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Among the Israelis

From the outside, to newspaper readers, Israel may seem a country awaiting its doom. So going to Jerusalem over Christmas and the New Year for a few weeks, I half expected that I would find Israelis paralyzed, as the French were in 1939, anticipating their destruction. Having got there, however, I quickly realized that although their mood has become extremely serious, the Israelis are in no panic.

In fact what strikes one about Israel is how very much it is a going society: so active indeed that it gives one the impression of a country growing and thrusting upward. The forces which might intercept this growth are certainly present in the minds of the Israelis but practical concerns absorb them. Israelis seem to function on two timetables: one based on the practicalities of day-to-day living and planning, over which they have control; the other of contingencies threatening from the countries that surround them and, beyond those, of the much wider world of America, Russia, and Europe.

But the second of these timetables is not allowed to inhibit the first. The anxiety I heard several people express while I was there was not that they might be destroyed but that they were living in a situation which split their consciousness into two halves, of which one was absorbed in the continued and undeterred construction of the Israeli state and the other in things beyond their control which nevertheless had to be taken into account. An English teacher at the Hebrew University asked me not “Do you think we are in danger?” but “Do you think we are getting paranoid?” I asked her what she meant: “Well sometimes we have the impression that all our friends all over the world have forsaken us. Is this true? Or is it our paranoia?”

Doubts of this kind I heard repeated quite often. Israelis worry a bit about themselves, but this does not result in defeatism. I agree with I.F. Stone that the mood of Israel would be, in extremis, not that of Masada or, indeed, of the Holocaust but of Samson pulling down the pillars of the temple. This mood is based on determination that whatever happens, two things remain constant: Israel exists, and there will be no repetition of the Holocaust.

The mood then, however grave, is one of carrying on as though this nation’s future were assured. Frequently those responsible for planning the future—whether for rebuilding the old Jewish city of Jerusalem or for the University of Tel Aviv—said to me, “We are going to do this in seven, that in ten, years.” Israel continues to inspire confidence. A Jerusalem taxi driver said to me, “It would be a beautiful place except for the wars”—as one might say that London would be lovely except for the weather. Israel is in fact as little as possible like France or any other European country, unless perhaps Great Britain, in 1939. For like Great Britain then, it combines the sense of an indestructible destiny with a readiness to meet whatever happens.

Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem, more than anyone else in Israel seems to embody, at their best and most energetic, the characteristics of Israelis I met who were in responsible positions. He is at once a public man and intensely personal. No wonder that Auden put him in a short list of three politicians whom he liked to be with. Blue-eyed and fair-haired, of flourishing open all appearance without being in the least florid, he has the smile of someone who really appreciates things. It is obvious that everything he says comes out of his real feelings. He can tease and be teased, and he works without stopping—though he told me that his real work is done between six and nine AM; the rest of the day is spent in getting around and encouraging whoever needs encouragement.

Kollek was anxious to put on show for me everything he is doing for Jerusalem. Nothing in fact gives one more the feeling of the upward movement than Jerusalem with its high-rise buildings, its suburban developments, its gardens in process of construction, its newly opened Islamic museum, its scattered children’s playgrounds, and its archaeological excavations. These expressions of vitality are also sensitive areas of criticism, and Teddy Kollek is well aware of this. He admits that some of the high-rise buildings are a mistake, but defends others. The point surely is that, given the problems of population and of tourism which exist in every part of the world, town planning is a euphemistic name for juggling with stone and steel and concrete as best one can to satisfy inescapable needs. Jumbo jets fly in with a load of tourists who spring up into the sky through the twenty stories of a Hilton hotel.

Jerusalem copes with necessity with a more agonized conscience and less hideously than Paris, Rome, or London. The Old City remains untouched. The old Jewish quarter is being reconstructed in ways that retain its character. When we discussed the building going on in Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek had a way of bundling us into his car and taking us to the sites, explaining en route that Jerusalem is the only city in the world where, in addition to putting up new buildings, they are opening up spaces within the city itself to make gardens and vistas. We drove past a part of the Old City wall where, as he explained, two buildings had been torn down to reveal a most beautiful part of it. They have also discovered that the surround of most of the wall is silted up by the accumulated rubbish of generations. They intend to clear this away to reveal the wall in its complete height and down to its foundations.

