Uneasy in Zion: A Journey to Israel

The Israeli said ,“The Arabs refuse to negotiate with us. Why? The answer is that they refuse to recognize us as human beings. ”

The American answered ,“That stems from the origins of the state. The Arabs have always recognized facts about ten years too late. In any case, you cannot expect them to change overnight. The only bargaining chip they have is their refusal to recognize. It’s their only card—”

“They have the card of peace. All they have to do is tell us, ‘I’m selling peace. What’s your price?'”

The American smiled. “What is your price?”

“More than an absence of war,” the Israeli said.

In the early spring, the people of Israel were under pressure and showing it. Henry Kissinger had come and gone and come and gone again and had no plans to return. His painstaking, step-by-step approach to peace in the Middle East was moribund, and other maneuvers would have to be tried—presumably at Geneva. The government of Premier Yitzhak Rabin had looked hard at the American structure and concluded that it was not substantial; it would not support the weight of Israel. The Israelis could not go along. To them, Kissinger’s architecture resembled the ambiguous geometry of M. C. Escher— entirely plausible until it was examined carefully, and then it was seen to be impossible. Staircases led nowhere; balconies teetered on false footings; walls and ceilings merged. To believe in it required an act of faith, and the Israelis were in no mood for acts of faith. Kissinger seemed to be telling them that at the moment illusion was more important than reality, that the illusion of peace was a precondition for true peace. Time may show the Secretary to have been correct, but the Israelis were not prepared to believe in futures. A belief in good intentions is not a characteristic of the Jewish people.

No question that a majority, probably a very large majority, supported Rabin and his associates in their refusal to surrender land for vague promises. To an Israeli, land is synonymous with security. It was a risky stand, involving as it did a repudiation of American diplomacy—and of the American Secretary of State, who is in many ways the single most important public figure in Israel. However, he is not indispensable, and in the end the Israelis took a strict view of their own national interest as opposed to the American national interest. If intransigence should provoke an American “reassessment.”so be it; perhaps a clarification of the terms of the alliance was in order. But the Israelis were quick to notice the ominous shift in American public opinion, a shift swiftly reflected in the attitude of members of Congress. There was no way, a sympathetic Democratic senator told Israeli officials in Jerusalem, that the $2.5 billion aid request could be met. Support from the nations of Western Europe, never strong in the last few years, was virtually nonexistent now. (“Give me five years,” Harold Wilson told Prime Minister Rabin, “then I’ll be independent.” He meant oil.) Foreign business investment, booming after the lightning victory in 1967, was falling off. The British weapons embargo was still in effect, the French were openly hostile, and Bonn was dithering over the value of having any foreign policy at all. In Israel itself there was controversy and tension on a number of fronts as it became evident that Rabin’s coalition government was moving toward an Egyptian solution: that is, to reach a limited agreement with Anwar elSadat and delay for the moment the more difficult problems of the Palestinians and Syria. Surrender the two strategically important passes in the Sinai and the oil fields at Abu Rudeis in return for . . . and that was the problem. In return for what? All the Israelis seemed likely to get was a weakly worded promise of “restraint,” and that delivered not to Jerusalem at high noon in the full glare of publicity, but late at night and privately to Washington. There was no possibility of a guarantee of Israel’s right to exist. The Israeli government seemed hypnotized by Henry Kissinger, supporting him fully in his step-by-step, country-by-country approach toward a “settlement.” Indeed, given the alternatives, there seemed no other way than Kissinger’s way, except that no one knew the next step. An Israeli-Egyptian démarche was alluring, not least because it seemed possible; it was the most tractable of the problems. But it begged the question of the Palestinians, and the Palestinians are at the heart of the dispute.

Solutions?

In late February, Rabin, publicly and privately, was holding out for a forthright pledge of nonbelligerency from Cairo, perhaps believing that Kissinger could twist his friend Sadat’s arm one more notch. From all appearances, the government had bought the notion that Sadat was now prepared to turn inward and devote his energies to the Egyptian economy rather than to a holy war with Israel. Kissinger had told them that Sadat was a rational man. Wistfully, one very high official mused. “I have always wondered why Sadat didn’t invade Libya. That would solve all his financial problems, and of course Qaddafi’s crazy. Sadat’s reluctant to do it . . . but from the Israeli point of view it would be excellent.” From other officials, less senior than the man quoted above, there came a novel solution to the Palestinian problem. “Give them Jordan. Who are the Hashemites, anyway? That’s where the Palestinians belong: Jordan. We could do it for them, invade Jordan and capture Amman and throw out Hussein.” By this solution, Hussein, a moderate and altogether admirable king, would be sacrificed to make room for Yasir Arafat. Wasn’t that solution a bit harsh? “Why?” asked the Israeli with a shrug of the shoulders. “Harsh or not, it’s the only solution.”

