October 17th, 2014 by Haim Watzman · Culture and Ideas
My brother Levi says that if I weren’t a woman he’d kill me. Just like the Arabs.
The reason he kills Arabs is that they are evil and kill us. He doesn’t kill his sister because because, he says, women think with their hearts and not their minds. Because they see only the here and now and not history. Because they trust too much.
drawing by Avi Katz
So, he said, I will spare you and let the Holy One, Blessed Be He punish you. That Arab could have killed you. Or worse. With you alone in the house. But now everyone in Meah She’arim knows. Soon you’ll be called to testify in their courts and the whole Yishuv will learn of your shame. Perhaps that is the punishment that your life has been spared to receive.
As the summer of the year that the English call 1929 wanes, I ask you, My Rock and My Savior, is this so? More than seven weeks have passed since that Friday and Shabbat of slaughter and fear. So many of your people died. And I saved none of them. Instead, I rescued an Arab. [Read more →]
Tags: 1929 riots·Israeli fiction·Meah She'arim·short story
My cover story in the National Journal on Jerusalem is up:
On a midsummer afternoon, at the King George Street station in the center of downtown Jewish Jerusalem, I boarded one of the silver four-car trams of Jerusalem’s only light-rail line. The electric train swooshed east along Jaffa Road to the City Hall stop, just before the narrow, now-unmarked no-man’s-land that divided the city before 1967. The next stop was the Damascus Gate station, serving downtown Arab Jerusalem. From there the train headed north toward outlying Palestinian and Jewish neighborhoods.
Photo © Yasmin Gorenberg
It was a normal rush-hour trip—except that there were no Palestinians on the train. No father spoke Arabic to the son sitting next to him; no teenage girls chattered in Arabic about their purchases on Jaffa Road. The women who wore head scarves had them tied behind their necks, Orthodox Jewish style, not wrapped under their chins, Muslim style. No one got on or off at Damascus Gate. In the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat, a mourning banner with a huge picture of murdered Arab teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir hung from an apartment building facing the tracks. A sign on the ticket machine on the platform said it was out of order—as it has been since angry young residents smashed it during the violent protests that followed the murder of Abu Khdeir at the beginning of July. No one got off there or at Beit Hanina, the northernmost Palestinian neighborhood on the line.
The missing passengers weren’t participating in an organized boycott. They were simply afraid. [Read more →]
September 19th, 2014 by Haim Watzman · Culture and Ideas
I did not want to be on the plane I boarded in mid-July. I’ve been through a lot of wars, but this is the first one I was leaving the country for. How could I? I had two children in active service—a son who’s a special forces officer and a daughter in a combat infantry unit. The wonderful woman that my son was scheduled to marry in just weeks, herself an intelligence officer, had been called up as a reservist. Twice in the previous week sirens had gone off in Jerusalem as Hamas launched long-rage rockets in our direction.
drawing by Avi Katz
But tickets for the trip, for a visit to Dad and Mom in Denver and a literary conference in New York, had long since been purchased, and Ilana insisted that I not change my plans. “It’s not as if by being here you could change anything,” she pointed out.
Ilana’s admonishment was more pregnant than she realized. For Israelis like me, loyal Zionists who have for decades spoken out for Israeli democracy, tolerance, and accommodation with the Palestinians, the Gaza War was triply depressing. We, our family, our friends, and our country are under attack and our soldiers and civilians are being killed. Israeli bombs have killed hundreds of people in the Gaza Strip, embittering a Palestinian population with whom we must find a way to live. But, no less worse, death and destruction are turning the people on both sides ever farther away from accommodation and mutual understanding. Should we give up? Are we really impotent when it comes to peace?
The power to change, the refusal to accept the world as it is and the impulse to make it better, is fundamental to Judaism. The concept of free will is built into the Jewish Bible and into the wisdom of rabbinic literature, the building block of the ethical systems of nearly all Jewish theologians and philosophers throughout the ages. Not only can we change ourselves and determine our own actions, we believe, but we can also, through our actions and words, cause other people to change the way they act and think.
How ironic, then, to find myself seated on the plane next to a Calvinist. [Read more →]
Tags: free will·Gaza War·John Calvin·mourning·predestination·war
August 8th, 2014 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy
My new column is up at The American Prospect. Since the article went up last night, Hamas rejected extending the ceasefire and resumed rocket fire less than one minute after it ended. Israel has resumed missile and artillery fire. Alas.
