Contents | November 2001
In This Issue (Contributors)
More on foreign affairs from The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:
"Hallowed Ground" (December 1995)
A first experience of the Holy Land. By Cullen Murphy
"Tel Aviv: Secular City" (December 1995)
Where Israel meets the modern world. By Corby Kummer
"Israeli Mosaics" (August 1966)
Impressions of a new country. By Herbert Mitgang
From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashback: "The State of Israel" (May 18, 1999)
Israel has rarely been free of political and cultural turmoil, as a look back at Atlantic articles from the past century reminds us.
Atlantic Abroad: "Talmud in a Taxi" (March 3, 1999)
"Here was an exchange shaped, however subtly, by a textual tradition reaching back thousands of years." By Miriam Udel Lambert
Atlantic Abroad: "Miracle on Jaffa Street" (August 12, 1998)
"We all waited on the frozen bus, growing frightened at the continuing sounds of sirens and the chop of helicopters overhead." By Miriam Udel Lambert
Flashback: "Israel at 50" (May 1, 1998)
Atlantic articles from 1919 to 1993—including "The Kingdom of the Spirit," by David Ben-Gurion—trace the origins and history of the Jewish state.
Interviews: "A Century of Zionism" (November 1996)
The British journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft takes stock of Theodor Herzl's "mad" idea.
The Atlantic Monthly | November 2001
assover is my idea of a perfect holiday. Dear God, when you're handing out plagues of darkness, locusts, hail, boils, flies, lice, frogs, and cattle murrain, and turning the Nile to blood and smiting the firstborn, give me a pass. And tell me when it's over.
Zion's Vital Signs
A journey through modern Israel, where terrorism has been a fact of ordinary life for decades—and where ordinary life defeats terrorism
by P.J. O'Rourke
The Lord did well by me this Passover—brilliant sunshine on the beaches of Tel Aviv, pellucid waters, no flies in my room at the Hilton, and certainly no lice. I am a firstborn myself, but I was not the least smitten, not even by the cute waitress at the Hilton's kosher sushi restaurant. I am a happily married man. And by the way, Leviticus 11:10 says, "Of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you"—an apt description of sushi as far as I'm concerned. But gentiles aren't expected to understand the intricacies of dietary law, although extra complications thereof lead to Passover's main drawback: food and—more important to gentiles—drink.
"I'll have a Scotch," I said to the Hilton's bartender.
"Scotch isn't kosher," he said. "It's made with leaven."
"Gin and tonic," I said.
"Gin isn't kosher."
"What can I have?"
"You can have a screwdriver—Israeli vodka and orange juice."
"What's Israeli vodka like?" I asked.
"The orange juice is very good."
here was no plague of tourists in Israel. It should have been a period of hectic visitation, with Passover beginning April 7 and the Eastern Orthodox and Western Easters coinciding a week later. But Israel's income from tourism dropped by 58 percent in the last quarter of 2000, and to judge by the queue-less ticket counters at Ben-Gurion Airport and the empty-seated aisles of El Al, the drop had continued. The marble lobby of the Hilton echoed, when at all, with the chatter of idle desk clerks and bellhops. The din of strife had rendered Israel quiet.
Quiet without portentous hush—traffic hum, air-conditioning buzz, and cell-phone beeps indicated ordinary life in an ordinary place. Tourism wasn't the only thing there was no sign of in Israel. No demonstrations blocked intersections; public-address systems failed to crackle with imperatives; exigent posters weren't stuck to walls except to advertise raves. There was no sign of crisis, international or bilateral or domestic political, although all news reports agreed that a crisis raged here, and an economic crisis besides. A 12 percent quarterly decline in gross domestic product was unevident in boarded-up shops and empty cafés, which didn't exist, and beggars and the homeless, who weren't on the streets.
There was no sign of terrorism's effects. The Carmel Market was crowded with people either wholly unafraid or indifferent to whether they were blown up singly or in bunches. If police security was pervasive, it was invisible. Israel, I've heard, is hated fanatically by millions of Muslims around the world, whereas Congress is loathed only by a small number of well-informed people who follow politics closely. But a walk around anything in Israel is less impeded by barriers and armed guards than a walk around the Capitol building in Washington.
There was no sign of war. Plenty of soldiers were to be seen, carrying their weapons, but this is no shock to the frequent traveler. For all that the world looks askance at America's lack of gun control, foreigners love to wave guns around. Nothing about the Israeli Defense Forces is as odd as Italian carabinieri brandishing their machine pistols while grimly patrolling that flash-point Venice.