Rabin, a subtle and intelligent man, was trying to turn the country toward negotiation, but his critics were at him on all sides. Kissinger argued—and many in the government agreed with him—that time was not on the side of Jerusalem. Israel had won all its wars but had never managed to exploit the victories. It had never been able to wring concessions from its foes, who after each beating retreated into sullen self-justification and promises of revenge. Islam is a religion almost totally devoid of theology, but its language is intoxicating; under Muhammad’s rapturous umbrella, everything is possible.

There was something unfair and cruel about Israel’s situation: it was as if the state were permanently condemned to the role of supplicant and underdog. The victor was expected to go hat in hand to the vanquished, on the basis that the next war or the war after that would surely see an Israeli defeat. At least, that was how many Israelis saw it. The words “underdog” and “supplicant” carry an emotional charge in Israel, so as Kissinger continued his idiosyncratic diplomacy, there were powerful men and women inside and outside Rabin’s government who were waiting, hard-eyed, for the first suspicious sounds of compromise. The hard issue was security, meaning territorial integrity and invulnerability to attack. Major General Ariel Sharon, now retired, the brilliant tactician and charismatic hero who devised the thrust into Egypt in the 1973 war, put the case with characteristic clarity: “I am not going back into Sinai to fight for the fourth time for Henry Kissinger. Twenty years ago we had our own daring policy. Now we don’t have any policy of our own. We have only Henry Kissinger’s policy, and he’s screwing us.”

Sharon’s harsh voice was only one among many. The leader of the opposition. Menachem Begin, was as strident. Shimon Peres, the talented and sardonic Defense Minister and onetime protégé of Moshe Dayan, was widely believed to be maneuvering to succeed Rabin as Prime Minister. Rabin’s patchwork coalition in the Knesset was coming apart at the edges, not least owing to his own inability to rally the population. The country itself, demoralized and sickened after the terrible losses of the 1973 war, was in a mood compounded in equal parts of defiance, melancholia, isolation, paranoia, and doubt. Could Kissinger be trusted? Was America prepared to abandon Israel?

The various outrages committed by the Palestinian underground in the years following the 1967 war had forced many thoughtful Israelis to consider the Palestinian cause for the first time on its own terms. Jews are no strangers to irony, and there were a few who drew the obvious parallels between Israel’s rage to live and the identical passion of the Palestinians. A very few of the most heretical even wondered if the Palestinians hadn’t a point after all: Was it not incongruous for this fundamentally European state to be situated like a dagger in the heart of Islam? Wasn’t that the real reason for the fierce opposition of the Arab world? A masochist could even believe that the Diaspora was the controlling metaphor of the Jewish people, a heroic 2000-year passage through every conceivable menace; could turn Zionism on its head and argue that the State of Israel was fundamentally inharmonious to the grim and terrible history of the Jews. Of course one is speaking of a fraction of a fraction of the population. Israelis interviewed by this writer went the other way, their investment in the state was complete; they had achieved something that the Jews of the Diaspora had not and would never achieve. To turn their backs on it now would be to repudiate everything that counted— life, fortune, honor, God.

But the latest menace would not ao away; it grew, and appeared to be approaching climax. The people of Israel were insecure and worried, and a few even mentioned that most shattering word in the language. “holocaust.” Was that what the Arabs had in mind? None of them, not one single Arab leader, would admit publicly that the state had a right to exist; the most extreme statements of Arab leaders received major—one might say morbid—attention in the Israeli press. What did this portend? What it seemed to portend for many was more blood. A future filled with blood, another holocaust. One more hecatomb, the final reprisal for the sin of existence. At the drop of a doubt, Israelis will plunge into elaborate and more or less scholarly justifications for their expropriation of Palestine. The fact that they are there and have been for nearly thirty years, have carved a country out of a wasteland, is not enough; they must establish that they belong, as Celts belong in Ireland and the descendants of the Incas in Peru. The ancient home of the Hebrews. The land redeeming the Jew, the Jew redeeming the land. The sacredness of the city of Jerusalem, the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament. A justification finally both for Israel herself and for the occupation of Syrian and Jordanian territory, since the West Bank and the Golan Heights were both part of the Israelite Kingdom of David and Solomon a thousand years before the birth of Jesus, and backward into antiquity, to the tribe of Abraham (progenitor of both Jew and Arab). It signals an end to the shame and asymmetry of the Diaspora, this national home for the Jewish people.

General Sharon demurs and attacks the question from another, more practical, front. The state is required to accept as many Jewish immigrants as want to come— perhaps there will be ten million Israelis by 1985. Israel’s right to exist requires the occupation of the territories, Golan, the West Bank, and the Sinai as well. “It is not a question of religion, history, or emotion,” Sharon declares. “It is a question of security.”

Where will it end?

The mayor’s wife said, “Since the last war, we’ve been so close to catastrophe. Sometimes I wonder . . . but we mustn’t think that.” The lawyer’s wife said, “Prior to the 1967 war, we were not required to think about the Palestinian problem. Then we were. The 1973 war was so . . . brutal. So many dead, and what’s there to show? There’s a feeling, particularly among the young, of cynicism and disillusion. I’m having trouble keeping my son at his studies; all of us are. He asks, ‘Why?’ He tells his friends, ‘I’ll meet you in the graveyard, underneath the daisies.’ There’s no sense of the future among the young. It’s not hard to conceive of . . . extermination. Though, really, who among us has a sense of the future anymore?”