At four o’clock after the war—which is to say, 4 p.m. Tuesday—a Hebrew news site carried a telegraphic bulletin: The head of the Israeli army’s Southern Command announced that residents of the area bordering Gaza could return to their homes and feel safe. The reassuring message was undercut by the bulletin that appeared on the same site one minute earlier: “IDF assessment: Hamas still has at least two to three tunnels reaching into Israel.”
At the end, if Gaza War of 2014 has ended, if the ceasefire holds, it was about tunnels—some as deep as forty meters (130 feet) below the surface, dug from inside the Gaza Strip and reaching hundreds of meters into Israel, into farming villages and to the edge of the town of Sderot —tunnels from which Hamas fighters could suddenly surface to attack civilians or soldiers. To be precise, this is how the war is most immediately remembered in Israel: as an offensive aimed at removing the subterranean threat. In the rubble of Gaza, where nearly 1,900 people were killed by Israeli fire, where 460,000 are homeless, the presumed purpose of the war will surely be remembered very differently.
Let’s return, though, to the Israeli perception: People remember backwards, viewing earlier events through the lens of later ones. The Israeli government’s announced goal in fighting since the ground invasion of Gaza on July 17 was finding and destroying attack tunnels. This, therefore, is remembered as an original purpose of the war. A friend, left of center politically, asked me the afternoon after the war why Israel had earlier accepted an Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire that was set to start before the ground invasion, since the government obviously knew it would need to invade Gaza to get rid of the tunnels.
But the crisis wasn’t about tunnels when it started. The Israeli government’s tactical goals shifted repeatedly. At no point, it appears, has Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a strategic political vision. Yet the story of the tunnels leads inevitably to the need for a political resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. [Read more →]
July 24th, 2014 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy
My new column is up at The American Prospect:
As I write, the livestream from Gaza of news about death continues. If I give a casualty count, it may be outdated before I finish typing it. It won’t include those Palestinians—civilians and Hamas fighters—who may be buried in rubble in the Sajaiya neighborhood of Gaza City, which the Israeli army has invaded in search of rockets and of tunnels leading into Israel. Nor will it include recent deaths of Israeli soldiers; the military often delays such announcements for hours. Collapsing under the weight of the Gaza reports is whatever initial support Israel had in the West as its cities came under rocket fire. The same reports have fed criticism of Hamas in the Arab world.
he war isn’t a hurricane; it didn’t happen by itself. Leaders on both sides made choices. In Israel, despite an unusual number of protests so early in a war, most of the public seems to think the government is doing the right thing, perhaps too timidly. I doubt anyone can judge public opinion accurately amid the chaos and fear in Gaza, but credible estimations are that support for the Hamas government rises in proportion to Israeli attacks.
Maybe just to keep my own sanity, I have to ask: How do leaders believe that such flawed decisions were the only reasonable choices? How can masses of people keep supporting those policies even as they prove disastrous? What’s wrong with our heads? By that I mean not just the heads of Israelis and Palestinians but of human beings, since I don’t have any cause to think that the sides in this conflict are being uniquely irrational. [Read more →]
Elaine had taken the grandkids camping in the cemetery, so Roger was alone for the night. He didn’t like being without Elaine, but he didn’t like having Danny, Aviva, and tiny Gur sleep over either. He was resolved to make good use of the hour or so left before he’d get drowsy and head upstairs to bed.
drawing by Avi Katz
A cool breeze from the living room window was blowing on his neck. A nearly full moon was serially obscured and revealed by long, dark clouds that hung low in the sky. He knew this not from looking out the window but from watching the blurred reflection of this celestial game of cat and mouse on the burnished walnut surface of the Steinway baby grand that stood in the far corner of the room, just before it opened into the dining area. The piano was far too big for the space, a fact he had been tactfully reminding Elaine of on and off for the last 23 years, since they moved into this bungalow walking distance from campus. But she would not part with it, and on evenings like this, it was certainly a lovely feature of the room.
He had just opened Karin Rosolio’s article on his ThinkPad when he heard a page turn. [Read more →]
Tags: ghost story·Israeli fiction·Schumann
- Members of the family of Muhammad Abu-Khdeir receive Israeli visitors who came to share in their grief in the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat in Jerusalem. (Photo © Gershom Gorenberg)
My latest column is up at The American Prospect:
The air-raid silence sounded at three minutes to ten at night in Jerusalem. Two distant booms followed. Afterward, they seemed like an orchestral finale: abrupt, followed by silence, the only notes of a long day that were unmistakable in their meaning.
