As a rule, reporters make indifferent novelists. Traffic in the other direction, though, frequently produces better results. In the case of To Jerusalem and Back, an exercise in journalism by a novelist who needs no introduction, the result is superb.
Bellow, reporting on an extended visit to Israel, examines the country with an artist’s eye, establishing a character here, setting a scene there with impeccable style. He nimbly sketches Teddy Kollek, the energetic mayor of Jerusalem; is unsparing of Henry Kissinger, who grants an uncommunicative interview; portrays his Israeli friends with both affection and perception. He has researched the roots of the Middle Eastern conflict, and the book offers a continuous internal debate as Bellow absorbs, cites, and takes issue with his sources.
What seems to interest him most as an American, a Jew, and a novelist is the general quality of mind in Israel and the ways in which it compares with the American quality of mind. Israel’s Jews live the old adage about an imminent hanging concentrating the mind. Israel sits in the shadow of the gallows, and every conversation turns inevitably to politics—to questions of national life and death—with an urgency that appeals to Bellow. By contrast, he feels, Americans are morally and politically dullwitted. Insulated from threatening events, we can choose to ignore the most horrible of headlines. The Israelis do not have that choice. In a world in which their right to exist as a people is a moot point, the Israelis must be forever alert to the ways in which the pieces of the international puzzle fit together. Israel “is both a garrison state and a cultivated society,” says Bellow, “both Spartan and Athenian. It tries to do everything, to make provision for everything. . . . These people are actively, individually involved in universal history. I don’t see how they can bear it.”
Israel has a well-known inspirational effect on its visitors, and the national attribute of contentiousness is contagious. People come away with the urge to write it all down, to explain. To Jerusalem and Back is yet another personal view of Israel and the Israelis, but with a difference. Few other writers have brought to the subject the exacting intelligence, the sense of style, and the presence that are Bellow’s.