Their Tragic Land

Two acclaimed new books about Israel betray a disquieting lack of moral confidence in their subject and its story
Their Tragic Land
The covers of Like Dreamers by Yossi Klein Halevi and My Promised Land by Ari Shavit.
 
Observation
Ruth Wisse
Dec. 18 2013 8:36PM

The story of the Jews was told so effectively in the Hebrew Bible that it shaped and sustained them as a people from that time to this. But what happens now?

We live in an era in which the Jewish people, having suffered a catastrophic national defeat greater even than the one recorded in the book of Lamentations, went on to write a chapter of its history at least as remarkable as any in its sacred canon. In a single decade, bereft of one third of their number, and without the obvious aid of divine intervention, Jews redefined “miracle” as something that could be enacted through human effort. Over the past six decades, the vitality and civilizing restraint of the Jewish way of life, honed in almost 2,000 years of exile, have been made manifest in the regained conditions of a thriving Jewish polity—one that simultaneously has been under relentless and, lately, spiraling pressure from all sides.

Will authors rise to this occasion as ably as the biblical authors did to theirs? Two recent and well-timed accounts of modern Israel offer a useful framework for examining how the challenge is being met. At over 450 pages apiece, each book required years of research and gestation: ten in the case of Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers, five in Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. So there is no question about the gravity of these authors’ intentions, or the definitiveness of their aims and ambitions. Those ambitions, moreover, have already been rewarded in the form of unfailingly warm, respectful, and serious attention in the American press—and in Shavit’s case by a place on the bestseller lists.

What, then, have they wrought?

 

Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation traces the intertwined lives of seven men of the 55th Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces, which won back the Old City of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War. A brief introduction situates the author himself circa 1967 as a fourteen-year-old boy in Brooklyn. His father, a Holocaust survivor, is so shaken by the terrifying lead-up to war—many in those months feared a devastating cataclysm—but then so relieved by its outcome that he takes his son to see Jerusalem at first hand. Fifteen years later, the son, already a journalist, immigrates to Israel. One day, he is inspired by an article on a reunion of the 55th Brigade to look up the paratroopers, hoping to write about them on his own. As his project expands into a book, he is struck by a fascinating division among the men that suggests the main arc of tension in his burgeoning story: the split in outlook between secular Zionists hailing from the world of the kibbutz and religious Zionists hailing from the world of the yeshiva.

Except for continuing to treat his subjects as a unit, Halevi tries to stay out of their way and let them speak for themselves. The book is arranged chronologically, from 1967 to 2004, beginning with a detailed reconstruction of the battle for Jerusalem and then following the seven men at key intervals as they move into civilian life while also being drawn back repeatedly into their unit as reservists. A complicated grid, mainly unseen by the reader, weaves in and out of their intersecting lives, telling their back stories and highlighting their individual idiosyncrasies even as it connects them as a group to major historical developments over almost four tumultuous decades in their country’s life. In this way, above and beyond what we come to learn about each man, his family, his personal achievements and failures, we are shown the interdependency that persists among them as their attitudes, thoughts, and convictions play out in the context of an open society debating its future while under unremitting threat from without.

Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel is one man’s personal account, almost confessional in its intensity, of the history of his country from the arrival of a great-grandparent in 1897 to the writing of this book in 2013. It, too, is arranged chronologically. Its seventeen chapters trace the history of early Jewish settlement of the land, the growth of collective settlements (kibbutzim and moshavim), the advance of agriculture, housing, and scientific research, the early absorption of Holocaust survivors and expellees from Arab countries, and so on into the present. Each of these developments is situated in the geographical locations within Israel with which they are historically associated.

A fourth-generation Israeli, an influential columnist for the daily Ha’aretz since 1995 and a sought-after political commentator, Shavit writes with an insider’s familiarity, interviewing leading cultural and political figures as old friends who share a lifetime of assumptions and sometimes quoting his own previously published words as pithy statements on Israeli events and personalities.

In their contrasting approaches, the two books thus somewhat resemble the reportorial versus the editorial sections of a newspaper. That being so, it makes sense to begin with the one that reads like reportage, if of an extremely high literary order.

 

The photograph on the dust jacket of Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers is of young, battle-exhausted paratroopers looking up at the newly won Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In the center, the youngest of them, helmet in hand, will become an iconic image, epitomizing the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise: v’shavu banim l’gvulam, “Your children shall return to their borders” (Jeremiah 31:16). Israel’s reunification of Jerusalem, the culminating event in several months of apocalyptic tension and six days of ferocious fighting, released a sense of relief and joy unparalleled in the country before or since. It was something like this same sense of relief that Halevi was reaching for in 2002, at the height of the second intifada, when he began seeking out the veterans of that earlier battle to see what had become of them.

In 1967, about half of the soldiers and 70 percent of the officers of the 55th Brigade were the products of kibbutzim; a much smaller proportion was made up of religious Zionists. The two groups disagreed about such things as the place of religion in Israeli and Jewish identity, but Halevi finds an essential commonality in their animating idealism. “[For] all their differences,” he writes,” religious Zionism and the secular kibbutz movement agreed that the goal of Jewish statehood must be more than the mere creation of a safe refuge for the Jewish people.” Each side saw itself as laying the foundation of an ideal society—egalitarian in the one case, religious in the other, with the dominant form of utopianism being that of the secularists. In deference to their common zeal, he draws the title of his book from a passage in Psalm 126:

When the Lord returned the exiles of Zion,

We were like dreamers.

Then our mouths filled with laughter,

And our tongues with songs of joy.

Then they said among the nations:

“The Lord has done great things for them.”

The Lord has done great things for us.

Like Dreamers then follows these men from their dream state into daily life—much as paratroopers drop from the skies to land on unyielding earth.

Halevi relishes the evolving diversity of his cast of characters. Among those from the kibbutzim there will emerge a managerial genius who helps move the Israeli economy from statism toward capitalism; a songwriter who strikes out from the farm to the city; a sculptor whose large-scale installations harness the physical resources of his kibbutz; and an anti-Israel spy who joins a terrorist network and gives his handlers in Damascus whatever they want to know about his military training. (You read that right.) The distance each of these individuals seeks from the collectivist esprit of his upbringing helps to explain why the kibbutz as an institution had to give way to a society of greater freedom—and perhaps even why one individual would use that freedom to betray it.

Among the religiously devout, temperamental and intellectual differences also disturb the initial unity of purpose. Several after 1967 become leaders of the settlers’ movement, which for a time enjoyed the support of the Labor government and continues to be supported by much of the country at large. Here Halevi may be simplifying his story-line when he writes that “the Israel symbolized by the kibbutz movement became the Israel symbolized by the settlement.” For the religious men in the unit, as his narrative shows, it is less a case of symbolism than of adjusting, like their secular counterparts but in different terms, to the non-ideological opportunities and obligations of a dynamic society under siege; when it comes to the settlements, the same can be said for Israelis in general.

