His Sword Drawn In His Hand Stretched Out Over Jerusalem

In The Land Of Israel, Bis
by Shabbtai
(August 2011)


He took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and great fear. And what is great fear, the Hagaddah asks, if not the Divine Presence that had the presence of mind to take one nation out of another and bring it to the promised land? The Passover story redoubles Creation. Once again difference asserts itself in the human story, the irreversible story of difference that can only produce more. And so we say: in memory of the beginning, in memory of the exodus from Egypt.

But how can difference emerge when the old order resists, refuses, hardens its heart as the old order is wont to do? Then come the plagues and the miracles, violence and hallelujah, so that peace can come into the land and its inhabitants not be afraid. But even if the old order's chariots went down in the parted waters, and its soldiers' corpses watered the desert in one defeat after another, the hearts of the enemy stay hardened. They have not been subdued with the delights of commerce and literature. They have not read the Old Testament which they claim their holy book has superseded. They know nothing of the Divine Presence which once promised Abraham a great nation, which foretold of their slavery in Egypt and foretold their redemption, like a bride with her full breasts and her thick hair, startling in her nakedness. And because they do not know and will not recognize, the Lord stands with His sword in His hand outstretched over Jerusalem.

Thank God the Lord stands with His sword in His hand outstretched over Jerusalem. For too many Jews and too many Israelis do not. Jerusalem is trouble, they say, and stay away. Jerusalem is haredi, they say, and so they abandon it, as the haredi abandon the state of Israel that watches over them, its sword drawn in its hand outstretched over their seder tables. I am in the land of Israel and happy to be here. I think the land should be bigger. It should stretch all the way to the Jordan and swallow up Gaza. Those are its natural frontiers. Also its strategic ones. Also its eternal ones, promised over and over by whatever it is humans believe in: God, law, the spoils of just wars. But too many Jews and too many Israelis abandon the people who would settle the land and neglect the land that is theirs by any conceivable right. Theirs to rule and theirs to cherish, as they do when left alone in peace.

I have come to Israel for two months. I know just about nobody here and those I do know I do not contact because I no longer know what we shall say. We would argue into the wee hours of the morning about what they cannot see and no one will come to tell us it is time for morning services. They will call me a racist. I would tell them I would sleep with an Arab if he were a Zionist. They will tell me I ask for too much. All my life I asked for too much. Now I ask for so little, only the simple things, like the simple truth a Jewish poet once wrote about. I ask that the Palestinians lie down with the Israelis as the kid is supposed to lie down with the lion. I ask that they embrace the Jewish state and bless it. I ask that if they must have a state they welcome Jews who wish to live there to do so. I ask that their state be democratic, liberal, pluralist, open. Then I could sleep with an Arab even if he were not a Zionist. But that too apparently is too much.

I cannot describe Israel because I cannot describe the people. I know so few and even if I knew more, what would that say? Neither can I describe the land even though I am happy to be here. All I can do is make observations. Luhmann once wrote a book, Observations On Modernity. Luhmann is my favourite sociologist. Was. He is dead now.  But he lives on in my memory and every now and then I understand something more about his theory. Today I understand just what it means to say I am an observer. Here I am, an observation post, offering up my observations. Not like Moses, who answered the call of the burning bush with here I am. Nor like Abraham, always eager to get up early and answer the voice. Only I; ego as observer, as point of observation. Spinoza would have understood. Vincent will understand. A few others, too. It is no big deal.

I rented a place in Yafo. Last time I was here I also rented a place in Yafo. Old Jaffa. Right next to the flea market. A real one. Full of junk, odds and ends, stove top espresso makers missing the basket, although I did buy a leather belt for six dollars. Yafo is like a lot of Tel Aviv. Part of it is crumbling: the bottoms of buildings, edges of sidewalks, apartments that seem ruined from the day they were built. But right next to it much goes up that is spanking new: residences nestled into the landscape, restored sea walls, refurbished stores inside buildings as old as the Ottoman empire. Jews and Arabs seem to share the neighborhood without really sharing it. They use the same beach, fill the same air with their noise, honk needlessly as they drive through the streets. Modern indifference at its best. I would take it. I do take it. It is safe to walk the streets, even at night. There are stores where I cannot figure out if the owner is Arab or Jew. It makes no difference; the dissolving beauty of commerce. Once again Marx had it wrong. There is something good to the universal equivalents. But I can also sense distrust, if not hostility. There is a silent war going on between Arab graffiti and Israeli flags. To whom does Yafo belong? Is it too a settlement? The signs of the 1948 war abound. I can imagine what it was like, the fierce street to street fighting as the Yishuv fought for its life. Now there are plaques to commemorate the victory; but then, the victory was not a foregone conclusion. It still is not. Yet as long as the murderous impulse is contained one is grateful.

