Commentary Magazine


Driving Toward Jerusalem

1.

Haifa to Jenin: One hour

From Samaria northward two routes of great interest and beauty lie before us. The one leads wesward through a line of valleys of extraordinary fertility, where in spite of the sparse population and the depredations of the Bedouin, large crops of wheat and barley meet the eye. . . . The town of Jenin, which lies at the juncture of several valleys and roads, is a place of considerable importance. Its Scripture name (En-Gannim), the fountain of the gardens, seems to be derived from a magnificent fountain of water which rises in the hills just behind the town, and irrigating the rich alluvial soil, turns it into a garden.

—The Reverend Samuel Manning,
Those Holy Fields, 1874

I head out along the bay toward Acre rather than south along the road to Tel Aviv, turning inland at Nesher by the great four-chimneyed cement works. It’s an unpromising beginning for a scenic route, a dismal industrial sink of smokestacks and foul tarns that could pass for New Jersey were it not for the occasional fronds of an asthmatic palm tree. Soon, though, I’m out of it, past suburban Tivon and skirting the western edge of the Valley of Jezreel. To one side is the well-watered valley, heroically green after six months of rainless summer, dotted with kibbutzim and moshavim, whose little red-roofed houses look requisitioned from a Monopoly set. Purple bougainvillea athletically scales their white walls. A combine is harvesting cotton in a field, elephantine, covered with white burrs. Sprinklers whir and jerk, their jets forming Gothic arches in the air. Visible in the distance are the gray mountains of Samaria, the heart of Arab Palestine, whose curving spine runs southward from Jenin, untouched by Jewish settlement to this day. It’s a long-cut to Jerusalem, adding half an hour to the trip, but if one isn’t in a hurry, the empty roads and mountain views redeem lost time.

If I haven’t driven this way since the Yom Kippur War, though, it’s not because I’ve been in any hurry. “I know,” nodded an acquaintance sympathetically some time after the war, “I feel the same way. The less of them I have to see for a while, the happier I’ll be.” I shrugged: it wasn’t an outrageous sentiment at the time, it just didn’t happen to be mine. Fear, then? That would be absurd: if the criteria were actuarial, I’d rather take my chances any day on the highly infrequent grenade thrown at Israeli cars on the occupied West Bank than on the murderous traffic on Israel’s coastal roads. A conqueror’s qualms? But I don’t feel like a conqueror—and if, objectively, as they say, I am one anyway, surely I was one before the last war too. Can I, as though by some precocious political dialectic of our times, have become more of one precisely when the conquest I represent seems more ephemeral than ever? It’s not that either, then—and yet it is, too, only the opposite, the ephemerality of it, that is: a feeling more like relinquishment, that retrenchment of emotional interest that sometimes takes place when you know, or have reason to fear, that you are about to lose something precious, to ease the final wrench of which you begin to let go in advance. You do it in little ways, without really paying attention. Like driving to Jerusalem the old way, for instance, along the coast and up from the west. After all, it is quicker.

The road passes Megiddo, site of the once strategic pass where young King Josiah was killed by the Egyptians, trying vainly to stem the advance on Assyria of Pharaoh Necho, the pointless victim of his own foolish courage and the power politics of the day. It crosses the Hadera-Afula highway soon after, and several kilometers beyond that, the pre-1967 Israeli-Jordanian border, the “green line,” as it is known in Israel today. (What a simple, complicated little phrase, half-cartographic, half-iconographic in its referents. An allusion to the color used on local maps to denote Israel’s borders prior to the Six-Day War, it is at the same time a description, a metaphor, a challenge, a boast, a vindication, a tourist guide’s cheap witticism, a fund-raising slogan, a title-claim to a country. Look! it says. The borders are gone now, see for yourselves. We, not they, have drained the swamps. We, not they, have made the desert bloom. We, not they, have reforested the mountainsides, dammed the wadis, diverted the rivers, raised the yields per dunam fivefold and ten. We, not they—and so it is our land, not theirs. Let the land speak!) All that still marks the old border is the remains of a smashed Jordanian tank barrier along the sides of the road, already weathered to look like something far older, the ruins of a Turkish aqueduct perhaps. Farther on a sign informs you that you have entered the occupied territories, and another, that the road has soft shoulders. The houses are built of stone now, flat-roofed, hiding behind dusty stone walls. A woman in a long cotton dress draws water from a well. Black Bedouin tents. Two barefoot boys on a donkey. The dun-colored fields are empty, abandoned. It is the dry, the dead time of year, in which the harvest is in and autumn planting has not yet begun, well past the season in which a shocked Ezekiel saw the women in the Temple mourning for the lovely Tammuz, whose willowy body perished with nature each summer. A peasant in the stubbly distance plows slowly behind a mule, turning up the dry earth to await the first autumn rains, after which he will sow. A field of beheaded sunflowers stands blindly in the morning heat, its pale stalks the color of raffia. A lone flowerhead, missed by the reapers, bows in final homage to the sun.

