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?”
“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!”
But after I have uttered half a sentence the rumblings in the hearts of my listeners overpower them and they tear into me at great speed, with great emotion, and, at certain moments, with fury. In the midst of the molten anger spilling over me, they never cease, through the ring of the assembled throng, to serve me coffee and Coca-Cola, to light my cigarettes, offering another cigarette before I have finished the one in my hand. They apologize for the tumult even as they add to it.
There is no way to reconstruct the discussion exactly as each person spoke. I take notes of what I have managed to absorb as though it were all said in chorus. This surely does injustice, since different people said different things, or said similar things in different tones. But it is impossible to reconstruct it all. Perhaps the following excerpts are, to some degree, the voice of the mass, the outpouring of hearts in turmoil. What good are the kibbutzim? What good is the Histadrut? And television? Why did Shimon Peres have to go to America to put ideas into Reagan’s head against Israel? (At this point I try to insert a correction and am immediately cut off by a bellow of a trampled sense of justice: “What about the telephones in Israel when Peres was minister of communications? How were they then?” I defer.)
The chorus grows: the justice of the war in Lebanon. Eli Geva [the Israeli colonel who resigned his command during the Lebanon war]. Mapam. Sharon-who-beat-the-Egyptians-at-a-time-when-Dayan-fell-apart. Propaganda for the PLO. Yitzhak Navon should stay president for the rest of his life; you tell him—if he comes out against Begin, Begin will smash him. Tell him it’d be a shame if he got his hands dirty. And why do they talk about Begin on television as if he were Qaddafi—what is this? It brings shame on the country. And suddenly, from the back of the crowd, “You whites.”
And afterward there is a tumble of horror stories about what happened here in Bet Shemesh when the Alignment was in power: how the factories fired anyone who didn’t have a party membership card. How they slandered. How the local council kept salaried goon squads. And someone suddenly remembers, “Goon squads, that’s an Alignment invention from back in the days of Almogi and the Workers’ Brigades.” And who invented violence, anyway? “You and us.” Now they all address me as the plural “you.” And a lean man with fiery eyes shouts, “My parents came from North Africa; all right, from Morocco. So what? They had their dignity, didn’t they? Their own values? Their own faith? Me, I’m not a religious man. Travel on the Sabbath. But my parents—why did you make fun of their beliefs? Why did they have to be disinfected with Lysol at the Haifa port?”
And another man adds, in sadness beyond all anger, “The Mapainiks just wiped out everything that was imprinted on a person. As if it was all nonsense. And then they put what they wanted into him. From that ideology of theirs. Like we were some kind of dirt. Ben-Gurion himself called us the dust of the earth. That’s written in Bar-Zohar’s book about Ben-Gurion. But now that Begin’s here, believe me, my parents can stand up straight, with pride, and dignity. I’m not religious, either, but my parents are; they’re traditional, and Begin has respect for their beliefs. Your whole problem is that you don’t realize that Begin is prime minister. For you he’s garbage, not prime minister. Who ever heard of such a thing? You guys have been running crazy for five years now, and to hell with the country. What do you care, as long as you get back into power? Is that the way the opposition is supposed to act? Is it? To rat on us to the world? And throw dirt? To support the enemy? And ruin the army? To buy off Knesset members?
“Before every election, the kibbutzim show up here—Tzora and all the others—to ask for our votes. You go tell your friends: until they let us come to Kibbutz Tzora when we want, to swim in their pool and play tennis and go out with their daughters; until they accept the children of Bet Shemesh in their school, or bring their kids to school here instead of dragging them a hundred kilometers by bus to some white school; until they stop being so snooty, they’ve got nothing to look for here. We’re Begin.
“Look, if a guy like me shows up in your kibbutz, like you showed up in Bet Shemesh today, the secretary runs straight to the telephone to let the police know there’s a suspicious character wandering around. Tell me the truth: he’d call, wouldn’t he?
“And tell me something else: what would you guys say if, before the elections, a bus drove right into your kibbutz, full of riffraff from Bet Shemesh, and they scattered through the kibbutz, knocking on doors, canvassing to convince you to vote for Begin. God’s truth: what would you do? Wouldn’t you throw us out like a bunch of dogs?
“Really, think about this. When I was a little kid, my kindergarten teacher was white and her assistant was black. In training. In school, my teacher was Iraqi and the principal was Polish. On the construction site where I worked, my supervisor was some redhead from Solel Boneh [the Histadrut construction firm]. At the clinic the nurse is Egyptian and the doctor Ashkenazi. In the army, we Moroccans are the corporals and the officers are from the kibbutz. All my life I’ve been on the bottom and you’ve been on top.
