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Israel: Young Blood and Old
An American artist who had exhibitions in Paris, Vienna, Rome, and America, George Biddle went to Israel in 1949 to watch and to draw the new state in action. His observations, while detailed and vivid, reflect a somewhat anachronistic viewpoint and considerable prejudice against the displaced Arabs

by George Biddle

Tel Aviv, April 21, 1949. -- The modernistic, stuccoed, matchbox, balconied buildings: the tropical shrubs and trees: the crowds thronging the Sir Herbert Samuel Square on the shore of the Mediterranean. A vital, energetic, up-to-date, youthful, and enthusiastic crowd. The faces might come from any city where type, color, and dress are not too rigidly stressed; from Geneva or Lausanne, from the French towns of the Mediterranean, from North Italy or Barcelona. Nothing particular to mark them; youth, a high proportion of physical beauty, healthy vitality, politeness, good nature. Many young soldiers in English uniform: boys and girls, single and in groups. A look of "belonging," which one had not associated with an all-Jewish population.

One sees comparatively few marked Semitic types; and fewer still of the East Side, bearded, skullcapped, moth-eaten, grease-spotted, parchment-dry rabbis. One hears much German and Yiddish, but in the main Hebrew. The better-educated all speak English perfectly; a lesser number, largely from Algiers or Tunisia, French.
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  • It is impossible to get rooms anywhere. Much building is going on. All in brick and stucco on steel girders. It continually reminds me of Rio: the heavy-ladened, tropical-odored sea air; the modern balconied architecture and the mingling of the occasionally exotic, dark-skinned, sensuous slant-eyed women and strikingly handsome boys.

    Little dark-skinned Jews from the Yemen, with Arab caps, wind in and out among the cafe tables, selling papers. Against the completely contemporary and highly intelligent background of Tel Aviv, they seem as alien and anachronistic as the little bearded rabbis, who look as if they changed their ideas as infrequently as their underwear -- once every thousand years or so.

    Lewis Brown in his history of the Jews points out that, in order to survive as a nation and retain their national identity they walled themselves in by a tremendous and successful effort to return to the past, to the womb of their greatness. This is to me the unique and tragic fact in Jewish history: the need to perpetuate their identity, which became possible only by the renunciation of the stream of contemporary thought and life. Now for the first time in two thousand years they can retain their identity and also live in the present and the future. Looking at the young people, one senses an almost immediate and complete physical transfiguration.

    I called on the Polanys, to whom Wellesley Aron had given me a letter. Asaph Goor, a Palestinian-born Israeli of Russian parentage, a graduate of the University of California and a government employee in aforestation, joined us.

    They tell me that there are no Arabs left in Tel Aviv. They fled one and all on the outbreak of hostilities. Why? They were on comparatively friendly terms with the Jews for many years. The Jews rarely employed them, it is true, on account of the highly unionized labor conditions in Tel Aviv. But the Arabs sold vegetables and eggs. Was their departure due to cowardice or to orders from the Mufti? Probably a little of both, but mostly the latter.

    Walking home with Asaph, I asked him how large a proportion of the inhabitants were refugees from Hitler's Europe. Perhaps 40,000 or 50,000, a quarter of the entire population. "Listen to this group of boys. They are talking Hungarian. Perhaps not here many days longer than you."

    "I had supposed, having known the DP camps, that anyone who had been submerged in that hideous atmosphere for five to ten years would be stamped a neurotic all his life."

    "No. Nine tenths of them are cured human beings. We have given them a belief in themselves; a home; a future."

    "And the Irgun? I was told that it was mostly composed of DP boys whose life in the Lager had turned them into gangsters."

    "That is English propaganda. The Irgun was fascist, if you want; but its leaders were patriotic and they had their own mistaken ideology. The wreck of the Altalena, whose hull is being salvaged for scrap iron, is the symbol of the end of their political power in Israel. The followers and hangers-on of the Irgun were toughs and gangsters. But not DP boys."

    April 29. -- After lunch I walked to Jaffa, one of the most ancient cities in the world. The former Arab section was completely and systematically destroyed by Hebrew bombing during the war. Yet -- by intent -- only one mosque was damaged. I have seen no city in Europe more ruthlessly demolished. Entire blocks were heaps of rubble, the height sometimes of a two-story building.

