Leopold Weiss, the grandson of a rabbi, was born in the Polish city of Lwów in 1900. In 1922 he went to Palestine to visit an uncle who was a psychiatrist at a hospital in Jerusalem. From Jerusalem, Weiss began traveling through North Africa and Arabia, where he became deeply attracted to Arabs and to life in the desert. Weiss converted to Islam, changed his name to Muhammad Asad, married an Arab woman, and made the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. Asad was among the few Westerners who had ever visited Mecca and Medina, and also among the early-twentieth-century explorers of the Arabian and Libyan Deserts. He was befriended by King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, of Saudi Arabia, and became one of the King's envoys and troubleshooters. Asad also helped to set up the modern world's first Islamic state, Pakistan, which he represented as its minister plenipotentiary to the United Nations. For a decade after Asad converted to Islam, his father refused contact with him. But in 1935 the two began exchanging letters. The correspondence continued until 1942, when the Nazis deported Asad's father and sister to a concentration camp, where they both perished.
In his autobiography, The Road to Mecca(1954), Muhammad Asad looked to Abraham, the forefather of the Jews, for understanding.
That early ancestor of mine whom God had driven toward unknown spaces and so to a discovery of his own self, would have well understood why I am here [in Arabia]—for he also had to wander through many lands before he could build his life into something that you might grasp with your hands, and had to be guest at many strange hearths before he was allowed to strike root. To his awe-commanding experience my puny perplexity would have been no riddle.
Asad, who looked back on his Jewish childhood as "happy" and "satisfying," was the ultimate free man, reinventing and negating himself, and thus full of contradictions. I was attracted by his autobiography because of the contradictions in my own life.
In the 1970s, when I was in my twenties, I traveled throughout Islamic North Africa and the Middle East, settling in Israel, where I served in the military. In Israel, finding life among people of my faith claustrophobic, I rediscovered my Americanness. What I took away from Israel was not Zionism so much as realism: whereas Israel's phobias about security might seem extreme to outsiders, life in Israel taught me that the liberal humanist tendency to see politics predominantly in moral terms was equally so. In Israel I often met foreign journalists who demanded absolute justice for the Palestinians and talked constantly about morality in politics, which in practice meant that anyone who disagreed with them was "immoral." You couldn't argue with these people. My right-wing neighbors in a poor, oriental part of Jewish Jerusalem sought absolute security. You couldn't argue with them either, but at least their arguments were grounded in self-interest and not in airy abstractions. (A confidant of the late King Hussein's and Prince Hassan's once told me that the two men trusted Yitzhak Rabin, then the Israeli Defense Minister, because he always framed his arguments for peace in terms of Israel's self-interest rather than morality.) Self-interest at its healthiest implicitly recognizes the self-interest of others, and therein lies the possibility of compromise—and realism. A moral position admits few compromises. That's some of what I took away from Israel.
Two days after finishing my military service in Israel, I flew to the Balkans to restart my career as a journalist. Within weeks I was back in the Arab world, and I traveled in Syria, Iraq, Algeria, and elsewhere throughout the 1980s, keeping the Israeli part of my life a secret. As I had learned from the foreign correspondents I met in Israel, being an outsider is easy, and so I enjoyed the Arab world, just as I did the Balkans. But in Israel, though my Hebrew is now very rusty, I will never be completely an outsider. Thus I had mixed feelings last year as I prepared to leave Amman and cross the border after several weeks of travel in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. In Israel I would be less a traveler than someone returning to a former home, and would experience reality at a level different from that elsewhere in my journey.
From Amman I took an early-morning bus north, toward the Syrian border, alighting at Irbid. Irbid was a summation of what I had experienced in the Arab world over the previous weeks. Like many other places in Jordan, it has clean sidewalks and clean public spaces, but few trees. The streets were dominated by men in drab clothes; boys carried trays of coffee and tea into offices; and the bus station was a jumble of produce stands amid lines of vehicles departing at no particular time—no disadvantage for me, because this was a traditional society in which strangers are immediately looked after. Irbid lies almost twenty miles east of the Jordan River, the border with Israel. Though the bus station was busy, I was the only person traveling to the border, so I had to take a taxi, for the equivalent of $15.
The Jordan River Valley is part of a deep rift in the earth's surface that stretches from Jordan to East Africa. The descent to the river from the biscuit-brown tableland where Irbid sits was dramatic. The temperature climbed steadily as we neared the hazy ribbon of green fields along the Jordan, on the other side of which, in Israeli territory, the mountains rise steeply. Occasionally I saw a faded sign for the "Jordan Valley Crossing" ahead: there was never a mention of Israel. The road was lined, as roads so often are in the Arab world, with dusty garages, rickety fruit stands, and small groups of young men talking and smoking. The border post was a series of old ship containers in an empty lot, housing offices for customs, passport inspection, currency exchange, and other formalities. Four years old already, the ramshackle complex looked both temporary and sleepy. My bags were not inspected, and it took only a few seconds to have my passport stamped. The sole official signal that Israel lay about a hundred feet away came at the currency-exchange office, where my dinars were replaced with Israeli shekels.
Though it was only a short distance to the Israeli side, I was not allowed to cross on foot. I was told to enter an empty bus whose engine was running. Soon two elderly Arabs in suits and ties took nearby seats. Then came another passenger, wearing dirty, baggy jeans, a short beard, and a yarmulke, and carrying an old briefcase. He might have been coming from one of the Israeli factories that had opened recently in Irbid. A burly fellow, he was brusque and alert, and didn't nod hello to me, as the two Arabs had done. There were no other passengers. The driver took his seat, and the bus headed toward the bridge.
