One midnight back in the 20th century, Zohar and I and four others were taken to Jalazoun. Up and down the highway we patrolled, up and down the empty highway fronting the refugee camp. Virtually no ambient light—not with Beit El over the hill and Jalazoun both sleeping. Up and down, up and down, up and down for an hour or more as the crickets chorused, and then a break. I unslung my weapon, and the radio pack, and as the feeling returned to my arms joined him in leaning against an outsize boulder.
No moon that night but stars galore. The stars! How trifling happiness and unhappiness, geopolitics, defeat and victory seemed in comparison. Not a few of them had run out of gas a million years ago. They were dead. Yet their light would keep impacting earth when I was a million years gone, and a million years after the Arabs and Jews, the old and young Israelis and Palestinians in Jalazoun and Beit El were gone, too. I smiled in the darkness. How archaic, I thought, how laughable the unending fight between the Arabs and my people over the real estate between the Mediterranean and the Jordan when so many galaxies were cinders and the next world war was to be waged up there, in space.
“I was reading the newspaper,” Zohar said in that lovely Hebrew of his with the glottal ayin and the aspirated ḥet. “The astrologists predict a big war.”
“Between who and who?”
“They don’t say.”
“Well, let’s hope they’re wrong.”
“I’ve got both my sons in the paratroops.”
“Have they been in Lebanon?”
“So far, so good. But if there’s a big war? A real one?”
“There won’t be.”
“You’re a journalist?”
“Then you must know.”
A pause while he lit up. The radio made a white noise and I could hear but not see the other men farther down the highway. Nineteen-eighty-five was the year, and our Israel Defense Forces unit a motley of immigrants and native sons, grocers, kibbutzniks, accountants, electricians, truck drivers, what have you, plus a loudmouth named Shmulik who claimed to earn his bread milking vipers. We’d be called yearly for a stint of 35 days to help keep things quiet in the occupied West Bank and Gaza or, if you will, liberated Judea where David cried for Absalom, liberated Samaria where Joseph’s brothers sold him to the Ishmaelites, and liberated Gaza where Samson perished with his tormentors. Some of us found ways to get out of it. Most showed up, bitching, moaning, joking, every year slightly more potbellied, balding, graying.
“The Arabs have rockets now,” said Zohar whom until then I’d known only a little. “And poison gas.”
“But we have nuclear bombs.”
“So they say.”
Another pause. Our unit of 80 men featured a redheaded captain, three lieutenants, and four sergeants. Zohar was a corporal and I was nothing—a private with a Harvard degree. Ramallah and its surroundings were the company’s responsibility that year. Three shifts. Eight hours in the field, eight hours off at the base, another eight hours in the field, ’round the clock, mainly seeing to it the highways weren’t interfered with passing Bir Zeit University and passing the United Nations Relief and Works Agency camps: Kalandia, Amari, and, in the biblical landscape of cedars and olive trees north of Ramallah, the Jalazoun camp. No need to wear helmets, much less put to the test the house-to-house fighting skills we spent an additional five days a year refreshing at a base in the Negev. Our work generally undemanding, generally non-risky, mildly distasteful, and quite boring.
“We used to use them to find our way,” said Zohar.
“Yes. When we did forced marches at night, I mean.”
“Were you in an elite unit?”
“Sure!” He coughed. “I was a fighter. You wouldn’t think so to look at me now, but I was in one of the best units until the Yom Kippur war.”
“Got shrapnel in my back.” The radio made its noise and this dark-skinned Jew smoked, coughed, and complained. “If it’s not my lungs, it’s my legs. And if it’s not my legs, it’s my back. I’m not what I used to be, and that’s the truth. I’m a little guy, right? Well, I used to be an ox! Strong! I’d go fifteen, twenty kilometers cross-country at night, lugging a MAG all the way, and I didn’t even work up a sweat.” MAG: a machine-gun weighing upward of 25 pounds. “That was when I was young. We’d make a forced march through the desert to lay ambushes for the terrorists. We didn’t use vehicles because it might give us away. There were terrorists and Egyptian commandos down in the Negev when I was young. They’d infiltrate. We’d ambush them and wipe them out. The commandos were huge, they were black giants—like this.” His arm went vertical and the cigarette tip flickered at a giant’s height. “No prisoners.”
