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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.

Open Letter to my Son

My son has often accused me of trusting the Palestinians and therefore being naive. But he is wrong. I have no doubt but that the Palestinian leadership wishes that all of Israel were part of Palestine and all the refugees on all their generations were returned to their (no longer existing) villages. That’s not where the difference between us lies. It’s not a matter of naiveté.

Many years ago, A. B. Yehoshua wrote that the difference between the liberal and the conservative viewpoint is that liberals believe people can change. This is but one of the differences, although a good dash of skepticism should probably be mixed in our cocktail of hope when describing a people who has been fed hatred for Israelis and Jews and the promise of return for nearly 70 years. Those in the refugee camps have been kept miserable so that their misery was not only proof of the cruelty of the lsraelis/Jews, but an example of a squalor to be redeemed by returning to the land and the iconic olive tree.

There are two other main differences between us, one pragmatic and one ideological. The first, the pragmatic, is that the Palestinians are in a win-win situation. The Palestinians can sit where they are with as corrupt a government as they wish, and, in the end, if Israel will continue to absorb more of their lands, there will be so many Arabs within Israel that Israel will no longer be a Jewish state, that is, a state where the majority are Jews. It is important to emphasize here that my definition of Israel is that a majority of Jews makes it a Jewish state. There is no religious imperative in my definition. Others have different definitions. There are arguments, as well, with these statistics, but to my mind, they are not important and certainly not essential. The longer Israel occupies the West Bank, more and more Arabs without any voting rights will fall under its jurisdiction. This will inevitably lead to apartheid – although to be honest, there is apartheid rule in the West Bank already even if most of the more obviously discriminatory aspects of apartheid are absent. If one wishes to be precise and to avoid the loaded word apartheid, it is probably more accurate to describe the situation as an Israeli colonization in which the Arabs have no voting rights.

But at this point, I’ve entered the fractious realm of ideology. My son, and others, would claim that the occupation is not an occupation. The Palestinians are not and never were a people. You cannot occupy a land that did not belong to anyone. The last occupiers were the Jordanians, and the Jews have greater claim than any other people, especially the so-called Palestinians, who are a recent creation.

The Palestinians, indeed, are a recent creation, despite attempts to claim otherwise. It’s probably true that a sense of national identity among the general populace, and not merely among the intellectual and political elite, began with the Nakba, the catastrophe, the defeat that is celebrated in Israel as the War of Independence.

The novelty of a Palestinian identity, however, does not make it illegitimate without claims for land. At the end of WWI, when the West divided up the Middle East, there were at least six times as many Arabs in Palestine, which included Jordan then. The Arabs were the natives. The Jews, despite their legitimate nationalist claims, were intruders. That status (even considering the numbers of Arabs who emigrated into Palestine) could never change.

The paradigm here is the creation of nations in Africa and the break-up of western imperialism. Africans learned nationalism from the West. Leaders (intellectuals, the wealthy, and, in Arab states, often Christians) led rebellions. Usually, a general feeling of nationalism began during the rebellion (with the colonial power strengthening that feeling through oppressive responses) and increased on victory – often only to dissipate into tribal disunity afterward.

The difference between Palestine and Africa – Kenya, Uganda, Algeria – is that the national feeling rose out of defeat and, to a great extent, under manipulation by the Arab powers, who deliberately kept Palestinians stateless. My son would say it’s an artificial nationalism created deliberately against Israel. And to some extent it is. And like its Colonialist forebears, Israel’s activities in the occupied territories only further the Palestinian nationalist cause.

However, Palestinian nationalism is a fact. Dismissing it because it is unjustified reminds me of those Arabs who would claim that Jews are members of a religion not a people and therefore have no right to a homeland. Besides, as I have written, Palestinians had every right to expect some sort of national state after WWI.

There are of course three other considerations. The Palestinian “problem” is as one says in Hebrew “kotz b’tachat,” a pain in the ass – not necessarily for Israel, which has created a situation in which it can often ignore the distress of occupation but for Arab nations around Israel that are interested in openly doing business with the state. The Palestinians have become the cause célèbre in the Arab world. Everywhere in the Arab – and Muslim world – Israel is known as the cruel oppressor, the horrible monster created by the West.

The second relates to how Israel is viewed in the Western world. The longer Israel holds onto the West Bank and isolates Gaza, the more conclusively it appears as a colonialist oppressor and loses the legitimacy it had as the realization of Jewish national hopes.

The third is antisemitism. The open issue of Palestine encourages antisemitism. The Jews are part of a conspiracy controlling the United States and certainly its newspapers. It’s only because of their devious successes that they were able to rob the Palestinians of their homeland.

There is, however, one addendum I would like to add. To a great extent, the Palestinian national identity was not created by Palestinians in Palestine but both by those who were in exile and other nations. I visited Bethlehem – as the guest of someone high up in the Fatah – don’t ask how – and there I learned that the country is run (as my son knows) by clans and gangs, and connections. The Palestinian authority for example, hasn’t been able to collect taxes from the Daheisha refugee camp. The camp simply refuses and the authorities are too afraid to enter. If you park your car illegally, whether you get a ticket depends on who you know. This holds true if you park your car legally as well. There is a great deal of pretense in the claim of a Palestinian state. On the other hand, their suffering under the occupation is real, and it is the occupation that is making Palestinian nationalism more legitimate every day.