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The traffic coming against me is light: an old truck with its hood flaps removed in lieu of a cooling system, a shiny Mercedes taxi full of passengers from Jenin. A donkey trudges by with a load of firewood, its master nowhere in sight. A farmer stands barefoot in his yard, shoveling the last ears of a mound of yellow grain into a large gunnysack. Puddles of chaff still lie scattered about where the wind let them drop. . . . I think of another day, several years ago, when I saw grain being harvested at the other end of the West Bank. It was the holiday of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, and I had driven that morning with friends to visit the excavated old synagogue at biblical Eshtemoa, the Arab village of Sammu’a, which sits on a hilltop east of the Hebron-Beersheba road. “Knees al-yahud, knees al-yahud!”—the church of the Jews, the church of the Jews—shouted the band of boys who led us to the site, past the shells of several buildings that had been razed by an Israeli task force in 1966, in a raid that helped set the stage for the Six-Day War. What was left of the structure, whose fine, squared building blocks, with their raised Herodian borders reminiscent of the stones of the Wailing Wall, had been mostly cart ed away by the villagers over the centuries for cornerstones and lintels of their own, stood at the high point of the village across a narrow lane from the mosque. Over the remains of its northern wall, in which it was still possible to trace the outlines of the Ark that had been placed there to face the razed Temple mount in Jerusalem, there was a fine view of the mountains of Judea, already turned the dull town of the early Palestinian summer. Judea capta; yet here, hundreds of years after Titus’s legions gutted the Sanctuary, Jews had still worshipped freely on the heights.

We were heading home, along a back road, when our car dipped down into a small, bowl-shaped valley in which our eyes were met by such a carnival of activity, a scene of such Breughellian proportions, that we could not take it in all at once. A whole village seemed to have turned out from somewhere in the hills to keep its yearly rendezvous with the valley. At the turn of the road was a field of full wheat in which a row of women in peasant embroidery was reaping, bending low to cut the high grain with the sickles in their right hands while they held its high spikes with their left: bending, cutting, and moving ahead, bending, cutting, and moving ahead, in a dancelike, repetitive two-step. After every few strokes they paused to gather the fallen wheat, binding it into sheaves with one of its own stalks. A round threshing floor had been laid out behind them to which these were removed. Tied to a pole, two yoked oxen orbited in a circle, crushing the grain beneath mindless, lumbering hooves. Windward of them the village men were winnowing, tossing the crushed wheat into the air with spread wooden fans. Caught by the breeze, the chaff streamed away like confetti to where sheep were being shorn at the other end of the valley. Two men pinned each squealing animal to the ground by its legs, its fat rump red with henna, while a third dodged expertly in and out with the shears. A stunned lamb lay unmoving for a while when released, then wandered off to eat back its pride in the fading grass. Peasant women were carding the fresh wool on the rocks. Where the road wound out of the valley an old crone, an ancient Lorelei, sat spinning by herself, rolling a little wooden distaff back and forth on her thigh. She giggled like a girl with mixed pleasure and embarrassment when we stopped the car to look. . . .

The road narrows, grows rutted, forcing the car to slow down. More houses, poorer ones, parts of them built of unplastered concrete blocks. Assorted bundles of things are drying on the roofs: wood, figs, almonds, dung, indistinct grasses or herbs. Two women walk wide-hipped down the road, one balancing a wicker basket on her head, the other a plastic jerrycan. A boy explores a hedge of ripe prickly pears, a tin bucket in one hand, a torn rubber glove on the other. The land has begun rolling now; the mountains loom closer, gray and bare. A flock of goats grazes by the roadside. They have picked the groundcover clean and are working on the scattered shrubs and small trees, standing on their hind legs in strangely humanoid postures to strip the leaves and bark. The goatherd sits on a rock, staff between his legs, unshaven, a dirty white rag wrapped turban-like around his head. Suddenly he bends to pick up a stone, hand scraping the ground in one motion, eyes fixed on a point on the road. One hand automatically comes off the driver’s wheel to shield my face. He flings the stone ahead of me, at a goat that has strayed too near the road and now scrambles hurriedly back. I don’t feel like a conqueror—but would my hand have come up just as fast, its own impulsive agent, if I weren’t? It flutters awkwardly for a moment before the windshield, then transmutes itself into a wave. The goatherd waves back.

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I think again of the unassuming pageantry of that morning near Sammu’a. “And you shall count from the morrow after the Sabbath, from the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, seven full weeks shall they be. . . . Then you shall present a cereal offering of new grain to the Lord.” So biblical! In all the nightmarish blood feud between Arab and Jew, is there anything quite so ironic, so absurd, as this? The Jew goes into exile long ago, taking with him his books, his rituals, and his ancient way of life, which he struggles successfully to preserve in more or less the same order, that is, to the extent that they are detachable from the context of the everyday. He copies his books and recopies them, surrounds them with more and more books for protection. He codifies his rituals, embellishes them, adapts them to meet the changing times. But his Palestinian life is inexorably shattered, surviving only in bits, in isolated fragments encapsulated within the overlapping layers of the sacred that continue to accumulate around it, like fossil footprints in the not yet hardened stone. The flat, round bread he ate with every meal, dipping it in oil or vinegar when there was nothing else, is now eaten once a year in the form of the Passover matzah. The headcovering worn out-of-doors to protect himself from the blazing Palestinian sun, blackens, shrivels into the round little yarmulke of the synagogue; his flowing, toga-like robe becomes the fringed tallit or prayershawl. Once or twice a year, on Rosh Hashanah or Tu B’shvat, he spends extravagant sums to buy the exotic fruits of the Holy Land, dates and olives, almonds and figs. When the winter snows come in Europe he prays for rain, and when the summer rains come, he prays for dew, for such are the requirements of his ancestral soil. The Jew changes, yet remembers, turning his whole life into a mnemonic for a lost golden age—a mnemonic more intricate than the original itself. He remembers; yet when vertiginous generations later he returns to his native land, inspired equally by the promises of his books and the ideologies of modern Europe, whose despised, problematic, yet thoroughly authentic stepson he has become, he finds, lo and behold, the Arab, the usurper, living there in his place, eating round, flat bread with every meal, covering his head with an elegant kaffia against the sun, wearing a long, flowing robe that ripples when he walks, eating figs and olives, almonds and dates, for his daily fare, and living as a perfect matter of course the agricultural rhythms, the seedtimes and the harvests, of the Bible, Talmud, and prayerbook. An upside-down world!