“Where’d you get wounded—at the Canal?”
“No! That’s where my unit was supposed to be, but when they called us on Yom Kippur, when they took us right out of the synagogue, they sent us to the Golan Heights, where we’d never been. Go figure. We were supposed to defend the Canal. That’s where we’d gotten to in the Six-Day War, that’s where we were stationed on reserves in ’68 to ’70.”
“The War of Attrition?”
“Right. After that war, and even during it, on quiet days, we fished in the Canal.”
“We’d throw in a grenade. The fish would float up and we’d have a barbecue. We learned it from the Egyptians. They were on the other side. We watched them, they watched us. They shelled us, we shelled them. In short, Yom Kippur came, and they sent us to the Heights. What a mess! The Egyptians are nice compared with the Syrians, believe me. I won’t tell you what the Syrians do to prisoners. We got up there any which way, and the Skyhawks were hitting them with napalm. Do you know how long we sat there? Do you know how long we were mobilized?
“A long time?”
“No, just eight months, that’s all.” Zohar took a drag. “I had to close my business. We stayed on the Heights all winter, in the mud, until the spring of ’74, while Kissinger flew back and forth. That’s when I was wounded, not in ’73. There used to be some artillery back and forth during the ceasefires, you know, nothing much, and one of our shells landed short.”
“Not so bad. The guy next to me lost a leg. You came up from America?”
“I decided I should live here.”
Either he let this non-answer go, or he accepted it—maybe he took it for a simple declaration of Zionism.
“America,” he declared in turn, “is the land of opportunity. This is the land of opportunity, too. But if you want to succeed here you have to cheat and exploit. You have to be a thief. We’re a nation of thieves, and that’s the sad truth.” He coughed. “Do you know what my problem is?”
“I’ve always been honest. I’ve worked for myself, with my own hands. Now I’ve got a little shop again.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
That unglamorous resort on the Mediterranean between Tel Aviv and Haifa.
“We like it.”
“Are you a fan of one of the Netanya teams?”
Hapoel: Hebrew, “the worker.”
“Yes. And you?”
“Actually, I don’t follow any team.”
“Well, as I was saying, in my shop I’ve got no Arabs—only Jews, and I give them full wages and social security. Not that I’ve got anything against Arabs. I report all my income. And I still work with my hands. I’ve never exploited and I’ve never cut corners. That’s why I’ve never made a fortune.”
“My brother wanted me to join him in America. He lives in Hartford, Connecticut. Do you know Hartford?”
“It’s where our M-16’s come from.”
“He went down thirteen years ago and he’s done well for himself. Owns a chain of mini-markets. He’s one of the very few Yemenites who’ve gone down—you probably know we don’t go down much. So he used to write and say, ‘Come, join me, we’ll make money together.’ He even called me up once long-distance. Or if I didn’t want to go into business with him he said he knew a lawyer who could get me a Green Card. But I wouldn’t do it. And you know, even though he’s willing to pay for the ticket, I’ve never visited him. He’s had to come to Netanya. His kids speak English. They can’t talk with me, I can’t talk with them! I don’t know, I guess I just like it here. This is the place for a Jew to live. Israel is my America.”
“Not a bad way of putting it.”
“There aren’t enough Jews in this country, that’s all.”
“They won’t come because of the wars. And the unemployment.”
“What unemployment? Any Jew who wants to can find a job. The thing is, too many of us have become lazy. We think it’s clever to let the Arabs sweat while we loaf.”
“What about the people who go down?”
“Listen. I’ve never been abroad, but I read the newspapers. I know what it’s like in Poland, in Rumania.”
Though I didn’t see what Poland or Rumania had to do with anything, I just said, “Well?”
“People stand in line for the kind of vegetables we throw out. We just don’t know how good we have it, that’s the trouble. And if more of us came up instead of going down the Arabs would see things different.”
“You’ve never been abroad?”
“Since we came up, no.”
“Don’t you want to make a trip?”
It was so dark I couldn’t make out Zohar’s expression. Could he be serious? The idea of never taking a vacation from Israel boggled the mind—my mind, that is. Yes, if every so often the narrator of Moby Dick goes to sea to drive off his spleen and regulate his circulation, then I had to have breathers from Israel. Nor was I alone. The Labor party insisted on Knesset elections in autumn, winter, or spring, just not in summer when school let out and its voters, dovishly inclined and generally better-heeled than Likud’s, flocked abroad, elections or no elections. “You want to know the most beautiful place in Israel?” one of my friends liked to ask so he could answer his own question. “The departure lounge at Ben-Gurion.” A dovish journalist friend.