There was, in fact, no sign of anything in Tel Aviv. In particular there was no sign of Israel's vital strategic importance to world peace—except, of course, those signs of vital strategic importance to world peace one sees everywhere, the lettering here in Hebrew but the trademark logos recognizable enough.
el Aviv is new, built on the sand dunes north of Jaffa in the 1890s, about the same time Miami was founded. The cities bear a resemblance in size, site, climate, and architecture, which ranges from the bland to the fancifully bland. In Miami the striving, somewhat troublesome immigrant population is the result of Russia's meddling with Cuba. In Tel Aviv the striving, somewhat troublesome immigrant population is the result of Russia's meddling with itself. I found a Russian restaurant where they couldn't have cared less what was made with leaven, where they had Scotch, and where, over one Scotch too many, I contemplated the absurdity of Israel's being an ordinary place.
What if people who had been away for ages, out and on their own, suddenly showed up at their old home and decided to move back in? My friends with grown-up children tell me this happens all the time. What if the countless ancient tribal groups that are now defeated, dispersed, and stateless contrived to re-establish themselves in their ancestral lands in such a way as to dominate everyone around them? The Mashantucket Pequots are doing so this minute at their Foxwoods casino, in southeastern Connecticut. What if a religious group sought a homeland never minding how multifarious its religion had become or how divergent its adherents were in principles and practices? A homeland for Protestants would have to satisfy the aspirations of born-again literalists holding forth about creationism in their concrete-block tabernacles and also to fulfill the hopes and dreams of vaguely churched latitudinarians praising God's creation by boating on Sundays. Protestant Zion would need to be perfect both for sniping at abortion doctors in North Carolina and for marrying lesbians in Vermont. As an American, I already live in that country.
Maybe there's nothing absurd about Israel. I wandered out into the ordinary nighttime, down Jabotinsky Street, named for the founder of Revisionist Zionism, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who wrote in 1923, "A voluntary agreement between us and the Arabs of Palestine is inconceivable now or in the foreseeable future." Thus Jabotinsky broke with the father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, who, in Altneuland (1902), had a fictional future Arab character in a fictional future Israel saying "The Jews have made us prosperous, why should we be angry with them?" And now the Carmel Market was full of goods from Egypt.
From Jabotinsky Street I meandered into Weizmann Street, named for the first President of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, who in 1919 met with Emir Faisal, the future King of Iraq and a son of the sherif of Mecca, and concluded an agreement that "all necessary measures shall be taken to encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale." Faisal sent a letter to the American Zionist delegates at the Versailles peace conference wishing Jews "a most hearty welcome home."
Turning off Weizmann Street, I got lost for a while among signpost monikers I didn't recognize but that probably commemorated people who became at least as embattled as Jabotinsky, Herzl, Weizmann, and Faisal. I emerged on Ben-Gurion Avenue. The first Prime Minister of Israel was a ferocious battler. He fought the British mandate, the war of liberation, Palestinian guerrillas, and the Sinai campaign. He even won, most of the time, in the Israeli Knesset. And still he was on the lookout for peace. In the months leading up to the Suez crisis, in 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower had a secret emissary shuttling between Jerusalem and Cairo. Egypt's President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, told the emissary (in words that Yasir Arafat could use and, for all I know, does), "If the initiative [Nasser] was now taking in these talks was known in public he would be faced not only with a political problem, but—possibly—with a bullet."
A bullet was what Yitzhak Rabin got, at the end of Ben-Gurion Avenue, from a Jewish extremist, during a peace rally in the square that now bears Rabin's name. A bullet was also what Emir Faisal's brother, King Abdullah of Jordan, got, from a Muslim extremist, for advocating peace with Israel. Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, got a bullet too.
If bullets were the going price for moderation hereabouts, then I needed another drink. I walked west along Gordon Street—named, I hope, for Judah Leib Gordon, the nineteenth-century Russian novelist who wrote in classical Hebrew, and not for Lord George Gordon, the fanatical anti-Catholic and leader of the 1780 Gordon riots, who converted to Judaism late in life and died in Newgate Prison praising the French Revolution. This brought me to a stretch of nightclubs along the beach promenade. Here, two months later, a suicide bomber would kill twenty-one people outside the Dolphi disco. Most of the victims were teenage Russian girls, no doubt very moderate about everything other than clothes, makeup, and the proper selection of dance-mix albums.
y tour guide arrived the next morning. His name was a long collection of aspirates, glottal stops, and gutturals with, like printed Hebrew, no evident vowels. "Americans can never pronounce it," he said. "Just call me T'zchv."
I called him Z. I was Z's only customer. He drove a minibus of the kind that in the United States always seems to be filled with a church group. And so was Z's, until recently. "Most of my clients," he said, "are the fundamentalists. They want to go everywhere in the Bible. But now ..." The people who talk incessantly about Last Days have, owing to violence in the region, quit visiting the place where the world will end.
