Profound Esophagus –“Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

My dearest Ms. Profound Esophagus,

My heart has been racing and my mind churning since our meeting last night on level minus 4 of the Jerusalem municipality parking garage. Since my All The President’s Men-inspired leap into journalism when I was just out of college three decades ago I have long imagined of meeting someone like you. It was one of those fantasies that I always assumed only came true for other guys, never for me. But the minute I saw you standing between Deputy Mayor Yehoshua Pollack’s pair of specially-engineered Fiat 500s (one for his left side, one for his right) I knew that Herzl was right: If you gullet, it is no dream.

It wasn’t just the slender, shapely legs in those sheer dark stockings, although I could not help but notice them. It was not just the knee-length, businesslike, but tantalizingly tight black skirt or the matching, perfectly-tailored jacket. No, what really caught my eye at the first glance was what I saw bulging under the jacket, as if they were desperately trying to break free—two large compact discs that I knew could change my life forever.

Certainly the manner in which you contacted me only added to the fascination. You must have observed me carefully to know that I always use the rightmost urinal in the Jerusalem Malha train station. So imagine how stunned I was when I saw the pencil scrawl there last week: “Good time, top secret documents,” and your cell phone number. I knew right away that it was meant just for me.

Read moreProfound Esophagus –“Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Secret Agents and the Rule of Law

Haim Watzman

Doing press for even the nicest Western secret internal security agency would be a job from hell. Even the best-intentioned, humanist secret security agents must do a lot of unpalatable things to keep the citizens of their countries safe and happy. So when I, an Israeli citizen, criticize the Israel Security Agency (which is what the organization otherwise known as the Shin Bet, Shabak, or General Security Service calls itself on its website) I do so with due gratitude for the benefits I derive from their work.

But when the ISA publishes, on its Hebrew home page, an accusation equating document-leaking with espionage, and making out like it, unlike (ick!) newspaper reporters, is concerned only with the security of the state, then it’s time to say, hey guys, your horse ain’t as high as you think.

Yes, ISA agents are self-sacrificing patriots. But the agency’s record is certainly not pure white innocence. Most famously, in the “Bus 300 Affair” the agency was caught covering up an illegal, immoral extrajudicial murder. Yes, the terrorist (who was subdued and presented no danger to the agents) deserved to die, but no, in a democracy we can’t have security personnel deciding who deserves to live and who to die.

Read moreSecret Agents and the Rule of Law

Rabbi Lau’s Religion Problem

Haim Watzman

When Rabbi Benny Lau began his Shabbat HaGadol talk at south Jerusalem’s Ramban synagogue last Saturday afternoon, he said his lesson originated in anger and frustration. The climax came when he said, “If I were a young person today, I would abandon religion.”

Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath that precedes Pesach, is traditionally a time for community rabbis to teach their congregations the fine points of the laws of Pesach and to offer some pointers for the coming Seder ceremony. Rabbi Lau barely spoke about Pesach; instead he offered—in traditional Jewish fashion, via a discussion of Talmudic passages—a call for greater openness and tolerance within the religious community. His particular target was the abrogation of personal responsibility religious Jews. Blind obedience to rabbinical authority used to be a defining trait of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, one of the things that divided it from the modern Orthodox community. But over the last couple decades more and more Jews brought up and educated in Zionist religious institutions have increasingly sought to avoid thinking for themselves, on halachic, political, and social matters. The result has been a desecration of God’s name, as rabbis claiming to speak for Israel’s religious Jews have revoked conversions, demanded the relocation of a hospital emergency room, and committed a series of other political and religious acts that are an embarrassment to their heritage and a real danger to Israeli society as a whole.

This sort of religious community can only repel thinking young people who are unwilling to abandon their freedom to think for themselves, he declared.

Read moreRabbi Lau’s Religion Problem

The Things They Knew–“Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
“Just Egypt?” The chiseled-faced, bristle-haired field security sergeant, who looked every one of his nineteen years, fixed me with an intense, cold gaze. They practice that gaze in front of mirrors, I told myself, but my palms were sweating.