Did I see it that way? Not quite. Yet having come up and become an Israeli who paid every last shekel of the unbelievable income tax and did reserves in the army five or six weeks per year, I had to have time off. I had to visit countries from time to time where the green didn’t have to be irrigated. Where they weren’t chummy, weren’t nosy, where they made love, not war, and manufactured spears for export only.
It was therapeutic to rediscover how wide and variegated and peaceful the world was, good to see how little, usually, the endless squabble between the Arabs and Jews concerned the rest of humanity. Taking in a movie without subtitles? A treat. Modulated voices? A relief. Yes, at first, in my first days and weeks abroad, it would seem to me that I very much liked the new generation of Europeans who’d opted out of history. If they had little to be proud of, they had nothing to be guilty about. To be with the peace-loving, easygoing, oh-so-polite Christians and post-Christians meant always, for a while at least, the chance to relax, to breathe.
Zohar, cutting into my thoughts: “We lived in a big, fine house.”
“In Yemen. Listen, I can shut my eyes as I’m talking with you and remember every room. I had a room of my own. Just a kid, but a room to myself. We had a good life, but when we heard there’d been a Jewish state declared we left everything. Our neighbors couldn’t believe it.”
“They couldn’t believe it. They said, ‘But why are you leaving? Isn’t life here good for you? Haven’t we always treated you well?’ And they were right—it was a good life and our neighbors were like family. We’d invite them to share our holidays and when there was an eid they’d invite us.” Eid: Arabic, “religious holiday.” “Don’t believe what you hear about the Arabs persecuting Jews. There was none of that. The Arabs have a good heart—believe me, I’ve lived among them. But we left for Eretz Yisrael with what we could carry.” Eretz Yisrael: the Land of Israel vouchsafed Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their seed. “I remember how the neighbors wept. I remember the plane. I was a kid.”
I said yes remembering books on the history of the Jews in the Arab countries. A long history featuring multiple ups and downs. Yemen? Its Jews went back to the Queen of Sheba, a thousand years before Islam, and even the non-Zionist writers agreed that in the last few centuries they’d been treated like dirt by the Muslims.
Not so badly as the European Jews off and on by the Christians, though. And yet green, extremely orderly, civilized and peaceful northwest Europe in the tourist off-season served me well. I’d feast my eyes and ears—I’d be half-convinced that aesthetic beauty implies moral beauty. For example, the jewel box of an opera house in Zurich, done over at tremendous cost, was filled when I saw an enthralling new production of William Tell. The bankers and their wives and daughters and mistresses jolly and handsome, smiling at their own national myth. No pushing at intermission, no yelling.
I sprang for a Eurailpass. Riding and riding: it had been my pleasure to get off at random, to enjoy the cathedrals and food, generally avoiding McDonald’s. The deserted cathedrals showcased a Jew in loincloth and crown of thorns, and the headlines at the newsstand might report trouble back home, fighting on another planet. I’d forgo buying Le Monde or the International Herald Tribune to get the details. And, back on the train, watching Europe show itself off like a bundle of postcards, I recalled where I was, after all, remembered a passage, for example, from the work of the Hebrew poet Uri Zvi Greenberg. “Lo huvalnu kha-tzon l’tivḥa bikronot rakavot/ki kh’tzon m’tsora hovilunu l’mo khlaya/Derekh kol hanofim hayafim be’Eyropa.” Meaning: “We were not taken like sheep to the slaughter in the boxcars/No, like leprous sheep they took us to extinction/Over all the beautiful landscapes of Europe.” But it made no difference. No, what had happened a while ago in this vacationland didn’t sober me.