    I continued along King George V. Avenue, down King Feisal Avenue around the old fortress overlooking the port, whose arrogantly solid masonry dates from the days of Suleiman and the Crusaders. All this section of old Jaffa encompasses slums as miserable as any I have seen in San Antonio, Mexico, or Algiers. Heaps of swill and rubbish lay piled by the houses. The sewage trickled down the middle of the unpaved streets. Snotty, half-naked babies and slatternly women in filthy rags crawled in and out of the dark stinking alleys and among the wreckage left by the bombing.

    For in Jaffa are still living many Arabs who remind me of the untouchables of Algiers; foul, diseased, smelling, rotting, and pullulating with vermin and corruption, slinking about the streets, flat-footed, with loose, dribbling lower lip; carrying with them their sacks of refuse, orange rinds, scraps of bread and meat; begging a coin or a half-smoked cigarette.

    Yet through all this misery is filtering great activity. Beams are salvaged from the rubble. Walls are replastered. Stores with furniture, clothes and food are opening up in half-demolished buildings. I am told that the rehabilitation of Jaffa with its hybrid population, squalor, and filth is a serious headache for the government.

    All over the town, buildings, streets, and sometimes entire sections are closed off with wire entanglements. But even in Tel Aviv many of the passages and doorways, as at 3 Yeshurun where I lodge, are walled up with sandbags.

    April 30. -- Lunched at the Tel Aviv Museum, where I met Dr. Haim Gamzu, the Director, and saw a very fine retrospective exhibition of Hanna Orloff. At times her work approximates arts and crafts and is pretty weak in design, and some of her portraits are frank caricatures, and mediocre. Others of her portraits are exceedingly sensitive and sculpturesque.

    The galleries were packed with young people, eager, vivacious, alert. It suggested to me what might have been the enthusiasm of the Italian youths during the High Renaissance. Often I think, too, of the same mental eagerness, democratic simplicity, pride, and prophetic sense of fulfilling a world mission that shine through the writings of Americans at the birth of our country -- particularly Jefferson and the Adamses.

    Three teen-aged girls chattered in front of a piece of sculpture, following through the movement of the design with animated and caressing gestures. I caught their eyes and smiled. They grinned with a delicious look of guilty happiness as if proud of being caught stealing forbidden fruit.

    In the evening I went with Ed and Itzhak Norman to hear Paul Paray conduct the Tel Aviv orchestra with Richepin at the piano. Beethoven's Sixth Symphony. Packed crowds; wild enthusiasm; ovations. Afterwards refreshments were served with cakes, wine, and the native cognac.

    Jerusalem, May 1. -- Where Tel Aviv is all modern -- but tawdry and completely lacking in architectural distinction -- Jerusalem is a jumble of many styles, brought, however, into some sort of fusion by the warm color, austerity, and fine solidity of the almost universal cut stone. I was immensely impressed by the Jewish Agency Building, wrecked during the war, but already completely restored. John Ratner, a Jerusalem architect, designed it. The Yeshurun Synagogue by Rubin is also very fine. The Anglo-Palestine Bank by Eric Mendelsohn and the post Office by an English architect, Harrison, who also did the Rockefeller Museum in the old city and the Government House, have great style. All these buildings have individual distinction and are a sober and intelligent adaptation of the modern.

    I never saw so many rabbis. Most of them, of course, with sweat-stained broad-brimmed black felt hats, grease-spotted and dust-stained coats, and dull, resigned, kindly, gray-skinned faces. A few of the younger exhibit, however, a pardonable touch of vanity. Great calflike eyes; a cream and pink complexion; pouting lips and coquettishly combed side curls.

    After lunch we walked to the National Museum of Bezalel. Dr. Schiff showed us his archaelogical treasures; some Bakst drawings, and a really fine exhibition of prints: Rembrandt, Jean Calot, Delacroix, and French modernists.

    A charming little drawing of Klee, done in 1911. It had an easy spontaneity; it seemed the natural idiom of this much overrated petit-maitre. How often does the personal gesture or expression of the artist become institutionalized into the cold empty shell which no longer houses a living, growing organism.

    I showed Dr. Schiff and the others my drawings of the Nuremberg trials and of the Dachau and Landsberg DP concentration camps. I think they were really touched when I said I wished to present them to the museum. He asked me how I could do this. I said that I had always realized they had a very real historical significance, apart from any artistic value; that I had kept this collection together, feeling that it should go to the Library of Congress or some Palestinian institution; and that I was glad it would be housed with him.