The usurper? Or perhaps the lost brother, descendant of the descendants of the worshippers at Eshtemoa, who rather than stay a Jew and go into exile, chose with no less commendable stubbornness perhaps to become a Christian or Muslim and stay where he was, taking on the beliefs of his rulers as naturally as the Jews in exile took on the food and clothing of theirs, mixing with his neighbors like the peasantry of Judea after the first, Babylonian exile, as we hear from that troubled Zionist, Ezra the Scribe (“Now when these things were done, the princes came to me, saying, the people of Israel, and the priests, and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, doing according to their abominations, even of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. . . . And when I heard this thing, I rent my garment and my mantle, and plucked off the hair of my head and my beard, and sat down astonished”), keeping faith with mother-earth instead of father-God, the other half, as it were, of the tragically torn lottery ticket that fate dealt the Jews, illiterate, primitive, benighted, barely recognizable, yet still flesh of one’s flesh, one’s own kin. Could it be?

It would have been surprising had not at least a few Jewish romantics in modern Palestine thought that it could. One hears it sometimes asserted that Jews came to Palestine not knowing that the Arabs existed, and looked down on them when it was discovered that they did; yet the first part of this proposition is sheer nonsense, and the second at best a half-truth. What can be said of the attitude of early Zionist settlers toward the country’s Arab inhabitants, of whose existence they were well aware in advance, is that it was an intensely ambivalent one, characterized not only by that confused complex of attraction and repulsion, admiration, fear, and disdain that has always been found in modern times whenever a colonizing, culturally “advanced” people has come in contact with a more “backward,” pre-industrial one, but by a clear consciousness of the unique historical paradoxes involved. One has only to read the fiction of an early Palestinian Hebrew writer like Smilanski, or consider the Arabizing manners of the early shomrim, the first Palestinian Jewish self-defense units (organized, of course, to defend against the Arabs), to see what conflicting emotions the Arab brought out in the Jew. On the one hand, he was unwashed, ignorant, untrustworthy, treacherous, emotional, violent, temperamental; he stole Jewish crops and animals, waylaid Jewish travelers, harassed Jewish settlements when he could. On the other hand, he was bold, brave, graceful, spontaneous, and lived close to nature and the earth; he was the embodiment of that physicality, that closeness to the natural passions, that the Jew had lost in his exilic life; he was, in however fallen and degraded a state, a precious missing link with the Jews’ own past, a living gloss on the imagery of the Bible, the stories of the Patriarchs, the books of Judges and Ruth. Was not the blood that flowed through his veins, informing his dark eyes and olive skin, more “Jewish” than that of many Jews? Was not he the true son of the lost tribes of Israel, to be sought not beyond the mountains of darkness or at the far ends of the earth, but right where they had vanished, beneath the returning Jew’s very nose? Was not this an ample basis for Jew and Arab to live together, sharing, if not one identity, then still a blood brotherhood, each giving to and taking from the other, the Jew bringing the Arab the secrets of modern civilization, the Arab teaching the Jew to live on and with the land?

Clearly, we can see today with the benefit of hindsight, it was not. We all live in some sense mythical identities, it is true, but rarely, with the exception of those whom we consider seriously deluded, do we live by myths that are self-invented, much less imposed on unwilling others. Why should it have mattered to a Palestinian Arab to be told that he was a lost Jew any more than it should have, let us say, to a Jewish Zionist to be told that he was in fact a descendant of the Byzantine Khazars, whose ancestors never set foot in Palestine in their lives? What is true is not always relevant, and what is relevant is not always true. . . . And yet, I reflect, swerving my car to avoid a pothole on the road, if I share an oblique destiny with these people through whose fields I am driving, it is not just this outward one, this having been thrown together by history, or blind chance, to quarrel and kill each other over the same piece of land. It is all so terribly complicated. Something in me answers to the peasant certainties of their lives—yet across such a distance that I cannot possibly tell them what I know. They hate me for my alien power over them, mock the democratic barbarism of my manners—yet envy the freedom and wealth that accompany these. I covet their lands because they are promised me, biblical—but it is above all their presence that reminds me that this is so, informing a landscape so stripped to its barest essentials that every cloud throws a shadow with a tone that is stark and peremptory, like that of my ancestral book. Let the land speak! But once the land has spoken, what has it said?

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Jenin. I pass in front of the open labor exchange outside of town where Arab workers board buses to be taken to their daily jobs in Israel, across the “green line,” where they work in factories or the building trade. Outside of town stands the British-built police station, flying a blue-and-white flag. Jewish troops held this building in 1948 too, attacking from the direction of Afula, before being driven back by an Arab counterattack. I was nine years old at the time and remember hearing the news on the radio in New York. Jenin is ours, I ran to tell my father, who promptly got tears in his eyes, but it wasn’t En-Gannim, city of fountains and gardens. It is a dingy-looking place. The main street is lined with little stalls, work shops, garages, from which come that steady sound of pounding that seems to give the beat to Arab life: of iron, of stone, of wood, of human hands. The fat green mosque points its erectile minaret at a cloudless sky. A month ago an Israeli shopper was shot to death here in the marketplace by a terrorist, who escaped. None of the local merchants reported hearing the shot, apparently, the police conjectured, because a silencer was used.

