EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was the cover essay in the December 21, 1998, issue of National Review.
EN ROUTE, October 26, 1998
The older I get, the harder I find air travel to take, especially to foreign countries, and I avoid it whenever I can. But with my Israeli grandson Alon Blum about to celebrate his bar-mitzvah next Saturday, I have no choice. And so here I am once again, boarding an El Al flight to Jerusalem while trying to console myself with the thought of the compensatory delights of seeing my daughter Ruthie and her four children-all born in Israel since she emigrated from America twenty years ago–that await me over there.
Over there: not for nothing does that famous American song of World War I vintage pop into my head as I start on my way to Israel. For about five years now-even before the Oslo agreement was signed on the White House lawn–I have been infuriating some people, and wearying others, with a succession of jeremiads predicting that the “peace process” encapsulated in the word “Oslo” will lead, not to peace, but to war. Nothing that happened at the just-concluded Wye conference–that wag-the-dove effort by Bill Clinton to restage Jimmy Carter’s Camp David extravaganza–has allayed this anxiety. On the contrary: I see Wye as yet another giant step on the road to a Palestinian state.
To most people all over the world, and to many Israelis as well, the coming of a Palestinian state is automatically equated with the coming of peace, not only between Israel and the Palestinians, but between Israel and most of the other Arab states. So ingrained has this equation grown that many of these people are not even aware that they are taking it as axiomatic. When they say there has been progress toward peace, what they mean is that Israel has moved closer to acquiescing in the establishment of a Palestinian state; when they say that the process has been “frozen,” they mean that Israel has slowed the pace; and when they say that the prospects for peace have dimmed, they mean that Israel under Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu is maneuvering to scuttle Oslo altogether. It is as though they imagine that history-or at least that part involving the Arab war against Israel-will end with the birth of the Palestinian state.
To me, however, that birth, which is now all but inevitable, means exactly the opposite. Some Israelis, Netanyahu among them, put their faith in “peace with security,” by which they mean that conditions can and will be negotiated that limit the ability of the new Palestinian state to endanger the correlatively new state of Israel (new in the sense that Israel’s borders will move closer to those that marked the country before the Six Day War of 1967).
Yet I have never been able to bring myself to believe this. In my opinion, no “iron-clad” promises monitored by the CIA (as decided at Wye) nor any guarantees from the United States can prevent the ground from continuing to be prepared for another big assault on Israel.
Henry Kissinger, shaking his head at the fetish the Israelis have made of the word “peace,” often says that all wars have broken out between nations previously at peace. My own corollary is that, when one party to a conflict actually wants it to end and the other is still pursuing victory, peace treaties become a form of unilateral disarmament–whether psychological, military, or both–by the former. The party pursuing victory will invariably either violate the terms of the treaty (with or without a pretext that pins the blame on the other side) or take advantage of its loopholes; conversely, the party that wishes to live in peace will go on keeping its promises or, if a democracy, run into political difficulties in trying to force compliance when violations occur. For in a democracy, doubts will always be raised: Was the act in question really a violation? If so, was it serious enough to warrant using force against the violating party? And even if the act might be construed as such, is it worth going to war again after so much blood and effort went into the making of peace? And anyway, what about the things we ourselves have done that did not strictly adhere to the spirit of the agreement?
The history of the twentieth century is littered with examples of this kind of thing, from the response of the West in the Thirties to Nazi Germany’s violations of various treaties, to the way the United States willfully ignored Soviet violations of arms-control agreements in the Seventies, to the refusal of Congress to enforce the accords negotiated by Kissinger in 1973 with North Vietnam. In all these instances, the details hammered out by the diplomats turned out to mean next to nothing. Once the wars these diplomats were helpless to prevent broke out, only professional historians were ever again interested in the treaties, or remembered what they had contained.