It was early summer, 1987, and I’d received a brown envelope requesting that I report to my reserve regiment’s field security office at a particular time on a particular day. I knew very well what it was about.

“No,” I said, working to keep my voice level. “I went to Jordan, too.”

The kid leaned back in his chair and the faintest of smiles played over his lips.

“We know.”

I’m suddenly back in fifth grade, when Mark Glick and Mike Sheltzer were monitoring my brain.

Read moreThe Things They Knew–“Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Diplomacy By Other Means–“Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

To: His Excellency President Rufus T. Firefly
From: His Notsogoodency Haim Watzman, Freedonian Ambassador to Israel

As you will recall from my earlier report, this morning I was summoned urgently to the foreign ministry in The Capital That Must Not Be Named. (As you know, the ministry is actually located in Jerusalem, but in accordance with international diplomatic custom we do not acknowledge this.) I knew from news reports that the summons was with regard to the screening, in Freedonian movie theaters, of a film portraying four members of the Jewish race as bumbling idiots who foment world war. We understood through diplomatic channels that Deputy Foreign Minister Canny Babylon’s superior, Foreign Minister Avigor Tuberman, was especially incensed by the fact that one of the said Jews was portrayed as speaking with an Italian accent rather than a realistic Russian one.

illustration by Avi Katz

You may have heard that Mr. Babylon has, in his brief tenure, developed his own unique and sophisticated diplomatic tactics that have brought many ambassadors to their knees. But, President Firefly, you need not fear — as a seasoned and senior member of our country’s foreign service, I was prepared. I was determined to stand up to this baboon-faced flunky and defend the honor of Freedonia.

Read moreDiplomacy By Other Means–“Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Rachel and Mt. Nevo–A Translation

Haim Watzman

    <em>Mt. Nevo, photo by Argenberg</em>
Mt. Nevo, photo by Argenberg
I’m reading Rachel’s collected poems straight through for the first time. And being a translator (but not, I should emphasize, a poet), I can’t resist the temptation to try my hand at an English version of one. This is an ongoing project that I’ll be updating as I polish and improve it.

I told Rachel’s story in my book A Crack in the Earth. I noted there how Mt. Nevo was a central image in Rachel’s lyrics—and a central image for her readers as well. Nevo is the mountain from which Moses looked out over the Land of Israel, which he would never enter. In Rachel’s poetry, it’s the place from which the speaker looks out on an alternative life, the life longed or hoped for. The poetess stands in the wilderness and looks to the Promised Land.

Read moreRachel and Mt. Nevo–A Translation

Votes Are Not Enough–Hillel Cohen’s “Good Arabs”

Haim Watzman

All too often, Israel’s supporters kill their cause with clichés. One of the most common and problematic of these clichés is the claim that Israel’s Arab citizens have always enjoyed full and equal rights because—and here’s the clincher—they vote for and sit in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

As Hillel Cohen shows in Good Arabs: The Israeli Security Agencies and the Israeli Arabs, 1948-1967, my translation of which is to be published shortly, suffrage and representation do not in and of themselves guarantee a minority the rights that a democracy is supposed to grant to all its citizens.

In Good Arabs, Cohen continues the study he began in his previous book, Army of Shadows (see my earlier post Good Arabs, Bad Arabs) about the complex relationship between the Zionist movement and the local Arabs in Palestine. As in that earlier work, Cohen eschews the slogans long shouted by Palestinians and Israelis, rightists and leftists. He shows how both Israeli officials and leaders of those Palestinian Arabs who became inhabitants and citizens of the Jewish state adopted a variety of strategies in reaction to real and perceived threats and opportunities.

Read moreVotes Are Not Enough–Hillel Cohen’s “Good Arabs”

Necessary Stories Live–On YouTube

Haim Watzman With thanks to my daughter Mizmor, who filmed and edited, I offer this preview of my new “Necessary Stories” program. It includes selections from four of the stories. For more on my speaking topics and availability, see my Speaking and Performance page. Am I really genetically smarter than my Sephardi wife? Find out … Read more Necessary Stories Live–On YouTube

Where the Extremes of Zionism and Anti-Zionism Meet

Haim Watzman

Many of the comments on my post First Sheikh Jarrah, Then Baka?, here and at The Forward, constitute textbook examples of how the mere mention of Israel acts like a gravitational lens that bends the rays emanating from extreme Zionism and anti-Zionism until they merge into a single image.