Actually, of all these Europeans, the Berliners, of all people, God help me, were the most attractive. It was beyond me to imagine even the men and women past retirement age in West Berlin as other than non-threatening. Guilty as they were of nothing yet targeted by Soviet missiles the northwest Europeans were normal, they were adult, they’d gotten over every lunacy. And that caused me to brood on the train. Had quitting the Diaspora for Zion been a mistake? Was it too late? Is it ever too late for the bearer of a U.S. passport and a man who talks to himself in English? I’d fantasized turning my back on my people. Starting over. Why not rejoin the ex-Christians? Partake of their maturity by osmosis? Flee the crazy Jewish state for good? A cabin in the Swedish forest, by a lake, beckoned. There I could write the Great Ex-American Novel.
A Swedish novelist friend keeping a closetful of Absolut warned me off. I’d remarked on the maturity of his countrymen, and Lars said, “It’s not maturity, Ed. It’s depression.” Well, if not Sweden then Paris. How many times does a Jew live?
These fantasies weren’t serious. More plausible had been the idea of settling, of disappearing, in England, greenest land of all.
Catching the boat train, I’d rented a London bedsitter, made inquiries. And here I saw what I hadn’t seen, or wished to see, on the Continent—that these Europeans, too, were the prey of anxiety. They were more than mildly anxious over this new problem called AIDS, over the thinning of the ozone layer, over traffic and parking, over the increasing numbers of dark-skinned humans among them, Rastafarians and animists and Muslims from imploded empires. I’d visited a swank mosque in Regent’s Park. There I’d bought a new edition of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. I’d strolled with it at twilight across the park, a wonderful park, a Constable landscape updated with just a few drunks and homeless and the minaret rising higher than the steeple in Camden Town.
A brave new Europe. I was taken by local Jews to a non-kosher restaurant where, not including the wine and tip, a meal came to 40 pounds sterling. They weren’t concerned when I mentioned the Protocols. Afterwards there were skinheads in the underground. The other passengers—not my Jews, they’d grabbed a taxi—acted as if they didn’t see the lads, didn’t hear them, but for once the English were bad actors, for they were unmistakably nervous as well as hardhearted.
Old, green, handsome England did well by me. The final day there I stocked up on paperbacks. A bookshop on Charing Cross Road carried a line of photo-postcards of idols like Karl Marx, Che, Rosa Luxemburg, and Nelson Mandela, as well as villains like Reagan, Thatcher, and a clot of IDF soldiers in Bethlehem laughing with their mouths open. And so I’d return to the Jewish state. I’d fly home, paying overweight for the books, winging over the Alps and the Greek islands, almost happily, almost willingly, a patriot, my Israelitis in remission.
Zohar? As the stars burned into my eyes I tried to guess what made him immune. First-rate character? The power of traditional Jewish law? Yes, this law says a Jew has three and only three grounds for absenting himself from Zion: to find medical care, to find a wife, to raise money for Jewish schools. Zohar wore no skullcap, no beard. And he was crazy about Hapoel Netanya. So what? He seemed to be one of those Israelis with or without a skullcap and beard and with or without the money to travel who have complete resistance to Israelitis. Though I doubted that this man who worked with his hands and employed only Jews didn’t have a crooked bone in his wounded, ailing body, I did believe his patriotism was simpler and healthier than mine—his words about our thieving countrymen notwithstanding. He was lucky, Zohar was. I was thinking how I might tell him when he started again.
“Things weren’t easy.”
“Here. We lived in a tent one whole winter. Did I say one? It was two winters. I remember a flash flood. Everything was swept away—mattresses, blankets, pots and pans. My sister almost drowned. Times were hard, but I’ll tell you something. People were kinder to each other than they are today. The Jews were kinder. Today it’s dog eat dog. Look what the doctors are doing to the patients in the hospitals.”
“What’re they doing?”
“Striking! Everything today is money!”
“So what happened?”
“The Six-Day War, that’s what. After that, people started running around with their tongues hanging out and their eyes popping. They started looking out for themselves instead of the other guy. There are doctors today, if you give them a thousand dollars, they’ll give you a release from army duty for the rest of your life. Did you know that?”
“I heard something about it.”
The radio crackled with a girl soldier’s voice. Zohar picked up the handset and reported to her there was nothing to report.
“Nobody cares!” he said. “The idea is, let the Arabs do the work, the manual labor, and let the Jews live it up!”
“Well, I don’t know. There are kids in my neighborhood who do gardening and cleaning.”
“What kind of kids?”
“Kids. They staple ads on trees.”
“You live in a strange neighborhood.”
