The decisive factor in next week’s election — and the reason for Benjamin Netanyahu’s durability — is a repressed memory.
JERUSALEM — When trying to understand Israel’s election on Sept. 17, the second in the space of six months, you can easily get lost in the details — corruption charges, coalition wrangling, bickering between left and right. But the best explainer might be a small film that you’re unlikely to see about something that people here prefer not to discuss.
The opening scene of “Born in Jerusalem and Still Alive,” which just won the prize for best first feature at the Jerusalem Film Festival, catches the main character grimacing as he overhears a glib tour guide. When she describes downtown Jerusalem to her group as “beautiful,” the “center of night life and food for the young generation,” Ronen, an earnest man in his late 30s, interrupts.
“Don’t believe her,” he tells the tourists in Hebrew-accented English. “You see this market? Fifteen years ago it was a war zone. Next to my high school there was a terror attack. Next to the university there was a terror attack. First time I made sex — terror attack.” One of the tourists sidles over, interested. “Yes,” Ronen tells her, “we had to stop.”
No single episode has shaped Israel’s population and politics like the wave of suicide bombings perpetrated by Palestinians in the first years of the 21st century. Much of what you see here in 2019 is the aftermath of that time, and every election since has been held in its shadow. The attacks, which killed hundreds of Israeli civilians, ended hopes for a negotiated peace and destroyed the left, which was in power when the wave began. Any sympathy that the Israeli majority had toward Palestinians evaporated.
More than any other single development, that period explains the durability of Benjamin Netanyahu, which outsiders sometimes struggle to understand. Simply put, in the decade before Mr. Netanyahu came to power in 2009, the fear of death accompanied us in public places. There was a chance your child could be blown up on the bus home from school. In the decade since, that has ceased to be the case. Next to that fact, all other issues pale. Whatever credit the prime minister really deserves for the change, for many voters it’s a good enough reason to keep him in power on Sept. 17.
Given the centrality of those years, it’s striking how seldom they actually come up in conversation. Along Jaffa Road, the hardest-hit street (and the setting for “Born in Jerusalem”), the traces have become nearly invisible. The Sbarro pizzeria where in 2001 a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 15 people, including seven children and a pregnant woman, is now a bakery with a different name. It’s a few paces from where I’m writing these lines, and it’s full of customers, many of whom probably don’t know what happened there.
That’s what “Born in Jerusalem” is about. Not politics, but the repression of personal memory that has allowed us to move on while leaving an unsettling sense of missing time.
In another scene in the film, Ronen and his love interest, a Jerusalemite named Asia, discuss those years, which she can call only “the time of the attacks.” It allows him to point out the period’s strangest feature, which is that it doesn’t have a name. The Palestinians called it the “second intifada,” and Israelis euphemized it as “the situation.”
It isn’t officially considered a war, even though it killed more Israelis than the Six-Day War of 1967. And no one can say exactly when it began or ended. The attacks picked up in the mid-1990s, as Israel pursued a peace deal and ceded land, but the worst came between 2000 and 2004. Though other forms of violence persist, the last Israeli fatality in a Palestinian suicide bombing was in 2008.
This repression of memory has helped the Palestinian leadership pretend that none of it ever happened, and few of the foreign journalists covering the country right now were here at the time. Why are moderate Israelis afraid to pull out of the West Bank? Why has the once-dominant left become a meager parliamentary remnant? Why is there a separation barrier? Why is the word “peace” pronounced with sarcasm while the word “security” carries a kind of supernatural weight? If you weren’t in Israel then and can’t access the national subconscious now, the answer will be elusive.
The film’s Ronen is the alter ego of Yossi Atia, 39, who plays him and wrote and co-directed the film. Mr. Atia, like me, lived through those years in Jerusalem as a college student. His character can’t bear the silence, or the feeling that he’s crazy for remembering, so he starts leading sightseeing tours of his own in the heart of the city: the Sbarro pizzeria, the place where two bombers exploded together near Zion Square, the vegetable market that got hit again and again.
He hands tourists old Nokia cellphones and has them simulate one of the period’s key rituals: the calls we used to make after attacks to tell our families we were O.K. It’s unclear if this is meant as education for the people he’s showing around, or therapy for him. He explains the odd social calculations that would follow an attack: If eight people, say, had just been killed on a bus, could you go out with a friend for a drink that evening? (Yes.) What if it was 12 people in a cafe? Could you go on a date? (No.) Ronen has an actual chart.
I remember those quandaries of terror etiquette, just as I remember standing at a bus stop when I heard a suicide bomber blow himself up and murder 11 people one street over, at Café Moment. My mother passed through the Nahariya train station right before a suicide bomber struck there, and my sister was in a cafeteria at the Hebrew University campus when Palestinians blew up a different cafeteria. I’ve got many more memories like that, all of them standard for the time.
When I spoke to Mr. Atia, he said he thought Israelis avoid the subject for an obvious reason: It’s too awful. Because the carnage wasn’t on a distant battlefield or limited to soldiers, the experience encompassed the whole society, and you don’t forget images or fear like that even if you’ve forced it all down to the murkiest layers of your brain. “It wasn’t a military war, it was a civil war, and the victims were civilians,” he said. His character, Ronen, wants to talk about it, and that makes him strange: “No one wants to listen.”
Mr. Atia’s movie doesn’t trade in any discernible anger at the Palestinians or anyone else, even when Ronen demonstrates how the Sbarro bomber rigged his explosives inside a guitar case. The approach is a kind of light surrealism. The closest thing to political comment comes when he points out that the memorial plaques from the bombings of the 1990s, the years of the peace process, followed the victims’ names with the traditional Jewish phrase “May their memories be blessed.” By the early aughts it had changed to a different phrase drawn from tradition: “May God avenge their blood.”
But he knows they happened, and so does the Israeli electorate. As a psychiatrist might tell us, the deeper something is repressed, the more power it exerts. So when Mr. Netanyahu declares in an election ad that “in the stormy Mideastern sea we’ve proven that we can keep Israel an island of stability and safety,” we all know what he means, even if we don’t vote for him. That’s his strongest card, and if he wins, that will be why. The scenario we’re afraid of is clear even if it doesn’t have a name. It doesn’t need one.