Jerusalem: On the night of March 26, when a miracle that was half-expected finally took place and a treaty of peace between the Jewish state and Egypt was signed on the lawn of the White House, the weather in Jerusalem was fierce. The wind howled over the mountaintop, the low thunderclouds sped from west to east, hailstones ricocheted off the empty sidewalks. Though Jerusalem is well-supplied with lunatics, there was not one madman dancing in the street.
The municipality, it is true, organized a celebration in the plaza in front of the Western Wall. Mayor Kollek delivered a speech, and Yehudi Menuhin, his fiddle unstrung by the cold, manfully performed Bach for a few hundred shivering listeners, mostly American tourists, while paratroopers kept an eye out. This official rejoicing only emphasized how measured the jubilation of Jerusalem’s Jewish majority was. Should the miracle turn out to be a passing fantasy, a trick, another joke, perhaps no one in the world will have a more manageable hangover to deal with than this city’s Jews.
It was not the weather alone that kept them at home, and their joy in bounds, even as they sat and watched Sadat, Begin, and Carter put their hands to this fantastic, not-so-amazing document on television. The weather could have been fine, and still there would not have been any party in the street. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, during the five hundred days which elapsed between Sadat’s advent in Israel and the signing, everyone was given a chance to get over his happy astonishment. When Sadat stepped onto the runway at Ben-Gurion airport in November 1977 and proceeded to inspect an Israeli honor guard, you had to blink at the screen—it was like watching the laws of nature in suspension. But the messianic feeling lingered no more than six weeks, that is, until Sadat called his delegation back in January 1978. From then on, the wrestling and hairsplitting over paragraphs and sub-sections, the fight for favor in the White House, the Congress, and the editorial pages of American newspapers, were like the return of old, old themes, vindicating those who had held out against the first rush of happiness, and showing an eventual treaty to be what it is in fact—a human, not a divine, instrument.
Now, one month after the signing, following the observance of a Passover in which the name of Egypt resonated strangely, you may search the streets and alleys in the blinding sunlight without finding anyone who believes the millennium has dawned. Those Jews with strong and definite notions are apt to scoff and warn and prophesy darkly, comparing the priceless airfields and oil deposits and buffer-space of Sinai with the promises of Sadat and Carter, pledges which will soon be exposed as worthless. Wasn’t Israel forcibly persuaded by the U.S. to relinquish the very same territory in 1957, in return for assurances, only to be abandoned by the Americans when Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran? Yes, this treaty means war for sure.
What a hard, suspicious breed, the Jews, and none so tough, so wary—not to say perverse—as those in Jerusalem. “Stony eyes & stony hearts,” Herman Melville noted on his visit to this town. And why not? There is still precious little here to bolster your faith in men, much less in God. And even supposing that peace should actually break out, it may present a threatening aspect when viewed from certain angles. Tourist agencies organizing the first trips to the Pyramids report that they cannot handle the demand. The idea of at last being accepted as a human being in a neighboring country, even if only as a tourist, rather than rejected as a devil, has its powerful attractions for many Jews in Israel, even those in Jerusalem. The Israelis have been cooped up for a generation in a kind of isolation ward, and most will be glad to be able to get out. Most, but by no means all. Orthodox Judaism in its Europeanized variety holds that Jews should dwell apart, and there are, of course, large numbers of Orthodox Ashkenazim in Jerusalem. Moreover, among unbelieving, unobservant Jews, blond and dark alike, you run across the psychic casualties, those souls who are apprehensive of any change, like people ill or imprisoned for so long that they fear getting well or being released.
Overheard at a bus stop: “Yes, now they’ll swallow us, peacefully. Our kids will run off to Egypt and we’ll never see them again.”
Stony hearts, clannishness, morbid fear notwithstanding, you get the impression that more Jewish Jerusalemities cautiously welcome the treaty than vociferously scorn it. This impressionistic sense is supported by the findings of a poll at Passover-time: 86 per cent of the national sample was reported to believe that full peace with Egypt was coming soon, and 75 per cent said that it would last. Not too curiously, several weeks before Carter’s mission to the Middle East in March, roughly the same percentage of Israelis, in another poll, thought that a treaty was not imminent. With Israelis, eternal lively pessimism alternates with bouts of incorrigible hope, and if it is pessimism that generally rules, seldom does it turn to actual despair. In Jerusalem, the percentage of doubters and skeptics in the post-signing poll may well have been above the national average—too bad the figures were not broken down by cities. All-Jewish Tel Aviv, with its beach, is easygoing, compared with Jerusalem. And yet, even in Jerusalem, most people, while they are unsure of what will happen next, while they are positive that there is still much trouble in store, seem to be willing to give the treaty a chance. This time, they seem ready to hope, things will be different.