    May 3. -- I went sketching to Ein Karem, the birthplace of John the Baptist, with Nancy-Norman, a Dutch photographer, William Van Der Poll, and a German writer, Hilda Kristeller. She told me that she had spent two and a half years in German concentration camps: Westerbork, Teresienstadt, Auschwitz, Bergen, Belsen, and Kleine Festung. She had worked for the underground, passing may women and children into Holland. She was caught carrying arms for the underground. I said to her, "There are few, indeed, who went to Auschwitz and received a subsequent transfer. You were lucky." She answered me: "My husband was killed at Dachau three days before the American liberation." Subsequently I learned that she was made an honorary citizen of Holland for her work.

    I sketched in the olive groves below Ein Karem. The grass is jeweled with poppies, Queen Anne's lace, wild geranium, and a great variety of other flowers. The air, clean and fresh. Bands of boys and girls walked by singing.

    In the village I heard a number of charming little boys talking Spanish together. I asked them where they had learned it, for they spoke a pure Castilian. They were Sephardic Jews from Turkey and Jugoslavia, where their ancestors had been living for four hundred or more years, since their expulsion from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella.

    May 4. -- From my window I can see the low ridge of mount Scopus, the Mount of Olives, the cedars behind the English Cemetery, and the Hebrew University. The windowpanes of my room have many small holes in them, pierced by spent shrapnel.

    I watched the liberation day parade from the wooden grandstands on the Jaffa Road. For an hour the troops marched by. They looked as tough and seasoned as the soldiers from the English Eighth Army or our own best divisions which I had seen in Africa or Italy; yet different. During the hour-long parade -- with two exceptions, a driver and a wounded man -- no soldier smiled at the crowd that cheered and clapped continually. Pride, exultation, tension, a tremendous overflow of physical vitality. But it was not the haughty overbearing pride of Russian and German troops. It was the almost mystical look of dedication, sublimation, of the young boy approaching confirmation. The men were occasionally out of step, but as they passed the reviewing stand, their muscles knotted and stiffened as they saluted; their shoulders twisted back and their eyes stared out in rapture.

    Mr. Samuels, my guide, said to me, "When the Arabs attacked us in the old city we had one Bren gun, which we fired from window to window. The Soldiers were armed with sticks. With our present equipment we could have been in Bagdad or Bokara. The Arabs were well officered, but cowards, and ran at the least excuse."

    May 7. -- To the Rebareles Yeshiva, an advanced or fanatical Hasidic synagogue. The holy scholars and rabbis draped in their black and white woolen or silken tallithim -- which reminded me of a painting of Chagall's -- stood or sat, shouting, wailing, or chanting their prayers. Some beat the desks and tables with their heads; others jerked forward in frenzy, as if in the act of copulation. Most of them wore the long familiar gray or black caftans, with wide lapels. Some had velvet coats, crimson, yellow, or plum-colored. Usually they hung their fur hats on nails and placed on their heads the little black skullcaps -- the yarmulka. These fur hats or streiml originated in Poland during the Middle Ages. At first, as a mock crown of thorns, they were intended to ridicule the Jews. Now they are made of thirteen skunk tails, as emblems of the thirteen Jewish articles of faith.

    Later we went to a Rumanian Yeshiva where the behavior was more orthodox. The music seemed Gregorian.

    In a Hungarian Yeshiva the Kohanim, or those of the priestly caste, in the ceremony of Duchaning, were blessing the community; the tallithim spread over their heads; their hands extended in front of them. This is only done by the Cohens, the aristocracy of the descendants of Aaron, of the tribe of Levi.

    In the street Mr. Samuels said, "See this lovely creature approaching us. She is a Hungarian. That charming coiffure is a wig. For she was of course a virgin when she married; and she shaved her head to make herself palatable and acceptable to her husband. She wears that wig, the shaytel, only on the Shabat, or on other holidays."