Likable, this Zohar. Salt of the earth. I said to him: “An old kibbutznik is taking a walk with his grandson. ‘You see that water tower over there?’ he tells the boy. ‘I built it when I was young. You see that cowshed? I built it when I was young. You see that cultural center? I built it when I was young.’ The boy asks the old man, ‘Grandfather, when you were young, were you an Arab?’”
“Ha! That’s right! Fancy weddings! Big cars! There’s a guy in Netanya who goes around in a Mercedes like you’ve never seen. I tell you, our tragedy is that we don’t work with our hands anymore. We’re ashamed to do an honest day’s work. The other guy? Screw him! And look at the young people. We didn’t used to be this way. You’re a journalist?”
For the second time I admitted it.
“Then you know what goes on in the army with girl soldiers. I told my oldest daughter, ‘You’re not going into the army, and that’s final.’ Kids! How many have you got?”
“None yet. And you?”
“Five. Don’t wait too long, Edward.”
“Are you married?”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Do you treat her right?”
“I hope so.”
“Why don’t you marry her?”
“Maybe I will.”
“Believe me, there’s nothing like a family. It’ll make you less irritable. Anyway, when I said no army to her she told them she was religious, and so they’re letting her do her national service in an institution for the mentally retarded. She comes home every night.”
A watchful father, apparently happily married, Zohar was racked now by a coughing fit. His small body on the point of being torn in half.
“You ought to smoke less.”
“I know.” He lit another Time cigarette. “What do you think we should do?”
“You know, Judea and Samaria, the West Bank, here, the areas.”
“Why don’t we just get out?”
“I thought you’d say that. People who live in Tel Aviv don’t understand.”
“I don’t live in Tel Aviv.”
“You should know better. If we just got out, Arafat would have Katyushas coming through your kitchen window in Jerusalem the next day.”
“So what’s the solution?”
“Autonomy! Make them take autonomy. They could have Ramallah and the other towns and refugee camps and we’d keep the Jordan Valley and the highways.”
“And the settlements? What about Beit El?”
“The settlers are good Jews but most of them will have to go or if they stay they’ll have to live under the Arabs.”
“Rabin said he wouldn’t mind having to get a visa to go to Hebron. I wouldn’t, either.”
“It’s Jerusalem. That’s ours.”
“So,” I said, “What’s the difference between just getting out and forcing autonomy on the Palestinians?”
“A big difference! With autonomy, you see, we’d keep things quiet. We’d keep Arafat out.”
“But the PLO is pretty weak, isn’t it?”
“It’s strong enough to keep old guys like us doing reserves.”
“How old are you, Zohar?”
“I hit fifty last month.”
“Fifty? You don’t have to serve anymore.”
“Well, I volunteer. It’s a break from the wife and kids. And how old are you?”
”A baby. Did you vote for Peres last time?”
“Yes. What about you?”
Shimon Peres, a chain-smoker born in Wiszniew, Poland in 1923. Twice he’d guided the Labor party to defeat in Knesset elections, and the year before to a tie that saw the fashioning of a rotating Labor/Likud premiership. All three times I’d held my nose and voted for him. Why not? Peres a slippery, ambitious individual who to damage Yitzḥak Rabin, also a chain-smoker, had championed Jewish settlements like Beit El here in Samaria, but who earlier, as a young man, had fathered Israel’s doomsday weapon, and unlike Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon had never sent the IDF barging into the hall of mirrors known as Lebanon.
Yes, if a great deal has happened since those eight hours at Jalazoun, much had happened before as well. To name a few events: the staggering Yom Kippur war, the shuttling of Henry Kissinger, the UN General Assembly’s labeling of Zionism as a form of racism, the Jimmy Carter-Anwar Sadat-Begin summit at Camp David, the peace treaty with Egypt, the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine bombing of the rue Copernic synagogue in Paris, the murder of Sadat, the Lebanon adventure, the bombing and shooting-up of the Goldenberg restaurant in Paris’s historic Marais neighborhood by Yasir Arafat’s faction, the throwing overboard of the wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer, the apprehension by the FBI of a pudgy American Jewish spy outside the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C. No doubt about it, the many-faceted Arab-Israeli conflict was heaven’s gift to journalists.
“I’ve always,” said Zohar, “voted Labor. With all their faults, they built the country and they’re smarter than Begin, Sharon, and that gang.”
