Friday, May 30, 2014

The Pope at the Wall and Tchernichovsky’s Dream

It was a tough week for the European Union. In the elections to its parliament, a phenomenal growth in the strength of the racist and xenophobic parties, which dream of turning back the clock of unity; closing down the open borders; pushing Europe to dark days which we thought were safely left behind. The most pan-European of bodies, whose members are directly elected by the citizens of all European countries, turned into a springboard for its foes.

Some of them hate Muslims and some hate Gypsies and some hate Blacks and some hate Jews and some do not really like Jews but do admire Israel, especially when Israel hits out at Arabs and Muslims, and some of them just  hate on general principle anyone who is strange and different. It is not sure that when they all sit in the European Parliament they could or would agree on whom to hate.

Though in several countries - particularly in France –xenophobic parties made remarkable and frightening strides, at least, in none of the countries is such a party taking part in government. In the State of Israel we have them in government. On some occasions it seems that they are the government.

This was also the week when we had a prominent visitor from Europe, Pope Francis who is in fact originally Argentine. Not just a Pope, but one who managed to arouse quite a lot of sympathy and hope even among those who are not Christians, and to restore the reputation of the Catholic Church which had been at a low ebb. It was clear from the outset that each step which the Pope would take around here, among the Palestinians as among the Israelis, would be examined in minute detail, and that every word he utters would be endowed with a symbolic - and political - meaning.

"The long conflict had caused many wounds which are difficult to heal. The  time has come to put an end to this situation, which is becoming ever more unacceptable. Everybody concerned must exhibit courage, generosity and creativity, in order to promote the common good. Courage is needed for a peace based on the recognition of the right of two states to exist and to enjoy the peace and security in internationally recognized borders. Hopefully, all parties shall refrain from actions that are contrary to the stated desire to reach a real agreement."

It can be assumed that the speech broadcast from Bethlehem was not really palatable to Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu, and that he did not like the reference to "the good relationship between the Holy See and the State of Palestine". But what really set him off was the moment when the Papal cavalcade made an “unscheduled” halt at the Separation Wall erected by the State of Israel deep in Palestinian territory, and when the Pope descended and touched the ugly concrete right next to where the "Free Palestine " graffiti had been scrawled and made there a short silent prayer. From what I hear from the US, there had been some effort to dissuade the American media from publishing the photo of this moment, and to place instead the more predictable one of the Pope at the stones of the Wailing Wall. To no avail: the New York Times published both of them, side by side...

Nominally, there was a total draw. Israel got from the Pope a counter-balancing gesture for any move he made towards the Palestinians - including the first-ever laying a of a Papal wreath on the grave of the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl. A century ago, when the living Herzl visited the Vatican, he got a far from friendly reception from an earlier Pope. Still, the veteran commentator Eitan Haber, once an advisor to PM Rabin, concluded that the Palestinians had won this round of the PR war.

And there was also the bunch of extreme rightists in Jerusalem who waved the signs "Unholy Pope, don’t you dare set foot on the soil of our country!" and fought the police who prevented them from getting close to the visitor’s cavalcade.  What particularly infuriated them was the Pope’s prayer at the room where according to Christian tradition the Last Supper had taken place, and which is located in the building which Judaism as well as Christianity (and Islam, too…) identify as the Tomb of King David.

"Hands off Our Land of Israel! Hands off Our David's Tomb! This is idolatry, anyone who had the misfortune to be near the Pope must immediately have a ritual bath to be cleansed of this contamination. This is a representative of the religion which had been slaughtering us for 2014 years already. We don’t  forget nor forgive the Inquisition and the Crusades, how they slaughtered our grandfathers and grandmothers" exclaimed Rabbi Baruch Efrati.

Indeed, the Christian religion - the Catholic Church in particular – has more than a few black pages in its history. But over the past sixty years the Church has made a considerable effort to make amends and change direction, and quite a bit more of that took place in the one year since Pope Francis took office. During those same sixty years, the Rabbis and religious leaders representing Judaism in Israel seem to have made a concerted effort in the diametrically  opposite direction, and conjured the darkest days in the history of Judaism.

A little more than a century ago the poet Shaul Tchernichovsky - himself a secularist – expressed a longing for the "The Wondrous God of the Desert, the Lord of the Conquerors who took Canaan by the Storm", a God who had been “made captive and tied down with strips of phylacteries".  Decades later, rabbis and religious leaders in Israel realized Tchernichovsky’s dream turning it into a veritable nightmare.

The Lord of the Conquerors of Canaan was duly released of all constraints and hindrances, set free to rampage as he did three thousand years ago. After very many generations of a literary and scholarly religion, whose sages spent lifetimes pondering Scriptures painstakingly piling exegesis upon exegesis, a very different kind of religion was excavated from deepest layers. The forgotten religion of the wild ancient tribes of the desert, who took up the sword and invaded the settled land and took it by storm and carried out a mass slaughter of its inhabitants. This religion is now being offered with all seriousness as an exemplary way of life for the citizens of a modern industrialized country, which maintains the most powerful army in the Middle East and has at its disposal fleets of tanks and artillery pieces and fighter jets as well as submarines sailing constantly under water with nuclear-headed missiles ensuring Israel’s second- strike capability.