The Jordan River, all the more precious here because it is so narrow, was an immaculate blue. On the opposite bank a landscaped park of grass and palm trees separated the traffic lanes—like a traffic island anywhere in the West, but a small wonder after the bleak public spaces of the Arab world and many parts of Turkey. The bus stopped beside two young men in Timberland shirts that were only partly tucked into their jeans, because of the handguns at their sides. Their bad crew cuts, hunted looks, and roving eyes indicated that they did not see themselves as heroes in an action movie playing inside their heads—as security men I have encountered in other countries do. These two young men were not aware of themselves, but they were aware of everything going on around them. They boarded the bus, glanced at our passports, and asked me to step outside with them.
The awkwardness and conciseness of modern Hebrew—a vernacular only a century old—struck me as poignant after the elegant elaboration of Turkish and Arabic. My conversation with the two security agents slipped between Hebrew and English. They had no interest in my whereabouts in the Arab world—they simply wanted to run a test on an immigration officer who had started work that day. They handed me the Israeli passport of an Arab, a commonplace item given that many Israeli Arabs live nearby, in the Galilee. The passport was phony, they told me, and they wanted to see if the new officer would spot it. The photograph in it vaguely resembled me, and they asked if I would try to get through immigration carrying it.
"Where will my American passport be?" I asked.
"In my back pocket," one of them said. "Don't worry, I'll be a few feet away from you. I will never be out of your sight."
"Fine," I said. Israel is a place where people are always running checks.
The immigration hall, with its luggage x-ray machine, looked like that at any small air terminal in the United States. I handed the passport to a uniformed officer, a woman in her early twenties. Her eyes ran over the document for about ten seconds; then, without even glancing at my face or asking me anything, she walked over to the security agent and slapped the passport on his chest. They smiled at each other, and he gave me back my real passport. Though Israel is a macho society in many respects, the gulf between the sexes is often curiously narrowed in the security forces.
Leaving the immigration building, I found a small bus-and-taxi terminal with a new sidewalk and benches, tourist maps, phone booths, and a bank. The bank teller looked up from her paperback just long enough for me to change more money. When I asked her where I could buy a long-distance phone card, she snapped "There," tilting her head toward a modern kiosk across the paved road. Suddenly, for the first time on my journey, I felt lonely, even though I knew much more Hebrew than Arabic or Turkish. The public spaces seemed vast, because nobody was hanging around: nobody here had time for strangers. In East Is West(1945) the British traveler and diplomat Freya Stark quoted a British official in Transjordan as saying "Years of Arab courtesy spoil us for the rough and tumble of the Western World." Though such a statement could mask an untoward political sympathy (as it did in Stark's case), it is nevertheless true.
With the phone card I called my friend Mitch, who lives in the central Galilee. He told me to take a taxi to the bus station in Beit She'an, a few minutes away to the west, where he would pick me up. On the way to Beit She'an I noticed signs in the other direction saying PEACE BRIDGE and JORDAN. Israel brags about the peace treaty and the open border that Jordanian road signs try to conceal.
Beit She'an is one of the few places in Israel that did not benefit from the huge Russian immigration, the liberalization of the economy, and the software and cell-phone revolutions that, in a chain reaction, changed society here in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Its bus station brought back memories of the depressing development town, inhabited largely by Moroccan Jews, that I had known in the 1970s. The problem was cronyism: Beit She'an was testimony to the abject political failure of David Levy, the town's favorite son, and Foreign Minister under Likud governments and now under the newly elected Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Levy's family-based political machine failed to attract enough investors to the town. The first rule of politics is to help your constituents, but Beit She'an has little to show for Levy's years in Israeli cabinets.
I had known Beit She'an in the past, but because it was the first town I saw in Israel after weeks in the Arab world, my perspective on it was new. At the bus station I sat in a crude plastic chair at a café in the shopping arcade and awaited my friend. The arcade was modern and cheaply constructed, with bubble-gum machines, plastic garbage receptacles, and self-service food counters. Machine-printed receipts littered the plastic café tables. People walked alone, rushing somewhere. Quite a few soldiers and civilians sat by themselves, reading newspapers. Armed soldiers were less threatening here than in the other Middle Eastern countries where I had been: their assault rifles were pointed downward and the safety latches were on. Also, these soldiers looked middle-class. For all the blather about Israel's invincible army, the fact is that for years it has been evolving into one of suburban kids who just want to get home at night without having anything bad happen to them. The Palestinians who came with Yasser Arafat from abroad to the casbahs of Nablus and Hebron are veterans of the Lebanese civil war. That's really why Israel had to give up the West Bank: it couldn't win an urban war there.
Except for the soldiers, who came from all over Israel and were merely changing buses here, the people in the bus station had none of the sophistication of the wealthier Arabs I had seen in Beirut and Amman, or the dignity of the poorer ones in Amman's downtown souk. There were men with ragged long hair, earrings, and garish T-shirts, women in athletic shorts and hair rollers who chewed gum, and people of both sexes wearing baseball caps, some of them backwards. As in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, falafel sandwiches in pita bread were for sale. But here there were few employees at the counters, and pickles, peppers, and other condiments were self-service. This is a Western economy without the child labor and double-digit unemployment of the non-oil-producing Arab world. And Israelis never tired of telling me, We are picky—we don't trust someone else to fill our falafel sandwiches.
Americans who fly to Israel see an ethnic society that is cohesive by comparison with the one they know in the United States, but I noticed a loneliness and an alienation that are missing from the traditional societies across the border. Even the most Westernized places in Turkey appeared less rootless than Beit She'an, whose bus station I could almost have mistaken for one in a fast-buck Mexican border town. Many foreign journalists have never liked Israel, because it is rude and jarring rather than exotic—too new. But social and economic dynamism command ugliness; an aesthetic, like a fine garden or a spoken language, requires years of elaboration.