The process intended to end the Arab war against Israel-a war that began in 1948, on the day the Jewish state was proclaimed-seems to me another entry in this long, morbid catalogue. As I see it, Israel-first under Yitzhak Rabin, then under Shimon Peres, and now even under Benjamin Netanyahu-has been succumbing under one rationalization or another to a combination of war-weariness, wishful thinking, and American pressure. But no matter why and how they have come to this particular pass, there can be no doubt that the Israelis truly want peace. The problem is that they can have it only if the Palestinians and other Arabs, after so many years of dreaming and scheming and fighting and maneuvering to rectify what they regard both as a gross political injustice and an abominable affront to Islam, have finally changed their minds about wiping Israel off the map no matter where its borders might be drawn and have decided that they can live with a sovereign Jewish state in their midst.
Alas, the evidence strongly suggests that neither the Palestinians nor most of their Arab brothers have reached such a point, or have even come within sight of it. In this connection, I think of the enormously important assessment of Arab sentiment made about two years ago by Professor Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University, himself of Lebanese birth and a specialist in the history and politics of the Middle East:
There has been no discernible change in the Arab attitudes toward Israel. . . . The great refusal [to accept the Jewish state] persists . . . in that “Arab street” of ordinary men and women, among the intellectuals and the writers, and in the professional syndicates. The force of this refusal can be seen in the press of the governments and of the oppositionists, among the secularists and the Islamists alike, in countries that have concluded diplomatic agreements with Israel and those that haven’t.
When speaking among themselves, in Arabic (as opposed to when they address the West in its own languages), the Palestinians make not the slightest effort to disguise their “great refusal” and the warlike intentions that follow from it. Thus, as (bad) luck would have it, just as I am about to leave for the airport today, and just in case I am tempted to entertain the idea that in the end all will turn out for the best, my fax machine presents me with a report from the Middle East Media and Research Institute summarizing the comments on Wye in the Palestinian media.
These comments add up to an interpretation of the summit’s memorandum that runs almost directly counter to what the Israelis, along with the Americans, seem to think they have just signed.
Item: The head of the Palestinian negotiating team at Wye asserts that the meeting in Gaza to be addressed by Clinton in December will not involve the legal procedures necessary to annul the provisions in the Palestinian National Charter calling for the destruction of Israel. Thus, having falsely been told two or three times before that the offending clauses had already been cancelled, we will now be lied to about it yet again.
Item: The head of the Gaza security apparatus declares that he will fight only the military, not the political, arms of Hamas and other terrorist groups, that no formula for fighting terrorism was adopted at Wye, and that the Palestinians have no intention of lowering the number of their “policemen.”
Item: The Secretary General of Fatah in the West Bank affirms that his people did not budge at Wye from their insistence on the right of the Palestinian refugees who fled in 1948 to return to their old homes in present-day Israel. This same high official (of Chairman Yasser Arafat’s own wing of the PLO) also declares that the Palestinians did not modify the demand that their independent state be established “on the entirety of Palestinian land” (i.e., including the territory now constituting the state of Israel), with Jerusalem as its capital.
The upshot, to put it as plainly as possible, is that the Palestinians still see a state of their own as a substitute for, not an addition to, the Jewish state that already exists. Having thus far failed to bring this about through direct military means, they have (as another high Palestinian official frankly acknowledged in the immediate wake of Wye) adopted the “strategy of phases” plan of 1974. What this plan proposes is that the destruction of Israel be pursued incrementally, with the Palestinians first getting what they can obtain through diplomacy and various other forms of pressure and then, at the opportune moment, making a bid for the rest through armed assault.
Yitzhak Rabin used to say that the Palestinians did not pose an “existential threat” to Israel: they were too weak to do anything but inflict minor wounds through terror. But as envisaged by the “strategy of phases,” the future Palestinian state will not exist in isolation, and when it goes to war against Israel, it will be able to count on the help of practically the entire Arab world, with Muslim Iran added in. All of these countries will set aside their intramural differences to join in this holy war, this jihad, that will at long last offer them a serious chance to arrive at a final solution of the Israel problem.
Even more promising from the Arabs’ point of view, this war will be fought on terms especially unfavorable to Israel because of the additional territorial concessions the “peace” treaty will necessarily have entailed and the new powers that sovereignty will have given to the Palestinians. These powers will include the ability to enlarge the army they have built since Oslo, disguised as a police force and at least twice the size they were permitted under that agreement, as well as a new ease in importing heavy weapons and missiles (if necessary, just as with their army, in contravention of prior pledges).
