|sky. 7/24/14. tel aviv|
I was having breakfast with two friends in a restaurant across from Tel Aviv City Hall, Rabin Square and the memorial site commemorating and mourning his assassination a Jewish rightist in 1995. Five loud booms. The building shook. The moment passed, the cell networks briefly jammed with people checking in (a text from my daughter, 20 kilometers away, "I heard that, Dad. You okay?") Nearly twenty years ago the Prime Minister was killed by a fellow Israeli in order to prevent Rabin from making peace with Palestinians. Such were the tragic and heroic risks that that leader was willing to take--a narrative sometimes lost these days in the debased rhetorical discourse about the Israeli and Palestinian future. People decry the lack of true leadership; the endless expressions of hate; the delusional utopias of a world without Jews or a world without Palestinians; and then there's the perpetual misunderstanding by many of Israel's critics about how hardened the center of the country became after a decade of terror in the 1900s and 2000s.
There are those who might read this and say, "You see, Rabin was right. Had we made peace then we'd be well on our way to forging a lasting coexistence today." And there are others, often the louder voice in the public square these days, who say, "You see, Rabin was wrong. Delusional leftists. The death of Jews is all the Palestinians will ever seek."
There is a range of views that are easily discerned: a fatalistic hopelessness; mourning over loss of innocent life, both Jewish and Palestinian; a deep, burning cynicism; a lack of faith in leadership. There is also steely resolve, faith in the broader arcs of history, unified admiration for soldiers willing to crawl into holes to root out terror. (I learned last night that a young man I taught some summers ago lost an eye in battle this week. I hope to visit him and other injured soldiers on Friday. The nation, as is often said, forges ahead.)
A range of views and everything in between. It's never been more important to listen than it is now.
Last night in a store on Ibn Gevirol, piqued by European and American airline's refusal to fly to Israel, I bought wine from the Negev. "Israeli wines, eh?" said the owner. "I'm patriotic, what can I say?" was my reply. We had been talking about the F.A.A.'s decision to cancel flights to and from Israel; about proportionality of bombing between Gaza and Israel; about the general mood of the country. "Thanks for coming to Israel during this time," he said, turning serious for a moment. Another shopper, listening in to our somber exchange, chimed in: "All the best and fuck the rest."
So it goes.
Before the F.A.A. ban, now lifted, mine was among the last planes into Israel for 36 hours. I went through passport control with a few dozen Israelis, religiously observant American Jews, and several dozen Vietnamese on tour. My pal Noah picked me up, we drove into Tel Aviv, dropped bags at his place, and went out for breakfast with his family. Half-way through the sirens sounded and into the cafe stairwell we went. "Normalization is over," my friend said.
The notion that one can "pretend" that the conflict is "over there" while Israelis live there normal lives "over here" has been pierced yet again by war, by rockets, by a feeling of isolation from the rest of the world. Even though there are obvious and necessary military responses to the current engagement--destroying rocket batteries and tunnels, hunting down terrorists--there is unquestionably the broader truth: while there are military responses there are ultimately only political solutions.
Buying groceries last night we walked past the Bereaved Families group in one public park. Their signs read, זה לא יגמר עד שנדבר or "This Won't End Until We Talk." A small group sat in a circle. A bereaved mother held a microphone and talked about talking, turning over again the grieving soul's hardened earth, cultivating new life.
There's an eery quiet to the city, the tourism industry and economy hurt by the diminished travel here due to war and the vulnerability of so many population centers to rocket attacks.
An eery quiet, perhaps but the public debate is fierce and intense--far more diverse than what we tolerate in the Jewish community in the United States--though what is on the mind of many whom I have encountered here is the increased debasement of public discourse, the shaming and occasional physical attacks on left-wing activists and peaceniks, and the fearful splintering of the society by deeply held racist views. Without question, the Left here feels under attack. Terms like "fascism," "totalitarianism," and "racism" are used more than I've ever heard in my thirty years of annual visits and though obviously troubling, everyone is talking about it, bearing their own witness to the soundness (or lack thereof) of their historical claims. On my morning run Wednesday, I heard it being spoken about on the radio, among mothers on a park bench, among pensioners having their morning coffee and smoke, and around the breakfast table, over headlines, with my friends.
Israeli government officials like Naftali Bennett taunts the Left by saying it will never rule Israel again. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman calls for a boycott of Arab Israeli citizens' businesses. Right wing hoodlums attack those calling for peace and the police don't intervene, as happened last week in Tel Aviv. The extremist Rabbi of Kiryat Arba, Dov Lior, in a bastardized reading of sacred texts, says that Jewish law permits the extermination of the enemy. We're often our own worst enemy.
Never missing an opportunity to give ourselves a black eye, there is running parallel to such mendacity the stunning eagerness of others to blame Jews exclusively and Jews everywhere for this current war. As Jeffrey Goldberg has pointed out, more people died in Syria this past weekend than have died in this current conflict in Israel thus far, but it didn't bear getting mentioned by the paper of record. Riots against Jews in Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere get ignored by the very same governments and activists that decry Israeli actions as akin to Nazis. Two hundred thousand dead in the Syrian civil war; ISIS cutting off heads and hands in their new, orderly public squares; mass rape and executions in Nigeria; but Google terms like "Holocaust" and "worse than Nazis" and see where it gets you. Italian philosophers, the Turkish Prime Minister, Israel's critics on list serves. The crude flags of rhetoric wave with cheap historic understanding of what Fascism, Nazism and Genocide really look like. And like over-fed gluttons of hate at an All-You-Can-Eat Holocaust Buffett, today's anti-Semites are quite sated, aren't they, taking bites from the moldy bread of this twisted reasoning?
