I have just returned from a few days in Jerusalem.
Before you read my journal and are moved to write all sorts of inflamed comments, bear in mind that my POV is very subjective and distorted by the 70+ years my mother’s family has spend in Israel and the on and off relationship I have had with that tortured little patch of sand.
I have come here pretty reluctantly, cajoled by mother who comes twice a year to check on my grandfather. My last visit was twelve years ago, to attend my grandmother’s funeral. I remember the gentle nudge of her ankle against my hand, its dead weight through her shroud as I bore her pall. Then we slid her body into a dusty hole on a hillside, planting her like the flowers she loved. I’ve not had much appetite to return but my mum has been increasingly insistent.
I have never liked this country much. I abhor its politics, its arrogance and its disproportionate impact on the global community. But my maternal ancestors were German and Polish jews, most of whom settled in this desert in the 1930s. The rest settled into the crematoria of Eastern Europe.
Only my grandparents took a different course: first studying medicine in Mussolini’s Rome, then fleeing to British India to purse my grandfather’s second cousin who owed him money. The cousin turned up in Africa a decade later, soon after my grandparents, mother and uncle were released from an internment camp on the Kashmiri border where they had spent seven years with other enemies of the Raj, communists, Nazi sympathizers and German nationals like themselves. Undeterred by the irony of being imprisoned by the enemies of their enemies, my grandparents set up a practice in India, then Pakistan, where they remained for thirty five years. When war broke out in the early 70s they joined us in Israel where war broke out again and we left for the USA.
My grandparents remained in Jerusalem, forced to fend without their accustomed servants, cooks, and gardeners, and shrinking with age.
Although I have been to Jerusalem many times as a child, a teenager and as a young adult, I’ve never been a tourist here. I also promised Patti that I would not take busses, which she is convinced are all rolling terrorist targets.
I wear my back pack; it is filled with my Grumbacher watercolors, a box of pens, my trusty Rapidoliner and a new journal, an Arches travel journal, 6×9.5″ of 140 lb. cold press watercolor paper. I pick up scraps along the way to collage onto the covers of my book: cigarette packs, receipts, newspapers, maps, and other ephemera.
The tension in the air is unusual. The stalls along the covered streets of the Old City have been selling clobber (all of which my cynical grandfather claims is made in China these days) to pilgrims and tourists for millennia. Obviously they want to keep the atmosphere calm and inviting to maintain their livelihood. But recently principle has out weighed commerce and the Intifada had sealed the shops for long stretches. I have never felt such desperation from the shopkeepers hunkered down amidst their dusty inventory, or felt such a sense of menace in the less populated turns of the labyrinthine quarter.
I grew tired of the scratchiness of my .25 Rapidoliner nib on the bumpy cold-pressed paper of my journal and took refuge behind my Faber-Castell PITT brush pen. The results are not very pleasing, but foolish consistency is, after all, the hobgoblin of small minds.
We always ate simple fresh food in Israel: vegetables straight off the vine, yogurt, fresh bread, very little meat. Now for the first time, I noticed lots of fast food, pre-packaged meals, and fat Israelis. Probably another decree by the endomorphic Sharon.
The new wall detours traffic and inconveniences everyone in Israel, forcing people to line up at endless checkpoints. Some say it is temporary (it is very tall, cement, and looks like the Berlin Wall which lasted thirty odd years) and others say it is just the new border (though it bifurcates towns and carves bits of them into landlocked islands).
I walked down to Abu Tor, an Arab town I’ve been to many times, and it felt sullen and dangerous, like an ancient family pet turned senile. The wall was still being built, another of Jerusalem’s endless construction sites. The parts I saw didn’t bear any graffiti so far, as if the wall’s sheer presence eliminates the need to say any more.
It makes me feel bad for everyone in Israel — right, left, Arab and Jew — that things have finally come to this.
It’s tragic that things have come to this. Sequestering the problems of Israel/Palestine behind fences. The Jews are penned between the fence and the deep blue sea; the Arabs between the fence and the River Jordan. It’s a “Go to your room” sort of solution. No lessons learned, no compromises strived for, just lock down and shut up. They don’t eat pork here and yet both parties can be quite pig-headed.
Meanwhile, we are eating a peaceful lunch in this garden restaurant on the road to Bethlehem: yogurt soup, eggplants and dumplings. There is no fence between my appetite and me.
