Blessings in the Land

by Moshe Dann (May 2014)

“They stole my country,” Sarah said grimly, as she grated a thin layer of cheese over a steaming platter of spaghetti and meatballs. She shouted to her two children to shut off the rock music show they were watching on TV and come to the table.  Dimming the fancy chandelier lights that hung over the dining room table, she brushed a strand of hair from her forehead with the back of her hand and slumped in a chair. Her face and body retained a youthfulness that had matured into a lady of simple elegance and Israeli perseverance.

 “Danny’s at the office,” she smiled wearily. ”A big project; a new skyscraper in Tel Aviv. He’ll join us later, so let's eat! Wine. Golan,” she filled our wine glasses. “L’Chaim!” we clinked.

Despite the surroundings of a large multi-level home in a suburb of Jerusalem, she was still a Jewish Mama, I mused. Michael and Ilana slipped in beside me. “You’ve grown up,” I put my arms around them. “It’s been almost ten years; you were just teen-agers then.” Smiling stoically, they helped themselves. I turned to Sarah.

“Who 'stole’ your country? The Americans? The Orthodox? The PLO?” 

“I don't know,” she said, knitting her eyebrows together. “It's a feeling. But the country I grew up in… and love… isn't there anymore.”

Materialism, I thought, noticing the large abstract painting that hung in the living room over a black leather-covered sofa, huge plants in corners and a woven fabric of subtle desert colors that reflected her gentle but definite taste. The political economy of angst.

“Maybe you just need a new car,” I said half-joking.

“I HAVE a new car!” she countered. “So does Danny!”

“Just kidding,” I offered.

“But I'm not,” she said softly, as if defeated by her admission. “I'm scared, not because things are changing around me. I understand that. My kids listen to rock instead of the pioneer songs that I used to sing when we danced in the street, and they eat cheeseburgers instead of falafels and wear designer clothes. We've made it!” she exclaimed not quite proudly. “But we've lost something as well.”

“Maybe you're better off?” I suggested hopefully.

“Look, you're an American. You take all of these things for granted. I don't. We built this country. I was born a few years after the ’48 war. Danny and I were married just before the Yom Kippur War; he was wounded then. Michael was born a year before the war in Lebanon, and then Ilana, during the first Intifada,” she nodded towards her children. “War,” she sighed, staring at one of the wild abstract paintings on the wall behind me, as if searching for a memory she'd almost forgotten. “I wanted to believe that the Oslo Agreements would work. I trusted the government, but now I don't,” she said, pursing her lips. “I voted for Labor all my life, except for Begin; Danny too. And I'm for peace … with all my heart.” She stopped as if to catch up to her thoughts, suddenly distracted. “I hope Danny’s on his way home.”

“We used to be a giving society; now we're takers. We used to know what we're fighting for; now everything is confused. We've lost our sense of pride in who we are.” Michael and Ilana looked at her and then resumed eating. “And no matter what we do, it's not enough, or wrong. They kill us and we get blamed for fighting back.”

“Oh G-d, I don't want to go to war again. I don't want to be a widow, or lose one of my children…” She winced and took a breath. “The government wants to give away the West Bank, the shtachim, OK. But it isn’t enough. We keep giving; they keep taking and blowing up our buses and cafes. I don’t understand. What do they want from us? It seems so CRAZY,” she shook her head and raised her hands above her head as if surrendering to an overpowering force. “I don’t know who’s responsible. I don’t know who to blame.”

“Maybe it's the frummies,” I teased.

“Nah,” she said waving her hand. “So they won't let Jews marry goyim and some crazies throw stones at cars on Shabbat and make a ruckus over some graves. Big deal. Who cares? It’s a non-issue for me. We can drive to the beach whenever we want.”  She asserted, self-confidently. “The truth is the `religious',” she held her hands above her head and made the sign for quotation marks with her fingers, “have very little impact on my life. If anything, I impose more on them. I hate their politics and their black hats, but let them be. I suppose we need Mea Shearim too. Where else would you send tourists on Friday morning to see people preparing for Shabbat. Not around here,” she laughed gently.

“That leaves…” I concluded.

“The PLO, or the PA, or whatever they call themselves now,” she finished my sentence.”No, not them either. I mean, they want to destroy us. They say it and I believe them; I don't have any illusions. They'll take as much as we'll give them, but it will never be enough. They'll keep killing us and we'll keep playing by some silly rules, like gentlemen.”

