Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Miracle by the Shore, A Mirage in the Sand

A hand picks up the remote control and presses the start button to resume the film: the man whose leg was frozen in mid-air for several weeks begins to ascend the bus, and the line of people waiting patiently behind him starts moving forward. The bus fills up, the door closes, and the bus goes forward out of the parking lot. We have resumed our journey to Ashdod, exactly where we left off about four weeks and several essays ago. Heaven forbid that I should deliberately mislead anyone. Anyone who read the previous article “On the Horn of a Dilemma” (in which we described the valiant and successful campaign to repel the Egyptian army in 1948) would be under the impression that our tour group would be getting back on the bus and heading from this isolated spot under a bridge (the most northern advance by the Egyptians) up to Ashdod. In fact, to fit everything in we were supposed to see, we toured this modern city first and only then went to the site of the battle – and from there on to Negba, a kibbutz in the area which also played a pivotal role in the battle for independence and sovereignty. But a writer has no logistical constraints, and therefore in this imaginary film version, we can proceed chronologically through Jewish history, the securing of the State of Israel in 1948 preceding the establishment of the city in the 1950’s.
Like most of the people on our bus, I hadn’t given much thought to the goings-on in this sea-side community. I remember once a visiting rabbi from there coming to Beth Aaron, our shul in Teaneck, to raise money for an emergency medical center in Ashdod. I know that our lift arrived in the port there (we never had to go there to sign the required papers thanks to our man Ed Singer from Sonigo, who took care of everything in Jerusalem), and that’s about it. Barbara had been there – in 1968 – because it was the closest town to escape from Kvutzat Yavneh, where she was learning Ivrit and, among other things, picking olives. Back then, Ashdod was a sleepy, rather dull town of mostly Moroccans, (this being one of the settlement communities which Ben-Gurion used to dump the tens and hundreds of thousands of Sephardic refugees from North Africa) as well as a sizeable number of Jews from India. (Barbara relates the story of Miriam, a shy young woman from India, who surprisingly spoke no English. She was with a group of Ulpanists who were sitting in a small coffee shop in Ashdod. Within minutes, several dozen young Indian men “just happened” to arrive; each one making an immediate detour to come and talk to Miriam, who for the first time in her life was the star of the show. Barbara also relates a wonderful story about taking a taxi from the kibbutz to Ashdod. As they were nearing their destination, the driver noticed two men engaged in Israel’s national pastime, arguing. He slammed on the brakes and jumped out of his monit, just so he could join in the argument. Some things haven’t changed!) But, while many of the development towns which the Labor Party created remain just what they were, pockets of poverty and unemployment off-the-beaten path, Ashdod became a demographic Cinderella. The three reasons why: location, location, location. It is right on the Mediterranean, with the bluest waters you can ever imagine; it’s a natural port; it’s close enough to Tel Aviv and environs to make daily commuting realistic.
So when the tidal wave of aliyah from the then Soviet Union began in the 1980’s, this town became very popular. And then the French, who as a general rule tend to hang out near the Mediterranean, started to move in. Now, this dumpy town of maybe 40,000 has become the fifth largest city in Israel, a growing metropolis of over 200,000 Jews of all religious stripes (I understand that there are only several hundred Anglos scattered throughout the city; unfortunately, not currently a destination for American olim.) Our actual tour bus wended its way past the beaches, through the streets of the many sections of the city, (how many communities in the world have a street named after Johannes Brahms?) into the prosperous shopping areas with their glamorous stores, past all the new construction (only some of it for foreign investors). At one point, looking at the large pastel-colored buildings right off the ocean, I could imagine that I was back in Palm Beach County, Florida. You could almost hear a collection of hearts swelling with pride on our bus. The majority of us on this tiyul were expat Americans from the Jerusalem area who had either never been here before or were last here thirty years ago, and, as I said, had no idea what to expect. We were collectively overwhelmed with the standard of living in this metropolis beside the blue waters of the Mediterranean and its transformation from what had been essentially a large sand pile with a few thousand poor people. (Just so that you should know, there are problems here too: the port is officially closed on Shabbat, but among the many synagogues, there are a few clandestine churches for Russian back-sliders; the air quality is poor – just like New Jersey; a new hospital may or may not actually get built.)
It is very easy for a Jew, living in America, to retain an image of Israel as a still-poor country – after all, most of the representatives who are sent to the States to interact with the organized Jewish community are trying to raise money for a long list of worthy projects and unmet needs which can still be filled by the generosity of American donors. But to put things in their proper perspective, according to a study from 2007 (which you can find on the web), the rate of Jewish poverty in Israel is less than in the United States, where as many as 20% of all Jews fall into that category. The poverty rate here in The Land is estimated at about 25%, but half of that is from the non-Jewish part of the population. (Let me go on record as not being in favor of Arab poverty, but we are dealing there with difficult politically charged issues.) And then you toss into the mix that a H-U-G-E part of that remaining twelve or thirteen percent is made up of what I call the “willfully poor,” the planned poverty of our friends in the Haredi community, where officially more than half of the men do not work and where extremely large families are the norm. Do a little arithmetic, include in your calculations that there are large pockets of poverty in Jerusalem and in the still-isolated development towns, and you can understand that there are many places in the country – including a little bit east of Yerushalayim – where a lot of people are doing pretty well – by Israeli standards. And the more you travel throughout this tiny Land, the more you witness the economic miracle that is going on here.