“I’ll tell you what shame is: they gave us houses, they gave us the dirty work; they gave us education, and they took away our self-respect. What did they bring my parents to Israel for? I’ll tell you what for, but you won’t write this. You’ll think it’s just provocation. But wasn’t it to do your dirty work? You didn’t have Arabs then, so you needed our parents to do your cleaning and be your servants and your laborers. And policemen, too. You brought our parents to be your Arabs.
“But now I’m a supervisor. And he’s a contractor, self-employed. And that guy there has a transport business. Also self-employed. Small-scale—lives off the crumbs Solel Boneh leaves—but so what? If they give back the territories, the Arabs will stop coming to work, and then and there you’ll put us back into the dead-end jobs, like before. If for no other reason, we won’t let you give back those territories. Not to mention the rights we have from the Bible, or security. Look at my daughter: she works in a bank now, and every evening an Arab comes to clean the building. All you want is to dump her from the bank into some textile factory, or have her wash the floors instead of the Arab. The way my mother used to clean for you. That’s why we hate you here. As long as Begin’s in power, my daughter’s secure at the bank. If you guys come back, you’ll pull her down first thing.
“And we also hate you because you slander the country. And because of the mudslinging. Power to Begin? Sure, people still shout ‘Power to Begin.’ But to this day the real power is not in Begin’s hands. You’ve got the Histadrut and you’ve got the newspapers and the big money, and you’ve also got the radio and the TV. You’re still running the country.
“But you know what? We’ve brought Begin down on you and now you’re in for it. For a long, long time.
“Explain to me what you’ve had against Begin, anyway, all this time. He’s kept all his promises. He keeps his word. For thirty years Begin said that if he got into power, he’d bring peace. You shouted he was a demagogue, a big mouth, and all the rest, and now he gets into power and makes peace with Egypt. For thirty years he said that if he got into power, the country would flourish and there’d be no unemployment and no string-pulling. You shouted he was a demagogue, and now look at our affluence and our standard of living, and there’s no unemployment and everyone’s happy. Even the Arabs are happy. Have you been in Wadi Ara? In Umm-al-Fahm? Have you seen those villas? All of it is from Begin. Did he say he’d blow up the Iraqi reactor? Did he say there’d be no more katyushas in the Galilee? Did he say he’d finish off the Syrian missiles? Did he say there’d be massive settlement in the West Bank? Did he say we wouldn’t grovel to the Americans? He said it and he did it. That’s Begin.
“Tell me, is it true what they say? That Shimon Peres’s son was a pilot in the raid on the Iraqi reactor? More power to him. But that father of his—if he was in power, he’d sell his son to the Arabs. He’d sell his own mother.
“Just like Begin brought us peace with Egypt, he’ll bring us peace with all of them. In spite of the disgraceful way you behave toward him and the country. Maybe he’ll even let them have something in the West Bank. But he knows how to bargain. Starts high, not like Peres and Yossi Sarid, who call the Arabs, right from the start, to come and get it, for God’s sake. End-of-season sale—for free. Begin bargains with them. He’s in no hurry, Begin.
“So why don’t you give him a break, for the good of the country? What’d he ever do to you? Did he touch the Histadrut, or the kibbutzim? Did he? Just wiped out your debts. Haven’t you got it good under Begin? Are you going hungry? Did he take revenge? No, just the opposite! He forgave you! For thirty years you treated him like a dog. Not one of his people ever got a government post. No opportunities. No memorial day for Etzel [Irgun] fighters. Nothing. You put him down and shut his mouth. Here in Bet Shemesh, when Begin came to speak, the Labor Council would cut off the electricity in the auditorium—let him speak in the dark like a dog. So what did he do? Did he run off to America to badmouth you? Did he incite the soldiers against the country? Exactly the opposite: suffered in silence, just like we suffered you in silence.
“And when Begin came to power, look what happened. First thing, he puts Ben-Gurion on the five-hundred-lira note. Second thing, he issues a stamp of Golda. He forgave everything that everyone did to him. He didn’t fire the Mapainiks. He didn’t shut down the kibbutzim. He didn’t throw your officers out of the army. He didn’t pay you back ‘an eye for an eye’ or settle accounts with you. Why? I’ll tell you why: love of Israel! Begin once spoke here in Bet Shemesh, and he said something beautiful. From his mouth to God’s ear. He said that the Temple was destroyed because of groundless hatred and will be rebuilt because of groundless love. Those are Begin’s very words. Groundless love—that’s Begin’s attitude toward you. Groundless hatred—that’s your attitude toward Begin. Didn’t he get down on his knees to plead with you to come into a national-unity government with him? Down on his knees, or not? He probably would have made Rabin minister of Defense. He would even have sent Shimon Peres as ambassador to America: let him go undermine the Americans, if that’s his specialty. Even without a national-unity government Begin took in any Mapainik who showed up. He doesn’t quibble much over position.