Thanks to my mother’s generosity with her sleeping pills, I have not been a slave to jet lag on this trip. My grandfather tends to go to bed at about 7:30 pm and we tend to follow his example before 10.
Soon after I dropped off on my last night here, the phone rang (an ancient phone that has been repurposed into a wall unit; its bell is unbelievably loud to pierce the old fellow’s deafness): Patti calling from New York, fully expecting us to still be up and galavanting. I remained awake after that until almost 2:30 am.
Perhaps they’d read my journal. Or maybe my grandfather was right and my tan made me look Palestinian. When I got to the airport, the first security guy grilled me for what seemed like ten minutes (What were you doing in Israel? Do you speak Hebrew? Why? When did you live here? How many children do you have? Do they speak Hebrew?) Somehow my answers fell short for he put a yellow sticker on each of my bags and on the back of my passport. My bags went through an enormous X-ray machine and emerged with more questions attached. Several earnest young Israelis clustered about me: When did you live in Israel? What was your address? What was the name of the school you attended (miraculously it came to me: Brenner)? Why didn’t you get an Israeli passport when you lived here (slowly the whole of my peripatetic autobiography unspooled and I was forced to explain my mother’s motivation for taking us globe trotting through out our pre-pubescence)? Is your son learning Hebrew? Why not? Why haven’t you been there since your grandmother’s funeral twelve years ago? Why don’t you visit your grandfather more often…
Then they unpacked my bag and scanned all my dirty laundry for bombs and weapons, unwrapped all my gifts, even wiped down my passport to see if it had come into contact with explosives. I was questioned by six new people (the oldest was maybe 24), then emptied my pockets, extracted my fillings, unscrewed my false leg and went through a metal detector. The man running it checked every inch of my J.Crew belt to see if anything had been buried in its leather.
When I was finally released, my yellow stickers stopped me at every junction. I noticed two Levantine looking boys and they had red stickers on their bags. (Red!) In the gift shop, the duty free, the coffee shop, I was convinced that various undercover people were following and monitoring me.
Finally on the American plane (strike one) flying out of Tel Aviv (strike two) to New York (etc.), I felt safe.
Jerusalem Journal – Sidebar discussion
I know you don’t want inflamed responses to your harsh take on Israel, but I just can’t help myself. Your dismissive comments cut me to the heart. If someone you admired said they thought your son was ugly and stupid would you just shrug and say “OK, everyone has an opinion.” I don’t think so – when someone or something we love is criticized we feel hurt. When you say you don’t like Israel and you abhor its politics, my hackles rise all by themselves. First of all, which politics are you talking about? No other country in the world has such a broad spectrum and Governments of Israel have encompassed everything from the far Left to the far Right – and you didn’t like ANY of them?
Nobody says Israel is perfect – least of all me. But why is Israel always the only country singled out for criticism when far worse things are going on in 100 other countries and no-one says a word? Here is a tiny country struggling to build a life after the Holocaust, achieving more every year than many other
countries have in 50, struggling against a continuous threat of annihilation by its neighbours, but the knee-jerk reaction is criticism. Where in the world would you find democracy in practice the way you do in Israel?
I also take issue with your comments on “world-weariness”. I have never seen another group of people who read and study and play with as much energy as Israelis do. Perhaps it’s because they live on the edge of annihilation but I have always felt that they live every day as though it might be their last – engaged, interested and alive. “World-weary”? I think not.
Anyway, I’m glad I got all that off my chest, even if you disagree with me. I think I was surprised by your lack of compassion, considering that the circumstances of your life have forced you to re-evaluate everything you see. I hope your attitudes towards Israel will be one of the things you reconsider. Israel is a little bit in the same situation you are – it’s a hard piece of land in a hostile environment but rather than curl up and feel sorry for themselves, Israelis have gone out and achieved something pretty amazing. OK, maybe that’s a crappy metaphor but I’m sure you know what I mean.
Be well, and Shalom
Sorry to disappoint you, Diane.
I think one of the things that irks me the most about Israel is how
enormously polarizing it is and how intolerant its supporters are of
any negative comments about it. I don’t think you give yourself,
Israel, or me much credit by being so doctrinaire in your approach or
by personalizing the politics as you do. It’s precisely that sort of
‘my way or the highway’ attitude that has caused the situation in the
region to reach such a standstill.