Z was seventy-five, a retired colonel in the Israeli Defense Forces, a veteran of every war from liberation to the invasion of Lebanon. "Our worst enemy is CNN," he said. His parents came from Russia in 1908 and settled on the first kibbutz in Palestine. Z was full of anger about the fighting in Israel—the fighting with the ultra-Orthodox Jews. "They don't serve in the army. They don't pay taxes. The government gives them money. I call them Pharisees."
As we walked around, Z would greet by name people of perfectly secular appearance, adding, "you Pharisee, you," or would introduce me to someone in a T-shirt and jeans who had maybe voted for Ariel Sharon in the most recent election by saying, "I want you to meet Moshe, a real Pharisee, this one."
Z said, over and over, "The problem is with the Pharisees." About Arabs I couldn't get him to say much. He seemed to regard Arabs as he did weather. Weather is important. Weather is good. We enjoy weather. We respect weather. Nobody likes to be out in weather when it gets dramatic. "My wife won't let me go to the Palestinian areas," Z said.
"Let's go to an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood," I said.
"You don't want to go there," he said. "They're dumps. You want to see where Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee."
"No, I don't."
"And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea ..." For a man at loggerheads with religious orthodoxy, Z recited a lot of Scripture, albeit mostly from the New Testament, where Pharisees come off looking pretty bad. When quoting he would shift to the trochaic foot—familiar to him, perhaps, from the preaching of his evangelical tourists; familiar to me from my mom's yelling through the screen door, "You get in here right this minute!"
As a compromise we went to Jaffa and had Saint Peter's fish from the Sea of Galilee for lunch. Jaffa is the old port city for Jerusalem, a quaint jumble of Arab architecture out of which the Arabs ran or were run (depending on who's writing history) during the war of liberation. Like most quaint jumbles adjacent to quaintness-free cities, Jaffa is full of galleries and studios. Israel is an admirably artsy place. And, as in other artsy places of the modern world, admiration had to be aimed principally at the effort. The output indicated that Israelis should have listened the first time when God said, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing." Some of the abstract stuff was good.
I wanted to look at art. Z wanted me to look at the house of Simon the Tanner, on the Jaffa waterfront. This, according to Acts 10:10-15, is where Saint Peter went into a trance and foresaw a universal Christian Church and, also, fitted sheets. Peter had a vision of "a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things." God told Peter to kill them and eat them. Peter thought this didn't look kosher—or, probably, in the case of the creeping things, appetizing. And God said that what He had cleansed should not be called unclean.
"Then is when Peter knew Christianity was for everyone, not just the Jews!" Z said, with vicarious pride in another religion's generous thought.
A little too generous. To Peter's idea we owe ideology, the notion that the wonderful visions we have involve not only ourselves but the whole world, whether the world wants to get involved or not. Until that moment of Peter's in Jaffa, the killing of heretics and infidels was a local business. Take, for example, the case of John the Baptist: with Herodias, Herod Antipas, and stepdaughter Salome running the store, it was a mom-and-pop operation. But by the middle of the first century theological persecution had gone global in the known world. Eventually the slaughter would outgrow the limited market in religious differences. During our era millions of people have been murdered on purely intellectual grounds.
"Can we go in?" I asked.
"No," Z said. "The Muslims put a mosque in there, which made the Orthodox angry. They rioted, which kept the Christians out. So the police closed the place."
or those who dislike ideology, the great thing about kibbutzim is that they're such a lousy idea. Take an Eastern European intelligentsia and make the desert bloom. One would sooner take Mormons and start a rap label. But Kibbutz Yad-Mordechai, three quarters of a mile north of the Gaza Strip, passed the test of ideology. It worked—something no fully elaborated, universally applied ideology ever does.
I'd never been to a kibbutz. I don't know what I expected—Grossinger's with guns? A bar mitzvah with tractors? Some of my friends went to kibbutzim in the 1960s and came back with tales of sex and socialism. But you could get that at Oberlin, without the circle dancing. I'm sure my poli-sci-major pals were very little help with the avocado crop. Anyway, what I wasn't expecting was a cluster of JFK-era summer cottages with haphazard flower beds, sagging badminton nets, and Big Wheel tricycles on the grass—Lake Missaukee, Michigan, without Lake Missaukee.
A miniature Michigan of shrubbery and trees covered the low hills of the settlement, but with a network of drip-irrigation lines weaving among the stems and trunks. Here were the fiber-optic connections of a previous and more substantive generation of modernists, who meant to treat a troubled world with water rather than information. Scattered in the greenery were the blank metal-sided workshops and warehouses of contemporary agriculture, suggestive more of light industry than of peasanthood. And Yad-Mordechai has light industry, too, producing housewares and decorative ceramics. Plus it has the largest apiary in Israel, an educational center devoted to honey and bees, a gift shop, a kosher restaurant, and, of all things 1,300 yards from the Gaza Strip, a petting zoo.
