South Jerusalem A Progressive, Skeptical Blog on Israel, Judaism, Culture, Politics, and Literature Wed, 19 Nov 2014 16:32:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Socrates and Semites — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report Thu, 13 Nov 2014 17:38:38 +0000 Haim Watzman

Avi Katz -- ApoplexyI went down yesterday to the Piraeus, in mind to attend the new drama by Adamschylus at the Zeatropolitan, of which everyone in the Agora is speaking. In truth, at our age, the wife and I seldom attend performances at the Zeatropolitan, preferring rather to watch the simulcast at the Stoa of Attalos, but Abefoxmachus, president of the tribe of Semitikropis, had objected and, holding his breath until his face turned blue, had persuaded Gelbus, director of the Zeatropolitan, to replace the broadcast of the new production with a screening of Exodus, which I have seen all too many times.

I had just reached the half-price ticket booth by the customs house when Taruskinus chanced to catch sight of me from a distance, and told his servant to run and bid me wait for him. The boy ran up to me and grabbed my cloak from behind, and said: Socrates, Taruskinus is approaching and desires you to wait.

“I certainly will,” I said.

“I perceive,” Taruskinus said to me when he arrived, “that the wisest man in Athens intends to attend the theater this evening.”

“I know not what the wisest man in Athens may be doing,” I said, “but as for me, yes, I have in mind to attend a performance of Adamshylus’s new drama.”

“I believe,” Taruskinus replied, “that you mean that anti-Semitikropic work Davidipus Rex.”

“I mean,” I said, pointing to the latest issue of The New Athener, which I had been perusing while waiting in line, “the critically acclaimed work in which Adamshylus sensitively uses minimalist music to tell the story of King Davidipus, the founding father of the tribe of Semitikropis.”

“Sensitively uses minimalist music to portray Philistines as oppressed victims who have good reasons to kill Semitikrops,” Taruskinus scoffed. “But perhaps you will join me at the kyfé across the road for a kylix of kykeon so that we may discuss this matter further.”

“With pleasure,” I said and, risking Xantippe’s wrath, I told her to hold our place in line and try to get seats set well back, if possible on the vomitorium. At the kyfé we saw Paulbermon, Rudigiulianus, and Abefoxmachus himself quaffing kykeon. They hailed us and asked us to join them.

“It seems,” said Taruskinus, “that many have come from all over Attica today to join the demonstration against the performance of Davidipus Rex.”

“Demonstration?” I asked. “What premise is it that you wish to demonstrate?”

“Why,” said Taruskinus, “that the play should be banned.”

“Wherefore?” I asked.

“Why can’t you say ‘why’ like a normal person?” Abefoxmachus shot back curtly. “The reason is that this play is a screed that slanders the Semitikropis tribe and encourages its murderous enemies. It recalls the most vile anti-Semitikropic rants of the Spartans.”

“It is my understanding,” I said, “that the play tells of King Davidipus’s glorious victory over Goliathus the Philistine.”

“Yet,” noted Paulbermon, “Davidipus is portrayed as a callow youth who seeks military glory without regard for human life.”

“Furthermore,” said Rudigiulianus, “there is a chorus of Philistines who sing of how they have been displaced from their homes by the Semitikropis conquest of their lands.”

“These terrorists, who regularly raid Semitikrop villages to pillage and who slaughter every man, woman, and child they can find, are portrayed as human beings,” Abefoxmachus grimaced, as if he had just seen Cronus swallow one of his babes.

“That is a pregnant statement you make, Abefoxmachus,” I said.

Abefoxmachus puffed up his chest. “My public relations consultant indeed says that I have the talent of impregnating every statement I issue with seminal meaning.”

“I mean that it contains much that does not meet the eye,” I said. “For if the Philistines are not human beings, what are they? Are they birds? Frogs? Clouds?”

“They are vermin,” Taruskinus offered.

“Vermin,” I said. “You mean akin to rats, or snakes, or cockroaches.”

“Those are all indeed vermin,” agreed Rudigiulianus.

“Well, then, suppose Adamschylus were to write a play about an army of rats that invaded a Semitikrop village and scared many women and bit many children,” I said. “And suppose the first act included a chorus of rats singing about how humans are constantly trying to kill them. Would you demand that such a play be banned?”

“Of course not,” said Taruskinus.

“Why not?”

“Why,” said Taruskinus, “clearly rats are animals and it is their destiny to infest human villages and scare women and bite children. They cannot be blamed because that is their nature.”

“In other words,” I suggested, “vermin are not moral agents who can be held responsible for their actions.”

“Precisely, Socrates” Taruskinus agreed.

“Why then,” I said, “then neither can Philistines be held responsible for killing Semitikrops.”

“Of course they can!” Abefoxmachus roared. “Are you suggesting that they are not criminals?”

“But we have just agreed that Philistines are vermin,” I pointed out.

“Socrates, you are deliberately confusing matters,” protested Rudigiulianus as he took a swig of kykeon. “Clearly, when Abefoxmachus called them vermin, that was just a metaphor. No one claims that Philistines are not human beings.”

“Abefoxmachus, please forgive me for misunderstanding you,” I said, addressing the tribal president with all due respect. “I am just an ignorant old man and find it difficult to understand just what is gestating within your pronouncements.”

“What I meant is that terrorism is irrational,” said Abefoxmachus. “Adamschylus portrays the Philistines as having reasons for killing Jews. That means he wants us to understand them. We cannot allow such lies to be presented to the public at a time when the Philistines seek to destroy our great culture and exterminate our ancient tribe.”

“Abefoxmachus, I admit that I am still having difficulty discerning the embryo of your idea,” I said. “But perhaps doing so requires more than the meager faculty of reason that I have available to me. No doubt a man with an ultrasound machine would do better. Still, is there not a contradiction in what you say? For you assert that the Philistines are criminals, but also that they are irrational.”

Abefoxmachus stood up and declared loudly, so that all in the kyfé could hear: “The Philistines are irrational criminal terrorists!”

Rudigiulianus and Taruskinus applauded. “Abefoxmachus,” they cheered, “you have hit the καρφί on the κεφάλι!”

“Indeed I have, indeed I have,” Abefoxmachus beamed, ordering another round for our table.

