May 15, 2008
Nation might not be safest but it’s the most interesting
We walk past the Heine Street sign by the Montefiore windmill and gaze at the Ottoman walls of the Old City and the Tower of David, a Crusader structure made over into a mosque. Behind us is the King David Hotel, blown up by Jewish fighters in 1946 and occupied by President Bush in 2008. Beyond us are picturesque Arab villages and the biblical landscape of the Judean Desert.
My son and I look around each time with renewed wonder and gratitude and say to one another, "Can you believe we live here?" Israel is a place you never take for granted, even if you were, as he was, born here. All else is commentary.
In an 1852 essay, Heine observed wryly: "The Jews, who know a thing or two about valuable things, knew very well what they were doing when, during the burning of the Second Temple, they left the gold and silver sacrificial vessels, the lamps and the candelabras, even the breastplate of the high priest with its large gems, and saved only the Bible. This was the real treasure of the temple...."
Elsewhere, Heine called the Bible the "portable fatherland" of the Jews. Even today, after we have returned to the Land of Israel and built a modern democracy on the rocky foundations of antiquity, the notion of a virtual homeland remains an attractive concept, particularly for Jews who are dismayed by Israeli militarism.
As the French-born Anglo-Jewish literary critic George Steiner put it in a 1985 essay called, "Our Homeland, the Text":
The man or woman at home in the text is, by definition, a conscientious objector: to the vulgar mystique of the flag and the anthem, to the sleep of reason which proclaims 'My country, right or wrong.'Twenty years later, I sat politely in a Jerusalem auditorium and heard Steiner expand on this lofty notion. Two millennia of powerlessness, he said, had conferred a "moral aristocracy" upon the Jews.
"It made us the princes of life like no others," he declared. "We did not torture another human being."
The Israelis, he noted, can make no such claim. Jews and all other people, Steiner said, "must learn to be each other's guests," to be "tossed into life." "The homeland of the Jew," he told a hall full of unimpressed Israelis, "may be that of exile."
The following year, in the spring of 2006, I sat at my desk in Jerusalem and raptly watched the online video of the 100th anniversary celebration of the American Jewish Committee in Washington, D.C., at which the Israeli author, A.B. Yehoshua, affronted his hosts by insisting that secular Israeli Jewish identity is by definition thicker, more complete, than Jewish identity in the Diaspora.
"It's my skin, not my jacket," he said. "You are changing countries like changing jackets. I have my skin, the smell of the territory, the smell of the language."
American Jews who dwell on texts are "playing" with Jewishness, he charged. "The problem is not text, it's life," he said. He was right, of course, but for Jews, the two are never disentangled.
And this spring, as Israel marks its 60th birthday, the Atlantic monthly runs a cover story titled, "Is Israel Finished?" Its author, the respected American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, writes with great skill about Iran and Hamas and the dwindling viability of the two-state solution, the urgent stuff that all of us writers who care about Israel write about all too often.
Goldberg, a veteran of the Israeli army, asks Prime Minister Ehud Olmert flat out why it is that Jews today are physically safer in America than in Israel.
"Jews are not safer in Israel than they are in other parts of the world, but there is only one place that Jews can fight for their lives as Jews, and that is here," retorts Olmert, banging on his desk, adding for good measure the traditional Zionist refrain that "Jews in Germany -- and I don't draw any comparison at all -- Jews in other parts of the world were very successful all their lives, and that didn't provide them with safety."
Often when I speak about Israel in public or in private to American Jews, I'm asked why Israel's "message" in the media is less clear-cut and effective than that of Israel's adversaries. Aren't we the people of the Book, the word, the text? Why aren't we better at public relations? Why after 60 years is it so hard to sell Israel to the world? Why do so many intelligent people wonder if the "Israel Lobby" has too much power in Washington? How can we combat a former American president who warns of "apartheid" in the Holy Land and chats cozily with Israelis' sworn enemies?
By way of an answer, let me add to the text above -- each of them good food for a spirited Independence Day discussion, fueled by a world-class bottle of Israeli cabernet -- a profound Jewish joke:
Elderly, ailing Mr. Rabinowitz has demanded to be moved from St. Luke's hospital to Mount Sinai. His new doctor wants to know why.
"Was the medical care inadequate at St. Luke's?"
"No," says the old man, "it was all right."
"How about the nurses?"
"The nurses were nice; I can't complain," he says.
"The food? You didn't like the food there?"
"Nah, the food was OK; can't complain."
"So why," asks the doctor, "did you demand to be switched to Mount Sinai?"