    At the Cafe Wien I tallied with Gershon Agronsky, the editor of the Palestine Post. "There are four strata of people in Israel," he said. "The young generation, who were born here and fought in the war; who grew up with Hebrew as their language; who 'belong.' They are at the core of those impulses which will mold the coming type in Israel, as they will mold its history. Then there are the foreign intellectuals and professionals; Germans, Americans, English, who bring with them the culture and background of their native lands. Such are the scholars, Dr. Schiff, Moshe Gordon, and Dr. Haim Gamzu. They cling to their language and traditions, since these are part of their personal identity. Thirdly, there are the immigrants and DPs, whom one can sometimes recognize by the persistent look of tension in the eye, the wasted or bloated frame, the yellow skin. Lastly there is the remnant of medievalist and the Orient: the Hasidic scholars, the Yemenites, Algerians, Persians, and Kurds. This element is largely concentrated in Jerusalem, which is perhaps -- with Nazareth and Beersheba, both Arab towns -- the most picturesque and least typical city in Israel. The first three will quickly fuse; perhaps in a generation: for they pull toward a common goal, united Israel."

    I asked him, too, how the enlightened Jew feels about the orthodox and religious zealots.

    "The government need take no steps to liquidate or even modify these elements," he answered. "They are fast disappearing. Perhaps as rapidly as in New York. Fifty years ago they were the dominant element in Jerusalem, socially and politically. The government will hasten the process of disintegration by cleaning up the unsanitary quarters; and eventually by new housing and the hopes of a better life. For my own part, I look upon their gradual disappearance with nostalgia and regret. They may be counted as the few idealists and mystics in a material world. They want nothing of the world's goods; and if the meditation, study, and prayer of a lifetime will result in the correct transposition of a comma in the Talmud, their work on earth has been to them fruitful and justified."

    "I have nothing of the mystic in me," I replied. "Like all Americans, my approach is pragmatic. When I think, however, of Raphael Soyer, Max Weber, or of the many Jewish artists and intellectuals whose fathers were rabbis, I cannot feel that retrogressive religious mysticism is the only answer to materialism and mammon. In his search for salvation, does not the Jewish mystic shut out the world -- much as did the medieval Christian hermit -- as a necessary evil? He looks only inward to find his God and happiness. Retrogression has been occasionally a historical necessity. But creative vision will always be seen through eyes that are focused on the future."

    May 10. -- I reached the Nvey Eitan Kibbutz about six o'clock in the evening, on the bus from Afula. The Khamsin had been blowing for two days from the desert. The temperature touched 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Rachel Kolin Langsam met me and led me to her "home." She and her husband are one of four families, each owning a single room in the small, low, tin-roofed cottage.

    In the little white-plastered room were a narrow bed, two chairs, a table, and a combination bureau and wardrobe, with a few bits of glass on the shelves. There were a few snapshots of their three small children, pinned to the walls; and a graphophone, plugged into a corner. On the porch outside were stacked two or three canvas-backed chairs. There were electric lights but no running water.

    The children sleep and attend their classes in separate dormitories and study rooms. Rachel took me to the men's showers and somewhat rudimentary toilets in an outbuilding. When I had washed, she introduced me to her husband and brought in supper from the communal dining room.

    We ate black bread and fresh butter, canned sardines and canned herring, cream cheesy jam, stewed apples, and tea. Later we sat out on the mosquito-infested lawn with friends of the family, and chatted in broken German and Hebrew until eleven o'clock. Rachel served hot tea and cognac. I was drugged with fatigue. Too tired to sleep.

    The next morning we breakfasted in the communal dining quarters. She then walked me about the Kibbutz, showing me the new air-conditioned dining hall, the motor pool, cow sheds, chicken coops, and children's quarters. I made drawings of some of the babies sleeping in the out-of-door nursery. I left for Ein Harod, the large processing Kibbutz and artist rest-house, before lunch.

    At Nvey Eitan are about ninety families. The 180 adults live in some thirty-five small houses. The hundred children are housed in their own dormitories and nurseries. Most of these Jews come from Cracow and have been living here eighteen years. The children go to nursery schools until six years old, when they begin their serious studies. The adults work from six till eight, when they breakfast; from nine till twelve, when they dine and rest; and again from three until six, when they bathe and have supper. Each member gets a ten-day holiday a year. Rachel works in the hospital; her husband drives a tractor.

    Perhaps 60 per cent of the farming in Israel is worked by Kibbutzim. One reason is that agriculture here is more highly mechanized than in any other country except the United States. Private owners on small farms could not successfully compete with them.

    I asked Rachel about the immigrants. One is apt to forget that about 200,000 of them -- that is, one person in every four -- came here during the war year, the first year of Israel's national life; and that perhaps 400,000 -- one person out of two -- have come here during the past fifteen years. She said, "Of course they raise serious problems. Most of them have lived in cities and are not inclined to make over their life in the country. Others are not sympathetic to communal ownership and would prefer working for their own profit. Still others are physically unfit and ignorant as farmers. Those who are inclined to try the experiment are given a year's training, when a final decision is made."