“Excuse me, Abefoxmachus,” I said, “but is not a criminal a person who deliberately does evil?”

“Indeed,” said Abefoxmachus. “Willfully, and with malice aforethought.”

“And is not the very nature of rationality the ability to make choices?”

“It is,” said Taruskinus. “No one would dispute that.”

“And therefore a man who lacks the capability to think rationally cannot make deliberate choices?”

“Socrates,” Rudigiulianus groaned, “again you are making the worse appear the better cause. It will get you in trouble.”

I pushed away the kylix of brew Taruskinus pushed in my direction. “It therefore seems to me that an irrational person cannot be a criminal.”

Abefoxmachus, who seemed confused, turned to Paulbermon. “Why is this man turning everything I say inside-out?” he complained.

“Socrates is certainly annoying,” Paulbermon said. “But he is worth attending to.”

“Therefore, the Philistines cannot be both irrational and criminals,” I concluded. “Which are they?”

“Why, they are criminals!” Abefoxmachus said. “That’s what I’ve been saying all along! That is why this production of Davidipus Rex must be stopped!”

“But certainly Davidipus Rex is not the first play to portray criminals. Indeed, as we learned at the Lyceum as youths, who is the evildoer in a drama but a hero with a fatal flaw?”

“But this play will bring the audience to sympathize with the criminals rather than to condemn them!” Taruskinus objected.

“But as we have discussed here,” I pointed out, “for us to see them as criminals we must see that they were rational beings who could make choices, and chose evil. Therefore, the drama must show us how and why they made these choices.”

“They chose evil because they are criminals and anti-Semitikrops!” exclaimed Abefoxmachus, who was so red of face that it seems as if he might need a Caesarean to extract from his bowels the malformed thought that had formed there.

“But this is a contradiction,” I said. “Because if their being criminals is the reason they chose evil, then they were criminals before they chose evil. Yet you have already agreed that a criminal is a person who chooses evil. In other words, he becomes a criminal only after he makes the evil choice. Also, if he chooses evil because he is a criminal, because that is his nature, then he is not in fact making a choice because he is compelled by his nature to do so.”

“Socrates speaks truthfully,” said Paulbermon. “Yet, Socrates, I have seen the play and there is much in it that disturbs me. It indeed portrays Semitikrops as unthinking and materialistic and violent. In a world in which Semitikrops have so often been victims, is it right for the Zeatropolitan to be producing this work?”

“I too caught today’s matinee,” said Rudigiulianus, “and I must say that the music is subtle and moving. Yet I, too, am troubled and plan to join the demonstration.”

“My fellow Athenians,” I said. “Is it not free debate, like the discussion we have just been having, one of the fundamental principles of our democracy? Is it not because of our democracy that our city has become wealthy and powerful and produced great athletes, thinkers, and artists?”

“Indeed,” Paulbermon nodded.

“And did I not in this discussion make arguments and claims that disturbed and upset you?”

“You certainly did,” said Rudigiulianus.

“Would you then ban me from arguing with you? Or would I have the right to ban you from discussion, since I have shown that your claims are false?”

“That part about banning him,” Abefoxmachus whispered to Taruskinus. “Maybe we should look into that.”

“But where are you going,” Paulbermon called to me as I rose from my place. “Have another kylix of kykeon with us!”

I gazed out the window. Xantippe had nearly reached the ticket window and was waving frantically in my direction. In a moment, I was sure, she would have a fit. “I had better get going,” I apologized.

“So you are going to see the play rather than demonstrate with us?” Abefoxmacus glowered.

“I believe I have demonstrated all that needs to be demonstrated,” I said. “Now I will see the play. Perhaps, as Paulbermon says, I will find it disturbing. Perhaps it will anger me even as the music moves me, as Rudigiulianus says. If so, I will debate Adamschylus in the Agora before all of Athens, just as I have debated you. But if we suppress Davidipus Rex, what then will we argue about?”

Taruskinus shook his head. “Are you not naïve, Socrates? Don’t you think that art can be dangerous?”

“One of the youths who follows me around has said made that claim,” I said. “But I say, as dangers go, it is a sweet one.”


More Necessary Stories!

]]> 0
Rescue — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report Fri, 17 Oct 2014 08:32:24 +0000 Haim Watzman

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

         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.

It was Friday, a bit after noon. I was alone, sitting on my high stool, plucking a chicken. A small one, as I would be alone on Shabbat. Shlomo was, is, in Europe, collecting funds for the kolel. You took Mother from me when I was sixteen. Father’s mystical dreams took him soon afterward to Safed, where he forgot about his children. Sarah married a Belgian businessman. She writes on occasion. You have not yet given me children. Levi, seventeen and wild, lives with me but learns long hours, so I am mostly alone. When the hours get too long, as they usually do, he runs off and plays soldier for the Zionists. He had already told me that he’d be on duty that Shabbat, probably at the Kotel, where the Arabs, may God take revenge on them, had thrown stones down from the Temple Mount on our worshipers all week.

I did not know then, as I squinted in the dim light that came in through the small window behind me, that mobs of Arabs, fired up by their preachers, had descended from their mosques intent on killing Jews. I did not know that they had fallen on the Gorji compound and slaughtered women and children, that they bludgeoned to death two brothers at Jaffa Gate. I was plucking a chicken and wiping sweat from my eyes and trying to keep my back straight and my spirits up. No one came to tell me. I heard rumbles in the distance, shouts, but I barely paid any attention. I suppose because people often shout in Meah She’arim. The heat clouded my eyes and made it hard to think. Whatever thoughts I had were elsewhere. I was crying softly and heard only myself.

I heard the sound of feet. Running, perhaps. I really wasn’t paying any attention. The voices got louder. Someone banged on the door. I put down the chicken, wiped my hands on my apron, washed my hands, dried my eyes. I walked the few paces to the outside door, the one leading into the courtyard, and opened, not really thinking about who it might me. I suppose I assumed it was Rivka Levin from across the way, who bangs without bothering to knock first.

