Thursday, August 21, 2008

On the Horns of a Dilemma, Part 1

One of my guiding principles of life is that there is always a dilemma lurking around the corner, waiting to catch you on its horns. Some are serious issues; here’s one that’s only semi-important: using the dates in the Jewish calendar vs. secular dates. Sometimes it’s clear: my father’s yahrzeit is the ninth of Tevet; my mother’s the twenty fourth of Adar. I’ve long forgotten what the dates were in the Gregorian calendar. On the other hand, we celebrate our wedding anniversary on January 7; I’m sure the invitations indicated the Jewish date, but I don’t remember it offhand. Likewise, my (I should say “our”; I have a fraternal twin brother) birthday. This great event took place on March 16, 1941. Now in Europe, they used to note an approximate birthday, connecting it with a special Shabbat, new moon, or holiday. Our birthday roughly coincided with Purim. In fact, my mother was unable to attend a Purim activity in the Reform temple where my sister was in Hebrew school because she was in the middle of delivering us. So I know we were born on a Sunday. (Even more important in my family, my mother was unable to attend the annual dinner of the Noah Lodge, the Jewish fraternal organization in which my father was a member. When Barbara and I were going through my parents’ effects, we found, wound up like a scroll, a panoramic photograph, dated March 16, 1941, of hundreds of men and women seated at tables at this affair. All the way to the right is my father, seated with my mother’s sister Lil. In those days, delivering a baby – or two – was strictly a woman’s work. I should add parenthetically that no more than thirty years later, my father, in his capacity as an attorney, handled the papers formally dissolving this organization – which had existed and thrived since approximately 1840 – because there were only a dwindling number of members still alive.) So while I celebrate (or ignore) my birthday on its Gregorian date, I am also aware of my connection to Purim, the ultimate account of G-d’s hidden role in our history.
So the question was…………..regarding the anniversary of our making aliyah, should we celebrate on Tu B’Av (the fifteenth of Ave, a special joyous day after Tisha B’Av) when Barbara, Natania, Mimi the geriatric cat, and I took off from Kennedy airport, or on July 31, when the Nefesh B’Nefesh plane actually landed at Ben-Gurion airport. I think what we are going to do in the future is to finesse the issue by celebrating either, neither, or both. This year, Barbara wanted to go on a tiyul, which happened to take place on July 31, and so this is how we celebrated our aliyah anniversary, revisiting some of the events and accomplishments of the heroes, the builders, and the defenders of The Land which make it possible for us to enjoy a reasonably carefree life today. For example, the tiyul for which we had signed up dealt with the defense of the southern borders of Israel in 1948. It was sponsored by the OU Israel Center, the same folks who had organized the walking tour of Mazkeret Moshe and Ohel Moshe, the one in which we almost participated several weeks before! (See my previous post………..) When Barbara called Naomi at the OU Center, she was asked politely if she was still taking antibiotics!
The tour bus made a number of stops, some at places of lesser interest, some for what is known in the trade as “pit stops” – this being a group of middle aged people and older – and a few at places that I feel are of great interest. We toured the modern city of Ashdod, and visited a kibbutz called Negba, the only settlement in the area which withstood the Egyptian assault during the War of Independence, and examined the spot which was the most northern advance of the Egyptian army.
One thing that has been drilled into my sometimes-less-than-keen brain is that there were really two separate and distinct phases to the struggle for Jewish sovereignty in our ancestral Homeland. The first was perhaps less dramatic, but equally heartrending: the uprising of Arab villages after the vote in the United Nations in favor of the partition plan on November 29, 1947. It was during this first war that Jerusalem was besieged, a siege which was only broken during the second phase: the invasion of neighboring armies after the decision was made to declare the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, the day before the British mandate was set to expire (although the national holiday is usually celebrated on the 5th of Iyar).
Our American-born tour guide, Gideon Abromowitz, who himself served as an Israeli paratrooper in 1971 and who has been here ever since, provided us with a lot of background material, information that is often forgotten, but is chilling in its intensity. Most of us have only a dim recollection of what the 1947 UN Partition Plan entailed. I have the idea that whoever drew up this map had a wonderfully macabre sense of humor. Or perhaps he had seen the Marx Brothers movie in which Groucho and Chico are negotiating a contract. To forestall objections, they keep removing clause after clause until they are left with only the final clause, which Groucho explains is the “sanity clause.” Chico scoffs at this: “There ain’t no such thing as “Sanity Claus.” (If you don’t realize he’s making a reference to a character in a winter holiday which we here in The Land can ignore, the whole thing is pointless.)
The original Jewish state, as envisioned in the Balfour Declaration, was a thing of beauty; it even included Trans-Jordan. But over the years, it kept getting whittled away, until by 1947, only a sad vestige of a state remained. (You can see it for yourself, if you do a google search.) If we remember that Israel today is about the size of New Jersey, try to conceive of the following: take Bergen County and add to that a thin strip along the Hudson River which widens to include the Pine Barrens; also include Passaic County, but keep Bergen and Passaic Counties separate by excluding Paramus. The Jewish state envisioned by the humorists at the U.N. included the Golan and the eastern part of the Galil, close to but not touching the western part of the Galil which extended down along the coast to include Tel Aviv and farther south connected by a t-i-n-y sliver of land to an area which includes much of the Negev (although the American. State Department was advocating that this large and mostly uninhabited land mass be removed from the Jewish part). Jerusalem was to be smack dab in the middle of the Arab state (which nobody then called “Palestine”) and was to be an “international” city administered by the U.N. Some joke.