Security. In the American language it has to do with pensions and paid-up mortgages, good health and successful children. The Israelis regard it as freedom from terror, not merely the absence of war but peace itself; they envision borders as secure and tranquil as those between Norway and Sweden. History, an often irrational companion, is always with the Israelis, who combine extreme fatalism—a pessimism about human nature that has rarely been disappointed—with fantastically high expectations. One speaks specifically now of the middle-aged. There are dark facts, still unexplained: the docility of those packed off to the ovens. Two thousand years of persecution, persecution by virtually every known tribe, sect, religion, race, and nationality; educated and not educated; civilized and bestial. Germany was the land of Brahms, Rilke, and Kant. Carthaginians, Babylonians, Philistines—all gone; the Jews still survive. Where could a Jew live in peace?

The ironies curve around and collide. If there had been no holocaust, there would be no Jewish state; the state therefore stands as both monument and rebuke. (The holocaust is simply not conceivable to many young Israelis. The early refugees from the Nazi terror in 1945 were contemptuously referred to by Israeli teen-agers as sabon, a synonym for cowardice and weakness. Sabon means “soap.”) Older Israelis reach beyond the holocaust to the socialist origins of the early pioneers, the bright hopes of the early Russian and Polish revolutionaries to create a truly egalitarian society, where Hebrew was the only language spoken and the rabbinate was the supreme ethical authority—a society, in Ben-Gurion’s words, blooming, beautiful, and happy. What they have is a garrison state, a characterization the Israelis despise and protest but which remains a fact; given their situation it can hardly be otherwise. An academic, a middle-aged Israeli living in Jerusalem, said bitterly, “It is an egalitarian society gone elitist, a militant society gone militarist. We are totally preoccupied with ourselves . . .”

This is not what the early men had in mind as they deployed into kibbutzim to redeem the land and make it fruitful, an exploit of heroic dimensions. They have even managed to recover land by the Dead Sea, literally washing each square foot of soil, cleansing it of salt and minerals. Amos Elon, in his excellent book The Israelis, describes the early pioneers as “marked by a terrible sincerity and an almost inhuman sense of rectitude.” Now, Elon says, the people of Israel “find themselves locked in a desperate struggle which seems endless. They did not initiate that struggle; they inherited it. Yet they see themselves inextricably tangled in its snares. They struggle well; they hold their own. There is something about them of the absurd hero—they are forever running at great speed toward a destination they can never seem to reach. . .” The state has drifted far from the ideals of Herzl and Weizmann and old B-G. The kibbutz movement, visible symbol of the ideals of labor Zionism, is adrift; fewer than 3 percent of the population live on kibbutzim, and they represent a way of life apparently uncongenial to the new immigrants, although the kibbutz influence in Israeli politics is still significant (and one index to the advancing age of the Israeli political elite). And as Elon has pointed out. 25 percent of the casualties in the 1967 war were kibbutzniks. Most serious of all, the state has not begun to solve the problem of integrating the Oriental Jews (that is, Jews of North African and Middle Eastern origins) with the Ashkenazi, or Jews of Central European origins. The latter hold the economic and political power. The situation is analogous in every respect but one to that of blacks and whites in the United States, but the single exception transforms the analogy and renders it false: in Israel, the Orientals and the Ashkenazi frequently and successfully intermarry. The problem is not race prejudice but cultural prejudice, and in time will be solved. But it remains a bone in the throat of the society, a further exacerbation, and a growing exacerbation, in a state that requires cohesion. The glue that binds the society today has been supplied by the Arabs: the population of Israel is in a state of permanent apprehension.

A new Sparta

Ma yehiva ha’ sof? Where will it all end? Shlomo (“Cheech”) Lahat, the mayor of Tel Aviv and, like so many Israeli politicians, a retired army general, says that he is emotionally preparing for peace but intellectually brooding about the next war. He is certain that the intelligence failures that led to the surprise in 1973 have been corrected; still, wars produce casualties. Lahat was morally offended by the expenditure of Egyptian troops in the Sinai two years ago. “The goddamned Egyptians. I’ve never seen such slaughter of infantry. Bad officers.” But the Egyptians can afford it: there are thirty million of them, and five million Syrians and seven million Iraqis and twenty million or so more Arabs to back them up. There are but three million Israelis, not enough to maintain an adequate standing army. To protect exposed borders under continual threat, the Israelis would have to remain fully mobilized 100 percent of the time.

Israelis place a high value on human life; each death in war causes collective pain. The aftermath of the 1973 war could be compared to a mine disaster in a small West Virginia town. No family remained untouched. There’s the additional fact that in the Israeli army, in stark contrast to the Arab forces (and the American, for that matter), the officers lead the troops into battle—they literally lead the way—with the result that in 1973, of the nearly 2500 killed in action only eighty-five were private soldiers. More than 95 percent of the dead were officers and non-coms; an astonishing, scarcely believable statistic, but one that I am assured is true.

