Commentary Magazine


Israel-With Grandchildren

The following was obviously written before the black day on which Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. It is no secret that I have been highly critical of the peace process over which Rabin was presiding, and it should come as no surprise that this caused a personal rupture between us. I first met Rabin in 1967 in Israel, right after the Six-Day War, when he was still chief of staff of the Israeli armed forces. Then, a year or so later, on his way to Washington to take over as the newly appointed ambassador to the United States, he stopped at my apartment in New York where (at the request of the Israeli consul-general) I had arranged for him to meet a group of prominent American intellectuals. Though I had not found him exactly endearing in our first meeting in Jerusalem, I was charmed—and also much impressed—by his ill-concealed amazement at some of the incredibly foolish things that were said to him that night. In the ensuing years, I saw him many times, and though we never became close friends, our relations were always relatively cordial. When, however, I began voicing my misgivings over the changes in his thinking that led to the handshake with Yasir Arafat on the White House lawn, he understandably grew cold, and after one very tense accidental encounter in Jerusalem, I never saw him again.

The article that follows was all but on press when the news came of his assassination, and my immediate inclination—as well as that of the editor COMMENTARY—was to suppress it as being out of date, and perhaps also as unseemly. But on further reflection we decided to let it ride as a record of how things stood before Rabin was murdered and as an account of forces that are still at work in Israel and that will continue to make themselves felt even now that he is gone. Given the difficulty in my relations with him, his passing has caused me more personal grief than I would have expected. But personal feelings and political disagreements aside, my judgment is that his assassination was a crime so horrible that it will be remembered as one of the great infamies of Jewish history.

Friday, September 1

Only minutes after we arrive at the airport we get the big news from Noam, the eldest of our four Israeli grandchildren and the one whose bar mitzvah we have come to celebrate: “We have a McDonald’s in Jerusalem now—non-kosher!” From the enthusiasm with which he stresses the fact that this new McDonald’s is non-kosher, one might think that Noam was a precocious version of one of those militant secularists who abound in Israel, and especially in Jerusalem where the highly visible presence and power of the ultra-Orthodox haredim have provoked among many people a backlash against religion in general. Not at all: his aim is to underline the difference between the new McDonald’s and the strictly kosher Burger Ranch (or “Boorger Rench,” as the Jerusalemites call it) to which on previous visits my wife and I have sometimes taken him and his three younger siblings (Alon, almost ten, and the five-year-old twins Boaz and Avital) for a special treat. This new McDonald’s in Jerusalem, Noam wants us to understand, is the real thing—exactly the same as the ones he has come to love so well from previous visits of his own to America.

I will remember this little episode a few days later when watching a clip on CNN (that constant companion of the contemporary American traveler abroad) featuring demonstrations by participants at the UN conference on women in Beijing. None of these demonstrations seems to have anything directly to do with women as such. One, for example, is against American imperialism—a theme I naively thought had gone out with button shoes, or anyway the cold war, and whose reappearance makes me feel almost nostalgic. Another is directed against the resumption of nuclear testing by the French, reminding me by the novelty of its target country that the cold war really has ended.

But the most bizarre group of protesters consists of a gaggle of young American women stomping on an effigy of Ronald McDonald and screaming hysterically: “Get out of my backyard! Get out of my country! Get out of my world!” Clearly McDonald’s, with its nutritionally incorrect menu and its putatively carcinogenic plastic wastes, has replaced Coca-Cola as the great symbol of a metastasizing American plague in this post-cold-war world—a world more apocalyptic about ecology than about nuclear holocaust and where opposition to nuclear weapons (as the anti-French protests reveal) is itself now based not on the fear of war but on the horror of environmental contamination.

Yet it strikes me that, like Coca-Cola before it, what McDonald’s really symbolizes is the universality of human nature. Once, there seemed to be no country and no culture whose people did not fall in love with Coca-Cola the minute they tasted it; and today (to borrow a slogan invented for another product), nobody doesn’t like a Big Mac—nobody, anywhere on earth. Where these things are concerned, at least, the dream of Schiller and Beethoven has been realized and all men have already become brothers.

Nor is McDonald’s the only sign of progress to which Noam points on the drive from the airport to Jerusalem. “We also have Tower Records and Blockbuster Video,” he announces proudly to our granddaughter, his American cousin Sarah (“Nani,” to her family). Fresh (and flush) from her own very recent bat mitzvah, Nani has come with us to join in Noam’s bar-mitzvah celebration while getting her first taste of a foreign country.