Yad-Mordechai was founded in 1943 on an untilled, sandy patch of the Negev. The land was bought from the sheik of a neighboring village. And there, in the common little verb of the preceding sentence, is the moral genius of Zionism. Theodor Herzl, when he set down the design of Zionism in The Jewish State (1896), wrote, "The land ... must, of course, be privately acquired." The Zionists intended to buy a nation rather than conquer one. This had never been tried. Albeit various colonists, such as the American ones, had foisted purchase-and-sale agreements on peoples who had no concept of fee-simple tenure or of geography as anything but a free good. But Zionists wanted an honest title search.
More than a hundred years ago the Zionists realized what nobody else has realized yet—nobody but a few cranky Austrian economists and some very rich people skimming the earth in Gulfstream jets. Nothing is zero-sum, not even statehood. Man can make more of everything, including the very thing he sets his feet on, as the fellow getting to his feet and heading to the bar on the GV can tell you. "If we wish to found a State to-day," Herzl wrote, "we shall not do it in the way which would have been the only possible one a thousand years ago."
Whether the early Zionists realized what they'd realized is another matter. Palestinian Arabs realized, very quickly, that along with the purchased polity came politics. In politics, as opposed to reality, everything is zero-sum.
Considering how things are going politically in Zion these days, the foregoing quotation from Herzl should be continued and completed.
Supposing, for example, we were obliged to clear a country of wild beasts, we should not set about the task in the fashion of Europeans of the fifth century. We should not take spear and lance and go out singly in pursuit of bears; we should organise a large and lively hunting party, drive the animals together, and throw a melinite bomb into their midst.
On May 19, 1948, Yad-Mordechai was attacked by an Egyptian armored column with air and artillery support. The kibbutz was guarded by 130 men and women, some of them teenagers, most without military training. They had fifty-five light weapons, one machine gun, and a two-inch mortar. Yad-Mordechai held out for six days—long enough for the Israeli army to secure the coast road to Tel Aviv. Twenty-six of the defenders were killed, and about 300 Egyptians.
A slit trench has been left along the Yad-Mordechai hilltop, with the original fifty-five weapons fastened to boards and preserved with tar. Under the viscous coatings a nineteenth-century British rifle is discernible, and the sink-trap plumbing of two primitive Bren guns. The rest of the firearms look like the birds and cats that were once mummified—by Egyptians, appropriately enough. Below the trench is a lace negligee of barbed wire, all the barbed wire the kibbutz had in 1948, and beyond that are Egyptian tanks, just where they stopped when they could go no farther. Between the tanks dozens of charging Egyptian soldiers are represented by life-size, black-painted two-dimensional cutouts—Gumby commandos, lawn ornaments on attack.
It is the only war memorial I've seen that was frightening and silly—things all war memorials should be. Most war memorials are sad or awful—things, come to think of it, war memorials should also be. And this war memorial has a price of admission—which, considering the cost of war, is another good idea.
There was a crabby old guy at the ticket booth, whom Z greeted with warm complaining, grouch to grouch. Then Z took me to Yad-Mordechai's Holocaust museum, which skips pity and goes immediately to Jewish resistance during World War II and Jewish fighting in Palestine and Israel. Yad-Mordechai is named for Mordechai Anielewicz, the commander of the Warsaw-ghetto uprising. The message of the Yad-Mordechai museum is that the Holocaust memorial is in the trench at the other end of the kibbutz.
From the archives:
"The Creed of the American Zionist" (February 1945)
"I advocate Zionism as the most immediate and practicable answer to a vast, terrible and very tangible need." By Rabbi Milton Steinberg
"Zionist Aspirations in Palestine" (July 1920)
"I propose in this article to discuss [Zionism] from a historical and practical standpoint, without sentiment in favor of either Jew or Arab, among both of which parties I have many friends." By Anstruther Mackay
This is the second wonderful thing about Zionism: it was right. Every other "ism" of the modern world has been wrong about the nature of civilized man—Marxism, mesmerism, surrealism, pacifism, existentialism, nudism. But civilized man did want to kill Jews, and was going to do more of it. And Zionism was specific. While other systems of thought blundered around in the universal, looking for general solutions to comprehensive problems, Zionism stuck to its guns, or—in the beginning, anyway—to its hoes, mattocks, and irrigation pipes.