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2

Jenin to Nablus: 30 minutes

Elsewhere in Palestine we are struck by the contrast between the grandeur of the history, and the unimpressive character of the scenery; but these noble and massive mountains form a fitting theater for the grandest events. They are Ebal and Gerizim. In the narrow valley between them was Shechem, where Abraham pitched his tent, and built his first altar, on his entrance into the Promised Land.

—Ibid.

Out of Jenin the road begins to climb, twist. I change gears frequently, like a musical scale: fourth, third, second, back to third. The earth is a rusty red now, the terra rossa of the Palestinian highlands. Forests of olive trees cover the terraced hillsides, splittrunked, as old as the stones. A row of dusty cypresses grasps the embankment above the road, roots in. A falcon sits motionless in the blue sky, its talons wrapped around an invisible branch. A woman on a donkey. A taxi coming from Nablus. A village schoolmaster, dressed like a wedding guest in a trim gray suit, resolutely sticks to the pavement as I pass to keep his shined shoes out of the dust. The villages are perched high on the mountaintops, dull outcrops of stone, reached by steep paths that look little better than ladders. When the road winds through one of them I am escorted in and out of it by knots of crop-headed boys, who pop up from around curves, from under trees, like targets at a carnival booth, waving little straw baskets of ripe figs, the last of the autumn, as though they were some sort of recognized distress signal. Teen, teen! they shout, each undaunted by the failure of the boy before him, each screwing his face into an expression of defiant hope that his figs—soft, purple, pulpy, tasting too much like sugared water—will bring me screeching to a halt. Teen, teen!—but the car speeds away, leaving the words like dead leaves on the wind.

These round, stoop-shouldered mountains, rising between the Jordan and the sea; used and re-used: in the endless struggle for Palestine they have always been the bastion of the technologically weaker, though not necessarily the more pacific, side. In Joshua’s time the conquering Israelites could not break out of them onto the plains below, where the Canaanites had “chariots of iron,” the tanks of ancient warfare that were at their deadliest on open terrain. Next the Philistines, Greeks, and Romans spilled forth on the coastal plain, founding their port cities of Ascalon and Gaza, Apollonia and Caesaria, whose encroachments on their highland kingdom the Jews struggled to prevent with sometimes more, sometimes less success, before finally, slowly, going under. Centuries later the Crusaders held this same coastal beachhead, where their heavily armored horsemen reigned supreme; inland, in the hills, where the light Arab bowmen could punish them brutally, their grip was never better than tenuous. And finally, in our own times, the Jews too, completing their arduous circumnavigation of the globe, have returned from the West, from the sea, by which they have clustered like the Philistines of old, building their ramshackle new cities on the beaches and dunes, the mountains to the east of them a gray line against the sky. Once again technology determined demography, though this time the plow’s before the sword’s. On the one hand, the modern agriculture that the Zionists brought from Europe could best be practiced along the sea plain and in the inland valleys; on the other hand, it was precisely these areas, once the bread-baskets of Palestine, that a primitive Arab agriculture had been unable to prevent from degenerating into sparsely settled dunelands and swamps, which absentee Arab landlords were glad to put up for sale. The more heavily settled highlands—with the significant exception of Jerusalem—remained solidly Arab, falling only to Jewish military might, first in 1948, with the capture of the Galilee, and then in 1967, with the conquest of the West Bank, the biblical Judea and Samaria.

Thus again we have the paradox, the strange reversal of roles. The Arab sits in the mountains where once the Jew sat, insular, conservative, while the Jew resides in the lowlands, the bearer of the culture of the West. No national movement of our times has been so ambiguous in its attitude toward history as Zionism—and history has repaid it in kind. What other nationalism has been so committed to history as to see in it its main moral legitimation, taking as its models events that occurred millennia ago and seeking to reenact them on their original geographical stage? Yet what other nationalism has been at the same time so defiant of history and the irreversible processes by which it works, insisting on breaking all rules of how nations are constituted, countries possessed, states established? And history? Look at the broad view, and it has rewarded the fealty paid it with a generous sweep of its hand. Examine the details, however, and it has gotten them fiendishly wrong.

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The air is hot and dusty; my throat aches for something to drink. I stop at a roadside cafe with faded posters that advertise Coca-Cola and Syrian Arab Airlines and sit on a patio overlooking the mountains. The only other customer is a striped tiger cat sleeping on one of the white tables. A passion-flower vine profuses over a trellis overhead, its starry flowers too gaudy to be real. A retouched color photograph of Nasser, his lips rouged, his cheeks green, adorns the wall. Near it hangs a map of the world in Arabic from which, I notice, the State of Israel has been omitted. The proprietor appears in a starched white shirt and black suspenders. “Yes?” he declares in so-far excellent English.

Kafé turki, b’vakasha.” Stubbornly. Illogically.

“I’m sorry. I don’t understand Hebrew.” But the tone is more in anger than in sorrow. He’s lying, of course. What café owner on the West Bank doesn’t know what kafé turki means after seven years of Israeli rule?

“I’d like some Turkish coffee, please.”

He brings it on a copper tray with a glass of water by its side, and joins the sleeping cat at the table. We sit there, the occupier and the occupied, and stare gloomily out at the mountains. What’s left to say, anyway? The cat opens a glowing eye to regard a waistcoated bumblebee that is busily courting a passion flower. The sweet grinds on my tongue are a sign that I have drunk my coffee too far. I empty the glass of water, ask for the bill in English, pay it, and leave.

