After 44 years of life as an American Jew, I finally visited Israel last month on a three day business trip. On the third day I took a guided tour of Jerusalem, then flew home on the red-eye.
Twenty-three years earlier, in the summer of 1976, I had cancelled a ticket to Israel from Athens. It was my college graduation trip; I spent a month in Europe with a Eurail pass. I had made no plans in advance except to buy the Israeli flight. I started the trip in London, spent a few days in Paris, then took the train to Brindisi, Italy, and a ferry to Corfu and on to the mainland. I stayed in a cheap hotel, and walked all over Athens. When it was time to leave for Israel, I decided not to. I had booked the trip to Tel Aviv because everyone thought I should go to Israel. But I hadn't really seen Greece yet.
In my heart, I was more ancient Greek than Jewish. To the extent we choose our affinities, I opted for the birthplace of reason over that of superstition. I went down to the Piraeus to catch a ferry to Spetsai, met a girl and went to Mykonos with her instead. On the ferry I thought that, for the first time in my life, no-one knew where I was.
At Columbia, I had taken Arthur Hertzberg's course about Zionism. It is the only college class I remember in unusual detail.
First, there were some readings on Jewish identity: various attempts to answer the question, Why be a Jew? And the answer I remember was a bitter one: what choice do you have? The world won't let you be anything else.
I wondered about the nature of Jewish identity. Certainly I felt Jewish, but based on what?
I wasn't religious, nor did I think that Jews were a race. The geneticists hadn't yet established that "race" itself was a highly slippery, mainly cultural concept. I just didn't think that there were a common set of physical characteristics shared by Jews. Of course, after the Holocaust, Jews have a strong investment in not believing this; but I knew Jewish people of every physical description, including blue-eyed blondes.
I found an answer to my question. My sense of being Jewish was based on a set of shared cultural references, which included a certain sense of humor and view of history. I hadn't read Renan yet, but his definition of a "nation" applies also to groups that are not rooted in a particular geographic place together: A nation is a daily plebiscite, based on some mutual agreements as to what is remembered and what is forgotten. Being Jewish meant simply sharing some historical memories and understandings about them. From that point of view, one could opt out of being Jewish, as Disraeli's or Barry Goldwater's parents had.
I lived in the United States, in a city whose population was one quarter Jewish (when I was born the Jewish population of New York City outnumbered that of the state of Israel, which had been created just six years before). Therefore I had largely been shielded from antisemitism.
The only instances I remembered from childhood were gross statements made by people lower in the social scale than I was: my parents were professionals and I lived in a larger house. I had also read in the New York Times in the sixties about KKK members who didn't consider Jews white. Later in college, I dated a girl from Philadelphia and I encountered the more subtle form of prejudice of the old moneyed class: the prejudice of the Union League club. But the impact was tempered by the realization that the Social Register and the class it represented had become a bywater in contemporary American life. At the Union League Club, I ate with the wrong fork. But a few years later in Harvard Law School, I watched a Jewish professor of mine who had been an adviser to Presidents put his face down into his soup bowl to sip.
The most painful antisemitism I encountered was that of the nineteenth century, in reading authors whom I profoundly respected. Somewhere Dostoyevski speaks of the "submissive leer seen on the face of every member of the Jewish race without exception." Henry Adams, the paragon of the gentle American intellectual able to take the long view of history--and a representative of the Boston branch of that Philadelphia class which he knew was already irrelevant in 1863--refers in his Education to the "hideous yowling" in Yiddish of an immigrant Jew at Ellis Island. Imagine spending a day with an intellectual idol, who halfway through a fascinating discourse, slaps your face for no reason.
The hatred of the nineteenth century intellectuals, read together with the murders of Hitler, gave some support for a second basis for Jewish identity: the proposition, learned in Hertzberg's class, that the world wouldn't let me be anything but a Jew. At the Auschwitz railway platform, the Jews discharged for incarceration or slaughter included the Jewish soulmates of Henry Adams---people like Primo Levi and Jean Amery-- and the modern descendants of Adams' caftan-garbed yowler. If we are all bundled off to the gas together, regardless of what we have made of ourselves, the best thing is to put hooks down into our Jewish identity, and hang on to it defiantly and for dear life (or death.) In Romain Gary's Dance of Genghis Cohen the protagonist drops his pants in front of the Nazi shooting squad and shouts "Kush mir im tokhes!"--"Kiss my ass!"