In Itamar it recently burst forth. Itamar is a small settlement in the Shomron, known as Samaria to the Gentiles. About a month ago Arabs from a town under 'moderate' Palestinian control broke into a Jewish home and slaughtered five members of a family: father, mother, two children and a baby. Slit their throats. The media called them  intruders. Recently the intruders were arrested by IDF personnel. They turned out to be two youths who boasted of their exploit, said they would do it again, regretted they missed two youngsters asleep in another part of the house. The youths were protected by their families and beyond their families, embraced by the web of kinship and Jew hatred that has thoroughly criminalized Palestinian society. To which the world and half of Israel would give a state. Mindless and hopeless is the peace process, yet the leading lights of Israeli television talk as if nothing else is, much like John Donne's sun rising on the bedchamber of his love.

The flat I have rented has high ceilings and spacious rooms. A breeze comes in constantly from the sea, keeping the place cool even when the weather turns hot and the sun bakes you when you walk in the streets. From one of the bedroom windows I can see the famous clock tower. The view is like the dash of yellow in Vermeer's view of Delft, the one Proust goes on and on about in his Remembrance Of Things Past and which commentators on Proust have gone on and on about as well. Inside the flat the rooms are stock full of memorabilia from the Palestine of the 1930s and 1940s: maps, pictures, cards, toys, military gear, utensils, pots and pans, lamps, tables, rugs. Every day I discover something new because I notice it for the first time. Living here is like living in a museum. Fortunately it is a museum of a period in the life of the Yishuv, the Jewish community under the British Mandate, that I like. Even the books are from that period and deal with it. Not only, but many are: travelogues about Christian Syria, thesauruses and dictionaries, Zionist biographies in Czech, histories of the Yishuv in Hebrew. They are piled everywhere and though I have been here nearly three weeks, I have not gone through all the piles. By the bed there were books that grabbed my attention. Bethell's The Palestine Triangle, about the British, the Arabs and the Jews from 1937-48. A collection of short stories by Jabotinsky, published in 1925. Eliahu Lankin's account of the Irgun, To Win The Promised Land, where I finally read about the Altalena. Short stories by Agnon and Amos Oz's In The Land Of Israel. There is even a book by Israel Eldad, the father of one of the few members of the Israeli Knesset I should like to meet. So I started reading, telling myself nothing happens by chance. Or if chance happens, it is up to me to seize it.

I am amazed by Jabotinsky's stories. They are as exquisite as Chekhov's. At once chilling and intelligent, they radiate another world, another time, and yet they are strangely prescient, a macabre parable of the Yishuv and the fate to come of European Jewry. They call to mind Appelfeld's Badenheim 1939. But they were written before the curtain descended. They have a charm, the way Stendhal's books have charm, even as the bell has tolled on that world and the literature it spawned. Only in the world's dealings with Israel and with Israel's quandary with her neighbors does the world still behave as if the nineteenth century were still alive.

In one of his stories Jabotinsky describes a penal colony where the world, having given up on the death penalty, sends its most hardened criminals. Tristan da Runha Settlement, it is called. Against all odds it survives and evolves. It overcomes the divisions of language, of human passions, of all the reasons for worldly scepticism. The journalist character who describes it ventures to claim it is a land of great promise. So was Israel to the Yishuv, although the British were sceptical, so sceptical they justified their kowtowing to the Arabs by arguing the Jews could never make a go of it, not economically and not militarily.

But the Jews did make a go of it, in spite of the British. The British Foreign Office remained deluded to the end about the Arabs. And though His Majesty's Government had issued the Balfour Declaration promising the Jews a national home in what the British baptized Palestine, the army that conquered Jerusalem and later Damascus under General Allenby never published the Declaration in the territory it had conquered. Still, the Arabs knew what the Zionists wanted and opposed it tooth and nail. They opposed Jews' buying land and planting trees. They opposed Jewish immigration. They opposed the creation of a Jewish state. They opposed all this because they never could entertain the idea that Jews could be a sovereign nation in the land of Israel. At best the Jews could live there, an eternal minority, on Arab and Muslim sufferance, and the two were coeval in their minds. Not for nothing was their leader Haj Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who boasted to his Lebanese hosts in 1948 that once the British left the Arabs would fall upon the Jews and destroy them. For over a quarter of a decade he had worked toward that goal: massacring Jews, assassinating his Arab opponents, allying himself with the Nazis, blackmailing other Arab states that were more than willing to be blackmailed, thinking they would manipulate him in turn.