No surprise to those familiar with Israel’s history, soldiering occupies a prominent place in this book, sobering in the degree to which it holds these particular men in its grip. In America, only professional soldiers are called up for successive tours of duty. But, scant years after the battle for Jerusalem, the reservists of the IDF’s 55th Brigade were fighting again, in even more traumatic conditions, in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Then came 1982, when Israel undertook, in concert with Lebanese Christians, to drive the PLO out of Lebanon; during their second tour of duty that year, the battalion members could sense the eroding support of a country beginning to tire of ceaseless combat. Around the campfire there is talk of a colonel who has refused an order. Some of the men call him courageous, but a religious reservist invokes his eight-year-old son, according to whom it is permitted to speak against the government and forbidden to speak against soldiers—but also forbidden for soldiers to disobey an order.

“‘Why, Odi?’ I asked him. ‘Explain it to me.’”

“‘What will happen,’ said Odi, . . . ‘if there is a war and someone will say I don’t want to fight?’”

The reservist concludes, embellishing a rabbinic aphorism, “After the destruction of the Temple, prophecy wasn’t given only to fools but also to children.” A future generation of Israeli soldiers was beginning, at an early age, to balance civic and personal responsibilities in a democracy where the word of security officials was being subjected to doubt. In the decades after 1982, as Halevi demonstrates in his remaining chapters, the coils become only tighter, the conundrums more agonizing, opinion more polarized.

 

A reader whose taste I normally share told me this book left him dissatisfied. He kept losing track of the characters and had to keep thumbing back to the orienting “Who’s Who” at the front. I see his point, but nothing conveys the experience of daily life in Israel—where the boundaries between war and peace can be as permeable as those between Manhattan and the Bronx—better than Halevi’s back-and-forth between the contrasting yet contiguous spheres of battlefront and home front, secular and religious camps, collective and individual experience. By letting the men speak for themselves through interviews and memoirs, he also projects a feeling of unedited frankness and spontaneity.

The method works especially well in the case of the poet-singer Meir Ariel. In May 1967, just weeks before the outbreak of war, the popular Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer had composed “Jerusalem of Gold,” expressing a longing for the Western Wall and the still-lost parts of the nation’s capital. Weeks later, King Hussein’s unanticipated attack on the Jordanian front, followed by victory in the resulting battle for Jerusalem, the song, with updated lyrics, turned into an anthem of reunification. Its patriotic fervor disturbed some on the Left. Drawing on his experiences in the city’s liberation, Ariel wrote an alternative version that he titled “Jerusalem of Iron,” registering the cost in the number of Israeli casualties (swollen by inadequate intelligence) and the lead needed to win that city of gold. Yet he insisted that his darker lyrics not replace but remain a commentary on the original song, and he declined to be lionized as a political protester.

Restive in the disciplining embrace of family and kibbutz, Ariel eventually drifted into religious life—not as a captive of any movement or party but on his own, looking for what he needed. Were Halevi a tendentious writer, he might have cast Ariel as the paradigmatic baal teshuva who “returns” to God and religion. Instead, we follow the unsteady path and tortured consciousness of a young man in an open society whose freedoms he has helped to secure.

If there is a problem with this book’s back-and-forth method—and there is—the cause lies less in the disorder of its plot than in the flip side of the author’s eschewal of tendentiousness: namely, his studied disinclination to invest his plot with meaning. A book anchored in some of the most consequential battles for Israel’s life declines to tell us how or why those battles mattered. The same diffidence characterizes Like Dreamers’ tracing of the dissolution of the state’s regnant socialist ideology and the institutions of Labor Zionism, which we see crumbling from below as incrementally, as seemingly spontaneously, as Meir Ariel is drawn into the synagogue. As the book ends, in 2004, the former paratroopers are divided by clashing views on the fate of united Jerusalem, now claimed by the PLO as the locus of its capital; here again, in relaying the men’s arguments, the author strives for neutrality.

But why return to Israel’s “mythic moment” of victory in 1967 if one is unprepared to articulate what that moment signified, and what it continues to signify? If there is one thing the ideological wars over Israel legitimacy have taught us, it is that neutrality, impartiality, and indeterminacy are fodder for whoever and whatever is working actively against the very right of the Jewish state to exist.

 

To pass from Yossi Klein Halevi to Ari Shavit and My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel is like moving from the admittedly buffeting winds of freedom into a long-term care facility. Shavit sets out, as he says, “to tell the Israel story” through family sources, personal history, and interviews. He begins his guided tour with the arrival of Herbert Bentwich, his great-grandfather, on an exploratory visit to the land of Israel in 1897, the same year Theodor Herzl founded the Zionist movement in Basle. In then guiding us through the country’s geography and history, Shavit selects places where members of his family settled. Thus, Ein Harod, founded in the valley of Jezreel in 1921, is the book’s emblematic kibbutz, while the city of Rehovot, where Shavit spent part of his own youth, forms the background of otherwise disparate narratives about Israel’s citrus industry and its atomic project.

This recruitment of his family is not intended as family history, however. Shavit scarcely mentions, for example, Herbert Bentwich’s eldest son, Norman, a British Zionist activist and author of Israel Resurgent (1952) who was the more commanding historical figure of the two. From his family, as from the country, Shavit chooses only what he wishes to show.

Which is fair enough. But what does he wish to show?

“For as long as I can remember, I remember fear. Existential fear.” These sentences introduce us to the awakening consciousness, at the start of the Six-Day War, of the nine-year-old who in later passages will go on to experience the terrors of the Yom Kippur War, the Iraqi SCUD missiles falling on Israel’s civilian population in the first Gulf War, and the shooting, rock throwing, and suicide bombings of two Palestinian intifadas. In sum, according to Shavit, Israel’s victories, like Israel’s vitality, serve merely to camouflage “how exposed we are, how constantly intimidated.” Projecting his fear onto the national psyche, he foresees the day when the life of his “promised land” will “freeze like Pompeii’s” as Arab masses or mighty Islamic forces overcome its defenses.

By age nine, any child with a passable Jewish education will have learned that the scouts sent by Moses to report on the promised land of Canaan committed a lethal sin when they instilled panic in the Israelites with accounts of the giants they had allegedly encountered there. (“We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”) The forty years of wandering through a desert that could have been traversed in a matter of weeks were divine punishment for the cowering faithlessness of these former slaves and their spineless guides.