In professor Hertzberg's class, we moved on to Herzl, and his very unusual and new idea that in order to win the respect of the world, the Jews needed a state of their own.
There were several things I liked about Herzl. He had bootstrapped his way to reknown: he talked his way in to meet the Pope, claiming to represent the Jewish people. Once the Pope had seen him, Herzl could gain admission to every other European head of state.
Herzl had said, "If you will it, it is not a dream." I wrote the words on an index card, and put them on the mirror in my small, roach infested room in John Jay Hall. I remember those words to this day. When all else fails, the force of will will sometimes get you there.
At one point, the British had offered Uganda to the Jews. Herzl was inclined to accept the invitation. This bothered me. If the Jews had set up in Uganda, their country would have been another Rhodesia or South Africa. Was Israel so different? I knew it armed South Africa, the other isolated and defiant state in the continent.
I read a biography of Nasser. The frontispiece was a map of Palestine, divided under the 1947 mandate. The Palestinian state looked like a gerrymander, engineered for maximum insecurity and futility.
Hertzberg's readings had included shocking samples of bloody nationalism and the advocacy of violence against Arabs. I asked him one day if there could be any peace, any security in the middle east if Israel did not reach some accomodation with the Palestinians. He said no, there could not.
I don't remember if it was in that class or elsewhere that I first learned about Deir Yassin, the site of the worst massacre of Arabs by Jews. No one I spoke to, none of the American Jews I knew, had heard of it or wanted to speak of it. There was a terrible double standard. American Jews were largely civil libertarians. The slightest state intrusion on the fourth or fifth amendment, such as a road stop without probable cause, got their juices flowing. But you could not get these same Americans to criticize the Israeli habit of bulldozing the homes of the parents of suspected terrorists. The only answer you got was, "Its different over there. You can't say anything because you haven't lived over there." Over and over again: "Its a tiny little country and in 1947, they said they were going to drive us all into the sea."
In 1978 I took a year off from law school and worked in Paris. In my class at the Alliance Francaise were two Palestinians, the first I had ever met. One was a young engineering student, the other a doctor in his thirties. I got to know them both quite well. In Paris, people were so busy seeing me as an American that few stopped to think or to ask if I was also a Jew. I wanted to know the Palestinians, so I never told them, though the younger man clearly suspected when he asked me: "Have you ever visited my country?"
They were people just like me. I learned that the Palestinians were the Jews of the Arab world, smart and entrepreneurial, more highly educated, producing a disproportionate number of intellectuals.
I began to regard the foundation of Israel as an act of desperation and unbalance. There was no possibility of peace when you founded your country on the backs of another people. It was devastating that we escaped from the Holocaust only to found Israel and to prove we were no better than anyone else.
I hated and feared the P.L.O. At the end of the year abroad, I was held briefly at machine gun point during the robbery of a post office by men in ski masks. I never found out if they were political, let alone Palestinian, but the man with the mask and the snaky, diabolical gun was a figure of nightmare, the hooded Palestinian looking out the window from the house of murder at the Olympics. The Palestinians were blowing up planes, or hijacking them. Hijackers were separating Jews out from others by their names and appearance, and sometimes killing them. Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly man in a wheelchair, was thrown from a ship. One one day, terrorists in three European cities opened fire in airports. I remember a photograph of a group of people, including a delicate and beautiful girl with long dark hair, lying dead in a pool of blood.
Was it necessary to become a monster in order to fight monsters? Or was there some way to opt out of the game? Israel existed, people said, so that the Jews would have a place to go, when again rejected everywhere else. Aaron Streiter, a college professor of mine who was an Orthodox Jew, said to me, "You are an American first and a Jew second. I am a Jew first and an American second." It seemed wrong, even shockingly selfish, to live in this country and be anything else but an American first. In any event, I was one. Israel didn't exist for me. It was a middle eastern country inhabited by Jews. Americans who went there didn't last, they always came back, because the life was too hard.
The intifadah began. The sympathy I had never felt when the image of Palestine was a hooded murderer flowed for the kids in the streets. If I was a Palestinian teenager, I thought, I too would be angry and desperate. And I learned that rubber bullets also can kill.
Given all this, what did the Jewish state mean to me? It was very hard to say. I admired the Genghis Cohen-like act of defiance involved in its creation. But I could not escape the thought that it was a Uganda shrouded in mysticism, that the truth about its treatment of the Palestinians was hidden or deflected by the memory of Moses and the more recent memory of the Holocaust. I could not root an ethical right to Palestine either in the fact that the Jews had lived in Jerusalem two thousand years ago or in the fact we had been murdered in large numbers fifty years before.