Mitch arrived and led me to his car for the drive north, along the Jordan River Valley, to the Sea of Galilee. From there we would climb into the hills to his home in Zippori, a village halfway between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean. Mitch, who had served in the paratroops and in the media spokesman's office during his military service, had left Jerusalem some years earlier to renovate an abandoned old Arab house in the Galilee. Using his Arabic, he hired some Israeli Arabs from nearby Nazareth, and together they fixed up the house, installed a well and a septic system, landscaped several acres, and then built four vacation homes for tourists—mainly young Israeli couples from Tel Aviv seeking a romantic weekend in the countryside. Mitch's politics are right of center, yet he shops and rents videos in Arab Nazareth, buys his construction materials there, and uses a local Arab provider for Internet access; his children were born in Nazareth's Protestant hospital. Mitch is one of my oldest friends, and among the best-read, most observant people I know, partly because instead of going to college he spent several years traveling.
As I gazed at a landscape of bicycle paths, flower gardens, reforested hills, fish-breeding ponds, and prefabricated farm sheds and subdivisions, Mitch talked nonstop about Israel, revealing changes for which the international media—at the time concerned mainly with the peace process and Israeli politics—had not prepared me. Israel, it seemed, was no less an undiscovered country than the others in the region. Among the things Mitch told me, which I confirmed and came to understand more fully through reading Israeli newspapers and conducting interviews, were the following:
Israel's military-reserve system is weakening. According to myth, Israel has a small regular army capable of holding off Arab invaders for forty-eight hours—long enough to mobilize its citizen army of reservists. But accounts of the 1973 war revealed that many reserve units had performed poorly. The 1973 war was followed by a small baby boom; thus in the early 1990s the military was flooded not only with immigrants from a collapsing Soviet Union but also with a relatively high number of eighteen-year-old recruits, and the need for older reservists decreased. Meanwhile, the liberation of the Israeli economy from its socialist straitjacket—the result of both pressure and advice from the former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, an economist by training—meant that reservists who were entrepreneurs, and whose businesses would suffer in their absence, were too many in number to work out individual arrangements with the military. Now so many Israelis are entrepreneurs that missing reserve duty has become commonplace. In an age of high-tech warfare and relatively high population growth, the military doesn't need many of these aging men. For example, Mitch had just received a notice from the army spokesman's office for a day of reserve duty in southern Lebanon, but his commander had phoned and asked him not to appear—the bus seated only fifty-five reservists, but eighty had been called up, and more were willing to come than had been anticipated. A former Israeli general told me that in the future the military draft will continue "for cultural reasons," because Israel requires a society more cohesive than America's. But for protection from surrounding Muslim states a high-tech, highly paid volunteer force may ultimately be more efficient.
Over the years the number of combat officers who are religious Jews has increased significantly. Now there are whole army units composed of graduates of yeshivot hesder-- religious seminaries where study is combined with athletic and military training in a unified youth culture. Elite army units have also attracted Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, who, though not always religious, are—like the yeshiva students—not part of the country's founding secular Ashkenazi establishment.
The most vibrant anti-establishment force in Israel was Shas—an openly ethnic and sectarian party primarily representing religious Moroccan Jews. Shas (the word is a Hebrew contraction of Shisha Sedarim,the "Six Orders" of the Mishna—the written collection of the oral law that forms the basis of the Talmud) illustrates that what Western experts call corruption is sometimes just an alternative power network that emerges when the official bureaucracy is unyielding or too infirm to help the downtrodden. "The working poor all over the world are struggling and out for themselves," Marwan Kassem, a former Prime Minister of Jordan, had told me, "and they are cynical about the anti-corruption language of elites who use words like 'transparency'" at fancy conferences. Some of Shas's officials had been indicted; and though they looked and operated like Iranian bazaaris, they had established education and social-welfare networks as impressive as those run by Hamas in Gaza and by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Shas's shadowy grassroots system is a rebuke to David Levy's machine politics, which delivered insufficient benefits to the Sephardim in Beit She'an. Shas is not closed-minded regarding peace. The party has always been willing to be part of any coalition, however hawkish or dovish, provided it gets money for its religious schools and day-care centers. Religious schooling is increasingly in demand in Israel, as Zionism weakens and secular schools lose a part of their mission while facing more drugs and delinquency.
Foreign workers are another sign of Israel's increasingly complex postmodern society. A veritable caste system has emerged, with Thai farmhands, Romanian construction workers, and Nigerian day laborers, as Israelis grow increasingly uncomfortable about hiring Palestinian workers. Southern Lebanese work as hotel maids, and thousands of Jordanians who have overstayed their visas take off-the-books jobs. The Israeli economy, though it stalled recently after years of sustained growth, has reached a level of such wealth that it is a magnet for outside labor regardless of regional politics.
While the outside world hopes for Arab-Jewish cooperation, the most obvious sign of it—and one that Israelis incessantly talked about—is car theft. Everyone I met in Israel had either had a car stolen or knew someone who had. Almost every parked car I saw, except for the old ones, had a device to lock the steering wheel or a decal announcing some sort of electronic tracking system. It is a national issue so mundane that it doesn't qualify as news, and isn't written about overseas. Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority is involved to such a degree that after a leading rabbi had his car stolen, a call to Arafat's office resulted in its return. The Israeli security services do little to stop the thefts. According to one prevalent theory, the security services see the thievery as a political concession to the Palestinians that also stimulates the Israeli economy, because it forces victims to buy new cars. A name that comes up in discussions of the unpleasant aspects of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation is that of Jibril Rajoub. A friend of mine labeled Rajoub "Israel's Somoza," referring to Anastasio Somoza, the late pro-American dictator of Nicaragua. Rajoub, a ruthless security czar for Arafat, is helping the Israelis enforce the interim peace agreements and fight terrorism. Though the international media rarely mention him, I heard Rajoub's name all the time in Israel. He spent a decade and a half in Israeli prisons, speaks fluent Hebrew, and has far more influence with Arafat than more quotable Palestinians such as Abu Mazen, Saeeb Erekat, Nabil Shaath, and Hanan Ashrawi. When I asked an Israeli intelligence officer if Rajoub might eventually replace Arafat, he replied, "Someone like Abu Mazen, a leading Palestinian negotiator, could initially replace Arafat. But if Abu Mazen, say, were assassinated and the cruder element took over, I would not be totally surprised."