True, Zionism has a utopian-socialist aspect that is thoroughly nutty as far as I'm concerned. But it isn't my concern. No one knocks on my door during dinner and asks me to join a kibbutz or calls me on the weekend to persuade me to drop my current long-distance carrier and make all my phone calls by way of Israel. And given my last name, they won't.
My last name is, coincidentally, similar to the maiden name of the Holocaust-museum docent, who was Baltimore Irish and had married a young man from the kibbutz and moved there in the 1970s. "I converted," she said, "which the Orthodox make it hard to do, but I went through with it. There's a crabby old guy here who sort of took me under his wing. The first Yom Kippur after I converted, he asked me, 'Did you fast?' I said yes. He said, 'Stupid!' You probably saw him on the way in, behind the ticket counter. He's a veteran of the fight for Yad-Mordechai. There's a photo of him here, when they liberated the kibbutz, in November '48." And there was the photo of the young, heroic, crabby old guy. And now he was behind the ticket counter at the war memorial—not making a political career in Jerusalem or writing a book about the young, heroic days or flogging his story to the History Channel.
"How cool is that?" said the Baltimore Irish woman running the Holocaust museum.
and I had lunch at the kibbutz's self-serve restaurant, where Z took his plate of meat and sat in the middle of the dairy section. In the sky to the south we could see smoke rising from the Gaza Strip—tires burning at an intifada barricade, or just trash being incinerated. Public services aren't what they might be in the Palestinian Authority at the moment. Or maybe it was one of the Jewish settlements in Gaza being attacked, although we hadn't heard gunfire.
These settlements aren't farms but, mostly, apartment clusters. "Are the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza some kind of post-agricultural, post-industrial, high-rise Zionism?" I asked Z. "Or are they a government-funded, mondo-condo, live-dangerously parody of nation-building?"
"Pharisees!" Z said, and he went back to eating.
After lunch we drove to Ben-Gurion's house in Tel Aviv, a modest, foursquare, utterly unadorned structure. But the inside was cozy with 20,000 books, in Hebrew, English, French, German, Russian, Latin, Spanish, Turkish, and ancient Greek. No fiction, however: a man who devoted his life to making a profound change in society was uninterested in the encyclopedia of society that fiction provides.
Looking at the thick walls and heavy shutters, I wondered if the house had been built to be defended. Then I twigged to the purpose of the design and gained true respect for the courage of the Zionist pioneers. Ben-Gurion came to the Middle East before air conditioning was invented—and from Plonsk, at that.
e spent the next day, at my insistence and to Z's mystification, driving around the most ordinary parts of Israel, which look so ordinary to an American that I'm rendered useless for describing them to other Americans. American highway strip-mall development hasn't quite reached Israel, however, so there's even less of the nondescript to not describe.
Z and I stood in a garden-apartment complex in Ashdod, in the garden part, a patch of trampled grass. "Here is the ugliest living in Israel," he said. We went to a hill on the Ashdod shore, a tell actually, a mound of ancient ruins, an ash heap of history from which we had a view of—ash heaps, and the power plant that goes with them, which supplies half of Israel's electricity. Ashdod, incidentally, is a Philistine place-name, not a pun. We could also see the container port, Israel's principal deep-water harbor. "This is the place where the whale threw Jonah up," Z said.
We went to the best suburbs of Tel Aviv, which look like the second-best suburbs of San Diego. We spent a lot of time stuck in traffic. Violence in the West Bank has forced traffic into bottlenecks on Routes 2 and 4 along the coast, in a pattern familiar to anyone negotiating Washington, D.C.'s Beltway—living in a place where you're scared to go to half of it and the other half you can't get to.
Israel is slightly smaller than New Jersey. Moses in effect led the tribes of Israel out of the District of Columbia, parted Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis, and wandered for forty years in Delaware. From the top of Mt. Nebo, in the equivalent of Pennsylvania, the Lord showed Moses all of Canaan. New Canaan is in Connecticut—but close enough. And there is a Mt. Nebo in Pennsylvania, although it overlooks the Susquehanna rather than the Promised Land of, say, Paramus. Joshua blew the trumpet and the malls of Paramus came tumbling down. Israel also has beaches that are at least as nice as New Jersey's.
n old friend of mine, Dave Garcia, flew in from Hong Kong to spend Easter in Jerusalem. "I like to go places when the tourists aren't there," he said. Dave spent two years in Vietnam before the tourists arrived, as a prisoner of the Viet Cong. "Let's see where the Prince of Peace was born," he said. "It's in the middle of the intifada."
Z took us from Ben-Gurion Airport to the roadblock between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The highway was strewn with broken bottles, as if in the aftermath not of war but of a very bad party. Israeli soldiers and Palestinian Authority policemen stood around warily. Z handed us over to an Arab tour-guide friend of his who drove a twenty-five-year-old Mercedes and looked glum. Israel had lost half its tourism, but hotels in Palestinian areas were reporting occupancy rates of four percent.