More can be written. The Israeli right will ask – what about military considerations? An independent state can build an army and attack whenever it wishes. That’s the subject for an expert in foreign affairs – not for me. The current situation is intolerable.


Para JP

I have a good friend who recommended that I read a book entitled Identity by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. Coincidentally, this year, while reading an essay by James Baldwin in the book Collected Essays, I had realized how much Baldwin, who I had read intensively in high school, had influenced my decision to come to Israel. His discussions of the battled identity of blacks in America had made me question my own uneasy identity as a Jew.


I often say that every year I discover a new reason I came to Israel. This was the year of Jewish identity. I very well remember reading S. Y. Agnon’s wonderful story “The Kerchief,” and being astonished by the marvelous sense of wholeness, I had never experienced, that was conveyed even in translation by the story. My Judaism was fragmented, occasionally oppressive (would my world always be divided pointlessly into milchadiche – milk products – and fleyschediche – meat?). In Amherst, being Jewish was accompanied by shame. It was not really what one wanted to be.


Moreover, I wanted to be a writer – but I knew I could not encompass the enormity of America, the very chaos of it, its multiple voices. I wanted to write about New York City, a cacophony of voices, and not with the elitist diction I was taught but something else, something much cruder – and yet, in imitation of Whitman, singing. But I had no stable, unmoving point from which to view the chaos, that capitalist beautiful monstrosity, both beautiful and monstrous, where everyone became a commodity and moved about from place to place, and where that safe haven of s. Y. Agnon had no possibility. The best piece I wrote at that time was probably a description of Bloody Mary’s birthday party in the subway caverns underneath New York. Bloody Mary was one of the homeless, and since the ulcers on her swollen legs bled, I called her Bloody Mary. There was also a rabbi who colored himself black and pretended he was an African American. And a white young man who in the best Russian tradition represented innocence. I could never succeed in putting the novel together.


So that was one of the reasons I came to Israel – to get away from the melange of identities and find one I could like. I studied Jewish Studies and learned about the religion I really knew little about. I had my first cholent, I visited synagogues. In New York, I had visited Chabad; here, I tried Yemenite, Moroccan, and eventually settled on Ashkenazi. And I learned Hebrew – the language of the Jews. In the end, I became what in Israel is called a secular Jew but more than that, I became part of the workers movement. That was the ethos that placed its imprint on me and my family.


The question of identity (in its original meaning) ceased to be relevant. There is a certain comfort that comes with knowing Hebrew. It is the language not only of liturgy but of a tribe so that speaking Hebrew gives one immediately the illusion of a closed community, in which all its speakers are somehow related. In addition, the civic holidays in Israel are the Jewish ones, so that there is a feeling of wholeness one can never achieve outside of Israel unless one is religious. On Yom Kippur, nothing runs. The silence is uplifting. On Pesach and Rosh Hashanah, the roads are jammed with traffic, as everyone celebrates with family. Knowing Hebrew puts you closer to the sources – you are implicitly part of a community over 3000 years old.


But of course, politically, this sense of wholeness is an illusion and, moreover, a dangerous one. Israel is not only the home of Jews but of Arabs. The total identification of the nation with Judaism implicitly denies their existence. If you’re on the side of the majority, the feeling can be great; but if you are in the minority, you are constantly reminded of your status.  Arabs know Hebrew; Jews don’t know Arabic. In many respects (without considering the Occupied Territories), Israel retains the characteristics of a nineteenth century nation, which is one of its difficulties when confronting 21st century nations in the West. The only diversity Israel celebrates is diversity among its Jews.

Segregation in the Holy Land

Today, as I was leaving, I wished the pharmacist Shabbat shalom. She looked at me funnily. I wasn’t sure why, but she might have meant, “I’m Arab, that’s not my holiday.” I am indiscriminate in my Shabbat Shalom wishes. I knew perfectly well that she was Arab, but I also knew she would not be working tomorrow like everyone else. It was only after I had left the building that I remembered that today is Ramadan, and it would have been nicer and more appropriate to wish her a Ramadan Kareem.

One of the aspects I’ve often liked in Israel is the ubiquity of well-wishes on holidays. It’s good and pleasant to hear hag sameach, happy holiday, out of the mouths of store keepers and customers as holidays approach, or a simple Shabbat shalom on leaving work on Thursdays. It’s damn comfy – as if everyone around you belongs to an extended family.

I teach soldiers now and, because we are all Jewish, there is easy banter about keeping kosher or discussions of aliyah – there is a common assumption that despite our political or ethnic differences, we are all citizens in the same place – our feet are, as it were, rooted in the same soil. We belong together.