Eager to sharpen that taste, and forgetting (if I ever really knew, despite having raised four of them) what thirteen-year-olds are like, I fatuously suggest to Noam that he point out some of the sights to her as we enter Jerusalem. He pauses thoughtfully and then bursts out: “You see that building over there? It’s a great place for rollerblading!”

Later, I laugh about this with his mother, our daughter Ruthie, who has now been in Israel for eighteen years, almost half her entire life. She adds to the merriment by informing me that after we were dropped off at the hotel, Noam as an afterthought proposed that Nani visit Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s grim memorial to the Holocaust. “That’s what Israel adds up to for an Israeli kid,” cracks Ruthie, “McDonald’s and the Holocaust.”

But once we have had our laugh, she is off on a tirade against the Israeli educational system. As she has told me more than once, secular schools in Israel suffer from all the vices of the “progressive” philosophy of education that was so fashionable in her own childhood in America. Thanks to this system, Israeli kids are largely left to their own devices and taught very little about anything, including their own history. (“If you ask an Israeli kid who the Maccabees are, he’ll think you’re talking about the local basketball team.”) On the other hand, thanks to cable TV, Israeli kids know everything there is to know about America: O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, and NYPD Blue are more familiar to them than King David or, for that matter, David Ben-Gurion. But this subject soon gets us laughing again at the picture it brings back of Alon, watching television on a visit to New York when he was about six years old and yelling out excitedly in Hebrew to Noam: “Hey, they’ve got McGyver here, too!” (Along the same lines, this very evening five-year-old Boaz, checking up on the possibilities of cross-cultural communication with his cousin from America, will ask her: “Do you know what means Power Rangers in English?”)

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Sunday, September 3

Speaking of school, Friday was supposed to be the first day of the new semester, but because of a brief strike by teachers protesting a cut in funds for security guards, the opening is postponed until today (Sunday being an ordinary working day in Israel). Noam is now in high school (they refer to it, European-style, as a gymnasium), and out of curiosity to see what the place looks like, I accompany Nadav, my Israeli son-in-law, when he takes time out from his law practice to pick Noam up at the end of the school day.

Having expected something dingy, I am oddly pleased when it turns out to be a fairly new and rather attractive building. But the first thing that hits my eye as we enter is an explosion of graffiti, all of them in English, “FUCK YOU” screams one wall, “FUCK YOUR SISTER” declares another, to which the viewer’s attention is helpfully directed by arrows on the floor. And a third, in the largest letters of all, simply says “COOL.” This, I gather, is meant as a self-gratulatory comment on the whole project: as Noam, who is completely bilingual himself, explains when I ask why the vandals have used English instead of Hebrew, “English is cool” (so much so that the word itself, pronounced kul, has now been imported into Hebrew).

For this we needed a Jewish state? That used to be the all-purpose Israeli mot in the face of anything that departed from pristine Zionist utopianism, and it immediately springs to mind, bringing with it a wry smile at the thought that I, who once made fun of that slogan, should now be involuntarily invoking it in all seriousness myself. And it springs to mind again on a walk we take later that afternoon along a lively pedestrian mall in the center of Jerusalem. It is filled with cafes and restaurants and shops of every variety, including the (to me) now fabled McDonald’s, whose presence is announced with a sign reading: “McDonald’s—One Minutes [sic] Away.” (English may be kul but it is still a foreign language in the Jewish state.) The mall is also crowded with Israelis of every variety, from haredim dressed all in black to a young woman dressed all in black herself except for the words emblazoned in white on her very tight T-shirt which read, “who gives a shit?”

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For this we needed a Jewish state? Well, I say to myself, yes. After all, one of the main purposes of establishing a Jewish state was to bring about “the normalization of the Jewish people.” Of course, the early Zionist thinkers who developed this concept had something else in view. They envisaged a situation in which Jews, instead of being concentrated overwhelmingly as they were in the Diaspora in a few occupations (and thereby arousing resentment), would like all other peoples work at everything: they would be not only doctors and lawyers and bankers and journalists but also farmers and laborers and soldiers and policemen.

Some early Zionists saw this as one of many ways to cure the “pathologies” and straighten out the “deformations” which, they believed, living in the Diaspora for 2,000 years had wrought in the Jewish character: in a sovereign state of their own the Jews would flourish once again and regain the kind of greatness they had shown in biblical times. But there were other Zionist thinkers who cherished the opposite hope: that living in a sovereign state of their own would turn the Jews not into a special or superior breed but into “a people like all other peoples.” And so, on the evidence of McDonald’s and obscene graffiti and T-shirts and cable television, it has come to pass.