The most emotional argument American Jews make about Israel is that it is the one country on earth eager to receive us. Home, said Robert Frost, is the place that when you go there, they have to take you in. As the son of a Jewish mother, I could turn up at Ben Gurion airport demanding Israeli citizenship and they would give it to me. That was a powerful thing (though if only my father was Jewish, I wouldn't be entitled.) People like my Uncle Sy still warned that the friendship of America for us could be an illusion. There were Jews in 1930's Germany, they pointed out, equally secular, equally confident of their German identity. Germany at its height was more "civilized" (by which people like Sy really meant more "cultured"--better philosophers, novelists and composers) than America had ever been.
For the most part, I did not believe that the U.S. could ever reject us the way Germany had. Even supposing it was true, the argument in favor of Israel, if regarded purely as a matter of cold-blooded survival, failed. The chance of Israel being destroyed at some time in the future, by an invasion or an atom bomb, seemed equal to (if not greater than) the chance of America deciding to wipe out its Jews. Therefore, the argument was not one of pure survival after all, but again a moral one: assuming the worst, where would you rather make your last stand? Here or in Israel?
Phrased this way, the answer was clear, as I supposed it had been for many German Jews---and as it was for my hero, Socrates, in Athens twenty-four hundred years before: I would make my last stand right here, because this is my country. Professor Streiter was right: I was an American first and a Jew second.
A nation for the Jews was a mixed blessing. I believed that Herzl was correct, that the world treats you with more respect when you are associated with a country than when you have none. (Of course, not all countries are regarded as equal; there is a vast difference between the reception you get as a French person in New York and as an Ecuadorean, for example.) It was better, particularly in the nineteenth century when Herzl's ideas were baked, to be able to say, "I am a member of the proud nation of ______," than to be a stateless person like a Gypsy or Jew.
But the stateless, like other powerless groups, have access to a certain moral dignity, a high ground that is denied to them when they stoop to the field of action. In fact, one explanation of the Jewish culture in exile having thrown off so many thinkers is that the possibilities of action, in politics and public life, were so limited for so many centuries. I had been raised with a vague, but very strong idea, that Jews were morally superior. It was taught and held naively, and is an embarrassing, even a horrifying thing to admit today. On the one hand, as we all know, pride is a good thing; to be proud to be Irish or Italian or African-American or Jewish implies that you think it is better than being something else. On the other, much murder and mischief is rooted in the belief in superiority---as Jews should know from our own experience of the Holocaust.
A belief in Jewish superiority, when examined, seemed to be rooted in several components. Part of it was an innocent pride in knowing who was Jewish: we make lists which start with Moses Maimonides or Spinoza, include Freud and Einstein, and range as far as Debra Winger and Dustin Hoffman. Add to that the very fact of statelessness and suffering, and you have a powerful brew. A funny moment from the television show Soap, more than twenty years ago: "So you say you're a rabbi. May I see your credentials?" "Four thousand years of suffering! Those are my credentials!"
As I discovered in my reading about Auschwitz, suffering does not ennoble. The best mainly did Auschwitz (peace to Primo Levi, who himself taught me this in his writings.) A saint would have died on the first day. People who knew how to beat the system came out alive.
So it was possible that the nobility of statelessness was itself a crock, that it said nothing true about us. Our ancestors, as revealed in our own religious writings of the Old Testament, were a violent people. The morality of the Old Testament is "an eye for an eye." "An eye for an eye," said Gandhi, "makes the whole world blind." The historian J.B. Bury, in his History of Freedom of Thought, regretted the adoption of the Old Testament as part of the Bible and attributed to its morality the violence of the Inquisition.
Nevertheless, in founding a state, we had declared ourselves with a vengeance to be no different, and no better, than anyone else on earth. From the generalized and universal God of Spinoza, from his ethics, we had descended to the "force, might, beatings" of the Israeli response to the intifadah. As a Jewish contribution to the world's storehouse, I preferred Spinoza, Freud's theory of the unconscious, Einstein's general theory of relativity, to rubber bullets and the bulldozing of Palestinian houses.
