Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt of Arnon Grunberg’s essay “An Unsuitable Place for Clowns” in the new anthology “Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation”(Harper Perennial). Grunberg, who was raised in Amsterdam as a member of the Zionist youth group Bnei Akiva, visited the West Bank through a tour with the Israeli organization Breaking the Silence. The writers Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, who edited the anthology, organized the tour. Led by Yehuda Shaul, Breaking the Silence is composed of former soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces who, having served in the occupied territories, are now working to end the occupation.
It is Sunday, June 5, 2016, and I am attending the Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) parade in Jerusalem. It’s the first time I’ve been to one of these parades, though by now I’ve visited Israel close to thirty times. On Yom Yerushalayim, people celebrate the “reunification” of Jerusalem, one of the side effects of the Six Day War. There is, of course, another side of to the story: Where one party sees liberation, the other sees occupation, repression and ethnic cleansing. I’m here to shed some light on that account. The crew of a Dutch current-affairs program is tagging along after me. The program’s producers think a Jewish writer visiting the occupied territories at the invitation of the nongovernmental organization Breaking the Silence is interesting. A story with a special twist, because that writer also happens to have a sister who lives in the settlement Dolev.
But am I a Jewish writer? Much more preferably a European writer, in fact, one currently living in America. Still, if they expect me to play the part of the Jewish writer, then that’s what I’ll do.
We cross the old center of Jerusalem, where the Palestinian shopkeepers have been told to close their shops for the day. If they don’t, the army won’t be able to protect them from the crowds celebrating Yom Yerushalayim; the procession always crosses the Old City and ends at the Wailing Wall. With the help of an interpreter, one of the shopkeepers tells us that they are all closing up for the day to keep their inventory from being wrecked and pillaged. In a country under the rule of law, one would expect the right of ownership to be protected against vandals and angry crowds, but everything is different around here, different at least from New York, Amsterdam or Berlin. I am here to demonstrate that in this place everything is different. Or isn’t it?
In discussions, in articles, in books about what we’ll refer to for the moment simply as the Conflict, it is always the uniqueness that is emphasized, the uniqueness of Israel, the uniqueness of the conflict. Couldn’t it be that this perceived or perhaps even actual uniqueness has come to serve as a smoke screen? By appealing to one’s own uniqueness, after all, one gives oneself the right to step out of line.
The real parade still has to begin, but already the occasional group of singing and dancing young people passes by, carrying big Israeli flags. There is something intimidating about them, but then any flag-waving crowd has a tendency to become intimidating. The hysterical, nationalistic exuberance makes me think of soccer fans, something I will remark on later on Dutch television. After that broadcast a lady will pointedly remind me that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not a soccer match. She is implying that I don’t take the conflict seriously, that I am playing it down, that I refuse to see the consequences, that I make normal that which ought not to be made normal. She is partly right: The conflict is not a soccer match. There is more at stake here than a victory at the end of a soccer match.
To accommodate the makers of the television program, I talk to a couple of girls I see walking down an alleyway, settlers from the look of them, or at least members of Bnei Akiva. It’s good to be wary of generalizations, but in Israel especially, ideology goes hand in hand with explicit and often also implicit dress regulations.
Even the simple question “Where do you girls come from?” turns out to elicit suspicion.
“We belong here,” one of the girls says rather aggressively. “We’re not coming from anywhere.”
She makes my innocent question sound as though by posing it I want to drive the Israeli Jews into the sea, or send them back to their countries of origin.
I make it clear to them that there was no ulterior motive lurking behind my question. Only then are they prepared to tell me that they come from Hebron.
When they see the cameras, they tell me that they don’t trust the foreign media. Yet another principle: The foreign media are against us; all media are against us, except the media of which we approve. I do my best to summon up the bit of Hebrew I remember from my youth. My first name also works to my advantage. Maybe I’m not the enemy after all.
Yes, they are willing to talk for a few moments. Not long, they’re in a hurry, they have to celebrate the liberation of Jerusalem. There is so much to celebrate and to commemorate. The molding and maintenance of collective memory is an effective instrument used by all nationalistic propaganda machines.
Then the girls see Yehuda Shaul, co-founder of Breaking the Silence; they recognize him. If they were Christians, you might say that in Yehuda Shaul they see the Antichrist. That’s the way they look at him. That’s the way they recoil. That’s how horror stricken they are. But in Jewish mythology the devil plays a very minor role. Let’s say that in Shaul they see a serpent to whose forked tongue no one should be exposed. They shout a few terms of abuse and, as they move away, warn other girls not to talk to me. I’m with Shaul, which makes me a serpent too.
A few hours later I find myself in the western part of the city, where at that moment the demonstration is reaching its apogee. The parade opens out before my eyes. My initial association had been with a soccer match, but now I’m reminded of the Soviet Union, or perhaps China. As though the state offers the citizen an invitation to nationalistic enthusiasm and the citizen cannot refuse the offer.
I see a couple of families, but mostly young girls and boys between the ages of twelve and twent, dressed in almost identical white shirts and blue trousers, the semiofficial Bnei Akiva uniform. They are marching on the old city center.
You could also say that it’s like Carnival, only without the floats and the admixture of alcohol and eroticism. There is no eroticism around here. This ecstasy has nothing to do with lust.
After a short coffee break — I’ve had my fill of this depressing parade — we take off to find the counterdemonstration.
Atop a little rise, cordoned off by police, stands left-wing Israel. A few hundred people. About one policeman to every ten demonstrators, I’d say.
An older lady, originally from South Africa, blames the meager turnout on indifference. “Lots of people share our views,” she says, “but they stay at home. I come out, and I will as long as I have the strength to do so.”
A young girl explains that the counter-demonstrators are also waving Israeli flags to show that the flag is not the exclusive property of Bnei Akiva and other religious right-wingers. “It’s our flag. too,” she says.
The paltriness of the counterdemonstration alone is enough to induce melancholy. On my way to the exit — crush barriers have been used to set up obvious entrances and exits — I see young men approaching in what are unmistakably animal costumes. They look like they’re stoned, but I can’t be absolutely sure. They start in on a sort of animal dance.
We walk toward the Old City. In the special set of grandstands set up for the press, to separate the journalists from the demonstrations, and probably to give the journalists a clear view of any disturbances, a few photographers are still standing around. The parade is over. Few or no disturbances this year. “It’s the same thing every year,” says the lady from the TV program, who has been working as a correspondent in Israel for some time now. “It’s also a kind of performance. A play.”
It sounds as though she’s trying to comfort me, but it doesn’t comfort me.