My eyes were dazzled by the sunlight. The shouts were much louder now. Men were running out on the street, but in our courtyard all was quiet. The Levin girls were shelling peas. Some boys were tossing a ball, jeering at one who was not good at catching. A man stood before me, a small man, obviously an Arab, may they burn in hell, despite his carrot-colored hair. He was breathing hard. His shirt was stained with sweat. His mouth was wide open and he had gaps between his teeth. His eyes had dark circles around them and his nose was bright red. His breath smelled very bad. His eyes were wide open. I took a step back. I expected him to scream, but he didn’t. I intended to slam the door, but then he whispered a word, over and over again. I couldn’t quite make it out. Something like “hilak.” I don’t know many of their words, their Arabic is very different from what Mother and Father spoke to us, but he kept saying it, “hilak, hilak, hilak,” gesticulating wildly and pointing to his chest.

He made me laugh.

And you know the amazing thing? He was not insulted. He held his pose, then looked behind him. Mad a show of cocking his ear to listen. He sighed loudly and smiled broadly, as if to say he had not heard whatever he thought he might. Then he took a bow. Just like the hand organ man on King George Street does when you give him a grush.

Three Jews suddenly ran into the courtyard from the street, calling out to each other. Two had big sticks in their hand and one had a knife.

I grabbed my Arab, pulled him in, and slammed the door.

He stood there, a bit unsteady, by the table in the middle of the room. I poured him a glass of water from the pitcher I always keep there. He raised it, his hand trembling, but once he drank it down he seemed to recover. He looked around. The men outside were still shouting. A girl screamed and a boy cheered. It sounded like they were turning over washtubs. My Arab pointed to the bedroom and strode over. I followed him. Then he pointed at the cupboard. I opened it for him and threw out piles of Shlomo’s shirts and my own underthings. He climbed in and I closed it behind him.

“Would you like some tea?” I asked him in Hebrew. “Shai?”

Shukran,” he said, his voice muffled by the closet door.

So I went back to the kitchen and put the kettle on the primus. In the meantime, I perched on my stool and plucked feathers.

The outside door swung open and banged against the wall. I knew that sound. It was Levi. I picked up the naked chicken to singe it on the flame. He was panting.

“I need some water,” he commanded.

I turned to look at him. His hair was every which way, his shirt half-open, his chest glistening. I approached the table and poured him water into a glass. He grabbed it and drank it down and held it out for more.

“We’ve put one where he belongs!” he exulted. Then he told me about what had happened at the Jaffa Gate, and at Nablus Gate. “But we won’t let them murder Jews. For every Jew that dies ten of them will fall. Another one got away and we’re looking for him all over. I have to go. The boys are searching outside.”

“I was going to make tea,” I said.

“I don’t have time.”

“Stay a few minutes. You won’t be here Shabbat. Give me just a few minutes.” The kettle whistled.

Levi noticed the second glass on the table, drops of water still clinging to the side.

“Who’s been here?”

“A friend,” I said, pouring essence into three gold-trimmed tea glasses, and then adding boiling water. I added three spoonfuls of sugar to each.

“Which friend?” he asked.

“You don’t know her,” I said.

“I know all your friends,” he insisted.

“Not this one,” I smiled.

“You’re pouring three glasses,” he suddenly noticed.

I knew what would happen. How did I know? Perhaps it was like Father’s mystical visions. But the bedroom door opened and my Arab walked out. He nodded at Levi and blushed. Levi eyed her suspiciously.

How did I know my Arab would change roles? But there he was, wearing a dress of mine, stuffed liberally at the belly and breasts with underwear. He’d wrapped his hair in a shavis and tied it under his chin. It wouldn’t have fooled any woman, but Levi, fired up with fighting spirit, did not look very closely. He never did.

My Arab smiled bashfully, reached out, took his tea glass, and shuffled back into the bedroom.

“She’s folding the laundry for me,” I said.

Levi slurped down his tea and handed me the glass.

“I have to go,” he said. “Don’t be frightened. We’ll catch that Arab, and any other Arab who stalks Jewish women in our neighborhood!”

Levi’s mind isn’t the fastest, which is maybe why he skips out of his yeshiva so often. It took him a week to figure it out. In the meantime, the riots had been quelled and more than a hundred Jews had been massacred. Also, five Jews from our neighborhood had been arrested. They were charged with killing an Arab and attempting to kill Khamis al-Sayyed, a porter from the Old City. Al-Sayyed had told the police that he’d run into a house in Meah She’arim and stayed there until late afternoon, after the mob had dispersed.

“It was you!” Levi shouted.

“Will you report me to the Haganah?” I asked.

“I’d kill you,” he said, “if you weren’t a woman.”

Perhaps I am a bad woman, for I let a strange man into my home while I was alone. Into my bedroom. A man who was not even a Jew, God forbid. And I rescued an Arab, at the same time that his people were slaughtering mine. Oh, and I disobeyed my little brother.

A couple hours after Levi left, the courtyard was in shadow and all had been quiet for some time. I went into the bedroom. My Arab was sitting on my bed. He had carefully folded up all the shirts and underwear and placed them back in the cupboard.

“I think you should go now,” I said. “Will you be safe?”

He made a face and pointed to the dress and scarf he was still wearing.

“Of course,” I said.

He opened the outside door just a slit, put his head out, looked around. Convinced all was quiet, he turned, and with a flourish gave me the same bow he’d given when he first came.

We both broke out laughing. He tiptoed out the door, through the courtyard, into the street.

The three reasons Levi will not kill me are these: Because 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.

Let me add a fourth reason, my Creator, one you must know because you made me what I am. Some of us laugh in the dark.


More Necessary Stories!

]]> 0
One City, Divided Sun, 21 Sep 2014 13:04:17 +0000 Gershom Gorenberg

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

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. The kidnap-murder of Abu Khdeir by Jewish terrorists was part of the wave of anti-Arab harassment and violence that erupted in Jerusalem at the end of June, after the bodies of three Jewish teens who’d been kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank were discovered. Bands of young Jewish toughs harassed and assaulted Arabs on Jaffa Road and on the light rail. The revenge attacks have now become infrequent—in part because time has passed, but in part because there are fewer Arabs in what was once shared space. “You feel you’re closed up in the train,” a Palestinian pharmacist who works at a hospital on the Jewish side of town told me. If you’re attacked, she said, you’ve got nowhere to run. A Palestinian friend who lives in Beit Hanina told me that his son used to take the train home from school in the Old City. This year, he said, he told his son to come home the slow way, on a bus line run by an Arab company. The train had become too dangerous.