I spent two nights in a pleasant but modern hotel on the beach in Herzliya (a suburb of Tel Aviv named after Herzl.) There was no sense of history here; I was on the Mediterranean and might as well have been in France or Italy. In town, every storefront was either a McDonalds or a Staples or an Israeli store imitating an American one. The first night my hosts took me to a barbecue restaurant, the second night to a Mexican place. On the walls hung American western memorabilia, old bicycles, nostalgic posters: I could have been in New York, Boston or Austin.
On the last morning, I waited in the lobby for my tour guide, Tommy, who arrived five minutes late, after fighting the morning rush hour traffic. Tommy was a man about my age, shorter and broader-shouldered, with a mustache. In the car, he started explaining certain Jewish traditions to me in a way that indicated he had no idea I was Jewish. I told him and he was shocked. "What kind of a name is Wallace?" I explained that an ancestor had adopted it on the theory that it was a better name to use selling eyeglasses in New York than the one he had brought over from the Ukraine. I was surprised by his surprise: for two days, everyone I met had spoken to me in Hebrew. Since all the Israelis I knew so far had grandparents who had come over from the Ukraine, Russia or Eastern Europe, I thought I was ethnically identical to the people I met.
Tommy's parents were Jews from Iraq. He explained that three or four years after the state of Israel was born, some of the Arab countries opened their doors temporarily to allow their Jewish populations to emigrate. Israel had started with a population of six hundred thousand and greeted more than a million more people during this short period. "Every year in Iraq," Tommy said, "they held a Passover seder and said the words, 'Next year in Jerusalem.' Then one year they were in Jerusalem." This was my first emotional moment in Israel: every Jew who goes there comes back describing an overwhelming moment, and that was mine. I had often used the familiar line as an ironic statement; whenever anyone ended a discussion of a desire or plan by saying "Maybe next year," I replied, "Yes, next year in Jerusalem." For Tommy's family, living as outsiders in an Arab society hostile to them, the yearning statement had become a literal truth in 1951, even though they had to leave behind everything they had in order to attain it. I could not quite stand in their shoes, having grown up on East 21st Street in Brooklyn without a sense of oppression or desire to leave. The experience was more like a quick glimpse into someone's brilliantly lit window from a passing train.
There was not housing to accomodate all the refugees and Tommy was born in a displaced persons camp in Israel, where he spent his first fourteen years. "I'll bet you didn't know there were d.p. camps for Jews here," he said. I hadn't.
We were on the highway to Jerusalem. We had finally left Tel Aviv's blocky construction behind and were starting to see fields, farms and villages. "Does that house look familiar to you?" Tommy asked, pointing out a large structure that stood out from its surroundings both because of its size and its design. I said I couldn't place it. "It is an exact replica of the Lubavicher Rebbe's house on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. They built it in case he ever came here, but he never did. Do you know the Lubavicher Hasidim?" I said my cousin was one, and Tommy said "Oy gewalt". The Hasidim are a fundamentalist sect of Orthodox Jews--the ones you see in the heavy black coats, dark hats and sideburns (peyas)-- today's embodiment of Henry Adams' "yowlers". Theirs is actually a somewhat modern tradition, founded in Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century.
The Lubavicher group of Hasidim was an international movement led by a rabbi named Menachem Schneerson who lived in that house in Brooklyn. Although he never confirmed it, his followers believed he was the Messiah predicted in Jewish prophetic tradition. Christians believe Christ was that Messiah, but Jews believe he has not come yet. There is also a tradition that Jews will not be entitled to live in the Holy Land until the Messiah has returned, so some Hasidim do not recognize the state of Israel.
Rabbi Schneerson died some years ago, undoubtedly disappointing his more fervent followers by his failure to return after death. He also failed to appoint a successor, but the Lubavichers go on.
Everyone I met in Israel was more or less secular, and a common topic of conversation was the religious. The Orthodox, as long as they do not work and study at yeshiva, are exempt from serving in the army, and many Israelis tremendously resent this privileged status, as every other Israeli, male or female, spends three years in the military. Tommy said that the next big crisis in Israel would not be between Israelis and Palestinians: the secular and orthodox were headed for confrontation. "They don't even think we're Jewish," Tommy complained, "but they don't do anything to support the Jewish state." I asked if they were exempt from taxes too. "Not technically, but since they don't work they don't pay any. The yeshivas support them and the yeshivas are supported by our tax money." He attributed the problem to a bad judgment call by Ben Gurion in 1947. "He didn't want Jewish identity to be based solely on negatives like oppression, although he himself was secular. When the rabbis approached him and asked for a special status for yeshiva students, he agreed. There were only a few hundred of them at the time and he didn't foresee the size of the group we would end up supporting." In Israeli politics today, the religious are profoundly influential, though the state itself is avowedly secular. El Al, the national airline, does not fly on the Sabbath; there are sometimes incidents where the Orthodox come out and throw rocks at people who are not respecting the Sabbath properly. Tommy told me later in the day that the Orthodox have a monopoly on marriage; there is no such thing as a civil marriage in Israel, therefore there is actually no mechanism for a Jew to marry a non-Jew. Of course, with the fears many secular Jews have of assimilation, this seems to coincide with the goals of the state, which after all is aimed at the preservation of the Jews.