Shavit is either unaware of the relevant Jewish lore or indifferent to its message. To be sure, fear is a rational response in a minority population living among hostile neighbors—but that is precisely why Jewish leaders have so often invoked this biblical episode to warn against undermining public morale. In my mother’s arsenal of daily proverbs, the only non-Yiddish saying she regularly incorporated was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Although it tells a story of impressive national achievement, everywhere in My Promised Land the techniques of literary foreshadowing are deployed to telegraph impending doom. In 1926, the violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz performs for thousands in a makeshift theater at Ein Harod. Here is Shavit’s take on what can only have been a thrilling occasion:

I think of that great fire in the belly, a fire without which the valley could not have been cultivated, the land could not have been conquered, the state of the Jews could not have been founded. But I know the fire will blaze out of control. It will burn the valley’s Palestinians and it will consume itself, too. Its smoldering remains will eventually turn Ein Harod’s exclamation point into a question mark.

Several pages later, he comments on the spring of 1935, when the citrus harvest has enriched the villages surrounding Rehovot and “Jewish medicine” has brought progress to “desperate Palestinian communities.” Somehow, he writes, the “Zionists of Rehovot” have convinced themselves that, thanks to their altruism, “the clash between the two peoples is avoidable.” But this is delusion. “They cannot yet anticipate the imminent, inevitable tragedy.”

So acute is Shavit’s anxiety that even the prospect of urban development suffices to darken an upbeat report on the integration of European and Arab Jewish refugees:

In 1957 [the moshav] Bitzaron is still encircled by breathtaking fields of wildflowers: autumn crocuses, asphodels, bellflowers, and anemones. But they are about to disappear. A wave of development is replacing them with more and more housing estates populated by more and more new immigrants who are rapidly become new Israelis.

Israel’s triumph—its valor, its initiative, its natural beauty—is real only as a foil for Israel’s tragedy, which is where the real emphasis falls in Shavit’s deceptively balanced subtitle. There is no humor or lightness in his telling—this, in a country that in 2013 ranks 11th in the world on the happiness index. Even his exuberant report on the sex, drugs, and gay scene of contemporary Tel Aviv serves as prelude to a lament on the widening gulf between secure and exposed sectors of the country—a gulf judged by him to position Israel, in its seventh decade, as “much less of a solid nation-state than it was when it was ten years old” (and the wildflowers were disappearing from Bitzaron).

 

What is all this about? One can see why it might be hard to tell the story of European Jewry in the 1930s without a sense of foreboding, given what we know of its fate. But why would a successful Israeli in a successful (if threatened) Israel unspool a narrative thread of decline and disaster reaching back into the 1890s, weaving a shroud in which to wrap his country’s irrefutable triumphs?

One obvious answer lies in the ceaseless Arab war against Israel, which began long before the emergence of the state and came to play an expanding role in the domestic politics of Arab and Muslim countries, in the rabble-rousing of their religious leaders, in the ideology of their terrorists, and increasingly, in our own day, in the mental formation of leftists and internationalists everywhere. In this reading, the drumbeat of aggression that frightened Shavit as a child would appear to have kept him traumatized ever after.

Yet the obvious does not apply here. For, according to Shavit himself, his fears arise less from what Arab and Muslim leaders intend to do to Israel than from what Israel has done to them. The fear of attack with which the book opens yields immediately to its anxious echo—“For as long as I can remember, I remember occupation”—and the second anxiety supersedes the first. The obsessive foreshadowing is all about the wrongs that Jews have done or are about to do the Arabs, from the great-grandfather who fails to “see” their villages on his first journey through the land of Israel, to the kibbutzniks of Ein Harod who “burn the valley’s Palestinians,” to the 1948 war, and onward till today.

In his chronological march through Israel’s history, 1897, 1921, 1936, 1942, Shavit situates 1948, the year of Israel’s founding, not in Tel Aviv with David Ben Gurion reading the proclamation of independence under Herzl’s portrait, and not among the about-to-be savaged Jews of Jerusalem (in fact, not one of his chapters is situated in the capital, where Shavit has also lived part of his life), but in the battle over the Palestinian Arab town of Lydda (Lod), where he emblematically recasts the creation of the state of Israel as naqba, the “catastrophe” that is the founding myth of Arab Palestinians:

Lydda suspected nothing. Lydda did not imagine what was about to happen. For forty-four years it watched Zionism enter the valley: first the Atod factory, then the Kiryat Sefer school, then the olive forest, the artisan colony, the tiny workers’ village, the experimental farm, and the strange youth village headed by the eccentric German doctor who was so friendly to the people of Lydda and gave medical treatment to those in need…. The people of Lydda did not see that the Zionism that came into the valley to give hope to a nation of orphans had become a movement of cruel resolve, determined to take the land by force.

Like women who hold up bloody sheets to confirm a bride’s virginity, Shavit waves before his readers every bloody act committed by Jews in (what used to be known as) Israel’s war of independence. This chapter of the book was the one picked out to be featured, before the book’s publication, in the New Yorker, a venue in which Israel’s bloody sheets are regularly hoisted in place of its blue and white flag.

And what is “Lydda”? The researcher Alex Safian has taken the trouble to separate fact from propaganda in Shavit’s description of an alleged massacre in that town, second only to the more notorious alleged massacre in Deir Yasin. Starting with the Israelis’ cannon-bearing “giant armored vehicle”—actually, a recovered Jordanian light armored scout car the size of a Ford SUV—Safian deconstructs Shavit’s inflamed portrait to establish the following: the Arab inhabitants of Lydda first surrendered to Jewish soldiers and then, having retracted their surrender when it seemed that Jordanian forces had gained the upper hand, went about killing and mutilating Israeli fighters. This alone might be seen as cause enough for a “cruel” response at the height of a war launched by five invading armies against Jews who had been prevented by the British from preparing defenses and were relying on paramilitary forces of young volunteers. Once the town was secured, the Israelis let the Arabs leave, something both sides recognized would never have happened had victory gone the other way.

Nothing that happens to the Jews concerns them alone, so it is worth pausing here to consider what it means to substitute the Palestinian term naqba for Israel’s war of independence. In her recent one-volume Israel: A History, the historian Anita Shapira describes the special strains on the Jewish fighters of battles like Lydda’s that involved the highly trained Jordanian troops. As compared with Shapira’s meticulous account of what she rightly dubs an “Arab invasion,” Shavit’s Arabs and Muslims are deprived of agency, morality, and will. They are never seen to be plotting or planting, they never consider strategy or its consequences, they never indulge in moral reflection or compunction. “They suspect nothing,” “they cannot imagine what was about to happen,” and so forth. This combination of solipsism and unintended racism reduces Arabs to bit players in a drama of Jewish guilt.