“We're not always such nice guys,” I said, thinking of stories I'd read about.

“Oh yeah, we can be nasty too. But it's not in our nature. It is in theirs.”

“Racist?” I teased again. She smiled back, for the years when we were younger and a remark like that would have ended the conversation.

“No, just realistic. Jews don't have the heart to be brutal. We don't like to fight. We'll do it when we have to, but we do it reluctantly. We're better at eating. Just look at what happens at a wedding or Bar Mitzvah; people eat like they've been starving for years. Where else in the world do hotels offer such elaborate breakfasts for their guests? Why? Jews connect eating with love, so they stuff themselves. Maybe they think they'll even up the score with the prices.

Stopping to catch her breath, she noticed that I hadn't touched the spaghetti. She looked at me as if I had suddenly betrayed her.

“I'm a vegetarian,” I reassured her, heaping some salad on my plate. Her kids looked at me as if I was from another planet. “What do you think?” I asked her son.

“Well, I was in Shechem with my unit last year…” he began.”Reserves.”

This kid, I thought to myself, spaghetti sauce leaking out of his mouth, already a seasoned soldier.

He hesitated, stumbling over memories, “one of my friends got killed…” he spoke in a controlled voice. “…I don't want war, but if it's war, then let's finish it. We're just playing games, sometimes. It's politics and stupid corrupt politicians.”

“You're in a combat unit?” I asked.

He nodded, not wanting to reveal any more information. “I'm finishing university next year,” he added. “Pre-Med.”

“You'll make a lot of money.”

“Research,” he corrected me with a look of indignation that made me respect him more.

“So, Michael, what are you fighting for?”

“That's the trouble. I'm not sure anymore. It's my country. I want to raise a family here some day. But something is missing, something's terribly wrong. I mean we're supposed to be different. But more and more we're becoming just like everyone else.”

“If you give up your claim to uniqueness it might be less of a problem.”

“We've lost our…” he hesitated, as if the word was stuck,”… our soul.”

“Spoken like a true philosopher,” I winked at him.

“I disagree,” Ilana chimed in. “When I’m finished with the army, I'm going to college …”

“Next year,” Michael corrected her.

“… Ok, next year, and we believe in peace. There's no alternative. Two of my friends were blown up in a bus bombing last year; social workers and teachers came to talk to us about it. We all agreed. We have to go on, look towards the future, put the past behind us.”

“'Put your behind in the past,'” Michael said, echoing a line from the Lion King. “Just wait until we say `No!' to them. It'll be hell again.”

Ilana made a face at her brother. “I was teaching new recruits. They didn't know Hebrew; some weren't even Jewish. There are many ways to help my country.”

“But what does 'your country' mean?”

“Democracy,” she said, raising her head. “I’m a citizen and I can vote.”

“But who's there to vote for? Do you believe any of them?” I asked.

“That's politics,” she admitted. “I voted for the first time. Labor.”

“Bullshit,” Michael countered between mouthfuls. “All they do is talk, and lie, and steal. Medinat Mushcat.”

“But who's 'they'?” I asked. “The government is you.”

“It's not me,” Michael shook his head. “They don’t have the balls to do what needs to be done.”

“It is,” his mother said, touching his arm. “It's us, all of us. It's what we've become.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“We voted for Rabin, may his soul rest in peace. We trusted him…” she said softly. “We felt betrayed. We thought things would be better with Bibi, but it's all the same crap. And then Barak. And then Sharon and Olmert, and God knows who else …”

“Rabin, Barak realized that there's no alternative,” Ilana said. “If you want peace you have to give them a state.  Even Sharon agreed …”

“But they don't want peace,” Michael said. “It's only a word. You don't get peace by making agreements and signing papers. You get peace by standing up for principles, and being tough. We showed them that we're weak. We backed down… We gave in …”

“Except a state,” Ilana said. “They want their own state. We shouldn't occupy …”

“Good for them. They can want what they want. It’s just too risky.”

“But if you don't give them a state there'll be even more killing. No peace. Is that what you want?”

“No, I don't know what's going to satisfy them. If terrorism won't stop, what's the point of giving them a state? Should we just give and give until we don't have anything more?  Then what do we do?”

“We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“I'd rather cross it now,” he said, shifting his weight. I imagined him in uniform, hunting terrorists in the middle of the night.