I also teach English to three Hasidim who live in the Wischnitz (pronounded Vishnitz) neighborhood in Bnei Brak. They are a father and his two sons, and they own a hotel in that crowded, religious city. One day after talking with the older son, I realized from the tone in his voice how reassuring it was to live in a closed community that ran its affairs exactly as you did. It was as if there was a happy concordance between his pulse and the pulses of those around him. Moreover, he could regard the hotel as a form of service to the community.

It was only on leaving my local clinic today that I fully realized that I, too, live in a similarly segregated society or, to be more exact, that I, too, live in a sequestered community.

It’s important to make clear that Israel is not segregated in the manner of the American South. There are no separate drinking places, public bathrooms, or bus seats. In public places, Jews and Arabs mingle; and, as an article in Haaretz this week pointed out, Israeli Arabs are one of the significant successes of the country. They are educated: they are doctors, lawyers, judges, parliamentarians, and even ministers. But still, a specific type of segregation characterizes Israeli daily life. Jews and Arabs live in separate communities, go to separate schools (until university), read separate newspapers, and ever since cable TV, watch different stations. There are several Arabic Jewish schools under the same auspices but these are private, and the Israeli government has refused to subsidize them.

The proof of the pudding, as it were, can be found in one of Sayed Kashua’s recent columns in Haaretz, for it is only the minority that feels the oppression of segregation. He writes:

Being a Palestinian Arab in Jerusalem was an inseparable part of my consciousness. I had to be aware that I was an Arab when I drove my children to school, when I drove to work, when I chose my words in writing, and every time I walked in the street. The politics in Israel determined the degree of caution to take in certain circumstances, the place of residence, the children’s educational system, the safe places for going out, the use of the language, and the careful way in which you greeted your neighbors. (“Musaf Haaretz,” 10 March 2017)

What I especially felt that morning was not the segregation in Israeli society or my lack of consideration toward the Arab pharmacist, whose holiday I had ignored, but my similarity with Southerners who had been raised in the balmy haven of segregation. I felt I could understand their fright at Obama’s vision of America. It was not just Obama’s color that was so outrageous but his constant emphasis on the marvelous diversity of the new America. What he thought as a golden promise, which he physically represented, was also a threat to the feeling of security of many. That their sense of invulnerability had rested on the false premises of bigotry, prejudice, and an unacknowledged violence was what I had, in my liberal mind, always understood – what I realized now was how comforting, how damned “nice” it was to live in a sheltered cove – how it gave someone a feeling of belonging to a greater whole, even if that sense of security was based on a falsehood and, often, on an out-and-out lie.

Thoughts about Donald Trump


Like many other liberals, I’ve had difficulty understanding the loyalty of Trump supporters, no matter how outrageous his behavior or statements. Luckily for me, a Facebook friend is a supporter, and following her posts has given me insight into what his followers believe.

The clue came from an unexpected source: a video of an African-American minister enumerating numerous wrongs with America and speaking in praise of Donald Trump. He made one blooper when he said that Americans don’t care about Donald Trump’s sex life. This, of course, is not true. It might be true in France but not in the United States. The attempt by the Republican Party to impeach President Clinton is proof of the Puritan pudding; yet, it was important for the reverend to place Donald Trump above such moral stains.

His list of national wrongs that Mr. Trump would correct included poor infrastructure, outsourcing of jobs, law and order, the housing crisis, lack of security in central cities, and the recent Wells Fargo scandal, which he turned into a criticism of institutions that betray our trust. He repeated Trump’s claim that neighbors knew of the San Bernardino bombing plot but did not warn authorities.

The obvious answer is that Hillary Clinton is the only one of the two candidates who has made concrete proposals to solve many of these problems. Or that Donald Trump notoriously outsources his products. Another response is that the housing crisis was brought about by George W. Bush Jr., and the economic problems today in America are directly due to neoliberal economic policies advanced by Republicans and encouraged by Donald Trump, who would lower taxes on the rich even more. One might argue, as well, that violence has steadily decreased under President Obama. But these responses are clearly irrelevant.

As was clear as well from the listeners’ responses, all these troubles are the Democrats’ fault. It does not matter that the Republicans form the majority in both houses of government and therefore have not been powerless for over four years. Although they have blocked much of Obama’s proposals and have not willingly allocated funds for improving America’s infrastructure, the Democrats are guilty. Nor is it what Donald Trump says that is truly important, but rather his image and how his followers perceive him that matter. Despite all evidence to the contrary (both from his past and his confused declarations of policy), they believe that he will rescue them and America. Furthermore, the threat of Muslim refugees stokes their fears. My friend recently posted an article that suggested that the behavior of a Muslim father In Norway, who raped his daughter because she was too “westernized,” was typical of Muslim culture.

Hillary is the devil incarnate, so there is no point in explicating the fine points of economics or talking about how much better qualified she is than he. It is Trump’s lack of qualification that looms large; his deliberate posture of going against the grain. He is, therefore, they seem to be saying, “One of us”—misunderstood, individualistic, anti-government, anti-institutions, someone who will lead them to deliverance.