“What city of comparable size in the world has 60,000 acres of public gardens?” Teddy Kollek asked proudly. He took us on a little tour to show the effects of floodlighting on the walls and on chosen buildings, including the Russian monastery where a Russian princess, descended from the Romanovs, and now ninety-two years old, is a nun. He said because there is practically no night life in Jerusalem, he decided to floodlight the city—and thus provide some pleasure for the eye. We drove past a place which, he says, “almost proved my undoing.” Why?” I asked. “Because, against the wishes of my council, I allowed a memorial to be put up here for the Arab dead in the Arab-Israeli wars. Speeches and articles appeared asking where in England there was a memorial to the German dead.” Isaiah Berlin, who was in the car with us, said that a memorial to German as well as British members of New College who died in World War I had been put up at Oxford. Kollek said he regretted he had not known this. He drove on a bit further, then stopped the car at the edge of a gully. Almost immediately below us was the old first-century Jewish cemetery with Absalom’s tomb—a dazzling white miniature pyramid—and, to the left of it, another, cone-shaped, white tomb. These seemed cut out of the deep perpendicular darkness below us. Above, there was the Russian monastery.

The new buildings in Jerusalem may sometimes be ugly, but it cannot be said that good will, ingenuity, and imagination are lacking in the work of planning and construction. I visited a slum where, since there was not enough money to tear it down and build less cramped new houses, the city had permitted the owners to add rooms onto their homes wherever possible. One sees rooms added on and supported below by concrete pillars. In the same slum, in gaps between blocks of houses, miniature public gardens had been made, with gaily painted swings, slides, wooden horses, merry-go-rounds—toys for the children. Since there is so much overcrowding here everything has been done to make spaces away from home, outdoors, or in the form of libraries, in which the children can get away from their crowded homes and play and study elsewhere. The outdoors is their playroom, the library their study.

I was told that since 1967, with the annexation of the Old City, the Arab population of the unified Jerusalem has risen to 80,000 as against 230,000 Jews. Yet despite occasional acts of terrorism, Jerusalem is a much more peaceable city today than Belfast, and it seems remarkably free from fear. However, good will is undercut, of course, by the fact that the Arabs of the Old City are, and feel that they are, under occupation. Their loyalties are to Jordan or to the idea of a Palestinian state. It makes no difference to them that within the context of occupation they are more prosperous than they were under the Jordanians.

A young man who drove me around Jerusalem said the Arabs have their own schools, and they are free to study for entrance to Arab universities abroad unless they wish to work according to the Israeli educational programs in Arab villages, where, in addition to studying the Koran, they study Hebrew. There are Arabs studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Nevertheless most Arab students prefer to go to the universities at Alexandria or Beirut. On the other hand, the number of Jewish students studying Arabic has increased.

The lithe and nervous young man who supplied me with this information stated the Israeli attitude brashly. “We don’t try to force the Jews and Arabs to be good neighbors,” he said. “If they come to be, this will happen naturally. But they should not be forced to live together. The fact is,” he added with growing excitement, “Arabs and Jews don’t like one another. So we say to them ‘OK, you don’t like us, then we won’t make you. You don’t want to study at the Hebrew University but at Alexandria, or Beirut. OK, you do it. OK, we aim at tolerance, coexistence, peace, but OK, we agree not to like one another.”‘ There were too many OKs for comfort. Like other Israelis I met he talked of these aims but scarcely touched on the painful subject of the cautious censorship that exists in Israel—it is officially justified by the continual war situation—and that affects mostly the Arab press, next the English, and least of all the Hebrew press.

The effort to build bridges between Semites is pursued by liberals. Mayor Kollek took us on Christmas Eve to an Arab-Israeli luncheon, given by the mayor of Bethlehem. Despite the fuss of security checks as we entered and left the Bethlehem municipality, this was a coolly cordial occasion. It was very much in the American style (I was disappointed not to be eating kebash and rice), with the two hundred or so guests standing around drinking whisky or soft drinks for twenty minutes, then seated at many tables to be served chicken dinner followed by a honey cake, which seemed the only concession to the Orient. My neighbor, Joshua Palmon, a blue-eyed, fair-haired, stockily built man, formerly an assistant of Teddy Kollek and an expert on Arab affairs, told me that until three years ago this get-together had been a real Arabian feast, with the cooking done by rival Arab families whose women competed to produce the most succulent strips of roast lamb.