Shavit’s precursors, who settled Israel, saw very well the Arabs and their villages; their failure lay in imagining people, like themselves, who had been living among and at the sufferance of others (in the Arabs’ case, mainly the Turks) and who would willingly have let others live among them. Some, indeed, did. But this is what Shavit cannot “see.” He will not apply to Arabs and Muslims the standards of decency he expects of the Jews, so he must decline to hold them responsible at all for their decisions, their politics, their behavior. In reporting on his meetings with Jewish religious figures or others of whom he disapproves, Shavit makes a point of telling us how he stands up to them in argument. Not so in his chapter “Up in the Galilee,” where his Arab friends assure him that Israel is doomed, and in response he merely reaffirms his love for them, asking, plaintively, “What will become of us, Mohammed?” No wonder they respond with contempt.

 

A further casualty of this book is journalism’s commitment to truth. Forecasts of doom are glaringly absent just where they are needed—and nowhere more so than in the section where Shavit describes how in the early 1990s he and his leftist political camp decided to bring “Peace, Now” by obscuring the declared intentions of Israel’s enemies.

In 1992, Israel elected a government headed by Yitzhak Rabin on a platform of no negotiations with Yasir Arafat’s terrorist organization, routed ten years earlier from Lebanon and now relocated to Tunisia. Subverting the democratic process, a few Israeli leftists, backed by an American millionaire, secretly plotted with Arafat to install him as head of a “Palestinian Authority” in return for nothing more than his word that he would keep the peace. Again with American help, they persuaded Rabin to accept this contract, very much against his better judgment. Israel thereby put the world’s leading terrorist in charge of protecting his prime target, and then proceeded to support and arm him.

Yossi Beilin, one of those who organized the meeting with Arafat in Norway, now admits they never considered the risks of PLO non-compliance. So when Shavit writes, “Peace was our religion,” he means, we acted idiotically through self-deception. In recounting this episode, he fails to look for where the dog lies buried (to adopt the Yiddish and Hebrew phrase). It does not help that, by now, Shavit recognizes the failure of the Oslo “peace accords” of 1993. In this respect, indeed, he early on distinguished himself from his colleagues at Ha’aretz. Nevertheless, he is still convinced that “[we] were right to try peace.” Instead of applying his professional acumen to investigating his and his friends’ part in the ensuing disaster, with its staggering loss of Israeli life, he limply seeks exculpation in his motives.

Shavit ends his book as he begins it, with an image of concentric Islamic, Arab, and Palestinian circles closing in on Israel. But danger is different from tragedy, and the healthy fear that hostility inspires is different from the sickly fear of imagining that one is guilty of causing that hostility. Shavit fails to distinguish the triumph of Israel from the tragedy of the Arab and Muslim war against it—a war that began before 1948 and that has always been indifferent to concessionary adjustments of Israel’s boundaries or policies. The only harm Israelis ever did to Arabs—and I emphasize only—was to impose on the Palestinians a terrorist leader whom Israelis would never have allowed to rule over themselves.

Yossi Klein Halevi immigrated to Israel as a Jew. So did Shavit’s ancestors. But one can’t help wondering whether Shavit feels himself less elevated by Judaism than condemned to it. Missing from his description of Israel’s “Hebrew identity,” as he calls it, is any evidence of the powerful sense of identity that has enabled Jews through the ages to withstand the aggression of others. Of the superabundance of contemporary Israel’s Jewish culture—the poetry and song, the popular revival of piyyut (liturgical poetry set to music), the theatrical productions, the ferment of academic and intellectual life, not to speak of Jewish religious life tout court—vanishingly little appears in his book. Missing, too, are the finds of the City of David and the Second Temple, or the attachment to native soil that makes amateur archeologists out of so many Israelis; the ruins of Masada make an appearance as a contrived means of boosting military recruits’ feelings of obligation and allegiance. Yet why else except through the unbroken connection of Jews with their homeland would Israelis today be speaking Hebrew in the first place?

Cut off from its Jewish rootedness, Shavit’s Israel finds its main justification in the suffering and supposedly nightmarish fears of its Jews. But suffering is not a Jewish virtue, only the sometimes necessary price to be paid for the privilege of living as a Jew. Moreover, in a face-off between competing fears and miseries, how can the prospering Jews of a “start-up nation” ever rival the perpetually deprived Palestinian Arabs? In his book, they don’t.

 

Doing justice to the story of modern Israel requires the moral confidence to distinguish between a civilization dedicated to building and one dedicated to destroying what others build. Is it really necessary to reaffirm that the Jewish state rests on a foundation of moral and political legitimacy stronger than that of any other modern nation, or that Jews maintained their indigenous rights to the land of Israel both when they resided in Zion and whenever and wherever they lived outside it? In modern times, and in modern terms, those rights were affirmed repeatedly, both in international law and through the gigantic efforts of Jews themselves, who purchased great tracts of the land, won back expanses of swamp and desert, built industries and cities, and repopulated the country in an unparalleled process of ingathering and resettlement of refugees.

Since war remains, alas, the universal means of securing land when a claim is challenged, the Jews of Israel have had to defend their land more often than any other contemporary people. In peace and in war, Jewish sovereignty has required and still requires of them greater qualities of mind and spirit than those that maintained their ancestors for centuries in other people’s lands. If it took tremendous courage to reclaim the Jewish homeland, at least equal courage is required to sustain and protect it among people who are currently less politically mature than they. One can only hope that, in that monumental task, Israelis will manifest in their written and spoken words the same moral confidence that as soldiers they have shown in battle—and that those writing specifically in English will remember that, whether they wish to acknowledge it or not, prominent among their present-day assailants are Western liberal elites.

_____________________

Ruth R. Wisse is professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard. Her books include Jews and Power (Schocken), The Modern Jewish Canon (Free Press), and, most recently, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Library of Jewish Ideas/Princeton).

More about: Foreign Policy, Israel, Jerusalem, Jewish State, Kibbutz movement, Six-Day War, Yeshiva, Zionism

 

Defensible Borders in the Age of IS

What does the upheaval in the Middle East mean for Israel’s territorial needs?

Defensible Borders in the Age of IS
An excerpt of a map showing threats to Israeli population centers from the West Bank. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
 
Observation
Oct. 22 2014 12:01AM
About the author

Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs, is a former ambassador of Israel to the United Nations (1997-1999) and the author of, among other books , Hatred’s Kingdom, The Fight for Jerusalem, and The Rise of Nuclear Iran.


How has the tumult in the Middle East affected the debate over Israel’s territorial requirements? For an answer, Mosaic approached Dore Gold, head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, who has long promoted the concept of defensible borders primarily as a means of meeting Israel’s security needs in the West Bank. Our exchange was conducted by email. 