    Rachel told me that when they first came to Ein Harod the country was wild and had never been under cultivation. The tall Palestine thistle grew eight feet high and choked out vegetation. The Arabs had never seen motors and ran in fear from automobiles. For years they shot at and ambushed the Jews. Those were hard times. Now the Jews get on well with the Arabs, who very slowly adapt themselves to Western standards. I asked Rachel what they most needed. She answered -- as has everyone -- "More settlers and more capital. With borrowed money and more workers this country could support twice the population. Of course the immigrants are a grave problem. But we shall meet it. We must offer asylum to all the Jews of the world who would come here. And quickly. Before the next war. For then it will be too late."

    The Kibbutzim are to me the most interesting thing in Israel. They supplied the core of the crack fighting troops, which saved the nation. Here you see the faces -- lean, hard, tanned, self-reliant, intelligent, sober; yet full of faith, hope, and confidence -- that are the promise of the future of the country and explain the success with which to date the young state has met its prodigious challenge. Many farmers in America could not stand the austerity of Rachel's life. In certain ways it is as creative and satisfying as that of her aunt, Helena Rubenstein.

    May 12. -- I visited the Al Hamei Tiberia baths a mile below the walled-in town of Tiberias. Here was a melting-pot of the Jews of four continents. Hasidic elders in long yellow and black or rose-colored striped gowns; European Jews, speaking English, German, or Yiddish; Druse women, squatting in the shade, eyes and mouths hid with white burnooses; tattooed Bedouins from the desert; city Arabs in Western dress with thinly veiled faces: Yemenite women in close-fitting embroidered black trousers, tucked into long GI woolen stockings; Yemenite men with flowers embroidered in wool on white vests; Sephardic Jews from Turkey or Persia; soldiers; boys and girls in the universal khaki shorts or slacks and khaki shirts; and the attendants in short white togalike gowns and green aprons above their brown legs and sandaled feet.

    Inside, swathed in sheets and resting on marble slabs, the bathers talked in Yiddish, Rumanian, Polish, German, English, and Hebrew. In the hot sulphur pool an old fat white-bearded Jew held on to the rail, bobbing majestically up and down and quite immersing his fine, heavy-featured patriarchal and hirsute countenance. He looked for all the world like some old Greek sea god or Poseidon; or a kindly, heavy-lidded and venerable porpoise.

    The heavy walls of cut stone circling the old Roman city, and the bastions and towers built by Tiberius, are still standing. He, too, unquestionably bathed in the hot sulphur Al Hamei Tiberia baths. To the casual traveler these walls are the only enduring symbol, in these parts, of the splendor of Roman civilization. Like the petrified footprints, or bones of huge mastodons, these skeleton vestiges of the tremendous energy and life drive of former civilizations are to me very dramatic.

    What dynamic drive the Arabs must have had! How can one explain their architecture and achievements in mathematics, war, medicine and the humanities in terms of the apathy, filth, disease degradation, and laziness of their descendants? I have felt the same way in attempting to measure the furious thrust of the Spanish conquistadores in some lazy, half-buried Guatemalan town, rotting away in apathy, pellagra, and undernourishment.

    May 14. -- In the very old synagogue in Safed, the elders were preparing for the Feast of Lag b'Omer at Meron. Here many hundred years ago was buried the miracle worker, Rabbi Simon ben Yochai, author of the Zohar. Another American (an unorthodox Russian Jew from New York) and I were invited in to hear the singing. It struck both of us that there were no young, Westernized Jews in the synagogue. Everywhere one has the impression that religion here has less hold on the people than in any Catholic community in America. The old men were very polite and friendly. They invited me, as a special honor, I am told, to take the roll of parchment with the torah from its little closet and present it to the reader.

    At a guess, my acquaintance tells me one out of ten Jews here is strictly orthodox. In New York it may be one out of a thousand. What probably broke down the ritualism in the U.S.A. is the necessity of doing business and taking money on Saturday. Here, for instance, no food is cooked on Saturday, although it is "kept warm" in the kitchen. In my apartment house at Tel Aviv the electric lights in my room were cut off Friday night.

