Notes from Jerusalem

In the late Thirties I used to read about travelers to Berlin and Moscow who reported that the streets were quiet, all was orderly, they saw no signs of terror. I thought at the time that they were lying, but of course I was wrong. In the streets of Berlin and Moscow things were indeed quiet: the terror was happening in the cellars and the camps.

Memories of those days came back this summer when my wife and I spent a month at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the elegant guest house of Jerusalem, where all was calm and pleasant. We knew that a few miles away dreadful things were happening: stones, tear gas, beatings, bullets. Our quiet seemed eerie, but it was quiet, and only an effort of the will brought the awareness that, in our small way, we were reenacting the frustrations and helplessness that have been the lot of millions in our century. I don’t mean that the Israeli repression of the Palestinians is on a scale with the events of Europe fifty years ago, but that the role of spectator to history, even the “engaged” spectator, remains intensely unsatisfying.

A short distance from Mishkenot a delegation of young American Jews, leaders in the campaign for Israeli bonds, was holding its meetings. The Jerusalem Post carried a picture of some of these amiable people, mostly women, putting on Israeli battle dress and smiling delightedly. Were they aware of the symbolism of such an act? of how it might strike at least some Israelis and most Palestinians?

The intifada (Arabic for uprising) is here to stay. For months Israeli officials have announced that soon things will be under control; but they are not. The intifada is more than the riots that TV no longer bothers to show or is prevented from showing; it consists of a sustained venture in nation-building during the course of a struggle for nationhood. The Palestinians have created for themselves an infrastructure of nationality—local committees, improvised schools, networks of information—that resembles the work of the Zionists under the British Mandate. I was told that Palestinian intellectuals—with what degree of irony I don’t know—refer to their leading figures as Ben-Gurion, Weizmann, etc. (And Sharon? And Kahane?) Clearly, the Palestinian strategists have carefully studied the history of triumphant Zionism; one might hope they would also emulate the liberal spirit that characterized the mainstream of the Zionist movement.

Can the intifada be destroyed? No. Suppressed? Yes, if Israel is willing to resort to the kinds of slaughter that Hussein used against the PLO and Assad against Syrian dissidents. But moral constraints still work within Israeli society, and especially, my dovish friends said, within the Israeli army command (though not necessarily in lower units—there much depends on who is in command of companies and other military units). Apart from moral constraints, the more intelligent of the hard-liners, I was told, fear the reaction abroad in case the suppression of the intifada takes on …

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