Indeed, I will soon learn to my horror that, even without the airport and the seaport that, thanks to Wye, the Palestinians will now finally be able to open, they have already managed to smuggle in Stingers-those shoulder-held missile launchers whose supply to Afghanistan by the United States was the single most important military factor in turning the invasion of that country by the Soviets into “their Vietnam.”
I would, if only I could, banish these thoughts and prepare myself to plunge wholeheartedly into the spirit of the occasion toward which I am being hurtled through the night air. Yet I was unable to do so when I traveled for the bar-mitzvah of my oldest Israeli grandson, Noam, three years ago: and now it is, as the old joke goes, déjà vu all over again. In fact, when I told my daughter Ruthie on the phone that I might write a journal about this trip similar to the one I had done three years ago, she burst into mordant laughter and exclaimed: “Oh, no, not another article saying Israel is up the creek–and, by the way, I went to my grandson’s bar-mitzvah!”
Jerusalem, Wednesday afternoon, October 28
It has been a year and a half since I last saw my four Israeli grandchildren, and I am taken aback at how much they have grown. Noam, the bar-mitzvah boy of 1995, still knows everything about everything, but he is now 16 and a full-blown adolescent (though he has, thank goodness, given up wearing his hair dyed half yellow and cut in some kind of punk style); Alon, the bar-mitzvah boy of a few days hence, is still very slender and is even more reserved and self-possessed than he was before, when I gave him the Hebrew sobriquet Mar Kul (“Mr. Cool”–the word “cool” having slipped untranslated into the Hebrew language and becoming for Israeli kids his age, no less than for their American counterparts, the most desirable of all things to be).
But it is the twins, Boaz and Avital, now nearly nine years old, who have changed the most. They are no longer babies, and when I begin by treating them as such (because, fatuous grandfather that I am, I still find them almost unbearably cute), they make it very clear that they (she even more than he) will not permit me to patronize them in this or any other way. Both of them speak English better than they did when we last met, but I am grateful that Boaz still says things like, “My heart is banging me,” when he is out of breath and that Avital regally, and with a touch of contempt, still corrects him when he makes such mistakes.
Not that she is as grown-up as she likes to pretend. Before I leave Jerusalem, I will see her dress up as a bride, put a necktie on their dog, Domino, and insist that my son, her uncle John Podhoretz (who has also come here for the bar-mitzvah), perform a ceremony uniting girl and dog in matrimony, with her aunt, my oldest daughter Rachel Abrams, who is with us too, serving as bridesmaid. When Avital insists on something, there is no use trying to resist, and John gracefully gives in, reciting something approximating the wedding service of the Book of Common Prayer, during which he requests that anyone who knows of any reason why this couple should not be joined in holy matrimony speak now or forever hold his peace. Noam protests that “interspecial marriage” (this is the term he uses-in English!) is forbidden by the Torah, but when John magisterially overrules his objection and proceeds to declare the pair dog and wife, Noam chimes in with “by the authority vested in you by the administration and staff of Bellevue Hospital!”
Wondering how on earth he knows that Bellevue is a mental hospital, I conclude that there is no limit to what a kid in some other country can learn about America by watching television and playing around with the Internet, which is how Noam seems to spend most of his time. Meanwhile, Boaz, normally quite noisy, sits unaccountably still, observing his twin sister go through this ceremony with a slightly puzzled expression on his face. As for Alon, he, of course, affects all the aloofness one would expect of Mar Kul.
Wednesday night, October 28
Not surprisingly, the Israelis are responding to Wye in a much more complicated way than the Palestinians. Netanyahu (whom I will from here on call Bibi, as I have done ever since I met him some twenty years ago, and as everyone in Israel does, including those who hate him) is jubilant. So are his intimates within the Likud Party. As they spin it, Bibi has come back from Wye with “magnificent achievements.” The principal such achievement was to have “squeezed the accordion” that the rival Labor Party, now led by Ehud Barak, had expanded for the Palestinians. According to Bibi, Labor would have given up 90 per cent of the West Bank in three 30-per cent withdrawals, whereas he pulled off a deal that would at this stage add only another 10 per cent, plus a further 3 per cent as a “nature reserve,” which, combined with previous pullbacks, would make for a total of 40 per cent.
