1. Opinion

A visitor to Jerusalem, caught in mutual agony

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Published Nov. 19, 2012

I'm in Jerusalem on book leave and everyone keeps asking me to write about all this mess. I keep saying that I don't ever write about things I can't fully understand.

It's why I like the law — it's tidy. I don't have much to say about what is happening all around me here in Israel. But maybe I can share a memory.

Thirty-five years ago, I spent a year with my family in Jerusalem. I was 10, and my dad was on an academic sabbatical at Hebrew University. My best friend and I danced to Europop in the living room every afternoon. It was the best year of my life.

And 35 years ago this week, Anwar Sadat addressed the Israeli Knesset in an unprecedented and historic move toward establishing peace between Israel and Egypt. My little brother and I stayed up half the night making an enormous Egyptian flag. We colored it in with pencils and crayons and trekked up to the Knesset with it, where we stood on the sidewalk with throngs of Israelis, waiting for his mortorcade to arrive. Our flag was so huge, we took up 3 feet of sidewalk.

My indelible memory of that day is that President Sadat smiled and waved at the two kids with the massive Egyptian flag as he drove past, and then we probably went home for ice cream. Sadat said in his remarks that Israel had a right to exist. We really believed he had made history that day. We had the flag to prove it.

I didn't come back to Jerusalem to be in a war. I came because I needed to take some time away to write my book about the Supreme Court (thank you, it's going fine) and because my parents live here in Israel and we wanted to spend a year with them.

I came because we desperately wanted to give our sons — who are 7 and 9 — a year in which their world became bigger and more complicated, since everything in their lives up until now had been measured out in equal units of comfort and Lego.

I don't really want to write a heartbreaking account of the sirens in Jerusalem Friday night, or the touching and innocent commentary offered up by our boys as they told us they were scared and wanted to go home. I am just not sure how such accounts help us move forward. I am fully aware that innocent children on either side are being traumatized by growing up in this way.

It says so much about the state of our discourse that the surest way to enrage everyone is to tweet about peace in the Middle East. Counting and photographing and tweeting injured children on each side isn't dialogue. Scoring your own side's suffering is a powerful way to avoid fixing the real problems, and trust me when I tell you that everyone — absolutely everyone — is suffering and sad and yet being sad is not fixing the problems either.

One good lesson I am learning this week is to shut up and listen. Because the only way to cut through the mutual agony here is to find people who have solutions and to hear what they have to say. Bombing the other side into oblivion is no more a solution than counting your dead children in public.

Everyone on every side of this is desperate. This isn't a way to live and we all know it. You want to hear about what it's like here? Everyone I know is sad. My kids don't care who started it and the little boys in Issawiya, the Arab village I see out my window, don't care much either. I haven't met a single Israeli who is happy about this. They know this fixes nothing. The one thing we learned this week is how quickly humans can come to normalize anything. But the hopelessness seeps right into your bones as well.

So tonight I will tell my kids about Sadat's visit 35 years ago, just as we told them last month about Yitzhak Rabin. I hope they understand what I am trying to tell them, because — forgive me — what they think matters more to me than what you all think right now. People who tell me you can't teach children about peace in a war zone are wrong. We have nothing but peace left to talk about.

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.

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