Let’s take, as an exhibit on the anti-Zionist side, Phillips Brooks. Brooks argues that the land on which the state of Israel was created belonged to the Palestinians. Therefore, it is stolen. Therefore, Israel is founded on a crime. Therefore there is no difference between the land Israel took in 1948 and in 1967; it’s all stolen and held illegitimately and the Jews should return whence they came.

Now, that might sound like a voice of conscience to the unthinking. But if you think it through, it’s based on a concept of originalism that makes no sense in the real world. In other words, for Brooks’ logic to work, there has to be some particular point in history in which the world’s territory was divided up fairly between different nations. Then bad nations started conquering peaceful ones to gain territory. Peace and justice can be regained if everyone goes back to where they came from.

But of course there was no such point in history.

Read moreWhere the Extremes of Zionism and Anti-Zionism Meet

Lawlessness and Disorder–The Failure of Israel’s Police Force

Haim Watzman

The most frightening piece in today’s Ha’aretz doesn’t appear on the newspaper’s website, in either Hebrew or English. It’s Gidi Weitz’s essay on how the police responded when a pal from his weekly soccer game got beaten up by some roughnecks who didn’t like where he’d parked his car.

There was no police response to speak of. The policeman who arrived a half hour later in response to Weitz’s call was uninterested, took some scratchy notes, and told Weitz’s friend that he could file a formal complaint at the police station. When the policeman left, the assailants threatened the friend that if he complained they would make his life miserable. As a consequence, the friend’s wife panicked and refused to allow her husband to file a claim. When Weitz convinced his friend to accompany him to the police station anyway, the cop on duty showed no interest. All this—beating, initial police response, and subsequent police apathy—took place in the presence of the friend’s 18-year old son.

Weitz’s piece appears in the midst of a wave of violent attacks and murders of Israeli civilians by other Israeli civilians. Dismembered bodies have been discovered in trash bins and a Tel Aviv father was beaten to death on the city’s beachfront promenade, in front of his family, by a gang of young men and women who had been drinking.

Read moreLawlessness and Disorder–The Failure of Israel’s Police Force

The Bedouin and the Land: Leeor Kaufman’s “Destiny Hills”

Haim Watzman

Leeor Kaufman’s Destiny Hills, screened at the Jerusalem film festival this week, documents the struggle of Mohammad of the al-Talalqa Bedouin tribe of the Negev to assert his right to live on his tribe’s ancestral land.

In cinematic terms the film is impressively accomplished, and Mohammad, his wife, his four sons, and the rest of their family are so winning, pleasant, and determined that I walked out of the film wishing they were my neighbors. The family, which lives in poverty, endures the repeated destruction by Israeli authorities of the jerry-built shacks and cinder-block structures they erect and re-erect on the Destiny (Goral) Hills, land that once belonged to the tribe and which they still claim. They resist the government’s policy of resettling the Negev towns and claim that the state has not lived up to agreements it signed years ago with the tribe’s leaders.

While Kaufman’s film portrays life rather than makes political statements, I’m sure that most viewers’ immediate reaction is to sympathize with the Bedouin and their wish to maintain (a modern version of) their traditional lifestyle on the lands their forefathers roamed. I’m not expert in the details of their dispute with the government or the terms under which their land was, with the consent of their leaders, taken from them. But as a minority population with little representation facing a strong state, it’s not surprising that they’ve gotten a raw deal.

Read moreThe Bedouin and the Land: Leeor Kaufman’s “Destiny Hills”

Gilad Shalit’s Plight, And Israel’s Dilemma–The Forward

Haim Watzman There are many beautiful theories about how to bring Gilad Shalit home, but it’s an ugly fact that he now has been a captive for three years. And it’s an ugly fact that a series of Israeli governments have been unable to free him. Both diplomatic and military means have failed so far. … Read more Gilad Shalit’s Plight, And Israel’s Dilemma–The Forward