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August 1966

Israeli Mosaics

by Herbert Mitgang

FLYING IN: Beneath the jet wing and still night, the candlepower of civilization outlines the graceful littoral of Israel. The long Mediterranean becomes unexpectedly Oriental here; a dark-eyed astonishment in the land of tents and tabernacles, unbiblical cement factories and atomic-reactor aspirations, Marc Chagall tribal windows and the ingathered tribes themselves. A single star climbs into view as the plane begins its slow descent. It shines across the Mandelbaum Gate: a star of David, a star for Bethlehem. Without visa.

Wrecks: From Lydda the roadway winds through villages and new forests to Jerusalem, over ground that has known the heels and chariots of legions and crusades, worshippers of conquest and zealots of flame and sun, man and book. You can pick a ruin or a war--and often find one piled upon another. In the Arab village of Abu Ghosh, a crusader monastery is built upon the foundations of a Roman structure which contains a stone inscription: Vexillatio Leg(ionis) Fre(tensis)--Detachment of the Fretensis Legion. And both are on the site of biblical Kiryat Ye'arim, where the holy ark rested before being taken to Jerusalem by King David.

But no guidebook or scholarship is required to identify the wrecks of rusting, stripped passenger cars. The first one seen in a ravine along the highway looks as if it ran off the road. Where the highway curves closer to the boundary of Jordan, more dead vehicles appear. Some are strewn with withered wreaths and dried flowers, and suddenly the meaning of the wrecks becomes clear. These are memorials--cars killed in action, pockmarked by bullet holes. They rest as tributes to the members of the convoys that brought relief to beleaguered Jerusalem during Israel's war of independence.

And a reminder that the threat of ambush is never further than the artificial boundaries. At the same time one looks at the cars of 1948, one hears on the radio of a border incursion in the north that takes the life of a tractor driver of 1966.

FINK'S: In the night country of new Jerusalem, there is a Chinese, an Italian, authentic (Oriental) Israeli, and even kosher restaurants. Then there is Fink's, a night place containing little more than a darkened bar, a handful of tables, some posters, and Air France ashtrays. Like Costello's on Third Avenue or Gilhuly's on Eighth in Manhattan, it is plain, but its reputation is built on the fact that everybody goes there, messages can be left, the mustached proprietor keeps his counsel and knows more than he says. The beer and booze flow till the small hours. In short, Fink's is an authentic Irish bar on, of all places, Rehov Hamelech George (King George Street). That is why the specialties of the house are Hungarian goulash and conversation. The latter is endless, the former comes in a beer stein, thick and nourishing.

After much wine, two middle aged men came around to the question of prostitution. One said "There used to be an old bag who patrolled near Fink's, but she disappeared last year." The second said, "I hear there are call girls in Tel Aviv." The first said, "She was the only one in all Jerusalem." The second said, "In the old days them were priestesses." The first said "In the ideal state, would or would not prostitutes exist?" The second said, "Does a democratic state have more or less than a religious state?"

The proprietor of Fink's cleaned out the Air France ashtrays, served up two more glasses of wine, and, saying nothing, looked wise.

THOSE OTHERS: Put two Jews on a desert island, the old story goes: the first will build an Orthodox and the second a Reform temple. Arguments abound, debates flourish, democracy gets noisy. There is no one voice in Israel, and surely no one city.

"I can always tell someone from Tel Aviv on a street here," says the lady from Jerusalem. "They have a certain way about them--they're garish, a little loud, and act superior."

Her companion agrees, attributing the Tel Aviv manner to a preoccupation with refrigerators, tourists, and pursuit of the high life. "I'm against that big new swimming pool there," he says, "and do you know what they've now got on Dizengoff Street? A pizza place! And how does one say pizza in Hebrew? "Pizza," he replies, gloomily.

Anyway, the lady from Jerusalem who sounds exactly like the lady from Westport talking about the lady from Great Neck, can't say one thing about those others from Tel Aviv: "They look so Jewish."

ARABS AND PENS: Toward the Arabs who remained in the Jewish state there is a general air of respect and an attitude frequently heard: "They never had it so good." Toward the Palestine Arabs who chose to leave and live year after year in displaced persons camps, there is a feeling of sympathetic regret, to which is added: "They are valuable to the Arab governments as propaganda." And toward the Arabs themselves in nearby lands, there is a mixture of fear and neighborliness--of being faced with the same hot winds and water shortages in the same Oriental boat.

But toward the Arabian oil potentates there is contempt. When the former King of Egypt died of gluttony the vast distance between the Arab royalty and the people seemed underscored once again. And the stories circulated about the rich and wily rulers and their symbol of education and power, Parker pens.