Back on the road I stop to pick up a hitchhiking soldier who falls asleep before he has settled back in his seat. Ahead of me rises Mount Ebal, a white quarried wound in its flank, the biblical mount of the curse on which Moses bade the Children of Israel to listen patiently to the imprecations of their God in a Hebrew so blunt that any schoolboy can understand it today. “‘Cursed be he who removes his neighbor’s landmark,’ and all the people shall say: Amen. . . . ‘Cursed is he who misleads a blind man on the road,’ and all the people shall say. Amen. . . .” Opposite it is the mount of the blessing, Mount Gerizim, the sacred site of the dwindled sect of Samaritans, once Jews themselves, whose temple was sacked by the Jewish king Alexander Janneus in 125 B.C.E. and never rebuilt. There are about five hundred of them left today, and their identity is precariously linked to this peak, which is, their scriptures assert, God’s true chosen dwelling-place, for wherever the Pentateuch refers to Nablus, the Jews have cunningly convinced the world that it means Jerusalem instead.

Nablus, the Greek Neopolis, the biblical She-chem, still lies in the narrow valley between these twin peaks, the grand stone villas of the rich rising high on the mountainsides, the business and poorer sections down below. The main street runs the axis of the valley from north to south. Workshops. A restaurant. A grocery. Garages. Sounds of human pounding. Furtive Hebrew signs advise the conqueror that his business is welcome notwithstanding. The old stone Turkish railway station stands abandoned in the maze of its tracks, which today lead nowhere though once they wound down to Tulkarm near the coast, and from there to Alexandria, Beirut, Damascus, and the Hejaz. An Arab policeman and an Israeli soldier stand chatting with each other against a Jordanian military monument in the main traffic circle at the center of town. Signs point to Joseph’s tomb, to Jacob’s well, modest relics for the pilgrimage trade, but all Nablus has been left, as a poor relation is sometimes bequeathed an impractical heirloom of dubious sentimental value.

On my way out of town I pass the refugee camp, a sprawling tin shantytown such as is found outside every city on the West Bank. Children throw stones at one another in an alleyway. Stones lie scattered on the tin roofs of the huts, some no bigger than pebbles, others the size of human heads. They have been put there to keep the roofs from blowing away in the wind, but at first glance they seem to have rained down from above in a fit of absentminded wrath. The Palestinians have their refugees, their exile, and their diaspora; they contest every bit of Jewish ground; they are the Samaritans of our day. The soldier next to me stirs uneasily in his seat, then heaves himself back to sleep.

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3.

Nablus to Ramallah: One hour

The valley leading from Nablus . . . is one of great beauty. Dr. Porter says, with slight exaggeration, “it is the finest in Palestine—in fact. it is the only really beautiful site from Dan to Beersheba.” Without the grandeur of the snow-crowned peaks of Switzerland, it yet reminded me of the Swiss-Italian valleys in its bright color and rich vegetation.

—Ibid.

“You’re unusually sentimental today,” I remarked to myself when we were a few kilometers out of Nablus, curving among olive trees again.

“I tell you, it’s these mountains. They speak to me. Just look at that fig tree over there, growing horizontally out of bare rock. What powers of tenacity! As a traveler, I’m sure I’d prefer the Alps. But these happen to be mine.”

“Unfortunately, the Palestinian thinks that they’re his.”

“They are. There ought to be some way of sharing them.”

“Just how do you propose to accomplish that?”

“I wish I knew. I’ve already told you that’s why I’ve stopped driving through them. I can’t bear the thought of losing them.”

“At least you’ve become more realistic. When we once drove this way several years ago, if I remember correctly, you said the solution lay in us all becoming one people. The Jews should ride about on donkeys, and the Arabs should be made Jews at swordpoint, as the Edomites were by John Hyrcanus, whose descendants you seem to be convinced that they are in any case.”

“I admit to a passion for donkeys, but you’re misquoting me on John Hyrcanus. I actually said that there was no need to convert the Palestinians like the Edomites, who, by the way, became the most fanatical of Jews within a few generations. My proposal was that they simply be declared Jews by an order of the ministry of the interior and granted all the tax benefits due any new Jewish immigrant to Israel. As you say, though, that was a while ago. . . .”

“I hope you were joking even then.”

“Of course. Even if the PLO had accepted, the rabbinate would have fought it tooth-and-nail.”

“Where does that leave us?”

“With two peoples. But still in one land.”

“To which objectively, you admit, each has an equally just claim?”

“To which objectively each has an equally just claim.”

“Then why not divide the land up again?”

“You’re referring, I suppose, to a Palestinian state.”

“After Rabat what other alternative is there?”

“With that enlightened humanist Mr. Arafat as its distinguished first President?”

“You needn’t take that tone of voice with me. I didn’t choose him. It’s partly because of biblical sentimentalists like you that we’re stuck with him now. If we had been willing in the immediate past to trade the West Bank for a peace settlement with Hussein, or with some moderate Palestinian element, we wouldn’t be in the position we are today.”

“That’s a debatable proposition. In any case, I’m afraid that Israeli policy in those years was concerned a lot more with the question of defensible borders than with the Bible.”

“You disapprove?”

“Not of defensible borders, though not even the generals seem to know what they are. But while the Palestinians have been telling the world that all the disputed territories should be theirs by virtue of elementary morality, because they belong to them, we have been saying that part of them should be ours by virtue of military security, because we’d feel safer in them. Of course the world has been more impressed by the claims of elementary morality. It’s only natural.”