That afternoon, I’d gone with busloads of Israelis to Shuafat, a Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem, to visit the family of Muhammad Abu-Khdeir. A huge mourners’ tent had been set up: The ceiling was made of blue tarps; one side was open to the street; the other three sides walled with tapestries and printed banners showing pictures of Muhammad. In the pictures, Muhammad looked very young for 16, his age last week when, on his way to Ramadan prayers, he was pulled into a car and doused with gasoline, murdered by immolation. The suspects, now in custody, their names still under a gag order, are six young Israelis from the Jerusalem area. The motives were revenge and hatred—call it national, or ethnic, or tribal.
Here’s the very brief timeline: On June 30, Israeli troops found the bodies of three Israeli teens—Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel—who’d been kidnapped by Palestinian extremists while hitchhiking in the West Bank. The next afternoon, as their funerals were broadcast on national TV and radio, downtown West Jerusalem became a riot zone. Bands of angry Jews, most in their teens, virtually all male, chanted “Death to Arabs!” They tried to beat up Palestinian workers in the open market, and threw stones at cars, randomly, without any sign that they cared whether the driver was Jewish or Arab. Before dawn the next day, Abu-Khdeir was abducted and murdered. [Read more →]
drawing by Avi Katz
“It’s the piano.” Karin shivered. The music had woken her from an unremembered nightmare. “Someone is playing the piano.”
Or one-eyed her from under his pillow. His muffled voice sounded like it was reaching her from a cave below the floor.
“Call the police.”
piano,” Karin said. “Someone is playing my piano.” She raised herself on her elbows, felt a creak in her lower back, and looked down on her research assistant.
Or turned over on his side so that he could use both eyes. “That’s impossible. There are two of us in the apartment. Of the two of us, only you know how to play the piano. And you are here. Ergo, no one is playing the piano.”
An arpeggio sounded in the treble, and was then taken up by the bass.
“That is,” Or suggested, “unless a burglar, about to climb the basement window with his loot, was seized by an irresistible desire to play … what is he playing?” [Read more →]
Tags: ghost story·Israeli fiction·Jerusalem story·Schumann·Talbiyeh
June 28th, 2014 by Gershom Gorenberg · Politics and Policy
In a region already in flames, a Palestinian terror attack and Netanyahu’s response could light another fire
My latest column is up at The American Prospect
Life in Israel in recent months has been preternaturally tranquil, as long as you keep no more than a quarter of an ear on the news. Jerusalem cafés are packed. If you take a summer hike in the Galilee, nothing in the mountain breeze reminds you that a few dozen kilometers to the east is a failed state called Syria, where a war of all against all has driven nearly half the population from their homes, or that the realm of chaos extends all the way through Iraq.
For that matter, the land on the other side of Israel’s northern border is best described as Hezbollah territory, even if maps show a state called Lebanon there. Across the border in the south, the Sinai is a battleground between jihadist rebels and the Egyptian government. Jordan is still a functioning state—unless the fighting in Iraq and Syria spills over its borders. Feeling calm in Israel is like sipping lemonade in your living room while your neighborhood is in flames.
In truth, Israelis have actually had their ears entirely, obsessively on the news since the kidnapping of three teenage Israeli hitchhikers in the West Bank two weeks ago. The greeting, “Is there news?” means, “Have they been found? Are they alive? ” While the Shin Bet security service released the names of two suspects yesterday, which it identified as known members of the military wing of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic movement, neither they nor the victims have been located. What’s clear is that the both kidnapping itself and the Israeli government’s reaction threaten to bring the fire much closer to home. [Read more →]
Your honor, I realize that it is irregular that counsel for a member of the courtroom audience approach the bench. But I hope that you will hold your peace and allow me, before you hand down the sentences of the men and women convicted in the Holyland case, to present my client’s plea.
illustration by Avi Katz
My client—this is he, sitting here in the front row, the one with the funny nose, no, he’s not in a coma, that’s just his way of displaying interest—is a man of modest means, a freelance writer whose words have quickened the hearts of a handful of readers around the globe. He’s a family man, devoted to his community and his country, the salt of the earth, as we like to say. Unlike the movers and shakers who sit in the dock before you, Haim Watzman is barely known to anyone of importance. Like millions of other Israeli citizens, he labors long hours silently, without wealth and fame. And he has come here to ask, Judge Rosen, why he, too, should not be provided with room and board by the state for the next several years.