When construction of the rapid-transit line began in 2002, the choice of the route fit an established trend: Major planning decisions in Jerusalem have as much to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as they do with mere urban needs. The light rail would not only cross the invisible border; it would also string together Arab neighborhoods that Israel annexed in 1967 and the Jewish neighborhoods that it has built between them. The tracks were an implied declaration in steel by the municipal and national governments that the city would never be divided. More specifically, they were a rejection of the parameters for a peace agreement that President Clinton laid out at the end of 2000, stating that Jewish-populated areas of the city should be under Israeli sovereignty and Arab-populated areas should be under Palestinian rule. The route could be read as an inscription on the tombstone of the Oslo process.

Yet the light rail had other, perhaps unintended, consequences. Arab Jerusalem can seem like a distant country for most Jewish Jerusalemites. Without the train, fewer of them would ever have seen the main street of Shuafat, much less the huge picture of Abu Khdeir now hanging there. The transit line made more visible the fact that Jerusalem straddles a cultural, religious, and ethnic border, even if the political border has been erased from Israeli maps.

Let me stress the word “straddles”: There are two Jerusalems, yet they are connected; or they are one city, riven. The city defies Israeli and Palestinian slogans—not to mention American politicians’ declarations of support for “undivided Jerusalem.” Despite the official Israeli stance that it has “unified” Jerusalem, the Arab city has never become part of Israel. To call what happens in Jerusalem coexistence would be a mistake. As one astute Israeli advocate of coexistence told me, it can’t be created “when one side rules and one is ruled over.”

Yet East Jerusalem is less separate than the standard Palestinian story claims. There are human ties across the line. There are many people—particularly Palestinians—whose lives bridge the divide. Jerusalem is fragmented, roiling, more multicultural than any other place between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. And while it is constantly described in terms of its history, its future matters more: The stunning, unrealized, possibly wasted potential of Jerusalem is to be a bridge between two societies.

Since the Oslo process began, the expectation of many, perhaps most, Israeli proponents of a two-state agreement has been that it would lead to separation of Israelis and Palestinians. That attitude is easy to take in what Israelis call the “center” of the country: Tel Aviv and its environs, the unofficial economic and cultural capital. Here in Jerusalem, however, that view never made sense. And when the peace process someday resumes—after this cruel summer, it seems very far away, but eventually it must begin again—I believe it will have to be based not on separation but on more openness, on more cross-fertilization, on more shared seminar rooms, concert halls, laboratories, and parks. These are things that can only be fairly and responsibly achieved through political division into two states—but they must be two states that are intertwined rather than coldly standing apart. …

Read the rest here.

]]> 0
Comfort from Calvin — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report Fri, 19 Sep 2014 07:37:07 +0000 Haim Watzman

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

     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.

I didn’t know right off he was a Calvinist—that is, an adherent of a stream of Protestantism that rejects free will and believes that all souls are predestined by God to salvation or damnation, regardless of their good or bad deeds. But we eyed the books in each other’s laps, got to talking, and as two thinking and curious religious people of different faiths are bound to do, we started comparing notes.

I had very much in mind the increasing fatalism about the conflict among well-meaning and thoughtful Israelis. It’s a way of thinking with deep roots in Israeli history. In 1956 Palestinian guerrillas crossed from Gaza into Israel and murdered Ro’i Rotberg, a young farmer-officer at Kibbutz Nachal Oz. The eulogy Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan delivered at Rotberg’s funeral has become a classic statement of Israel’s doom.

Dayan acknowledged that the Palestinian refugees living overcrowded and jobless in the Gaza Strip had good reason to hate Israel and to seek to destroy it. But that was fate, he said. Nothing would change it. Israel was doomed to live by the sword. “We must not be deterred from seeing the loathing that accompanies and fills the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs who live around us waiting for the moment they will be capable of drawing our blood,” he declared.

I asked my Calvinist seatmate if I could pose him a rude question, but one that had always bothered me. “Why on earth would anyone want to be a Calvinist?” I asked. “Why would anyone want to believe in a God who has predestined the fate of my soul, and most likely sentenced me to the eternal flames of hell, long before I was born and no matter what I did with my life? Doesn’t that lead inevitably to moral paralysis?”

“Because,” he told me, “it’s liberating.”

I forgot to note one of the other rationales for canceling my trip. As I mentioned, my older son’s wedding was set for early August. Much of my family—my brother and sister, and most importantly my parents—would be coming to Israel for the celebration. So wasn’t this summer trip to visit them—planned and paid for before the couple announced their wedding plans—superfluous?

Yet there I was on my way to America, and of course nearly everyone I met shook their heads in sympathy at my plight, and in sympathy or anger or confusion at my country’s straits, and asked me whether war had indeed been inevitable, or whether Israel’s military actions really could be justified politically and morally, and how and when would it all end.

Mostly they wanted black-and-white answers. Israel, its civilians and urban centers under unrelenting bombardment from Hamas rockets, had no choice but to bomb and invade the neighborhoods, schools, and mosques from which the rockets were being launched and where tunnels-cum-invasion routes into Israel commenced. Or Israel, in its decades-long effort to quash Palestinian freedom, was again killing Arab civilians indiscriminately, in violation of international law and human decency. Or the whole Middle East was a frightening, hopeless mess and how could I possibly live there.

But I had no black-and-white answers to give. On the one hand, successive Israeli governments had made sincere and far-reaching attempts to reach a two-state solution with the Palestinian leadership. On the other hand, Israel’s policy of settling its own citizens in the West Bank in ever increasing numbers made those efforts look insincere at best. On the one hand, Israel’s military operation was necessary. On the other, some of the specific Israeli actions, ones that claimed large numbers of civilian lives, seemed hard to justify. On the one hand, Israel’s policies had helped create a situation in which Hamas felt it had no recourse other than an all-out attack on Israel. On the other hand, given recent developments in Egypt, Syria, and within the Palestinian national movement itself, it might well have resolved to attack no matter what Israel did.