“What about Yom Kippur? It was a Labor government then.”
“Anybody can make a mistake.”
“Wasn’t it Labor who brought all the Arabs from the areas to do the manual labor?”
“Arab labor has ruined us! A Jew’s ashamed of doing manual labor these days! Can you imagine? It’s a good thing Ben-Gurion, the old man, is dead. It would kill him to see this. Do you know what happens when there’s an eid? No bread, no garbage collection, no fruit-picking, no laundry, no building. Are you going to tell me that’s not a disgrace? What’s happened to us? You see Jewish arsim in Netanya.” Ars: Arabic, “pimp.” “My old mother is afraid—she hears about the burglaries and assaults. Jews do this to Jews! Did you ever hear of a Jewish drug addict in America?”
“Now we’ve got them here! My youngest daughter came home from school crying because a kid said her father worked with his hands. She said to me, ‘Can’t you get a job in a bank?”‘
“What would happen if the Palestinians went on strike?”
“Great! We’d have to call out the army to collect the garbage. Believe me, I’d be happier collecting garbage and baking bread for a month than doing this.” I neither believed nor disbelieved him, though I did believe his daughter could’ve asked him that question and it had wounded him. “Yes, if we want to survive we’re going to have to stop depending on the Arabs. That’s why I’m for making them have autonomy here. You know what? Let them have their own state, if they want. Who cares? We need these areas like a hole in the head. They’re not the main thing.”
“The main thing is, the Jewish state for the Jews. Things can’t go on this way. The Arabs walk around Netanya cruising the girls, but if I go to Shkhem they’ll stab me.” Shkhem: the Hebrew, biblical term for Nablus. “What is this? They’re not scared of us anymore. Every day they get more ḥutzpah. Kahane’s right.” Meir Kahane, a Brooklyn rabbi whose Knesset party was banned as racist and who a few years later was to be assassinated in the Marriott hotel in New York. “There’s no place in the Jewish state for the Arabs. Once there’s autonomy, or a Palestinian state, the Arabs in the Galilee will leave and move here. It’ll be better for both peoples.”
“You’d expel them from Nazareth, Haifa? They’re Israeli citizens.”
“They’ll go. Maybe it’ll happen during the next war with Syria. The Syrians haven’t been taught a real lesson yet.”
“The Arabs have lived in this country for a long time.”
“So what? Believe me, you can live for years with an Arab neighbor, and be good friends, and all that, and one day he’ll slit your throat. You’re from America. You don’t know them.” A dog in Jalazoun or Beit El started barking as Zohar went on in this vein. How come it had started? Was a Gandhi or Saladin getting conceived who’d lead the Palestinians in al-awda, in the return to Jaffa and Haifa and Lydda and the erased villages where their UNWRA cards said the residents of Jalazoun, Amari, and Kalandia originated? Was the messiah getting conceived in Beit El, the house of God, as in Bethel, Vermont and Bethel, New York and Bethel, Texas and all the Bethels and Bethel churches in all the states of the union including Bethel, Connecticut, birthplace of P.T. Barnum? The settlers of Beit El had returned to where Jacob is said to have dreamed of angels traipsing up and down a ladder. Zohar called the settlers good Jews. The rest of the world, including not a few Jews and people of Jewish extraction, despised them.
Anyhow, the barking had silenced the crickets. “Grown men like us running after kids!”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“The stone-throwers. You know what they do with them when we catch them?”
“No,” I lied.
“They take them to a special prison for stone-throwers. First, they make them confess. They make them face a wall outdoors all night without a coat. They blindfold them and throw pebbles at them to break their spirit. They put those kids, those refugee-camp kids, against a wall for eight hours at night. You should see how they stand there without moving a hair or saying a word—what endurance! If they still don’t confess, they make them go on all fours and kick them in the rear.”
“Yes. There are some things we Jews can’t do. Or they make them take a shower and then stand under an air conditioner. But after they confess and they’ve been tried and sentenced we don’t touch them. We Jews don’t get pleasure, you see, from making people suffer. It’s not in our nature to spill innocent blood. Like in those camps in Beirut.”
“Sabra and Shatila.”
“Yes. It was the Arab Christians who did that.”
“We let them in.”