Two days later, I asked Joshua Palmon to talk to me about Arab-Israeli relations. The situation, as he described it, is essentially the familiar one of an occupation in which the occupying power succeeds in improving conditions of the occupied, and even, as individuals, sometimes having good relations with them, but in which, nevertheless, the occupied wish for nothing except to regain their independence.

He said that most Palestinians would like to have an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank, while at the same time retaining their good relations across the Jordan. They would like to be independent: nevertheless they would like to retain the advantages of not having to have passports when going to Jordan. They did not want to feel isolated and unable to trade freely with their neighbors. Despite their wish to be independent of both Israel and Jordan something important had happened to the Arabs here since 1967. Sixty percent of all the resources of the people living on the West Bank come from Israel, either as the result of people working there, or of their trading with Israel in goods which the inhabitants sell in Transjordan or Amman.

Middle-class Arabs in Israel who previously ‘earned very little have the opportunity now to earn six or seven times as much. This is not true of the capitalists and big merchants who remain on much the same level as before and who have therefore lost a certain amount of prestige and position. In short, social changes toward more equality have taken place among the Arabs. The most important of these have been among young people and women working in Israeli industries. Formerly they were completely under the control of older men. Now they know that the police will protect their rights to work. If a brother tries to take his sister away from her job and back to the family, she can appeal to a policeman who will defend her right to work. Arab women are beginning to experience freedom.

Thus the wish of the Palestinians for independence is qualified by their interest in maintaining a relationship with Israel that will enable them to work there, and to enjoy the advantages of having access to the ports of Haifa and Ashdod, and to Israeli hospitals, schools, and social services. They want the kind of independence which would, in different circumstances, go with their having a Palestinian premier, but not with their having relations with Israel and Jordan which would be those between hostile countries. They want to be independent of Jordan because when they were under Jordanian rule the Jordanians discriminated against the Palestinians.

As things are, the dilemma of the Palestinians is that it is difficult for them to trust King Hussein, after his killing of several thousand of them during the revolt of September, 1967. And it is difficult for them to have good relations with Israel, if this means their approving the borders of 1967. But, on the Israeli side, it is impossible for the Israelis to accept the idea of a Palestinian state so long as the PLO remains a terrorist organization which refuses to recognize the existence of Israel and is, indeed, dedicated to the idea of its destruction.

I think that so long as the Israelis are in the position of being an occupying power, the Arabs in the territories occupied by them will surely become increasingly nationalistic. This is the lesson of all “occupations” in the twentieth century, not least that of the British in Palestine. On the other hand, from the Israeli point of view, the risks involved in occupying territories seem better than those of having those territories turned into armed enemy camps on Israel’s borders. Moreover, the question arises—with whom will the Israelis really be having to deal in a Palestinian state if there is one? A good many Israelis I talked to seemed to feel fairly confident that they could deal with the Arabs whose lands they now occupy if these were to be the inhabitants of the new Palestinian state. But should the refugees in the camps in Lebanon and Syria be counted as Palestinians as much as the people living on the West Bank? And beyond these displaced persons there is the PLO, and beyond the PLO other and more extreme terrorist organizations.

Mr. Palmon was doubtful whether the refugees in Lebanon and Syria would rush to be gathered into a new Palestinian state. He remarked that for the Arabs the attraction of the family is even stronger than that of the nation. The family is identified with the places where its members live together. For this reason, he believed, many refugees would not want to leave the camps where the members of the family are united.

I asked him what he thought was the solution of the Palestinian problem. He said there were two solutions. One had to be attempted immediately. An agreement must be reached which provided security for Israel and hope for the Palestinians. But to agree to the idea of a Palestinian state is not the same thing as agreeing to have such a state run by terrorist organizations. The other solution—a long-term one if the first could not work—was to encourage certain developments. King Hussein must withdraw from his position of absolutism and gradually become a constitutional monarch. He has to become more democratic. Also a solution has to be found for the refugees who have no citizenship, and who are living in the Lebanon and Syrian camps.

