Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Holy Land II

Fellow Countrycommandantes,

Still coming down from two weeks battering through Israel.  I spent much of last week under the lights in a sound studio in Washington, D.C., where a crew of zealots interviewed me exhaustively for a ten-hour documentary intended to worm out of my scratchy memory the whole truth about the Kennedy family.  My two full-length treatments of the family, Bobby and J. Edgar and Edward Kennedy:  An Intimate Biography are replete with widely suppressed facts and interpretations of what actually happened throughout the Kennedy years, from Chappaquiddick to Dallas, revelations largely avoided in calculated establishment cover-ups.  We shall see how much of what I divulged will make it into the final cut.

I think I was still processing the implications of what I had run across in Israel during the previous month.  Most surprising, I have to suggest, was the absence of threat, the open and relatively unprotected way we were able to roll around the country, from the border in the Galilee overlooking Syria to the Judean desert below the Dead Sea, almost entirely without guards or security measures or warnings of any kind.  It was far easier to get in and out of Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv than to process through endless customs hangups coming home through JFK.  I had the chance to exchange ideas with a variety of Muslims, not a few Palestineans, and most were frank enough.  Life in Israel had its problems, plenty needed to be corrected, but compared with existence around the rest of the Middle East...?

In Bethlehem I had a frank conversation with our driver for the afternoon, a squat, cheerful Arab.  How were things going in The Territories?  Pretty good, he said.  Something like 50,000 workers passed over every day into Israel to work.  It would be nice if Jerusalem would let up on the red tape. Overall, couldn't really complain -- it was the leaders on both side who were causing the disruptions.  What was he hoping for? I asked. "Peace," he told me.  Let people live their lives.  Meanwhile, Jewish and Arab families were in abundance in the better restaurants wherever we went, sometimes sharing tables.  I never ran into a scuffle, or even raised voices, from the teeming marketplaces to the hush of the great museums.

At one point a woman in our group, a Jewish retiree from New York, got hit by a serious intestinal problem and our guide Rotem took her the the emergency room of the general hospital in Nazareth.  The staff there is entirely Arab, doctors on down.  Did he feel, I asked Rotem when she returned, feeling better after the right antibiotic, that there was any danger our friend might have been...deliberately misdiagnosed by the people in the hospital.  Or worse.  Rotem was startled.  How could that happen? he demanded.  They're all Israeli citizens.

It may be that Israel presents the greatest threat to radical Islam by presenting opportunities to the Muslim population that no other country in the region is progressive enough -- or prosperous enough -- to match.  More than Israel's reputed 300 atom bombs, genuine progress and social decency may get the country through.   I ran into several refugees from the bloodbath in the Sudan:  not immigrants exactly, but permitted to stay because where else could they go?  Every day victims of Assad's barrel bombs are carted across into the Golan Heights from Syria, where Israeli surgeons do whatever they can.  "We remember rejection," one Israeli told me. "We remember Auschwitz."

 We had a delicious lunch one day in the apartment of a Druze Arab woman.  Her husband was a goat herder.  She had two grown children.  One was in Moscow furthering his education in physics.  The other, a young woman, was doing graduate work in Berkeley.  Perhaps a generation of Arabs is coming along ever more likely to prefer the twenty-first to the fourteenth century and less likely to be conned into blowing themselves up for a corrupted version of supposed Muslim writ.  The tradition of tolerance and openness to other cultures which distinguished Byzantine society and Ottoman intellectual life and kept Aristotle alive in the Arab world throughout the Dark Ages in Europe may now be experiencing a secret rebirth in Israel.

This works both ways.  We spent several nights in a kibbutz, run by a charming Irish-Catholic lady.  I was surprised to discover that in the kibbutzes -- a primary social instrument of Israel's founders -- there are no synagogues.  No rabbis, no prayers.  The founders of Israel -- like the founders of the United States -- were rationalists.  The Jewish homeland they envisioned must not be hidebound, enslaved by the assumptions of the ghetto.

Let's not write Israel off too soon.


Burton Hersh


Monday, April 20, 2015

The Holy Land

Esteemed Concelebrants,

Yes, yes, I know -- almost a month.  Just when you thought Spiritual Guidance was out of your sensitive lives forever -- it's back.  There are, of course, excuses, not least of which is the fact that we were on a two-week trip to Israel, subject to the iron regimen of a travel service designated OAT -- Overseas Adventure Travel.  This blitzkrieg tour of Israel was skillfully if exhaustingly micromanaged, with most days, most meals, all travel accommodations clicking by with Teutonic efficiency.  Tiring, but an amazing engorgement of immediate experience.

Primary to the pitch of OAT is the concept that you will not only view the monuments and historical sites and and sacred landscape but you will also meet the people.  This was arranged through a series of home visits, native dinners, unlikely hospitality from specimens as unlikely as Ultraorthodox Jews, Christian Arabs, and a spokeswoman for the PLO.  Just when you thought you were beginning to understand the place, another take threw a lot into question.

I start with our guide, Rotem.  Rotem Litov, whose forebears fled the prevailing Ukrainian anti-Semitism a couple of generations ago, is a towering extrovert in an Australian bushhunter's hat, by his own admission incurably ADHD, who shepherded the fifteen or so of us -- three couples and the rest adventurous, uncomplaining women-- on and off the bus as we scoured the ancient overlays of civilization.  I came to understand that the ever-attentive Rotem, like his generation of Israelis, lived a double life,  Married, working hard to pay for the cinderblock residence going up beside his olive orchard in one of the villages, Rotem is simultaneously a tank commander in an Israeli armored division, who has taken leave of his civilian life repeatedly during the last ten years to take his tank into battle throughout the prevailing war.  The fierce battle over for the moment, dust settling, Rotem can return to his family and his olive orchard and the next delegation of jumpy Americans for whom he must steel himself.  Like most Israeli men these days a robust, resilient fellow, clearly worried underneath, Rothem incarnates the dream of Israel for his generation.

We made so many scenes, which to elaborate?  We started and ended in Tel Aviv, a bustling, beachside commercial center reminiscent of the Lower East Side of Manhattan fifty years ago, a welter of half painted buildings, many daubed with graffiti, and motorcycles and mopeds.  Adjacent Jaffa seems calmer -- we tour a private museum a painter has opened for tourists and were treated to lunch at the home of a very soignee -- and busty -- Christian Arab, a spread of the usual mushy chipped-pea-based hummus followed by superb baklava.  Coffee exporters, the family was clearly doing very well in today's Israel.

The next evening we were the guests in a slum of the wife of an Ultraorthodox rabbi.  This variety of Judaism was utterly startling to me.  Forswearing all material comforts, these throwbacks to the ghetto  devote themselves to the study of the scriptures and the propagation of enormous families.  We ate whatever there was on a blotched paper tablecloth protected by a wrinkled sheet of clear plastic.

The Ultraorthodox comprise a surprisingly large percentage of the Israeli electorate, and can coerce the politicians into policies otherwise anathema in this bustling state,  For instance, since it is forbidden for a female to touch a male, even incidentally, in passing, except in marriage, the chance that such a contact might occur in the military appears to justify the exemption of all Ultraorthodox children of age, male or female, from the prevailing draft.  All the other Israelis resent this -- even the Druze Arabs serve in the Israeli regiments these days --  and a major fight is brewing in the Knessett.

No single blog can begin to incorporate the many impressions this trip has left.  For more -- keep posted .


Burton Hersh