Summer of ’88 — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

I didn’t understand why the woman with the wispy hair looked so worried or why she kept glancing behind her, in the direction of the corridor of her apartment on Carlebach Street. I stood on her threshold, holding out a Labor party pamphlet and launching into my spiel about why Israel needed change that only a Labor government could bring. With the right leadership we could achieve peace with our neighbors and form a more just society, I promised. Suddenly a rhinoceros bellowed from the hallway. A man with a huge belly distending a threadbare undershirt charged in and then halted, readying to pounce, his mouth frothing. He stared first at me and then at the woman.

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
“Labor party,” she whispered in his direction, as if against her will. He lunged at me shouting “They’re paying you to come here! Paying you!” The woman slapped the door shut just before he tackled me. As I ran down the stairs I heard him beating on the door and his wife trying to calm him. When I got out to the street, he was shouting at me from the balcony and holding a flower pot over his head, ready to cast it at me like a cyclops repelling lost Greek sailors. From another window his wife called out, “Please go away!”

In the summer of 1988 I had been married three years, had two small children, and a mortgage on a housing-project apartment. Israel was in crisis—what else was new? And I was sinking into the obligations and routine of family life. Even though I’d just returned from a long month of reserve duty battling Palestinian teenagers in the villages around Jenin, I felt I was betraying my country.

Elections had been called for November. For the previous four years, the country had been led by a national unity government headed, in rotation, by Labor’s Shimon Peres and Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir. This nearly wall-to-wall coalition had managed to quell the hyperinflation and fiscal crisis it had inherited from the previous Likud regime, but at the cost of major cuts in government services that were hurting the poor. It had also pulled the Israel Defense Forces back to a security zone in southern Lebanon, from the central Lebanon quagmire that they’d been stuck in since the invasion in 1982. But the West Bank and Gaza Strip first festered, then exploded. The Likud was committed to building settlements and maintaining full and permanent Israeli control over those territories and their large Palestinian population. Labor called for accommodation with the Arabs and territorial compromise, but proved unable to hold back settlement construction or further the peace process. A year before, in April 1987, Peres, serving as foreign minister, had reached an agreement with King Hussein of Jordan about convening a peace conference to resolve the status of the Palestinian territories, but Prime Minister Shamir had torpedoed it. In December, the Palestinians rebelled, launching the Intifada.

This was not the Israel I wanted my daughter and son to grow up in. How could I sit at home when the government had to change? If I could spend a month of my life battling Arab teenagers to defend my country, couldn’t I take a couple afternoons a week off work between now and the elections to put it on the right track?

“I’ve got to save my country,” I told Ilana. “Can you manage with the kids this afternoon?”

“I’ll manage,” she said. “Will you?”

Another door was answered by a tall, bespectacled man with gray hair. He was dressed in a blue training suit and held a mug of coffee. He listened politely to my presentation and took the pamphlet I handed him. “I need to think it over,” he said. “I’m just back from a sabbatical and I need to catch up. But Labor …” His voice trailed off and he shook his head. “I can tell from your accent that you’re new in the country. If you knew them the way I do …” He gave me a condescending smile. It took all my strength to keep myself from telling him that I wasn’t new and that I was no naïf.

He looked curiously at my kipa and smiled a knowing smile. “Of course, you’re getting paid to do this. You’d never vote Labor yourself.” I protested, but he turned back into his apartment, casting the ultimate put-down into the empty air: “My ex-wife. She votes Labor.”

Why was I punishing myself? The November elections would come just a couple weeks after the tenth anniversary of my aliya, my move from the US to Israel. In those ten years, coinciding more or less with the first decade of Likud rule, I had watched a large part of Israeli society descend into xenophobia and racism. Four years previously, Meir Kahane, who proclaimed loudly that democracy was un-Jewish, had won a seat in the Knesset. He and his Kach party had been disqualified from running in 1988, but the undercurrents he represented were still flowing strongly. While my sympathies lay with the small parties of the left, I knew that only a clear victory for Labor could turn the country around. So I walked into the local neighborhood branch of the Labor party, located in a small dilapidated Arab-built house on a quiet side street, and volunteered my services.

The door was opened by a man with a black mustache and big smile, who slapped me on the back as if we were old friends and welcomed me in. He seated himself behind a long table, the only furniture, except for a few metal chairs, in the room that took up most of the small building. Chipped white paint on the walls revealed that they had once been pale blue. A photograph of Peres, printed on glossy magazine paper, had been taped up on one wall; his party arch-rival, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, glared at Peres from the opposite end of the room. The guy with the mustache introduced his two comrades: on the far end, a thin man of perhaps fifty with thick glasses, the chairman of the local, and in the center a top official at the Jewish Agency who, I was informed, had in the last election been placed on the Labor slate just a four or five notches too low to make it into the Knesset. He would almost certainly score a higher place on the list this time, the man with the mustache told me, winking at me as if to say that it would be well worth my while to gain his good graces. The near-legislator inquired about my biography, my family, and my work. When he heard I was a writer and translator, he suggested, obliquely, that he could arrange some work for me at the Jewish Agency, if I was interested.

I gritted my teeth and chose to ignore the implied bribe. I said I just wanted to do something to help. They asked if I’d be willing to canvass voters door to door, and I agreed. They gave me a list of streets to cover and some campaign literature. That’s how I nearly got murdered on Carlebach Street.

The last door I knocked on that day was scratched and bore yellow marks of transparent tape that had once held something important to the door—a child’s drawings, or perhaps a welcome home message. My knock was answered by a tribe—an older woman, a middle-aged man, two younger men, and a teenage girl, all of whom crowded into the doorway as if a visitor were a rare and perhaps sinister event. The men had not shaven for a couple days and the women were in housecoats. The interior was dark and stuffy, as if the windows were never opened. The accents were Russian, and they knew little Hebrew. They must have arrived in Israel only recently.

When I explained in English why I had come, there was a collective shaking of heads. They invited me in and served me tea and store-bought cookies.

“The problem,” said the older man, “is that Israel does not have a strong leader. Without a strong leader, a country loses direction.”

“You need a leader who isn’t afraid,” one of the younger men echoed him. “The Arabs need to be wiped out. That’s the only language they know.”

“We need to protect Israeli democracy,” I objected. “That starts with minority rights.”

The girl grimaced. “Rights. We talk about rights and we sound weak.”

“Well, look,” I said, “we wouldn’t want Kahane to take over.”

The grandmother intertwined her fingers and raised her hands prayerfully to the sky. “Kahane,” she sighed. “He is my saint. He is my Brezhnev.”

“But Brezhnev oppressed you!” I was flustered, did not know what to say.

The older man leaned over, close to me, and poked me in the chest. “Brezhnev was a strong man,” he said. “The only problem with Brezhnev was that he oppressed the wrong people.”

“So I guess you’re not going to vote Labor,” I said weakly.

“Never,” said the grandmother. “Have some more tea. And tell me, how much are they paying you? Can you get my son a job?”

It was comforting to finally be at my own door. Ilana was on the floor, playing with the next generation.

“Did you save the country?” she asked.

I sat down next to her. “Maybe,” I sighed, “I’d do more my country if I stayed home.”

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Avi Katz -- The DryadMore Necessary Stories!

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