Looking at a Family Photo

IMG-20180705-WA0002From right to left: My Uncle Jim, my Uncle Norm, and my mother Rena

It is always risky interpreting a photo from about a hundred years ago: customs have altered enormously since then, and these children of immigrants did not know they were standing on the threshold of a world that would utterly change.

My sister has commented that no one smiles, and that’s true. But, as we know from other photos, at the time, it was not necessarily expected that one would smile. These children had not yet been indoctrinated into the American grin. In addition, the session was not really for them although it was about them. They were there to be shown to others or displayed in picture frames; it was their parents’ wish not theirs, and the wish was no doubt accompanied by exhortations regarding proper behavior, intense combings of hair; lots of “don’ts” and little and probably no praise.

Nevertheless, the photo seems to me to be surprisingly revealing. On the right, stands my Uncle Jim, clear-headed even at that young age and clearly the older brother. Jim was bright, a sharp student, probably the best or nearly the best in his class – and his gaze seems to combine all those traits: level-headedness, intelligence, and responsibility. He is the only one really who is not oppressed by the scene.

My Uncle Norm to his right surprised me. I had always imagined him as the rambunctious one, the kid who hopped on the back of buses in the Bronx. Here, he looks like someone who has been given a good thrashing— I had never considered his father’s response to his behavior. Like my mother, his mother probably often disciplined all her children with a slap on the wrist, and I can well imagine my grandfather, whom I loved very much, taking revenge on the umbrage caused him by his unruly child. A rod? A stick? A hand? I don’t know. But it gives me insight as to why my mother, who adored Norm, could not really tolerate her father.

And then there is my mother. How sad she looks! It almost breaks my heart on looking at her. Her sadness is the greatest surprise of all. And that, too, gives me a clue as to how fragile her sense of self really was, how much, like her own mother, it had to be reinforced by domination and quirkiness and the longing to and the inability to express love.

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Fictions — Ficciones

I have been thinking lately of the fictions people tell themselves. The trigger was a series of discussions with religious students in Israel when they related to me historical fictions they firmly believed in as fact, and I realized that all religions (except perhaps Buddhism) begin with a fictitious event, a myth, extrapolated from history, and this, paradoxically, is what gives the religion its drawing power because the event, never verifiable, can only be accepted and understood in a leap of faith.

I’m thinking of this also in regard to Trump and his rather infamous litany of lies and falsehoods, his fictions as it were, and his loyal supporters, for it strikes me that they are believers, and therefore, it is pointless to rail at his countless exaggerations and downright lies, for faith has no truck for rational proof.

I also wanted to write about the Palestinian national identity, although some might take umbrage at an Israeli writing about the subject. There were national movements in Palestine but until 1920 when the French defeated Syrian forces and entered Damascus, the Arab nationals regarded Palestine as part of a greater Syria. The creation of the French mandates in Lebanon and in Syria and the creation of the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan necessitated restricting the nationalist goals to the British mandate in Palestine.

And it was not clear what those goals actually were. For the Mufti, Amin el-Husseini, the envisioned entity (ruled by him) was a religious, Muslim nation, and, if he could have wrested part of Syria and Lebanon, he would have. He was essentially fighting for pre-WWI ideas when the greater Arab-Syria had still seemed a reality, and his antipathy toward Zionism remained a constant.

In the thirties, George Antonius, a Christian, wrote the superb history of the Arab nationalist movements, entitled The Arab Awakening. He, too, rejected any compromise with Zionism, as he regarded the European newcomers as impinging on the rightful claims of the indigenous Arabs. But that is not the issue here. The question is who, after all, regarded himself as a Palestinian?

We can never really know. Did Antonius? Or did he rather view himself within the Arab culture of which he and others like him in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon were a part, in which the only disturbance was the settlement of non-Arabic speaking Jews? The Arab Higher Committee, which rejected Jewish settlement, met with British and international committees three times, but it essentially represented the Mufti.

Noticeably, the war for Israeli independence was not fought by locals for the most part but by troops from the neighboring Arab countries and volunteers from all over. The Arab Legion from Jordan also fought. The local middle class fled. To get support from the nearby fellahin in his attacks on the supply trucks on the road to Jerusalem, Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini promised them the spoils of every raid.  This is not to say there weren’t locals who fought — there were, but I doubt they fought for Palestine. They fought to rid the land of the foreigner.