We passed a beautiful field of sunflowers, my favorites, then took a side road that led to Jerusalem through the West Bank. Everywhere were olive trees and the terraced agriculture I had seen before in Greece. We saw an Arab man in traditional dress riding a donkey, and vendors selling fruit from little tables at the roadside. Tommy told me how unsafe the road would have been during the intifadeh. "Are we in Palestinian-controlled territory?" I asked naively. Tommy laughed and said no. He searched the glove compartment for a series of maps, which he pulled over and showed me: the gerrymandered British Mandate, which to my eye now looked as insecure for the Jews as the Arabs, and the country's borders after the 1948, 1967 and 1973 wars. "Each time the Arabs attacked us, and we ended up bigger." I wondered how the ultimate settlement would compare to the proposed 1947 borders. "The Palestinians will have less territory than they would if they hadn't fought us for fifty years. But they deserve it for causing us all this trouble."
Every Israeli in the limited group I spoke to was secular, and every one wanted peace. "What do we need the land for? Trade it for peace," was a common sentiment. Secular Israelis want to stop fighting and dying, and to get on with their lives. Some of the Orthodox, rather than denying Israel, believe that the Jews have a God-given right to the entire country, including those portions captured from Arabs in the three wars. These are the ones who are rapidly buying up Arab land and founding new settlements to influence the outcome of the peace negotiations. It was an Orthodox man who machine-gunned Palestinians in a mosque some years ago; to some on the right he is a figure of honor, as is the yeshiva student who assassinated prime minister Rabin.
Tommy, like the others I met, was glad that Barak had beaten Netanyahu in the elections. People seemed to think Netanyahu was a demagogue, in thrall to the religious and the right, stirring up trouble with the Palestinians as a way out of the peace accords negotiated by Rabin. All were confident that Barak (who, weeks after my visit, still has not formed a government, thereby leaving Netanyahu in charge) would put things back on track.
Tommy was probably somewhat to the right of the other Israelis I met. Their roots were in Europe, his in the middle east; they were Westernized, Europeanized, had all lived in London or New York as students or businessmen before returning to Herzliya. Tommy too had spent a eyar in the US after finishing his military service, but he had been poor; he worked illegally in New York to save money to travel the country. Montana was the most beautiful place he had ever seen, he said. He had dated American girls, in the US and in Jerusalem, but had always known he would marry an Israeli.
He showed me the Palestinian-controlled areas on the latest map of Israel. They had begun by offering Arafat the Gaza strip, the poorest, most desperate part of the country, which no-one wanted; it was a security nightmare. He had agreed on condition that he also received control over more desirable areas: cities like Hebron and Bethlehem. So far, the land around these cities was still under Israeli control.
We passed a checkpoint, the first of three that day, where a bored Israeli soldier paid no attention to anyone passing. "Things have changed a lot since the intifadeh," Tommy said laughing.
I learned that Arabs in Israel fall into three categories: ones with Israeli citizenship; people who are entitled to Israeli citizenship but have chosen not to ask for it; people with Jordanian and other nationalities who are not entitled to become Israeli. These latter live in the areas captured in the most recent wars. Tommy himself lives in a Jewish village outside Jerusalem ("technically, a settlement") which borders an Arab village whose citizens decided not to oppose Israel in 1948. There are a number of Arab legislators in the Knesset--the parliament--but Arabs are exempted, like the Orthodox, from service in the army. A few days ago, in an embarrassing incident, the police shot one of the Arab members of parliament with rubber bullets while quelling a demonstration.
