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Insult and Fury

Amos Oz, translated from the Hebrew by Maurie Goldberg-Bartura

Toward the end of 1982 Mr. Oz visited the town of Bet Shemesh, some ten miles west of Jerusalem, to write the following report:

It was almost twenty years since I had been in Bet Shemesh. I remembered, from my last visit, rows of cheap apartment projects on the slope of a rocky hill. A few stone houses, a few cinderblock houses on concrete pillars, which the architect, who couldn’t stand the slope and wanted to build on level ground, had placed, tall and rootless, like ugly birds whose legs had been trapped in the stony ground.

I remembered water heaters on roofs, clotheslines, dusty, neglected yards, dry weeds, and many empty lots between the buildings. And gloomy workers, no longer young, with stubble on their faces and cigarette butts hanging out of their mouths. And women, stocky and overburdened. Perhaps there were reminders, here and there, of the jerrybuilt transit camp in which Bet Shemesh had its beginning. Now, on an autumn afternoon, I approached Bet Shemesh from the south and couldn’t find it. One enters, instead of Bet Shemesh, a small town, blindingly white, composed of gracefully proportioned houses built in the fashion of the popular contractors Gindy and Ganish. Gardens, flower beds, stone terraces with playgrounds of colorful plastic and metal Jungle Gyms. This is Givat Sharett.

Givat Sharett is neither a suburb nor an extension of Bet Shemesh. It is cut off from Bet Shemesh, on a neighboring hill, a kind of “back-yard Bet Shemesh,” as though the town planners had decided that the original idea had turned out to be irreparably flawed, and they would have to begin again from scratch. Next to every apartment building in Givat Sharett there is a parking lot. And scattered around the apartment buildings are private houses, most of them still under construction, and a billboard, “Ministry of Housing: Project Build-Your-Own-Home.” The houses are built in the vulgar, gaudy style of the Israeli nouveaux riches: split levels and turrets and parapets and rounded bays and little decorative nooks, wooden eaves and marble fronts, frequently pink. Those who have saved and gambled, deposited and invested, in time build themselves houses here. The streets are almost deserted. The gardens display various decorative objects—a rusty plow, a broken clay jar, a wagon hitch, a carved stone column stolen, no doubt, from some archaeological dig. A la Moshe Dayan, as interpreted by the new bourgeoisie.

Later, in the old Bet Shemesh, I will be told: “Oh, Givat Sharett—them—their bodies are here but their souls are in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They stay here until they can make enough money to move into the city. They don’t live here: they just come back here to sleep.”

But the old Bet Shemesh has changed greatly, too. Many of the meager houses built here in the Fifties by the Amidar Company have added floors, branched out, grown extensions; in some cases the original house has become a storeroom and been supplanted by a villa in the back yard. The yards have been fenced in. Here and there a garden has been nurtured in topsoil trucked from far away to cover this stony ground. The barracks-like face of Bet Shemesh has softened, and each building grows and evolves in accordance with the wishes and the income of its owners. Nonetheless, neglect is still rampant in the area of the apartment projects built, apparently, in the early 1960s. They are gray and peeling, their cinder blocks peeking from under the falling plaster: slums in every sense. The large distances between the buildings, planned by the architect, make the shabbiness more marked than it would be if the buildings were close together—a Mediterranean town, house touching house, the spaces of more human proportions. Were these neglected lots intended, in the planner’s imagination perhaps, to be vegetable gardens, small orchards, sheep pens, and chicken coops: a North African Nahalal on the rocky slopes of Judea? What did that town planner know or want to know about the lives, the customs, the heart’s desires of the immigrants who were settled here? Was he aware of, or partner to, the philosophy prevailing in the Fifties that we must change these people immediately—remake them completely—at all cost?

I wander around the commercial center at the top of the hill, which is a combination of one- and two-story shops arranged like a horseshoe around a paved square. I find a supermarket, a greengrocer, hardware stores, a photographer, a perfume shop, and branches of several banks. The banks are crowded with people, some in work clothes and some in jeans and open cotton tunics, or in flowered housedresses. Next to one of the banks a young woman wearing glasses stands reading, very carefully, the prospectus of a savings plan or an investment program. The square is full of voices, but the serenity of early evening drapes everything with a kind of mellowness. No one hurries. Mothers and their children. Groups of youngsters. A transistor radio plays—the winter session of the Knesset has just begun—but Begin and Peres are drowned out by rock music from another transistor.

I sit down at a café that has four or five tables outside, by the square. Young men drinking beer. Someone reading an afternoon newspaper. Several people discussing sports events. One turns to me and asks if I have come to look into “Project Build-Your-Own-Home.” Without waiting for my answer, he says, “What do you want to live in Bet Shemesh for? Forget it. This place is a dump and will always be a dump.”