It was the loss of Palestine that created a national identity for most Palestinians who, previously, had divided their loyalties among clan, village, religion, and vague national identities. It was furthered by those who remained in exile and were treated as unwanted by neighboring Arab countries. When Palestinians talk about themselves, they invariably see themselves as hapless victims of Israel as if they were not in any way responsible for their situation. In addition, the Palestinian identity is bound to a longing for a land that no longer exists, for that illusive olive tree and magical bustan (a garden with fruit trees, typically, lemon and pomegranate trees and a grape vine). It’s not just that the UNWRA has fostered this longing in the camps but that this longing is the essence of the Palestinian identity. It would be hard to claim that it has been translated into anything constructive. And because it is inevitably bound to the Nakba (the loss of Palestine, again, for which the Palestinians are not responsible), it also ineluctably takes on hatred for Jews and a desire for revenge.

The creation of a national identity in the struggle against a colonialist power is in no way exceptional. What was unique was both that a general recognition of a national identity rose out of defeat and the struggle afterward took the form of terrorist activity. The Jews also engaged in terrorism, especially against the British (but against Arabs as well), but its main struggle was led by other means.

This is not to deny the Palestinian claims for self-determination. That is another matter entirely. In the 1950s, when the great European powers abandoned their colonies, numerous states based on the principle of self-determination were created with no clearly adhesive national identity. To Palestinians, the Jews, too, were colonialists, and they often refer to the Balfour declaration, that pact between England and Zionists, as the origin of their downfall. What they were incapable of realizing was that the Jews already had a national identity; their settlement in Palestine was a realization of that identity, and therefore, they never regarded themselves as colonialists. They hadn’t come to conquer or convert; they had come to reclaim. However, to foster their own success, the Jews behaved like colonialists. They promoted a Jewish not Arab work force, lived in separate communities, which had better facilities than their Arab counterparts ; they regarded themselves as Western unlike the Arabs, and in no way attempted to integrate into Arab society or have Arabs integrate into theirs.

 

Bits and Pieces

I had originally planned on writing about Haj Amin el-Husseini’s legacy, but, after wandering about Wikipedia for a while, I realized that the historical facts would be too confusing to narrate and I’d probably lose my way.

So I thought instead I would not try this time to tell a story.

An Arab Israeli friend came to visit, and although we generally avoided politics, at one point he stated that when looking around — at Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan — he was glad he lived in Israel. He was a Muslim who lived in an apartment building where everyone else was Jewish, and he knew that in every other regime, he would not have the same freedoms as in Israel.

He reminded me of a gay Moroccan I once met who had accidentally arrived in Israel (a long story), who brought his former employer to court for not paying him the salary he was due. When I exclaimed at what seemed the near preposterousness of his action, since he was neither Israeli nor Jewish, he retorted, “This is a country of law, not like Morocco.”

And to my friend that evening, I spoke about the devastating effect of families and clans on Arab society. Several years ago, I was a guest in Bethlehem of someone who turned out to be a high-ranking official in Fatah. Over dinner, he told me several stories that in retrospect he may have wished he had not related. As we looked out at the street, he pointed out that whether one got a ticket from a policeman for parking illegally (or parking at all) depended on which family you belonged to. In addition, in the offices in Hebron of the Palestinian agency corresponding to the Israeli Mossad, there was an officer responsible for gathering information. But that town was also controlled by a family to which the officer did not belong. As a result, no information reached him. In the end, the PLO had to replace him with someone else, who was a member of the family, was not an officer, and hadn’t the same experience or knowledge.

My Bethlehem friend estimated that the problem of the clans would take a hundred years to change. 

That afternoon at home, I spoke about Haneen Zoabi, an Arab member of the Knesset, who, to the best of my knowledge, has never done anything benefiting Arabs in Israel; and, in fact, has done more harm than good, since her obstreperous support of the Palestinian cause only convinces Jews that Arabs are essentially set on undermining the state. It’s well-known (to those who care) that Israeli Arabs are mostly interested in integrating themselves into society and improving their economic lot and their security (the absence of a functioning police force in Arab communities is a serious problem). But Zoabi will have none of this. Her self interest and demagoguery about Palestinians are all that matter. So how was she elected? Simple. She belongs to the largest clan in Nazareth, one, by the way–for those who often beweep the thousand-year presence of Palestinians in Palestine–that originated in Iraq.

In response, my son Yochai would no doubt say that Arabs are tribal, and although it’s somewhat of a catchall phrase he uses for non-Western societies, in this case, it is true. Unfortunately, his conclusion that, therefore, there is no Palestinian identity is false. One can ask, for example, whether, in a no less tribal society such as Kenya or Ghana, there is no Kenyan or Ghanaian identity, and whether the tribal nature of a country, while it no doubt hinders the successful running of the country, makes its existence illegitimate.