“Violence? Who invented violence? Believe me, if the Oriental jews hadn’t come here, the Ashkenazim would have continued to slaughter each other just like they did before the Oriental Jews came! What? They didn’t slaughter each other in the kibbutzim because of Russia? Didn’t they hand over the Etzel people to the British? Didn’t the Communists come to blows with the religious? We brought the violence? Us?
“Take a look at Bet Shemesh. A good look. We’ve been in power for five years already, and look for yourself at Bet Shemesh and look at your kibbutz. Well, did he take your cows and hand them over to us? Did he take your lands? Half the land in this country belongs to you, and the other half you want to give back to the Arabs! And what about your swimming pool—did he take that from you? No, no—he left you all of it. Forgave you, deferred to you. But we haven’t forgiven you yet: it says in the Bible that whoever doesn’t stand on his dignity has no dignity. I’d forgive you for everything—everything except the loss of my dignity, and my parents’ dignity, and my community’s dignity.
“And in what other country in the world would Yossi Sarid wander around free during a war and make propaganda all day for the enemy? In Syria? Or Russia? Or America? Who ever heard of such a thing—that in the middle of a war people would stand up and say it’s not our war. Look what you did to this country during the Yom Kippur War. You almost destroyed it! What would happen if Begin were like you? Would he call upon the soldiers to resist, God forbid? Would he go running abroad to make propaganda for the enemy? Put ideas into the Americans’ heads of how to screw our country?…
“You—you don’t have any pride in your country. Only in yourselves, only in your kibbutzim and that Peace Now group. Running all over the world saying, ‘It’s them! This isn’t us. This filthy country is Begin’s, but us, we’re clean!’ Goody-goodies! Pure hearts! You want the world to think that Israel was once a beautiful, civilized country but now Begin and his niggers have taken over. That the gentiles should come here tomorrow, today, to help you take the country back into your own hands!
“When you were on top, you hid us away in holes, in moshavim and in development towns, so the tourists wouldn’t see us; so we wouldn’t stain your image; so they’d think this was a white country. But that’s all over now, because now we’ve come out of our holes. You still haven’t figured out what hit you, have you? It’s your arrogance that’s hit you. As if you’d inherited this country from your father. What, the State of Israel comes from the papa of the Alignment? Not from the Bible? Not from our sweat? Not from our backbreaking work? Not from our blood? Who built this country? Siegel or Bouhbout? Ashkenazi or Sephardi? A hundred years ago—they said on TV—the Alignment people came from Russia, and the first thing those Labor Party people did was bring a bunch of Yemenites from Yemen to do their dirty work. Only after that they made up all those stories.
“See for yourself. Chaim Bar-Lev [the secretary general of the Labor Party] has a pin in his leg, and David Levy [the deputy prime minister] has a pin in his leg, because they both fell and broke a leg. Where did Chaim Bar-Lev, the so-called leader of the Workers’ Party, fall from? From his horse. Like some English lord. But David Levy fell from a third-story scaffold. That says it all. Think about it a little. You’re a television writer? Why don’t you write something about that?
“You guys, your time is past. Even after Begin you won’t make a comeback. You won’t make a comeback in another hundred years. We’re sick of you and your squabbles. Yes to the Palestinian state or no to the Palestinian state. Yes to Hussein or no to Hussein. To give back or not to give back, peace in Galilee or not, forty kilometers or no forty kilometers, yes on Beirut or no on Beirut. Anything goes, just to bring down Begin.
“So what if we take those territories and annex them to the State of Israel? Do they need territory? Don’t they have enough? They got all of Sinai, just like that, in exchange for peace. Hand on your heart—you know it—Golda would never have given them Sinai, like that, for free, just for peace. You want to give them Jerusalem, too? And then Bet Shemesh? You think only your kibbutz is worth fighting for—all the rest isn’t Israel? And what about the Arabs? Have they got it so bad with us? We don’t let them make a living? And provide free education? And development? We give them everything. If only you didn’t come along and put ideas into their heads, they’d sit quietly and say thanks instead of throwing stones. But they see those demonstrations the Alignment and Peace Now hold for their sake—you want them to sit still? Are you crazy? You think the Arabs want a state in the West Bank? They want to eat us up alive—that’s what they want. And Shimon Peres is willing to sell them the whole country, just as long as he gets back into power. The guy’s sick. You’re all sick. The sickest ones are those writers and the left-wing professors and the television reporters and Peace Now. Sick in the head. Look at the Arabs, just look! Do they have anything like Peace Now? When everybody was fighting the Germans, did they have any Peace Now? When the French were fighting, did they have any Peace Now?