    Nazareth, May 15. -- I wandered about the streets of Nazareth with my bags, looking for a place to sleep. An all-Arab city, with only Jewish soldiers. A young Arab, Hanna Jurban, insisted -- much against my inclination -- on taking me to his home and introducing me to his mother, aunts, sisters, and four brothers. Half the Nazarenes are Communists, easily propagandized on account of their present unhappy economic plight. Two of Hanna's brothers argued with -- or rather attacked -- me quite bitterly. When, in reply to their questioning, I told them that Wallace was a politically discredited man, they retorted, "That is because you only read the capitalistic, bourgeois press. You will hear from Wallace, the greatest man in America." They asked me about free education. -- "But in Czechoslovakia even if I visit it for two months I am given the best free education and my expenses are paid," and so forth. As to the Marshall Plan: "And you know what Marshall is doing in Lebanon? He is sending them nothing but fountain pens and typewriters, to get rid of your surplus stock. Will that feed us?" They were, however, all deeply interested in the prices of U.S. articles, particularly shoes, safety razors, automobiles, hotel rooms, food. Their hatred against the Jews occasionally blazed out. "For us May 15 was a day of sadness. But we shall fight again." I have seldom seen greater disillusion and frustration.

    May 16. -- Left Nazareth early after visiting the sacred churches and underground cave where Mary and Joseph may have lived on their return from Egypt. In Haifa I lunched with Harry Beilin of the Foreign Office the following day.

    "Three years ago," I said, "when I was told that the English were afraid to allow greater immigration or concessions to the Jews in Palestine, because they dreaded a Pan-Islamic uprising that would threaten war in the entire Orient, I always answered that two first-class motored divisions could police the entire country. I felt then, as events have shown, that the Arabs were about as dangerous as so many North American Indians in modern mechanized war. The English must have known that a strong and friendly state of Israel was the best guarantee for the protection of their interests in Asia Minor. How could they have been so stupid?"

    Beilin answered, "Many believed, and Bevin believed, in the myth of Arab superiority. He actually thought that when they left the country on May 15, it would be overrun in two weeks, and that the English would be recalled by the 30th."

    "But why, then, did he not do all that he could to strengthen the Jews during the Mandate?"

    "Bevin -- and the English Foreign Office, which still on certain questions thinks in terms of 1750; that is, where the Empire is concerned -- felt that they could handle the Arabs if they were victorious. The Jews would be tougher bargainers."

    It is tragic to think that the English of Churchill's *Their Finest Hour* should have shown themselves so morally corrupt, so unchivalrous, ungenerous, and politically stupid, as they did in their behavior toward the most democratic and intelligent people in Asia.

    After lunch I went by bus to visit the old walled city of Acre. The bastions about Tiberias looked in places seven feet thick. But the walls surrounding Acre, inside the moat, were about thirty yards wide; the bastions, angled out into the moat, were another seven meters in depth. There is a brutal massiveness about these Norman strongholds. Yet it was the same race that built the French cathedrals. Or was it? The Crusaders were fighting robber barons. How much of the inspiration of the cathedrals came from Italy and Byzantine culture?

    May 21. -- Jean Norman had made appointments for me to do portrait sketches of Meskin and Hanna Rovina of the Habima Theater.

    I made a fine drawing of Meskin and showed it to him. "It is all right," he said; "but you have made me look twenty-five years younger." He is about fifty; entirely bald, with a heavy, bulbous, intelligent, and sympathetic face. He was quite the grand old man, but jovial and friendly. He had played twice in America. I asked him what he thought of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne and of Helen Hayes. He couldn't recall their names and did not seem interested.

    Hanna Rovina has a sensitive, rather tragic face. She told me that the Habima had started in Russia twenty-five years ago. They had always acted in Hebrew, although they had been trained by Stanislavsky in the tradition of the Russian theater. "You have fine actors in America," she said, "but no theater."

    I understood what she meant when I visited the Habima that night. The stage settings were very simple and the actors were costumed in long flowing robes. The play was based on some Bible story. The groupings were splendid, formal, and constantly shifting and regrouping. Both the scenery and the studied, nobly statuesque and dramatic groupings reminded me of Giotto. I felt that here was material for a whole series of mural paintings.

    May 22. -- The PIO got me a plane to fly down to Sodom -- the Sodom Of Genesis -- on the Dead Sea. As we approached the Dead Sea the sullen landscape became more terrifying in appearance. The black crust of the earth was split with broad chasms, canyons, barrancas, arroyos, dried rivulets, wriggled and zigzagged in all directions. One would suppose that not a living thing, a lizard, a bird, a plant, could suck nourishment or moisture from that torrid, salty, sun-baked clay. The earth was totally without color, but ranged from a dead black to every tone of gray and dirty white, by the edges of the sea.