So I was talking to this Calvinist on Alitalia, and he told me that the doctrine of predestination is liberating. I demurred. I did more than demure—I said, as politely as I could, that it sounded like nonsense to me.

He replied in a soft, humble voice. “The price of thinking that every choice you make, every deed you do, may well determine the fate of your soul for eternity, is often paralysis, or hubris. You become afraid to choose, or you feel that every choice of yours is of cosmic significance. Believing that your entire life is part of God’s greater plan, that everything you do is insignificant from God’s point of view, actually frees you to pursue goodness for its own sake, not as a means of salvation.”

Ok, I said. Food for thought. Still, very un-Jewish.

I spent a wonderful week with Mom and Dad in Denver before my conference. My Dad, a former journalist who still served as my best editor, was feeling very good. It was great to see, as a number of my visits over the last five years had coincided with medical crises. In January, when my parents last came to Israel, Dad had ended up spending three days in the hospital with pneumonia. When sick, he was miserable. His days centered on a long morning walk-run, weight training, and exercise, followed by extensive reading of several newspapers. His doctors could never figure out how he was able to stay so intensely active with highly blocked arteries and advanced-stage chronic lymphatic leukemia. But those ailments, along with the pain of an incessant restless leg syndrome almost completely unresponsive to medication, were leading to progressively more frequent hospitalizations and enforced home rest. So it was a real pleasure to see him so happy and joyful about life during that week.

At the end of that week I flew to New York, and on the second day of my conference I received messages from my brother and sister. Dad was hurt. It’s serious. That morning, while out on his morning walk, he’d been hit by a motorcycle. I got on a plane and returned to Denver. There was extensive bleeding in his brain. The following morning we removed life support, and Dad died later that afternoon. Family and friends gathered for the funeral and subsequent shiva.

On the penultimate day of that week I returned home. The first thing I did was thank Ilana for preventing me from canceling my trip. Unexpectedly, that week I’d had in Denver, enjoying my Dad’s company, had been my last week with him. How would I have felt had I missed it?

A few days later my Mom, brother, sister, and two nephews arrived for the wedding. The bride and groom came home from Gaza. Cease fires were declared, violated, rescinded.

“If good works are evidence of, rather than a means to gain, God’s grace,” my Calvinist patiently explained, “then if you are a good person you are saved. And if you are saved, that is an irreversible gift of God that will not be revoked no matter how much you stumble. I find that comforting.”

The Calvinist seemed to be saying that Israelis and Palestinians may be doomed to battle each other forever, yet at the same time can decide to change themselves and each other to escape that doom. One thing I learned this summer is how contingent and fortuitous human choice can be. How much those who see themselves as righteous can stumble, and how much those who seek to defend can destroy, how closely death and joy walk hand in hand. And how a theology that looks so stern and forbidding from the outside can feel warm and fulfilling to a man who believes it. Perhaps there is comfort in that, and promise, and hope.


More Necessary Stories!

]]> 0
It’s Not About Tunnels. So What Is the Gaza Conflict About? Fri, 08 Aug 2014 10:04:16 +0000 Gershom Gorenberg

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.

The crisis started with the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers by a Palestinian cell in early June. Reacting with a roundup of Hamas activists, Netanyahu’s goal was to cripple the Islamic organization in the West Bank and to discredit Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s new unity government, which had Hamas support.

That’s when Palestinian factions in Gaza—first Hamas’s more radical rivals, then Hamas itself—broke a semi-armistice and began launching rockets at Israeli cities. Israel’s Operation Protective Edge began an air offensive, aimed at stopping the rocket fire. Only after Hamas rejected the Egyptian ceasefire proposal and a squad of gunmen surfaced from a tunnel in Israeli territory did the government order the invasion. From that point the central goal was to eliminate the tunnels.


Put differently, the army and government only upgraded the status of tunnels as a threat in the midst of the war. The complacence until then was a major military blunder. It has been eight years since Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was taken captive by Palestinian gunmen who surfaced from a tunnel behind Israeli lines near Gaza. In the couple of years, the Israeli army twice discovered attack tunnels.

Actually, there have been discussions within the Defense Ministry for a decade on developing defensive technology to detect tunnels. Geophysicist Yossi Langotsky, an ex-colonel, wrote this week that as an adviser to the general staff in 2005, he proposed building a “fence” of seismic sensors around Gaza that would have identified underground passages. Army sources quoted in the media claim that detection methods have been tried and failed. But from the information available to the public, the main reasons for failure are underinvestment and neglect.

Given the success of Iron Dome, Israel’s anti-missile system, failure to put similar effort into underground defenses seems surprising. But the generals didn’t want to invest in Iron Dome, either. Their objections were overruled by Amir Peretz, who served as defense minister in 2006-2007. Peretz was the rare defense chief who hadn’t been a general. During the Gaza War, via a cooperative journalist, an unnamed senior officer voiced the same objection to tunnel defenses that nearly stopped Iron Dome: Money is better spent on weapons for offense.

In an asymmetric war, defense may be much more valuable than offense.

This fits old Israeli military doctrine: A small country must make sure to fight its battles on the enemy’s territory. The Gaza War and Iron Dome’s success suggest a different idea: In an asymmetric war, defense may be much more valuable than offense. …

Read the rest here.



]]> 0
This Is Your Brain On War Thu, 24 Jul 2014 08:33:45 +0000 Gershom Gorenberg

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.

In a 2007 article that now reads as if written to explain the 2014 Gaza war, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and fellow psychologist Jonathan Renshon succinctly gave some answers. Human minds, they said, have hard-wired biases that favor hawks. People are too optimistic about their own strengths, including the strength of their armies. They prefer to double down rather than to cut their losses. They’re sure that other people can read their thoughts and understand their good intentions—even while they misread their opponents’ intent.

You can go down this list and find painful proofs in the events of recent weeks: Hamas appeared absurdly overconfident that rocket fire would force Israel to stop air attacks and loosen its siege on Gaza. When that didn’t work, rather than accept a ceasefire, it upped the ante by sending gunmen through tunnels to surface in Israeli territory. Israel thought Hamas would surely fold in the face of air strikes. When that didn’t happen, it quintupled its bet with the ground invasion. The Israeli government thinks the world has to understand that it’s acting in self-defense, even as whole families die in Gaza. This isn’t just a PR ploy Or rather, the PR is sincere, which doesn’t make it more convincing outside Israel.