Tommy clearly disliked Arabs: in the course of the day he seemed concerned that I recognize that Arab areas were dirtier and poorer than Jewish neighborhoods. Later, in the Arab market in Jerusalem, when I stopped to buy two CD's of Israeli music, he said, "Do you know you just did a beautiful thing? You selected the only store in the market owned by a Jew." Everywhere we went, Tommy saw friends of his--other tour guides, shop owners, museum staff, bus drivers--and at least one of the friends, the owner of the restaurant where we ate lunch, was Palestinian. Tommy's was the prejudice of familiarity, of South Africa or the American south, rather than that of distance. But Tommy was also a pragmatist; he didn't want Israel mired in blood and fighting. Years ago, people believed that Israel required a security zone in Lebanon, to prevent cross-border attacks on villages like Quiryat Shemona. But the tax for holding that security buffer is twenty-five to thirty dead Israeli soldiers a year, and no-one wants to pay that any more. The day I was there, the newspapers were full of reports about the army pulling back from a particular "strategic hamlet" in Lebanon, leaving its allies, the South Lebanon Army, unprotected against the Syrian-backed Hezbollah. Some SLA members were fleeing, others stayed behind expecting to be killed when Hezbollah came in. The poignant, ambivalent coverage was reminiscent of our last days in Viet Nam. "No-one now wants to be the last Israeli soldier killed in Lebanon," one paper said.
Since my visit, there has been another day of rocket attacks on Quiryat Shemona, with the first Israeli civilian casualties since 1995. Netanyahu responded with bombs, an action of which Barak says he was informed but did not endorse.
We were above Jerusalem now, on Mount Olive, where the university is located. We were overlooking the entire city; Tommy pointed out the huge gold Dome of the Rock, on the location where the Jewish Temple formerly stood, and the wall surrounding the Old City. Directly below us was a cemetery, where the oldest graves were a thousand years old, and the newest, he thought, from around the 1948 war. The bodies were underground, but over each one was a stone chamber engraved in Hebrew. Jews mark a visit to a grave by leaving a small pebble on it; I have left them on my father's grave and others. The graves below me were heaped with little stones.
Tommy showed me that Jerusalem was a point of division: farms on one side, desert on the other due to a large difference in the amount of rainfall.
Behind us was a new wall on which the names of people who had made large contributions to the Hebrew University were engraved: Stephen Spielberg's name was prominent. We drove down twisty little streets to the Old City, past churches and monasteries and groups of wandering American Baptists fulfilling a lifelong dream of visiting the Holy City.
We parked with some difficulty and entered the Jewish quarter. Our first visit was to a museum built over the excavation of Jewish priestly houses from around the beginning of the Christian era. These villas had all burned within a month or two after the destruction of the Second Temple. There was a mikvah, a large Jewish ritual bath, and several rooms away from it, an ordinary small bathtub carved in the rock. Glass cases displayed the items of everyday life: perfume bottles, tiny oil lamps, sticks used to apply make-up. There was a frieze which showed the earliest known image, Tommy said, of a menorah, the lamp we light at Chanukah. The excavations had been done, and the museum opened, after Israel took the rest of Jerusalem in 1967.
The marks of more recent violence are evident in the Old City in proximity to the traces of flames from 2000 years ago. The gate we entered by is chipped with bullet holes from 1948 and Tommy pointed out the ruins of two synagogues blown up by the Arabs that same year. "I will explain to you later why they were blown up." In the museum, he showed me an aerial photograph from before that war: the two synagogues blocked the view of the Dome of the Rock. He was eager that I understand that Israelis preserved Islamic holy places in their possession, while Arabs destroyed synagogues.
Everywhere the Israelis seemed to want to preserve traces of the violence of the past, so as never to forget what happened (and here we tip the hat to Renan again, that a nation is based on what it chooses to remember and forget). The blasted synagogues are never to be rebuilt for that reason. It is a facile statement, but feels a necessary one, that Israel, in complete accord with Renan, has not chosen to preserve the memory of its own murders at Deir Yassin.
Later in the day, I thought about the three things Tommy chose not to do: he never offered to take me to the Dome of the Rock or any other Islamic holy place. He did not enter the tomb of Jesus. But he also waited outside when I toured the Holocaust museum at Yad Vashem later in the day.
We saw a synagogue, built in Ottoman times in a recessed courtyard. The Ottoman laws said that a synagogue couldn't be higher than the buildings around it, while Jewish tradition said it must be the highest building in the neighborhood. So the Jews built it in a hole in the ground.
