Israel, April 2010

Near the end of the Seder, the ritual re-telling of the Jewish exodus from Egyptian slavery millennia ago, there comes a wish that every Jew familiar with the holiday of Passover (Pesach) knows by heart: “Next year in Jerusalem.” I have just ended a seven week journey to Israel, most of it in Jerusalem. Because I had the good fortune to be invited to a wonderful (and long) seder during my visit, for me it was this year in Jerusalem. As has become my custom, I offer this letter (admittedly too long for email – I apologize) to share some reflections on my time in what one friend aptly called our “challenging, invigorating and maddening homeland.”                 

Next year in Jerusalem.” As Jews, it’s a yearning inculcated in us from childhood; a deep, sentimental, even visceral longing. It’s a beacon of hope, a rallying cry, a fist of defiance, a spirited dance of celebration, a presumed entitlement by dint of history and chosen-ness. During my time there I felt all of these, and more: It is hard not to be enchanted by Jerusalem’s golden-stoned beauty, not to feel awe at her unmatched role in western religion and our collective psyche. In one afternoon you can easily visit the room where Christ ate the Last Supper, trudge along the Via Dolorosa following the stations of the cross (I bought a trinket at the “Prison of Christ Souvenir Shop”), and still have time to catch the Chasidim praying at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, the spot many Jews consider the holiest on earth. In any context, Jerusalem is extraordinary.

My trip was filled with rich adventures and encounters (with other people, with my own quirky path of the sacred, with the dense political thicket of heated opinion and belief). As with all my travels, I loved my time there. I thrill, still, to life on the road.

Here’s the easy part to report: What I did. In addition to my time in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, I spent a few days in Jordan visiting Aqaba and the ancient ruins of Petra (which are absolutely amazing). I travelled up north in Israel to the lush region of the Galilee, and the old mystical city of Tzfat, and Nazareth (where my visit, by chance, coincided with the Feast of the Assumption in this most Christian of Arab towns). I visited with a feisty old woman, the mother of a new Israeli friend, on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights, overlooking Lebanon and Syria. I saw the lovely Bahai Gardens in Haifa, and the Roman ruins of Caesarea, and a fascinating secret bullet factory from the years leading up to Israel’s independence. I spent hours wandering, walking, and meditating in the beautiful, silent badlands solitude of the Negev desert.

I also had a lot of fun working as a WWOOF (worldwide organization of organic farms) volunteer on a farm, where I tended organic tomatoes heading for export to (where else?) Wholefoods, and had the thrill to witness the births of many baby goats (as well as the death of one of the mother goats post childbirth, followed by a strange escapade of hauling – shlepping — the dead goat off to, of all things, a crocodile farm, where it gave the bloodthirsty tourists a perfect lunchtime delight).

Since I last visited as a teenager 34 years ago, Israel has become a fully Westernized country. It looks like the West: Upscale shopping malls, slick restaurants, glossy homoerotic billboards meant to convey hip sophistication (in Tel Aviv at least. They’d be smashed or vandalized in more religious Jerusalem). It smells like the west, too, in that it barely smells at all: I remember the fragrances of spice and earth, of exotic cooking and sweat; this has all been sanitized into the past. The degree of innovation and entrepreneurship, of technological knowhow, of modern convenience, is on a par with any other Western country I’ve been in.

So much for the easy part.

Now the harder, more important stuff: “Next year in Jerusalem.” Forget the sentimentality, the tribal longing, even the yearnings for what is just. “Next year in Jerusalem” is a bell that rings now only with a bittersweet, sorrowful tone.

If I had to provide a one-word adjective describing Israel, I’d have to say, “Orwellian.” This is the closest I can come to summarizing my experience of this place, shy of a longer, more nuanced narrative or an emotional (and again mostly sorrowful) diatribe. Israel is an Orwellian state, or being there has an Orwellian feel to it. (If “Orwellian” doesn’t work for you, try Kafka-esque. Or surreal. Or enraging, heartrending, morally compromised, politically misguided. I’m open to possibilities).

It’s not that Israel is a police state a la 1984 (that is, unless you’re Palestinian). It’s more in how some fundamental current basics of the state’s existence – its 40-plus year occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem; the eight meter high wall and barbed wire fence that cuts off the West Bank from the rest of the country (at times splitting families and neighborhoods, separating farmers from their fields, creating bizarre, convoluted extuberations to “protect” sacred monuments); the deftly manipulated invisibility and disowning of the suffering caused by the occupation – are at once so prominent and so hidden.