“How could we know what they’d do? It’s a tragedy when a mother has to visit her son in prison—any mother. We feed the kids on army food and they’re given hot showers every day. We take care of them and at the end of a month or two their families pay a fine to get them released. Half a million old shekels. A copy of the receipt goes across the river and the PLO reimburses them. Some of them come back to jail two, three, four times. It’s like a boarding school. It’s like a living. It’s crazy!”
“We must know what we’re doing.”
“Do you think so?”
“What do you think we should do?”
“Easy. We should stop being fryerim.” Russian criminal slang, Gulag slang adopted by Hebrew, “fryer,” a sucker, a loser. “We should pull down these camps and build regular neighborhoods for them, away from the highways.”
“I had that idea myself once.”
“It can’t be done.”
“Why not? The UN wouldn’t like it? Let them not like it. Or if there’s no money for that, we should send the Druze in to break heads whenever anybody throws a stone. That’s the only language the Arabs understand.”
Salt of the earth contradicting himself. The Arabs kindhearted, the Arabs homicidal, the Jews clever, the Jews ne’er-do-wells. And yet a better man and Jew than me. Thirty years it’s been, and occasionally I wonder what became of Zohar. I do this no longer as a childless middle-aged bachelor in Jerusalem playing soldier once yearly but a childless nomadic old widower hanging his hat in Central America, in Southeast Asia, in China, and in San Francisco and of no interest to even the Jewish army. Nor do I vote Labor if I happen to be in-country at election time. Having been mugged by reality, I hold my nose and vote Likud as do numbers of my ex-dovish friends who unlike me have gallantly stuck it out full-time in Zion.
What about Zohar the chain smoker and today an octogenarian? You never know, but he probably hasn’t decamped. But if he remains among the living has his voting behavior changed? Yes or no, it might be educational to have his take on developments since that night at Jalazoun.
To specify just a few: the Arabic term “intifada” enters the world’s vocabulary, the wall dividing Berlin tumbles, Scuds fall on Tel Aviv, the Soviet Union goes into the ashcan of history and a million Soviet Jews, half-Jews and non-Jews unable to go to the U.S. come to Eretz Yisrael instead, history is declared to have ended, top-secret meetings in the woods near Oslo are followed by an uncomfortable Rabin shaking hands with Arafat on the White House lawn, the World Trade Center is bombed by a ring of Islamists to which Meir Kahane’s assassin had belonged, a young skullcappped Israeli of Yemenite extraction whose father is a Torah scribe murders the Israeli prime minister, the U.S. president who eulogizes him is fellated by a young Jewish woman in the Oval Office, the human genome is mapped, Arafat walks away from Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak at Camp David and is hailed back in Ramallah, the World Trade Center is knocked down by Islamist-hijacked jetliners, young martyrs seeking 72 virgins make farewell videos before activating their vests in pizza parlors, buses, and discos in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, ex-doves help elect and re-elect Ariel Sharon prime minister, a wall snaking up and down the Holy Land is built, a hideous wall but less hideous than blown-up Jews and Arabs, the Sykes-Picot nation-state arrangement in the Middle East is unintentionally destroyed by George Bush the Younger, the London tube is blown up, the IDF is whipped in Lebanon by a Shi’ite militia, Gaza becomes an Islamist mini-state and Judea and Samaria or the West Bank become a crazy quilt.
Nor is that all.
There springs up a global computer network providing a variety of information and communication facilities, consisting of interconnected networks using standardized communication protocols, available to one and all, the Jewish state makes itself a vital node of this grid, so that a person can boycott it and the products of Silicon Wadi or she can live and work in the 21st century but she can’t do both, a New York Jew whom Jewish non-profits including Yeshiva University and Hadassah trusted with their endowments runs history’s biggest Ponzi scheme, an Israeli president is jailed for rape, a prime minister is convicted of bribery and fraud, the Arab Spring begets Arab mass murder and a tsunami of refugees, a black resident of the White House greenlights eventual nuclear weapons for men who hang homosexuals from cranes, with Madonna and Lady Gaga past it, and Amy Winehouse dead, Adele bestrides the narrow world, the white-bearded, skullcapped Jonathan Pollard leaves jail, it becomes obvious to all except those who refuse to stop dreaming that the never-say-die Palestinians are unreconciled to a Jewish state whatever its borders, Apple moves some Mac production stateside, a third intifada, the Stabbing Intifada, begins, the Jewish state continues flourishing, two young God-fearing Jews, one a minor, are charged with burning a sleeping Arab family alive, French and Belgian citizens defending Islam massacre not only Parisian cartoonists and Jews but harmless tweeters out for the evening, a U.S.-born Muslim and his foreign-born Muslim spouse leave their six-month-old with its grandmother to massacre fourteen in California, and the leading Republican contender to carry the codes of the U.S. nuclear football in his pocket is a man wearing a bird’s nest on his head. Speaking of Twitter, the nonagenarian Peres is the world’s oldest user. So much for the end of history! The new Saladin tarries, as does the messiah, and Beit El is still with us, only larger, ditto UNRWA, ditto Jalazoun, and the Arab-Israeli or Muslim-Jewish conflict keeps a new generation of iPhone-wielding journalists busy. Everything and nothing has changed and most of the changes were unforeseen, at least by me.