There was the Persian Gulf oil ruler who wore his Parkers on the outside of his garment and served tea inside his Rolls-Royce; its interior had been completely removed and turned into a status tea wagon on the sands. An importer in Persia placed an order for 20,000 Parker caps--only. Since the people who bought them couldn't write, all they required was the pen top to clip on their robes.

And then there was the Arab ruler who drove up in his bulletproofed, air-conditioned Cadillac to sign a formal treaty giving away certain oil rights in a region hard by the Gulf of Aden. He pulled his Parker pen (one of three) out of his vest, squirted some ink on his right thumb, and with a flourish, put his "signature" on the agreement.

VOLKS AND BENZ: The personal automobile is still something of a luxury. There are, after all, no oil sheikhs here. American economy and compact cars are popular; some that are small on U.S. highways take on a limousine, vintage look on these narrow roads. Small French cars suit tastes; but then so do French jets in the Israeli Air Force. Every vehicle's whereabouts is known, not so much to satisfy traffic departments as for defense needs; they can be commandeered almost instantly.

The Volkswagen and the Mercedes-Benz are perhaps the most telling symbols of automobile ambivalence. The little one was once touted as the Third Reich's people's car; the big one rolled the Fuhrer and his friends down the autobahns of long-remembered newsreels. Realpolitik and reparations and West German recognition all no doubt are balanced before entering the "authorized Volkswagen agency" in Tel Aviv. As for the Mercedes-Benz, the two seen on the street both had their triangular symbols above the hood taken off, or knocked off.

But the real sign of the times is the parking meters in new Jerusalem (none have as yet been installed in the old city).

AMERICANS: The David and Goliath aspects of the 1948 war of independence attracted help from all over the world, including the United States. Some Americans here still had some fight in them at the end of the Second World War and lent their talents to the new state.

"I remember running into some members of the Jewish brigade who were in the British Eighth Army in Italy," one said. "They knew then that they were going to make a bid for Palestine. They used to kid: The Second World War is just a warm-up for us--we're learning how to use the weapons and battle tactics for a little war of our own coming up. I decided to join them "

"I was a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Corps," another said, "and believe it or not, I had never heard of concentration camps until the end of the war. I was so angry that I used to ride the subways wearing a Star of David, waiting for someone to glare at me--anyone--so I could punch him in the nose. When the 1948 war started, I helped to recruit fliers and navigators. How? I combed the list of DFC winners in the newspapers and called up the Greenbergs and Cohens and asked them if they wanted to join up. Some in turn recruited their old crews."

"If I never do another thing of value in my life," said a third American, "I'll be able to point to my gunrunning days and getting ships to bring in illegal immigrants past the blockade. Now I return every few years and look at the settlements and see the children of the broken people we rescued. Some of us risked our lives and our citizenship at the time. We haven't any honorable discharge papers to show.

Only a feeling of having done something in the right place at the right time."

ORTHODOXY: Over cups of Turkish coffee and glasses of tea, Israelis debate the nature of religious observance in this only halfhearted "Jewish state." Ironically, the ways of the ghetto are preserved voluntarily, even ecstatically, in Mea Shearim, the Hasidic area of Jerusalem. The markets are colorful and private, the attire is black and formal for men, wigged and drab for women, and covered for youngsters. If a car appears here on the Sabbath, it may be stoned.

The non-Orthodox Israelis are of two minds about the fanatical religious Jews. The intolerant regard them with contempt. One main reason is that most of the Hasidic sect did not play a fighting role in the war of independence. Despite conscription, which places young men and women in uniform at about eighteen, members of the Hasidic sect can claim an exemption from service on religious grounds. And the ways of the ghetto clash with those of the independent-minded, worldly sabra or of the people who fought for Israel's creation. The more tolerant regard the Hasidic sect as an ancient symbol of the continuity of Judaism. They feel that religion was the original cement which held the Jewish community together long before a state was dreamed of, and that regardless of which party attains governmental power, the people of Israel must remain people of the Book.

Art and Artillery: The Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls, is in The Israel Museum (the only general art museum between Athens and Tokyo) and was designed by the American architects Kiesler and Bartos. It is shaped like the top of the jar in which the scrolls were saved, and is entered as if it were the cave where they were found. The shrine contains Israel's most precious historical reminder, a twenty-three-foot Isaiah scroll. It is mounted on a drum, resembling a Torah handle, which can be lowered underground electrically--for this museum is within Arab artillery range.

But the museum's real distinction is its location. At the foot of the museum hill is a Byzantine church encircled by a crusader wall; it is called the Monastery of the Cross because this is said to be the site of the tree from which the Cross was fashioned. In a surrounding field Ruth gleaned after the reapers of Boaz. To the north is a former campsite of the vaunted Roman Tenth Legion. And around the museum 120 newly planted olive trees struggle for life in the soil, "because this was an olive grove in the time of David."