Arab towns in the Galilee are in turmoil. Local elections that took place during my visit demonstrated not the primacy of ideas or even of issues but the increasing power of the old clans, the hamoulas. Concomitantly, violence between Muslims and Christians is on the rise. One night in Nazareth I saw that some Muslims had set up a makeshift mosque next door to the Church of the Annunciation, using carpets and overhead blankets, and heard them blast the Muslim call to prayer. Claiming that the site of an old Turkish barracks had religious significance, the Muslims were threatening to build a new mosque with a minaret higher than the church, which is a focal point of international Christian pilgrimage. Nazareth, 90 percent Christian several decades ago, is now 70 percent Muslim, and that percentage is rising. The Israeli government is not eager to help the Arab Christians: Israel's ties with Muslims in the Galilee are more important, and Christian groups worldwide (evangelicals excepted) have never been particularly supportive of Israel.
Nearing Mitch's house, we passed through Hoshaya, which resembles an upscale community in southern California, with bougainvillaea, security gates, and speed bumps on winding streets that are lined with identical houses with red-tile roofs and neat lawns. A few days later I spent a morning stranded in Hoshaya without a car. Finding someone on the street at midday was difficult. When I did locate some people, they were all busy. None of them would admit to knowing where a public phone was or invited me to use his. They looked at once shy, preoccupied, a little annoyed, and suspicious. Finally I found an Arab watchman who lent me his cell phone. At such times I reminded myself that Israel is a drastic, tactless expression of concreteness: of facts to replace other facts. Here the Holocaust remains an unsparing assemblage of gruesome details that are commemorated not by intellectual abstractions but by, among other things, a security service, a military machine, and Jewish settlements like Hoshaya, whose significance is not that they are alluring or friendly—they aren't—but that they are there. And there is another concrete reaction to the Holocaust: machismo, in women as well as in men, directed not just against weakness but against anybody who doesn't know the score, anybody stranded in Hoshaya in the middle of the day without a car.
The balcony of Mitch's house offered a prospect of serene harmony. There were hills in the distance to the northwest, a valley to the north, and a large, softly contoured hill dominating the view to the northeast. The valley was the Beit Netofa, mentioned in the Talmud, where I could discern the remains of the Via Maris, the old Roman road to the Mediterranean. The large hill, known in Greek (and therefore to classical scholars) and in English as Sepphoris, was the site of ancient Zippori, from the Hebrew zippor,for "bird," because the town had sat "at the top of the mountain like a bird," in the words of the Babylonian Talmud.
Now a national park, Sepphoris was continuously inhabited from the late sixth century B.C. until 1948, when the population of the Arab village of Saffuriyeh fled en masse as the newly created Israel Defense Forces invaded during the War of Independence. Many of the 10,000 Arabs escaped north to what became the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein Helweh, near the Lebanese port of Sidon. Mitch showed me a black-and-white photograph of Saffuriyeh taken in 1945. It resembled many of the dusty, dun-colored, and treeless checkerboards of towns I had seen throughout Syria and Jordan.
The Arab flight left Sepphoris unoccupied for the first time in more than two millennia. In 1949 a moshav,or Jewish cooperative settlement, of which Mitch's property now forms a part, was established immediately to the south of the hill. Sepphoris is testimony to the repeated invasions, infiltrations, and displacements that have lent the Middle East—geographic Palestine in particular—its distinctive feature of discontinuity, especially by comparison with such aged and revered regions as India and China.
I mean discontinuity only in the grand sense: Hittites being replaced by Phrygians and Assyrians, Assyrians by Medes and Babylonians, Byzantine Greeks by Arabs, and Arabs by Jews. For there is much continuity in the history of ancient Sepphoris. Indeed, Sepphoris's story is one of political and cultural compromise that is pertinent to the challenges facing Judaism in Israel today.
Whereas Jerusalem was oft-destroyed, Sepphoris was continuously inhabited by Jews from at least the first century B.C. For that reason, and also because Sepphoris was central to early-medieval Judaism and to the Mishna, it is the most popular archaeological site in Israel among Israelis themselves. Tourists and foreign travel writers tend to focus instead on Caesarea and Masada, whose connections to Judaism are respectively marginal and brief.
Sepphoris first emerged from obscurity in the first century B.C., when Herod the Great fortified it with a royal palace. Though the Syrian legate, Varus, destroyed Sepphoris upon Herod's death, in 4 B.C., Herod's son, Herod Antipas, soon rebuilt the town, making it, according to a historian of the era, the "ornament of all Galilee." That historian, Flavius Josephus, wrote in his autobiography,
The greatest cities of Galilee ... were Sepphoris and ... Tiberias; but Sepphoris, situated in the very midst of Galilee, and having many villages about it, and able with ease to have been ... troublesome to the Romans, if they had so pleased,—yet did it resolve to continue faithful to those their masters.
Because the Jews of Sepphoris collaborated with Rome, Jewish life there continued long past the first century, not only prospering but producing the Mishna and other books that give Judaism its current wealth. In A.D. 68 Sepphoris acquired a Greek name—Eirenopolis, "City of Peace." Such collaboration kept Judaism alive. In contrast, the Jews of Yodefat, nearby in the Galilee; the Jews of Jerusalem; and the Jewish zealots atop the rock of Masada, in the Judean Desert, all resisted Rome, and from 66 to 73 they were utterly destroyed.
