Sunday, July 03, 2005

Jerusalem Part II: A Hard Yarmulke Is Gonna Fall

More from a friend in Israel.

Tuesday, June 29 2005.

Much of the area surrounding Jerusalem reminds me of the American West (or is it the other way around?). The drive up from Tel Aviv is reminiscent of the climb into the Sierras from California's Central Valley with the hillsides studded with pine and a gradual switch from fertile plain to rocky hills and valleys.

Jerusalem itself, hillocky, dry, very rocky, and on a crystal clear June day feels like the best parts of the Great Basin. No doubt this is of great comfort to all of our Mormon friends, who planted their own Zion in that very desert and caused it to bloom. The real Jerusalem notes the presents of the Saints too -- the only point during our time there that any protestants were discussed was when our perky guide told us how the Israelis passed a law banning prosletyzation to prevent the Mormons from annoying the city's residents and adding to the already palpable tension.

Who lives here? Most of the government, lots of students, and all the normal trades and services to expedite the lives of such people. But like Florence, Jerusalem has a museum-like quality -- Tel Aviv is a real city but much of Jerusalem seems to be for show. Our tourist hotel, on the site of an old kibbutz halfway between the Old City and Bethlehem (and Arab city now that lies in the West Bank) was packed with American students plucked straight out of an MTV seaside reality show whose idea of a good time seemed to be wheedling vodka out of the hotel's besieged Arab bartender. These were the hotel's secular residents. I found the next morning that it's more devout residents had been saving themselves as they had packed the bar, their mouths agape and their heads lolling, having awoken themselves at 3 AM to watch Game 7 of the NBA Finals. There were so many sagging eyes and tipping heads that I was sure a squall of yarmulkes would hit the floor at any moment, possibly in sufficient numbers to earn us our own thunderbolt from the Almighty.

For all its beauty, though, Jerusalem takes some of its charm back by adding a certain ominousness. There's tension at the Western Wall, where men and women are segregated and the deeply conservative guard their turf and the privileges it accords them. Above the Wall lilts the Muslim call to prayer from Al-Aqsa, whose dome, from many vantage points, is ringed by Israeli flags. All these places are prepostorously small, the Temple Mount isn't any bigger than the grounds of my old elementary school. From my hotel room I can see the infamous security barrier, a series of walls, fences, trenches, and no-man's lands snaking between the West Bank and Israel proper. It's a stark contrast, and its presence belies much of the normal workaday activities of the city -- people driving to work on the highway or taking out the trash -- surrounding it.

As with much of our everyday lives, it's the little things that make a difference to me here. You can stay in a hotel as nice as you please, but the sound of "The Girl From Ipanema" sung in Hebrew would jilt anyone out of a state of complacency but quick. Hebrew is a fascinating language, one of the things the Israelis are rightfully proud of, considering it was nothing more than a ceremonial language less than 150 years ago. Now it's the living language of a vibrant and modern society, although its likely the chauvinist in me that it sounds inherently uncool when spoken. No matter how many flashy euro-styled announcers pop up on Israeli television, a language with so much glottal hacking makes me think of my high-school physics teacher, who produced phlegm in truly Olympic quantities.

But other than the language barrier, which really isn't one since most Israelis speak very good English, perhaps the biggest everyday difference is the pervasive security, very evident to the eyes of even a post-9/11 American. Most every bar, hotel, and public building in Tel Aviv employs and armed bouncer. Visitors to the Dizengoff Center mall have their backpacks checked and their bodies wanded. Our four pints of Guinness at the Irish pub down the street came with a mandatory "security surcharge," billed to us as a matter of factly as a cabbie might charge you and extra fare in a snowstorm. And of course there are the ubiquitous soldiers of the IDF, who one can see walking home with their M-16s slung over their shoulder like a it was a pair of rollerblades. Luckily for Israeli men, the women soldiers of the IDF have clearly figured out to alter their uniform pants to conform to the current hi-hugger fashion here, which might infuriate the terrorists trying to kill them more than anything. Nice work, ladies.

Security is still a massive political issue, especially with the disengagement from Gaza looming. Opponents of Disengagement sport bright orange ribbons on cars and clothes as a statement of protest. Disengagement opponents jammed Jerusalem's twice in the past week, spreading nails and other sharp objects in an effort to clog traffic in the city. The paper report defection from the IDF of young soldiers who refuse to "take land from the Jews" at a level of detail only found in celebrity weddings back in the States. The orange ribboned say that the process will rip Israel apart. Their opponents -- sporting blue and white in an inspried hijacking of the national colors -- say that the state simply can't survive without it.

During dinner at the home of a youngish, professional orthodox couple (three kids) in the TA suburbs, I was informed that Prime Minister Sharon's plan was total bunk, as it was clearly concocted owing to pressure from President Bush. Being a guest, I spared this man my conjectures on whether President W. could find Gaza on the map, but it was interesting -- and I guess unsurprising -- to see how focused Israelis are on their own country. Iraq isn't on their radar ("Do you have a lot of soldiers there?"), and that emphasizes the degree to which Israelis of both sides think their destiny is on their own hands.

Looking at the history of the Jews as a whole, maybe this shouldn't be at all surprising. Deep in the Judean desert, a wasteland if there ever was one, sits a huge basalt outcropping, a ship of rock docked next to the sheer cliffs that formed the ancient shores of the Dead Sea. On this island sits Masada, the fortress built by Herod the Great and seized by Jewish Zealots during their revolt against Rome. Rather than surrender and be sold into slavery, the Zealots held out on Masada for years until surrounded by the legions of, if you can believe the film at the interpretive center, Peter O'Toole. In a last act of defiance worthy of the Scots or (until lately) Red Sox fans, the Zealots voted to commit suicide en masse rather than risk defeat and bondage.

We visited Masada on a brisk day, only 102 in the shade, and skipped the dusty in favor of a very nice tram. Masada today is impressive for what isn't there -- namely water, shade, indoor plumbing, or anything green. That people could get to the point of suicide there is amazing in and of itself as the place looks about as habitable as the moon. The Israelis, and IDF soldiers in particular, point towards Masada as a great example of Jewish ferocity in the face of an existential threat, and vow to die fighting for their homes today as a Zealots did for theirs, only a generation after the death of Christ. Fighting for what you believe in, and fighting for one's homes and families, is a worthy goal. I would be interested to know if the Masada pilgrims know that many of the descendants of Masada's people still live in the shadow of its legend, if not in the shadow of the rock itself. These Arab descendants, more or less the same people as the Jews of 70 AD other than the way in which they worship, are also fighting for their homes. Are they, and the Israelis, just maximalizing their claims to land and heritage or are we just witnessing the slow writing of history by the victors in this latest division of this small plot of dirt?

Last stop: The Dead Sea, Galilee, and Goats on the Move.

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