Commentary Magazine


A Look at Israel

It is impossible, of course, to experience Israel as one might, or even might not, experience any other place on earth. For one thing, the country’s peculiar history, ancient as well as modern, seems to press upon the visitor some unspoken but inescapable demand that he arrive at a judgment which will in the end be either a simple affirmation or denial. The very surroundings contrive to suggest that what he sees does not necessarily exist outside the eye of the beholder: he finds himself like a member of the audience at Peter Pan being requested to applaud in order that Tinker Bell need not disappear from the stage. This demand is certainly exacerbated by—though not, I suspect, initially created by—the fact that the country, and a large number of its inhabitants before they settled there, have for thirty-five years been thrown into a continuing series of contentions for their literal survival. One does not forget for a single day that this is a community which has been and continues to be in great danger, a state of mind tending to coat even trivial things with a certain fine dust of the ultimate.

Another trouble to the visitor’s ordinary experience, at least if that visitor should be a Jew, is the recognition that his historic relations with the place—again ancient as well as modern—have already and without his participation been fixed. His private responses, being admittedly so irrelevant to the issue of his connection with what they are responses to, are bound themselves to get distorted. The not yet consecrated tribe who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai said to Moses, “We will do and we will listen,” a statement whose contemporary application to those entering Israel might be, “We have been committed, and now we will look around.”

Now, the mark of an extra or undue pressure being put upon the spirit is fatigue. And touring Israel turns out to be an incredibly, altogether disproportionately, fatiguing enterprise. In a decent car, the entire country could, I imagine, be traversed in two or three days. It surely boasts many fewer occasions for the customary ritual exertions of sightseeing—and those it does boast are usually far less exacting of time and the energies of concentration—than, say, even a minor Western European country; there are no great works of art, for instance, no architectural wonders, no museums, churches, synagogues whose treasures cannot be yielded up in a single visit or even, as is often the case, at first sight. Except for certain delimited areas, the climate is agreeable, and in the whole country there are only three or four cities whose heart and character do not fully reveal themselves through an automobile window. Israel, that is, should be an easy country to “do.” And yet one finds oneself after a very short time goaded by the impulse to pull back, cut short, cancel a plan, spend the morning in bed. At this point, one substitutes dutifulness for curiosity, with that bracing of the shoulders and setting of the face that is the universal sign among tourists of the arrival of a sense of grim obligation. Thus in two weeks, in three weeks, the tourist to Israel will have seen far more than he has been able to see comfortably, far less than he had wished, and far, far from everything.

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Moreover, having dealt somehow with his weariness and opened himself to another and yet another object of contemplation, he is likely to find that what he is actually looking at is not at all the same thing as the Israelis claim to be showing him. Precisely because it is so young, Israel is a country steeped in memories: the intimacy bred in the community’s shared hardships and crises having, as it were, left each man a full proprietor of events in the lives of all the others. Perhaps, too, simply not enough generations have yet come and gone to have produced the ease of taking one’s surroundings for granted, without being conscious of the past. In any case, it is often some memory, quite invisible to an outsider, to which the tourist, in the guise of his being shown the new, is brought. The Israeli who has brought him must by now look upon and understand a great deal of the world only, and quite automatically, in relation to what had been there before. No society that has developed so quickly and willfully as Israel’s can fail to remind its own members at every turn of just how far they and it have traveled. And when an Israeli points out or describes some object or place of interest to a foreign guest, the chances are he is referring not so much to the object itself as to that metaphysical space he knows to be stretching backward between it and nothing.