Secondly, my reactions are not “knee-jerk” but the results of having
lived in Israel for years, having lots of friends and family from
there, reading the newspaper everyday, and being a student of politics,
history and religion. I graduated summa cum laude with a degree in Near
Eastern politics from Princeton University. I was a kibutznik, an Oleh
Chadash, did my time in the Noar Ha’Oved movement, and have cousins
and friends who have died in the Israeli Army. When I was twelve, my
bus stop was blown up by a bomb as we approached it at the end of the
school day. During my recent visit to Jerusalem, I spoke to Israelis
of many stripes and persuasions, to Christian Arabs, and to
Palestinians, and kept my eyes and ears pretty open. My personal
journal is the result of what I saw and felt at the time. Perhaps my
mistake was in sharing it so openly with people who would are so hasty
in judging my integrity.
And so, if I may have a turn at taking issue, I would do so with your
leaping to conclusions about my “lack of compassion” after two
installments of what is a long series of journal entries created on the
spot and in the thick of things.
And, finally, if you see Israel as purely “a tiny country struggling to
build a life after the Holocaust, achieving more every year than many
other countries have in 50,” I suggest you go over to Abu Tor or
Nazareth or Bethlehem and spend a little time behind the geder.
Some Palestinians are pathological murderers and must be stopped (if
you read the New Yorker two weeks ago, you know that some of the
Israeli settlers are equally homicidal and willing to send their
children to be suicide bombers too. I saw enough of them prowling
around the Holy City wearing side arms and walkie-talkies to be pretty
creeped out). However many others are suffering enormously because of
how the Israeli government has chosen to deal with the situation (the
parallels to the behavior of the Bush administration should at least
give you pause). The whole world knows that, as do many people in
Israel is judged by a different standard precisely because of its past.
A people who have been oppressed for thousands of years look
particularly hypocritical when they kick down doors and bulldoze
houses. People who were forced to live in ghettoes are judged harshly
(by even themselves) when they start to build walls and divide
communities and families behind them. Circumstances not withstanding,
the world expects better of Israel.
I would like nothing more than for Israel to once again be a light unto
the nations. Currently, it is not.
As any Israeli will tell you these days, things are not black and white
there and the situation is enormously complex and frankly overwhelming
and depressing to all concerned. That is what makes people world-weary,
regardless of their energetic reading, studying and playing.
I assume that I will not have changed your mind with my words as you
did not change mine with yours. Like so many people in the world these
days, let us just agree to disagree.
I apologize if I am overly blunt. I am still quite jetlagged.
Thank you for your detailed response to my letter. I also follow Israeli life and politics very closely and read the newspapers daily. We also watch the Israeli network daily so we’re very aware of what’s going on. My husband is a Libyan Israeli whose family was essentially forced out of Benghazi 50 years ago. Much of our family lives in Israel. Coincidentally, at the moment we are helping to host a group of disabled Israeli soldiers from Beit Halochem who are visiting Toronto for two weeks for some R and R – an amazing experience.
You and I clearly have a completely different take on the situation – a typical Left and Right dichotomy. I truly do worry that Israel will not survive the Intifada and for me that is a terrifying thought. People that I have talked to and argued with who share your point of view don’t seem to care whether a Jewish state survives or not and they don’t see anything wrong with a country called Palestine that also happens to have some Jews living in it. I don’t know whether you subscribe to this point of view or not but, to me, Israel’s survival as a Jewish homeland is of huge importance. I was born and raised in South Africa and have experienced anti-Semitism and racism in its many ugly forms and I think I know what being Jewish without the existence of Israel would be like – and I fear for the future, for my children and their children.
Criticizing Israel is fine when it’s deserved, but it’s funny how the people who criticize the bad things very seldom mention the good. And those same people never seem to have anything to say about the Sudan, or Zimbabwe or the Congo or the hideous things going on in France and other “civilized” countries. Or the U.N., which is probably the most corrupt organization on the planet and spends most of its time vilifying Israel instead of cleaning up its own mess. What is needed is some constructive criticism – some ideas that could actually improve the situation. When I ask people “What would YOU do if you were running the Israeli Government?” I usually get nothing useful.
What would you do? Although I suppose that should be modified to: What would you do if it were important to you that the Jewish state survives?
Hi Danny, there are things in your email I’d like to respond to directly, so I’m going to insert my responses in your email.
I think your question is a legitimate one: should a Jewish state
First of all, what is a Jewish state? is it a state populated by Jews?