The holiest day of this old-new religion is not inscribed in any traditional Scripture of the Jewish religion. It is "Jerusalem Day", celebrated every year to mark “The Liberation of Jerusalem". This year it fell just one day after Pope Francis boarded his plane back to Rome - with the due farewell ceremony at the  Airport. The main rite of Jerusalem Day is The Dance of the Flags. Commemorating the day in 1967 when soldiers stormed into the Old City of Jerusalem.  Thousands and tens of thousands of excited young people strove to recreate that tumultuous day. Equipped with Blue-and-White flags and accompanied by hundreds of armed police, they stormed into the alleys of the Old City, ceaselessly chanting: "Muhammad is dead, Mohammed is dead! God damn the Arabs! Destroy the mosques! Build the Temple! Death to the Arabs! Death to the Arabs! Death to the Arabs! "

The police ordered all Arab shopkeepers on the route of the march to close and lock their shop ahead of the arrival of the dances and their flags, and in general advised all Arab residents to stay indoors until the storm passes. But this year there were quite a few young Palestinians who ignored the police’s generous advice. Rather, they stood at the entrance to the Damascus Gate, the focus of Palestinian daily life in the Old City, and raised their own flags,  Black-White-Green-and-Red,  in the face of the Blue-and-White dancers. Whereupon the police immediately rushed and dragged  them (the Palestinians, of course) into custody on charges of disturbing public order. There were also numerous riots and clashes at the most sensitive spot in Jerusalem – the Mosque Compound which is the third holiest site for a billion Muslims around the world, the mosques which the Flag Dancers dream of destroying and razing - to make room for reconstruction of the Temple which was destroyed by the Roman legions in 70 AD.

Israel’s State TV reported on “A day of celebration in Jerusalem" and interviewed an enthusiastic young woman twirling a flag and saying "Peace will come only when Jerusalem is ours, Jewish and Jewish only, Forever!".  She was followed by footage from the speech of Prime Minister Netanyahu who said more or less the same. The reporter noted briefly that "Festivities of Jerusalem Day were marred by several violent incidents" (which viewers at home did not get to see). But… all this was not new, and  for many Israelis, the real important evening news came from the Tel Aviv fairgrounds, where artist Justin Timberlake performed to a large and very excited audience.

Kalman Libeskind, one of the most prominent columnist of the Israeli Right-Wing, wrote this week: "We celebrate the Liberation of Jerusalem. Who is "we”?  A good question . Broadly, one can say Jerusalem Day remains a day of celebration for Religious Zionists and for them only. Those who wear the knitted skullcap go the synagogue with white shirts and make solemn prayers, praise the Creator and send tens of thousands of their children to the traditional Dance of the Flags. For the secular part of the public, and certainly for the Israeli Left, this day hardly exists in the calendar."

The industrious Libeskind went to the press archive and checked the newspapers of June 1967, and found that at that time the nationalist euphoria caught up virtually everybody. Even "Ha’aretz" published an editorial full of nationalistic and even messianic rhetoric about “The Liberation of the Old City, which will be our forever". So what has happened since?

"Maybe the Occupation does have a part in this process" admits Libeskind. "At first they told us that they love the country as much as anyone else. 'Do not preach to us and tell us what Love of the Homeland is’ they cried out. ‘The fact that we are ready to divide Jerusalem and in exchange for peace give away Hebron, the City of the Patriarchs, in no way detracts from our love for and attachment to these places, from our commitment to Jewish history. Which was true. Then. Maybe. But in order to disengage even more from the extremists who talked about the Land of Israel in terms of love and holiness, the Peace Camp went through a complex mental process of disengagement , desiring to push themselves as far away as possible. When Geula Cohen spoke lovingly of Hebron, they developed a loathing for the place. When the Nationalist Camp linked themselves to Jerusalem and danced with national flags at the Wailing Wall and aspired to ascent to Temple Mount , they barricaded themselves in Tel Aviv and pushed away the national flag in order to reject any similarity to these Fascists."

Broadly, I have no quarrel with Libeskind’s analysis.

This week we were also visited by the American Jewish writer Ayelet Waldman, who bears an Israeli Hebrew first name and who once tried to live in Israel and left after a short time. In an extensive interview to Haaretz, she talked among other things of her fears of an outbreak of Antisemitism in America. Which of course prompted the interviewer to ask: “So, maybe one day you will want to escape to Israel?". Waldman's response: "If in the meantime you don’t destroy everything here, if something is still left after Netanyahu and all his friends are done."