Yochai often says Palestinian nationality is a European creation, but, although there may be some truth in this, his statement ignores history. After the creation of French Syria and Lebanon, the local Arab intellectuals and the Mufti began referring to a Palestinian entity not as part of Syria. The major events, however, that created a Palestinian identity were what Palestinians call the “Nakba,” the victory of Israel in the war of independence and the expulsion of Palestinians (most of whom fled) , and the creation of a Palestinian diaspora. As David Hume (I believe) commented, one’s nationality is only meaningful when one is in a foreign country. The Palestinians who did not stay in refugee camps dispersed to Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, and eventually to Europe and the states. They, naturally, are the most patriotic of Palestinians because they have carried their identity like a wound and because they are the freest of clan loyalties.

When I used the Hebrew word for the Occupied Territories, “hashetachim hakvushim” (literally, the “conquered” or “captured” territories), a friend exclaimed that they couldn’t be “kvushim,” because we were attacked. It took me days before I realized this was a non sequitur. Was she implying that it was given to us on a silver platter and therefore not captured? Or rather, because we captured the area in self-defense, we could not occupy it? Neither made sense. Both are silly claims. But one thing I’ve discovered in my life is the profound power of outrageous, silly claims.

Jesus and the Pharisees

When you’re young in America and inquisitive, and you read the four Gospels, you encounter the Pharisees as the bad guys. As I grew older and learned more about my own religion, about which, like most Jews of my generation, I knew little, something about the antagonism between Jesus and the awful Pharisaic rabbis seemed wrong and damned problematic—modern Judaism in all its forms, from the most orthodox to the most reform, is, after all, derived from those Pharisees.

Historians today regard the blame placed at the foot of the Pharisees, those horrible rabbis from Jerusalem who were sticklers for every rule, as having been misplaced. At the time of Jesus, there were two ‘warring’ camps among the rabbis: the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Not much is known about the Sadducees, except that they opposed flexibility in the law and represented the wealthy Temple strata, the priests and the Levites. It was most likely the Sadducees who hassled Jesus and his followers not the Pharisees. But by the time the Gospels were compiled, there were no more Sadducees. The Temple had been destroyed and with it the seat of their power. Since only the Pharisees remained, the authors of the Gospels mistakenly confused the one with the other and blamed the Pharisees for the faults of their opponents.

This is not a minor point. Not only because it misrepresented Judaism but also because it misrepresented Jesus. Jesus, in many respects, is the epitome of the Pharisaic tradition.

Although for anyone familiar with the rabbinic tradition in the period of the Second Temple, this interpretation ought to be obvious, it’s also radically threatening in many ways, both for religious Jews and Christians: religious Jews because they believe in miracles and a Messiah and therefore must find excuses for Jesus’ marvels and for Christians who were raised on the erroneous belief that Judaism believes in a God of law whereas Jesus introduced love. Law, as Jesus well knew, does not preclude love, for the law is given by a God who is full of mercy and compassion. It is not actually regarding love that Jesus varies in his teachings from the Pharisaic tradition. 

Those differences between his teachings and the main Pharisaic tradition offer perspectives with which to understand him, not certainly as the son of God but as a human being. Above all, he was a man of the Galilee. This is not as obvious as it sounds. The Galilee was an area of farmers and, as we know from the New Testament, fishermen. And because many were farmers, their halacha (system of laws) was often more lenient than that of Jerusalem: it was permissible, for instance, to eat chicken with milk in the Galilee. 

The distance between the Galilee and Jerusalem therefore wasn’t just physical. Jerusalem was urban; the Galilee wasn’t. Jerusalem was the seat of power and of wealth; the Galilee was the periphery. The priestly caste, the Sadducees, emphasized obedience to a strict law, whereas the law in the Galilee was kinder. And perhaps, above all, the people of the Galilee labored for what wealth they achieved, whereas the priests and Levites grew rich from ceremony. The people of the Galilee were, in a phrase that was likely Jesus’ own invention, “the salt of the earth.” Their value was intrinsic and not dependent on coin. Jesus’ antipathy to money may be his most salient characteristic (and one Christianity has been loath to follow). It finds its most egregious expression perhaps when he drives the money-changers from the Temple. This was not just an expression of loathing for money but a protest against the nature of the Temple as an institution and the parasitic nature of the priesthood. The money-changers were essential for the functioning of the Temple. They accepted donations from Jews from around the world and converted the different forms of money into a common coin.