He mentioned something else which worries Israelis today. This is that the evident fear of the Western world of having its oil resources cut off and having to reduce its standard of living is encouraging in some Arabs the dream of returning to the period of their past historic glory. The applause with which Arafat was received when he made his appearance at the United Nations immensely encouraged such thoughts in the Arab world, especially among the Palestinians. The Arabs, he added, don’t hate the Israelis so much because they are Jews as they despise them because they are not Moslems. The rest of the world is mistaken in thinking that the Arabs are simply motivated by economic interests. What they really want is for others to admit the superiority of the Moslem faith. The Arabs can tolerate Christians and Jews in their lands, provided they admit their inferiority to Moslems.

Israelis become perhaps fascinated by the dreams of their neighbors. The Arab dream, as some Israelis I talked to described it, is oceanic or desert-like. Alien forces appear in its midst but are engulfed, as were the Crusaders. But sometimes the Arab dream undergoes sea-change and becomes a wry Jewish joke, as when an Israeli friend said to me, “Historically the Arabs have only made their peace with their enemies when they did so against a third force whom they then attacked jointly. Perhaps the Jews and Arabs should make peace by agreeing to combine Arab wealth from oil with Israeli skill at technology, and invade Europe. It would be the greatest thing since the Arab occupation of Spain.”

I remembered meeting the great French Arabist Louis Massignon in Paris in 1946 when I was working in UNESCO. I invited Massignon to give a lecture for UNESCO and had several conversations with him. His attitude toward the Arabs was that of one who believed—as E. M. Forster came to believe about the British and the Indians—that for a European personal relations with them had been made impossible by imperialism. He told me that the greatest friend of his life had been an Arab: this friend, on his death-bed, was tormented by the thought of the treachery to his people which was his friendship with Massignon.

I met people in Israel who also had Arab friends and were aware of personal relations being undercut by nationalist feelings. But most would probably think that the reasons for this were more to do with the Moslem faith than with imperialism. One of these was N., a lecturer in Arabic literature at the Hebrew University.

N. and his wife live in a pleasant though modest apartment, which with its simple furniture and one or two pictures is to my mind typical of the “Sabra” style of living, never far removed from that of the kibbutz. He is a fifth generation Sabra, he told me, and has no idea of ever living anywhere but in Israel. Dark-haired and pale-skinned with “chiseled” features, N. has the physical appearance which seems particular to the Jews in Israel and which I could not satisfactorily define. But as I write this, it strikes me that it is the look of people who, in their combination of physicality and intelligent sensibility, might appear as reapers in a poem of Keats—like “Ruth amid the alien corn.” N., with his fine features and curly hair, has a look of portraits of Keats himself.

N. told me that he had several close friends who were Arabs, but he had a darker and more pessimistic view of Palestinian attitudes toward coexistence than Palmon did. He told me he did not know a single Arab who accepted the idea of there being a sovereign Jewish state in this part of the world. He could illustrate this from his experiences (just as Palmon could draw on his own acquaintance with West Bank Arabs to show their desire for a state which carried on relations with Israel).

An American film producer who is also a professor at Harvard University had been sent to the Middle East to make a film for educational TV about Arab-Israeli relations. He had a team of technicians and plenty of funds for the purpose of photographing scenes illustrating the relations between them. One scene in the film consisted of a conversation between the deputy speaker of the Knesset and one of the most prominent Arab notables of the Old City, a spokesman for his people, who had once been a government official. The discussion proceeded in a cordial way and there seemed to be complete understanding on both sides. At the end of it the professor, who acted as chairman during this discussion, asked the Arab dignitary what he thought should be the relationship between Israel and her Arab neighbors. He answered, seriously and politely, “There isn’t a single Arab who recognizes the existence of the Jewish state.” The professor told N. that he would “edit” this part of the conversation out of the film, because such a conclusion was not consistent with his idea of the picture he wished to give of relations between Israelis and Arabs.