The Arab guide parked at random in the middle of empty Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity. "There is normally a three-and-a-half-hour wait," he said, as we walked straight into the Manger Grotto. The little cave has been rendered a soot hole by millennia of offertory candles. It's hung with damp-stained tapestries and tarnished lamps and festoons of grimy ornamentation elaborate enough for a Byzantine Emperor if the Byzantine Emperor lived in a basement. I imagine the Virgin Mary had the place done up more cheerfully, with little homey touches, when it was a barn.
The only other visitors were in a tour group from El Salvador, wearing bright-yellow T-shirts and acting cheerfully pious. Dave asked them in Spanish if, after all that El Salvador had been through with earthquakes and civil war, the fuss about violence and danger around here puzzled them. They shrugged and looked puzzled, but that may have been because no one in the Garcia family has been able to speak Spanish for three generations, including Dave.
According to our tour guide, all the dead babies from the Massacre of the Innocents are conveniently buried one grotto over, under the same church. Sites of Christian devotion around Jerusalem tend to be convenient. In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher the piece of ground where Jesus' cross was erected, the stone where he was laid out for burial, and the tomb in which he was resurrected—plus where Adam's skull was allegedly buried and, according to early Christian cartographers, the center of the world—are within a few arthritic steps of one another. Saint Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, was over seventy-five when she traveled to the Holy Land, in 326, looking for sacred locations. Arriving with a full imperial retinue and a deep purse, Saint Helena discovered that her tour guides were able to take her to every place she wanted to go; each turned out to be nearby and, as luck would have it, for sale. The attack of real-estate agents in Palestine long pre-dates Zionism.
The Church of the Nativity is a shabby mess, the result of quarreling religious orders. Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic priests have staked out Nativity turf with the acrimonious precision of teenage brothers sharing a bedroom. A locked steel door prevents direct access from the Roman Catholic chapel to the Grotto of the Nativity, which has to be reached through the Greek Orthodox monastery, where there is a particular "Armenian beam" that Greek Orthodox monks stand on to sweep the area above the Grotto entrance, making the Armenians so angry that, according to my guidebook, "in 1984 there were violent clashes as Greek and Armenian clergy fought running battles with staves and chains that had been hidden beneath their robes." What would Jesus have thought? He might have thought, Hand me a stave, per Mark 11:15: "Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers."
It's left to the Muslims to keep the peace at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, just as it's left to the Jews to keep a similar peace at the likewise divided Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Who will be a Muslim and a Jew to the Muslims and the Jews? Hindus, maybe. That is more or less the idea behind putting UN peacekeeping troops in Israel. This may or may not work. The Bhagavad Gita opens with the hero Arjuna trying to be a pacifist: "Woe!" Arjuna says. "We have resolved to commit a great crime as we stand ready to kill family out of greed for kingship and pleasures!" But the Lord Krishna tells Arjuna to quit whining and fight. "Either you are killed and will then attain to heaven," Krishna says, "or you triumph and will enjoy the earth."
Our guide took us to several large gift stores with no other customers, aisles stacked with unsold souvenirs of Jesus' birth. Part of the Israeli strategy in the intifada has been to put economic pressure on the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza. Fear of death hasn't stopped the Arabs. Maybe fear of Chapter 11 will do the trick. The entire hope of peace on earth rests with badly carved olivewood crèche sets. Dave and I bought several.
Then our guide took us up a hill to the Christian Arab village of Beit Jala, which the Israelis had been shelling (and later would occupy). Large chunks were gone from the tall, previously comfortable-looking limestone villas. Shuttered housefronts were full of what looked like bullet holes but were large enough to put a Popsicle in. "Ooh, fifty-caliber," Dave said with professional appreciation.
"These people," our guide said, "have no part in the violence." Dave and I made noises of condolence and agreement in that shift of sympathy to the nearest immediate victim that is the hallmark of modern morality.
"Here a man was sleeping in his bed," our guide said, showing us a three-story pile of rubble. "And they couldn't find him for days later. The Israelis shell here for no reason."
"Um," Dave said, "why for no reason?" And our guide, speaking in diplomatic circumlocution, allowed as how every now and then, all the time, Palestinian gunmen would occasionally, very often, use the Beit Jala hilltop to shoot with rifles at Israeli tanks guarding a highway tunnel in the valley. They did it the next night.
"It's kind of a rule of military tactics," Dave said to me, sotto voce, as we walked back to the car, "not to shoot a rifle at a tank when the tank knows where you are." Unless, of course, scanty olivewood-crèche-set sales are spoiling your enjoyment of earth and you've decided to attain to heaven.