In Jesus’ day, Judea was a society stratified by blood ties. The priests (Cohanim), who were quite wealthy, lived in splendid apartments near the Temple mount (the ruins can be visited today). Under them were the Levites, the Temple assistants, who were also well-off, living, like the priests, off charity. At the bottom were the Israelites—everybody else. In one of his most famous parables, that of the Good Samaritan, Jesus expresses his disdain for the artificial divisions of Jewish society, made permanent by Jewish law (to this day, my son-in-law, who is a Cohen, will not enter a cemetery). The priest and Levite do not approach the ill man for fear of defilement. Only the Samaritan in the final text in the New Testament, but most likely an Israelite in the original, hasn’t the fear of defilement—he is the only one capable of regarding the man as a human being and not as a religious object.

I think Jesus wanted to do away with the class divisions as understood in his day. In his eyes, all of Israel were a priestly nation to be ushered into God’s kingdom. That is his radical vision—not political in the sense of a rebellion against Rome. Rome did not interest him—“Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”—but God did. He did not emulate the pragmatism of the Pharisees. His vision had the sharp clarity of the ideal.

 

Where the Birds No Longer Sing

Where the Birds No Longer Sing, A True Story of the 92nd Signal Battalion and the Liberation of Dachau by Jack Sacco

I was watching Band of Brothers (at last) when Kindle offered this book on sale, and, after reading the glowing reviews, I tossed in my two dollars and took the risk. Where the Birds No Longer Sing is a gem. It tells the story of Joe Sacco, an young Italian Catholic farm boy who had never left his home in Alabama, an American hick in many respects, who fights in the 92nd Signal Battalion in WWII and eventually is among the liberators of the Dachau Concentration Camp.

Joe’s son Jack, who states that the spur for writing the book was the collection of photographs his father took at Dachau, wrote the book. To put it together from enlistment to the end of the war, the interviewed many of his father’s companions in the battalion. If there is one fault in the book, it is that it is told in the first person, as if Joe and not his son is the narrator. But that is a minor complaint. The narrative rings true throughout, and Sacco has a remarkable ear for capturing the banter of young male soldiers.

In a way, he was lucky–his father seems to have been a very decent man, the kind of soldier well-liked by many and trusted perhaps by all. The sole Jew asks him to keep the jewelry he has especially made for his fiancee in case he should die, and the scruffy member with a criminal past confesses to him that he is illiterate and asks him to read his wife’s letters to him.

This is a saga, not noble in language, but one that takes the reader first to Georgia and then Ireland, from there to England, Normandy, across France, into Germany, stops devastatingly at Dachau and continues to liberation in Austria. There is much, much sadness. And quite a lot of humor. And prejudice, as well.

I doubt anyone can read the description of their encounter with Dachau without being brought to tears.

A memorable book. As I wrote in the beginning, a gem.

My Journey to Bethlehem

Several years ago, I began one of my strangest trips. I started out in Pardes Hannah, my home town, about a ten minutes’ drive from the Mediterranean, and I completed my three-hour journey in Bethlehem, a town off-limits to Israelis, since, for our own safety, it’s illegal for us to enter Bethlehem. I began on the No. 70 bus in an Israeli bus line owned by an Arab family from Nazareth, and, as is typical where I live, the driver was Arab and the passengers both Jewish and Arab.

In Binyamina, I alighted to catch the train south to Tel Aviv. It was during the celebration of Eid al-Adha, a four-day holiday and the time of the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, among Muslims. In front of me on the train south to Tel Aviv sat two Arab couples and their children, the women with heads uncovered, the men in Levis. At one point, one of the women sat her children together on a seat and moved opposite them to be next to her husband who embraced her warmly. Public demonstrations of affection among Muslim Arab couples is extremely rare; this was a sign of a Westernized, Israeli Arab; or as an academic friend told me recently, an acquaintance of his on visiting an Arab near Jerusalem had been told that Israeli Arabs are no longer Arabs. On the other side of the aisle, the other husband chatted in Hebrew on his cell phone.

In Tel Aviv, with my dog Lady on a leash, I left the train station to the grimy, rundown Levinski Street and walked into the mammoth central bus terminal, where I entered a row of open shops under bright neon lights. An Arab woman turned in horror when she noticed my small dog scampering in her direction, and the shopkeepers, all of whom were paunchy Jews, stood idly in front of their open stores that sold cheap wares. I followed the signs—everything is ugly in the central bus station—up the escalators to the sixth floor and the Egged[1] buses.