A typical western tourist can have a wonderful, even inspiring trip, with no indication at all of the disparities of existence between the (mostly Jewish) citizens of the state, and the (exclusively non Jewish) citizens of the “disputed” (read: Occupied) Palestinian territories. West Jerusalem, home to the secular and (increasingly large) religious Jewish communities, looks and feels like a bustling, often elegant, civilized 21st century city; but most of East Jerusalem (the large sections of the city and environs that Israel captured in 1967, and now occupies) lacks sidewalks, sewers, city water hook-ups, street repairs, and decent elementary or high schools (oh, and basic rights).

At one point I saw a large, glossy billboard advertising one of the new Jewish contested settlements in occupied east Jerusalem; the sunny billboard beamed like a Florida advertisement for posh retirement living, the good life. And I went to see the neighborhood, which has (of course) sidewalks, sewers, ample electricity and water, and every modern amenity – all of which abruptly end 50 meters on either side of the slick new buildings. No matter that it bisects a long-established Arab neighborhood that has fought, unsuccessfully, for basics such as legal access to the water supply. The new digs are surrounded by a large metal fence, gates, and armed guards.

Early in my visit I went to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s harrowing, beautifully realized museum to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust (just the Jewish victims, by the way). It was so moving, and it seems such a fundamental part of the complex psyche here, that I wanted all the folks I’ve met protesting or demonstrating against Israeli policies to go there. Not to change their views, but to understand: This is something core about the Jewish, and Israeli, psyche.

While at Yad Vashem, I saw several tour groups of young Israeli soldiers. Perhaps it was only my projection – for I could easily tap into desires for vengeance and an aggrieved righteousness myself – but I worried that these young soldiers found in this Holocaust memorial only renewed fodder for an institutionalized nationalistic intransigence and a misguided “never again” mentality – misguided in how “never again” has devolved, with tragic consequences, into “never again to us.” And so I wanted these soldiers to visit, out of uniform, Ramallah or anyplace on the West Bank, and pass through (as I did, on my own) the dehumanizing police and army checkpoints and needlessly humiliating harassments interrupting the activities of daily life; or to experience, as Palestinian families in east Jerusalem now do, evictions from homes they’ve lived in for dozens of years so religious settlers can be moved in.

One evening I attended a rally against these forced evictions. The demonstrators were a mix of Jews and Palestinians, young and old, men and women. Many no doubt hold political views more radical (and perhaps more courageous) than mine; others looked like they typically led middle-class, apolitical lives, but felt moved, perhaps for the first time, to take a stand against the ongoing calcifying of Israeli policies, to say “enough.” Amid the range of placards and banners, one young man carried a sign, in Hebrew and English, proclaiming, “Proud Zionist for Justice.”

I would like to think this is possible: To hold onto the concept, the necessity, and the possible nobility, of a Jewish state, but to do so with a sense of justice borne from a truthful and humane examination of the actual state of affairs, not from a zealous or short-sighted wish that enough force will right the course of things, or from a collectively unconscious re-enactment of oppression, this time with the shoe blindly on the other foot.

There is a unique psychiatric phenomenon here known as “Jerusalem Syndrome.” A visitor comes to Jerusalem for a few days and, overwhelmed by its sacred and religious history, develops the delusion that he or she is a prophet, or Christ, or the next Messiah.

Even in the Old City, with its warren of narrow winding streets and remarkable ancient spiritual treasures, I didn’t witness this at all. But I did see what I take to be a more pervasive, insidious disorder.

I saw religious men walking around wearing yarmulkes, with long Orthodox beards and peyos and fringes of tzizzis hanging out from under their shirts, carrying a loaded pistol in a holster, living under the delusion that God has foreordained the whole region to be a religious Jewish state, at any cost.

I saw impassioned, energized pro-Palestinian activists living under the delusion that Zionism can never be anything other than Fascism, that Israeli policies (as misguided, even abhorrent as they are) are akin to ethnic cleansing or genocide.

I saw rage-filled Yeshiva-clad schoolboys, and kaffiah-clad adolescent Palestinians, weaned and raised in the multi-generational delusion that theirs is the exclusive truth, that hate is worth cultivating, that no other claim of righteousness carries legitimacy. That God is, of course, on their side.

Please. If his message is one of peace and compassion, I’ll take the man who fancies himself the next Christ. If it’s a bible passage that reminds us all of our shared humanity, not one tribe’s superiority, I’ll honor the woman who thinks she’s a prophet. Give me these delusions, these Jerusalem Syndromes, any time over the ones I witnessed daily and that pass for normalcy – sanity? – in this holiest of cities. The Jerusalem Syndromes I saw risk killing us all.

Next year in Jerusalem. May we all hold the prayer, or meditation, or blessing, that this is possible in peace for us all, everywhere, omitting none.

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