Yet that is far, very far, from the whole story. For one thing, the dream of a “normal” occupational distribution has largely been realized in Israel. Not, to be sure, entirely, since most construction work and many menial jobs are done by Palestinians. Still, Jews now fill most other occupations from which they had traditionally either been barred or which for one reason or another they had avoided in the Diaspora. This is now so commonplace that younger Israelis find it hard to understand a joke that circulated when the state was still in its infancy. It was about a survivor of the Holocaust who cringed at the sight of a policeman in Tel Aviv until he was told that the policeman was a Jew, at which he straightened up and said: “A Jew? Well, to hell with him, then!”

For another thing, the Jews of Israel have developed into a different breed from their ancestors and relatives in the Diaspora. The most spectacular instance is the Israeli army (the Israel Defense Force, or IDF, to call it by its proper name). Jews in the Diaspora were not notable for their skill in or enthusiasm for the military arts, but the IDF has become one of the best armies in the world. Conversely, in intellectual and scholarly pursuits, an area where Jews might have been expected to excel, the Israelis (despite their accomplishments in technology) are relatively weak: the Hebrew University is not one of the best institutions of higher learning in the world.

Not that its faculty has lacked for great scholars like the late Gershom Scholem, whose pioneering work on Jewish mysticism constitutes one of the towering academic and intellectual achievements of the 20th century But it was Scholem himself who once explained to me why the Jewish state should have turned out to be better at fighting wars than at realizing the dream of cultural efflorescence that had converted him, a young German-Jewish intellectual from a highly assimilated family, to Zionism and brought him in the 1920′s from Berlin to Jerusalem and eventually to a professorship at the Hebrew University. The Jews, he said (speaking with a wistfulness rooted in his fundamentally pacifist tendencies), are a talented people, and talent goes where it is needed; at this stage of Jewish history it is needed in the army, and so that is where it has gone.

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With these words of Scholem running once again through my head, as they so often have done, I go to meet A., an Israeli friend who in his own person seems to contradict them. He is a professor who has done internationally recognized work in his field, and is at the same time a high-ranking reserve officer in the IDF with a distinguished military record. Contemplating this combination of talents, I say to myself, well, for this we certainly did need a Jewish state.

Yet listening to him talk is enough to make me wonder—and not for the first time—whether the Jewish state we needed, and need, can survive yet another form of “normalization”—the one that goes by the name of the “peace process.” No doubt the species of normalization represented by obscene graffiti in English and McDonald’s and cable television would have horrified old Zionist theoreticians like Ahad Ha’am and A.D. Gordon, but these things are no threat to the continued existence of the Jewish state. A., however, thinks, as I do, that the peace process will bring not peace but war—a war first with the Palestinians but then drawing in most of the Arab states who will set aside their own internecine conflicts and seize on this one last chance to defeat Israel militarily. Even if Israel should win, the cost would be tremendous, and in a monstrous irony the Israelis would wind up reoccupying the very territories from which their forces would have withdrawn in the hope of achieving peace. But if Israel were to lose, the Jewish state that we needed, and need, would come to a horrible and bloody end.

While agreeing that the peace process is a form of normalization, A. and I disagree about the sense in which it is so. As I see it, negotiations with the PLO were undertaken by a nation so war-weary that it was becoming as debellicized and as averse to the military arts as all other democratic countries “normally” are.

A.’s take on the negotiations is different. A Labor-party man for most of his life, he nevertheless feels that under the government of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, Israel has revealed itself not as a normal nation, but rather as one still marked by certain of those traditionally Jewish “pathologies” and “deformations” that statehood was supposed to have corrected. A normal nation, he maintains, would never sue for peace when it was powerful and its enemies were weak. Yet this is in effect what Rabin and Peres have done. At the very moment when Israel’s armed might remained intact and when the PLO had fallen into total disarray—demoralized, discredited, and bankrupt because its support of Saddam Hussein in the Gulf war had deprived it of its Arab patrons—the Israelis resurrected a politically moribund Yasir Arafat and offered him land and (implicitly) statehood in exchange for a few paper promises and a few honeyed words.

I would find this interpretation more persuasive if it did not overlook the fact that in its last war with the Palestinians—that is, the intifada—Israel for all practical purposes lost, largely because it could not and would not continue doing what was necessary in order to win; and it also overlooks the great psychological damage done to the Israelis, to their morale and their fighting pride, when they were forced by the United States under George Bush to sit by passively during the Gulf war while Iraq rained missiles on their heads.