The Labor Party denounces this as a libel and tries for a while to attack Bibi from the right for having given away, not less, but more than Labor would have done. But no sooner does this trial balloon get launched than it is punctured by its own absurdity, and within minutes (or so it seems) Labor changes tactics. Now Barak and other Labor leaders begin to declare that Wye represents the complete capitulation of Bibi to the “path of Rabin,” or what one editorialist calls “the Rabinization of Netanyahu.” Yet, unable to bring themselves to congratulate him on finally seeing the light that has been shining so brightly in their own eyes, they are reduced to demanding that Bibi issue an apology to Rabin for having attacked his peace policies in the first place. Some of them also insinuate that the apology should include words of contrition for the part they continue to believe Bibi played in the “incitement” that created the climate in which the assassination of Rabin could occur.
On the extreme left, no words are minced on this point: on television, there is a demonstration, and I see a sign emblazoned with the famous denunciation issued by the prophet Elijah against King Ahab when, after provoking his wife Jezebel to arrange for the disposal of Naboth, the king took possession of the dead man’s vineyard: Haratzakhtah v’gam yarashtah? (“Hast thou murdered and also inherited?”). One left-wing politician, not daring to use this quotation directly, nevertheless cannot resist sneakily alluding to it by asking Bibi in a speech in the Knesset whether he has inherited while proving ungrateful (presumably both for his power and his supposedly new policy).
Of course, Bibi played no part of any kind in the assassination of Rabin. Spearheading the angry critique of Oslo while in opposition as head of the Likud Party, he consistently dissociated himself from the cries of “traitor” that were hurled at Rabin, and he sharply rebuked those of his followers who used that word. Actually, though-unremarked as it was or is in the media-the epithet was more often hurled at Rabin by members of his own party on the Golan Heights than by rightist settlers on the West Bank. The great majority of the people living on the Golan were old Laborites who had been encouraged to go there by previous Labor governments, and they had voted for Rabin on the basis of his assurances that he would never make a deal with Syria involving their dispossession. It was when they saw just such a deal in the works that they felt betrayed.
It seems clear that the current Labor opposition, not to mention the hard Left, would like nothing better than to go on blaming Bibi for the assassination. But (with the exception of Rabin’s widow, Leah, who can and does get away with anything she says, no matter how outrageous) they have had their tongues tied by the legislation against “incitement” they rammed through after the assassination. For it is now Bibi’s turn to be attacked as a traitor by some of his erstwhile supporters on the West Bank-and for the same reason that Rabin was turned upon by his own people on the Golan Heights. There is an unmistakable note of Schadenfreude–of “How do you like it now that it is happening to you?”–in some of the statements by Labor Party leaders, but so unseemly is this vindictive approach (not to mention the danger it involves of running afoul of the anti-incitement laws) that it is prudently abandoned. Five demonstrators are even arrested when they show up a few days later shouting, “He incited, he incited to murder!” at Bibi as he places a wreath on Rabin’s grave during a ceremony.
As for those settlers on the West Bank who feel betrayed by Bibi’s surrender of land that they chose to believe he would never give away, they are trying very hard to distance themselves from the extremists and to keep the word “traitor” out of their criticisms of Wye. “So,” begins a television interviewer as he questions a young man from one of the West Bank settlements, “Bibi has become a traitor?” Refusing the bait, the settler responds, squirming visibly, “I wouldn’t use that word,” and then-despite aggressive prodding by the interviewer–tries to make his case against Wye in much more moderate terms. I get the impression that he is squirming not only because giving in to the interviewer might open him up to prosecution but because the whole approach is genuinely distasteful to him. Then the interviewer, relentless, shows old footage of anti-Rabin demonstrations and juxtaposes it with new pictures of similar placards, this time featuring Bibi instead of Rabin with a kaffiyeh on his head and shaking the bloody hands of Arafat. Again the settler expresses disapproval of such extremism, but when the interviewer demands that he explain in what way Likud now differs from Labor, he more or less gives up.