Q. Before we get to the idea of “defensible borders” itself, can you begin by telling us about your involvement in it?  

A: I became immersed in this issue when I was serving as foreign-policy adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term in the late 1990s. I was tasked with converting the IDF’s “Interests Map” for the West Bank into a form that could be presented to President Bill Clinton; I joined the prime minister for that presentation in the White House Map Room. Four years later, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked me to condense the work for his meeting in the Oval Office with President George W. Bush.

This formed the nucleus of what, starting in 2005, would become a series of monographs on the subject published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Copiously illustrated with maps and photographs, they featured essays by such prominent authors as Moshe Yaalon, now Israel’s defense minister, Yaakov Amidror, until recently Israel’s national security adviser, and Major General (ret.) Uzi Dayan. The latest edition in the series was released this year, by coincidence just prior to the Gaza war. [Mosaic linked to a number of chapters here Eds.]

Q. What was the original idea, and has it changed at all in light of regional developments over the years?

A: The idea was first put forward by Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon after the Six-Day War of 1967. As commander of the pre-state Palmah, Allon was one of the architects of Israel’s national-security doctrine, and had also been a mentor of Yitzhak Rabin. His essential point was, and is, simple enough: Israel must retain certain territories on the West Bank for its security.

Q: What about the Palestinians? That land, after all, is increasingly referred to as occupied Palestinian territory.

A: Let’s back up a bit. At present, no one has sovereignty over the West Bank. The last sovereign power there was the Ottoman Empire, which formally renounced its claim after World War I. The West Bank then became a part of British Mandatory Palestine, which was designated to become the Jewish national home. The 1948 Arab war to annihilate the newly established state of Israel ended with the West Bank in Jordanian hands, and there it remained until 1967. In June of that year, Jordan joined an Arab war coalition, led by Egypt, that was aimed explicitly at finishing the job begun in 1948. That war ended with Israel in control of territory on several fronts, one of which was the West Bank.

Because Israel had acted in self-defense in 1967, noted scholars of international law, including Stephen Schwebel, who later served as president of the International Court of Justice, and Eugene Rostow, a former dean of Yale Law School and Under Secretary of State in the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, recognized its claims as stronger than those of any other party. Indeed, UN Security Council Resolution 242, adopted in the aftermath of the June 1967 war, affirmed that Israel was not required to withdraw fully from the West Bank or return to the pre-1967 lines, but rather was entitled to “secure and recognized boundaries” that were still to be determined through negotiation.

In short, the West Bank remains disputed territory to which both Israel and the Palestinians have claims. The West Bank is not “Palestinian” territory; there was no Palestinian state there prior to 1967, and the Palestinians never had sovereignty there. For its part, Israel has legal rights that need to be acknowledged, and security concerns that must be incorporated into any understanding of where the final borders will lie. One thing that Israeli prime ministers from Golda Meir to Benjamin Netanyahu have made clear is that Israel cannot withdraw to the pre-June 1967 lines, which were a permanent invitation to attack—in a word, indefensible.

A: Are there Israeli experts who disagree with you? And have recent events, including in Gaza, strengthened their position or yours?

A: In the internal Israeli debate, some have argued that the whole concept of defensible borders has become outdated. In 1967, they remind us, the threat to Israel along its eastern front came from the combined strength of the armored and infantry formations of Syria and Jordan, plus an expeditionary force from Iraq. The IDF at the time was built around a small standing army that only gained full strength after the mobilization of reserves–which is why, if Israel were again to face a surprise attack, strategic depth was critical. It was in this environment that Yigal Allon put forward his plan.

And today? Israel remains a small country with a limited population base—certainly in comparison with its much larger neighbors—and there also remain real and persistent constraints on its ability to disperse its military capabilities. Critics of defensible borders like to point out that the constellation of hostile forces has changed markedly. The Syrian army has been badly degraded, the Iraqi army has been battered by war and domestic chaos, and Egypt and Jordan are at peace with Israel. Thus, they conclude, the danger of attack by large conventional armies is no longer. Of course there is terrorism, but that’s a different matter, and besides, the critics say, it’s not on the same scale as the previous threats faced by Israel.

My response is that, for at least the short term, the terrorist threat to Israel from the east is unlike anything we have seen before in terms of scale and character. Terror used to be conducted by small squads of three to five men who penetrated Israel’s borders in order to seize hostages or place explosive devices under vehicles or in public places. Today, organizations like the Islamic State (IS), in possession of robust weaponry that includes sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, have defeated whole divisions of the Iraqi army and confiscated vast amounts of equipment and money.

This year, operating with battalion-size formations, IS and its ideological cousin the al-Nusra Front have defeated Syrian armored forces and made deep inroads into the heart of Iraq. Despite recent setbacks thanks to American-led airstrikes, this is no mere tactical nuisance.

As for the longer term, no one can speak with any certainty. It’s true that, for the moment, a conventional assault by an existing state is unlikely. But the Middle East region is changing so dramatically before our eyes that Israel needs to be prepared for any eventuality. 

Q: Even without an army like IS’s, Hamas was able to smuggle weapons into Gaza and tunnel its way into Israel itself. Doesn’t that call into question the idea of defensible borders on the West Bank?

A: To the contrary. The war this summer disclosed the sheer size of the arsenal that Hamas had managed to build up over the years. But how did most of those weapons arrive? In withdrawing from Gaza in 2005, Israel gave up a strip of land on the perimeter, called the Philadelphi Route, which had served to separate Gaza from the Egyptian Sinai. Thereafter, the number of tunnels under this route mushroomed, as did the quantity and quality of the weapons passing through them to Hamas and other groups.

On the West Bank, our outer perimeter is the Jordan Valley, which Israel controls. If Israel were to withdraw from the valley, weapons would flow to areas adjacent to Israeli cities.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Shoulder-fired missiles that can take down aircraft were found among the items smuggled into Gaza. No such weapons have been brought into the West Bank—yet. If they did get in, the security of Ben-Gurion airport would be placed at severe risk. To guarantee a demilitarized West Bank, then, Israel must retain the Jordan Valley, the functional equivalent of Gaza’s Philadelphi Route.

Q: Many commentators insist that, since Israel has such a strong army, it can afford to be more forthcoming with concessions and take greater risks for peace. 

A: We’ve just gone through the third Gaza war. The first time we withdrew from Gaza, it was said reassuringly that if Hamas failed to keep the peace, we could just re-invade and resume our control of the territory; what’s more, if attacked by even a single rocket, we would have international legitimacy to retaliate with the full power of the IDF.

We learned, painfully, that this was not the case. Israeli towns came under attack by Hamas rockets that were embedded in Palestinian civilian areas, making the effective use of Israel’s superior power much more difficult. Not only that, but after finally taking action in Operation Cast Lead in 2009, Israel was pilloried by the Goldstone Report and faced international condemnation at the UN Human Rights Council. The same thing is happening now, in a diplomatic atmosphere that if anything is more hostile, and more solidly stacked against Israel, than before.