In other words, I say, Rabin may justify his policy by talking of the new opportunities for peace that have been opened up by the demise of the Soviet Union, which no longer arms and instigates the enemies of Israel against it; and Peres may prate of a new Middle East in which everyone is more interested in making money than in making war. But in their negotiations with the Palestinians they are acting not like far-sighted statesmen or magnanimous victors—or for that matter like “deformed” products of the Diaspora—but like the leaders of a defeated nation; and in that way too they are acting normally.

My allusion to Peres’s rhetoric prompts A. to tell me about the interview Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, has just given to an Israeli journalist in which he ridicules the idea that there is a new Middle East. Mubarak should know. After all, at the huge international conference convened last year in Casablanca to explore the supposedly new opportunities for investment in the Middle East, the Egyptian delegation showed up with a 90-page booklet of proposals for joint economic development in which the name of Israel was never so much as mentioned; nor did Israel appear on any of the six maps of the region contained in the booklet. But as A. points out, Jordanian maps do not acknowledge the existence of Israel either—and Egypt and Jordan are the two Arab countries which have signed peace treaties with the Jewish state.

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Monday, September 4

I meet with L., an eminent Israeli writer, and the only old friend I have left here from the other side of the political divide. Once upon a time, and even after I had begun the rightward movement that eventually landed me in the conservative camp, virtually all my Israeli friends were to one degree or another on the Left. But until fairly recently, being on the Left in Israel did not necessarily involve illusions about the desirability of a Palestinian state run by the PLO and with East Jerusalem as its capital. Nor did it entail a willingness to give up the Golan Heights in exchange for a treaty with Syria. On the contrary, as I have often pointed out to certain critics who accuse me of parroting the Likud line, it was not Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Shamir or their successor as the leader of Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu, who taught me that a Palestinian state would constitute a mortal threat and that Jerusalem must never be divided again and that Israel must never surrender the Golan Heights; it was Labor leaders like Golda Meir and Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin (the last of whom reiterated precisely these positions when campaigning in the last election).

Nor did being on the Left entail the blame-Israel-first mentality that by now has become as widespread among Israeli intellectuals as anti-Americanism was in the United States in the days of Vietnam. In this respect, the Israeli Labor party of old and its supporters in the intellectual community resembled their counterparts in the West during the first phase of the cold war, when social democrats everywhere recognized Communism as a menace and resolved to hold the line against it. Only later did some of these same staunchly anti-Communist social democrats (typified most vividly by Willy Brandt in Germany) turn almost 180 degrees, adopting a revisionist view of the cold war according to which the United States was at least as much to blame for starting it as the Soviet Union, and becoming enthusiastic proponents of accommodation with the Kremlin.

Applying Dr. Johnson’s famous maxim that the prospect of hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully, I once assumed that the social democrats in a besieged Israel would be immune from the local variant of this disease. No such luck. To cite only one among many telling examples of the spread of the infection to Israel, Shimon Peres, who in a former incarnation did so much to build up the IDF, has become the Willy Brandt of the Arab war against Israel.

The ground of this transformation was assiduously prepared by the intellectual community of Israel. Long before the demise of the Soviet Union, or the putative changes in the Arab world on which Rabin and Peres would later rely in justifying their own change of mind and heart, many Israeli intellectuals were already blaming their country for the murderous hatred it inspired in others. They accused Israel not only of oppressing the Palestinians since 1967, when the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began, but of primal sins and crimes that called the very foundations of the Jewish state’s existence into question. In this too they resembled the American intellectuals of the Vietnam period who, not content with attacking the war as a discrete blunder or even a crime, represented it as the poisoned fruit of a rotten tree—just the latest manifestation of the evil endemic to American history and inherent in American society. The difference is that whereas no one in America was going to be driven by such ideas into actually giving the country back to the Indians, Israeli politicians like Rabin and Peres were about to turn over a large swath of territory to the Palestinians.

Most of my other former friends on the Israeli Left have surrendered to these ugly ideas and attitudes, but not L. He supports the peace process, but with ever diminishing enthusiasm, and he does so mainly because he thinks that it is a better alternative than continuing to rule over a million Palestinians, not because he regards Israel as the guilty party in this conflict. Far from buying Peres’s vision of a new Middle East in which the Hon will lie down and then form a business partnership with the lamb, he looks forward to the opposite: the complete “separation” between Israel and the Palestinians that Rabin sometimes holds out as the true goal of his policy.

“Let them,” L. says with clenched teeth, “go their way and we will go ours. The main thing is to rid ourselves of this corrupting occupation.” As for my dire predictions of what this course will bring with it, he would love to dismiss them out of hand. Yet even though he trusts Rabin to shed the burdens of the occupation without jeopardizing Israel’s security, he is in all honesty unable to deny that the dangers on which I keep harping are real, any more than I can cavalierly wave away the possibility that I may be all wet. And so we can still talk across a divide that has become too great for me and all my other former friends in Israel to bridge.