I should point out here that my Hebrew, once fluent, has grown rusty and that I could not quite follow and may have misunderstood some parts of this interview. But I am pretty sure I got the gist right. So too with Bibi’s speech to the Likud conference, which I also catch on television tonight. As everyone who has ever listened to him knows, Bibi’s English is perfect–almost accentless and amazingly articulate. But I have heard that he is not as good a speaker in his native Hebrew as he is in English. Perhaps if my own Hebrew were better, I might agree. So far as I can tell tonight, however, he is the same Bibi with the same ease and fluency. To this is added-as it never is in English–the vehemence that seems to be characteristic of and expected in Israeli political speech.
Thursday, October 29
I meet in the morning with an old Israeli friend, one of the few professors at the Hebrew University who are not on the left. To be sure, he started out as a supporter of Labor. But over the years-and especially since Oslo-he has become a kind of Israeli neoconservative. It therefore did not in the least surprise me to find, when I was here for Noam’s bar-mitzvah in the summer of 1995, that he was supporting Bibi against Rabin in the contest for prime minister. He was neither enthusiastic about the Likud Party nor entirely trustful of Bibi, but he believed that there was no choice, since Labor had suffered a process analogous to the McGovernization of the Democratic Party in America.
This morning, no sooner do we greet each other than we plunge into a discussion of Wye. Both of us fully expected Bibi to accept the American demand for a 13.1 per cent withdrawal, but we agree that the worst thing about Wye is the provision that turns the CIA into a referee between the Israelis and the Palestinians when disputes arise over the policing of terrorism. It is bad for Israel because it embodies an assumption of moral equivalence between the two sides on this issue, quite as though one Baruch Goldstein were equal to the vast number of Palestinian terrorists past and present (which number is bound to be swelled in the future). It is bad also because it represents a departure from the old insistence by Israel on “direct negotiations” with the Palestinians rather than through third parties. But as an American, I feel that the provision is bad for America, too. It is one thing to act as “an honest broker,” but quite another to act as a judge, even under the doubtful assumption that the CIA, which has plenty of other problems of its own, is up to doing this particular job.
Neither of us, however, is as exercised as we both were three years ago. Then we were still in a state of high indignation over the turn Rabin and Peres had taken from hawk to dove, but now we are a little burned out: cases of all (well, not quite all) passion spent. Having long assumed that the Palestinian state could not be headed off and that the danger it posed could not be averted or neutralized by diplomacy, we spend the rest of our time together speculating on how and when the next war will break out and how bad it will be-a fitting conclusion to a Jewish discussion.
Thursday evening, October 29
Dinner with David and Beverly Bar-Illan. Having been in succession a concert pianist, a regular contributor to Commentary, and the editor of the Jerusalem Post, David is now Bibi’s communications director. Fresh from Wye, he has a few amusing anecdotes to tell, but none is so amusing as the series of phone calls he receives while we are at table.
These calls are occasioned by the fact that, when I saw Bibi at a breakfast meeting he addressed in New York before going to Wye and informed him that I would soon be in Israel, he urged me to get in touch so that we could arrange for the kind of one-on-one conversation we used to have regularly and that we have never once managed to sneak in since he became prime minister. Great, I said, that would be great. But knowing from the many stories I had heard from other old friends of his that reaching him was very difficult even after he had issued such invitations, I decided then and there that I would just forget the whole thing.
After watching him last night on television, however, I changed my mind, mainly because I was curious to hear what he would say to me in private when I asked him what his overall strategy was, and whether it would differ from what he was saying in public or what I thought it was. And so, while at Ruthie’s apartment this afternoon, I dialed the special number David had given me and informed the woman who answered that the prime minister had requested that I call. Since he was unavailable, she offered to take a message, but she had great trouble with my last name, even though I spelled it out slowly for her, first in English, then in Hebrew.
When I pass all this on to David, he makes a knowing gesture, and now when the phone rings at his apartment, he smiles merrily as he goes to pick it up. “I’ll bet it’s one of the secretaries wanting to know if I know who you are.” When he returns to the dining room, he is no longer merely smiling; he is convulsed with laughter. “I was right! She told me that someone named ‘Fuditz’ was claiming that the prime minister wanted to see him.” David, immediately realizing that, among other things, she has mistaken the Hebrew letter for “p,” which can sometimes also be read as an “f,” tries to straighten her out. But it takes another phone call, and two more spelling exercises, before he does so successfully. Then the phone rings yet again, and, sure enough, it is Bibi, asking for me. We chat for a minute, during which I compliment him on his speech last night, and he responds by saying how much he is looking forward to seeing me before I leave on Monday.