“You listen carefully. I’ll tell you something, and you write it down word for word. You want to know what Peace Now really is? Begin is Peace Now. Wiped out the PLO. Clobbered the Syrians and put them on the sidelines for ten years. Before that he hit the Iraqis in their reactor. And he had the brains to take the Egyptians out of the game. From now on there’s going to be Peace Now, with a treaty or without a treaty. Now is when Peace Now is going to start. You’ll see—after they stick in a couple hundred more settlements, there’ll be quiet in the West Bank, too. If you didn’t stir up trouble all the time, the Arabs would be lining up to sign, one by one, with Begin. They’d give up on the territories; yes, these, too; what do they need them for? And they’d realize it was time to forget it. Like Sadat. Maybe Begin would leave them something, so they could save face. For Arabs, honor is everything. But when they see us like this, divided, and you always on their side, they think they can get at us from the inside and finish us off that way.
“What’s justice, anyway? There’s ten, maybe twenty million Jews in the world. Don’t they deserve a country hardly a quarter of the size of Syria? Don’t the Arabs have enough countries? Let the Palestinians go live in our houses in Morocco. Believe me, better than those shacks of theirs. Isn’t that fair? My parents had a house in Casablanca, three stories high, all marble; let the Arabs from here go over there. Anyone who wants to. And anyone who wants to stay can stay. More power to them. Let them pay taxes, and work, and not throw stones. That’s fair. They have complaints? Let them talk. But why should you talk for them? Putting words into their mouths. God, you love the Arabs as much as you hate the Oriental Jews. If all the left-wingers would fight for Oriental Jews 5 percent as much as they fight for the Arabs’ rights, we wouldn’t have any of these problems.
“A. B. Yehoshua is a friend of yours, isn’t he? Look how he fights like a bull for justice for the Arabs and, at the same time, calls for civil war against us. And he wrote in a book that we’re insane. He’s sane? Tell me. Shh…gang, don’t say he should be hanged. We don’t have to hang any Jew, even if he’s a little crazy. A Jew is a Jew. He probably had personal problems. There’s no other explanation. Like Yossi Sarid—probably because of a personal problem. Maybe something happened to him in the Holocaust. And Eli Geva. He must have personal problems; otherwise he wouldn’t dump his soldiers like that and run.
“Even so, if some Moroccan corporal suddenly goes off the beam and runs wild, everyone says, Yes, well, he’s deprived, he’s a loser, and they stick him in the cooler for ninety days. Or in the nut house. But Eli Geva they made into a national hero, and even made him the head of some company—after what he did, a director.
“And who put him there? Chich! [Shlomo Lahat, the major of Tel Aviv.] From the Likud! Begin probably called him up: Listen, Chich, make him a director, take pity on his parents and his wife. So you can imagine what pity Begin has for you. Believe me, you ought to kiss his feet—he’s a saint. If he hadn’t told us to forgive you, I don’t know what would happen in this country, given how you exploited us and disgraced us for thirty years. You brought a million donkeys here to ride on, but they should live in the stables, far away from your houses. So our stink won’t reach your living room. That’s what you did. Sure, you gave us food and a roof over our heads—you do that much for a donkey—but far away from your children.
“Take a look at Bet Shemesh and take a look down there at Kibbutz Tzora. Their daughters fuck around with the volunteers; their sons smoke dope, steal cars, and come to Bet Shemesh to joy-ride at night; they disobey orders during war, spread dirt on the government and the army, marry Swedish girls and leave the country, but so what, they’re beautiful. They’re the Beautiful Land of Israel, and we’re gangsters. Hooligans. Riffraff. The Ugly Land of Israel.
“Why don’t you ask who dragged the Moroccans into prostitution and crime? Why don’t you ask who taught the kids, while they were still in transit camps, to make fun of their parents, to laugh at old people, to ridicule their religion and their leaders? Why don’t you ask, first of all, who taught Oriental Jews that money’s the most important thing in life? Why don’t you ask who invented theft and fraud? Who invented the stock market? But Tzora has its image and Bet Shemesh has its image, and that’s the fault of the reporters and all those left-wing writers, those mudslingers from the television, and the professors. That’s the way they painted the picture. Yaakov, give a holler in there to bring out some coffee and bourekas. I’ll pay. What’s the matter with you? You’re our guest here. Eat and drink in peace. Want a cigarette?