The British were complicit in all this. They sponsored al-Husseini in the first place and responded to his intimidation by putting the squeeze on the Jews. In the face of the so-called Arab revolt of 1936-39, which was nothing more than the Mufti unleashing his goon squads on Arabs, Jews and Brits alike, the British came up with partition; and when the Arabs opposed that, the British back-tracked and closed the doors of Palestine to Jews to all intents and purposes. They did so because the Foreign Office thought they dared not alienate the Arabs. They needed them for their oil and for their link to India in the coming war, they said, and they feared that if they enforced their commitment to the Jews, the Arabs would abandon them and rise up against them. They believed that the pan-Arab nationalism a few Arab intellectuals spawned was a real force sweeping the Arab street. They believed that the Arabs would fight for it if pushed. They believed that the Arabs were strong and the Jews weak. They believed all this even though their military attaches in Arab capitals sent reports debunking these beliefs. And so to persuade themselves the British invented more myths. They claimed that Jewish immigration could not be permitted because the country and its economy could not sustain it. But in the Yishuv of the 1930s GDP and capital investment were the highest in the world. And even today Israel outdoes its neighbors on every OECD ranking

The British, in short, let themselves be twigged around by their own delusions. It was the same after the Second World War. They abandoned the Mandate rather than enforce their promise to the Jews contained in the Balfour Declaration. They thought the Jews would yield because they thought the Arabs would massacre them in any military confrontation. Again they allied themselves with the Arab cause, thinking the Jews would beg them to remain after the UN voted for partition. In this the British were joined by the Arabs, from their inveterate enemy al-Husseini to the Arab League headed by Egypt and Iraq which the British had helped foster. But against all odds the Jews fought and won. They defeated the combined Arab armies because, as the British military attaches had correctly foretold, the Arab street was fickle and illiterate, pan-Arab nationalism had struck few roots, and the Arab countries and protagonists were as devious with each other as they had been with the British. The Mufti, after all, had had his Palestinian compatriot Nashashibi assassinated in Baghdad during the war. And therein lay the rub.

The Arab position from the get-go was based on nothing positive. They were not interested in building up the country, although individual Arabs were more than happy to enter it, legally and illegally, for the jobs that Jewish entrepreneurship had created. They did not even love the country, or they would have accepted partition instead of war in 1948. What, after all, did it matter if the Jews had a state of their own in a jig-saw puzzle of land when the Arabs also had theirs? Together they could make the land flourish and with it the people who lived in the land. But that was not what the Arabs wanted and they still do not. And so they too invented myths and believed them. They too thought the Jews were weak and would be easy pickings. They did not understand that the Jews were not only fighting for their existence; they were also fighting for something positive, for the good life modernity promises, for riches and freedom and difference, for the new that lies in wait when the creative forces of labor are unleashed on the world. The Arabs still do not understand that. Their project remains pre-modern; tribal, traditional and Muslim, even if promoted on Facebook and YouTube. Faced with a people they consider so other they are not even part of humanity, they can only think in terms of liquidation. No Jewish state. Not even one Jew living in a Palestinian state. And certainly no Jews planting olive trees or vineyards in the hills of Shomron and Judea. All this from a 'moderate' Palestinian leader. God preserve us from the moderates. No wonder His sword is drawn in His hand outstretched over Jerusalem.

It is springtime in 2011. I am renting a flat in Yafo not far from the Bloomfield soccer stadium. I go to my first ever soccer game and see Hapoel Tel Aviv defeat Hapoel Petah Tikva on two penalty kicks. I am not impressed. My grandson has taught me a thing or two about soccer and I can tell this was not a great game. But it is my first and it is in Israel. The night is beautiful and warm, the pitch is a wondrous green, and in the end stands Hapoel Tel Aviv fans keep up a steady chant. There is even a little conductor's box where the shirtless leader can whip up the fans and lead the cheers. I am surprised there is no beer. Jewish soccer, I tell myself. Food and soft-drinks. Fathers and sons. I look around and think: what if there were a terrorist attack? I wonder if anyone else thinks that, but I do not know anyone and do not ask. Still, the fact that I wonder is bad enough. And then I think how outrageous it is that I should have to think that. How outrageous that even today no one is truly safe in the land of Israel. On television I see reports of soldiers stationed at the Gaza border. They spend their days or nights in tanks, always on the lookout. It is quiet, they say, but you never know when things will flare up, when the Arabs will try to attack or launch their missiles. And I think how outrageous that Jewish boys and girls, for they are not much older than boys or girls, should have to spend their youth inside a tank protecting soccer fans from being blown up or overrun. And I do not understand how Israelis suffer this situation to go on and on.