I am ready to bet that this will never happen (and it never does). Mending the fences on his right that have been damaged by Wye, as well as preparing for the commemoration of the third anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, will keep him too busy to meet with me. Besides, as he is very intelligent, Bibi has every reason to expect that I will be less than fully enthusiastic about his “magnificent achievements,” and no more than any other politician does he welcome anything other than the hosannahs I will be unable to bring myself to sing into his ears. Which is why I, for my part, do not much regret missing the chance to find out whether he will confirm my long-held sense of the strategy he is pursuing.
That strategy, as I read it, is to square the circle of moving toward the establishment of a Palestinian state without entirely alienating those of his constituents who passionately oppose Oslo and persuaded themselves during the election that he would reverse it. I do not doubt that Bibi would indeed have wished to throw Oslo overboard, but I am equally certain that he has concluded that this would be even riskier than honoring it. Obviously, like Rabin before him (and to that degree he has been “Rabinized”), he has decided that the main threat now comes not from a Palestinian state but from the missiles of Iran and Iraq. Hence, what he thinks Israel needs above all else is American help in building effective defenses against that threat (never mind that we Americans still lack any anti-missile defenses ourselves). The Palestinian state being the American price of such cooperation, it is safer to pay it–according to this view-than not.
The political trick is to pay it without being toppled from power; and it seems to me that Bibi has returned from Wye feeling confident that he is well on his way to pulling off that trick. By appointing Ariel Sharon as his new foreign minister, and by including Natan Sharansky on the negotiating team, Bibi has acquired additional cover from the two figures in his circle most trusted by the Right. Sharon will later declare that, painful as it is to surrender more territory, this team has made a deal that will do the least possible damage to Israel’s security. And so Bibi can also claim that he is fulfilling his electoral promise of “peace with security.”
About that, we shall see. Yet to me and some of my Israeli friends, the missiles of Iran and Iraq have added to, not canceled out, the threat of conventional war, and–to say yet again what cannot be said too often–we think that the latter threat has been increased by the “peace process.” We do not, alas, have an alternative policy to offer. For-to say this, too, yet again–Israel cannot have peace so long as the Arab world persists in Ajami’s “great refusal.” Buying time in the hope that the Arabs might eventually change would have been the best of all the bad courses under these circumstances, but the Israelis had lost the stamina and even the will to opt for this alternative. And so we sit, waiting helplessly for the explosion ahead and hoping at least that Bibi and his people are prepared militarily to cope with it.
In an earlier phone call last summer, when I told Bibi flat out that I thought war was in the offing, that it was too late to head it off, and that he must make certain that Israel would be in good shape militarily and in a high state of preparedness, he assured me that this was precisely what he was doing. Yet I have been given less optimistic assessments from other quarters, and I have no way of judging which of them is correct.
Saturday, October 31
The great day for which we have come here has arrived, and the weather (which can be bone-chilling at this time of year in Jerusalem) is glorious. The synagogue at which Alon is to have his bar-mitzvah is about a mile or so from our hotel, so we decide to walk, which is, after all, the proper thing to do on shabbat in Jerusalem, and especially for this occasion. Three years ago, when Noam had his bar-mitzvah, it was in a musty old Orthodox synagogue that reminded me of the one I attended when growing up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. But Alon, who has a highly developed sense of style, demands something much grander-no less grand, indeed, than the Great Synagogue itself, which is housed in the building that serves as the headquarters of the chief rabbinate.