“First you've got to build bridges…” Ilana said.

“First you've got to plan them, carefully, so they don't collapse,” Michael countered.

“Look, if we don't get out of the territories, we won't be able to call ourselves a democracy or a Jewish State. If we give millions of Arabs the right to vote, we're finished.”

“I doubt whether they'll accept Israeli citizenship, along with paying taxes and doing national service. They don't want to be part of this country; they want to destroy us. I'm not even sure they want their own country.”  

“They deserve it,” Ilana glared at her brother.

“As long as they don't want to kill us,” Michael added.

“As long as we don't want to destroy them. We have to stand for law and order.”

“We have to stand for ourselves. 'Law and Order isn't a suicide pact.' They don't want us to exist.”

“And for peace, we have to try….”

“It's not `peace' with our Arab neighbors that worries me,” Sarah said. “It's peace between us. We've lost more than the will to fight; we've lost the reason for it all.” Her face seemed strained. “It's not `them,' that's the problem, it's `us.'  What are we doing here? Have we just built a bigger, better ghetto? Does everything come down to putting up another shopping mall? Another lousy film on TV? A 'World Class' soccer team? Miss Universe? Who the hell are we anyway? What have we become? That's what scares me. Somewhere along the way everything that I believed in, everything that I sacrificed for ends up in a pile of confetti thrown around for someone else's parade. I don't believe in this crap anymore,” she cried. “I don't know what I believe in anymore.”

Her children watched her silently, sharing her helplessness. Confused, they tried to balance between what they had experienced and what lay before them.

“The Future,” Michael said. “That's what it's all about.”

“But what if that's no different than anyone else's `Future?' ” Sarah asked. “”What if there's no difference between `us' and `them?'”

“You mean 'the goyim,' ” Ilana corrected.

“Yes, between Jews and everyone else,” Sarah said. “What difference does it make if this house is here, or in Long Island, or Los Angeles?”

“Better in Los Angeles,” Ilana winked at Michael and snickered.

“Maybe that's the difference between Israeli Jews and Arabs. The Arabs know exactly what they're fighting for; the Jews aren't sure.”

“Except the settlers,” I suggested.  

“You see, it all comes down to homes,” Sarah sighed. “For Arabs, we're all 'settlers.' Everyone's fighting for their 'home.' It all depends on how you define it. The way the Arabs look at it, we stole their land and their homes. Nothing here belongs to us.”

“But that's not true. Everyone knows that,” Michael raised his voice.

“It is,” Ilana retorted.

“'Truth' is what you convince yourself and other people to believe”

“So what do we do, pack up and leave?” I asked.

“No, you fight for what you believe in,” Sarah said quietly, reminding me of the days when were called 'leftist radicals.' “That's reality. But first you have to know clearly what you're willing to fight for. In 1948, we fought for a state. In '67 and '73 we fought to survive. But now, survival isn't enough.”

“Maybe it is. Maybe that's what Jews do,” I offered.

“Somehow it does matter whether there's a State of Israel, or not. The problem is I'm not sure why. A `Jewish State' it's not; a state of Jews is also not true. Rabin and Peres, for example, stayed in power because of Arab votes. Barak ran to Washington every time there was trouble. And Sharon and Olmert … We're sinking in the quicksand of corruption.”

“That's because they want peace too. Only the right wing and the religious don't want.” Ilana said angrily.

“What do you mean `they don't want'?” Sarah looked at her daughter sharply. “You think that there's a single Jew who wants war? The question is what the price is, and who's going to pay it? Do you think that the Hamasniks and Hitlers care about who they kill, as long as they are Jews? This world doesn't make sense. Your grandparents believed in something; I want to, but I don't know how anymore. It's as if we've lost our direction. We had a country that cared…about each other…about values. We were a community, a big 'family,' Jews from all over the world, building our own little country, together…We had kibbutzim. We had dreams.” She stopped, as if afraid of what she might say.

“Oh Mama,” Ilana sighed desperately, “that was so long ago.”

“Yes, ziskind,” she nodded, with a look of exhausted kindness, “a long time ago.”

“Mama, we'll just have to learn to live with less.” She sounded like she needed to convince herself as well.