The ride east to Jerusalem took under an hour. From there I took a bus in the direction of Kiryat Arba, southwest of Jerusalem. I would get off at the Etzion intersection. I was going into the heart of the occupied territories into an area on principle I refused to enter. But I had a meeting with an acquaintance in Bethlehem, and the only way it could be arranged was to throw my political convictions to the wind.

The following morning, on my return trip, I would discover that I was no longer on an Egged bus, but on a small, private line, owned by the religious Jews of Gush Emmunim.[2]

I exited the bus at a large intersection and walked up the hill past a gasoline station and into the parking lot of one of Israel’s major shopping chains, Rami Levi, where my friend was waiting for me in his dark-green Mazda sedan. He set the car in motion, and I was on my way to Bethlehem. I expected to be stopped at a military barricade. I expected to encounter Israeli soldiers, but there were none. We continued straight on the main road, turned right and then immediately left, and suddenly, as we descended a steep hill, all the signs were in Arabic. We were in Palestine.

We continued on the same road all the way into Bethlehem. We hadn’t gone far when Nadeem[3] informed me that we were passing the Daheishe camp, and that many of the residents had now built homes. Had he also been in a camp? Yes, he had. Many years ago. His family now lived in Hebron, which he pronounced hee-brn, and which, initially, I mistook for the word Hebrew although I knew it could not be. And because I was confused, I asked where his family is from. “From Fallujah. You know Fallujah?”[4]

“No. Where was it?” He didn’t answer. I never quite knew how much of my English he understood. His English was execrable even though he had had an American partner, who had lived with him in his Bethlehem apartment for two years.

And then, we were in Bethlehem. It was extraordinarily moving for me. I had not been to Bethlehem since 1969, and it remains in my mind a special place in the way Jerusalem is special and always will be. I was exhilarated by the idea not just that I was entering a place whose name had become mythic but because I had come the back way, like a mouse finding a passageway to a palace of cheeses.

The main street was clogged with traffic as young, single men and families were on their way to Heebrn to celebrate the holiday, since everything was cheaper there and for the same price you could get better food. At a small roundabout, we turned left and then began a winding journey in the hills of Bethlehem until we arrived at his apartment complex where there were no sidewalks or marked areas for parking, as rubble seemed to spill over into a no-man’s land between the buildings and the road. The front door was open. The facade of the building may not have been finished. We walked up steps, and he opened a heavy black wooden door with a glass pane in the center.

Years ago, the Israeli Arab writer, Anton Shamas presented a television program on kitsch in Arab culture. Nadeem’s apartment might have been a model for the program. The modern and the international style had passed it by or, rather, it was styled like a compartment in the Orient express that had whizzed by the Bauhaus and its successors without noticing. I suppose those in the know might claim that this apartment had all the appurtenances of the nouveau riche, but as it was the only apartment I saw in Bethlehem, I cannot compare.

The living room walls were painted green, and a dark green carpet of synthetic material with a floral pattern covered all the floors. In front of me was a large, breakfront of a highly polished wood the color of cherry wood; above it hung a framed drawing of the Dome of the Rock. Beside the entrance and framed, as well, was a passage from the Koran inscribed on a dark brown background. A group of two sofas and one easy chair were draped in a brown cloth also with a floral pattern, and I originally assumed that the coverings were a means of protecting the sofas much like the plastic in the house where I was raised or the blue cloth my aunt Hilda would place over her sofa to protect it from the sun, but in the early morning when I awoke and sat in one of the easy chairs, I realized that the coverings were permanent. This was part of the apartment’s style. The passageway between the living room and the next room was draped in a light brown cloth. The bedroom, where the green carpet continued, was particularly oppressive, with a heavy, shiny wooden wardrobe the same color as the breakfront in the living room, a long wooden bureau and an oversized bed with a wooden headrest graced on the top with ogee arches. There were similar curves on all the wooden pieces. There was the heavy smell of man sweat and cigarette smoke as the carpet could never be completely aired.

In the adjoining room, Nadeem sat, chain smoked and talked with me while in front of us on the wall, different Arab singers silently voiced their songs against often fabulous backgrounds of deserts and palm-graced oases or flirted in sexy rendezvous on a large LED screen. Many years ago, he had been in love with a professor in Yugoslavia. He had been young then, and, sometimes, he would visit Yugoslavia, but often, during the summers, the professor would come to Bethlehem for a number of months. But the war broke out, and the professor who was Croatian, had to leave his post in Zagreb. The trip by bus from Zagreb to Sarajevo took 14 hours, and from there, the professor had to continue to his new job. He wasn’t worried. He was old and a professor. What would anyone want from him? Nevertheless, he was killed.