I think it should be a state where any Jew is welcome to live. It was a haven for Jews fleeing the Arab countries and Europe in the 30s, 40s and 50s and is now a haven for Jews fleeing places like France where anti-Semitism is making life unbearable (such as the little girl who this week in Paris was attacked by maniacs who cut a swastika into her cheek). It should be a country where Hebrew is an official language and the Jewish holidays are official holidays. Certainly, citizenship should also be extended to others but I can tell you I have a big problem with extending citizenship rights to those whose professed goal is to destroy Israel. The world is a large place and I don’t think it’s too much to ask that a tiny portion of it belong to Jews. Look how many countries you are welcome in if you are a Muslim or a Christian but if you are a Jew you may not even enter for a visit.
Or one guided by Jewish principles? I worry that much of Israel’s
behavior violates the spirit of Judaism and rather than inspiring
people spiritually makes Judaism increasingly seem like a tight -knit
club of which you are either born a member or else can go to hell.
I hear what you’re saying, but on the other hand, that is how the rest of world sees us – maybe a little less so in the US – but certainly everywhere else. Hitler certainly had his criteria for deciding who to murder. I’m not an observant Jew and as a woman I have a major problem with the way women are treated in our religion and in Israel, but I see this as a work in progress and not relevant to this discussion. Some things take time and work to combat and will not happen overnight. You cannot underestimate the legacy of the Holocaust on Jewish identity and the need to keep a distance from those who want to eradicate us from the planet. Self-preservation is a very strong drive.
Secondly, I think it is very important to combat anti-semitism, for the
Jews in Israel, for Jews in the Diaspora, and for the general ethical
health of the entire planet. I worry that Israel’s behavior exacerbates
rather than diminishes anti-Jewish sentiment. How can Jews around the
world support Israel while making it clear that the Knesset and the
settlers imperil Jews welfare worldwide? Perhaps non-Israelis jews
could collaborate to move things to the middle.
Which is why I got upset to read your remarks about Israel on a website that is probably read by hundreds of people who aren’t Jewish and don’t know your background. If YOU say “I don’t care for Israel and abhor her politics” I think that carries a lot of weight with people who know your work and admire you and think it’s OK to parrot you without understanding what it is they are rejecting. Most people in Canada get their information from The Toronto Star or the CBC which are blatantly anti-Israel and are very ignorant about why Israel does things. In their opinion, all Israelis are devils with horns whose sole interest in life is to kill innocent Palestinian babies. I belong to various anti-bias groups in an attempt to provide more balanced information but it’s an uphill battle.
Thirdly, Israel’s survival seems to be intimately tied to the Unites
States’ need to control the region and to maintain access to oil. The
Bush administration has taken this position to enormous extremes. As
American policy goes nuts, so it seems does Israel. Neither seek
diplomatic solutions but resort to increasing levels of force every
time. The White House has no interest in forming meaningful alliances
with others and nor does Israel.
OK, here is the heart of the matter. I have come to realize that there is no-one to talk to. I have read too much about the 3rd Jihad to think that the Moslim agenda is a benign one. Their ultimate motive is a very frightening one and the West ignores it at their peril. I can think of few things more horrible that a world where everyone is forced to adopt Islam, sharia and all. (Have you read Irshad Manji’s book?) On a more particular level, as long as Arafat lives and breathes, I can’t see any progress possible.
The possibility of alliances with
others in the region, with moderate Arab leaders, has become impossible…
Who are these moderate leaders?
…and so things get increasingly out of control.
Bush believes that any sort of compromise is weakness. Smart Israelis
on both sides of the aisle know that this is completely unpragmatic and
just forces the deepening spiral of hostility. There is no middle
ground in this country and in the Middle East, and it is quite scary. I
am fundamentally optimistic and moderate in most things. I think most
people are. But somehow the state of things has been pushed to the
edges by extremists in Al-Quaeda, in the Republican Party, by social
conservatives and, yes, by Sharon’s right wing coalition. None of those
factions represent most of us and yet they have their claws on the
How do your Israeli visitors feel about this? I’m sure they have some
Some of them just don’t want to talk politics at all – they’re here to sightsee and have fun. But one of the most interesting dialogues has been with one of them who is a Druze. I accompanied him and other soldiers to a couple of Jewish day schools where the children were very curious about a Muslim in the IDF and peppered him with questions about his allegiance to Israel. We concluded that being a Druze in Israel is very like being a Jew in Canada. It was quite a consciousness-raising dialogue but then the Druze(s) are not committed to destroying Israel – on the contrary they send their sons and daughters to defend her.