N. said that the attitude of enlightened Arabs to Israel was that they were prepared to tolerate Jews living in this part of the world and even to have good relations with them as individuals—but that they would not on any account accept the idea of Israel as a sovereign state. He thought that the view of some well-wishers that Israel could take its place in a democratic Middle East—one democracy among others—was utopian, because the Arabs did not share our concept of democracy. He cited a second anecdote to illustrate this.

At a meeting in East Jerusalem, he met a Christian Arab, a prominent journalist, with whom he had a friendly conversation, at the end of which the Christian Arab, after stating that his objections were not to the Jews but to the state of Israel, went on: “You and I understand each other perfectly. It is people like us who ought to be running this country. In my opinion, there are three types of Israelis: firstly, there are the Sabras, who have been established here for several generations, and who are accepted; secondly, there are the immigrants from the West; and thirdly, there are the Orientals. The first two should share with us the task of running the country; but the third lot, the Orientals, are the worst type of humanity. They are filthier than our fellaheen.” N. pointed out that his own attitude was the opposite of this: “Those people whom you describe as worse than the fellaheen are my people. I think that each society has its own task of improving the lot of the underprivileged in its own country.”

N. said he thought that the Middle East experts had been gravely wrong when they wrote that all the Arabs really wanted was for their “honor” to be satisfied. Honor was not the prime motivation in their opposition to Israel. True, they sometimes spoke of “honor” to the outside world; but to their own people they spoke of getting back their “rights.” “Their concept of ‘rights’ is very absolute. It does not recognize that the Jews have ‘rights’ as a community. They only have ‘rights’ to be tolerated as individuals and as a religious community.” The Arabs recognized the existence of the Jews as persons but not their national rights. National rights are, in their view, the rights of the Arab peoples to have no non-Arab states in the area. The Jews are a minority community who might be tolerated, as such: but for them to set themselves up as a sovereign state was presumption.

I asked N. how he felt about living in Israel surrounded by enemies armed on such a colossal scale. He replied: “I realize that there are threats of terrible weapons which may be used. All the same, I would not live anywhere else. I have been here all my life and I have always taken it for granted that this was my nation, just as much as other people take the nations in which they live for granted. Besides, we’ve built something here which is very precious. And another reason for being here is that this is the place where Hebrew is spoken and is a living language. If we were not here it would be a dead language which survives only in textbooks. There is the unique phenomenon here of a Jewish cultural unity—and that would go if Israel disappeared. There is a healthy core of Jews living here who did so even before the founding of the Jewish state.” For many Israelis, the case for the existence of Israel is really this simple.

N. went on: “All the same, I understand the Arab point of view. In the Islamic world, Jerusalem is just a provincial town. It was never a great capital for the Moslems. To them we are a pain in the neck which they would like to be rid of. But there is a type of Jew who has eliminated certain elements from the cultural heritage, such as the exclamation ‘Alaynu le-shabe’ah,’ meaning ‘We give praise to the lord of the universe for not having made us like the other nations of the earth!’ The thing I reproach even the most intelligent Arabs I know for is that they have not made a corresponding effort of renunciation. If only modern Arabs would eliminate from their consciousness that part of the Koran which prophesies that the Jews and others who are not of the Moslem faith are destined to humiliation and misery!”

I asked him, as I had asked Joshua Palmon, what future he would like to see for Israel. He replied: “I would like to see an Arab state existing alongside Israel, which had peaceful relations with us. But for this to happen we cannot have the appearance of being weak. Their culture does not permit their tolerating us unless they are forced to do so. Many Jews have accepted the fact that they will have to give up certain things. Arabs should also do so. When they accept the notion of national rights for Israel, there will be a basis for negotiation.”

The Arabists I talked to seemed agreed that Jews and Arabs come from entirely different and religiously and ideologically irreconcilable traditions. David Fahri, at the Ministry of Information, pointed out that this division was reflected in the world, where Jews and Arabs appealed to different and opposed attitudes. The world for which Israel has meaning, he said, is that with a Biblical background. That for which Islam has meaning has the Koran as background. The Bible meant nothing to it.