    After lunching with the soldiers I did sketches of two uniformed girls in the transport corps. Both were born in Jerusalem of Russian parents. Hester Segal had high cheekbones, black hair, and a dark skin. She was broad-nosed, with slant hazel eyes, a wide sensual, proud mouth, the corners easily flickering into a charming smile. A good deal of Tartar in her I would suppose. I jokingly asked her if she had killed any Arabs. She answered quite casually, "In Jerusalem."

    The other girl was named Arna Mer. She had a fine low forehead extreme delicacy of feature, a small mouth, honest, dark blue eyes, and a broad column of a neck, set on ample shoulders. She was a red-cheeked, yellow-haired Valkyrie, a Wagnerian Nordic. Like many of the girls in uniform, she wore shorts and worked barefooted.

    May 23. -- The PIO took me to the improvised set of buildings on the outskirts of the town which constitute the Foreign Office -- to a reception for Moshe Sharett, who had flown in from Paris two hours earlier. There were about a hundred members of his staff and the Foreign Office, gathered in a small garden. He spoke to them off the record, very informally, for an hour. This gifted man was born, I believe, in Russia but came here as a child. I am told he speaks with absolute fluency his native Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Polish, English, French, German, and Turkish. He has a look of deep and gentle intelligence. He smiled frequently. The listeners laughed continuously at his anecdotes. It was very nice the way he seemed to gather them into his confidence.

    May 24. -- This last week many trees have burst into bloom: hibiscus bushes, the beautiful cobalt-violet jacaranda, which must have been imported from Central America, and the feathery old-rose blossoms of the tamarisk trees. But the flowers are mostly gone from the meadows, and the fields are a seared yellow where the crops have been mowed. I took off for the Lydda airport at 6.30 A.M.

    My visit to Israel has been uneventful; certainly much less exciting than the stay in Germany during the Nuremberg trials or the year in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy during the war. Yet it has cleared for me many Jewish problems. It makes me feel that every anti-Semite ought to be sent down here for a month. He would probably return an anti-Semite; but his prejudices would get some pretty rough jolts. A visit here destroys once and for all the myth that Jews are a type apart -- physically or morally. Whenever we contrast a Jew with someone else, we isolate him as a species and begin to attribute to him characteristics. When we see him with a Nordic we don't say, "Nordics have qualities that differentiate them from other people." We say, "All Jews have special characteristics." Actually, of course, there is far more difference between certain Frenchmen than between most Frenchmen and most Jews; far more difference between certain Americans or Italians than between most Americans and Italians and most Jews. At the end of a few days here, with the multiplicity of types, we entirely forget that they are ALL Jews, and we begin to distinguish between the Russians, who came first and are the best-looking, the most intelligent, the aristocrats; and the Poles, who came after the First World War, the sturdy, broad-cheeked tough Kibbutz workers; and lastly those who came since the last war, the Germans and the Sephardic Algerians and Orientals, the lowest and the least assimilated types.

    I think it would be just as important for Jews to visit Israel. It might rid them of some of their inferiority complexes, their overcompensation, and other neuroses. For the qualities that most characterize the younger generation, which was born here, are self-confidence, faith, manliness, and pride -- the pride that never has to shout or boast or bully.

    And all this of course implies another lesson that it's well to hold in mind -- the speed with which physical environment and spiritual drive can create type.

    But for me the real excitement has been to watch in its early germination a social and moral experiment in government. Other nations have professed, but Israel is putting into practice, asylum, without prejudice as to origin, to all Jewish victims of religious persecution. They boldly proclaim: We must, we can, and we will integrate them all into our national ideal: the Algerian, the Yemenite, the Oriental, the Russian, Polish, English, German, African, or Chinese.

    And they have done this during their first bitter war year, during the throes of the creation of a new state, at the rate of one quarter of the total population the first year, without any wealth or housing facilities or capital resources; relying of course heavily on the hope of American help; but even more on the spiritual faith that burst into flame in the concentration camps of Europe.


    Copyright © 1949 by George Biddle. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; October 1949; "Israel: Young Blood and Old"; Volume 184, No. 4; pages 19-25.

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