Jesus was growing up in the village of Nazareth, about three miles southeast of Sepphoris, just as Sepphoris was beginning its collaboration with Rome. Like Joseph, Jesus was a "carpenter." But the Greek word in the New Testament for "carpenter," tekton, can also be translated as "builder." Herod Antipas' fortress complex was built during Jesus' boyhood. Whether or not Jesus and Joseph plied their trade in Sepphoris, it is likely that Jesus went there often, walking from Nazareth up the very side of the hill that is visible from my friend's balcony. Jesus' grandparents, Joachim and Anne, lived in Sepphoris, where their daughter, Mary, was raised. The Virgin Mary, as Mitch nonchalantly put it, "was a Zippori girl."
What is, according to legend, the site of the home of Joachim and Anne became a Crusader church, amid the ruins of which I found a reused second-century stone with a Greek inscription saying that it was from the synagogue of the "Jewish community of Tyre, Sidon, and Zippori." These ruins were beautiful and forlorn. Getting in required asking for a key at the adjacent Arab Christian orphanage, with whose director I drank Turkish coffee. The ruins and the orphanage—not Nazareth, debased by tacky tourist development—were the genuinely evocative holy places here, I thought.
Unlike many Jews of his time, Jesus did not become a zealot. Rather, he spoke about peace and universal love. Might the atmosphere of Roman-Jewish conciliation in Sepphoris—a commercial town whose inhabitants preferred trade to warfare—have influenced him? Might he have cultivated his gift for speaking in sophisticated and commercial Sepphoris, rather than in small and rustic Nazareth? Scholars passionately debate these points.
In A.D. 132 an irascible warrior, Simeon Bar Kokhba, gathered the descendants of those who had survived the destruction of Jewish Jerusalem sixty-two years earlier and launched an ill-fated revolt against the Roman authorities, which the Emperor Hadrian crushed in 135. The survivors of the Bar Kokhba rebellion fled north, and by the middle of the second century Sepphoris had become the center of Jewish learning in Palestine. Here the Sanhedrin, which was both a Jewish court and a legislative body, was relocated. And at the beginning of the third century Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi ("Judah the Prince"), the patriarch of the Palestinian Jews and a descendant of the great sage Hillel, moved to Sepphoris. He lived here for seventeen years, during which time he completed the Mishna. Unlike Bar Kokhba and the zealots of Masada and Jerusalem, Rabbi Yehudah was a diplomat. According to the Talmud, he was a friend of one of the Antonine Emperors (either Antoninus Pius or Marcus Aurelius), with whom he discussed philosophy.
Acquiescence to the rule of the great powers paid dividends. Sepphoris remained an outpost of rabbinical scholarship and Jewish culture for almost 400 years after Rabbi Yehudah's death, as evinced by the remains of a sixth-century Byzantine synagogue with a magnificent mosaic floor. The Muslim conquest in the seventh century led to the town's decline, and it is likely that many Jews converted to Islam. But not until the First Crusade, late in the eleventh century, did Jewish life definitively end here. The Crusades ended here too: at the top of the hill of Sepphoris is a citadel from which Christian soldiers departed in July of 1187 for Karnei Hittin ("the Horns of Hattin"), two large hills overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Saladin's troops set the fields afire, roasting the knights in their armor and all but ending Christian control of the Holy Land.
Sepphoris is a story of cultural osmosis, of Jews thriving even as they adapted to pagan and Islamic mores. Among the vast remains of Roman-Byzantine Sepphoris is a theater probably attended by assimilated Jews. The most intriguing of the remains is a Roman villa dating from the early third century, during the life of Rabbi Yehudah. The villa includes a dining room with a resplendent mosaic floor—virtually a picture postcard from the past—dedicated to Dionysius, the Greco-Roman god of wine and ecstasy. In the mosaic's central panel he is shown in a drinking contest with Hercules. Who lived in this villa? Most likely, to judge by the mosaic, a pagan notable. "However, one cannot rule out the possibility that a wealthy Jew may have resided here," write Ehud Netzer and Zeev Weiss, of Hebrew University, in Jerusalem. Might Rabbi Yehudah himself have visited this villa, or lived here, and sipped wine over the mosaic of Dionysius?
Such a question is extremely sensitive. It touches on a quarrel among Jews today in Israel, where there are still religious zealots and pagans, and also rabbis—following the example of Yehudah ha-Nasi—who are trying to steer Jews away from political and cultural confrontation so that they might rediscover, according to their own needs, the riches of their religion.
In the Muslim world the rise of political Islam means the end of real devotion; in Israel the identification of Judaism with extreme nationalism has threatened a similar result. In fact, in Josephus' 2,000-year-old account of the internecine conflicts that wracked Jewish Jerusalem before its destruction by the Romans, the various zealot factions—who resented Rome's tolerance and humanism as much as its paganism—bear an eerie resemblance to the parties of the Israeli right today. This history may suggest why Ehud Barak's desire to foster national reconciliation has proved to be right on target.
Yehudah Gilad, a young rabbi with a dark, closely cropped beard and a knitted yarmulke, who lives at Kibbutz Lavi, a collective religious settlement near Sepphoris, told me in his relaxed manner, "The tragedy has been that because so many religious Jews are on the far right, secular Israelis say, 'If this is religion, we don't want it—so let's vacation in Sweden and eat pork.'" Gilad's home, bare except for religious books and a few pieces of simple furniture, reminded me of the homes of Muslim clerics I had visited in the Shi'ite holy city of Qom, in Iran, some years before.