My conclusion: it’s far better for Israel not to put itself in a position in which its vulnerabilities invite aggression but it is unable to respond with power. Once again, strategic depth makes a difference.

Q: A final question. You argue that the Jordan Valley must be kept under Israeli control. Why can’t Israel agree to international peacekeeping teams instead of the IDF, as is often proposed?

A: Israel has always been reluctant to base its defense on international forces, and when it’s agreed to them it has suffered. Under challenge, such forces invariably back down or collapse. During the lead-up to the 1967 Six-Day War, President Nasser of Egypt demanded that the UN withdraw its peacekeeping force in Sinai. UN Secretary-General U Thant agreed to Nasser’s demand, thereby removing the lone buffer between Israel’s southern border and 90,000 massed Egyptian troops.

It used to be said that no one would ever dare attack international peacekeepers; the thought was just too outrageous to be entertained. That illusion has likewise been put to rest over the years. Overt acts of aggression can force UN peacekeepers to leave, while the mere threat of aggression has demonstrably compromised their neutrality or led to their being co-opted by enemy forces like Hizballah. Only the other week, on Israel’s Golan Heights border with Syria, the al-Nusra front captured a contingent of Fijian soldiers from the UN Disengagement Observer Force and successfully held them for ransom. For all of these reasons, Israel’s position has always been that it cannot leave itself exposed, and must defend itself by itself.

As for the Jordan Valley, it’s worth remembering that, a month before his assassination in November 1995, Yitzhak Rabin declared in the Knesset that the future security border of Israel would be in the Jordan Valley, in the widest sense of that geographical term.

This is what’s meant by defensible borders. Until the lion lies down with the lamb, there is simply no alternative to them, and no amount of wishful thinking will change that fact.

More about: Dore Gold, interview, Israel, West Bank

 

The Silent Partnership

How the president has exploited the international campaign against IS in order to accommodate Iran.

The Silent Partnership
President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting with foreign defense ministers. AP Photo/Evan Vucci.
 
Michael Doran
Observation
Oct. 15 2014 5:00AM
About the author

Michael Doran, a senior fellow of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council. He is finishing a book on Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated.


When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at the United Nations on September 29, he had a number of concerns on his mind, but one stood out above the rest. He feared that President Obama was downgrading the struggle against the Iranian nuclear program. “To defeat [the Islamic State] and leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power,” Netanyahu said in the most quotable line of his speech, “is to win the battle and lose the war.”

Netanyahu had good reason to sound the alarm. An examination of Obama’s recent moves in the Middle East reveals that he has exploited the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State (IS) in order to increase cooperation with Iran in matters of regional security. Of course, administration officials dismiss any suggestion that they are “coordinating” with the Iranians militarily. In their next breath, however, they grudgingly concede otherwise—acknowledging, for example, that we provided advance notice to Tehran of the anti-IS coalition’s bombing plans in Syria. They also acknowledge opening “a quiet backchannel” to Tehran in order to “de-conflict” Iranian and American operations in Iraq.

Indeed, “de-conflict” is the favored euphemism of the moment. “No, we’re not going to coordinate,” Secretary of State Kerry said in reference to Iran’s client Bashar Assad and the military campaign against IS. “We will certainly want to de-conflict, . . . but we’re not going to coordinate.”

Too clever by half, this distinction is hardly lost on America’s traditional allies in the region, all of whom regard the Iranian alliance system, which includes Syria and Hizballah, as their primary enemy. Middle East media are replete with stories of backroom deals between Washington and Tehran. Given the enormous gap between what the Americans are claiming in public about Iran and what they are seen to be doing in private, even the false reports carry an air of plausibility.

No less a personage than Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, recently joked about the hypocrisy. Emerging from a hospital stay for surgery, he said he’d amused himself during his convalescence by keeping track of the lies of American officials who, while disclaiming any appeals for Iranian assistance, were privately begging for help. Even John Kerry, he delighted in adding, had approached the Iranian foreign minister with cap in hand—the very same Kerry who had piously announced “in front of the whole world, ‘We will not request help from Iran.’”

 

According to Khamenei, Iran has rejected all of the American requests. But Tehran has indeed permitted operational coordination—sorry, “de-confliction”—with the United States. In effect, Khamenei has set Iran up as America’s silent partner in the Middle East, and Kerry himself, at a recent hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, testified to the value the administration places on this partnership. Grilled by Senator Marco Rubio about glaring deficiencies in the American strategy against IS, Kerry offered a stunning defense. “[Y]ou’re presuming that Iran and Syria don’t have any capacity to take on [IS],” he lectured Rubio. “If we are failing and failing miserably, who knows what choice they might make.”

Iran, in the administration’s view, should thus be seen as a force multiplier for the United States. This line of reasoning has a long history, as one can detect by reading between the lines of Leon Panetta’s new memoir, Worthy Fights. Panetta, who served Obama both as secretary of defense and director of the CIA, recounts how he and his colleagues on the National Security Council (NSC) fought with the president over the American endgame in Iraq. Urged by the NSC to reach an agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for American troops to remain in the country, the president refused. Why? Obama, Panetta explained in a recent interview, nursed “the hope that perhaps others in the world could step up to the plate and take on” the role of stabilizing Iraq.

Which others? Panetta did not specify, but Obama undoubtedly assumed that Iran, the obvious candidate, would see Iraqi stability as in its own self-interest. It was a severe miscalculation. The precipitous departure of the American forces, Panetta argues in his book, removed the United States as a bulwark against Shiite sectarianism and led ineluctably to the alienation of Iraq’s Sunnis—developments that (as Panetta omits to point out) took place under the sheltering umbrella of Iranian power.

Later, when civil war broke out in Syria, Obama’s policy was similarly deferential to Tehran, and with similar consequences. In 2012, he rejected another unanimous recommendation of the NSC: this time, to aid the Syrian rebels. It was the same advice he’d received from America’s allies in the Middle East, who grew ever more insistent as it became clear that Iranian intervention was giving Bashar Assad the upper hand. But Obama held his ground and, in doing so, effectively recognized Syria as an Iranian sphere of interest and hence inviolate.

Of course, Obama has never described his calculus in such terms. But he has hinted at it—by, for example, expressing his opposition to American participation in a Sunni-Shiite “proxy war,” which is nothing if not a synonym for a war against Iran.