Since L. is so untypical, I cannot be sure that his growing skepticism about the peace process is indicative of the mood of the camp to which he belongs. But the impression I get from skimming the press is that little remains of the post-Oslo euphoria even among Israeli intellectuals. The intellectual community—concentrated here as in America in the universities, the arts, and the media—had almost to a man persuaded itself that the Palestinians really had changed, that they had given up the dream of wiping Israel off the map, and that they were ready to live in peace alongside a reduced Jewish state. But the increase in terrorism since Oslo has shaken even the intellectuals, as has Arafat’s inability or unwillingness to stop it, or to fulfill the other promise he made there, namely, to abrogate the commitment to the destruction of Israel in the Palestinian National Charter. Very likely this is why they have quietly dropped their utopian expectations and fallen back, like L. and like Rabin himself, on “separation” as the most desirable goal.

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Tuesday, September 5

Public opinion is another matter, as I learn today from G., one of the very few journalists in Israel who opposes the government’s policy. Among the general public, he informs me, “separation” is a popular idea, but the wave of terrorism has still eaten into support for the peace process, and therefore for Rabin. Having been way ahead of Netanyahu in the aftermath of Oslo, he now runs about neck and neck with him, except when there is a terrorist attack, at which point Netanyahu forges ahead. But according to G.’s careful analysis of the polls, the political effect of a terrorist attack fades after about two months and then they go back to a 50-50 split. It follows that, other things being equal, the next election (scheduled for 1996) may well be decided by the Palestinians. If they restrain themselves in the weeks before election day, Rabin could squeak through; if not, Netanyahu will become the next Prime Minister. The problem is that by then it may be too late to stop or reverse the slide down the slippery slope.

R., a close friend and former government official with whom I meet after leaving G., is not so coolly analytic. In fact, he is in despair over Rabin. It was not ever thus with him. When I began expressing my gloomy opposition to the policy of the Rabin government even before Oslo made it official, R. would always counter by assuring me that Rabin, whom he knew well and for whom he had once worked, could be depended upon to hold firm. True, Peres in his view was another matter and would stop at nothing to make a deal (meaning that, for all Peres’s denials, he was already prepared to accept a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and to withdraw entirely from the Golan Heights); and Peres’s deputy Yossi Beilin was even worse (meaning that he was ready to do all this tomorrow). But Rabin would never cross certain “red lines.”

Then, when Rabin crossed the first of these lines in accepting the PLO as his negotiating partner, R. was sure he would never cross the second; and when he did so in signing the Oslo agreement, R. simply could not believe that he would go on to the third; and when he did so in ignoring Arafat’s violations of the agreement, R. still maintained that he would never go any further; and when he did so in tolerating PLO political activity in Jerusalem and in declaring his willingness to withdraw from the Golan Heights, R. finally gave up. He has not joined the extremists who denounce Rabin as a traitor, but short of that, R. has become the most passionate critic of Rabin I know in Israel.

Having lost his faith in Rabin, R. now relies on reality. That is, instead of insisting at every stage that Rabin will never do whatever Rabin then proceeds to do, he now insists that the peace process will founder on the rock of obstacles in the real world that it keeps ignoring or wishing away. At this moment it is Hebron, which has become the final sticking point in “Oslo 2,” the agreement under which Israeli forces are to withdraw from most of the West Bank. R. is certain that the proposed arrangements for protecting the Jewish settlers in Hebron cannot possibly work even if the Palestinians accept them, which they never will. Commenting on the announcement in the press that Rabin and Peres are planning to visit Hebron this afternoon, he says, “Good, let them go and see for themselves and then they will realize how crazy this arrangement is.” In a gavotte that we have danced so often that the steps have become second nature to us both, I retort that they will see only what they wish to see, and that if the Palestinians persist in refusing to accept their proposals, they will advance other proposals that the Palestinians will be willing to accept. Nothing, I say for the hundredth time, will be permitted to derail this train from the track until it reaches the end of the line.

But what about Jerusalem? Time was when I felt certain that no Israeli government would ever acquiesce in the redivision of Jerusalem, and on this point even R. still has faith in Rabin. It is a highly tremulous faith, to be sure, and it is undermined a little more every day by the government’s de-facto toleration of Palestinian political activity in East Jerusalem—activity which constitutes a violation of the Oslo agreement—while pretending to forbid it.