At the time we spoke, Gilad was associated with Meimad (the word is a Hebrew contraction of Medinat Yehudit, medinat demokratit,"a Jewish state, a democratic state"), a dovish offshoot of the National Religious Party. Though politically marginal, Meimad interested me, because it occupies the space where many Israelis want to live their lives—away from the extremes of global universalism on the one hand and ultra-orthodoxy on the other. "Israelis are still new to the global village," Gilad told me. "Suddenly they have dozens of television channels, and because Israel is less diplomatically isolated than in the past, they can travel all over. But such cosmopolitanism will ultimately not satisfy them. Israelis will need to be anchored, like other people, in their own religion. And because our neighbors, friendly or not, will always be of another faith, universalism will not work here." A "new modern orthodoxy" is needed, he said—one in which, for example, people can be comfortable observing some aspects of the sabbath without observing others, and not feel like hypocrites.
"Religious Jews," Gilad told me, "have a duty to make secular Jews feel more comfortable with religion, rather than intimidated by it. I think it has been a disaster to mix theology with nationalist politics. I also have a dream of Jews in all of Eretz Yisrael, but I have to tackle reality."
Judaism in Israel has yet to respond to the challenge of modernity by seeking a renewed humanism and cultural identity, Gilad said. Instead Judaism has become synonymous with "the land" after the capture of the West Bank in the 1967 war, thus acquiring a blood-and-soil cast similar to that of Orthodox Christian churches in the Balkans. Now the task is to make Judaism constructively relevant—a challenge that Rabbi Yehudah successfully faced when he sought compromise with pagan Rome while articulating a body of religious law that guides Jews to this day.
Adapting Judaism to new and more-complex times will not be easy in Israel, where Orthodox nationalist parties have built walls between Jews and Arabs and between Jews and Jews, and have turned religion into a patronage mill. Israelis have become cynical about Judaism. Because nearly everyone here is Jewish, and Hebrew is the vernacular, people can go bathing topless on Yom Kippur and still be good Jews overall—something impossible in the Diaspora. Moreover, says Yehudah Mirsky, a doctoral student in religion at Harvard and a longtime friend of Gilad's, "Conservative and Reform Judaism as practiced in the U.S. seem rather too thin and obviously American for Israeli tastes. Some new religious expression is fitfully struggling to be born."
I drove to Jerusalem with Mitch's wife and two of their children, south through the Jordan River Valley to Jericho, and then west up the hills of the Judean Desert to the Holy City. For much of the trip we were in the West Bank, but on main highways used by Israelis. Seven miles before we reached Jerusalem a new highway branched off to the right, connecting the large West Bank Jewish settlement of Ma'ale Adumim directly to the Jewish part of Jerusalem. Night had fallen, but I decided not to take the new road and instead to follow the old one I knew from the 1970s, which passed through the Arab town of El Azariyeh—the Bethany of the New Testament, where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. That way we would approach Jerusalem in traditional, romantic fashion—coming around a bend at the edge of the Judean Desert where, suddenly, the Temple Mount and the walls of the Old City appear across the narrow Kidron Valley.
El Azariyeh had grown considerably since I had last seen it; it was a crowded jumble of concrete rather than the sleepy town I remembered from two decades before. Young Arab men thronged the streets beside our slow-moving car. Farther on, as I remembered, the road curved, and the stars seemed to touch the burnished gold dome of the Mosque of Omar, on the Temple Mount; the floodlit Turkish walls of the Old City evoked a fairy tale. We followed the walls to a stoplight, where we turned left. Three quarters of a mile beyond, the Arab world disappeared as though someone had wished it away, and a pseudo-Western world, homely and intimate, began. Rain clouds smudged the sky. Here I had lived in a poor, Sephardic neighborhood where Menachem Begin, then the Likud opposition leader, was for all intents and purposes elected Prime Minister years before the rest of Israel elected him. The 1977 election that brought Begin to power did not surprise me or anyone else in the neighborhood, though the world's media and political elites barely knew at the time who he was. I was dropped off at the home of another friend, Edit. "What route did you take to Jerusalem?" she asked me.
"Through El Azariyeh, so we could see the Temple Mount," I replied.
Edit told me that the Arabs of El Azariyeh throw stones at cars with Israeli license plates. I called Mitch to apologize for putting his family in danger. "Forget it," he said. "It's not that it's so unsafe, it's just that nobody does it anymore"—meaning no Jews. The new highway had been built to avoid that very road, and another new road, called Highway One, which runs north from the Damascus Gate, effectively seals off Arab East Jerusalem from Jewish West Jerusalem.
Nor did Israelis hike anymore in Wadi Kelt, a scenic riverbed east of Jerusalem and the site of several beautiful Greek monasteries and the ruins of Herod's winter palace. Hiking in Jordan was said to be safer than hiking anywhere in the West Bank. In the 1970s Israelis went almost everywhere in the West Bank; now they go almost nowhere. In the Galilee, Mitch had taken me to a large supermarket used by both Jews and Arabs; in Jerusalem there was no such mixing. The soft, Italianate landscape of the Galilee works to reduce ethnic divisions, as the history of Sepphoris implies. The Tel Aviv-Haifa coastal strip, all Jewish and upscale, with its hedonism encouraged by the Mediterranean, is also without unrest. But in the harsh desert surroundings of Jerusalem one confronts all the tensions and contradictions of the Middle East. There is a divide not only between Jewish West Jerusalem and Arab East Jerusalem but also between Orthodox Jews in north Jerusalem and secular Jews in south Jerusalem.
