Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tombs and heritage

"We have to appeal to the Christians throughout the world. They know the Bible, they know that our Fathers and Mothers are really buried at the Cave of the Machpela in Hebron" was how Minister Gilad Arden of the Likud Party put it in a radio interview yesterday.

Indeed, the story in the Book of Genesis is well-known to anybody who reads the Bible. The death of Sarah, the wife of the Patriarch Abraham, and how he bought a piece of land in which to bury – all the while treating the inhabitants of Hebron in his time with great respect and courtesy (in marked contrast to the behavior of present-day Israeli settlers in Hebron, who daily invoke Abraham's name).

Is this story a historical fact? And even if it is, does the grave which Abraham dug for his wife truly lie under the structure in the Palestinian city of Hebron, called "The Cave of the Machpela" by Jews "The Ibrahimi Mosque" by Muslims? And is Abraham's son Isaac the one who is buried there at his side – the ancestor of the Jews according to Jewish tradition? Or is it Abraham's son Ismael, ancestor of the Arabs and the Muslims according to Arab and Muslim tradition? Or were completely different people buried there, hundreds or thousands of years later?

Perhaps, once upon a time historians and archaeologists would be able to provide a reliable and authoritative answer. In fact, it does not really matter. Traditions and myths, religious or nationalist, have their own power, only very loosely connected with objective facts.

There is no doubt that for centuries the Cave of the Machpela in Hebron (as well as Rachel's Tomb in Bethelehem) constituted part of a genuine Jewish heritage, which was passed on from generation to generation. There was no need of a cabinet determining a "List of National Heritage Sites" nor of an army of occupation to conquer the Hertiatage Sites and control them and fortify them. That was a long time ago.

During forty two years of occupation, the Cave of the Machpela has become the "heritage" of rampaging settlers, the very symbol and emblem of wild nationalism and national insanity. On Februay 25, 1996 – exactly sixteen years ago – settler Baruch Goldstein turned the Cave of the Machpela into a field of carnage. Many of the Hebron settlers regard Goldstein as a hero whose act deserves respect and admiration – and also emulation.

During forty two years of occupation, the Cave of the Machpela has become a place which only the settlers and their friends have any wish of visiting. Ordinary Israelis would much rather board a plane and reach within a few hours the tourist sites in Thailand and South America.

Tombs and heritage (2)

The story of Jakob and Rachel is one of the oldest love stories known to human culture. The story of how they had to wait fourteen years before being able to consummate their love, and of how Rachel died in childbirth and was buried at the roadside, is touching and poignant – regardless of whether or not it really happened and if Rachel is truly buried under the structure in the city of Bethlehem which bears the name "Rachel's Tomb".

When the picture of Rachel's Tomb appeared on stamps published by the British Mandate, nobody opposed it and nobody protested. On the contrary, the British chose this picture especially in order to have a site acceptable to all of His Majesty's subjects in this country, Jews and Arabs alike. Rachel's Tomb had been, for hundreds of years, one of this country's symbols, part of the heritage of all its inhabitants. Some people still remember the days when Jewish and Arab women alike went on pilgrimage to Rachel's Tomb and prayed there, side by side.

Rachel's Tomb, that beautiful and modest structure which appeared on stamps and also in various naïve and romantic paintings, no longer exists. Under the rule of the State of Israel it was replaced by an enormous concrete fortification, guarded day and night by a large military force – a threatening enclave penetrating into Palestinian Bethlehem.

It is this location, as well as the Cave of the Machpela, that the government of Israel proclaimed to be "National Heritage Sites", which are to be "rebuilt" and "reconstructed" at considerable expense for the state treasury. PM Netanyahu utterly fails to understand why this decision precipitated such a big storm of protests: "We just wanted to connect the young Israeli generation to their historical roots in the soil of this country" he said. "The campaign conducted by the Palestinians in response to the cabinet decision is a hypocritical lie. The State of Israel is committed to freedom of religious worship for members of all religious denominations in all holy sites".

The Prime Minster has apparently not heard that soldiers guarding Rachel's Tomb were instructed not to admit any Palestinian into the compound, none whatsover. Even an attempt to approach the entrance, surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, would involve a very real life danger for an inhabitant of Bethlehem.

Tombs and heritage (3)

"In the Galilee, in Tel Hai/Trumpeldor had fallen
For out country, for our people/Yosef the Hero had fallen"

"Everyewhere, at any moment/Shall you remember me
For I did fight and I did fall/For the sake of my country"

In fact, the original intention of Netahyhau and his ministers was to focus on a myth from the nearer past – just ninety years, to be exact. In this case, there is no doubt, at least about the basic historical facts. The Battle of Tel Hai, between a Zionist pioneer militia headed by Yosef Trumpeldor and the inhabitants of the surrounding Arab villages, did take place. A rather small affair, in comparison with the battles and wars which followed, but it was the first battle in the conflict, and it left behind an impressive myth, highly influential for generations afterwards.

During the 1960's, at my elementary school in Tel Aviv, I learned by heart the heroic Tel Hai songs, and I heard a lot of Yosef Trumpeldor and his famous last words "No matter, it is good to die for our country". Years later, the iconoclasts would assert that in fact his last words were a very pungent expression in Russian, his mother tongue (in fact, since Trumpeldor lay dying for several hours, he had time enough for both).

New generations arose, young people who thought that, rather than dying (and killing) for your country it might be preferable to live for its sake, achieve peace for its sake and that of its neighbors too. The Trumpeldor Myth was increasingly forgotten. Netanyahu now seems determined to take the myth out of its glass case in the museum, brush off the dust and present it with all its glory to the young generation of Israelis.

Can this work, even with the considerable government budgets earmarked for the purpose? Myths of this kind of myth are especially strong and effective among oppressed peoples, who still have no independent state of their own, who dream of liberty and struggle for it. Not so much for those who have a state for sixty years already, and spent most of it being occupiers.