Playing on the Hebrew word for “religious” (dati), secular Israelis call this building “the Datican,” and though neither Alon himself nor the household in which he lives is at all observant, he has scorned the suggestion that his bar-mitzvah be celebrated in either the Reform or the Conservative synagogue, both of which are nearby and also very grand. So far as he, like most other Israelis, is concerned, Judaism is either Orthodox (“the real thing”) or it is nothing. It is this-and not, as the Reform and Conservative leaders in America like to claim, discrimination against them by the government-that explains why these two movements have had so much difficulty in establishing a strong foothold in Israel. Alon may not return to a synagogue again for many years, if ever, and he is highly unlikely to become an observant Jew. But if his family wants him to have a bar-mitzvah, he (like his older brother before him) wants it to be “the real thing.”
The Great Synagogue is more luxuriously appointed than any other Orthodox synagogue I have ever seen, and the service is conducted by a professional cantor assisted by a choir made up of adults (a novelty for me: the choirs I sang in once upon a time were always composed of children). The choristers are of course all male, since in an Orthodox synagogue the women are segregated either behind a screen or (as here) in a balcony. As the bar-mitzvah boy’s grandfather, I am invited to sit up front in a place of honor, where I have a good view of Alon in his own special place to my right. Being Mr. Cool, he has waved off all questions about whether he is nervous, but his long thin face is very pale as he waits for the morning service to end and then the Torah to be brought out and that week’s portion to be read. He will be called up to chant the concluding verses of that portion (the passage known as the maftir) and then to continue in a different chant with a much longer passage from the prophets (the haftarah).
Boaz, who has been sitting quietly next to his uncle John all morning, complains that they are “reading too hard” (by which he means too fast) and adds cheerfully, in an amalgam of English and the Hebrew word for synagogue, “I hate beit-haknesset.” Nevertheless he waits for his big brother to do his stuff before rushing out, and I suspect that he is as astonished as the rest of the family by Alon’s performance. In normal conversation, Mr. Cool, as befits such a person, always speaks so softly that it is often hard to hear him. Yet from the minute he begins pronouncing the blessing that precedes his chanting of the maftir until the last syllable of his haftarah and the blessing with which it concludes, his voice rises to and remains on a decibel level that would do credit to a Sophie Tucker or an Ethel Merman, and he belts out a flawless performance with not the slightest vocal quaver or hesitation. It is a wonder to hear and behold, and it reinforces my old suspicion that there are mysteries in the depths of this grandson of mine that I dearly wish I will live long enough to see revealed.
Certainly they will not be revealed today. Later, at the celebratory lunch next door, when he is deluged with enthusiastic congratulations, Alon defies the clich, by not being “flushed with triumph” and immediately reverts to his normal persona, complete with the soft, thin, and barely audible voice that goes so well with it. When we get home, however, he generously suffers me to hug and kiss him. I make an even greater pest of myself in this respect than usual, fearing that my days of being allowed to take such liberties with him are strictly numbered. Fortunately, I have no comparable worries about Noam, who is not that kind of cool and is besides very demonstrative. Nor do I have to worry (yet) about the twins, who are, after all, not even nine years old.
Sunday, November 1
It is our last day, and we are hoping to see as much of Ruthie and the children as possible. But as Sunday is a normal work and school day in Israel, she is in her office at the Jerusalem Post (where she is a columnist and an editor) and they are all in school. Adding to these obstacles, today will be the culmination of the ceremonies commemorating the third anniversary of Rabin’s death that have been going on in various forms since we arrived. I had planned to attend one or two of these events in the company of Noam and Alon. Like all schoolchildren in Israel, they have been instructed to show up for classes dressed in white shirts and dark trousers or skirts. Then, a few hours after returning home, the Jerusalem kids are all to reassemble at the Knesset, where they will hear speeches before marching back to their respective schools to light candles and read one another the poems and essays they have been assigned to write about the lessons to be learned from the assassination. Unfortunately, a bout of stomach trouble makes it impossible for me to accompany them, and I will have to depend on a secondhand account from Alon (Noam having rebelled against going).
Still, this is not really necessary, thanks to television and the papers, which have been so dominated by Rabin that they have scarcely had space or time for anything else. I have lived through the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., but not in any of these cases was the aftermath anything like what has occurred with Rabin. To the secular Israeli public, which is mostly left-of-center in its politics, Rabin has become a veritable substitute for God, a true idol of the tribe. I cannot say how many of these people actually pray to him, but only last night I spotted on TV signs being waved near his gravesite that read, “Yitzhak, now you are looking after us from above.” To anyone who knew the aggressively secular and totally unsanctimonious Rabin, as I did for nearly thirty years, nothing could be more bizarre than to see him transformed into a kind of saint and spoken of in such language.