“I’ve never read what you wrote in your books. Why? Because you’d never put in a good word for us. We saw you on TV and in the elections. Believe me, we couldn’t get over your hatred. An author! What is this here? The Arabs are the good guys and we’re the bad guys?… And make you a criminal? It’s about time they put other reporters, other writers, in your place; people who’ve been down and out, who’ve suffered. Then I’ll read, too, even me. Me—write? You crazy? How could I write? You making fun of me, or what? Some old Polish guy’ll come along and write his memoirs of the Holocaust in Yiddish, and right away they correct all his mistakes, pretty it up, and put it in a book. But if I came along and brought them my memoirs, real-life stories, how they screwed us over and laughed at us, they’d tell me to get lost: This isn’t Hebrew; this guy’s got a filthy mouth—he’s bitter, this guy—he uses dirty words. If Dan Ben-Amos writes ‘Prick, Son of Prick, Up His Mother’s Cunt,’ they print every word in the newspaper and make a book out of it, and even put it on TV. But if I so much as open my mouth, they say: ‘You dirt, go wash out your mouth. Go learn something and afterward come back and talk.’
“I’ll bet you’ll write in your book or your newspaper that we’re animals. You’d never write what you heard in Bet Shemesh today. And if you did write it, they’d never print it in a book. That’s why there’s this hatred between brothers. Don’t ask me what to do, how to end this hatred. What am I, a professor? I’m one of the riffraff, a hooligan. Why do you ask a hooligan how to put an end to such hatred? You know better about everything—you must know better about this, too.
“I’ll tell you something about the hatred. But write it in good Hebrew. You want the hatred between us to end? First of all, come and apologize, properly. We have sinned, we are guilty, we have dealt treacherously—that’s what you should say. That’s what you should say, looking us straight in the eyes at Bet Shemesh, and in front of Begin’s house. Hold another giant demonstration—four hundred thousand—in Kings of Israel Square—with posters saying ‘We’ve Sinned’ instead of ‘Begin and Sharon Are Murderers.’ Say you’re sorry for the thirty years when you were in power, and say you’re sorry for the five years you’ve been slinging mud at the opposition. After that—welcome. Please. Come into the government and we’ll work together. We’re not out for revenge. You’re Jews, too. But one thing: come without that arrogance of yours. If you leave that behind you, then we’ll talk.
“You won’t write even a quarter of what you heard here today. You’ll probably distort it; you’ll write that you were saved from hooligans’ blows by a miracle; you’ll write that we’re agitators. Go write whatever you want. Go spread dirt. It doesn’t matter anyway—your time has passed. Want more coffee? Doesn’t your hand hurt from writing? Please, speak up. Hey, gang, be quiet. Let him talk. Part of what people said here today, take it with a big grain of salt. They got excited. Not everybody in Bet Shemesh thinks the same way. Look, that guy over there didn’t open his mouth, but he’s Alignment, just like you. And that guy over there, too. Most of us are Begin. He’s our father. Your biggest fault, really the worst, is that you never gave Begin a chance. Right away you started screaming. Would you like a Coke? All this shouting hasn’t made you thirsty?”
These, and similar, and even stronger, were the words of Moshe and Shimon, Shalom and Avi, Jojo and Albert, Avram, the other Shimon, and many others. He who was once a laborer is now a superintendent or a supervisor. He who was once on salary is now self-employed. His son is a student. His daughter works in a bank. His brother is on vacation abroad. There is nothing to complain about. But, nevertheless, the fury flows and bursts out and hearts are embittered. One interrupts another, and yet another’s voice deafens the words of someone else. The recurrent phrases are “hand on your heart” and “write it down, write it down.” All of this on a Monday afternoon, and then into the evening, to late at night, around the table of a café in the central square of Bet Shemesh, which was once a transit camp, a place of poverty, and is now a small city, not ugly, in the midst of beautiful mountainscapes. What I said, when silence was declared in my honor and my responses were sought, does not appear here—my opinions are known. And what I have written of the things I heard from the people of Bet Shemesh is only a small part of what they said, because the discussion went on for five or six hours. What will become of us all, I do not know. If there is someone with an answer, he would do well to stand up and speak. And he’d better not tarry. The situation is not good.
—Translated from the Hebrew by Maurie Goldberg-Bartura
November 10, 1983