But back to 1948 and the desperate defense of our borders, a time which seems so long ago and far away. As we were riding on the bus, our tour guide made one remark in passing (to be clear: it was the remark, not the bus that was doing the passing) which I have been thinking about ever since. There are no Arab villages in this part of the country, and that is because they were simply obliterated in the 1948 war. The Palmach command asked Ben-Gurion for permission to continue this campaign across the country to Hebron, but the request was denied. So while there are relatively few Arabs in the area around Tel Aviv (except for Jaffa), there are many left in the area around Jerusalem,. And here we arrive (intellectually, not on the bus) at another dilemma, one in which our Western, liberal heritage, which looks with abhorrence at ethnic cleansing, is emphatically at odds with our Torah tradition. “You shall possess the Land and you shall settle in it……. But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the Land before you, those who are left shall be pins in your eyes and a barrier in your sides, and they will harass you upon the Land in which you dwell. And it shall be that what I had meant to do to them, I shall do to you (from Bamidbar, “Numbers” chapter 33). Now it can be said that the Torah was discussing a situation in which the inhabitants of the Land were idol worshippers. It can be argued that the Arabs of today who encourage or countenance using children as suicide bombers and in general worship Death are practicing a form of avodah zara. Whether one accepts this line of reasoning or not, whether one understands the passage quoted above as a specific commandment applicable today – or not, there can be no question – except from the “none so blind as those who will not see” crowd – that it is some mighty good, prescient advice, a dead-on prediction of what has come to pass. How else can it be put? From the eighth century, when Islam conquered the Land and forbade Jews from owning land, so, that for the first time since the time of Joshua, Jews were no longer a majority there – until the present day, it is fairly obvious from their words and deeds that Arabs do not want Jews living in the Land in any significant numbers PERIOD – even though the descendents of Ishmael have done precious little with it except to place their domes and mosques on our holiest sites.
When the children of Israel entered The Land under Joshua’s leadership, the inhabitants were given a choice: “Stay, Leave or Fight.” Imagine how different things would be today, if we had told the Arabs in 1948: “You have to make a choice. You may live here in peace as residents of the state of Israel, and we will be a lot more obliging to you than you ever would have been to us. You may leave and take all your movable property with you, a nicety which has rarely been offered to us. Three, you may choose to fight us, in which case we will show you the same mercy or lack thereof as you would have shown us. Option four: there is no option four. Please return to the main menu and choose from options one to three. But you can’t hang up the phone until you have chosen one of them. In other words, it would be their issue, their problem, their choice, and their dilemma.
But consider how Chaim Weizman, a scientist and political leader of truly great intelligence and probity, (just like today’s leaders!) approached the issue. He had no illusions about whom he was dealing with. He wrote in his autobiography “Trial and Error,” “Conversations and negotiations with Arabs are not unlike chasing a mirage in the desert: full of promise and good to look at, but likely to lead you to death by thirst.” (Has anybody ever said it better?!!) Yet as he wrote on “the day following the historic decision of the United Nations,” in 1947, “I have spoken of the problem of our internal relations with our Arab minority; we must also face the arduous task of achieving understanding and co-operation with the Arabs of the Middle East.” Later in the same paragraph, he wrote about the “fear in the hearts of many Arabs” which “must be eliminated in every way.”
Do you see what he’s done, and by extension what the secular Zionist leadership, good socialists and humanists, did? Created Option Four: Never mind options one two and three; it’s not your problem, it’s our problem. You don’t have to live with us; we have to live with you. You don’t have to “understand” us; we need to “understand” you. And after doing your best to wipe us off the map and off the face of the earth, and when, by the grace of G-d and the valor of so many, you failed, and now you are afraid of us…… That too is our problem, as if a little fear might not be a good thing. It does wonders for focusing one’s mental energies.
I think I’m on to something, a dirty little secret which I’m willing to share: once you assume ownership of a problem, you assume the onus for finding the solution. And then, whether you like it or not, you will have also tacitly assumed responsibility for causing the problem in the first place. Perhaps this will explain why our leaders are chasing the “Palestinians,” begging them to take almost all of our Land, and why they are holding out for the whole kit and caboodle. In effect, the Arabs have wisely chosen equal parts of all three options. Millions of them have decided To Stay, while Fighting on their own terms, and at the same time, accusing us of making them Leave. Once you have a problem securely fastened inside your backpack, it is hard to dislodge it. But that is what we have to do, and return it to its rightful owner.

No comments: