Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Ecce quam bonum

The idea that I could bring all my racing thoughts and impressions into a synthesis within a few days was a fantasy, but here's a first shot. As I said last time, we did a lot for being less than a week in Israel: about as much of Jerusalem as a pedestrian can cram into a full and energetic day; other wonderful biblical spots (En Kareem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, Bethsaida among them); impressive archaeological sites (Qumran, the Herodion, Beth Shean or Scythopolis, Gamla, crusader castles); much beautiful scenery, sometimes surprising set in counterpoint to the littered streets and drab, even squalid houses and workshops in many of the villages.


But the impressions left by architecture and landscape, vivid as they were, are probably less provocative than those left by a very superficial exposure to the Israeli human community, or rather communities, the plural form being necessary here. My visit to Israel began with a Sabbath meal at the apartment of Zvi’s parents, David and Tikva. My wonderfully hospitable hosts cut through the language barrier with a blizzard of food. Alimentary surfeit, indeed, was the defining characteristic of the three family meals I shared with them. One of these was a big party that included and celebrated the circumcision of a babe I never saw—though I did hear him at one point. Zvi explained the ceremony of this event—and indeed the ceremony of most Jewish festivities—as boiling down to three propositions. (1) They tried to kill us. (2) They failed. (3) So, let’s eat.

Any thoughtful Christian will admire Judaism for its existential claims on the quotidian life of the Jew. Religious practice and ritual, however relaxed or apparently casual in its execution, is the habitual companion of family life. Religious concepts are thus inextricably linked to the wholesome and loving relationships of the family. The shared meal of the Christians, the Eucharist, surrendered to symbolism and allegory many centuries ago. We believe that it “feeds” us spiritually, but nobody walks away from the table licking his chops. There is an old joke about the perfectly round, thinly pressed wafers still used in most churches: it’s easier to believe that they are the body of Christ than that they are bread. Very different indeed is a family Shabbat meal. If you are into the liturgical aspect, it has as much anyone could wish for, but it also has a loaf of real bread. An agnostic can have a fine time at a Shabbat meal; he is unlikely to go to High Mass for either the sociability or the gastronomy.

But what is a source of unity in one sphere may not be a source of unity in all spheres. By pure coincidence just a few days before flying to Tel Aviv I got an email from my old friend Steve White, who from time to time posts comments on this blog. Unbeknownst to me he had just visited Israel himself. He reported complex and tentative reactions, as I myself do, but he did have a large sense of divisions, separations, compartmentalizations. I have to say I shared it. I was prepared for a huge “Arab-Israeli Conflict,” of which there is indeed much evidence subtle and blatant. I was less prepared for the “Israeli-Israeli Conflict”.

The Israeli-Israeli Conflict would seem to be grounded in the unresolved paradox of the “Jewish State”. What, exactly, does that mean?—which is another way of asking, “What does it mean to be a Jew?—a topic endless scrutinized in the religious courts. The political division between left and right seems at least as acute as that in America, and that’s really saying something. Furthermore, and even more markedly than in America, this division usually has religious overtones. There is a marked division, made spectacularly visible on any Saturday, between more and less observant Jews. There is a sense of marked social distinction (essentially racial in character) between Ashkenazi and Sephardic. There is a large and influential section of Israelis that is hardly “religious” at all. The intellectuals of the academy, for instance, seem hardly distinguishable from their counterparts at the Sorbonne or UCLA. There is now a large population of Russian “Jews” in Israel—so large that one is everywhere confronted with Russian-language signs, books and brochures, television programs. I put the word “Jews” in quotation marks only because most of them are not religious at all and never were, their Jewishness having been determined by political aberrations of the old Soviet state, and their emigration determined by the more ordinary economic and social motives that have determined the movement of peoples for centuries. To be sure, there are at any moment large numbers of religious Russians in Israeli. They are Christian pilgrims, and you will find them in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, kissing the stone on which the body of Jesus Christ is alleged to have been placed.

However it may strike an outsider like myself, none of this seems particularly odd to Israelis. One of my favorite psalms, and probably the absolute favorite of the medieval monks whom I have studied for so many years, is the Ecce quam bonum! (Vulgate 132): "Oh what a good and joyful thing it is for brethren to dwell in unity!" Barack Obama’s election campaign was founded in a rhetoric of inclusiveness and a kind of transcendent national unity—entirely abandoned in the actual political practice of his administration, but what else in new?—that could appeal at least to the lip service we pay to the legend stamped on our coins, E pluribus unum. I had the sense that Israelis, perhaps unwisely, had settled into their separations.