May I make an observation? (It’s my blog, after all!) The main difference between the Jewish and the Muslim psyche is simply this: In the Jewish world view, if something bad happens to us, somehow, collectively, we have done something wrong and we need to do tshuvah – although this does not make our enemies any less evil. I do not believe that our “cousins” have come close to this level of introspection. If one looks today at the map of the Partition Plan, it is obvious that this was not the basis for a viable Jewish state: three small areas, essentially separated from each other in a hostile environment. We could easily have wound up with most of the world’s Jewish population living in a temporary homeland in Alaska, as fantasized by Michael Chabon in his novel, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.” So when the Arabs call the establishment of our state “Al Nakba,” they somehow fail to internalize that the catastrophe they describe was self-inflicted. If they had done nothing but wait, the Arabs could conceivably have had it all; the fragmented Jewish state might well have collapsed. It certainly would not have been possible for that Israel to absorb so many Jews from around the world. So why did the Arabs start a war and then, inexplicably lose it?
At one point, Gideon told the bus driver to stop; our tour guide then got out and hurried down an embankment and waited for us under a bridge in the shade. (When I say a bridge, I’m really describing a trestle, something about fifty feet long that traverses a gully, nothing grandiose like The Bridge of Strings, an absurdly expensive bridge designed for the light rail in the middle of Jerusalem, a project as ill-conceived as The Big Dig in Boston.) Here on this non-descript spot, a little bit south of today’s Ashdod (not to be confused with a little bit east of Yerushalayim) was the northernmost advance of the Egyptian army. Gideon described with great emotion how three times, on consecutive days, the small band of Jewish soldiers ordered to hold the line attacked the Egyptian army; and three times they were defeated, suffering grievous casualties, at which point, the Jewish army holding the line was no more.
At this point, there was absolutely nothing stopping the Egyptian army from advancing unimpeded to Tel Aviv. They could have driven, they could have ridden camels or donkeys, they could have walked, they could have crawled, they could have done cartwheels, they could have had a three-legged race. There was not one Jewish soldier between them and “The White City,” and that would have been the end of the Zionist dream. But these three days of conflict and the presence of two or three planes of the Israeli “air force” dropping Molotov cocktails down on the Egyptians, convinced their commander that they could not defeat this relentless enemy; and he so advised his commander back in Cairo. They Egyptian army did not advance, and were ultimately driven back.
So what happened? Was there something going on beyond what one might find in Wikipedia? Consider the circumstances, if you will: the world community, for one brief moment in history, seemed to have abandoned its pathological hatred for the Jewish people, sufficient to allow the establishment of a truncated, debilitated State of Israel. Even before the state was officially established, civil war broke out in the area. The leaders of the future state were in a quandary: once they accepted the Partition Plan, they couldn’t go back to the table and ask for more. If they didn’t accept the Plan, most likely some or all of it would be withdrawn. This would be their only chance, and once they went ahead and declared a state, not only would they continue to be faced with an unceasingly hostile Arab population, but within a nanosecond of the Declaration of Independence, they would be in a real war –with all their neighbors who had real if ineffective armies – which if they lost, would be the final nail on the coffin of world Jewry. Of course, if they didn’t declare a state, after the withdrawal of British forces there would be no government of any kind in the region. Talk about a real dilemma, with very sharp horns.
Perhaps we can see the “hand” of our Heavenly Father at work here, in a way which is not obvious, allowing for the believers to believe and the non-believers not to believe – because after all, we have free well to see or believe whatever we want. But to emphasize the point, virtually the same thing happened twice, in 1948 and 1967. It would have been too much, way beyond the pale of expectation for the Nations to have created or allowed a real Jewish state. So they drew up the boundaries of a mock Jewish state, bereft of its heart, Jerusalem, and, in effect, said, take it or leave it; and if you take it, you’re on your own to fight for it. If nothing else, Ben-Gurion had guts, and he took it. So what would be the only way for us to get back the territory promised to us in the Balfour Declaration and by a Higher Authority? To be invaded by hostile neighbors, and when they were on the brink of wiping us out, inexplicably for them to turn tail and run away, allowing us to reclaim The Land piece by piece. This is what happened both in 1948 and in 1967. As I said, you are free not to believe that these were hidden miracles, but – even allowing for the incredible heroism and self-sacrifice of so many Jews in The Land – you would then need to come up with a better explanation of your own. And don’t tell me that our fabled military prowess scared Egypt, Jordan, and the others away!
It was time for us to get back on the bus, and it is time for me to stop for a break. We will soon be heading on to Ashdod, and, not to keep you in suspense, to a very large dilemma lurking down the road.

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