May 15, 2008
Israel and I: The first 60 years
Zelig, you remember, was the Woody Allen character who popped up whenever and wherever some historic event was unfolding.
Or maybe it's just that Israel is always facing either a devastating crisis or a miraculous triumph so, regardless of the timing, you're likely to witness history in the making.
So here's my anecdotal, completely subjective view of modern Israel's entire lifespan, glimpsed through the eyes of a soldier, reporter and member of my wife Rachel's vast Israeli mishpacha.
I was a junior at UC Berkeley when I decided to go to Israel and join the army of the newly created state. As a World War II combat infantryman, I thought I roughly knew what to expect, but after disembarking from the refugee ship Pan York at Haifa, I learned, not for the last time, that Israelis were a different breed and everything worked differently.
First, I wasn't assigned to any established unit. Instead, like a feudal baron offering inducements to the local peasants to fight under his banner, an American ex-major appeared at my holding camp one day.
He asked whether I would like to join an English-speaking "Anglo-Saxon" unit he was forming (by some special alchemy, Jew boys from Britain, South Africa, the United States, Canada and Australia were transformed into "Anglo-Saxim" upon stepping on the soil of the Holy Land).
His inducement was that the anti-tank unit in the making would be "democratic," i.e. no rank, no saluting and, except in combat, all decisions would be made by majority vote. It was an offer no ex-GI could refuse.
When I joined my fellow Anglo-Saxons, they were training on a wooden dummy gun. "Where are the weapons?" I asked. "We don't have any," responded our Israeli liaison. "But as soon as our infantry captures a gun from the Arabs, we'll be ready to go."
And that's what happened.
It was a great time to be in Israel. There were about 600,000 Jews in the country, roughly the same number as are now in the Los Angeles area. Everybody seemed to know everyone else, nobody was obscenely rich but nobody was starving, and even macho sabras allowed that it was nice of the foreign volunteers to come over and lend a hand.
By American Army standards, nothing worked right, except that the Israelis kept winning all the battles -- though at a cost of some 6,000 lives.
Rachel and I, 3-year-old Orlee and 9-month -old Alina took a ship from Marseilles to Haifa to meet my wife's mother and six married siblings for the first time.
The ship's Israeli crew had been drilled that it didn't necessarily violate the egalitarian spirit of the land to treat passengers with a modicum of courtesy.
It didn't always work. One afternoon, at "High Tea," the waiter brought a piece of cake, but no fork. When I mentioned the oversight, he looked at me in frank astonishment, and, genuinely puzzled, asked, "So why can't you use your fingers?"
Rachel's mother lived in a small house in Shaarey Hessed, an observant, but not black hat, quarter of Jerusalem, where chains blocked entrances to streets on Shabbat.
There my mother-in-law had raised seven children, without benefit of a gas range, washing machine or second bathroom. Neither she nor any of her children's families had a phone, and the idea of owning a car was beyond fantasy.
I used my one-month visit to write six articles for the Mirror, the afternoon sister paper of the Los Angeles Times. Fortunately, Rachel's five sisters and one brother, and their spouses, ranged politically from far left to far right, so I had an instant crash course on Israel's chaotic political scene.
The discussions were lively and emotional, something I sorely missed years later when I learned that the debates had stopped. By that time, opinions and frictions had hardened to the point where frank discussions had to be discontinued to preserve some semblance of family harmony.
Here is an anecdote to illustrate something basic about the Israeli character:
We had rented an apartment in the Rehavia quarter of Jerusalem, and a half a block from our place was a neighborhood grocery store.
One day I put Alina in a baby stroller to pick up some groceries. It was a hot day, so I took off her blanket and stowed it next to her.
I had walked but a few steps, when a middle-age woman peered into the baby carriage, clucked her tongue, looked at me disapprovingly and without a word took the blanket and covered Alina.
I immediately pushed the blanket aside and after a few more steps, another yenta appeared, and went through the same routine. Before I could reach the store, the minidrama was repeated for a third time.
At first, I was furious. What possessed these people, total strangers, to butt their noses into what was purely my business? Then I had a second thought. If I were in Los Angeles and decided to throw my baby in the gutter, it is doubtful that the passing cars would even slow down.
These thoughts led to my first rule on the Israeli personality: In normal times, Israelis can drive you up the wall. But when I'm in trouble and need help, it's the Israelis I want next to me.
There were a couple of happenings during our stay to spice up the narrative.
Jerusalem was all atwitter because a Hollywood star and film crew were in town to shoot a movie, which was released later in the year under the title, "Exodus."
Then, toward the end of our stay, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion rose in the Knesset for an announcement. Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust, had been captured in Argentina and brought to Israel for trial.