Nadeem then spent many years on the internet looking for a new lover, and there were others, a man from Brazil, a rabbi from Jerusalem (a big rabbi, who was often abroad to raise funds), but none of them lasted until he met Thomas from the U.S. They met online, and initially Thomas had posted his age as many years younger than he actually was, and when Nadeem, who loved older men, found out, he asked, “Why do you lie? Why didn’t you tell me your true age?” Thomas came for a two week visit. He liked what he found and stayed for two years until he had to go back to the States to settle some matters. Then, at the age of 83, he died.

Knowing how homophobic Arab society is—there are often reports in Israeli newspapers of Palestinian police beating gays, and for a long time, gay Palestinians have been able to find refuge in Israel—I asked him how he managed to hide their relationship.  “I told my family that he was renting a room in my apartment.”

He said to me, “I am in Fatah,” and smiled with a gaze that seemed to ask, “How do you respond to that?” I didn’t reply. I was still dumfounded I was in Bethlehem. I wasn’t afraid, if that’s what he wanted to know. Nor at that moment was I surprised. Much later, I would notice the photo on the wall of a somewhat younger Nadeem in the khaki green Fatah military uniform.

Nadeem, curiously, lacked the most pleasing characteristic of Arab society, its hospitality. I had to ask for water, and when I did, to my surprise, I discovered that he removed a frozen water bottle from the freezer. “You cannot drink the water in Bethlehem,” he explained. “It is not safe.” I was only a few kilometers from Israel, and the water was no longer potable?

We traveled to a restaurant owned on the main road. There was a cross above the central beam in the restaurant and next to it a drawing of St. George, the patron saint of Palestinian Christians.[5] Occasionally, young men in twos walked down the street, and here and there, sidewalks had been set in front of restaurants and hotels and other buildings. There was a haphazard, lackadaisical look about the street .One building was set against the next without any concern for a public space, and rubble from an unfinished building or entranceway was scattered about here and there. All buildings, I was to discover the following morning, were built in stone or given a stone facade, and even though urban planning was egregiously lacking, the street was oddly both ugly and pleasing as one building easily blended in with the next. It was like an adolescent who had not yet matured, eager and growing in spurts, pimply, and unabashed.

While we were sitting over our chicken salad sandwiches and French fries, I began to lose hope for a Palestinian-Israeli peace. The seemingly endless street where Nadeem had parked next to a building under construction with no sidewalk next to it and no crosswalk in sight, as cars hurtled by, was like a warning sign of municipal failure and lack of foresight. Nadeem began telling me about the negative influence of clans, and, as I listened, I was reminded of my son Yochai’s claim that a Palestinian nationality is a European invention. If, Nadeem said, I was to park over there (by a curb that was marked), a policeman would think twice before giving me a ticket, depending on what clan I belonged to. Hebron, for example was controlled by one clan. The Palestine authority had the offices of its investigative arm, like the shin bet, in Hebron, and they had appointed a man from the Fatah with four stars to be in charge of the office, but because he did not belong to this clan, he and his assistants never got any information. All the information came from a man with two stars who belonged to the clan and “it didn’t matter that the man with four stars was better educated and knew more, you understand? It mattered that he didn’t belong to the clan. He couldn’t do anything. So in the end we had to move him elsewhere and put the man with two stars in charge.”

It was hard to run a country because of the clans. It was a matter of mentality, and “it will take a hundred years for it to change.”

On the other hand, he said, there was stability; there was no crime, no drugs. The clans took care of this. He told me a story of how when he was very young, he had pummeled another boy, and an old man tried to stop him, but he wouldn’t listen and continued his attack. But afterward, he ran away from home for two days. Why? Because he was afraid his brother would beat him for not listening to the older man.

In the morning, we took the same route we had used when entering Bethlehem, and I would get to see the road in daylight. By the Daheishe camp, he stopped the car to buy me sweet mint tea and savories from an orange and red-painted chuck wagon, a bright spot in the morning light. “The Palestinian authority could not control the camp,” he said, and then corrected himself. “We can control them. But they refuse to pay their electricity bills, and we cannot leave 20,000 people without electricity.”

Across the street was a monument with drawings of portraits taken from photographs. “Who are these people?” I asked.

“They were killed by Israelis,” he said. On the opposite side of the car was the al-kuds restaurant, the Jerusalem restaurant, which was still closed because of the revels the night before. No one would rise early today. The street was nearly empty of cars. On our way, we passed a poster of a young woman wearing a keffiyeh and brandishing a rifle aloft.

