His Sword Drawn In His Hand Stretched Out Over Jerusalem

In The Land Of Israel, Bis
by Shabbtai
(August 2011)

He took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and great fear. And what is great fear, the Hagaddah asks, if not the Divine Presence that had the presence of mind to take one nation out of another and bring it to the promised land? The Passover story redoubles Creation. Once again difference asserts itself in the human story, the irreversible story of difference that can only produce more. And so we say: in memory of the beginning, in memory of the exodus from Egypt.

Thank God the Lord stands with His sword in His hand outstretched over Jerusalem. For too many Jews and too many Israelis do not. Jerusalem is trouble, they say, and stay away. Jerusalem is haredi, they say, and so they abandon it, as the haredi abandon the state of Israel that watches over them, its sword drawn in its hand outstretched over their seder tables. I am in the land of Israel and happy to be here. I think the land should be bigger. It should stretch all the way to the Jordan and swallow up Gaza. Those are its natural frontiers. Also its strategic ones. Also its eternal ones, promised over and over by whatever it is humans believe in: God, law, the spoils of just wars. But too many Jews and too many Israelis abandon the people who would settle the land and neglect the land that is theirs by any conceivable right. Theirs to rule and theirs to cherish, as they do when left alone in peace.

I have come to Israel for two months. I know just about nobody here and those I do know I do not contact because I no longer know what we shall say. We would argue into the wee hours of the morning about what they cannot see and no one will come to tell us it is time for morning services. They will call me a racist. I would tell them I would sleep with an Arab if he were a Zionist. They will tell me I ask for too much. All my life I asked for too much. Now I ask for so little, only the simple things, like the simple truth a Jewish poet once wrote about. I ask that the Palestinians lie down with the Israelis as the kid is supposed to lie down with the lion. I ask that they embrace the Jewish state and bless it. I ask that if they must have a state they welcome Jews who wish to live there to do so. I ask that their state be democratic, liberal, pluralist, open. Then I could sleep with an Arab even if he were not a Zionist. But that too apparently is too much.

In one of his stories Jabotinsky describes a penal colony where the world, having given up on the death penalty, sends its most hardened criminals. Tristan da Runha Settlement, it is called. Against all odds it survives and evolves. It overcomes the divisions of language, of human passions, of all the reasons for worldly scepticism. The journalist character who describes it ventures to claim it is a land of great promise. So was Israel to the Yishuv, although the British were sceptical, so sceptical they justified their kowtowing to the Arabs by arguing the Jews could never make a go of it, not economically and not militarily.

The British, in short, let themselves be twigged around by their own delusions. It was the same after the Second World War. They abandoned the Mandate rather than enforce their promise to the Jews contained in the Balfour Declaration. They thought the Jews would yield because they thought the Arabs would massacre them in any military confrontation. Again they allied themselves with the Arab cause, thinking the Jews would beg them to remain after the UN voted for partition. In this the British were joined by the Arabs, from their inveterate enemy al-Husseini to the Arab League headed by Egypt and Iraq which the British had helped foster. But against all odds the Jews fought and won. They defeated the combined Arab armies because, as the British military attaches had correctly foretold, the Arab street was fickle and illiterate, pan-Arab nationalism had struck few roots, and the Arab countries and protagonists were as devious with each other as they had been with the British. The Mufti, after all, had had his Palestinian compatriot Nashashibi assassinated in Baghdad during the war. And therein lay the rub.

At a restaurant that I like to frequent in Jaffa I often sit at the bar. The other day a bright young man was serving. I was telling him about my difficulty in finding a way to visit the communities in Shomron. He suggested I contact left-wing groups. They would be glad to show me around. I told him I do not like left-wing groups. He told me he has family in Shomron, the sister of his brother-in-law. She is always inviting him to visit, but he does not want to go. He likes the left-wing groups. I can tell. I told him he should go anyway. It is family. Distant family, he answered, and we talk about other things. It is a pleasure to talk to him and observe his energy. He is bright and talented and charming with his life ahead of him. He could be dead before it really gets going, I think. How terrible, I think. How terrible I think that. I would like him to think differently. I would like him to feel angry enough so he would leave his left-wing camp and stop believing the mantra that the Palestinians are victims and have a point and Israel should do something to help them because they too are people and only want a state, just as we Jews did, and if only we did not uproot their olive trees they would come around. But we do not talk about that. Instead we talk about the good food I have consumed and the nap I should take and the pleasures that Tel Aviv has to offer. He wishes me good luck. I wish him good luck too. When I leave the restaurant I think I should get his email address when next I see him and send him my texts. My grunt work for peace.

Who is a patriot these days? Who is a patriot and gay and thinks the Palestinians have forfeited all right to a state and loves the land of Israel because it is at once modern and biblical? In Jerusalem I visited the yeshiva where my mother put up a plaque in memory of my father. Over the years my father had donated money to this yeshiva so that they would say kaddish on the anniversary of the deaths of members of his family. All year long I receive notices from this yeshiva, informing me of these different anniversaries and telling me that mishnayot will be said in their honor. I thought I would go see the place and check up on the plaque we had paid for in honor of my dad.

I entered the building and looked for an office. Someone directed me to the second floor. I knocked on a few doors before one opened. It turned out to be the office of the man who sends out the letters. Yes, he knew the name. I informed him my mother had recently died. He no longer had to send her the notices. Only me. I asked how much it would cost to have kaddish recited for her. That was not his department, he said. I would have to speak to a rabbi who only came in at noon, the same one who knew where the plaque was. I took his phone number and left mine. Another man entered the office, and yet a third. Soon I was given a tour of the building.

I saw the synagogue where the students studied. I was shown the door behind which the chief and revered rabbi sat. We walked up to the third floor where the students slept. Two or three to a room, I saw, on beds like at summer camp. I was seduced at summer camp. I remember what the journalist had written about sex and loneliness. The rooms were very bare. They were being cleaned that day, but they were still very bare. I thought I would be very lonely if I studied here. But the man who showed me the rooms said he had studied here when he was young and it was one of the best times of his life. I wanted to ask him if he were a Zionist, but I did not. He did not live in Shomron, I found out, and I doubt he supported those who did. Each to his belief, is that not right?

Exiting the yeshiva I walked down the street called Malchei Yisrael, the Kings of Israel. I walked toward the religious quarter looking for a falafel place some friends of my cousins had brought us to seven years ago. I came upon the Borochov district. The name rang a bell. I searched for the place. I remembered a courtyard a few doors away. I found a falafel place, but I do not think it was the same one. I walked around the quarter a little more, looking for the buildings where the friends showed us they had grown up. I could not find it. I returned to the falafel place, deciding it would have to do. It did. Moments go. They happen and then they go. Like the Yishuv of the 30s and 40s. Like life. Maybe like Zionism.

One is always tempted to say more, as if one more phrase will persuade where all the others failed, as if one could find the right formulation so that people would see. Jabotinsky wrote. Ben-Gurion wrote. Caroline Glick writes. A blogger I read who showed me Jerusalem writes indefatigably. He took me down the valley of ghosts. It is full of restaurants and think tanks. All the people there write too. The Jews are a nation of scribblers. No wonder they were at home in Zurich and Vienna and Berlin. And what of the Jew Marcel writing for years in his cork-lined room? Did he not find the right phrase to explain? And before him George Eliot?

Shabbtai is the Hebrew pen name of Stephen Schecter, sociologist, poet and teller of Hebrew Bible stories. He is available to talk about the themes raised in this essay to audiences throughout North America and Israel. He can be reached at [email protected].

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