Thus, for example, one spends a number of hours being driven through housing projects on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, row upon row, mile upon mile, of dismal gray or tan four-storey rectangular structures, built to house new immigrants. How, without the visual memory of transit camps, lean-tos, barracks, or whatever, is one to respond to such a sight? One’s real response would seem—measured against the memory and the need—frivolous; on the other hand, the response being asked and expected of one, that some kind of marvel has here been achieved, would be patronizing. The housing projects are ugly, all new housing in Israel, except for Jerusalem, is ugly, and ugly in a way that any American can recognize as one which will not soften with time but only further the perpetuation of ugliness. Are these projects then a marvel despite the evidence of one’s eyes? The Israeli is entitled to think so, for he lives in his own recent past and does not yet enjoy the luxury of second thoughts about the future.

Or, for another example, out on the road one is detoured several miles in order to catch sight of a new town in the Negev, or routed so as to be able to see a new industrial district appended to an old town in the North. The town in the Negev, like all Jewish settlements in that wilderness, begins and ends abruptly, as if cut out and pasted down onto the endless expanse of dry brown earth with some glue extracted out of human substance. The Bedouins seem to nestle into the Negev landscape; the Jews have slapped themselves down upon it. The town looks in fact an unthinkable place to live—huddling, gimcrack, turned in upon itself in a denial of the emptiness around. One knows that it is not unthinkable, though clearly without amenity, or even unlivable, any more than once were all those towns in Utah, Wyoming, Arizona. Yet nowhere is there any record that the inhabitants of the early American Western town, let alone their compatriots back East, ever regarded it a show-place for the edification of visitors.

Families who settle in such places in the Negev are offered certain economic advantages, and perhaps at least as important, there is no small element of service to government and society involved for them. Yet the honest reaction of the passing stranger, despite its being no doubt presumptuous of him to react on anyone’s behalf but his own, is to shudder. As is his utter blankness in the presence of, say, the chocolate works, or his numb, weary knowingness at the sight of the belching chimneys that for no apparently necessary reason line the seafront north of Haifa.

Israel has in general been astonishingly little touched by the fact that it lives along the edge of the sea; only a few miles inland one does not feel the presence of water at all. Haifa clings to a steep hillside and looks out over a busy harbor, as does many another Mediterranean city, but Haifa has upon it the feel not of the adventurer, not even of the sober and crafty fisherman, but of the good gray burgher. Tel Aviv, which is, so to speak, the public beach of the country, seems to carry the sea and all its attendant paraphernalia—including the inevitable Hilton—along behind as an afterthought. Tel Aviv does not even smell of the sea but rather of the soil from inland citrus groves. The Arab town of Qantara, cut in two by the Suez Canal and with the Israel-occupied half moldering deserted in the plaster-dust of 1967′s bombardment, still speaks more, in its colors and the jumbled agglutinative arrangement of its buildings, of the carnival of comings and goings that dominates life along a waterway. Israel’s own new seaside resort is not on the Mediterranean at all, but on the northern tip of the gulf of Aqaba. In Eilat, one sits at the edge of the water, behind one a kind of plaza of shops which is a sad pasteboard replica of a bad corner in Atlantic City, and trailing one’s hand in the water, brings it up coated with oil from the tankers for whose benefit the city must obviously have been put there.

To the Israeli, all of this instantaneously conjures up and makes palpable its purpose: self-defense, self-sufficiency, the settlement and employment of immigrants, even the employment of Arabs from the occupied territories. The traveler, however, sees first what is present before his eyes. That which his imagination must supply would possibly better reward his effort to imagine from a distance.

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But if Israelis have memories that serve to disjoin meaning from material presence, so, too, do American Zionists. It is not important, as it is with the Israelis, what these memories are; in my own case, I realized that they had been compounded out of scenes from movies, lines from old Hebrew songs, and moments of inflamed rhetoric extracted from the torrent of speech that constituted the central experience of being a Zionist in the United States. A main focus of this, my own first journey, then, I had imagined would be the kibbutz—the kibbutz being a major instrument of the kind of commitment to Palestine/Israel which once sought to transcend “merely” the Jews and compel vindication from mankind itself. In my youth we argued much about the kibbutz, and, we thought, much to the point: would this new society indeed produce its intended miracle—that is, a human nature transformed by the elimination of the main occasions for meanness and greed—or would it, on the contrary, result in only a further constriction of that nature—that is, the substitution for greed and petty ambition of a gray puritanical oppression of the individual by the group?