While I can’t match the breadth of Kahneman’s research, I live within the laboratory of Israeli-Palestinian relations and inside this latest, horrid experiment. On that basis, I’ll suggest several more shared biases that warp decisions and make it easier to ignore mistakes afterward.

First: The other side in a conflict appears more unified than it is. On your own side, you know the divisions. You know the names and the faces of proponents of each nuance. To most people, though, the opposing side is a faceless mass. “The Palestinians” or “the Arabs.” “The Israelis” or even just “the occupation.”

A leader is supposed to do better. The Israeli prime minister has several agencies that map the fissures between and within Palestinian organizations. But that advice has to overcome the monolith bias, which is usually fiercer on the political right. …

Read the rest here.

]]> 2
Page Turner — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report Mon, 21 Jul 2014 18:50:31 +0000 Haim Watzman

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

     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.

He had a sudden longing for the days when colleagues would send him their writing on newsprint sheets that rustled and cracked when he turned from one to the other. There was something, he felt, about the tactile experience of reading that made it mean more. At least, then he had remembered more of what he read. Although of course he’d been younger, too.

He perused Karin’s opening paragraphs. Since sending her his thoughts (and corrections of no few spelling and grammatical errors) a few days ago, he had been concerned that his reading had been too unfocused and his comments too harsh. They had a long acquaintance; she had been a gracious host during his three trips to Jerusalem over the last ten years. Perhaps the piece was better than his first encounter with the text had led him to believe.

He was just tapping the “page down” button when again he heard a page turn. He glanced up quickly enough to see a leaf of Schumann settle gently against the page that preceded it on the piano’s music rack. Elaine had played something for the children before they left. The breeze was chilly and stronger. Another page flipped. He got up and closed the window behind him, then settled back on the couch with his laptop.

He was just trying to puzzle out a sentence in which Karin seemed to be saying that the meaning of the fragment of text she was analyzing was actually the opposite of what its words clearly stated when the front door pushed open, as with a great effort, and Danny wriggled in between jamb and wood, with wide-eyed Gur on his shoulders. Danny’s just-adolescent chest was heaving and his shirt was streaked with damp. Catching his grandfather’s gaze, Danny pushed the door firmly shut behind him. Out of the corner of his eye, Roger saw a page of Schumann turn. Gur saw it, too, and let out a cry.

“Gur was scared,” Danny said. “He said he saw a man come out of the grave. And then it started raining. So Grandma told me to run back with him. She’ll be here in a minute with Aviva.” Danny then put on a countenance of male pride. “Aviva couldn’t keep up with me even though I was running with Gur and the knapsack on my back.”

Roger glanced out the window and saw thick raindrops splotching the sidewalk. He sighed at an evening of work lost.

“Too bad,” he said. “But I’m sure Grandma has some fun backup idea.”

Danny unloaded Gur, who stood unmoving next to him, staring at the piano. He put his hands up to his ears. Another page of the Schumann turned, which Roger thought was odd, because there was no wind in the room now.

“Come on,” Danny said to Gur. “Let’s go play with your trucks down in the basement.” He tried to take his brother’s hand, but Gur wouldn’t remove his palms from his ears and wouldn’t budge.

“Come on,” Danny said, eyeing Roger. “Grandpa wants to work.”

Roger lay his laptop on the coffee table and got up. He picked up Gur and cuddled him and said “Everything’s fine. You’re home now. But you never got scared at the cemetery before! What happened?”

Gur, whose eyes were on the piano, removed his palms from his ears, pointed at the piano, and said, “It’s too loud.” Then he stuck his index fingers into each earhole.

As the room, now that Danny was breathing normally, was entirely silent, this was incomprehensible. A page of Schumann turned. Rain started drumming on the window.

“Do you mean the rain?” Roger asked.

Gur shook his head slowly, moving it as far left as it would go and as far right.

“The piano,” he said. “Tell the man to stop.”

“What man?” said Danny.

“The man playing the piano,” Gur whimpered.

Danny looked at Roger. Roger looked at Gur. The front door opened.

“I’m soaking wet!” Aviva announced proudly.

“I should have taken an umbrella,” Elaine said, brushing her hands over her gray curls and setting the nylon bag with that held the tent down by the door. “I’m always forgetting to take an umbrella. Aviva, go straight upstairs and take off those wet clothes and get into a hot bath.” Aviva happily complied.

“What’s wrong, Guri?” Elaine asked her youngest grandchild. He refused to look at her.

“He says the piano’s too loud,” Danny giggled. “He sees a man playing the piano.”

“And who is the man playing the piano?” Elaine asked matter-of-factly as she removed her wet running shoes.

“The man who came out of Zayde’s grave,” Gur said.

“He saw a man climb out of your father’s grave,” Elaine told Roger.

“Who would climb out of my father’s grave?” Roger wondered.

“Probably your father. But no one else saw.”

Danny explained. “He said that the man came out of the grave and picked up an envelope from the ground. He opened it and took out some pages and read them. Then he put the pages back in the envelope and put the envelope in his pocket and walked off, the same way we came.”

“Poor kid,” Roger said. “What an imagination!”

“We only noticed that something was wrong when Gur called out ‘You dropped your letter’ and then began crying. That’s when he told us what he saw,” Danny said.

Elaine took Gur from Roger. “And then he insisted that we come home. I tried to talk him out of it but then a few raindrops fell and I saw that it wasn’t in the cards for us to camp out tonight.” She gave Gur a kiss and set him down on the floor.

“Maybe it’s time to choose a different campsite,” Roger suggested hesitantly as Danny glared at him.

“It’s close to home, it’s quiet, and no one bothers us,” Elaine replied tersely. And then, to Gur: “If it’s too loud, go tell him to play more softly.” Gur stared at her with his tarsier eyes, took a deep breath, and turned toward the piano.

“Go on,” she encouraged him. Gur began to walk in deliberately tiny steps.