As for me, I have no faith left to be undermined. At the ceremonies the other night inaugurating a yearlong celebration of the 3000th anniversary of Jerusalem as the Jewish capital, Rabin proclaimed that “undivided Jerusalem is the heart of the Jewish people and the capital of the state of Israel. Undivided Jerusalem is ours. . . . There is no state of Israel without Jerusalem and no peace without Jerusalem undivided.” Instead of bucking me up, these words put a chill in my blood. They were so reminiscent in their firmness and confidence of other declarations he had made in the past that I could not help seeing in them the last of the “red lines” he would eventually cross, all the while pretending (perhaps even to himself) that he was doing no such thing.

The way this trick would be pulled off would be through some form of “shared sovereignty” under which Jerusalem would technically remain a single city. There would be no barriers or barbed-wire fences as in the years between 1948 and 1967, but two different nations would call Jerusalem their capital and two different flags would fly over the two halves of the city. Already, indeed, foreign dignitaries pay official visits to the offices of the Palestinian Authority in East Jerusalem while the countries they represent still refuse to recognize the city as the capital of Israel.

These countries include the United States, whose current President declared during his campaign for office (in words reminiscent of Rabin’s): “I recognize Jerusalem as an undivided city and the eternal capital of Israel.” Yet Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, could not even bring himself to attend the opening ceremonies of Jerusalem 3000. In contrast to the European ambassadors who refused to participate on the ground that these ceremonies were a political event, Indyk claimed that they were a cultural event and therefore sent his cultural attaché to represent him.

This is the same Martin Indyk who, as the head of a think tank in Washington, wrote a paper advocating that the American embassy be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Now, with the tacit approval of the Israeli government—such is the Orwellian world that the peace process has created—he lobbies against this move as harmful to the negotiations, and it is a good bet that he will wind up lobbying for shared sovereignty when it turns out that the Palestinians will accept nothing less. It is an equally good bet, moreover, that Rabin and Peres will go along with an arrangement of this kind rather than derail the policy to which they have committed their political fortunes in the present and their standing in the eyes of Jewish history.

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Thursday, September 7

We take Nani, who has thus far spent more time hanging out with her adoring Israeli cousins than seeing the sights of Jerusalem, to the Western Wall. It is a brilliantly sunny day and so hot that our visit lasts only a short time, but still long enough for me to catch the tail end of a bar mitzvah that has just been conducted here. At first I am surprised to see this happening on a weekday, but then I remember that, since the essence of a bar mitzvah is calling the new adult for the first time to the Torah, the ceremony can be held on any day the Torah scroll is read publicly, which in a normal week means Monday and Thursday as well as Saturday.

This is not the bar mitzvah I have come to Jerusalem for, and ordinarily I might not have paid much attention. But I find myself fascinated by the sight of a family of Oriental Jews who seem so alien to me (on closer inspection they turn out to be immigrants from India) engaged in this totally familiar ritual—a familiarity which includes not only the prayers and procedures of the service but even the custom of women pelting the participants with pieces of candy from behind the barrier that, in accordance with Orthodox practice, separates them from the men.

Only the other day I had described to a delighted Ruthie the wicked fastballs that were hurled from the balcony of the Orthodox synagogue of my own childhood by wild-eyed crones who seized on every bar mitzvah as a wonderful opportunity to engage in a little aggression against the male sex. I had thought this custom was purely East European, but now I discover that Oriental Jews practice it too.

The reason these people seem alien to me is not that they are dark-skinned. It is because they do not conform to the atavistic idea of a Jew that neither age nor experience has succeeded in dislodging from my mind and that catches me unawares at unguarded moments like this. As a child, I had the same trouble with German Jews—people who act like that, and who can’t even speak Yiddish, are Jews?—and because most of the Gentiles with whom I grew up were Italian, for a long time I was simply unable to believe that there could be such a thing as an Italian Jew: the very term was an oxymoron.

Now, to confuse and complicate matters even further, I notice that the rabbi presiding at this bar mitzvah does conform perfectly to the stereotype of which I have never been able to rid myself. Though by all appearances from Morocco, he is dressed in the traditional black garb of an East European Hasid (a clothing style that dates from 18th-century Poland). And not only does he look like my idea of a real Jew, he prays like one, racing at the usual breakneck speed through the blessing he is pronouncing over the head of the barmitzvah boy. (Later, I remark to my wife how interesting it was to discover that Oriental Jews pray just as fast as East Europeans. “Naturally,” she grins. “All Jews do. The services are so long that if they didn’t, they would be at least 500 years behind.”)