The owner of an upscale antiquities shop back in Bethlehem did not look as if he meant to attain any sooner than necessary, even though his store's air-conditioning unit had been knocked out by Israelis firing on nearby rioters. He arrived in a new Mercedes with three assistants to open his business especially for Dave, his first customer in a month.
The antiquities dealer was another friend of Z's. Z told us that this was the man whose grandfather was the Palestinian cobbler to whom the Dead Sea Scrolls were offered as scrap leather by the Bedouin shepherd who found them—a story too good to subject to the discourtesies of investigative journalism.
The emporium was new, built in the soon-dashed hopes of millennium traffic. The antiquities were displayed in the stark, track-lit modernity necessary to make them look like something other than the pots and pans and jars and bottles of people who had, one way or another, given up on this place long ago.
Dave collects antiques, but by profession he's an iron-and-steel commodities trader. He has also lived in Asia for years. I sat on a pile of rugs and drank little cups of coffee while Levantine bargaining met Oriental dickering and the cold-eyed brokerage of the market floor. The three great world traditions of haggle flowered into confrontation for two and a half hours. Folks from the Oslo talks and the Camp David meetings should have been there for benefit of instruction. Everyone ended up happy. No fatal zero-sum thinking was seen as bank notes and ceramics changed hands at last. Dave could make more money. And the Arabs could make more antiquities.
hy can't everybody just get along? No reasonably detached person goes to Israel without being reduced in philosophical discourse to the level of Rodney King—or, for that matter, to the level of George Santayana. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," Santayana said, in one of those moments of fatuousness that come to even the most detached of philosophers. It goes double for those who can't remember anything else. And they do get along, after their fashion. Muslims and Christians and Jews have lived together in the Holy Land for centuries—hating one another's guts, cutting one another's throats, and touching off wars of various magnitudes.
The whole melodrama of the Middle East would be improved if amnesia were as common here as it is in melodramatic plots. I was thinking this as I looked at the Dead Sea Scrolls in the solemn underground Shrine of the Book, inside the vast precincts of the Israel Museum. Maybe all the world's hoary tracts ought to wind up as loafer soles or be auctioned at Sotheby's to a greedy high-tech billionaire for display in his otherwise bookless 4,000-square-foot cyber-den. Then I noticed that Z was reading the scrolls, muttering aloud at speed, perusing an ancient text with more ease than I can read Henry James. What's past is past, perhaps, but when it passed, this was where it went.
dropped us at the King David Hotel, the headquarters of the Palestinian mandate administration when the British were trying to keep the peace. In 1946 the hotel was blown up by the radical wing of the Jewish Resistance Movement, the Irgun. Some of every group were killed—forty-one Arabs, twenty-eight British, seventeen Jews, and five reasonably detached persons of miscellaneous designation. The Irgun was led by the future Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who would make peace with Egypt in the 1970s but, then again, war with Lebanon in the 1980s.
On the way to the hotel Z explained why there will always be war in the region. "Israel is strategic," he said in his most New Testamental tone. "It is the strategic land bridge between Africa and Asia. For five thousand years there has been fighting in Israel. It is the strategic land bridge." And the fighting continues, a sort of geopolitical muscle memory, as though airplanes and supertankers hadn't been invented. The English and the French might as well be fighting over the beaver-pelt trade in Quebec today, and from what I understand of Canadian politics, they are.
We were meeting Israeli friends of Dave's at the hotel, a married couple. He voted for Sharon; she voted for Ehud Barak. Dave and I marked our lintels and doorposts with the blood of the lamb, metaphorically speaking, and drank Israeli vodka and orange juice.
"There will always be war," the husband said, "because with war Arafat is a hero and without war he's just an unimportant guy in charge of an unimportant place with a lot of political and economic problems."
"There will always be war," the wife said, "because with war Sharon is a hero and without war he's just an unimportant guy in charge of an unimportant place with ..."
Also, war is fun—from a distance. Late the next night Dave and I were walking back to our hotel in Arab East Jerusalem. Dave was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and I was in a blazer and chinos. We couldn't have looked less Israeli if we'd been dressed like Lawrence of Arabia (who, incidentally, was a third party to the cordial meeting between Chaim Weizmann and Emir Faisal). Fifty yards down a side street a couple of Palestinian teenagers jumped out of the shadows. Using the girly overhand throw of nations that mostly play soccer, one kid threw a bottle at us. It landed forty yards away.
n Good Friday, Dave and Z and I walked from the Garden of Gethsemane to the Lions Gate, where Israeli paratroopers fought their way into the Old City during the Six-Day War. We traveled the Via Dolorosa in an uncrowded quiet that Jesus Christ and those paratroopers were not able to enjoy. We owed our peace in Jerusalem to an enormous police presence. There have always been a lot of policemen in Jerusalem, but they did Jesus no good. Nor did the Jordanian police give Israeli soldiers helpful directions to the Ecce Homo Arch. And our Savior and the heroes of 1967 didn't have a chance to stop along the way and bargain with Arab rug merchants.