“I should think that the world has been most impressed by the claims of Arab oil. When did it ever care about elementary morality? In any event, though, the Palestinians do have a case: we have a state and they don’t.”

“A state from which the very heartland of Jewish historical experience in this country has been excluded!”

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“Don’t be so self-righteous. You are beginning to sound like one of our scriptural hawks who can’t understand why it isn’t clear to everyone that if we have a right to Tel Aviv and Haifa, we have one to Nablus and Jenin as well.”

“Let’s say if we don’t have one to Nablus and Jenin, I’m not sure what ours is to Tel Aviv and Haifa, either.”

“But we live in Tel Aviv and Haifa, and not in Nablus and Jenin! And the Palestinians do. Isn’t that enough?”

“French Algerians lived in Algiers, and overseas Portuguese live in Angola.”

“You’re the last person I’d have expected to hear that comparison from. Surely the whole justification of Zionist settlement in Palestine lies precisely in Zionism’s having been totally different in its behavior from European colonialisms—in its non-exploitation of native labor, for instance, or its legal purchase of all lands acquired, or its basic willingness to reach a political compromise with the other side. The very fact that the Jews have had nowhere else to go. . . .”

“Excuse me, but who’s being self-righteous now? Except for the Hitler era, when not many of them got into Palestine either, Jews have had quite a few places to go to—and have generally gone to them. There have been periods of Jewish settlement in Palestine, including the present one, in which cheap Arab labor has been widely used; most of the land owned by Jews in Israel today is former Arab property abandoned by its owners without compensation during the 1948-49 war; and the Jewish side in Palestine has not always been so reasonable in its demands. I don’t dispute with you for a moment Zionism’s far superior record as a colonizing movement to any European colonialism, but I refuse to base its legitimacy on that fact. If we Jews have a right to this country only by virtue of our good behavior, then every time we behave badly—as we have on occasion behaved in the past, and will undoubtedly behave on occasion in the future—our right to be here diminishes. That’s precisely the argument of our enemies, or at least of those of them who are hypocritical enough to call themselves our friends.”

“Then our right to this country is. . . .”

“. . . the same as the unconditional right of any people to its homeland, in this case one that was taken from us by force and that never ceased to play a central role in our national consciousness during our absence from it”

“How curious that that should be exactly how the Palestinians define their right to be here too. Isn’t it awfully dangerous to ask the world to judge the merits of our territorial quarrel with them on the basis of religious and nationalistic constructions of history that are replete with ambiguities and double edges?”

“No doubt it is—though certainly no more dangerous than to be asked to be judged by the standards of Realpolitik, which are stacked against us now in a manner that can only grow worse. In any case, it’s likely that the only dependable support for Israel in the future will more and more have to come from people whose construction of our history is sympathetic to our own.”

“Is that your way of saying that ultimately, in your opinion, philo-Semitism and friendliness to Israel are the same?”

“Ultimately, I suppose it is.”

“You seem to forget that the Palestinians have their history too—and one that differs considerably from our own.”

“I don’t forget it at all. In one respect, though, the two do agree, namely, in their insistence that the rights to Haifa and to Nablus are the same.”

“Which is simply to say that in any conflict of this sort the extremists on either side tend to unite against the middle. How obvious, then, that the only way out of the impasse lies with the middle, that is, with the conclusion that the rights to Haifa and to Nablus not only are not the same, but must be separated from each other in practical political terms.”

“You can partition a country, but how do you partition a right?”

“You’re quibbling.”

“Not at all.”

“We’re going around in circles. Fine, to get on with the argument, I’ll concede your point. You do have a historical right to Nablus, just as the Palestinian, and in a far more immediate sense, has one to Haifa. But for your own goods, as well as for the world’s, each of you will have to renounce part of his right so that the other may retain part of his.”

“I’m afraid that’s impossible.”

“Why?”

“I can’t speak for the Palestinians, though I must say that their reluctance to part with their right to Haifa seems rather a point in their favor. Speaking as a Jew, though, what empowers me to renounce a right that is grounded in the historical consciousness of a people of which I, even all the Jews who are alive today, constitute only a part?”

“Good lord! When did the historical consciousness of the Jewish people, whatever that might be, ever agree on where the land of Israel lies? Abraham was promised the Euphrates and Ezra and Nehemiah were content with a few square miles around Jerusalem. You yourself were just saying that the areas of Israel most heavily settled by Jews today were traditionally not highly Jewish at all—which didn’t prevent them from being considered both final and livable by most Jews in Israel and abroad until appetites were whetted by the Six-Day War.”

“Centuries of Jewish literature and law define rather precisely where the land of Israel lies—and it certainly doesn’t lie on the Euphrates, and does include the coastal plain of Palestine, and certainly, Judea and Samaria. As for what Jews were willing to consider final and livable before the Six-Day War, I should say this was part of a generalized repression of Jewish historical experience from the neurotic symptoms of which you, for instance, are still suffering today.”

“Then you support the recent attempts at illegal settlement on the West Bank whose aim has been to force the Israeli government’s hand into letting Jews settle freely there?”

“I support the position that any Jew who wishes to settle there, and can legally, and without coercion, acquire the land or property to do so, should be permitted. I find it scandalous that a Jewish government should take for granted the right of Jews today to live in Paris or New York, but not in parts of their own land.”

“I find it scandalous that a Jewish government might give in to the pressures of religious and nationalist extremists to annex Palestinian territories and thereby permanently preclude the possibility of peace in the Middle East.”