How was I to be prepared for the discovery that a kibbutz, salvation or damnation, transcendent new society or dustbin of failed transformations, was . . . a farm? I was, to be sure, quite aware that the kibbutzim engaged primarily in farming—that, too, was crucial to their ideology and mine—but from such awareness I had not even come near the image of those flat monotonous fields, unbroken by any visual mark of the drama that had created them, stretching to their termination at a dusty road or property line—the same as must be required anywhere in the world for the growing of cotton or corn or wheat. Degania Aleph, weeping Rachel of the whole movement, sits somnolently by the side of the road (for some reason, I can never envision History as taking place alongside an ordinary thoroughfare, accessible to any passing mortal; History must be climbed up to or stumbled down upon) near the Sea of Galilee, giving no physical hint of anything but a usually drab farm life—with neither marker nor monument to set her apart.

Nor did it ever in all those arguments occur to us that the kibbutz might in the actual event spell out neither of the alternatives we contended over. We left no room in our imaginings for the possibility that it would neither liberate nor oppress, but rather constitute itself a community of people who by the way they lived together might more or less successfully allay certain problems and more or less unintentionally exacerbate others. From the inside, kibbutzniks seem about as serene and about as anxious as other people, though perhaps in different ways. An evening’s visit with a small private gathering in Kfar Blum—a settlement in the far north containing, to my social relief and convenience, a number of English-speaking former Americans—revealed a sense of life which was, while worlds apart from my own, in things essential not so different from my own as I had led myself, and been led, to believe. Such steady, unfancy, ironclad public good manners between husbands and wives, parents and children, as prevailed in one small room would be bound to touch any contemporary American with the experience of having mislaid something he had not, until he caught sight of it, remembered was missing. On the other hand, there was tension, too, the tension that derives from the impulse to defend a life so grown upon itself, so circumscribed, as no longer merely to disdain but to fear that other life outside.

The kibbutzim, at least a very large number of them, prosper. It is hard to know whether or not, as might be conventionally thought, their relative prosperity has contributed to the gap one finds in visiting them between the quotidian and the legendary. If so, the legend must, like the legends surrounding many a human enterprise, have been ruthless and irresponsible. Nevertheless, a drive through the Valley of Jezreel and the Galilee is like a drive through most farming lands: truly interesting, to those genuinely bereft of earthy pieties, not for its cultivation but for what, exactly, has persisted in escaping that cultivation.

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Though in not so dramatic a contrast as that encountered in the Negev, Jewish settlement everywhere in the country gives the impression of having been superimposed upon, rather than having developed in a working partnership with, the landscape. Tiny as it is, Israel is a complex composition, a veritable symphony, of wildernesses. Not counting the dazzling Sinai—a desert such as children poring over their storybooks might dream a desert to be—there are no fewer than five distinct shades and conformations of wilderness crowding upon and lurking beneath the civilization there: brown, red, gold, lavender, and gray. A thorny and inscrutable deity is this God Who gave His children a religion for the sanctification of everyday life and then led them to a terrain so much of which, even in the days of milk and honey, must have seemed awesomely hostile to life (and Who indeed beckoned them there again in our own time). The famous Jewish unconcern with beauty may not, as is usually said, have resulted from the religious injunction against the fashioning of graven images but from a deeper experienced knowledge that beauty was, and remains to this day, the enemy of that which the people was being required to do. For what is most immediately and unquestionably beautiful in Israel is one or another form of wilderness, and everything the Israelis have succeeded in doing to make the place viable, a jarring, one might almost say unsuitable, interruption of its harsh splendor.