They say it doesn't rain in Israel but this summer it does. It rains rockets on civilian populations. It rains justified destruction on rockets and launchers (even where they are amorally and strategically hidden) and as we have seen, tragically--TRAGICALLY--on innocent lives in Gaza. It rains sadness and grief and anger at the funerals of guiltless children and women and men who have committed no crime but being in the way of hatred and stubbornness and yes, even justified self-defense. It rains steely pride for soldiers who die in battle, to protect their homes and their families. It rains truth and lies, words and image. And image and image and image.
The preponderance of the image will come to be one of the defining characteristics of this nasty war. The Facebook and Twitter advantage. Your people and mine. In fear and in death. And the sick, unavoidable truth that deep in the bowels of the algorithm machinery of these communications networks is the idolatrous god of advertising revenue, clicking away, profitably, yet again, at the commerce of death. But like that other tool, Snapchat, the images of this war--some real, some photo-shopped--will recede into the delete bin, another reminder that even with the most up-to-the-minute technology, certain problems will only be resolved by people making up their minds to solve them.
Listen, I'm not fooling myself for a minute. A few puffs of smoke above my head courtesy of the Iron Dome is a great advantage. The horrifying suffering of human life in Gaza must end. But it will only end when each side faces its most grim realities. Here in Tel Aviv, I see that taking place. I see Israelis talking and arguing and struggling mightily with what the right way forward ought to be. I'm grateful to see some occasional reporting about Palestinians' internal debates as well.
And the world should make no mistake about the sense of resolve. I can't speak for Palestinian resolve and I shouldn't. But what I see here--even among those who disagree on the political way forward, is an intense unity for the work the soldiers are doing to address the Gaza tunnels. As has been revealed by the exposure of the Gaza tunnels, to news of potentially massive terror attacks that seem to have been clearly planned by Hamas and are now being confronted head on by soldiers and reserves who have sacrificed their own lives through service in an atmosphere of intense international criticism, some valid, most unwarranted and even hypocritical. I learned last night that a young man I taught some summers ago lost an eye in battle this week. I hope to visit him and other injured soldiers on Friday. The nation, as is often said, forges ahead.
And I write this only a few steps from the ground upon which Yitzhak Rabin gave his life for peace, killed by a fellow Jew who felt his actions were traitorous, an assassin who based his ideas on the corrupt teachings of rabbis who said such a murder was not only permissible but necessary.
A decade of terror. A hardening of positions. "All the best and fuck the rest." A dangerous fatalism that will bring nothing but more suffering.
Tuesday night I went to Rabin Square to observe an artists' demonstration for peace. Frankly, it wasn't very impressive. But afterward, as people milled about and as the police slowly receded, there were two large circles of Israelis talking to each other. In each was an older person, carefully and assiduously arguing points of history. Dates and events, like petals drifting downward, floated in the evening sky. The 19th century, the Zionist Congress, World War One, the British Mandate, Sykes-Picot, Peel Commission, Partition, 48, Nakba, 67, Occupation, Lebanon, Oslo, Rabin, Camp David, and now this.
The young rightists were agitated. The older citizens were teaching. There was dialogue and fierce debate. And the only images were words; or if you closed your ears, of people talking, about politics and history, war and peace, and life and death.
In Zofia Romanowiczowa's exquisitely disturbing novel Passage Through the Red Sea, the author struggles mightily with the ways in which the narratives of the past, like idols or hardened pillars of salt, can blind and overwhelm us, preventing us from discerning life's irreducible truths. Romanowiczowa, a Polish Catholic who resisted the Nazis in the Radom Ghetto and then was arrested and imprisoned in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, wrote of the strange paradox that "death, the fear of which subjects us to each other, at the same time frees us from each other."
I read that line in a library in Tel Aviv, moments after time in a bomb shelter, phone buzzing with updates from the war a few kilometers away.
And so how can I not wonder--how can any of us not wonder--how much more death there needs to be in order to free us, at the very least, from the death we hope for or bring to each other? How much more death do we need in order to eradicate the very death we know or imagine the other seeks? We subject each other to death out of fear. When will we have experienced enough to free us from each other's fear of and subjugation to death?
"This won't end until we talk."
And choose life.
Outside my window here in the Tel Aviv Public Library, a full and hearty ficus tree bakes beneath the late afternoon sun and gently breathes in the sea's tidal shifts. Above that tree there ought only to be a pair of clouds in the sky, gathering slowly, conspiratorially even, for days and weeks and months until the rainy season begins. Clouds from Gaza and clouds from Tel Aviv. One by one, drop by drop becoming many, overcoming the scars of hatred, war and death, to make rain.
Isn't this what every parent hopes for when they bring a child into the world?
What did Yehuda Amichai say?
"That's not a scar you feel under my shirt, that's a letter of recommendation, folded up tight, from my father. 'All the same he's a good boy and full of love.' "
Not a scar but recommended love.