They say it hasn’t been this hot here in Israel in 65 years. Where I am for a few days is Kibbutz Geva, in the Valley of Jezreel, not far from Nazareth and Afula, hardly the warmest place in Israel, yet here it reached 104 today. In this kind of heat everything feels suspended. One moves slowly, or not at all.
And yes, that is a metaphor. Now and then a spasm, such as the Hamas victory in Gaza, but more typically, a disconnect. The nightly hour-long news telecast tonight spends 40 minutes on the plea bargain of ex-president Moshe Katsav, for all practical purposes exonerated of rape and other serious charges, a suspended sentence for minor residual offenses. You have to look hard or listen very carefully to find acknowledgment of the “existential crisis” that so engages foreign policy elites around the world.
I seek out the politically obsessed. At lunch with three former senior officials of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency, old friends all, one dismisses my dovish perspective, says that “you can’t make peace while there’s a war on.” He goes on to clarify the obvious absurdity of what he’s said: “First we must destroy Gaza.”
Not out of anything so vulgar as blood lust, but because terrorism must be quashed before there can be peace. Another agrees, and when I suggest that the world might not react casually to Gaza’s “destruction,” he throws Darfur at me, and follows that with, “What does it matter, they all hate us anyway.”
The third, a dove, calls me the next day to express his shock, even outrage, at the other two. But I am not shocked. The day before, another old friend, a classic liberal, an erstwhile supporter of the very dovish Meretz party, has recited to me his objections to Israel’s enabling humanitarian aid to Gaza. “Let them all die. Barbarians.”
The new Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Survey reports that 86% of Israelis have little or no confidence in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, that nearly a third of Israelis do not believe that Israel and Palestine can coexist. The same survey reports that 62% of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have favorable views of Hamas and that 77% do not believe Israel and Palestine can coexist. (The survey was completed before the recent clashes between Hamas and Fatah.)
The dark highlight of my two-week visit here (lowlight, I suppose) was a daylong excursion to Bethlehem, where, thanks to Rabbi Melissa Weintraub and a program called “Encounter” that brings American Jews to meet with Palestinians, I listened to Palestinian advocates of non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation.
Their frustrations were manifest; their commitment to non-violence brings little reward and considerable risk, since they can so easily be seen as collaborators. Still, the meetings with them were a reminder of the importance of not lumping all Palestinians into one undifferentiated and murderous mass.
So much for the good news. The bad news, the very bad news of my Bethlehem experience, was my tour of “the separation fence,” the fence and sometimes wall that an overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews believes has brought them a measure of security from suicide bombers.
But in Bethlehem, the “fence” is no fence at all. It is a concrete wall, 24 feet high, that snakes through the city and its environs, a wall whose path powerfully suggests that security is not its only goal, that it is intended to provide ample room for Jerusalem’s expansion southward. (The trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem takes just 15 minutes or so.)
One can almost feel thankful — save for the damage it does to the local economy — that the ongoing conflict has stunted tourism; relatively few visitors are exposed to the shattering insult to human dignity the wall embodies.
I was in Israel just after the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, during the Gulf War of 1990 while the Scuds were falling. I have been to refugee camps in Gaza and to military cemeteries in Israel.
Outside Damascus, I have seen missiles pointed toward Israel, and I have been to West Bank settlements at which (so I assume) some of those missiles are pointed. Never have I been so disturbed — ashamed, even — as by this grotesque monstrosity, this strangling wall that meanders up one street and down another, dividing the city from itself, isolating villages and in one instance abutting a single house on three sides.
To my regret, Israelis are not permitted to visit Bethlehem, which is part of “Area A,” allegedly autonomous Palestinian territory. It is not that the Palestinians won’t let Israelis in; it is Israel that will not let them out, not to those Palestinian parcels defined as part of Area A.
I nurture the perhaps naive belief that a tour of the wall would come as a revelation to visiting Israelis, would pierce through the resentment and contempt regarding Palestinians that are so common here, would elicit from them an empathic response. A response analogous to that experienced by a West Bank Palestinian of my acquaintance when, together with other members of a network of bereaved families, Israelis and Palestinians who’ve lost a family member to the violence, he visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s leading Holocaust memorial museum.
Some here say it is too late for peace, others that it is too soon. The forecast for tomorrow is for more of the same. Maybe, they say, Shabbat will bring some relief from the heat. There is no sign yet of relief for the heart.