The most dramatic of my limited experiences along these lines came with my solo visit to Bethlehem. From the religious point of view this was for me one of the highpoints. I didn’t have the sense of the money-changers actually having taken over the control of the temple as I did with some of the more familiar Christian sites in Jerusalem. My timing was perfect, as I was able to participate in a Greek Eucharist in the old church, with its stone door built intentionally low to discourage the Burgundian knights from entering on horseback, as was their wont. (Re-read the opening scene in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.) This was swiftly followed by an Arabic Roman Catholic mass, also deeply spiritual, in the slightly newer church built against is north wall. On the same trip I visited the Herodion (a forbidding Roman era fortress atop a bleak mountain, still in the process of excavation), and the supposed site of the Annunciation, where there is now a pleasant modern church. Medieval pilgrimage sites were the original theme parks, and many of those in western Europe were copied from models in Palestine. I already knew about the “Holy House" that had been constructed at Walsingham in East Anglia, and I was glad to see the original.

But Bethlehem is in the West Bank, and to get there involves going through a check-point. David and Zvi drove me out there, but then I was one my own. I had naively assumed that a check-point would look something like the proctors’ kiosk where you must stop for a smiley chat as you enter the Princeton campus by car. The Bethlehem check-point is a huge metal thing, at least a square block in size, all covered and encased in extra-heavy gauge mesh. The vibe as I experienced it was half cattle auction corral, half spooky subway too late at night for comfort. Getting through to the Palestinian side was no problem. Facilis decensus Averni. On the other side, as promised, were many taxi drivers, all functionally Anglophone. I don’t know if there is an actual protocol that the Christians get the Christians, but my guy was Christian, with a brother who ran a nice Christian gift shop, which was a nobler place than many to pay my required tribute.

The famous Wall is absolutely formidable. My guy had a line on it, probably the textbook Palestinian line. “They take down the wall in Berlin. They put it up again here.” I did not think it condign to point out the differing functions of the two walls, as I understood them; nor did I comment upon my impression of a concomitant and dramatically sharp decrease in West Bank suicide bombers. The situation is hideous enough, however it comes about. I also saw several settlements. Once again my expectations were contradicted. What you see looking back toward Jerusalem from the Herodion is not a few campers with pup tents and an Israeli flag. What you see is a huge complex of well built and expensive apartment houses flooding down the hillside with all the elegance and opulence of the real estate on the slopes of the East Bay. To “remove” this settlement would be more or less like “removing” Berkeley Hills, and about as senseless. But here, controverted in the most violent and unaccommodating language, are emblems of an apparently non-negotiable separation.


Although Sunday observance kept me from getting into a few Christian sites in the afternoon (such as the “John theBaptist” church at En Kareem), the day has no particular significance for Jews or Muslims. It was a workday in Jerusalem, a bustling one, and by the time I got back to the checkpoint late in the morning there were literally hundreds of people milling about, waiting to get through the very slow-moving security process. The concept of the line (as in queue) seems to be unknown in Arab society—as also at Paris bus stops, but that’s another issue. So you had this large mass of people in a kind of football scrum, heading obscurely for some funnel. Most of them were regulars, naturally, but the first problem faced by a novice like myself was to try to figure out where the funnel was. I could see the exit turnstiles (like New York subway turnstiles, only with locks), electrically controlled remotely by the invisible guards in their booths on the other side. The green light would flash on for a few seconds, and a few people would rush through. Then the light would go red, and stay red for five minutes or more.

Eventually my height came to my rescue, so that I could see the direction I needed to head, and what buxom ladies in headscarves I had to trample on to do so. I have to say that I was a little scared, and that I abandoned my gentlemanly instincts. But these were people who needed to get somewhere, probably to work. Many of them were visibly madder than hell. There were shoving matches. There was an incipient fistfight when a guy tried to jump over (as opposed to walk around) the final metal barrier. I have often thought that commuting to work by car or train must be hell. If I had to do this every day to get to work, I’d—well, I’m not sure what I’d do, but I can see that it wouldn’t make me particularly friendly to the people opening and closing the turnstiles.

Back in the early days of the “Arab-Israeli Conflict” the Texan Sam Rayburn, Speaker of the House, made a suggestion that revealed a certain cultural naïveté. “Why can’t the two sides just get together,” he asked in apparently sincere puzzlement, “and settle this thing in a good Christian fashion?” Maybe it’s time to revive that program. As soon as the sects that have been warring in in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the last thousand years can agree on which Christians should get the job.