“Who said anything about annexing territories?”

“What difference does it make what you call it? You just said that a Jewish government had an unconditional right to rule in all of Palestine.”

“I said that the Jewish people had an unconditional right to live in all of Palestine. I didn’t say anything about ruling there.”

_____________

 

“Now you’re confusing me. You mean that Jews should live in the West Bank as part of. . . .”

“A Palestinian state? Why not? There are several hundred thousand Palestinian Arabs living in a Jewish state today, and we accept it as a matter of course.”

“With the enlightened Mr. Arafat as their President? After all this circling, it seems to me we’ve changed sides.”

“I’d prefer someone better-shaven and better-principled myself. But if he, or any other authorized Palestinian leader, should be willing to recognize the sovereignty of Israel within its pre-1967 borders, and the right of all Jews to live in those parts of their homeland that are not within those borders. . . .”

“What Jew would be willing to live in a Palestinian state run by the PLO?”

“Perhaps not many at first. If anything, that should reassure the Palestinians. But if Jews living in a Palestinian state could remain Israeli nationals, as an American living in Canada today, for example, can remain a national of the U.S., and given the proper safeguards—any Palestinian government would have to understand, of course, that violence against its Jewish residents, or infringements of their civil rights, would bring a forceful Israeli reaction—there would certainly be some who would. It’s one of our peculiar blind spots, though one understandable on the basis of our past experience with the Arabs, that we find it impossible to conceive of a Jewish presence anywhere in this country apart from Jewish sovereignty. It’s the common denominator of the annexationist Right, which insists on both sovereignty and presence, and the anti-annexationist Left, which insists on giving up both—to say nothing of the semi-annexationist Center, which is for and against everything at once. I’m simply proposing to cut the Gordian knot.”

“But wouldn’t a Jewish population living in a Palestinian state be in effect a permanent hostage to the potentially inflammable state of Israeli-Palestinian relations that is sure to prevail for at least the foreseeable future?”

“Of course it would—that’s precisely one of its greatest advantages. The one crucial Israeli requirement of any Palestinian entity is that the borders with it remain absolutely open for all normal social and commercial movement. Short of physical annihilation, Israel’s greatest fear must be of a return to the state of ghettoization that existed in its relations with its Arab neighbors, especially with Jordan and the West Bank, prior to 1967. What better guarantee that this will not occur, and that agreements between the two governments on these and other questions, such as demilitarization, will be respected, than the presence in the West Bank of a sizable population whose need for everyday contact with Israel, and for normal relations with it, will be obvious and undeniable?”

“And you would be willing for Israel to withdraw from the entire West Bank, without exception, in exchange?”

“If, and only if, Jews could live in the entire West Bank, without exception—yes.”

“Arab Jerusalem included?”

“I know that returning Arab Jerusalem is a touchy issue in Israel, to put it mildly, even with most doves, with whom I don’t really class myself, but personally, if I could remain free to live and move in it—why not?”

“I’m beginning to see a certain consistency to your inconsistency. But can you conceive of either a Palestinian or an Israeli leadership agreeing to it?”

“In their present form, hardly—but in their present form each doesn’t recognize the existence of the other at all. Should the PLO eventually come around to accepting a pre-1967 Israel, however, in return for the right to establish a Palestinian state, Israel will have to respond somehow. The PLO has said itself that it’s for a secular, democratic state in Palestine in which Jews and Muslims can live together. Why not make it prove it?”

“Because you’re talking about Israelis and Zionists, not simply Jews. Even accepting your argument, though, at best there will have to be a long process of gradual reconciliation that will take several years. Shouldn’t Israel stop all further settlement on the West Bank in the meantime, perhaps even evacuate some of its present outposts there, both in order to allay Arab fears of annexation, and to refrain from coming to the negotiating table with a fait accompli?”

“On the contrary. Why should Israel stop all Jewish settlement on the West Bank if one of its conditions for returning the area is that Jews be permitted to settle there? The more Jews are living there, in fact, before a settlement is reached—providing that neither they nor the Palestinians are misled into thinking that this entails Israeli sovereignty—the less weight can be given to any Palestinian demand that the area remain Judenrein in the future. Perhaps the first mistake made by Israel after the 1967 war was that it didn’t simply say to both Jews and Arabs: ‘Gentlemen, Palestine is one country once more, and regardless of whether political boundaries will ever run through it again, pales of settlement will not. Consider yourselves free to travel, work, live, or buy property anywhere in the country that you please, with the confidence that we will under write what you do.’ Had Jews been allowed to settle freely on the West Bank as individuals, in fact, there might have been little need for the kind of massive settlement projects on expropriated Arab lands that have angered and aggravated the suspicions of the Arabs.”

_____________

 

“I seem to remember such an approach being suggested at one time by certain Israeli politicians—Dayan, for example.”

“Not really, because apart from Dayan’s rejection of any form of Palestinian sovereignty, what was lacking in his approach was precisely the willingness to make such freedom of movement reciprocal, that is, open to Arabs as well as Jews.”

“Which would mean. . . .”

“. . . that just as any Jew has the right to travel, work, live, or buy property in Nablus or Jenin, though not to have a Jewish government there, so any Palestinian has the same right in Haifa or Tel Aviv, though not to have an Arab government there.”

“Wouldn’t the Palestinians justifiably live in fear under such an arrangement of having their state bought out from under them by the Jews—and the Jews of being swamped by an unwelcome flood of immigrant Palestinian labor? And what about the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees claiming properties once owned by them that are now in Israeli hands?”

