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The Illusion of Safety

July 25, 2009 – 7:37 pm4 Comments

melbMDAambofinalBy Jewin’ the fat

It was a boom. Dull, like the sound of fist hitting flesh.

Everyone in the restaurant looked up, and a couple of the kids wandered over to the windows. The wait-staff stopped, and the guy making pizza behind the bar asked aloud the question everyone was thinking:

“What the hell was that?”

The moment passes. Some of the younger boys are still hanging around the windows, peering out with an innocent curiosity, as their parents called them to finish their dinner. The waitresses picked up the drinks and continued on their way. Pizzas were made, money exchanged. Normal.

Was I the only person in the place who immediately looked for the exits, steadied my feet, felt the adrenalin course through my blood, ready in that instant both to run like the wind, and equally compelled to stay, to see if I was needed? Did anybody even think it was anything more than a crane dropping a load, or a car backfiring?


People often ask me if I feel safe in Israel, if I second-guess every glance my way, or if I avoid particular areas, or certain people.

The short answer is: sure I do. I call attention to every strange look, object or person, because I know the consequences if I don’t. Often the attention is undue and unnecessary, and I blush a little when I think of the contents of the gym-bag, or how hot it actually was in the bus – and how I must have looked to the surrounding people – a scared, ignorant foreigner.

But then I also remember sitting in a room at a Jerusalem hostel, hearing the wail of sirens as the cafe we sat in hours before was blown apart. Counting the ambulances: one (bad), two (worse) and three (suicide bombing) drove past. I remember holding my breath every time an ambulance drove by after that, and exhaling with relief as the sirens died away and silence filled the air. Sure, maybe someone had a heart attack, or an allergic reaction, but the additional two or three that could follow would signify something much more terrifying.

So as I queued waiting for my take-away on Sunday night, in a crowded restaurant in a small city in Australia, I looked around the families and friends, all jammed in to get a quick bite before rushing back home to catch the season finale of Masterchef. I thought back to the day friends and I crammed into a busy cafe for a mid-afternoon coffee, and the bloody aftermath for those who filed into the trendy Jerusalem cafe in 2003.

But I’m not kidding myself. No one can say with any certainty that Australia is necessarily safer. Sure; mugging, sexual assault, murder – it’s a jungle out there. I still bristle at the sound of feet on pavement behind me, and second-guess being alone in a cab at night.

Conversely, on the streets of Israel I walked freely alone in the hours before dawn, and made friends with Arab and Jewish cab drivers, accepting invitations to meet their family over coffee.

So is Australia any safer? Are Australians less likely to experience the tragedy of terrorism so close to home? Sure, bombs aren’t exploding in our restaurants and hotels, but they have in Bali, Mumbai, and now Jakarta, and Australians are counted amongst the victims.

So perhaps I wasn’t the only person in the restaurant on Sunday night to break out in a sweat as I heard that dull boom. In fact, I still don’t know what that low eerie sound was that night.  I paid my money, and went home safely to eat my pasta, nonetheless perturbed by what could have been.

So do I feel safer in Australia than Israel, than Jakarta, than Bali? Maybe. But it’s a fine line.

This article first appeared in http://jewinthefat.wordpress.com

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  • Almoni says:

    There’s a real danger here.

    It is transference of the trauma that you have experienced through a horrible terror attack into a generalised comment about safety issues in Australia. You feel safe in Jerusalem—yet I have had the opposite experiences as well, particularly when tear gas has been in the air.

    But once ‘a community’ picks up and generalises your feelings of fear into generalized levels of insecurity, we are in a problem zone. This affects not just Jews, but more recent refugee communities which demonstrate the effects of trauma.

    In reality, the ‘safety’ line between a pizzeria in Jerusalem and a pizzeria in Australia is much larger than you suggest.

    This point, and its possible over-salience has been taken up in other discussions in Sensible Jew about perceptions of safety and terrorism with very interesting responses.

    Plus, in your idealization of Israeli life you have paid no attention to the ritualised slaughter on the roads in Israel—an appalling aspect of Israel life. You have to also consider this as public random violence that is very characteristic of Israeli life. Fortunately, with some exceptions, we have this much more under control. I would also argue that your picture of Israeli life contains a regrettable, but frequent myopia. You forget that Palestinian citizens of Israel and occupied territories would be able to present you with a very different picture of their public safety in completely non-political, non-demonstration situations notwithstanding invitations for coffee.

    As for crime in this country, when there is violent crime in Australia, it is overwhelmingly family and friend related violence, though there are more cases of group related violence amongst young people (drugs, alcohol), and it appears, racially motivated violence against Indians (though this may be soft targets). Jewish related hate crime–I mean violent crime is small, but its social effects are large.

    For some reality checks


  • jewinthefat says:

    Put simply, Almoni, my intention was definitely to draw attention to the safety Australians have traditionally assumed for so long against violent terrorism, and the gradual shift that has for the past few years been pushing us closer and closer to changing our collective tune.

    The reaction that I had that night in the Pizzeria in Australia, as someone who has spent a considerable amount of time in a country where strange people or sounds could mean scores dead, was sharply contrasted to the mix of innocent curiosity and blissful ignorance of the patrons who heard the sound that I did.

    The question is why Australians, who were killed in New York, in Bali, in London, in Madrid, in Mumbai and in Jakarta, seemed any less aware or concerned than I was?

  • Almoni,

    Why does every article that talks about life in Israel need to also pay homage to how life might be for Palestinians? or how they might also experience similar things?

  • frosh says:


    Quite right. This is something that really annoys me in general. Someone on ABC radio can be interviewing an Israeli electical engineer, actor, tennis player, football coach, chef, or any profession on any topic, and it seems that a question must be asked about Palestinians, conflict, human rights etc.

    On the other hand, there are numerous business articles and interviews with Emirates, Etihad, or some other Gulf corporation, and I have never heard anyone ask a question on human rights or politics (e.g. Why do you work your contruction workers from the subcontinent in 48’C? Why are Israeli passport holders not permitted to enter your country?)

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