Thus, for all these reasons and a few more besides, the near-total preoccupation with “security.” Secure borders, borders fortified to halt the invader. No surrender of the West Bank, because once inside the West Bank the Palestinians could easily shell Ben-Gurion Airport or downtown Tel Aviv. No surrender of the Gidi or the Mitla passes, because the passes control the approaches to the Sinai, and once through the mountains it’s a straight seven-hour cruise in a Russian-made T-62 tank to the gates of Tel Aviv. No surrender of the Golan Heights, because from the lip of the heights a medium-range artillery piece can reach Tiberias across the Sea of Galilee and, further, to Haifa and the settlements inland. Weapons grow more powerful: Russianmade surface-to-surface missiles can now penetrate any part of the heartland of Israel. In fact—and this is a measure of the menace—with or without the occupied territories, the state is exposed. With the territories, it is marginally less exposed; but in neither case is it entirely secure. To keep the Arabs at bay, the Israelis must retain the means of inflicting unacceptable losses. There is no confidence that the Arabs will be either restrained or “patient.”

Of course the Israelis have set up the proposition another way. In return for something tangible—a peace treaty signed in broad daylight renouncing force and acknowledging Israel’s right to exist, with ironclad guarantees from the Americans and the Soviets—the Israelis would give back virtually everything. I imagine that they would even surrender the West Bank and agree to some form of internationalization of Jerusalem, though there would be cries of anguish. But in the early spring of this year, the Israelis could not bring themselves to agree with Kissinger’s central argument that time was not on their side, either in the struggle with the Arabs or in the growing tensions inside the state itself. (It is a measure of the Secretary’s nimble diplomacy that he was reportedly saying the same thing to Anwar elSadat: that every day spent fighting the Israelis was a day lost in bringing Egypt into the twentieth century.) A peace treaty would permit the Israelis to turn inward, as they hoped the Egyptians were doing, to reduce the enormous burden of military expenses which are disguised but probably account for half the state’s budget. But they would not get that kind of guarantee, and they knew they would not get it. What they had to calculate was how much they could safely give for a promise of restraint from Sadat. In March they concluded that they could give very little; hence the collapse of Dr. Kissinger’s negotiations. Sadat announced his intention to reopen the Suez Canal, and appeared to have reaped something of a propaganda victory. The Iraqis and the various Palestinian organizations remained entirely hostile.

So the prospect is for increased tension, more fighting, probably another Middle East war. The Israelis will fight on. perhaps with even greater skill; but the longer they fight the weaker the state becomes, and the more precarious their own hold on reality. This is the price of intransigence. The state wall survive but its character will continue to deteriorate: men and nations cannot live in an atmosphere of permanent combat.

The Arabs fight these wars with a fraction of their population; the Israelis commit everything. The tragedy would seem to be inexorable, barring a diplomatic miracle. The seeds of decay of the State of Israel lie in its own humane ideals, and the systematic corruption of those ideals in the necessity to survive. It is an appalling paradox: unremitting sacrifice is producing not Athens but Sparta. The struggle to live, pursued with heroic tenacity for almost thirty years, has resulted in obsessions of death. After thirty years of war the goal of peace is further away than ever.

One would have to be a Jew to appreciate fully the excruciating iniquity of this condition.

The Great Rift

The Great Rift Valley extends from the Jordan River south to Mozambique, a majestic depression in the earth’s surface. It is a natural boundary between Israel and Syria in the north, and with Jordan in the center and south. In the north, the Jordan River Valley is bounded by heights on both sides; the formerly Syrian side is called Golan and is as good a place as any to examine the question of “security” and the uses the Israelis have made of it.

The Golan Heights rise precipitously a thousand feet above the Sea of Galilee and then level off, undulating a little, but running mostly flat and straight twenty kilometers to the Syrian market town of Quneitra, where the land bends down again and begins a long slide sixty kilometers northeast to Damascus. The Israelis captured Quneitra in the 1967 war, lost it briefly in 1973, then surrendered it to the Syrians under the terms of the cease-fire. There are hills in the vicinity, these increasing in height due north to the snowbound peaks of Mount Hermon. Hermon is the major strongpoint in the Golan, but the feature to keep in mind is the rise above Galilee—steep, menacing, nasty. And to a soldier, exquisite.

