23 July 2011

A Higher World

solomon ibn gabirol
As a kind of meditation last night, I walked to meet some friends for dinner at a restaurant near the center of town, using the walk as an opportunity to think about the people for whom streets were named as the point of departure for my thoughts the entire way.

I was heading to an address on Keren Kayemet L'Yisrael--a street named for the Jewish National Fund, one of the major philanthropic vehicles for the Jewish people to raise money for the purchase of lands in the early days of Zionist movement--a kind of fitting destination for a route that would be comprised solely of streets named for people who, to one degree or another, represented the aspirations toward the realization of this idea.

I started where all good American bourgeois visiting Israel start--Emek Refaim Street (translation:  the Valley of Ghosts or Giants).  Its Biblical associations are with early beliefs that Jebusite ghosts may have begun their journey to the underworld in the valley at the head of Emek Refaim; other sources suggest that prior to the conquest of the land in Deuteronomy, the enemies were seen as "giants" and here, classical Jewish sources generally translate it.  I mused briefly on this tension while walking--the giants of Zionism and the ghosts of Zionism; and the relationship, inescapable, between a conquered and conquered people.  To be sure, street names here have more than once changed their names depending upon who was ruling in the land.

My first turn off Emek Refaim was onto Graetz, named for Heinrich Graetz, one of the giants of German Jewry, whose multi-volume History of the Jews set a standard for understanding Jewish history--"suffering and spirit"--until it would later be superseded by other historians in other generations.  Unique among the early modern Jewish historians, Graetz showed interest in traveling to the Land of Israel for his investigations and agitating against certain assimilationist conventions in Germany.   A quick jog past Dubnov, named for the Russian historian whose Bundist idea--"Autonomism"--was a vision for Jewish autonomy in the Diaspora, represented his ambivalence toward Zionism but his strong views against assimilation.

Through one of my favorite parks in Jerusalem along (Leon) Pinsker Street, son of a Hebrew writer, physician and activist, and founder of Hovevei Zion, a proto-Zionist movement to establish a greater Jewish presence in the land of Israel following a wave of Russian pogroms.  Said Pinsker, "... to the living the Jew is a corpse, to the native a foreigner, to the homesteader a vagrant, to the proprietary a beggar, to the poor an exploiter and a millionaire, to the patriot a man without a country, for all a hated rival."  Valley of Ghosts indeed!  With the philanthropic aid of Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, Pinsker's "Auto-Emancipation" was critical to the development of early Zionism.  Past Alkalai, who, preceding Rabbi Abraham Kook, believed that in order for the messiah to come, the Jewish people must precede the messiah by physically returning to the Land, not waiting for his arrival; and then past (Laurence) Oliphant, named for the Scotch/English early Christian Zionist.

Off Pinsker, I got to David Marcus, named for the Brooklyn native who served in Pearl Harbor, was in the D-Day invasion, and was part of the occupying force in Berlin after the war, and eventually, under a pseudonym, joined the Israelis in the War of Independence, becoming the new state's "first general" and tragically, falling under friendly fire during the closing days of the war in Abu Ghosh. 

Across Jabotinsky, the Zionist Revisionist, territorial maximalist, passionate defender of the Jewish people at all costs and a critic of the incrementalism of mainstream Zionist leadership, Jabo was in some ways the secular ideological father of the Settler movement.

On to Balfour, named for the British Foreign Secretary, whose famous declaration to Baron Rothschild, gave the first true British Imperial recognition of a Jewish national home in the land of Israel.  "His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

A quick left on to Ovadia Me'Bartenura, named for the Italian Talmud scholar whose 15th century migration to Jerusalem was critical for the intellectual support and charitable development of the Jewish community there, and then on to Arlozoroff, a Zionist leader in British Mandate Palestine, who headed the Jewish Agency's political division and died by an assassin's bullet on the beach in Tel Aviv in 1933, with theories ranging from his murderers being connected to the Revisionists, Arabs, or Nazis (Arlozoroff had traveled to Germany to negotiate with Nazis and attempt to secure the transfer of Jews from Germany in the controversial Ha'avara agreement.)  To this day, his murder remains a mystery.

The last leg of the journey was walking along Ibn Gevirol, the 11th century Jewish Spanish Neo-Platonist who wrote philosophy in Arabic and wrote poetry in Hebrew, some of which remains in the Jewish prayerbook.  I had finally arrived at my destination.

Among his many writings, Ibn Gevirol wrote, "Knowledge indeed leads to deeds, and deeds separate the soul from the contraries which harm it…In every way, knowledge and deeds liberate the soul from the captivity of nature and purge it of its darkness and obscurity, and in this way the soul returns to its higher world."

Though Shabbat had ended and the streets had darkened, and I had begun my journey in the Valley of Ghosts, I paused to contemplate the higher world of history I had just walked.

1 comment:

JK said...

What a great walk. Maybe exactly what you needed after three weeks of experiencing Israel in the now. Thanks for sharing it. Today's leaders of Israel could learn much from these great leaders and thinkers. So similar to what has happened in American politics. As the thread of democracy - a pride in our political system, our freedoms and liberties - that sustained the US for 200 years has unraveled, so has the chain of Zionist thought - a unifying love and thirst for a Jewish state - been broken.