“Such claims would have to come up as part of any peace settlement, presumably to be dealt with by compensation—and who says Jews wouldn’t have to fear Arab money, of which we are assured there is going to be more and more, buying them out? Still, the risks seem worth running, even of a flood of Palestinian laborers, who are already working, if not living, in Israel today anyway, and would in any case remain Palestinian nationals and constitute no political threat.”

“So we’re back to the old bi-national state idea of the 30′s!”

“Not at all. The idea of a bi-national state was unworkable because it was based on the utopian expectation that Jews and Arabs could share one sovereignty and one set of political institutions. Now we’re talking about two distinct sovereignties, each of which will have to make certain inviolable commitments to the citizens of the other. In other words, two peoples in two states. . . .”

“. . . but still one land?”

“Exactly.”

“And you really think it can work?”

_____________

 

The soldier beside me awakes with a prescient sixth sense and asks to be let off at his army base. An Arab taxi coming from Nablus honks screamingly at him as he crosses the road. A minute later it overtakes me: the white kaffias of the men inside make them look from behind like a party of hefty nuns. A scarecrow stands in an empty field beneath the noonday sun: he is wearing sun glasses, a trenchcoat with the collar turned up, and an old gray fedora with the brim turned down. One empty sleeve is stuck into the pocket of his coat, as though he were holding a gun. “Welcome To Ramallah, City On The Move,” says an improbable sign, which explains in smaller letters below, “Courtesy of the Ramallah and el-Bireh Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce.” A dog lies comfortably curled on the road, the red froth beneath its nose the only indication that it is dead.

“Don’t be silly,” I say to myself. “It’s far too sensible for that.”

_____________

 

4.

Ramallah to Jerusalem: 15 minutes

For some miles along the road, or from the eminences which skirt it, Jerusalem is visible. Age after age, invading armies, or bands of pilgrims, approaching from the north, as they turned the crest of Scopus, have gained their first view of the city. . . . Here the first Crusaders halted at break of day, and as Jerusalem burst upon their view, they knelt, and with tears of gladness, kissed the sacred soil. Richard Coeur de Lion, leaving his camp at Ajalon, pressed forward alone, and as he ascended one of these hills, buried his face in his mailed hands, and exclaimed: “Oh! Lord God, I pray Thee that I may never look upon Thy Holy city, if so be that I rescue it not from Thine enemies.”

—Ibid.

Soon out of Ramallah one enters the long northern finger of the ex-Jordanian municipality of Jerusalem, which was annexed in its entirety by Israel after the Six-Day War. The Bible slams shut. Bulldozers are carving out a road heading off into nowhere, trimming and slicing the stony earth. Another road, showing no point of connection with the first, is being covered with a sleek new coat of asphalt. A small airplane takes off from the old Jordanian airport at Kalandia, which is being lengthened to accommodate big jets. New housing projects sit on hilltops that seem to wince beneath them, still unaccustomed to their weight. A sign pointing to a plateau of rocks proclaims that the Jerusalem industrial park is about to rise here. There is something intensely aimless-seeming about all this activity; one has the sense of a giant jigsaw puzzle to which each player has brought his own pieces. Presumably, it will all fit together in the end, and if it doesn’t, no matter. You can’t argue with the facts.

The newly-widened road passes through Shu’afat, the wealthy Arab suburb of Jerusalem in which King Hussein was building his summer hideaway, complete with swimming pool and heliport, when the 1967 war broke out. Obvious fortunes have gone into these pink stone houses with their porticoes, their archways, their paneled windows, their balconies and balustrades—yet something there is that gives the whole less the appearance of a wealthy residential quarter than of a peculiarly ornate slum. One gropes for it for a moment . . . the television aerials! They jostle one another for room, rising here with an even more frantic density than in Israel itself. Some have the shape of Eiffel towers, others of rapiers or broken umbrella frames; some stick out of the houses at odd angles, like darts in a gaming board, or lances in a bull. Some are double the height of the roofs that they stand on, as if the house underneath them were merely a platform for their launching into space. Higher is further. Two meters will fetch Amman; five, Beirut or Damascus; ten, Cairo; twenty, perhaps Baghdad. Who is playing this month in Shu’afat? Kissinger in Moscow. Hussein in London. Arafat in New York. Sadat in Rabat. About whom are they talking so much? They are talking about the people of Shu’afat, who fish for their faces and voices in Jerusalem’s skies

Ah, Jerusalem! If ever a city has huckstered the world for a living with its mosques, churches, synagogues, crypts, caves, walls, tombs, stones, bones, and souvenirs, it is you. And the world will not admit it has been taken, and will not leave you alone. French Hill. Mount Scopus. Sheikh Jarrah. Outside the American Colony hotel a party of tourists is boarding a waiting bus. They are pink-faced, innocent of passion, and if the postcards they send home are to be believed, they are enjoying themselves. For a moment it almost seems to me that I hate them. Or is that warm flash of feeling rather an unreasonable burst of affection, call it love, for the little Arab boy, a hole in the knee of his pants and no laces in his shoes, who is trying to sell them some worthless wooden trinket? He badgers them; they retreat into the shadow of the bus. We are accomplices in this land, he and I, and will be here when they are gone. I stop at a red light, the first I’ve encountered since leaving Haifa, across from the Old City wall. A throng of shoppers heading home for lunch struggles through the Damascus Gate. For a moment it hangs there, as though held together by its own viscosity, then scatters quickly like smoke.

_____________

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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