A Christian knows about Palestine and the Holy Land. He realizes that the Jews represent historically a nation and a religion whose center is the Old Testament. Lord Balfour, for example, in promulgating the idea of a Jewish national home, expressed the feelings of Christians whose background was the Bible, the Holy Land, and Israel. But for Moslems—or for Buddhists—Israel is a settlers’ colony. Jerusalem was never a capital under Islam. Nor was it under Persian, Greek, Roman, or Ottoman rule. But it was a capital for the Jews, as it was also for the Crusaders, and for Lord Allenby when he entered Jerusalem in triumph during the First World War.

David Fahri said: “Our problem is to tell the world that this is not another political power conflict like that of the invasion of Germany by Napoleon or of France by Hitler, in which one power was seeking to impose its power on another. It is the problem, rather, of the survival of a nation in its historic home which is also its center of tradition and the roots of its religion. What matters is the recognition by the world that Israel has the right to exist.”

I notice however that the writer Yoram Kaniuk, in an interview published in New Outlook (January, 1975), though perhaps contradicting himself, takes a slightly more complicated position. Early in the interview he says that he thinks the Arabs do not really want to coexist with Israel in the Middle East, though he adds that this is qualified by their “having to face reality.” Later however he says:

The Jews and the Arabs lived for hundreds and hundreds of years together—in the Arab countries and in Palestine; it was never good, it was always complicated, but still I think we can live together better than, say, the Jews and the Swedes or the Jews and the French…. We are a Semitic people and we are very similar in many ways, and if we can really commit our energy and resourcefulness to create a good society, a cultured society, I think it will work out—we can contribute a lot, they can contribute a lot.

Part of this confirms the views of Teddy Kollek and of David Fahri that the key to conciliation is to cooperate in small day-to-day practical actions. This is what David Fahri called “micro-politics,” the common ground of enlightened self-interest pursued through the “dialogue of action.” Concrete agreements about small matters are the answer to those “ritual positions” where it is impossible for the opposed sides to become reconciled with one another—about anything. He said that where face-to-face negotiation might prove impossible, nevertheless back-to-back action might work. For instance after 1967 if both sides had met to discuss a policy of opening the bridges across the Jordan this might not have worked. What did work was the policy adopted by the Israelis of simply opening them.

With all the bitter experience of occupations in Europe and India behind us, an Englishman might point out that under an occupation the word “cooperation” (or whatever other word you choose to employ) becomes immediately translated into the word “collaboration.” I feel that there will be no conciliation between Arabs and Jews so long as there is an occupation. But I understand Israeli misgivings about permitting the occupied territories to become independent, only to find that they are converted into hostile bases by opponents who are not necessarily the inhabitants of those territories.

If the Israelis today are—as the English teacher I met at Hebrew University suggested to me—“a bit paranoid,” this may be because they sometimes feel they cannot trust either their friends or their enemies. Their friends, as an extremely distinguished woman said to me, with tears standing in her eyes, have begun to look on Israel as members of a family look on a much respected relative who has a disgusting illness that makes them, almost as a result of their respect, wish not to visit him. The enemies who surround the Israelis have no record of reliability either in war or diplomacy. The danger for the Israelis is to postpone coming to terms through trusting no one except themselves at war. But in order to break out of the situation of being an occupying power they perhaps will have to take the risks involved in discovering grounds of comparative trust between themselves and the PLO.

I had a message from the poet Abba Kovner inviting me to visit him at Ein Haroresh, the Kibbutz near Tel Aviv where he and his wife live. Kovner’s son is a painter who works in New York at the studio of Philip Guston. With the news of the Yom Kippur war, he got onto an airplane, flew to Tel Aviv, joined his parachute battalion, took part in some of the worst fighting of the war, which was on the Golan Heights, and within a few days was back in New York resuming his studies.

Israelis of this kind are sensitive to every tremor which affects their country, but they do not tremble. Abba Kovner has lived in his actions and expresses in his poetry a decisive part of the modern history which led to the founding of the Jewish state. For Israel was the phoenix which arose from the ashes of the Holocaust. In his mid-twenties Kovner became leader of the Vilna ghetto resistance (the United Partisan Organization) after the Germans had occupied the city. He organized the smuggling of Jews through tunnels and sewers out of the city into the forests. The Holocaust is, I suppose, the central reality of his life. His wife, now a child psychologist and a woman who impresses one by her sympathy and gentleness, was also a partisan: one of a group who did such things as walk forty miles from their base to dynamite a bridge or blow up a railway line.