As a sociologist, of course I understand. As a reader of the Hebrew Bible I understand. But I do not understand. I observe, but I do not understand. I read Amos Oz' In The Land Of Israel and I do not understand how he thinks as he does. I am like his character Z. Not as courageous, but fully in agreement. I think of how Amos Oz once said he and his friends are doing the grunt work for peace and I can only marvel at his blindness. A. B. Yehoshua once wrote that the Jews in one town always know something about Jews in another town that the latter do not know. That is how I feel in the land of Israel.

At a restaurant that I like to frequent in Jaffa I often sit at the bar. The other day a bright young man was serving. I was telling him about my difficulty in finding a way to visit the communities in Shomron. He suggested I contact left-wing groups. They would be glad to show me around. I told him I do not like left-wing groups. He told me he has family in Shomron, the sister of his brother-in-law. She is always inviting him to visit, but he does not want to go. He likes the left-wing groups. I can tell. I told him he should go anyway. It is family. Distant family, he answered, and we talk about other things. It is a pleasure to talk to him and observe his energy. He is bright and talented and charming with his life ahead of him. He could be dead before it really gets going, I think. How terrible, I think. How terrible I think that. I would like him to think differently. I would like him to feel angry enough so he would leave his left-wing camp and stop believing the mantra that the Palestinians are victims and have a point and Israel should do something to help them because they too are people and only want a state, just as we Jews did, and if only we did not uproot their olive trees they would come around. But we do not talk about that. Instead we talk about the good food I have consumed and the nap I should take and the pleasures that Tel Aviv has to offer. He wishes me good luck. I wish him good luck too. When I leave the restaurant I think I should get his email address when next I see him and send him my texts. My grunt work for peace.

The barman has a haredi counterpart. On the Israeli gay site I consult a man contacts me. He is ultra-orthodox, married with six kids, almost forty years old. He likes older men, it says on his profile. Much older men. I am intrigued. I want to know what he thinks. I tell him it is great he has six kids; I hope they are all Zionists. Each has his own faith, he writes me back. I do not answer right away. He sends me another message. Is that not right, he asks? I tell him of course, but that will not do anything to change the situation. Perhaps we will meet. Perhaps I will get a chance to ask him what he thinks of the state of Israel. If he is a Zionist. And if not, why not and how does he reconcile that with Torah? That interests me much more than how he reconciles Torah with his homosexual urges.

I wonder if sex will not in the end undermine the religious-secular divide in Israel. I once read a book by an Israeli journalist who came out of a yeshiva. He said that sex and loneliness were the main preoccupations of religious youth  and that the religious community was not addressing them. Shades of Wilhelm Reich. What, I wonder, would it be like to make love to this man? Would it be any different from having sex with a secular married man, of whom, to judge by this website, there are many in Israel? Would I understand anything more about the absence of Zionist fibre in the land of Israel? What would he say when I quoted the Hagaddah to him and asked what he thought about God's sword-wielding arm outstretched over Jerusalem? Would his answer be really any different from that of another gay man I contacted because he said in his profile he was interested in theatre? Just so you should know, he wrote after reading mine, I am no patriot.

Who is a patriot these days? Who is a patriot and gay and thinks the Palestinians have forfeited all right to a state and loves the land of Israel because it is at once modern and biblical? In Jerusalem I visited the yeshiva where my mother put up a plaque in memory of my father. Over the years my father had donated money to this yeshiva so that they would say kaddish on the anniversary of the deaths of members of his family. All year long I receive notices from this yeshiva, informing me of these different anniversaries and telling me that mishnayot will be said in their honor. I thought I would go see the place and check up on the plaque we had paid for in honor of my dad.

I entered the building and looked for an office. Someone directed me to the second floor. I knocked on a few doors before one opened. It turned out to be the office of the man who sends out the letters. Yes, he knew the name. I informed him my mother had recently died. He no longer had to send her the notices. Only me. I asked how much it would cost to have kaddish recited for her. That was not his department, he said. I would have to speak to a rabbi who only came in at noon, the same one who knew where the plaque was. I took his phone number and left mine. Another man entered the office, and yet a third. Soon I was given a tour of the building.