“The funny thing,” Elaine said, “is that after Danny left with Gur, and I’d finished packing up the tent, I saw this on the grave.” She pulled a damp envelope out of the pocket of her sweatshirt and opened it up. Peering inside, she drew out a torn quarter-sheet of stationery, then a handful of pieces and shreds. “It’s a woman’s handwriting—look how thin and graceful the penmanship is. But I can barely make anything out.”

Gur had reached the piano bench. “Softer!” he commanded.

“And look at this stamp on the envelope! Arabic on the top and Hebrew on the bottom. ‘Palestine’ in the middle.”

Roger took the envelope and looked at it. He glanced at the tattered paper in Elaine’s hand, spotting a tremulous underlined word, “love.”

Gur giggled, clapping his hand to his neck as if he were being tickled.

“It must be from the time your father spent there,” Elaine said.

Suddenly their eyes were caught by Gur, who was rising up in the air. At about five feet off the floor he threw his hands out and arched them as if he were hugging someone’s neck. He descended slowly and settled on his feet on the piano bench. He listened to something and then nodded. Looking into the eyes of the great-grandfather only he could see, he reached out, turned a page of Schumann, and waited patiently for his next cue.


More Necessary Stories!

]]> 0
In the Jerusalem Mourning Tent For a Murdered Teen Sat, 12 Jul 2014 19:16:14 +0000  

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. The poster in the background reads: "The Palestinian National Liberation Movement, Fatah, Jerusalem area, mourns for the righteous son of Jerusalem, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, murdered as a martyr..."
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)

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 teensEyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkelwho’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.

The police, who responded too slowly to seething mobs in West Jerusalem, overreacted with rubber bullets and clubs to seething protests that broke out in East Jerusalem after the murder. A city divided by nationality and nationalism, half under occupation, which is also a city bound together by thin threads of human connectionsa city much more lovely in its confusion of cultures, religions and languages than political reporters (including this one) ever get acrosscame undone.

Then, over the weekend, the police arrested six suspects in the Abu-Khdeir murder. According to official and unofficial leaks, they are not from ideological settlements but from the long-ignored fringe of ultra-Orthodox society, the dropouts from life-long religious study who have no job skills and not a sliver of a chance of fitting into any society outside the self-imposed ultra-Orthodox ghetto. A preliminary pathological report showed that Muhammad Abu-Khdeir had been burned alive.

The Israeli anti-racism coalition Tag Meir (translating the name would require a separate article) contacted the Abu-Khdeir family, which agreed to receive a group of Israelis in the mourning tent. There was room in the tent for 350 people. An announcement went out Monday; a few hours later, registration closed. Hundreds more wanted to come.

And so, on Tuesday afternoon, a dozen or so middle-aged men from Muhammad Abu-Khdeir’s family, including his father, stood in a receiving line in the tent as the visitors filed by, shaking their hands. “God bless you,” one of the relatives murmured in Arabic-accented English. “I am so sorry,” a woman murmured in Hebrew-accented English. Mostly, the ceremony was silent. The statement by both sides, it seemed, was to be there.

The visitors did not fit Israeli political divisions or stereotypes. According to the signals, explicit or subtle, of how people dress, as many as half were Orthodox. I saw familiar left-wing activists, as well as Daniel Gordis, vice-president of Shalem College and a sharp critic of the pro-peace camp.  A woman in her 20s named Goldie told me that she lived over the Green Line—that is, in a settlement. She’d come, she said, “because I simply felt terrible” about the murder. Rabbi David Bigman, one of the heads of the Ma’ale Gilboa yeshiva (Talmudic seminary) and a forceful liberal Orthodox voice, told me with blunt sadness: “Because we can’t do anything else, we’re doing this, mostly for ourselves.” Of clergy and spokespeople for the right who have made vengeance a value, Bigman said, “There’s no basis for that in Judaism.”

Read the rest here.


]]> 0
Miss Violet’s Piano — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report Sun, 29 Jun 2014 15:38:20 +0000 Haim Watzman

   illustration by Avi Katz

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.”

My 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?”

“Schumann. What do you care?” Karin snapped. Her cell phone vibrated. “Aren’t you going to do something?” She glared at him.

“It’s your piano,” Or said defensively, but he sat up and rubbed his eyes.

“You have scratch marks on your back,” she noticed as the phone vibrated again. She reached out for it, glancing first at her nails.

Or turned and looked at her. His black hair hung down below his shoulders and his chest was smooth. She swiped the green icon as he pulled on a pair of paisley boxers. Chords were jumping and the left hand seemed slightly out of synch with the right.

“We’re going to check on it right now,” she said into the phone, and then held it away from her as Mrs. Levi, the downstairs neighbor, had a fit.

“Maybe you should take a weapon,” Karin said nervously as Or shuffled to the door.

She pulled her knees up to her breasts and waited. The music had gotten quieter, not that it would make any difference to Mrs. Levi. Then it frantically crescendoed. She wouldn’t be able to fall asleep afterward. Maybe she shouldn’t even try, she considered. There were Roger’s comments on her article that she had to go over. They’d arrived from California just as she was shutting down the computer but she was anxious to see what he thought and how much work she would have to do in response to his critique. Crystal-clear chords and unexpected dissonances sounded just as Or returned. He stood in the doorway staring at her. He always did that and it bothered her.

“The piano,” she said. “It’s still playing.”

“It is not,” Or said firmly.

“Stop acting like a four-year-old boy,” she snapped. “Do you think I’m deaf?”

He started to climb into bed.

“Or!” she reprimanded him.

He sighed. “Come,” he said, extending his hand toward her.

She eyed him suspiciously. She grabbed her phone, pulled on her white robe, and followed Or out.

The piano sounded clearly, alternating two themes, as they walked down the corridor from the bedroom. As they descended the narrow stairway that led to the music room it was absolutely obvious that the music was coming from the old Steinway that had come with the house. The door was slightly ajar. Or pushed it open and beckoned her in.

Silence. The room was still. The music had vanished. The lid was closed over the keys. Leaf-broken light from a nearly full moon filtered in through the high window that opened out onto the tiny, leafy Talbiya garden.

She felt for Or’s hand in the dark.

“That’s not all,” he whispered. “Look at this.”

He pulled her out of the room and music again sounded, funny monkey-like rhythms and odd offbeat chords. He pulled her back in and the piano fell silent once again.