Meanwhile, I think as my series progresses you will see that I do more
than criticize Israel. I do not, however, blindly praise it. Blindness
ain’t my thing.
As someone who lives in Israel, perhaps you can respond to this
exchange between me and another reader.
i hope I can indeed be of some assistance, though you must remember I’m only a 22 year old idealist… (I’m not very active politically, but that is due to laziness much reather then Ideals, I’m afraid).
I have to say that I agree with you on almost all your points, but my opinions are considered radicaly leftist in today’s Israel.
Diana’s opinion, is, I’m afraid, the common opinion you will find in american jews – severly right-wing, that stems from a distorted view of things.
The problem is what you find in this discussions is sort of a heightened view of reality, the kind that you don’t feel in Israel .The sentence – “Perhaps it’s because they live on the edge of annihilation but I have always felt that they live every day as though it might be their last – engaged, interested and alive” is a good example. reading this I’m thinking- what? what is she talking about. People on the streets in Israel are the same as anywhere else. here in Tel-Aviv wer’e not in a state of war. You see, for me, the most horrible thing in Israel today is the overall numbness, the way the daily life goes on while horrible crimes are executed in my country – And I mean the everyday crimes of keeping thousands of human beings imprisoned in a state of opression and poverty, thousands of people who are considered grade B citizens. The most horrible thing is that most Israelies don’t mind. They shove the palestinians and the so called “palestinian problem” to the back of their mind, hiding behind the excuse of “Security”.
The Right in Israel would have you believe that Israel is in Mortal Danger – And have convinced most of the public in this distorted view. The fact is, Israel is in mortal procrastination, trying for some reason to avoid the unavoidable day in which the palestinians get their freedom and their country.
But again, we meddle with politics a lot, but everyday life is totally ordniary – wich is exactly the problam – I live a good life. I go to the university every day and study filmmaking, go back in the evening to the appartment I live in and eat good meals, and later, If I want, go out to one of the many many pubs or clubs in the city. My life is normal, and so is the life of many others (not including those -jews and arabs – who live in extreme poverty. there is so much “Security” Issues going on, that our wonderfull goverment neglects to address the problems of the poor). THAT is the problam.
I think that one of the problems today is the coupled with America’s head clown currently residing there is no one to put any pressure on Israel. With the crimes committed by your own goverment in Iraq and my govement, I have to say thing don’t look bright to me…
I hope I helped. I know I am myself radical and get a little heated in discussions like this. But you can understand why this situation can get to me. In order answer claims the type of which diana makes you perhaps need someone a little more “level-headed”. I myself find them so infuriating I have trouble keeping my head screwd on tight… Anyway, I’ll be happy to clarify thing further if you want.
ooh, I forgot two very important things -
First, on the point of compassion -
though not intended, diana’s use of the word seems almost cynical to my ears. compassion? we don’t need compassion. we need the weight of the world bearing down on us to break the god damn circle of blood shed and finish the occupation and the age old struggle. It is the palestinians who deserve our compassion, the compassion not given to them by the israely crowd and the goverment.
perhaps the Israely soldiers who are sent to kill and be killed deserve our compassion. But I believe that with the amount of wrong-doing executed by the army units in the occuopied teritories, it is their moral duity to refuse to serve, even if it means going to jail (obviously 99.9% of the population don’t see eye to eye with me on the subject… My brother, who is in the reserve, refused to serve in a roadblock on his duty [ I don't know if you know how it goes around here. every citizen who was in the army gets called to 2 to 4 weeks of service a year] and went to jail for two weeks. He is a married and has three kids so it wasn’t easy, but he joined the struggle and I’m very proud of him).
the second issue is one that you mentioned, and I whole heartedly agree with you – the lack of ability to recieve comment and critisism. it has been taken a step further and turned into an art by those who cry “Antisemitism!” on any kind of critisism.
Isreal seems not to be able to cope with any kind of criticism or comment, and the act of going out to the foreign press (which some raical left movements did in order to welcome foreign pressure on the goverment), ehich was truly a cry for help, was considered by the public almost as treason.
It saddens to see what a hard-heated country Israel has become.
although I have enjoyed your artwork enormously until recently, I now feel far more pain than joy when I read your journal, so please remove my name from your mailing list. I’m very sad to have lost a source of artistic inspiration but the nasty, spiteful sniping about Israel and Israelis makes it an unpleasant exercise in sadness and frustration for me that I don’t need right now.