Everywhere we went were young soldiers, most of them carrying rifles or machine guns, but they were there as tourists, as I was. There were as many young women in uniform as men, but they weren't carrying guns. I learned that until recently, the women mainly did office work in the Army; now more responsible noncombat jobs were opening up. Tommy explained that women trained men to fly, shoot, and drive tanks; the army had figured out that teenagers pay more attention when the instructor is female. He told me that his seventeen year old daughter had just received her notice to report for the army next December; she was considering what kind of training she might take over the summer to ensure she would get a more interesting, nonclerical assignment.
We visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where I saw the rock where Christ was allegedly crucified, and I waited on a short line to enter his tomb. Tommy reminded me that the Church was held in common by Catholic and Eastern Orthodox groups, who were constantly fighting each other; after 1967, he said, they had tried to draw the Israelis, and even the Israeli courts, into resolving their differences. Somewhere nearby is an alternative site where the Protestants believe Christ's death and resurrection took place. Tommy said it was predictable they would select their own site, as they were the only Christians who had no share in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In fact, no-one knew for certain where Christ was crucified; the site needed a hill and a Jewish cemetery crypt. The Catholic-Orthodox site was in fact the more likely one, because the crypts are better.
The rock, enclosed in a glass case, is an ordinary rock, and the tomb of Jesus a simple stone. As it should be. Everywhere around them were ornate filigree work, friezes and Orthodox priests swinging censers. I thought again of Dostoyevski's Grand Inquisitor, and the immense structure built on Jesus' thin shoulders over the centuries. How shocked he would be at the violence done in his name and the many bureaucracies claiming power derived from him. The ultimate human flexibility is illustrated by the use of a philosophy of peace as justification for the Inquisition.
We walked on to the Wailing Wall, where Orthodox Jews, some actually wailing, were mourning the destruction of the Second Temple two millenia ago. At the gate a man will give you a hat if you do not have one: uncovering your head is a sign of disrespect. But Tommy and I both had baseball caps, against the sun. An Orthodox man invited us to wrap tfilin--the prayer shawl--but we disregarded him.
Tommy showed me that people write requests on slips of paper, and insert them in holes in the wall. Though I am somewhat superstitious and enjoy this kind of thing, I decided not to do it.
The wall is the ancient Roman-era western wall of the temple site, on which the Dome of the Rock is now built. It is the place where Jesus drove out the money-lenders, and is also believed to be the locale where Abraham offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God and from which Mohammed ascended to heaven. We entered a tunnel full of prayer books and Orthox Jews, some standing and dovening--bowing--to the wall, others seated and reading. I remembered there had been a controversy about a tunnel Netanyahu drilled under the Dome of the Rock. Tommy confirmed this was the one. "Only one person could pass in here at a time, and they widened it. There was nothing wrong with it, except the arrogant and provocative way that he handled it."
We walked briefly through the Arab Quarter, where Tommy was again concerned that I recognize that the streets were dirtier and more crowded, and then ate lunch in an outdoors Arab restaurant, where I had hummus and falafel, foods familiar from the Arab restaurants on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, but the only authentic middle eastern food I ate on my visit. Then we drove up to Mount Herzl to visit Yad Vashem.
I am sorry I didn't have more time there, and will return one day. I had one hour. Tommy accompanied me only to the entrance. We saw the lane of trees, planted in honor of the "righteous gentiles"--people who saved Jews during the Holocaust at personal risk to themselves. He pointed out Schindler's tree. People left pebbles at the trees as they do at graves, and Tommy said that every few weeks the museum caretakers remove the pebbles from Schindler's; they do not like the impression given that he was the only righteous gentile in the Holocaust. Some of the other names are famous--Raul Wallenberg and the King of Sweden--but there are many others, French, Dutch and Polish women and priests in particular, who hid Jews or helped them escape. This walk amongst the trees was my second highly emotional moment of the day. These people are the highest heroes of the world, because they had absolutely nothing to gain and stood to lose everything. If I rescue five children from a burning house, I may at least see my name in the newspapers, appear on Good Morning America and be thanked by the President; but these righteous gentiles are the only heroes I know of for whom one cannot easily find any selfish motives for altruism; what they did could never be known in the societies in which they lived, and if it was discovered could lead only to shame and death.
This is the best proof I can think of that morality can sometimes be based on the lonely beauty of an idea.