He dropped both Lady and me off on the gravelly side of the road opposite the parking lot where we had met, and I walked down to the major intersection where an often-seen poster of the bearded Rabbi Schneursohn, dubbed the mashiach, the messiah. by his believers, had been glued to a sign, and two young soldiers were standing at a rather fragile and forlorn looking guard post, the kind you often find at remote military bases. I felt terribly guilty on approaching them as if they would be able to discern that I had broken the law and entered Palestine. As I passed, one of them commented, “Nice dog you’ve got.” My military interrogation had ended. Two other soldiers sat at the bus stop and two women sat on the bench away from them. Several hikers, young women with scarves and long skirts and men with large kippot and long, dangling tzitziot[6] and one with long, thick sidelocks appeared at the corner and extended their right arms for a lift. After about five minutes, the bus with large lettering, BEIT YISRAEL, HOUSE OF ISRAEL, GUSH EMMUNIM, arrived and I got on, seven shekels to Jerusalem. The windows had double protective glass or plastic against rocks.

In Jerusalem, the bus to Tel Aviv was already standing by the platform when I arrived. I sat in the back by a window, and after a while a man about my age sat down next to me. He was a doctor in the Hadassah hospital who lived at the edge of the Jerusalem suburb Ramot, from where every Shabbat, he descended to a large wood and hiked with his dog. He had come to Israel several years before me from Georgia, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. He had bright blue eyes and pink tinted skin and I thought he was probably the child of parents who had fled east from the Holocaust in eastern Europe, but no, his family had lived for generations in Georgia, but he had never felt that Georgia was his. When he arrived in Israel, he knew immediately that here he was home. “Zeh sheli,” he said. This is mine.

We chatted about the changes that had taken place in Israel since we both had made aliyah. He had smoked then, and he reminded me how buses had been filled with cigarette smoke, and afterward, smoking was only allowed in the back of the bus, and then it was banned altogether. “Who would have believed riding on a bus where no one smoked would have been possible?” I reminded him that in the beginning there was always someone who defiantly puffed away unless enough passengers talked him down. I reminded him, too, of the custom of rolling bottles on the floors of movie houses. We laughed together. We were like anthropologists investigating an ancient culture.

At the central bus station in Tel Aviv, Lady and I took the bus to Pardes Hannah and traveled north along the coastal road. At Kfar Witkin, before Mahmoret, the bus climbed a rise, and suddenly, the Mediterranean came into view: calm and bright in the morning sun, blue with a tint of turquoise, and I felt as if I had crossed continents.

I learned that day that the question of Palestine could, like economics, be divided into two perspectives: the macro and the micro. The macro deals with the rights of the Arabs who lived in the geographical region of Palestine for their own state; the micro view focuses on the disruptive rivalries among the clans. The Israeli right mistakenly perceives the micro as disqualifying the Palestinians for a state. The Israeli left, perhaps fatally, ignores the anarchy of the micro.

 

[1] Egged and Dan are the two main bus lines in Israel

[2] Gush Emmunim—a collection of Jewish settlements within Palestine that were destroyed during the War of Independence. The massacre there (in response to Deir Yassin) was infamous within the Jewish community.

[3] The name has been changed.

[4] There is a Fallujah in southern Israel as well as in Iraq; I suppose the original settlers came from Iraq.

[5] According to legend, the dragon was killed in Ramleh, which is now in Israel.

[6] Long fringes on an upper garment worn by males under a shirt.

Of Hierarchies in America

My father Leon was born in Brownsville, Brooklyn, but when still a child, his family moved to Southeast Washington, DC, to a small neighborhood where they were the only Jews around. Washington was at that time, “a sleepy southern town,” and to prove his point he told me about the time he was traveling on the trolley (for Washington had trolleys then) and his brother Bill jumped off to get a drink of water from a fountain and then jumped back on—the driver may very well have slowed the car for the young man.

When he was old enough, Leon joined the Boy Scouts. It was an all-Jewish troop. When I asked him why, in typical fashion he suggested two possibilities: Jews may not have been allowed to join Gentile troops or the Jews preferred to be with each other. In his liberal way, he chose the latter possibility, which was also in tune with his own feelings. Living as isolated Jews with immigrant parents who spoke with an accent and unable to eat bacon or partake in the pleasure of Christmas and always aware that he was a minority and around him seemingly in glorious nonchalance were Americans (not that he wasn’t American but there was a qualitative difference—they seemed so assured), it was a positive joy to be among his own kind. And he was an ardent Boy Scout. Of course, the first option, that Jews were not allowed to join the other troops, was most likely true.

