May 30, 2012
After Jerusalem Day
On the morning after Yom Yerushalayim, I walked past the prime minister’s house on the way to the dentist. The house sits on Balfour Street, named for the British lord whose famous Declaration of 1917 paved the road to the Jewish state. Half a century later, the Israel Defense Forces recaptured the Old City and unified Jerusalem, a momentous event commemorated on Yom Yerushalayim.
In my hometown, on any given day, a simple stroll inspires memories and invokes moral dilemmas. As Henry David Thoreau noted in his classic essay “Walking,” the word “saunter” may derive from “sainte terre,” holy land. What does it mean to live in a city that is holy to three faiths, and where virtually every street prompts historical analogies?
The relatively modest house, constructed for a Greek-Jewish businessman in the late 1930s, became the prime ministerial residence in 1974. “The White House this isn’t,” — as Time’s top editor, Richard Stengel, observed in his arresting May 28 cover story, “King Bibi” — though it is heavily fortified. It was during the first reign of Benjamin Netanyahu, after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, that high walls went up and the street was closed to traffic. Sometimes, when I walk by, I think of Herod, the anxiety-ridden master builder of antiquity.
En route to the dentist, I recalled my first trip to Israel, in the summer of 1968. I landed on a Friday and that same evening went for Kabbalat Shabbat to the Hebrew University’s Hillel House, then located on Balfour Street. At the end of services, the young congregants lined up to shake the hand of a fellow worshipper, an elderly gentleman. I asked someone who this was. “You don’t know?” he replied. “That’s the president of Israel, Zalman Shazar.”
That was the warm, informal Jerusalem I fell in love with, the capital of the Jewish people. In those days, every day was Jerusalem Day, a cause for proud celebration. But in recent years, the anniversary of the conquest has taken on a right-wing coloration that can foster extremism. This year, yeshiva students and settlers marched triumphantly through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, shouting “Death to Arabs.” In 1968, it was commonly held that the dazzling victory of the Six-Day War would lead forthwith to a two-state solution. Today, we have a bruising contest of values: manifest Jewish destiny versus modern Jewish democracy.
What will Bibi Netanyahu do, now that the Kadima party has joined his government, affording him a luxurious 94-seat Knesset coalition? As Time’s sympathetic profile put it: “With his bullet-proof majority, he has a chance to turn himself into the historic figure he has always yearned to be.”
With history on my mind, I turned left from the prime minister’s house and passed the Restobar cafe, previously known as Moment, where on March 9, 2002, 11 Jewish Israelis lost their lives in a Palestinian suicide bombing. I took the next right, heading up the street named for Haim Arlosoroff, the brilliant young Labor Zionist leader who was murdered on a Tel Aviv beach on June 16, 1933. Extremist right-wing Jews were arrested but not convicted; their supporters blamed Arabs for the crime. The wounds are still open, the polarizations remain.
North of Ramban Street, Arlosoroff becomes Solomon Ibn Gabirol, after the great 11th-century Judeo-Spanish poet and neo-Platonist philosopher who wrote in both Hebrew and Arabic. As I neared my destination, I thought of the historian Benzion Netanyahu, who died on April 30 at age 102, and whose 1,400-page study of the Spanish Inquisition, and its application to contemporary politics, figure predictably in the Time cover story. Having reviewed the book upon its publication in 1995, I can ratify Time’s assessment that “Benzion believed that the history of the Jews is a history of holocausts,” a grim outlook that has had a deep effect on his son the prime minister — and thus on the rest of us as well.
May we Israelis, then, as the West continues its campaign to pressure Iran to desist from developing nuclear weapons, be forgiven for not putting our trust in anyone but ourselves? Should we reject any whiff of appeasement, seize the rare opportunity afforded by Netanyahu’s parliamentary consensus and strike a pre-emptive blow, in the spirit of the Six-Day War, to thwart an Iranian plot to annihilate the Jewish state? Or, as many Israeli experts urge, should the prime minister instead place a new emphasis, from his position of strength, on achieving the two-state solution so essential to Israel’s survival as a Jewish and democratic state?
These are heady questions to ponder on a simple walk to the dentist, but they hovered like smog as Israelis went about their normal business on the day after Jerusalem Day. Better, perhaps, to reflect on Solomon Ibn Gabirol, who died in 1058, at the age of 37 or so. According to legend, he was killed by a rival poet, an Arab, who was jealous of his prodigious talent. Attributed to Ibn Gabirol is a book called “Mivhar Hapeninim” (“A Choice of Pearls”), a collection of adages, one of which I committed years ago to memory: “Kol sin’ah yesh tikvah l’refuatah,” begins the poet — “Every hatred may be healed” — “except,” he continues, “for hatred that originates in jealousy.” A thousand years later, his words ring all too true.
Can we possibly mitigate the jealousy that Palestinians feel toward Israeli Jews, which is surely heightened on Yom Yerushalayim? Or is this a problem suffered by a people who had their shot at statehood back in 1948 and blew it, and then repeatedly refused Israel’s offers of compromise — and is therefore no longer our problem? I sank into the dentist’s chair, with other problems on my mind.
Stuart Schoffman, a journalist and translator, is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and a member of its Engaging Israel project.