It could be a precondition of paranoia. Standing on the shores of Galilee and looking up, one is seized with a feeling of helplessness. This is the region where, in the years prior to the six-day war in 1967. the Syrians shelled the kibbutzim along the sea, and sent raiding parties into the interior of Israel. Yet in the kibbutz where I am standing. Ein Gev, there have been only three killed since the 1948 war for independence. It seems miraculous. because Ein Gev is the most vulnerable of the settlements, lying like a stone at the foot of the heights. (Conducted on a brief tour of this kibbutz, I was impatient with the now-familiar sights and sounds, and bored as we entered what appeared to be a vast barn, filled, I was confident, with industrious Israelis practicing some arcane animal husbandry. But it was not a barn; it was a 2000-seat concert hall on whose stage the likes of Isaac Stern, La Scala opera, and Frank Sinatra have performed.) The persistent Syrian attacks in the years prior to 1967 were one of the causes of that war. Striking first under strong air cover, the Israelis stormed up the three roads to the heights and expelled the Syrians. Once established in Golan, the government fortified the high points and built settlements on the low. Golan was “occupied” in the fullest sense: not by the army alone, but by settlers. Never again would the heartland of Israel be menaced by attack from above.

Wrong, of course. In 1973, the Syrians poured 1500 tanks onto the heights, recaptured Quneitra, forced the evacuation of Merom Golan kibbutz, and came within a few kilometers of the Benot Yacov bridge spanning the Jordan River. (The reader should keep in mind two points in reading this section: the Jordan River is scarcely more than a creek, at the point of the bridge perhaps twenty feet wide, and lazy, reminiscent of the Rappahannock in Virginia. The other point is the intimacy of Golan: it is roughly the size of Los Angeles, measuring about sixty kilometers long by thirty wide. The critical military distance is the width, thirty kilometers from the Sea of Galilee to the border.) With appalling loss of life and equipment, the Israelis threw the Syrians back and proceeded to recapture all the lost territory and more besides. This thrust followed a period of serious demoralization in the Israeli army. How could it have happened? Some officers insist now that they would have raced all the way to Damascus had the United States not restrained them. Instead, they bombed the Syrian capital as part of a largely successful effort to destroy the Syrian economic infrastructure—this to buy time for the next war. No one doubted, then or now, that there would be one.

To the question How could it have happened? came this answer: an inexplicable intelligence failure centered around a misreading of enemy intentions. The Israelis are justifiably accustomed to regarding their military establishment as one of the most efficient in the world; hence more uneasiness over its apparent collapse at the beginning of the 1973 war. So the Israelis—the land redeeming the Jew, the Jew redeeming the land—increased their efforts to “settle” the Golan Heights. Today, standing on a hilltop on the Israeli side of the Rift Valley and looking into Golan, one can see the settlements, bright necklaces of lights, suggestive of the strategic hamlets of South Vietnam in the early 1960s. It is important to understand that these settlements are viewed quite differently from the other side of the border. The Syrians regard them not as communities but as fortifications. Similarly, the Syrians look on the occupation of Golan not as a defensive maneuver but as a staging area for an invasion. Damascus is only fifty miles away. Bellied up close to the Syrian border, these settlements are seen as political and military acts; the only element that distinguishes them from purely military redoubts is the presence of women and children.

“The land is ours”

We drove up the El Hama road from Deganya, at the southern shore of Galilee. To our right was Jordan, directly ahead Syria, to our left Golan. A military historian would bring approximately the same enthusiasm to this route that a gourmet would bring to the Loire Valley. Behind us was Belvoir, the Crusader castle constructed in the twelfth century and still useful as an observation point. We passed derelict British guard towers dating from the 1920s, and along the treacherous road burnt-out Syrian half-tracks from the 1967 war. There were pillboxes and other fortifications and an occasional marker signifying the death of an Israeli soldier.

Mines are placed on either side of the road: there are frequent signs warning “soldiers and tourists” to step carefully. We pass one kibbutz overlooking the valley, this one called Mevo Hama, and pause at the edge of the great plateau. The Israeli major points to the valley, the sea directly ahead, and the green fields to the left; we can make out Belvoir across the valley and far to the south. “This is the way it is,” the major says. “The moment the Syrians occupy Golan it is not just Ein Gev that is threatened. It is the entire valley. You can see Tiberias across the sea, and other kibbutzim. As you can see, it’s impossible for us to give up this position.”

Later we move through the places of heaviest fighting in 1973. One village, a Syrian strongpoint, has been completely destroyed. I have seen street fighting in three wars, but I have never seen a village so thoroughly devastated. On the outskirts of the town, and five kilometers from the border, is a very new settlement. This one is heavily fortified, with reinforced bunkers and a barbed wire fence and heavy weapons; there’s a regular army unit bivouacked nearby. If I were an Arab, I would not look on this outpost as a settlement; I would look on it as a military base.

Most of the settlers are young, in their twenties; I ask Leah Rosenbaum. a twenty-six-year-old Israeli, if she minds living on Syrian soil, and within easy range of Syrian artillery.

“They weren’t bothered by living on my land, why should I be bothered by living on theirs? Our forefathers lived here! We need the security, don’t forget. Every time we fight we lose people. There is no other place for us, and we must make the border secure. And of course the land is ours anyway.”

I inquire: What happens if the government decides to return this land to Syria, as part of the peace negotiations? I do not add that if there is to be peace with Syria the land will have to be returned.

“Won’t happen.”

“Well, if it did—”

“Won’t,” she said. “If they were going to do that, they’d tell us in the beginning. We were encouraged to come here, after all. Look around.”

