does the mother who raised me) until he pried out that my grandparents were Catholics. "Ah," he said, triumphantly. "You're a Catholic."
Because my name could be Jewish, the security staff at the Tel Aviv airport had a set of questions meant to clarify the matter. "Do you have family in Israel? What are your children's names? Where did you learn your [poor] Hebrew?" And once: "Did you ever volunteer on a kibbutz?" The last time I flew out of Israel, I made a game of it and offered answers that gave nothing away. Finally, I wore down and confessed that I wasn't Jewish. (To which the security agent replied, laughing, "Nobody's perfect.") Our contest took so long that I missed my flight.
In fact, I left Jerusalem feeling more Christian than I ever had. I came to understand why members of minorities need to embrace their commonality. Once, in a grocery store queue, I encountered a group of European nuns and felt — as a co-religionist, sort of — I had to connect with them. I tried scraps of every romance language I could muster and got baffled looks in return. Finally, I resorted to the only tongue we had in common. "Shabbat shalom," I uttered. Have a good weekend, in Hebrew.
The Middle East rubbed off on me in other ways. Eventually, I began to feel some of that gravity I'd long ago observed pressing down on me. But, lucky to have experienced calamitous misfortune only as an observer, I suspect the heaviness won't settle on me. Entering the airport terminal upon arrival in New York, I suddenly performed a feat I'd never managed before. I had kicked my heels in the air before I even knew what I was doing.