The next day I took a day trip from Jerusalem to Ramallah, Arafat's unofficial capital in the West Bank. From Edit's house I rode a bus to the railway station and then walked a few hundred yards to the Old City's Jaffa Gate. Entering the Arab Old City early on that weekday morning, I left Israel. The few Israelis I saw—police officers, soldiers, or civilians—were all in groups. When I exited the Old City, at the Damascus Gate, and entered Arab East Jerusalem, the newsstands had a completely different selection of local papers: not only were Hebrew papers replaced by Arabic ones but the English-language Israeli Jerusalem Post was replaced by the Jerusalem Times,an English-language Palestinian weekly. From East Jerusalem I took a minibus—in which I was the only Jew—to Ramallah. Whereas in the 1970s Ramallah was a sleepy hilltop town to which secular Israelis drove on the sabbath for ice cream, this time I saw no Jews there. Ramallah was now bustling, with fancy new villas and malls filled with designer clothes and the latest electronic gadgets, and a sophisticated class of Palestinians, many of whom had returned from abroad. On the way back to Jerusalem I overheard an angry conversation among the Arab passengers about Jews who were still grabbing territory around Jerusalem. A few moments after I left the bus, I was back in the Jewish half of the city.
When I told Israeli friends that they should visit Ramallah, they were skeptical. I saw why a few weeks later, when an Israeli soldier was pulled from a car by university students in Ramallah and stoned nearly to death. The stoning was videotaped and shown on national television. I know Israelis who go trekking in the Himalayas but are afraid to venture into Ramallah, the most modern city in the West Bank.
Without a passport, I had slipped back and forth between a country where Israelis live and a country where Palestinian Arabs live. A de facto Palestinian state has been in existence since December of 1987, when the Intifada began and Israelis no longer felt safe in Gaza, the West Bank, or parts of East Jerusalem. This Palestinian state—now more than a decade old—is no strategic threat to Israel, because Israel controls the airspace above it and the main highways through it; the Palestinian police are permitted to carry only small weapons. The de facto state is equivalent to the indefensible, disconnected Jewish state that Israel would have become had the Palestinians accepted the 1947 partition proposal agreed to by the Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion.
As some people remarked to me, the peace process was a divorce process for a couple that had long lived apart—a messy and complex divorce that would take a while longer to settle. Water resources, like bank accounts, had to be apportioned. Jerusalem, like a child, could not be divided; it would require the equivalent of a joint-custody arrangement, with multiple flags and sovereignties. Like a financially dependent spouse, the Palestinians could not prosper without access to the Israeli economy, so there would be trade and labor agreements. Once the divorce was final, the two parties might gradually come to treat each other with civility; Israelis might once again go to Ramallah for ice cream on the sabbath. In sum, the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks—unlike the future of, say, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan—was predictable, and therefore uninteresting: the result would be just a legalistic variation of what already existed on the ground. And because little would change on the ground, the peace talks would give few insights into the geostrategic future of the early-twenty-first-century Middle East. For example, the future status of the Temple Mount was in plain sight.
"Are you Jewish?" the Israeli security officer barked at me in Hebrew, eyeing my dark hair and complexion amid a group of blond Christian pilgrims.
"Yes," I answered.
"Then don't pray inside!" he said, shaking his finger at me.
"Inside" was the Temple Mount: holy to Jews as the site of the First and Second Temples, with the western retaining wall of the latter (the "Wailing Wall") the only remnant after its destruction by the Romans, in A.D. 70; holy to Christians because of its association with Jesus' preaching; and holy to Muslims as the site of Mohammed's ascension to heaven, commemorated by the gold-domed Mosque of Omar and the silver-domed Mosque of Al Aqsa. Because I did not look like a tourist, the security officer thought I might be a Jewish extremist bent on provoking an incident. Despite claims to possession by religious Jewish nationalists, Jews who are not tourists rarely venture onto the Temple Mount.
In a manner of speaking, I did go to pray. As someone enraptured with history, and visiting around the time of the eightieth anniversary of the end of the First World War, I went to offer my respects at the tomb of Hussein ibn Ali—the Grand Sharif of Mecca, the father of Emir Abdullah, and the great-grandfather of King Hussein. It was Sharif Hussein who in 1916 ignited the Arab revolt against the Turks, thus setting in motion the collapse of Ottoman Turkey in the Middle East and creating a political riddle that is still waiting to be solved, given the region's unstable dictatorships. Before the guns went silent on the western front, on November 11, 1918, eight and a half million men had died. In Europe the slaughter led only to a bitter peace that in turn led to the Second World War; in the Middle East, President Woodrow Wilson's ill-conceived policy of national self-determination crumbled amid the realities of power politics. The emergence of the monarchy that still rules Jordan is among the few graspable benefits of the Great War. I said a silent prayer for the survival of the family of Sharif Hussein, whose tomb, surrounded by white marble and rich carpets, lies inside a wall.
Finding the tomb on the thirty-six acres of the Temple Mount took time. The first Arab I asked shot back, "Give me twenty shekels and I'll show you." The Arabs on the Temple Mount had a certain arrogance about them. Whereas the Christian and Jewish tourists were circumspect in their behavior, moving around with their cameras in quiet little groups, for the Arabs the Temple Mount was simply home. They picnicked on tea, goat cheese, and olives in the cypress grove beside the seemingly Persian magnificence of the Mosque of Omar. Arab women passed by with plastic bags full of groceries and stopped to gossip with one another. Arab boys played a noisy game of soccer by the Herodian pavement near Sharif Hussein's tomb. Elderly Arab men washed their feet in the fountains before going into the Al Aqsa Mosque to pray. This was an Arab place, and it would stay that way, whatever the symbolic formalities of any future peace agreement.
I exited the Temple Mount through the Muslim Quarter, with its peeling walls and knots of street children. At a certain point the stones suddenly became clean, and there were new lights and guardrails for archaeological cutaways going back to the eighth century B.C., the time of the First Jewish Temple. I found fancy tourist shops, Israeli flags, and hordes of Jewish tourists. This was the Jewish Quarter, whose historical preservation was a tribute to the former mayor Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem's greatest builder since Herod. At another point the stones became stained again, and on the walls I saw maps and posters with grisly photos of the Turkish massacres of Armenians in 1915. This, of course, was the Armenian Quarter. According to the maps, a major route of murder and exile led from Kayseri through Antioch to Aleppo—the same route I had taken from Istanbul to Jerusalem. There had been no such posters here in the 1970s, when ethnic identity and remembrance were not as strong as they are now.