Why a dump?

There’s nothing here: people work, eat, watch TV, go to sleep; that’s it. And on the Sabbath they chew sunflower seeds.”

Another man, a local patriot perhaps, differs: “And what do you think Tel Aviv is today? America? In Tel Aviv, everybody watches TV and goes to sleep, too. And, actually, what do they do in America today? TV and bed. The whole world’s like that these days. You from Nature Preservation?”

Why?

I just thought…you sort of look like that. I once worked for Nature Preservation.”

Someone else comments acidly, “One thing’s for sure: this here is an Alignment type.”

I ask if there aren’t any Alignment supporters in Bet Shemesh.

There are a few left—living on handouts from the Labor Party. And there are a lot in Givat Sharett. [The name Givat Sharett evokes an expression of disgust.] But most of us know exactly what Shimon Peres is, and we can tell those kibbutzniks by their faces.”

I try cautiously, “Is there such a thing as a Likud face, too?”

Now the table erupts, as five or six men talk at once, their faces distorted by hatred. One voice, of scathing ridicule, is heard over the rest.

A Likud face? Sure—black, a delinquent, Khomeini. A punk. Violent. That’s what Shimon Peres [he pronounces it “Peretz”] called us at his rally, before the elections. You must have heard. Saw they were heckling him a little and went crazy. He began to flip out deliberately, so they would heckle him some more and it would appear on TV, to scare the Ashkenazim so they’d run and vote for him and hooligans like us wouldn’t be on top.”

At this point, a young man with delicate features intervenes. Using logic, restraint, and moderation, he presents me with a question of principle. “Tell me, what’s your honest opinion of a guy who flips out because of a couple of pranksters shouting ‘Begin, Begin,’ and right then and there starts cursing out the audience? Can a guy like that be prime minister? That’s a leader? Can’t take the pressure. Breaks down right away. Almost began to cry. Believe me, the guy had tears in his eyes. And he started to call the audience names—Khomeinis, hooligans. How’s this guy going to stand up to the Arabs? How’s he going to stand up to the world? How?”

Another man, his head covered with a skullcap, adds emphasis to the question with a contrasting example: “Look at Begin in the Knesset. As soon as he starts to speak, they start shouting at him from the floor, worse than Bet Shemesh. Rakach [the New Communist Party] and the Arabs and Yossi Sarid [a dovish member of the Labor Alignment in the Knesset] and all those. And Begin stands there quietly, looking at them like a father, letting them spill it all out, then destroys them with one joke and continues talking. That’s the way a leader acts. This Peres is uptight. He’s got no guts. And he’s changed his mind maybe twenty times. They say, maybe you heard, that when Golda was alive Peres wanted to join the Likud but Begin wouldn’t have him. Maybe that’s where his hatred comes from.”

A man of about forty-five, fat and balding, approaches the table and bursts out angrily: “What are you talking to him for, anyway? Don’t you know who this is? Didn’t you see him on television?” There is a small embarrassed silence. Then, loudly, they begin to try to identify me: From the newspaper? From the Knesset? From the Communists? This isn’t Peace Now, is it? Are you a writer? Aren’t you from Kibbutz Hulda? Amos Kenan? Dan Ben-Amos? Oz? Sure, we recognize you. What did you come for? To write an article on Bet Shemesh? To make propaganda for the Alignment? And then to smear us?

Within a few minutes, about twenty young men have gathered around the table. They order a cold drink for me. They order coffee. They ask my word of honor that I will write the “truth.” That I won’t write at all. That I will sit in silence and listen to what troubles them. That I will tell my “friends among the writers and from television” what people in Bet Shemesh think. That I mustn’t think I have any idea what Bet Shemesh is really about.

Not one of them asks me to leave. On the contrary: “You should know that we don’t hold grudges. We won’t get even with you for what you said on TV against Begin and against the country.”

I promise to listen and to try to write everything down word for word. But it is impossible to separate what Albert says from what Moshe says, or Yaakov or Shimon or Jojo, or Avi or the other Shimon or Avram or Shlomo, because they all talk almost in chorus. Others come and gather around, until it resembles an outdoor parlor debate. My intention is only to ask questions and listen, but I am unable to keep to this: my silence is interpreted as insulting or patronizing. Every few minutes one of them, himself an orator from birth, silences the others and bellows, “Let the man talk! Let him answer. Shame on you! A fellow comes to see you, a literary fellow, a guest, so what do you jump on him like a bunch of animals for? Let him answer. Let him speak. What is this here, the Knesset or what? Hear him out, so he won’t write we’re a bunch of goons. Let him say his piece! Shows up like a man, doesn’t bring any bodyguards the way Abba Eban did, so lay off!”

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