The majority expresses itself tentatively, indirectly, often with symbols rather than words. You see Egyptian and American flags and framed technicolor likenesses of Jimmy Carter hanging in buses and felafel stands, placed there spontaneously by dark-skinned drivers and proprietors who were either born in the Muslim countries or whose parents originated there, and who as a group have always been known for their rough-and-ready, indeed primitive, nationalism, and their mistrust of the Arabs. But Ashkenazim display such symbols, such talismans, also. Next to the scales at the kosher butcher’s on the corner, you see a photo of Sadat, Carter, and Begin laughing in front of the White House. This butcher is an Orthodox Jew who somehow survived the Germans in Poland. His wife sits next to the window, knitting. They have one son, an adult who must go to the army reserves for forty days each year. When the butcher in his bloody smock is reminded by a customer that he once called Jimmy Carter an anti-Semite, he answers, “Never mind. Carter’s one thing, Begin’s another. The treaty is all right.”
His meaning may be interpreted easily enough. One of the most familiar scenes of Israeli life is of a father reciting Kaddish over his son’s grave, in the military cemetery. The bitterest of Israeli novelists and playrights have intimated that the fathers have reconciled themselves to the fact of this perversion without excessive agonizing—more than that, that they raise sons to sacrifice them, Abraham going through with the sacrifice of Isaac. This terrible accusation is too cruel and sophisticated by half. And if some of the fathers have had their hearts turned to stone over the years, such does not seem to be the case with as many of the mothers, even in Jerusalem. Sadat may have spoken with his customary shrewdness when he said that his very best allies in Israel were the mothers, better allies even than the diplomats and politicians who have always dreamed of a separate peace with Egypt.
All the more reason, therefore, to resist giving in to happiness—high hopes risk more painful disappointment. Furthermore, everyone knows that peace, or absence of war, with Egypt, even if it lasts, does not mean peace with Israel’s other neighbors, not within the next five hundred days at least, and certainly not with the Palestinians. Here is where many of those who cautiously and quietly permit themselves to hope for a good outcome would not be overly surprised if the scoffers, the cynics, the gloomy prophets were proved right. How to solve the everlasting Palestinian problem, short of Xeroxing the country? Begin’s notion of “autonomy” for the West Bank and Gaza is evidently not the same as Sadat’s, or, more important, Carter’s. Autonomy, an idea which Begin himself introduced, signifies something different for everyone. Ironically, it may come to serve as the blueprint for what Begin endlessly declares is the last thing in the world he wants to see—a Palestinian state, more or less governed by the PLO, surrounding Jerusalem on three sides and perhaps even dividing this city again, along a north-south axis bisecting the Temple Mount.
There is something either very grand or very dismaying about how history is working itself out. The conventional wisdom seems indisputable: Gaza will be harder to make a deal for than the Sinai, the West Bank will be many times more difficult than Gaza, and hardest of all will be Jerusalem, for obvious reasons. The fact is, some of the first Arab and Jewish blood of the struggle over Israel/Palestine was spilled at the Western—formerly the Wailing—Wall, and the al-Aqsa mosque right above it on the Temple Mount, in 1920, the weapons then being sticks and daggers. Over the course of fifty-nine years, the tools became more efficient and impersonal, while the contest went through transformations and sent out ripples reaching the ends of the earth. Now that a peaceful solution is said to be absolutely necessary for the security and prosperity of the planet, the terms of the struggle, its red-hot center, are being uncannily narrowed back down to precisely what they were in 1920—which of the two peoples shall rule this country, and who will have dominion over the Holy Places?
High politics, the operations of universal history, are naturally not the constant concerns of most of the people who find themselves living in Jerusalem, neither the Jews nor the Arabs. Most of them, most of the time, awake or dreaming, try hard and successfully to be absorbed in mundane matters. These can be tough enough to live with—for example, inflation here has converted the currency into wastepaper. Worthless as the money is, people seem to have loads of it, and spend it freely—the little boutiques along both the Jewish and Arab shopping thoroughfares are thronged, and some of the stony-eyed daughters of Jerusalem, as in biblical times, make a nice spectacle of themselves. And yet, the pressure of unfolding history is felt, of course it is felt, in waking nightmares, in the wary glance at the unexplained parcel. The occasional nightmare of many Jewish and perhaps more than a few Arab Jerusalemites is that autonomy will mean Belfast. There are psychopaths on both sides who would not be sorry to have it so.
On the night of March 26, the Palestinians in the eastern section of the city also stayed home, signifying that this date is to be marked as one more black day on their calendars. You saw police vans and troops heading into the Arab neighborhoods to forestall demonstrations, and there were no demonstrations. But at almost exactly the moment when Sadat, Carter, and Begin put their signatures to the paper seven thousand miles away, a bomb exploded. Minutes later came another sound that has become and most probably will remain for some time to come typical of Jerusalem: the wail of racing ambulances, counterpoint to the peace process.