“Pretty weird,” he whispered. It sounded like he was enjoying himself.

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“Now get this,” he said, pulling her out. The music resumed. They stood in the corridor and he pulled the door slightly open. “Just look in, but don’t step across the doorway.”

Karin peeked into a drawing room with a well-polished sideboard bearing decanters and goblets. A dozen portly men in suits, many with moustaches, were seated in red plush chairs before a grand piano being played by a dark young woman. Something sparkled on her neck. Her eyes were fixed on the keys that her hands danced over, as if the keys were pulling her fingers down and catapulting them to their next destination. The phone vibrated in Karin’s pocket and the ringtone sounded.

“Oh, so that’s where it comes from,” Or whispered.

Karin unpeeked and looked at him. He motioned her to repeek.

The woman face was now lined and her lips pursed. She was perhaps a decade older, dressed in a white blouse and dark skirt. The room seemed somewhat larger, perhaps because it was so sparsely furnished and its white walls were almost bare. Men in white shirts and khaki pants and women were dressed much like the performer fanned themselves with paper programs. Still she saw only the keys.

Karin reached out toward the woman at the piano and stepped into the room. The music stopped, the people all disappeared, and moon rays again searched their way through the window. She put her hands on her face, turned toward Or. He lifted her pinching fingers from her cheeks.

She grabbed his hand and began pulling him toward the stairs. “Let’s get back to bed so that I can wake up normally. I have a ton of work to do in the morning. I have to finish my article and send it out. The deadline is Friday.”

He resisted. “This is kind of cool,” he said.

He was pulling the door open again. She reluctantly followed his gaze.

The same woman sat at the piano, but now there was a girl sitting next to her intently watching the performer’s fingers fly. The bench had been reupholstered and a small writing desk stood behind the piano. A brown teddy bear lay on top of a folding bed lodged between the desk and the wall.

Karin stepped into the room. The music stopped and the moonlight returned. A drumroll sounded at the door.

“I’ll get it,” Or mumbled.

Karin walked slowly around the piano. Now that her own children were grown she didn’t even need to put guests here anymore. All she did was play here, nearly every day, for a half hour, or hour, or until Mrs. Levi called.

Or returned with the red-faced, house-coated matron. Mrs. Levi glared at Karin, glared at Or, looked back and forth between them, and then fixed her gaze on the piano.

“I know the sound,” she declared. “It’s ruining my life for the last 60 years.”

Karin recalled the generous offers her parents had made to buy out Mrs. Levi’s floor, which would have given them the entire Arab villa and its yard. But no offer was ever good enough for the Levis.

Mrs. Levi reached over and sounded a black key. “You know what is strange?” she asked. “It didn’t sound like you. In sixty years you learn the neighbors’ piano playing just like you learn voices.”

“Well, there you have it,” Karin said in relief.

“You know who played that way?” Mrs. Levi said. “Your teacher, Miss Violet. The one who wore the cross on her breast. I could have sworn it was her.”

Karin sat on the bench.

“Who’s Miss Violet?” Or asked.

“She still comes here,” Mrs. Levi complained. “You know that just last week I heard a clatter in my Menash’s room in the middle of the night, like someone was putting pots away in a cupboard. I opened the door and I saw Miss Violet in an apron. She gave me an evil smile and then disappeared. And I remembered that Menashe’s room was their kitchen, before they left. And it was not a dream.”

“Who’s Miss Violet?” Or repeated.

“My piano teacher,” Karin said faintly.

“She was one of the girls that used to live here, before the war,” Mrs. Levi explained. “And they ran away and left everything here. So when Karin’s parents were given the upstairs and I got the downstairs, the piano was still there. Then, after we got Jerusalem back, Miss Violet showed up and asked if she could play the piano. She loved that piano and her parents had never been able to afford anything so fine again. So she used to come in and give Karin lessons and then they’d let her play a bit. That was one of her favorite pieces, the one she was playing tonight.”

“Well, it’s quiet now,” Or noted. “We should really all get back to sleep.”

“Yes, go back to bed,” Karin said. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on the piano.”

Mrs. Levi surveyed the two of them disapprovingly and shook her head. “I never know what to expect in this house,” she said, making her way to the door.

“I think I should sleep here,” Karin said. “Help me get a mattress out.”

“I’ll stay with you,” Or said, pulling out the two mattresses that were kept behind the sideboard. “I’d kind of like to meet Miss Violet.”

“I doubt she’ll come.” Karin opened a cupboard and surveyed bed linens in the moonlight. “She was very shy, especially around young men.”

Or flopped the mattresses on the floor. He looked at her for a few seconds. “Ok,” he said. “You’ll tell me in the morning.”

“It depends,” she said, “on the music.


More Necessary Stories!

]]> 1
Pyromaniacs Sat, 28 Jun 2014 18:55:20 +0000
  • cialis the pill
  • buy viagra in canada
  • lexapro online canada american express
  • soft viagra
  • buy levitra 20mg online
  • diflucan without a doctor
  • amoxil no prescription cheap
  • buy lexapro in great britain
  • 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

    Gershom Gorenberg

    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.

    The abduction was an act of terror—an overused word, but still necessary to describe a real evil. In the simplest sense of “terror,” this was an assault on innocent civilians for political purposes.

    If the perpetrators are holding the three teens as live hostages, the immediate goal is clear: to trade them for a large number of Palestinians in Israeli prisons. It’s an old tactic. But as they condemn it, many of Netanyahu’s domestic critics correctly note that his decisions have amplified the motivation to use it. In 2011, Netanyahu reached a deal with Hamas to release more than 1,000 prisoners, many of them convicted murderers, in return for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held hostage in Gaza for five years. From Shalit’s release, Netanyahu gained a short-term boost in popularity and, perhaps by a coincidence of timing, a national celebration that helped deflate protests against his economic policies.

    This spring, on the other hand, Netanyahu refused to carry out the last stage of a much smaller release to which he’d agreed as part of the American-backed peace negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. That’s when the talks collapsed. The all-too-easy conclusion for some Palestinians was that Abbas’s diplomacy failed to free prisoners and that Hamas’s violence worked. …

    Read the rest here.

    ]]> 0