I do, and I see evidence of an enormous amount of work: buildings repaired, their interiors bright with new paint; lavatories built; a modern kitchen for the refectory; classrooms for the children. In the parking lot is a captured Soviet armored car.

“We expect to be here two or three years more, and then move.”

“Where?”

“There,” Ms. Rosenbaum says, pointing in the direction of the Syrian border. She explains that the land is not good where they are now. The security situation is dubious. The land is more fertile closer to the border. The sixty members of this settlement, including eleven children, intend, among other things, to raise bees. This girl has the innocent, open manner of her generation. “We’re, like, sharing our ideals and our wants. That’s where we’re at. We’ve been here five months. This is permanent and final, there’s no other place in the world for me.” She means Golan.

I find myself talking to Howard Zusman, a thirty-two-year-old podiatrist from Los Angeles. Zusman is not an Israeli citizen, and occasionally returns to the United States on visits; but his commitment to the settlement seems genuine. We are standing inside one of the bunkers and I decide to pose the question that has bothered me about this place from the beginning.

“Why the children?”

“The children go with their parents.” Zusman says.

I say to him. “I understand you being here. And Leah, and the other adults. But why is it necessary for children to share the danger?” If there is a Syrian attack on the Golan this will be one of the first settlements hit. “Children four or five years old have no choice where they go.”

“Well, this land is ours.”

I said. “The Syrians don’t agree. And it won’t make any difference when the artillery starts.”

“Our people are prepared to accept the risks.”

I am genuinely puzzled, and try once more. “I understand about the adults. I have no problem with the adults. But I don’t think five-yearold children, or infants, understand what’s at stake, nor should they—”

Major Josi Yeshuron, our guide on the Golan, tank commander and biblical scholar, is listening and answers my question. “It is exactly like your own pioneers. When they went west in the covered wagons they took the children with them. To colonize. In Indian territory. This is exactly like that.”

“Well said.” I say.

“You see?” Josi asks.

“Yes.” I said, and I did. I understood completely, and I did not sympathize or agree.

Next day we reconnoiter the area around Quneitra. A few miles west of Quneitra is a truly substantial kibbutz called Merom Golan. Since 1967 the government has spent upwards of $7 million building this kibbutz. There are 400 souls here; it is one of the kibbutzim where the children are separated from their parents and raised by women specifically detailed to the task. As we are being shown the kindergarten, one of the kibbutz members takes us down to the children’s bomb shelter. “It leads directly off the classroom.” he says proudly. All of the children live for a while in the shelter so they will not be frightened if the time should come when they’ll be forced to live there in earnest.

One of the leaders of the kibbutz says. “The government can’t give up Golan and still call itself a government. There are 2000 Israelis on Golan now, in various settlements. There are no real territorial problems here. Golan represents less than one percent of the total Syrian territory, and it is very poor land. It wasn’t worth anything before we got here—”

From an outpost overlooking Quneitra, Israeli troops with high-powered scopes can detect vehicles moving to the east and north. Syrian soldiers occupy the town itself; Syrian armor is out of sight. Israeli redoubts bristle with antennae, presumably the latest in sensing devices. Tanks and artillery have been situated at various points on the Golan. Between the two sides is noman’s land, occupied for the moment by a United Nations force of Peruvian troops. Peruvians on the Golan, Indonesians in Sinai, Finns and others elsewhere.

Driving down the road to the valley again. I wonder how the government managed to become hostage to these settlers. They’ve made it unmistakably plain that any concession by the government to the Syrians will be met with political resistance. No pasaran! These settlers speak of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, and indeed the government has encouraged that belief, funneling millions into the various settlements. The Syrians used Golan as a purely military area; the Israelis are cultivating the land, occupying it, working it, fortifying it, and thereby laying title to it.

On the road to the valley one of my companions turned to Josi and asked why there were no settlements along the road. The land appears to be more fertile here, and infinitely more hospitable than the border regions.

“Because it’s not close enough to the border,” Josi says, as if that’s obvious to anyone.

“Everybody goes”

We were ten at table. A major in the armored corps, a lawyer, a government consultant, three wives, three Americans. An old party sat between one of the Americans and the consultant. He was in his eighties, an immensely dignified old man who’d lived here for forty years and spoke with an impeccable British accent. He listened to the younger ones talk; they were all taking a very hard line against the Rabin government. They wanted a final peace, recognition of the state, a pledge of nonbelligerency, secure borders—or not one concession.

The tank commander turned to the Americans and said that he wanted to take a private poll of the Israelis there. That would give the Americans a sense of the attitudes of the population. The comments, serious and articulate, went around the table to the old man. He’d been saying very little. He was silent a moment, then looked up.

“You work hard, keep your mouth shut, and know when to give in. You must calculate exactly how much . . . how many men you’re prepared to lose in any war. You decide whether to fight or not. Or whether to survive. A small state can fight for its freedom, but its main duty is to survive.”