Tommy interpreted an art-work for me inside the front entrance: a series of images by an Israeli sculptor, reminiscent of Chagall, showing the progression of the Jewish people from the Holocaust to Israel. The first was a crying mother with her breasts impaled by candlesticks; the last was a lion, who is looking backward and weeping for what has happened.
Tommy returned to the car and I went in to visit what is for me now, after compiling An Auschwitz Alphabet, a rather conventional museum, similar to the portion of the Jewish Museum of New York dedicated to the Holocaust. The first few rooms are dedicated to the run-up to the murder, the racial laws, antisemitic literature, Kristallnacht. Then some models and maps of camps, photographs of shootings and bodies, and then survivors being liberated from the camps. A very few things stood out. There was the tiny jacket of a 23-year old woman, shot to death in a pogrom in Poland, with the bullet holes visible. The familiar but always disturbing photograph of a man being shot to death by a Nazi soldier, turning his body away from the rifle barrel to cradle a small child, who was probably pierced by the same bullet fired from three feet away.
Some day I will write an essay about images of the Holocaust. I had never put into words before the strange impassiveness of the Jews in many of these pictures. Women, naked or stripped to their underclothes, hiding their breasts for modesty, looking expressionless at the camera though corpses are sprawled all around their feet. One welcome relief was a photograph of a man arriving at Auschwitz: apparently a secular intellectual, he is looking at the soldiers with an air of extreme exasperation.
The museum has a whole wall devoted to the Mufti of Jerusalem, the Arab official who called for the murder of the Jews and enlisted members for an Arab adjunct to the SS in the 1940's. Yes, it happened, but this was the one moment when I felt that a political agenda intruded on the museum, which lacks another thing common in other Holocaust museums: a space devoted to other genocides.
As you exit, there is a recent addition: an Israeli woman has donated a photograph of her half brother and sister. They were her father's children, whom she never met, murdered along with his first wife in the Holocaust.
Outside, I found Tommy, who said I had a few more moments and sent me back to see the Hall of Children. Built by survivors who became real estate magnates in Los Angeles, it honors their small dead son, Uziel, whose image appears at the entrance. Inside, darkness, small lights like stars, and voices endlessly reading the names of murdered children.
Outside, I too placed a pebble at a memorial, the final emotional moment of the day. I got back in the car and we headed down the mountain.
Tommy showed me fifty-year old, rusting truck cabs scattered alongside the road. "These are the remains of trucks blown up by the Arabs while trying to get supplies to the Jews inside Jerusalem in 1948. The families of the slain drivers still come here every year to light yahrzeit (year-time) candles."
I understood that at thousands of miles of distance it is easy to blame everyone, but it must be much harder to blame yourself, on the ground, when your point of reference is a fifty year old blown up truck that contained a young dead uncle.
That was it. Tommy took me back to Ben Gurion airport. I thanked him and gave what I hoped was a generous tip. I said: "At the beginning of the day, you remarked that in your guide training, you were told you could never say 'I don't know' more than three times a day. But you never said it once." He laughed and replied, "You didn't ask enough questions." I turned around and went in, to discover he had dropped me at the wrong terminal.
I am glad to have spent a day in Jerusalem. Much earlier in life, I passed other memorable days in Athens, Istanbul and Cairo: each places of ancient greatness overlaid by woven strands of more recent history. The Acropolis, pride of the demos, built with the money of empire. The Parthenon later blown up by Ottoman gunpowder. Below it two Orthodox churches, a huge newer one and in its shadow a tiny ancient one where I lit a candle. I stayed as a wave of tourists left and the priest put out the candles we all had lit, to make room for the next wave. In Cairo, a Sphinx so small and decrepit, compared to what I imagined, that I asked if this was "the" Sphinx or was there another grander one somewhere. Istanbul especially was like Jerusalem: Greek, Islamic and Orthodox strands were interwoven and there were churches which had become mosques, like Aya Sophia.
I suppose that any place where three superstitions combine it is inevitable that you will find the volatility both of violence and of cooperation. In the Prisoner's Dilemma that is Jerusalem it is unsurprising that people killed, nor that they are tired of killing and dying. As a Jew I am in favor of Jewish survival, as a human I am in favor of the survival of all other groups as part of a diverse web of cooperative humanity. "The arc of history," Dr. King said, "bends towards justice." I believe that all nationalisms, appealing as they are and whatever problems of loneliness or pride they may address, are ultimately dangerous. But I am an optimist. I believe there will be peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and so do the Israelis I met.