All was hidden in the future that night with Zohar.
“You know,” I said to him, “a couple of years ago I was in Beirut, and I heard somebody say force is the only thing the Arabs don’t understand.”
“Then what do you think we should do?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’ll never end. We’ve been sitting here eighteen years. We’ll be here another eighteen and another eighteen after that. I tell you, it’s a good thing we don’t have serious people against us.”
“Like those Vietnamese.”
“But they don’t give up, the Palestinians, do they?”
“That’s right. They know us, so it’ll never end. They know we’re fryers. Our sons and our sons’ sons will get old and go on reserve duty and do the same thing we’re doing. We’re nice to the Arabs, and not nice to ourselves. But it’s always been that way. Twenty, thirty years ago, the same thing. This has always been a land that devours its inhabitants.” Hebrew: Eretz okhelet yoshveiha, Numbers 13:32. “Don’t believe the stories you hear about the old days. It was the same thing then as now—the Jews yelling at each other, the crazy driving, everything. Nothing’s changed.”
“And the corruption?”
“It was worse! I remember how the Labor ward heelers used to come to us before elections with threats, and afterward with payoffs.”
“What about in the army? What about in elite units? Did soldiers used to steal from each other? Did they screw each other back then too?”
“The army?” I couldn’t make out Zohar’s expression, but he sounded honestly upset at the idea. “Never! Steal from a buddy? Screw him? Never! And none of my sons’ buddies in the paratroops steal from or screw each other, either.”
“Take my word for it.” He touched my arm with his cigarette hand. “What you’ve got to understand is that all kinds of guys are in the army now, I mean in units like ours, who didn’t used to be drafted even. Don’t mix up our unit with the paratroops. Take Shmulik—that guy’s not right in the head. He’s been in jail for drugs.”
“I didn’t know.”
The dog in Jalazoun or Beit El had gone quiet and the crickets had resumed their Muzak.
“It was Raful’s decision.” Rafael Eitan, former chief of staff. “Raful said, ‘Let’s take these cases into the army, give them some self-respect instead of hanging around the streets.’ That’s Raful’s policy, and he may be right. He is right. You have to be patient with a guy like Shmulik, with all his yelling and his dirty mouth.”
“Shmulik,” I heard myself complain, “isn’t the only one who yells.”
“True. We all yell. I yell. It’s always been this way, in the army and in civilian life—we’ve always yelled at each other, we’ve always fought with each other, we’ve always driven on the roads like we wanted to kill each other. But don’t get the wrong idea, Edward. Take me and Sergeant Yossi. We’re always yelling at each other, always fighting, right? It’s like we’re enemies. Well, I can tell you, if there was a terrorist attack, or a real war, we’d be shoulder to shoulder, fighting like two lions. He could count on me to the end and I could count on him. Believe me.”
I looked up at the glorious, vast, utterly indifferent planetarium show. How negligible the Jews and the non-Jews and their doings! But also how foolish to really believe that it was so. There was still an hour or so before the Jalazoun muezzin’s pre-dawn summons to the faithful. And now twin cones of yellow—the lights of a command car approaching—swept the highway between Beit El and the camp. We half-dozen soldiers of the IDF were being delivered sandwiches and a jerrycan of steaming, over-sugared tea to scald the palate.
“See?” asked my comrade. “Time goes fast when we talk.”