 

Impolitic recent statements by Vice President Joseph Biden testify further to the astounding bias in the Obama administration against America’s traditional friends in the Middle East. Discussing the Syrian civil war, Biden developed at length the theme that “our biggest problem is our allies”—even as, on the ground in Syria, coalition military operations against IS are indirectly strengthening those allies’ enemies, starting with Assad. In the words of an American official quoted in the New York Times, “It would be silly for [Assad’s forces] not to take advantage of the U.S. doing airstrikes. . . . Essentially, we’ve allowed them to perform an economy of force. They don’t have to be focused all over the country, just on those who threaten their population centers.”

In the past, to assuage America’s allies who were angry at the pro-Iranian bias in U.S. policy, Obama pledged to build up the anti-Assad rebels in the Free Syrian Army (FSA). But he never really followed through on his pledge. Now he is playing the same tattered card in order to enhance the coalition against IS. But General John Allen, the commander of the coalition, has made the insincerity transparent by stating that training and equipping the FSA “could take years”—in other words, until after Obama has left office.

What would it take for Obama to change course? Here, Turkey has assumed the lead. If the American leader wants Turkey as a full-fledged ally, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has insisted, then he must agree to oust Syria’s Assad. This demand places Obama in a difficult bind. If he fails to gain Turkey as a true partner, the coalition against IS will be hollow at its core. But he has explicitly dedicated himself to avoiding the kind of large-scale war that Turkey requires of him.

More to the point, meeting Turkey’s demand would also entail scuttling the administration’s silent partnership with Iran in Syria—a move that Tehran, for its part, would not take sitting down and might counter by, for instance, bringing Israel under attack. Indeed, as Iran’s deputy foreign minister recently revealed, Tehran has directly warned that efforts by the U.S. or its allies to topple Bashar Assad would place Israel at risk. Hizballah’s October 7 attack on Israeli forces, its first declared such operation since 2006, proves the seriousness of the threat.

And Iran has other means of retaliation as well, for instance by adopting an even more recalcitrant position in the current negotiations over its nuclear program. By all accounts, those negotiations are failing. With no agreement expected before November 24, the expiration date of last year’s interim deal, Khamenei can contemplate several possible courses of action. He might, for example, extend the interim deal in return for a reward in the form of further relief from sanctions. That would at least allow Obama to buy time. But what if Khamenei were instead to demand an even more exorbitant reward, or threaten to abandon negotiations altogether?

Either of those choices would deeply complicate Obama’s life, precisely at the moment when the war against IS grows ever more burdensome. Whatever Khamenei chooses, it is he, not Obama, who now holds the initiative.

In brief, our silent partnership with Tehran has simultaneously emboldened Tehran and other enemies and alienated our allies: the very same allies who are vital to subduing IS. In the meantime, that silent partnership not only has done nothing for us, it has considerably weakened our hand—and that of its main proponent, Barack Obama. Yet he shows no sign of considering alternative strategies. No wonder Netanyahu sounded the alarm in New York.

More about: Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Policy, Iran, Islamic State, Nuclear Bomb

 

Mosaic 2.0

Welcome to Mosaic in its brand-new look.

Mosaic 2.0
 
Observation
The Editors
Oct. 5 2014 6:00PM

Dear reader,

Welcome to Mosaic’s brand-new look! After a year and a half of publication, we’ve re-launched our site in a form that’s visually cleaner and clearer than before, more coherently designed, more aesthetically pleasing—and, especially, much easier to read and use.

If you’re already a seasoned reader of Mosaic, you’ll notice the two most obvious changes right away. First, our big monthly essays, which are Mosaic’s main distinguishing feature, are now seamlessly integrated both with their invited responses and with the author’s final say at the end of the month. Second, our daily Editors’ Picks, presenting the best and most important items culled from around the web, come to you on their own page; each item is summarized by us in an introductory paragraph or two, followed often by a key extract from the “Pick” itself, and then by a link to the source publication for when you want to read more.

Other improvements are forthcoming. Our site will shortly become more mobile-friendly, eliminating the need to zoom in or pinch the text during your commute. Each monthly essay and its responses will be available as a Mosaic Book—an ebook you can read on your web browser, your Kindle, or your phone or tablet. With the facility afforded to us by our new design, we’re also planning to increase the frequency of shorter original pieces and to feature regular columnists.

Since its birth, Mosaic has become, for a growing audience, essential reading: the home for clear, bold, in-depth, definitive treatments of the most pressing issues concerning Jews, Judaism, and the Jewish state. To our first-time visitors: we’re delighted to have you with us, and we hope you’ll want to stay. To our regular readers: welcome back, and we hope our new look makes your experience of the site all the more enjoyable.

Whether new or old, once you’ve had a chance to familiarize yourself with today’s Mosaic, we’d be very happy to hear from you with your thoughts, questions, or concerns. Write to us any time at [email protected].

Cordially,

The Editors
Mosaic

More about: Announcements, From the Editors

 

Guilty, Guilty, Guilty

Why should we confess, particularly on Yom Kippur? Why in public? And why so many times?

Guilty, Guilty, Guilty
From Jews praying in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, 1878, by the Polish Jewish painter Maurycy Gottlieb (1856-1879). Via Wikimedia.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
Oct. 2 2014 6:00PM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.


I have two Jewish neighbors on my street in the little Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge. One, who has chosen to have nothing to do with religion of any kind, has a daughter who’s opted to live as an evangelical Christian. The other, a woman in her late thirties and the daughter of good North London Jews, married a man she met at college who was cosmopolitan, intellectual, and sensitive—all the things she considers to be Jewish characteristics. “It’s only when he’s with his parents that I realize he’s not Jewish.” When we moved into the neighborhood, she initially brought her two daughters to our house for Sabbath meals, but as time passed she stopped accepting our invitation. Clearly it was simpler to avoid a shared religious ritual, even over a meal, than to address the questions her daughters were quickly becoming old enough to raise.

So it was a surprise when she asked me to come speak to her students about Jewish tradition. A hospice nurse, she had become a lecturer on end-of-life care and was now teaching a whole course on the subject. What irked her enough to seek me out was the frivolity with which some of her students mocked the need for ritual and symbolic acts in patients who might “still believe in that sort of thing,” as if they were a pygmy tribe. The nursing school is at the University of Bradford, in the middle of Britain’s largest Muslim community, but she was not about to invite an imam, or a Church of England vicar, or a Roman Catholic priest, and she didn’t know any rabbis. But we had talked about end-of-life care and about my interest in using extended interviews or memoir transcription as an alternative therapy for the dying:  a way of getting people to review unfinished business or to find a starting point for conversations they might wish to have with their family.