A few miles away at Ramat Rahel, two Jordanian riflemen train their binoculars this way from their sandbagged building, their guns at the ready, behind barbed wire, a rusty crop among the peaceful olive leaves.

NEW IMAGE: The cold war between Israel and its neighbors has as its prize not territory but tourists. Not having their own, Americans admire antiquities; one country's ruins are another's relics. Egypt points to Abu Simbel and the pyramids (and the Jews, half in jest, say that their slave ancestors put up buildings for the pharaohs that really lasted). Jordan advertises itself as "the Holy Land," carefully avoiding any reference to the Bible. And Israel for a long time emphasized that it was the "Land of the Bible."

Now that image is being revised and the slogan changed. The assumption is that religious sentiment will bring a steady flow of people here ("Next year in Jerusalem" is an ancient injunction) anyway. So the new slogan is "Land of Sun and Fun."

A couple of PR men (unashamedly calling themselves such) sat around sipping their arrack, the local spirit, and dreaming martini dreams. Finally one swinger declared, "I've got it! We run a grand prix here with all the international racing-car types. From Dan to Eilat. Everybody shows up--the Klosters crowd, the Costa Brava beautiful people, the literary snobs from Tangier, the broken-down royalty. We'll do for Israel what Bardot did for St. Tropez and Kelly for Monaco. There's this sabra driver at the wheel who comes from behind, puts on the heat, and wins because he has to get home before sundown on Friday. He gets first prize--ex-Queen Soraya. They go off into the sunset and live happily ever after as kibbutzniks." He closed his eyes. "We'll be so in," he said, "they'll come in droves."

HOBBY: Israel's national sport is archaeology. The coveted skeletons in the country's closet are walls, pottery, flints, coins, scrolls, bones. But the real search is for the bits and marks of civilization and intelligence; the by-products become pride in the historical continuity of the past and possibly a clue to philosophical behavior for the present.

The roads of the desert and the ways of survival in the past have practical value. Once, in the Sinai campaign, a correspondent asked an Israeli general where he drew his battle plans from. The general pointed to his copy of the Old Testament and answered, "Here."

Today, as the Jewish and Roman memorabilia are excavated, imprinted in the mosaic floors and walls of synagogues and churches are such familiar phrases as "In memory of..." and "Donated by..." and "A generous gift of...." No "Anonymous" or "Gift of a Friend" has been dug up yet. The ancients who built here, says a museum curator, wanted to perpetuate their names just as most of their modern UJA counterparts.

TO THE SIX MILLION: On a spur in the Judean hills, Yad Vashem (the Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority) has built a rugged shrine to the victims of the concentration camps. Walkways of trees, planted in dedication, are labeled: to twenty partisans of Holland, to a French underground unit, to individuals who resisted or could not. There is no division here between the terror and the banality of evil.

Above the old Arab villages and replanted green slopes, the shrine gives the impression of an air raid bunker, or a prison. It is built of rust-colored boulders from the volcanic hills above the Sea of Galilee. Sculptured iron splinters form a motif of barbed-wire thorns at the entranceway. Inside there is a dark silence and panels on the floor, each branded with the name of a concentration camp: Dachau, Auschwitz, Treblinka, Babi Yar. The names are enough; imagination does the rest. In a corner is a flickering gas flame. Is it a reminder of the ovens of death? No, it is an eternal flame.

A guide explains the meaning to a Negro from a new Congo republic, who replies in English, "I shall remember to tell my people."

In an adjoining area, there are mementos of the Warsaw uprising, anti-Jewish posters, photographs of book-burnings, yellow stars of shame overprinted "Juif" or "Jude." Swastikas are gone in the world; the six-pointed stars survive.

FLYING OUT: At the airport in Lydda, the pilot of El Al, the government airline, carries himself with the universal air of assurance of all four-stripers on all airlines. The tourists jam the last-minute souvenirs into flight bags--playing cards with biblical characters for kings and queens, candelabra, homegrown liqueurs from Mount Carmel, scrolls as door signposts inlaid with stones from King Solomon's mines. The familiar El Al gags are repeated; the hostess walking down the aisle and saying, "Have a piece Of fruit"; the voice on the runway warning, "Fasten your seat belts, please, my son, the pilot, is ready to take off."

But you do look closely at the wings worn by the hostess and captain as they board the aircraft. In the center of their wings, embroidered in gold, is a yellow six-pointed star. By contrast, it is suddenly a symbol of defiance and pride. The jet lifts off and begins its journey westward from the state of mind and the new city of Jerusalem.

Copyright © 1966 by Herbert Mitgang. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August, 1966; "Israeli Mosaics"; Volume 218, No. 2; pages 108-112.

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