The Old City's various ethnic and religious groups coexist thanks to wilayet,the Ottoman system of communal self-government, with which the Israeli authorities have only modestly tampered. I was sure that wilayet would survive longer than Israeli rule in the parts of Jerusalem where Jews do not live and rarely venture.
It was forty-five minutes by bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, where I took a taxi to a northern seaside suburb to meet an official in Israeli intelligence. He looked to be straight out of central casting, with thick wire-rimmed glasses, black clothes, a nervous and emaciated look, and a jaded, world-weary manner. The subject was Syria. Over coffee and cake at a swank café, I spun out my theory of its future.
Syria might be a Yugoslavia in the making, I told him. If the country breaks apart, the Druze region of southern Syria could amalgamate with Jordan, while an Alawite mini-state could be carved out of northwestern Syria, becoming a refuge for President Hafez al-Assad's clan after he dies and Sunni fundamentalists start ruling a rump state from Damascus. The new Alawite warlordship would be supported by both the Lebanese and the Israelis, who would see no irony in supporting Assad's clan under the circumstances.
The intelligence official nodded and smiled. "The problem," he said, laughing, "is that anything is possible. One thing is for sure: Assad will die or become senile. Then," he said, making a fist, "it will be a matter of natural selection—which faction of the military or the security services is the strongest." In other words, brute force, not ideas, would determine Syria's future—and Iraq's, too, for that matter. As when Alexander the Great died, the generals would fight over the spoils.
"As for Jordan," he went on, "everyone has a use for its continued existence, because none of the other Arabs want a border with Israel. A Palestinian state, as you say, already exists. But the West Bank and Gaza have no common frontier, no clans or families linking them. Before 1967 Gaza was ruled by Egypt, the West Bank by Jordan. It could take maximum force for an Arab to keep the two places together after Arafat goes." I thought of the late-Omayyad period, in the early eighth century, when armies were the personal property of the ruler. The spread of commerce, the growth of cities, and the diversification of society subjected the empire to great strain, and various sectarian movements and preachers, backed by armed groups, arose.
This official, like many specialists on the Arab world, had an affecting sympathy for his subject. When I mentioned Aleppo and Damascus, where I had recently been, he responded reverently. "Ah,Aleppo—you know what a great civilization you are talking about ... " But when I mentioned Jerusalem, he waved his hand dismissively, telling me he went there only on business—a real Tel Aviv attitude. "This," he said, pointing to the shops around us, "is what you should really look at."
He was right. This northern Tel Aviv beach suburb—a cluster of tall, well-constructed apartment buildings, with rows of shops selling foreign luxury goods—hadn't existed when I lived in Israel. There were hair stylists and expensive cafés, in one of which we sat. Beautiful men and women walked around with showy shopping bags. It was Israel's version of Silicon Valley. While Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements have provided the politics, the Tel Aviv-Haifa coastal strip, with its multimillion-dollar software firms and hundreds of computer-related start-up companies, pays the country's bills; its annual per capita income of $17,000 is close to Great Britain's and eighteen times Syria's. As in America, a rampaging materialism pours more fuel on the economy. Later, eyeing the hard women in their thirties and forties with their revealing clothes and shopping bags, a cabdriver told me, "You need three jobs here to satisfy your wife. The women here want and want ... "
Tel Aviv was loud, rude, and pulsing with intense, stressed-out conversation at Italian coffee shops. There were airlines that connect Israel with the Muslim countries of ex-Soviet Central Asia; new malls by the dozen; armies of Romanian and Nigerian guest workers inhabiting the poor quarters around the old bus station; and videos with high-pitched soundtracks blasting at the new bus station. As I waited in line for the late-afternoon bus back to Jerusalem, a small religious Jew with a brimmed hat slipped quickly in front of me when I wasn't looking, continuing to talk on his cell phone. In the bus people were not just talking on cell phones but also writing in notebooks and business diaries and using pocket calculators as they did so. Beirut was somnolent compared with this. And here there was much more of a modern middle class. Tel Aviv will be the Tyre of the twenty-first century.
As it did in antiquity, power will radiate inland from the Mediterranean coast, and Tel Aviv and Beirut, replicas of the Phoenician city-states, will vanquish the less dynamic capitals of the desert, Damascus and Jerusalem. Syria's is a pathetic economy compared with Lebanon's: Syria's control over Lebanon has been possible only because Assad holds Syria together. Tel Aviv, not the Jewish settlements on the West Bank, is ground zero for Greater Israel—an economic dynamo that exports twice as much as Egypt, Jordan, and Syria combined. And those countries' exports are mainly agricultural commodities, textiles, and natural resources, whereas Israel's are increasingly software.
For decades I have heard that there will be either a Greater Israel or a Palestinian state. It turns out that there will be both: a Palestinian mini-state, without control over its skies or main highways, will exist within a dynamic Israeli economy that will continue to attract workers from across the border and will serve as the stabilizing force of historic "Greater Syria." The current Syrian state will weaken and pay the price for decades of Soviet-style calcification.
Israel may fantastically prosper, surrounded by pathetic Palestinian bantustans that are kept quiescent by the police-state tactics of a Jibril Rajoub. But this may only encourage a climate of deep cynicism within Israel itself. Such cynicism is close to the "consistent realism" that the English historian Edward Hallett Carr says "excludes moral judgements." The similarities between the ancient and postmodern Middle Easts could be striking, and Israel will require a distinctly moral realism to both survive and flourish.
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