In other words, we’d talked about vidui: the Hebrew term for a form of private or public confession recited quietly as part of daily prayer in some congregations and aloud in all congregations as part of the Yom Kippur service. The daily version, beginning ashamnu, is shorter; something like it appears in the Book of Daniel, “We have sinned, and corrupted, been wicked, and rebelled, even by turning from your commandments and judgments.” The verbs both in it and in the longer version, “Al het,” are in the plural—“we,” not “I”—and both are acrostics, a form that can aid the memory by providing a catalogue of dozens of sins in alphabetical order.

 

The term vidui recalls the confession that Moses instructs his brother Aaron the High Priest to make during Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:21) in order to transfer the sins of the people onto a goat that is then sent away into the wilderness. Now the goat is gone, and so is the High Priest; but the sins and the people remain, so the confession endures.

But why should we confess, and particularly on Yom Kippur? The Talmud (Shabbat 32a) says that all who are sentenced to death make a confession. It adds, eloquently (in the minor tractate of Smahot): “Many have confessed but have not died; and many who have not confessed have died. And many who are walking outside in the marketplace confess. By the merit of your confession, you shall live.” And this is the phrasing that Joseph Karo in the 16th century codified into law in his Shulhan Arukh, turning a recommendation into a requirement.

But again: what is so important about confessing? And why in public? And why through these prescribed formulas? Surely nobody ever committed quite so many sins as these, or sinned in so ornate a manner as to require such a minuet of expiation.

Yom Kippur entails acknowledging a list of sins you may not personally have committed. The point of the recitation is in the collective, which serves two functions. The first is that by acknowledging yourself to be in the collective, by shouldering a communal burden, you are confessing everything: not just what you are willing to confess to but also what you are not willing to confess, sins you committed knowingly and sins you committed unknowingly, sins that you were barely aware of. You are acknowledging that you have done it all, and if you haven’t yet done it all you might do it all, and even if you might not, you are hopeful in any case of forgiveness. It’s a letting-go of everything, the stains you can see and the ones you cannot. You want to be clean.

The second function of the collective is to replace the service of the High Priest and his transference of the collective’s sins onto a goat. The community standing together is a testament to your personal seriousness of purpose. In a sense, you are putting your own fate in the hands of all the people around you. Like Abraham haggling with the Almighty before the destruction of Sodom, you are asking whether He would really destroy all this great congregation if there turned out to be fewer righteous individuals than He’d expected to find here. By reciting all possible sins as part of your own account, you are drawing about yourself the merit of all those present. You are saying to the Almighty not only what you are—the catalogue of sins, of which you have committed at least one or two—but also who you hope to be: a part of this group you choose to stand with and that contains (again, a hope) some righteous souls. You hope that it’s not goats but, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, the content of our character that is the deciding factor as we face the Almighty.

 

So I went with my neighbor, who will not be attending the Yom Kippur service, to the school of nursing where she works, and into an auditorium of 120 student nurses, male and female. I asked for a show of hands to get a sense of what traditions the audience would be slotting vidui into. There were a couple of Pakistani Muslims in the front row, a few Catholics dotted about, one or two Protestants, and the rest were the great wash of English post-believers. It used to be said that the Church of England is what the British had instead of religion. They largely do not have even that anymore.

That was why I was there. My post-religious neighbor may not observe much in the way of Jewish practice herself, but she takes the dying seriously, and while she didn’t trust herself enough to pound the message into her students’ heads, she was expecting me to dent their disdain toward the remnants of a generation that did still practice. I was supposed to make them feel more sympathetic to the flotsam and jetsam left on the beach after the tide of belief in God went out.

I didn’t pound Torah into them. Among the various high and low roads across the terrain of faith, I chose one of each. Taking a high road, I first presented the vidui as a simple legal requirement, like last rites for Catholics. You have to say it, or, if you aren’t capable of saying it, have someone say it for you. Simple; cut and dried. I recited a few lines in Hebrew to give them a sense of the music of it, and then read the English text to give them a sense of the swath of sins covered, the intricate span of corruption. I think that may have impressed even the committed atheists.

And then I took the low, humanist road and pitched straight for the soft underbelly of my unbelieving crowd: guilt, and fear. I told them about my idea of interviewing the terminally ill and editing their autobiographical accounts into books that they could give to their (soon to be) survivors and perhaps use as conversation-openers before it was too late to set anything right. I said we all need to get the story of our life straight before we die, there’s nobody who doesn’t benefit from looking over what they hoped to have done and what they actually did, what they could have done and should have done, what they need to make right in order to let go, and to be let go of in turn. For the most part, I think they bought it. The low road was something even the most religion-phobic could not balk at. I got a round of applause; my neighbor said, “I knew you could teach”; and the students went out buzzing away among themselves.

My neighbor’s husband called me the following week, fulminating because four of the 120 students had complained, anonymously of course, that if they were going to have a representative of a religion speak to them, it should have been from one of the religions they were likely to encounter in their nursing wards. He thought the complaint was anti-Semitic, but I didn’t take it that way. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the Muslims who complained, or the Catholics, or even the Protestants. They seemed both to be engaged with what I said about the vidui and not to object to my humanist idea of a memoir.

No, I suspect the few complaints came out of the larger mass of post-believers, the ones who are happy to take up nursing but don’t like to think that dying is something that might happen to them, or that the people who will be dying on their watch are actually like them—are people. I think the four complainants were complaining not because they wanted  a Church of England vicar but because I raised the spectre of their own death, and not only that but the spectre of their loneliness dying alone in a hospital with no way to re-establish the connection to whatever relationships remained unresolved as they approached their end. So I took their protest as a compliment. I took it that my case for the prosecution—or was it for the defense?—had rattled them.

 

A few lines of the Al het, the Yom Kippur vidui, to close. I’ve chosen these because they leaped out at me for being rooted in the body and not the mind:

For a sin we sinned before you in breaking bounds
And for a sin we sinned before you in argument.
For a sin we sinned before you with intent against a friend
And for a sin we sinned before you with a narrow mind.
For a sin we sinned before you being feather brained
And for a sin we sinned before you being stiff necked.
For a sin we sinned before you being swift of foot to do wrong
And for a sin we sinned before you with a slanderous tongue.
For a sin we sinned before you with an empty vow
And a sin we sinned before you with a baseless hate.

There is no tune for this prayer; it’s as long as your guilt and as flat as the desert. But when I think of the last synagogue I spent Yom Kippur in, a tiny shtiebel in Leeds, the sound track in my head for this time of year is the closing passage of Avinu malkeinu, another recitation of sinfulness and entreaty for forgiveness, sung with particular longing only on the Days of Awe and other public fast days. It climaxes:

Our Father our King
Pardon and answer us
Because we have no deeds
Deal with us in charity and kindness
And deliver us.

At the end of the day, we ask the Almighty to treat us as we should have treated our fellows, hoping He will do better than we did.

More about: High Holidays, Jewish ritual, Religion, Yom Kippur