The younger ones did not care for that analysis. One of the men said. “It is not that way with us.”

The old man did not want to argue and he backed off a bit. “I don’t know the facts,” he said, then added, “nor does anyone else.”

“So what is your modus vivendi?”

“I don’t know,” the old man said slowly, sounding like an Oxford don. “I haven’t got the data.”

“You must know,” the tank commander said harshly. “Otherwise, why are you talking like that?” The old man shrugged. They were moving in on him now. One of the women mentioned labor camps in which the Syrians held Israeli prisoners. She said, “Forty years later, the Israeli people aren’t prepared to believe that labor camps aren’t gas chambers.” The lawyer asked, “What do you think would happen if there were a referendum on the occupied territories?”

The old man replied that he hadn’t much faith in referenda. He did have some faith in facts, and patience, and the healing properties of time. “Perhaps in six months there’ll be a change . . .”

One of the wives, a beautiful Israeli of Yemeni origin, looked straight at the old man. “Why do they always think that we are the ones at fault? It’s time for the other side to make concessions.”

There was commotion then, and all of them began to talk at once. One of the Americans interfered, taking up the old man’s argument. The rest of them listened impatiently. Then:

“We ought to take Suez, the hell with them.”

“If you take Suez,” the old man said quietly, “you’ve got to be sure you can hold it.”

“We’ll hold it.” said the other. “We’ll go to Ismailia so they’ll never make this problem again.”The consultant added (privately, to me) that Ismailia wasn’t the only option. The navy could blockade and occupy the port of Latakia. The army could seize Aswan, and flood the Nile delta . . .

The Yemeni woman looked at the Americans, each in turn, then at the old man. “I have only one thing to say, very brief. I think at night in bed when my husband is away in the reserves. All our history, nobody likes us. We must be very strong. I hope this time we won’t go to Auschwitz like we did forty years ago. This time I hope that if we go, everybody goes.”

There was dead silence after that, and the party broke up. The Americans believed that what this beautiful, dark-eyed woman had in mind was nuclear weapons. There is not much doubt that the Israelis have them, or would use them in the extremity. If this people go down, they go down fighting. Whatever it was the woman had in mind, no one at the table was prepared to argue with her. Later, we were warned not to believe everything we heard. Particularly the old man. He was cautious, he was old. He did not represent the spirit of Israel.

And what was that? So much of the spirit of the country is wrapped in myth and legend, history and terrible remembrance. To begin to understand the Israeli psychology one must grapple with these facts, which are finally more important than whether or not the government is being cute with the kibbutzim or inflating the strategic value of the western Sinai.

Masada

Much has been written and conjectured in the past few years of the Israeli obsession with the legend of Masada. The late Stewart Alsop once wrote that Golda Meir suffered from a Masada complex, and the story is instructive. Fleeing Jerusalem before the invading armies of Rome in 66 A.D., a party of Zealots (the most fanatical of the Jewish sects) took refuge atop Masada, the site of King Herod’s palace. It is a mountain that soars 1000 feet above the Dead Sea; a place of no exit. For two years a Roman legion laid siege to the palace at the summit of Masada, finally constructing a rampart to its outer walls. The Romans offered to spare the lives of the 966 souls within, but the offer was refused in a spirit similar to that of La Pasionaria—it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees. The night before the wall was sure to be breached, the Zealot leader El’Azar called upon his followers to commit mass suicide rather than surrender. “We shall die before we become slaves to the enemy, and remain free as we leave the lands of the living.” There were hundreds of women and children among the 966, and support for this proposition was not unanimous. El’Azar was obliged to make a series of speeches to carry his case, at one point accusing his followers of cowardice. The most celebrated passage runs. “Let our wives die unabused, our children without knowledge of slavery; after that let us do each other an ungrudging kindness, preserving our freedom as a glorious windingsheet.” At that, according to the Roman historian (and Jewish turncoat) Josephus Flavius, consent was general. Ten men were selected to supervise the slaughter, the last man to commit hara-kiri. A woman and three children hid from the others and survived to tell the tale. It is given as a glorious and inspiring chapter in the melancholy history of the Jewish people.

Today, Herod’s fortress has been excavated, and a funicular takes the tourists to Masada’s summit. From the northern palace one can clearly see the outlines of the Roman camps below, eight of them, a complete encirclement, with the Dead Sea on one side and the Judean wilderness on the other. There is no way out; to be at the summit of Masada is to be at a dead end. Surrounded by hostile forces in a wasteland, it is a place of dreadful jeopardy and precariousness. I thought of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s phrase, a line that always seemed to me to symbolize crack-up: “Pull your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and let me tell you a story.” Ravens glide on the wind currents, black against the yellowish hills. On still nights the Zealots could hear the commands of the Roman officers in the camps below; by day there was siege and the clink of armor. The surrounding hills and the flat valley floor act as an echo chamber, and Masada and all around it seem as intimate as a locked room.