When he was nearly seven, the Ku Klux Klan marched in Washington DC. A Klansman in full dress sat on a bench beside him, and the unfortunate boy was frightened that the man would discover that the young boy sitting next to him was a Jew. That day, several Klansmen entered his parent’s store and amid the hustle and bustle, there was also a tremulous fear of which the men in white were probably unaware, but which the children helping in the shop were quite knowledgeable as they saw the panic in their parents’ eyes.

*

I have been thinking of hierarchies in American society. From the time Leon was a boy until he was past 50, the hierarchies were clear—at least from the perspective of a Jew, who belonged not to the German immigration of the mid-1800’s but whose parents had arrived on America’s shores in 1904. I have been thinking about this, as well, after reading, Where the Birds Never Sing, a true story of an army unit in the Second World War, told from the perspective of the son of Italian immigrants raised on a farm in Alabama.

During those 50 years, it was clear that America was ruled by a white, Protestant, mainly Episcopalian, hegemony. In that society, blacks—African Americans—were at the bottom and Jews were just above, but they had one advantage blacks did not have, although it was initially limited: Upward Mobility. When my uncle, 10 years my father’s senior, graduated with a degree in engineering from George Washington University, he discovered that the profession was closed to Jews, so he returned to the university and obtained a law degree. Gradually, more and more professions opened, although even when a student in college in 1965, I was told that upper management in banking, that oh so Jewish profession, was still closed.

In retrospect, the 50’s were the golden years of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant domination. Never had America been so wealthy or been able to promise a car, a private home and a good life with two happy children, a dog and a pretty wife to so many—on the assumption they were white. The United States was ruled by a great general whose proper wife wore white gloves. It was, as the 60s would adamantly set out to prove, a great lie. The proper first Lady was an alcoholic. Her husband, Ike, played golf in a restricted country club. Can you imagine the president of the United States playing golf today in a country club that does not allow Jews or blacks, imagine the furor? The vice-president lived in a restricted neighborhood. In the name of freedom, but, really, for the benefit of the United Fruit Company, the Secretary of Interior, John Foster Dulles with the CIA (run by his brother, on the UFC payroll) overthrew the democratically elected government in Guatemala and also set in motion the coup d’état in Iran that led to the Shah’s rule. The great automobile industry, instead of working toward perfecting their machines, concentrated on selling a set of enticing images for different ‘types’ of drivers to garner more wealth. In television, there were no gays and blacks were Amos & Andy; women were expected to be model housewives; children were to be seen not heard. Sex, as a late friend of mine commented, did not exist, having been banished by Hollywood censors.

I always remember my father calling to my mother to ask her if his tie was on right—perhaps because he was raised in DC, he was always trying to emulate an imaginary WASP standing next to him but slightly above, secure in status and authority. I may have belonged to the last generation when that was true. When my friend Irma went downtown with her mother and wore white gloves, they were consciously imitating what they took to be a superior standard—didn’t Mamy Eisenhower don them, as well? Even in 1967, when I flew to San Francisco, I wore a suit or at least a formal jacket.

I don’t know when that standard broke down. Neighborhoods, schools, country clubs, and professions opened up, and today, even in Muslim states (perhaps the most hierarchical of all) one can find most anything on YouTube. A definite change, however, began with the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Afterward, I could live on the streets neighboring the one on which I had been raised, since the clause in every contract forbidding sales to African-Americans (called Negroes then) and Jews was illegal. In the early 70s, Ivy League schools dropped their quotas. When I studied in college, we knew what great literature was—we hadn’t been informed that it was male-imperialist-white-European biased. I’m not mocking that, although I could. I’m wondering about all those white men and women who voted for Trump, and they have my sympathy. The surety in which they were born of their own status, not dependent on wealth, has fallen apart, and it has left them prey to false news, which feeds on that loss and informs them that everywhere they have been betrayed. We live in the post-modern era, which is especially unkind to hierarchies.

Trump, or rather his image—for his reality is less important—represents a righting of that white Protestant rule gone awry. Of course, those who know the real thing also know that he is but a crude and vulgar representative. Much like Ronald Reagan, of whom he is but a bad imitation, he is the front man for changes in America that will benefit the rich and decimate the poor—most especially, African-Americans. The hierarchy must have its momentary revenge. It is both curious and revealing that the images most beloved are avuncular—Ike, Reagan, and Trump (again not the real Trump but how he is imagined), as if a great WASP grandfather, a godly father, were watching over America, even, as now, in its destruction.