And so here I am in front of the Western Wall watching a Moroccan rabbi in the costume of a Polish Hasid speeding through an ancient Hebrew blessing over the head of an Indian bar-mitzvah boy being pelted with candy by women dressed in saris while speaking modern Hebrew—and it is evidently all too much for me. The Jews are too much for me, the mystery and wonder of their ingathering in this country are too much for me, their diversity and their unity as a people are too much for me, and to my amazement, and embarrassment, I feel tears coming to my eyes and spilling over onto my cheeks.

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Friday, September 8

When I see B., another of the handful of Israeli professors who are not on the Left, he wants to know how we American neoconservative intellectuals “did it.” How, that is, did we manage to challenge the hegemony of the Left in the world of ideas and not only survive but prevail? His question is not academic or motivated by historical curiosity. What he is looking for is practical guidance that he hopes he can apply to the situation in Israel.

I tell him that, beginning in the late 60′s, we American refugees from the Left mounted as powerful a critique as we could of the ideas and assumptions in which we had lost faith; simultaneously we developed an alternative perspective that was both internally coherent and in tune with the available evidence. Where foreign policy in particular was concerned, this meant challenging the anti-American notion that the United States and the Soviet Union were morally equivalent and the correlative revisionist view that the cold war could only be settled by a conciliatory accommodation with Moscow.

Obviously, an analogous job needs to be done here, where the leftist interpretation of the Arab war against Israel bears an uncanny resemblance to the leftist interpretation of the cold war that came to prominence in the wake of Vietnam. But I warn him that a campaign against this interpretation, while absolutely necessary, is not sufficient. It will take a major crisis to turn things around. For us in America, it was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 which overnight convinced almost everyone that our analysis of Soviet intentions was right and that the anti-anti-Communists who had been claiming that the USSR was no longer expansionist, if in truth it had ever been, were wrong. If the structure of ideas we had built up over the years had not been in place and readily available for explaining what had just happened much more convincingly than the Left was able to do, Afghanistan might not have had so enormous a political effect. But if Afghanistan, or something like it, had not occurred, we would not have won the political battle even though we had already demolished our opponents in the realm of ideas.

This account only succeeds in deepening B.’s gloom—and mine as well. For without saying another word, we both understand that the only “Afghanistan” that can be expected here is terrorism and war. Which means that a very high price will have to be paid to persuade the shapers of opinion in Israel that Rabin’s “separation” is as much a pipe dream as Peres’s “new Middle East”; that the Palestinians will not settle permanently for a state confined to the West Bank and Gaza; that they, and the Arab world in general, are still intent on eradicating the Jewish state; and that they have changed only in shifting to a different way of pursuing that objective.

In the past they put their faith in direct military assault, but this approach having repeatedly failed, they have at last come around to the strategy of “stages” first proposed many years ago by President Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia. It is a shift that has paid off more handsomely than anyone could have expected. The Palestinians are now well on their way to achieving the first stage: a state of their own on land wrested from the Israelis by political maneuvering (with a little help from the intifada). There are various possibilities for stages two and three, but in the end the idea is to launch the jihad, the holy war against Israel, that even today Arafat (who sings a different tune when he addresses non-Arab audiences) keeps invoking in his speeches to his own people.

He can do this with impunity, knowing that the Israeli and American governments will dismiss such talk as nothing more than a rhetorical bone thrown to the Islamic fundamentalists of Hamas. He also knows that they will forgive him for it, even though it serves to incite the very terrorists he has pledged to control. And he knows that in the last resort the two governments will even try to deny that he makes such speeches. Thus, when a videotape of one of these speeches was shown in Israel recently, Peres immediately declared that the tape was probably a forgery and only backed down when Arafat himself admitted that it was genuine. But this admission cost him nothing, and within a week or so he was back saying the very same things again in another speech in Gaza.

_____________

 

Saturday, September 9

The day of Noam’s bar mitzvah, the day for which we mainly came to Israel, has arrived. At 8 A.M. we amble over to a small Orthodox synagogue in the Baka’a section of Jerusalem where Ruthie and her family live. The bar mitzvah will take place in this synagogue even though the family does not belong to the congregation and is not religiously observant.

Ruthie grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and she often makes mordant jokes about the sociological resemblances between the place from which she fled and the one in which she has landed. Like the Upper West Side of her pre-Israel life, Baka’a is full of writers, artists, academics, and journalists who are successful enough to afford its relatively expensive apartments and who are, if anything, even more solidly left-wing than the people among whom she was born and raised. It was from people like this—or at any rate from their political opinions and attitudes—that Ruthie ran away, only to wind up among them again.