Perceived from an oblique angle of vision, that is the situation of Israel today. There can be no compromise with a cruel and rapacious enemy. The rampart has yet to be built, but there is still no exit; the wall that keeps the Arabs out also keeps the Israelis in. No exit, and no relief from siege. It makes a powerful meditation for anyone interested in the roots of pessimism, though there are one or two other facts that should be made known. The first is that the account of the siege of Masada appears only in the works of Josephus Flavius; no other historian of the Roman wars mentions the struggle. Second, Masada is not an ancient sustaining myth of the Hebrews. According to the archaeologist Yigal Yadin, it was first “discovered”—that is, made popular—in the 1920s. In fifty years it has become one of the most celebrated of the Zionist legends.

An Israeli said, “After the holocaust, the most troubling thing to many Jews was the lack of resistance. Younger Jews particularly couldn’t understand the docility of their elders. That’s much at variance with the spirit of Israel today. Masada is part of the new spirit, so much so that since the establishment of the state, the Israeli Defense Force has sworn in new recruits of the Armored Corps at Masada.”

It may be that the legend of Masada is already stale, a part of the pre-1973 period. A number of critics, I. F. Stone among them, believe so. Stone thinks the spirit of contemporary Israel more analogous to the story of Samson, who tore down the walls of the temple in blind rage and frustration.

Escaping disaster

On the edge of Jerusalem, looking toward the Judean Hills, stands Yad Vashem. “memorial and record.” It’s a monument and museum to the holocaust, and I approached it with some misgivings since I did not believe there was any suitable way to “memorialize” six million dead. I was aware of a number of early proposals, including one to build an enormous smokestack (high enough to be visible from any part of the country) that would belch black smoke; another to transport a boatload of human bones from the fields around Auschwitz to Israel.

But I was wrong. To Israelis, Yad Vashem combines the spirit of the Lincoln Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the Smithsonian Institution. The main building is not large; it’s slung low to the ground, built to human scale; the look of it is powerful rather than “inspiring.” It is open to the weather, and birds career through its open space, chattering. It’s dark inside; on one wall burns a flame with bunches of flowers surrounding it. The names are carved in the slate floor: Drancy. Lwow-Lanowska. Bergen-Belsen. Majdanek. Dachau. Auschwitz-Oswiecim. Mauthausen. Jasenovac. Stutthof. TheresienstadtTerezin. Klooga. Sobibor. Treblinka. Buchenwald. Transnistria. Ponary. Breendonck. Babi-yar. Westerborck. Ravensbrueck.

From the Migilat Taanit: “If all the seas were ink, and all the reeds pens, and all the people scribes, it would not be enough to record all the misfortunes of the Jewish people in a single year.”

It is said that there are only two kinds of religious holidays in the Jewish calendar: those commemorating disaster, and those commemorating narrow escape from disaster. It is vicious to in any way blame the Israelis for their dourness, their fatalism, their fascination with misfortune and with themselves, Charles de Gaulle once called them a people “sure of themselves. and domineering.” That is a statement at once spectacularly right and spectacularly wrong. In any case, given their history, what other attitudes are available to them? Pulled in on themselves, suspicious, at once confident and fearful, they’ve learned to meet the world in that way. Yet this struggle in the Middle East is ultimately rooted in character, Israeli as well as Arab; on its face, there seems no particular cause for optimism. Signs of compromise are taken for signs of weakness, not always incorrectly. The Arabs are consumed by their emotions, the Israelis by their history; perhaps in the end they amount to the same thing. Visions overwhelm and mutilate facts. The people of this region seem bent on living out a biblical tragedy.

At six on a Friday evening, the commencement of the Sabbath, we went to the wailing wall in Jerusalem. It was a spectacle of overpowering unction. The Hasidic Jews, their side curls tumbling down their cheeks, pressed up close to the wall. They rocked on their heels in rhythm as they recited the Scriptures and the commentaries, some of them talking, others chanting. They were conversing with God, pleading, cajoling, arguing, apologizing, inquiring—why? Why this offense? Notes written on slips of white paper were stuffed into the spaces between bricks, advisories to the Almighty. Inconspicuous along one wall were the guards, Uzis slung casually against their hips; a few of them were young girls. Visitors were given perfunctory looks for hidden weapons. Back of the wall somewhere was the spirit of God; these stones were the very stones of the temple of Solomon.

One is reminded that the Jewish religion has no saints. There are prophets aplenty, wise men all, but all with feet of clay. The essence of the religion is scholarship. God is divine, but He is also impersonal. The Jewish people have sinned, and they have disappointed God. All that has happened to them they deserve. The Jew inquires, Why? What have I done? But God will not say. At a date in the future there will be a messiah . . .

Josi, the tank commander, says, “We study history as a lesson, and the first one is that there must be an end to the Diaspora. If I must choose between Diaspora and Masada, it will be Masada.”

All black, all white, and ultimately an empty proposition. As empty in its way as Thucydides’ bleak threat, “History repeats itself.”

—WARD JUST

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Ward Just’s latest book is Nicholson at Large, a novel, to be published this fall. He is a contributing editor of The Atlantic,