I saw the synagogue where the students studied. I was shown the door behind which the chief and revered rabbi sat. We walked up to the third floor where the students slept. Two or three to a room, I saw, on beds like at summer camp. I was seduced at summer camp. I remember what the journalist had written about sex and loneliness. The rooms were very bare. They were being cleaned that day, but they were still very bare. I thought I would be very lonely if I studied here. But the man who showed me the rooms said he had studied here when he was young and it was one of the best times of his life. I wanted to ask him if he were a Zionist, but I did not. He did not live in Shomron, I found out, and I doubt he supported those who did. Each to his belief, is that not right?

Exiting the yeshiva I walked down the street called Malchei Yisrael, the Kings of Israel. I walked toward the religious quarter looking for a falafel place some friends of my cousins had brought us to seven years ago. I came upon the Borochov district. The name rang a bell. I searched for the place. I remembered a courtyard a few doors away. I found a falafel place, but I do not think it was the same one. I walked around the quarter a little more, looking for the buildings where the friends showed us they had grown up. I could not find it. I returned to the falafel place, deciding it would have to do. It did. Moments go. They happen and then they go. Like the Yishuv of the 30s and 40s. Like life. Maybe like Zionism.

One is always tempted to say more, as if one more phrase will persuade where all the others failed, as if one could find the right formulation so that people would see. Jabotinsky wrote. Ben-Gurion wrote. Caroline Glick writes. A blogger I read who showed me Jerusalem writes indefatigably. He took me down the valley of ghosts. It is full of restaurants and think tanks. All the people there write too. The Jews are a nation of scribblers. No wonder they were at home in Zurich and Vienna and Berlin. And what of the Jew Marcel writing for years in his cork-lined room? Did he not find the right phrase to explain? And before him George Eliot?

I had forgotten about her, about her Daniel Deronda who set sail for Zion years before his co-religionists did. That's the nice thing about words. If you write enough of them they conjure up memories. Walking in the land of Israel also conjures up memories. On my way to the pool where I swim in Tel Aviv I smell that almond flower scent I once smelled on Ile d'Yeu. Sitting on a bench on Rothschild Boulevard I remember a day in Soho, New York when the weather was just as perfect and love was young. At the Yemenite restaurant where I ate the last time I was here and which I found again I thought how my father would have liked to be here with me. I see him walking the narrow streets full of humble synagogues, one of the Jews from Libya, another of the Jews from Egypt, then a third and a fourth and a fifth erected in memory of that entire remnant for deliverance the Jews have been ever since Joseph named them so. I sit down at the restaurant and think how my mother would have disapproved, unable to send the food back as she so liked to do in restaurants, although the beautiful woman who owns the place might even have indulged her that. But my mother is dead and my father is dead and the memories I dredge up belong to a future I can only imagine, because the past to which they speak is forever gone. Even the future I imagine for Israel belongs to remembrance of things definitely past.

I wish Israel would clean up its mess. I wish it would not say a word, but send in the troops. And after the troops an administration that knows how to clean up after gangsters. Sharon had the idea when he started to dismantle Arafat's headquarters with bulldozers. I remember the mighty machines at work, wrecking the wreckers. But Sharon grew frightened that the world would scream and succumbed to the clutches of Jewish history. Too bad. It would be nice to see someone call the ideologues on their observations. It would be nice to see their apoplexy strangle itself on their impotence. That's what happens when you confuse yourself with your observations. It used to be called comeuppance. But comeuppance also seems to belong to a world irrevocably over and done with. Wait and see, a friend of mine used to say. I wonder what he says now.

We will talk soon, he says. Perhaps. But what shall I tell him? How will I explain I am simply happy to be in the land of Israel where I talk to no one? Where I have finally learned to be an observer of second order observations. He will know what I am talking about. He once knew Luhmann personally. Now he lives in Qatar and is building himself a house in Italy. Paradoxes, Luhmann said, can never be resolved, only unraveled. God's sword is unsheathed in His hand stretched out over Jerusalem.


Shabbtai is the Hebrew pen name of Stephen Schecter, sociologist, poet and teller of Hebrew Bible stories. He is available to talk about the themes raised in this essay to audiences throughout North America and Israel. He can be reached at [email protected].


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