Today, however, you would never take her for a Baka’a woman. In respectful deference to the Orthodox idea of female decorum, she has put on a long skirt, a blouse that covers her arms, and a kerchief around her head. This costume has a transforming effect. Ruthie is a beauty, and no matter what she is wearing she looks much younger than her age. But seeing her in this get-up, you would never believe she is old enough to be the mother of a thirteen-year-old, or that she could be the same person who dispenses sage and witty advice to troubled Israelis every Thursday in her “Dear Ruthie” column in the Jerusalem Post. More likely you would take her for the prettiest girl in a religious settlement on the West Bank.

If Baka’a reminds Ruthie of her childhood in Manhattan, the synagogue in which Noam’s bar mitzvah is being celebrated instantly carries me back to my childhood in Brooklyn. It is smaller than the shul in Brownsville I attended every Saturday more than a half-century ago and where my own bar mitzvah was held, and the women here are segregated behind a barrier rather than in a balcony (the one from which those hard-candy fastballs were hurled). But the atmosphere is eerily reminiscent of that shut. Indeed, the men here are praying—at, I need hardly mention, breakneck speed—in the selfsame inflections that could be heard back there.

This is stranger than it might seem, for they are all Israelis who, when speaking Hebrew in their daily lives, use the standard Sephardi pronunciation. Yet in reciting their prayers, most of them adopt, or revert to, an Ashkenazi accent, the accent of the East European Diaspora. As a result, they sound not like Israelis but exactly like the kind of congregation in Brooklyn of which I was a member in days of yore. Perhaps this is their way of maintaining a distinction between Hebrew as a holy language and Hebrew as a vehicle of secular life. Or perhaps they suspect that there is truth in the joke about God cocking His ear to an earthly congregation praying in Sephardi accents and complaining to the angels—in Yiddish, of course—that He cannot, for the life of Him, make head or tail of what these Jews are trying to tell Him (“Vos far a loshn redn zey dortn?”).

When, however, Noam is called to the Torah—to the accompaniment, I am relieved to see, of the traditional shower of candy from the women’s section—he sounds exactly like the sabra he is. His part is a difficult one even for an Israeli kid, whose native Hebrew bears about as much resemblance to biblical Hebrew as contemporary American English does to Shakespeare. But he chants it flawlessly and with the insouciant confidence that used to be characteristic of the sabra and that now seems to have succumbed, like so much else, to “normalization.”

_____________

 

Noam is the fourth of our ten grandchildren to have gone through this ceremony in less than two years, and it gets me every time. If I was taken aback when I felt tears welling up the other day at the bar mitzvah of the Indian boy at the Wall, I fully expected them to come up on me today, just as they had for Noam’s three cousins before him; and so they do. Never much given to weeping in my younger days, in my incipient dotage I have become something of a blubberer, though for the most part the sappiness is brought out only by my grandchildren. Over any or all of these ten wondrous creatures I can weep at the drop of a hat.

Sometimes I weep with joy and pride and sometimes I weep with worry and anguish. But just now I am weeping with anxiety over the four here in Jerusalem. For all their “normality,” for all their easy commerce with McDonald’s and Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson, they are Israelis and I cannot prevent myself from believing that they are living in a condition of terrible danger. When I told one of my Israeli friends that from the minute I landed here I have been feeling slightly ill, he replied without missing a beat, “Well, of course, this country makes you sick.” He was right; it does. It makes me sick with frustration and apprehension as I watch it careering toward a major disaster that nothing seems able to head off and no one seems able to prevent. And there sit Noam and Alon and Boaz and Avital—Noam who flings himself ardently at me whenever we meet or part; Alon who, over my protests, will press his precious fountain pen upon me tomorrow as a farewell gift; Boaz (“the sweet thug” to his grandparents) who will refuse to say goodbye except by punching me angrily as we leave; and Avital (the imperious little “Queen of Jerusalem”) who addresses and refers to me always, in English, as “Beloved Grandpa.”

Intellectuals would usually rather be right than President—indeed, would rather be right than anything. But not this one, not this time. Weeping silently at the sight of my grandson becoming a full-fledged Jew, I pray to God that I am wildly mistaken in fearing what I fear for him and for ail Israel. As I have done over and over again in the last three years, I find myself, here in this shul in Jerusalem, praying that those who see peace and harmony and prosperity ahead for this country will for once in their political lives turn out to be right, and that those of us cursed with visions of disaster and war will be granted the blessing of an outcome that proves us utterly wrong.

About the Author

Norman Podhoretz has been writing for COMMENTARY for 56 years.




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