Less bizarre, but no less unlovely, is the political dimension of the Rabin cult. Addressing him directly, and always by his first name, one speaker after another rises at this time every year to bless him for his courage in seeking peace and to beg his pardon for not protecting him from the danger he was in: Yitzhak, they intone, forgive us. And this year there is the added theme of the putative triumph over his political enemies represented by Wye. Here the tone changes from unctuous piety to crowing, from the obeisances of idolatry to the exploiting of political opportunity: Yitzhak, your path has been vindicated.
This is a very delicate subject, and I exaggerate only slightly when I say that, as people used to be arrested in Christian countries for blasphemy, one can practically get arrested in Israel for saying anything critical about Rabin or even about the uses to which his assassination has been put. It is therefore with astonishment that I read a piece in the weekend edition of Ha’aretz (always described as the New York Times of Israel) by the columnist Tom Segev that dares to characterize as “political kitsch” all these efforts to turn Rabin into a saint:
Rabin, who fought Palestinians all his life, was involved during the War of Independence and the Six Day War in massive deportations of Palestinians. He oppressed them with a hard hand during the Intifada and was dragged unwillingly into the Oslo agreements while contravening promises he made to his voters. There is no assurance that Rabin could have advanced the peace process faster than Netanyahu.
This is much too harsh and unmodulated, but even though it comes from the “post-Zionist” Left-a school of thought I detest-I have to admit that it is closer to the truth than the hagiographic image of Rabin promoted by so many other more moderate left-of-center elements in the Israeli political culture.
Foolishly (will I never learn?), the minute Alon returns from the special ceremony, I try to grill him on what went on. Inevitably, he just shrugs and says, “Nothing.” Pressed, he elaborates a little: “There were speeches and stuff.” But in spite of all my pleading, he keeps refusing to give me even a single example of something one of his classmates said: “I can’t remember.” I nag on, and finally, in a last-ditch stab at being left alone, he glances at me with a look that combines disgust and disdain in equal measure and says, “It was all just a lot of lefty bulls-.”
I am hard put to decide which is more surprising coming from Alon: the sentiment, since I would have thought him so indifferent to political distinctions as to be unaware of them, or the obscenity, since I cannot recall ever hearing him use one in my presence before. Once, when I teasingly taxed her with having a foul mouth, the quick-witted and always witty Rachel shot back with, “Well, the rotten apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” True, evidently even unto the third generation. More mysteries from this mysterious grandson of mine.
A little while later, we have to say our goodbyes. Embracing Noam, I am suddenly seized by the chilling realization that, in less than two short years, he will be going into the army. Then I embrace Alon (who is even more generous on this occasion than after the bar-mitzvah and hugs me tight in response) and Avital (who is always up for a hug, except of course when she is in one of her regal huffs). I am a little wary of Boaz, who dislikes saying goodbye and not only refused to do so three years ago but pounded me in the chest when I grabbed him. But he is older now, and when I go into his room, where he is watching television, he allows me to pick him up and shower him with my characteristically fatuous kisses. I set him down and close the door, but the minute I do, he opens it again, sticks his head out with a big grin, and says, “Toodleoo!” As I have observed before, there is no limit to the reach of cultural globalization.
Monday, November 2, at the airport
Ruthie had told me that she hoped I would not write another piece saying that “Israel is up the creek–and, by the way, I went to my grandson’s bar-mitzvah.” But, of course, this is exactly what I have done. John, for his part, kidded me about the fact that everything I have written about Israel in the past five years has concluded in the same style: with a prayer that my forebodings are misplaced, that I am wrong in predicting war, and that those who see peace ahead are right. “If you’re going to write something this time, do me a favor and don’t end with that same prayer again.”
But just as I have dashed Ruthie’s hopes, so am I now about to refuse John’s similarly humorous request. I will, however, go this far for him: I will offer up my prayer not on paper but only in my head, and in the silence of my heart.