Z and the rug merchants exchanged pessimisms, Z grousing about Sharon and the Arabs complaining about Arafat. "The Israeli army tells Arafat where the strikes will come," one shopkeeper said. "They tell him, 'Don't be here. Don't be there.' No one tells me."
I visited the fourteen Stations of the Cross and said my prayers—for peace, of course, although, as a Zionist friend of mine puts it, "Victory would be okay too." Jesus said, "Love your enemies." He didn't say not to have any. In fact, he said, "I came not to send peace but a sword." Or at least staves and chains.
Then we went to the Wailing Wall, the remnant of the Second Temple, built by the same Herod the Great who killed all the babies buried near the manger in Bethlehem. Atop the Wailing Wall stands the Haram ash-Sarif, with the Dome of the Rock enclosing Mt. Moriah, where Abraham was ready to kill Isaac and where, at that moment, Muslims gathered for Friday prayers were surrounded by Israeli soldiers, some of both no doubt ready to kill too. (The Dome of the Rock also marks the center of the world for those who don't believe that the center of the world is down the street, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.)
In the plaza in front of the Wailing Wall religious volunteers were lending yarmulkes to Jews who had arrived bareheaded. "Well," Dave said, "my mother was Jewish, so I guess that makes me Jewish. I'd better get a rent-a-beanie and go over to the Wailing Wall and ... wail, or something."
The yarmulkes being handed out were, unaccountably, made of silver reflective fabric. "I look like an outer-space Jew," Dave said.
"I always thought you were Catholic," I said.
"Because of Garcia," Dave said, "like O'Rourke."
"I'm not Catholic either. My mother was Presbyterian, my father was Lutheran, and I'm Methodist. I came home from Methodist confirmation class in a big huff and told my mother there were huge differences between Presbyterians and Lutherans and Methodists. And my mother said, 'We sent you to the Methodist church because all the nice people in the neighborhood go there.'"
"They could use that church here," Dave said. He swayed in front of the wall, like the Orthodox surrounding him, although, frankly, in a manner more aging-pop-fan than Hasidic.
hat could cause more hatred and bloodshed than religion? This is the Israel question. Except it isn't rhetorical; it has an answer. We went to Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem Holocaust Memorial, and saw what the godless get up to.
There are worse things than war, if the intifada is indeed a war. As of this writing, 513 Palestinians and 124 Israelis had been killed in what is called the second intifada. About 40,000 people perished in the 1992-1996 civil war in Tajikistan that nobody's heard of. From one and a half to two million are dead in Sudan. There are parts of the world where the situation Dave and I were in is too ordinary to have a name.
Late Saturday night the particular place where we were in that situation was the American Colony Hotel, in East Jerusalem, sometimes called the PLO Hotel for the supposed connections the staff has. It is the preferred residence of intifada-covering journalists, especially those who are indignant about Israeli behavior. The American Colony Hotel was once the mansion of an Ottoman pasha. Dave and I sat among palms in the peristyle courtyard, surrounded by arabesques carved in Jerusalem's golden limestone. The bedroom-temperature air was scented with Easter lilies, and in the distance, now and then, gunfire could be heard.
"This country is hopeless," Dave said, pouring a Palestinian Taybeh beer to complement a number of Israeli Maccabee beers we'd had earlier in West Jerusalem. "And as hopeless places go, it's not bad." We discussed another Israel question. Why are Israeli girls so fetching in their army uniforms, whereas the women in the U.S. military are less so? It may have something to do with carrying guns all the time. But Freud was a lukewarm Zionist, and let's not think about it.
After the first Zionist Congress, in 1897, the rabbis of Vienna sent a delegation to Palestine on a fact-finding mission. The delegation cabled Vienna saying, "The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man." However, the twentieth century, with all its Freudianism, was about to dawn, and we know what having the beautiful bride married to another man means in a modern story line. No fair using amnesia as a device for tidy plot resolution.
"Do we have to choose sides?" Dave said. But it's like dating sisters. Better make a decision or head for the Global Village limits. And speaking of sisters, I opened the Jerusalem Post on Easter morning and discovered that my sister's neighborhood in Cincinnati was under curfew, overrun with race riots.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 2001; Zion's Vital Signs; Volume 288, No. 4; 54-61.