Abba Kovner writes a very unexpected kind of poetry: mysterious and seeming almost evanescent. It brushes the terrible events with which it is concerned as though with a butterfly’s wing. Who would know that the choice just hinted at in the following lines was that made by the Vilna partisans who heard the threat broadcast by the Nazis that unless they gave up one of their leaders (named in the broadcast), the ghetto together with all its inhabitants would be destroyed:

At the white pump handle
on the plateau spilled out
dawn after dawn I look for a space
with no barrier, return and climb
to another place to bleat to you in Morse code:
I wanted to choose.

Kovner gave his reasons for feeling optimistic. A war would be as much against the interests of the oil sheiks, who now have so much to lose, as against those of Israel. I quoted Leonard Woolf saying to me in 1938 that whenever there was an arms’ race, there was a war because it became impossible not to realize this expensive investment. He replied that since 1945 the tendency had been not to use weapons because it was now possible for each side totally to destroy the other. He mentioned then that someone had commiserated with Israel because he considered that there was the possibility of a new holocaust. “Whatever happens,” he said, “there won’t be another holocaust…” and this sums up an Israeli determination.

After meeting Abba Kovner I went to see the evidence of what the Holocaust signifies for Israelis, at the museum of the Yad va-Shem Memorial to its victims. Walking through the last rooms of this museum and seeing the photographs of mounds of human corpses piled up, the bodies thrust into the ovens, the herds of human cattle driven out of trucks onto platforms where those who would be sent immediately to the gas chambers were separated in one group from those from whom a little toil in the service of the Nazi war machine might be extracted before they too were killed—it seemed extraordinary to me that one could even survive looking at these images—still more that one should have survived a period so dense with crime.

One can easily imagine having passed by in streets or met in trains or bars people who were exterminated (in fact I do know of some), but it is difficult to imagine having shaken hands with one of the mass murderers. One knows that if all restrictions are lifted from the conscious individual, the subconscious, with its fantasies, and without need of self-justification, will take over—there are cases like that of Charles Manson to demonstrate this—but such total destruction seems beyond even the realm of savage fantasy. It exists in some further reach of the human mind where all is pure abstraction. A phrase like “the final solution” becomes a destructive force unclogged by the slower rituals of cruelty.

I attended a ceremony in part of the building called the Hall of Remembrance, which is a large oblong chamber with walls formed of irregularly shaped boulders and a great bare expanse of dark gray mosaic floor into which the names of the concentration camps are inlaid in bronze lettering at intervals: BELSEN, THERESIEN-STADT, DACHAU, etc. At one side of this hall there is an “eternal” flame spurting from a place below the floor level in which there are the ashes of concentration camp victims.

The ceremony was in honor of a woman (from Brussels or Prague, I forget which) who had helped Jews escape during the war. It was preceded by a rabbi singing a traditional song of commemoration of the dead. This intense rapt lament seemed to come out of the heart of the earliest days of the Jewish people, but in its primitive strength it might equally have been composed yesterday. The woman, weeping so profusely that she had to remove her dark glasses to wipe away her tears, was led across the hall, accompanied by her husband and two other women. The man was dressed in a dark suit and the women in modest black dresses. Carrying their leather bags, they looked like ordinary shoppers strangely displaced here where they ought to have looked extraordinary, and one had a momentary appreciation of the disguise of their bourgeois ordinariness which doubtless helped them so much in hiding escaping Jews in murky apartments with heavy cupboards and dark corridors. After this ceremony a tree was planted along an avenue where each tree commemorates the actions of someone who had helped the Jews.

It might be asked whether the Israelis are wise in insisting so much on the horrors of the Holocaust. This is perhaps too much a modern version of the wailing wall. Yet I think they are right, for the simple reason that the state of Israel is founded as much on these modern ashes as on its Biblical past. The Holocaust is the negative pole of the positive energy which is the modern nation. It represents too the debt, in destroyed human lives, of the outside world to the Jewish state. And it represents the history that the state of Israel exists to prove will never be repeated.