A standard notion, both for good and ill, is that Israeli society represents the vanguard incursion of Western technology into the Middle East. So standard is the notion, in fact, that it would be easy to find in this idea a kind of reductive rationale for the sudden looming of little self-contained cities in the middle of nowhere, or the sprouting of whole pine forests out of rock, or miles of orderly plantings in what the morning mists announce by rights to be a swamp. All these human impositions exist, however, not thanks to the sound principles of technology but, on the contrary, by virtue of an absolute contradiction of them. “Technology” is based on the efficient, if necessary ingenious, and profitable use of available resources; a properly trained technologue might have looked upon the country at the end of World War I and dreamed of one vast quarry or minerals factory. He could surely never have imagined anything as foolish, as clumsy and tenuous, as a great long pipe with one end sticking into the Sea of Galilee and the other more than a hundred miles away releasing water for vegetables onto a plot of earth unsown and un-harvested probably for millennia. The particular political, strategic, and humanitarian necessities of Israel as these evolved over five decades could never have been met by the application of sound economic or material principles, no matter how helpful certain by-products of such principles have proven to be once the necessities were defined. It is not technology for which the Jewish state has served as vanguard in the Middle East, but the sheer, unswerving, uncalculating, incalculable force of human will. And it is undoubtedly also for this that the Jewish state is most roundly feared and hated by its neighbors; for there is a truly terrible, and permanently disquieting, message in it. “If you will it, it is not a dream.” If you do not will it, all the science of the Western world will not help you.

The Arabs, who clearly do not have, or rather have not yet recognized themselves to have, such necessities know better how to live with what they see around them. The muddiest Arab village, the seediest Bedouin encampment, provides a more aesthetically pleasing acknowledgment of the nexus between man and the accidents of nature than the most celebrated of Israel’s agricultural triumphs. Whatever wonders this ultimate, redeeming burst of Jewish will may yet produce, it is not likely that an unpresuming harmony with the given—the source, after all, of most man-made beauty—will be among them.

Except, after all, there is Jerusalem, Jerusalem the golden. On a sunny day it is just that, a stony representation of gold, and indisputably one of the handsomest cities in the world. Jerusalem, moreover, is one of those places, like Paris, which offer themselves up, immediate and whole, to the passing glance. The Jews did not make Jerusalem, but they seem to have learned, perhaps under British tutelage, how not to be hasty or careless with her.

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To see Jerusalem properly is to look out from some high window or promontory and to take in hill and valley, old and new, public and secret, bustling and indolent, all at a glistening once. Even the layer upon layer of history that presumably makes the city a magnet for pilgrims and sightseers is better taken in grand summation than piece by piece. For the closer one comes to them, the more do these pieces crumble into scholarly abstraction and fail, finally, to yield their full measure of impact. Jerusalem, the centuries-old repository of longings for redemption, Jewish and Christian, has simply been given no monumental correlative commensurate with the feelings it arouses. Gethsemane, Calvary, the Stations of the Cross, for instance, these exist not nearly so vividly on their putative sites as they surely have existed as sentiments carried in the Christian heart. (It takes a heart of stone, as Oscar Wilde once remarked of the death of Little Nell, not to laugh out loud during the tour one is given by a cinematically shifty Arab guide through the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.) Similarly with that great catch-all of sentiment, the Holy Temple, in the Jewish heart. One is told of Israelis, Jews from all over, who come, some of them nightly, to weep at the Wall, But surely what they weep for is the repossession of the right to their chosen, appointed city, and thus in a sense for the repossession of their own full selves. The Wall, flat and uncommunicating under the icy glare of spotlights, is by now a piece of stage business. What one feels most unaffectedly in contemplating the Old City is not the connection with the ancient history of one’s people, not even pride in the exploits that have pushed down the last, most insulting barrier erected for the purpose of exiling the Jews, but rage: pure rage for the wanton, meaningless destruction of Jewish houses and synagogues wreaked in 1948 and left untouched to serve as a permanent, sullen provocation, rage at the marks of a bootless malice simply no longer, not once more ever again, to be tolerated. Beside such a direct and cathartic emotion the exercise of pointing out to oneself that here, say, beneath this dirt, within that pile of rocks, once stood the city of David, is bound to feel just that—an exercise.