“I don't understand. We believed in a Jewish state, Hatikva, after 2,000 years. We were ready to die for that, but now, who are we? What do we stand for, just another country, like all the rest? Is fighting for a Palestinian state as important as our own survival – maybe even more? What's got into us? Self-destructive…”  

“Remember the helicopter crash?” Michael broke his silence. “Seventy-three guys died. For what? That's what everyone asks. Is it all just some kind of absurd lottery of death, waiting until your number comes up, or is this a metaphor for something we've missed? We call them korbanot, but for what? What did they die for?”

“To protect us,” Sarah straightened her back. “They sacrificed their lives…”

“No, Mama,” Michael said. “They died because a pilot made a mistake, or because the flight plan was misread, or done badly, or…because we shouldn't be there at all, or…we keep throwing good lives down an empty hole that politicians dig.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Should we get out of the territories like we did in Lebanon?”

“We have no business there,” Ilana added for emphasis. “It’s occupation.”

“Not quite,” Michael said patiently. “We're not occupying someone else's country. This is Eretz Yisrael. And we need to protect ourselves, but the price is high, and nobody knows what our bottom line is, so they keep pushing…”

“And we push back. You sound frustrated,” I scolded.

“Yes, of course. But not only about how a war is fought, but why. Is it all over 'Quality of Life,' a few more bucks in the pension, a trip abroad each year? Is our national temperature measured by the Boursa (Tel Aviv Stock Exchange)? “

“What's wrong with that?” Ilana mocked indignantly. “My boyfriend made money there. And it's better than supporting settlers and yeshivas.”

“Oh, Ilana,” Michael sounded exasperated, “I'm not happy with all those Jews living in the West Bank, but they are Zionists, maybe even the last of the 'true,' and we do have some responsibility. And, as for the 'black hats,' well, let them live in their little ghettos… “

“We have no business there. We should get out,” Ilana rapped her fist on the table.

“The yeshivas?” I asked.

“No,” she answered, “the West Bank, the Golan, the whole thing. We don't belong there…”

“Where do we belong?”

“What we had before. I don't care. Give the Arabs what they want and they'll be happy.”

“You hope,” Michael frowned, “they'll give us something.” 

“And let them take the yeshivas with them,” she sounded as if she was about to cry. “Why can't they just leave us alone?”

“Because 'they' don't want us here.'They' don't want us anywhere.”

A phone call interrupted us. Sarah answered it, turning from the challenge of our conversation to the caller. Her face paled, mouth open, a gasp of silence, words sucked out of her.

“It's Danny,” Sarah repeated as she hung up the phone. “A bomb on a bus. Danny's car was alongside. He's at Ein Karem. It's critical.” Looking wildly around her, she tried to decide what to do first. Michael and Ilana jumped up and grabbed their coats.

“Come on, Mom,” Michael said. “I'll drive.”

Sarah looked at me helplessly.

“I'll give you a call later,” I said, giving her a hug. “Be strong. It'll be okay,” I tried to sound hopeful. Standing in the driveway, I watched her BMW pull away from the curb and noticed a large faded “Shalom Haver” sticker on the bumper.

On the way back to my hotel, the cab driver listened intently to the radio. The news reported details of the terrorist attack, the dead and injured. “The Prime Minister was outraged and demanded that PA curb terrorism,” the Israel Radio reporter intoned, “citing the recent release of hundreds of terrorists. “Goodwill gestures.” European leaders condemned the attack, noting that the dead and injured were “victims of the peace process,” a “cycle of violence” and opining that such attacks, though regrettable, must not stop “the peace process.” A spokesman for Peace Now blamed settlements as a provocation. The State Department called for Israeli restraint. In Ramallah and Gaza, Palestinians handed out sweets.

I said a silent prayer for Danny. Why must we prove to the world that we aren't monsters and why are they so indifferent when they see our blood flowing in the streets, our children burning? Nothing changes.

There are those who say on Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement) our destiny is sealed, for those “who shall live and who shall die; who shall perish by the sword and who by beasts; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time, who will rest and who will wander, who will live in peace and quiet and who will struggle …”

Across the dark valley, lights of homes scattered across the hills of Jerusalem into the black womb of sky. Where will we be safe, I wondered, and who will be tomorrow's victim? One can only see stars at night, when it is darkest, the same stars that people saw in Rome and Babylon, and in Auschwitz. Somehow, we will survive this too, I thought, and we shall redeem each other with this pain and with love. 


Moshe Dann is a writer and journalist living in Jerusalem. His next book, As Far As The Eye Can See, will be published by New English Review Press this fall.


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