Has he committed a crime? No, he has committed no crime—because Israeli society has given him no opportunity to do so. Had he been born into wealth, he might have used it to corrupt one of our leaders. Had he been appointed to a position of power, he might have used his influence for personal gain. Never having been invested with the public trust, he was barred from violating it.
I ask you, your honor, is this fair? [Read more →]
Tags: corruption·courtroom drama·Holyland·Israeli political satire·Olmert
My apology to readers; I’ve been mostly absent from this blog while teaching for a semester at Columbia University. But I’m back, and here’s my latest piece from The American Prospect:
“The Vatican treats this as a pilgrimage. We consider it a pilgrimage it with political implications.” So a Palestinian official involved in negotiating the precise form of Pope Francis’s visit to the Holy Land told me yesterday. The comment, though, could as easily have come from an Israeli government source.
The pope’s two hosts agreed on this much and no more: His pilgrimage, so carefully choreographed that even the spontaneous moments were planned in advance, sparkled with symbolism. The battle was over determining what the symbolic journey would stand for. The Palestinians won: They largely succeeded in making Francis’s visit part of their campaign for statehood through international recognition. And yet, both the pope and the Palestinian strategy are subject to the same question: How much does symbolism really count for?
The Vatican itself—not the Israelis or Palestinians—initiated the visit, and in the Vatican’s narrative, it was a peace mission within an entirely Christian context: The pope came to meet Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and to commemorate the breakthrough religious summit 50 years ago in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople.
So this trip was, in theory, the Vatican’s show. The Holy See laid out the program it wanted, Israeli and Palestinian sources told me. But even when it drew up plans, it had to maneuver within the protocol each side expected for a head of state. Then it negotiated for months with the two governments on the details. Pope Francis was the star, and made choices—but often between pieces of pre-written scripts.
The Palestinians won their first victory in March, when the Vatican announced the official itinerary. “The Holy Father will visit three countries: Jordan, the State of Palestine, and Israel,” it said. He’d fly by helicopter directly from Amman to Bethlehem, rather than arriving via Israel, and proceed immediately to a “courtesy meeting with the president of Palestine,” Mahmud Abbas. The symbolic statement was this: The pope would not be visiting the occupied West Bank, certainly not Judea and Samaria (as Israel officially labels the territory), but independent Palestine. This, presumably, was the pope’s choice – but given Abbas’s ongoing diplomatic efforts for recognition of Palestinian statehood, the Vatican couldn’t evade a decision on whether to use that wording. …
Read the rest here.
illustration by Avi Katz
The picture I see each morning when I turn on my computer is of my younger son, Niot, in a graveyard. His hands are on his hips, his head is cocked, his eyes look straight at me, and his lips are pressed into a half-smile that says, “What, you again?” He’s wearing a gray coat, striped on the shoulders with the straps of a red backpack. Under the coat is a blue Adidas sweatshirt and on his head is an indescribable hat, which perhaps has something to do with a defunct Polish yeshiva. The cemetery is in Poland, and the photograph was taken during his high school class trip to the concentration camps. Now he’s in another cemetery.
I didn’t miss him then. It was a time when I never missed any of my children. That is, I missed them in the sense that I enjoyed when they were home and wondered how they were doing when they were not, but I never felt that they were out of reach, that I desperately needed to talk to or touch them; I never feared that they would not come back. No longer, because Niot went away and didn’t.
When a child dies, he becomes incessantly present. Niot is always in my thoughts, all the time, and not in the back as he was when he was off at school or in the army. He’s always looking at me and asking, “What, you again?”
He’s close up in my mind, and right there on my computer screen, but so distant. As of the Shabbat in the middle of Pesach it’s three years now, and he grips my heart but recedes; I hold him tight but he is ever more distant.
Niot connected with friends and basketballs, not with poetry, but I often think of poetry when I think of him. Right now it’s a poem by one of my favorite living American poets, Sharon Dolin, and it’s called “The Problem of Desertion.” That’s the title, but it’s also the first line, because after it the poem goes like this:
occurs when time feels like space
and the dead are stuck
As if time were something you have to push your way through. But am I not the one on shore, the one who stayed behind when Niot went off to Poland, when he went off to Golani, when he went off to Eilat and down into the Red Sea and never came back? [Read more →]
Tags: mourning·Niot·Sharon Dolin·Yom HaZikaron