Jerusalemites tend to have a relation to their city reminiscent of that once attributed to Old Bostonians. By their bearing they hint to one that they are in full possession of a treasure one may prove oneself worthy to share. They are, in short, the provincials of the capital. It is a scandalous opinion to prefer Tel Aviv, rather as it would be for a cultivated American to confess, if he could ever summon up the nerve, a preference for Los Angeles over San Francisco. Yet the truth is that Tel Aviv is an easier, emotionally more rewarding city to find oneself in than Jerusalem. While not the capital, neither actually, spiritually, nor in effect, Tel Aviv is the country’s authentic metropolis. It does not fancy itself, it lets one be, and it hates itself a little, maintains a certain irony, in relation to an imagined larger world. That is why the juices of the society’s cultural life flow from there—not because it is “cultured” but because it is relaxed and breezy and can afford to leave some houseroom for the slightly disreputable. Jerusalem is the chief jewel in Israel’s crown, its most precious artifact. Tel Aviv is the solid underpinning of Israel’s true character: like it, gracelessly put together, and like it, the assertion, without fuss or fastidiousness, of first things first.

What those first things may be, however, the traveler discovers not in Tel Aviv, not in the country out there, but in himself. As he clambers over rocks to look into one of the deserted Syrian bunkers dug into the Golan Heights; as he is taken into one of the underground shelters built to house the babies and small children of the settlements whose every movement could be spied upon by enemy troops deployed in those bunkers; or as he, should he be privileged to visit an Israeli position at the Suez Canal, meets the boyishly disheveled nineteen- and twenty-year-olds whose dangerously punishing tour of duty in the desert heat must, for the sake of their mental and physical welfare, be punctuated by a regulated rhythm of leaves; as he, in other words, gives himself up to the calm and practical determination of the populace that it need not and will not lose, he learns what years of suasion and apologetics could not teach him. He learns what touring the country, even did he find it agreeable, could not illustrate for him. By some large, not yet fully comprehended irony he learns in fact what early Zionism was probably intended to signify and then almost immediately buried beneath the trappings of self-justification. The real experience of Israel is a reminder—stark and unavoidable—that it is better to live than to die. The Six-Day War, no matter the outcome of a peace settlement, or even of the failure to reach one, was a watershed in 20th-century Jewish history. For the meaning of that war turns out to have been an unequivocal statement by the Jews—the first, if need be, of a long series—that they are alive, like any other men, because they are alive, and, perhaps in this case like only some other men, that they intend in the most basic and primitive way to continue to be so.

Zionism’s mistake, an understandable one, lay in its felt need to justify Jewish aspirations for a national home in terms more high-flown, more “dignified,” possibly, than the issue of mere survival. But for mortal men—and for Jews particularly—there can be no more dignified, no more enlarging or enriching, an issue. The State of Israel is finally justified by nothing more, and requires nothing more, than its own existence. So one comes truly to understand why in Israeli idiom the Hebrew word for Zionism means bombast.

These days in America it is not at all uncommon to hear from those who have abjured for themselves, and so would deny others, the struggle of standing one’s own ground certain expressions of fear that Israel has become a garrison state, a “militarist” power. The truth is that friendless as they deeply, suspiciously, Jewishly—and, in my opinion, accurately—believe themselves to be, surrounded by people who would love to see them dead, and, in the concentric circle beyond these, people whose love may only be bestowed if they consent to die, Israelis as a society are at this moment probably the happiest men on earth. They are certainly the most cheerful, the most bustling about their daily lives, the most harmoniously tuned to the tending of their business, and the most tolerantly accepting of personal inconvenience. Israel may not be—as I at least found it not to be—a wonderful place to visit, but it is a place to live.

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