Just Words
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Just Words

Just Words

It's no accident that we should be repeatedly compelled to explain our presence, to have to figure out what we're doing here.

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It has always struck me as bizarre, mysterious and absurd that Israel's essential right to exist is ever a question in the eyes of the world. That which for other nations is a given, is for us something we must try to prove, in each successive generation. No matter that the one spot we claim as our own takes up less space then New Jersey. No matter that our presence here goes back three millennia. For Israel, it always becomes, again and again -- as it has for Jews throughout history -- a matter of "to be or not to be." We find ourselves repeatedly in the position of justifying our existence.

Yet everything in Jewish history which seems senseless, meaningless or unfair is eventually revealed to us as meaningful, and purposeful. Absurdities are not absurdities. Bizarre and mysterious, yes, but not accidental, or random. It's no accident that we should be repeatedly compelled to explain our presence, to have to figure out what we're doing here. It might not be such a bad thing, to know we're in constant peril of losing what we love. It might not be to our detriment that our right to live is ever in doubt, that we're thrown back constantly onto the basic fact of our being present, and Jewish. Being a Jew is an issue, whether or not you want it to be. Our simple existence does pose a question.

Give me clarity or give me death. -- Rabbi Noah Weinberg

Small events in our own small lives are as significant in the grand scheme of things as that which occurs on a larger scale. So, in a universe created according to a single blueprint, surely our personal histories are similarly designed -- that the less we can take our existence for granted, the more we come alive. The more we lose of ourselves as years goes by, the more we're compelled to find our real identities. My friend Esther told me that after her mother got two knee transplants, she said, "Look at this. I don't have my own knees anymore. My heart's run by a pacemaker. My hearing's gone - I hear with my hearing aids. My sight's going. My teeth are false. Who am I, anyway?"

Israel from its birth has catapulted from one crisis to another. Yet amidst the deep and widespread suffering of individuals, threats to our survival as a nation have been repeatedly diverted. Since my own aliyah in 1976, I've witnessed with my own eyes how we were repeatedly and unexpectedly plucked from the precipice. To the extent that each catastrophe had seemed impossible to escape, to that extent was each unforeseen rescue beyond anyone's ability to predict.

* * *

In the beginning of Oslo was a front-page photograph -- as vivid in my mind today as anything in this morning's paper -- of Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat shaking hands. Outside the neighborhood kiosk where I'd bought The Jerusalem Post, I stopped in my tracks.

Arafat renounces violence.

Children were running past to catch a school bus; my own were waiting for me to get back home with bread and milk. But instincts acquired during my two decades in the Middle East had already gone onto high alert.

Governing council will delete clause in Palestinian National Covenant calling for the destruction of the Zionist entity. In joint patrols with the Israeli Defense Force, an independent Palestinian Police Force will control terrorist elements in Hamas, Fatah and Hizbolloh...

The words' black letters were wobbling in the heat, and I can still visualize, after all these years, the sun's liquid dazzle on the upheld page. Mutual recognition... Secure borders... Surely I'd learned not to fall for such garbage. Palestinian self-rule under a newly-formed Palestinian Authority... An end to hostilities...

Yet the words themselves seemed to be rippling joyously in mute celebration.

How hope springs eternal in the human breast! I knew our enemies' names; terrorism had scoured me clean of the immigrant's naiveté. But my idealism still spoke with an American accent. George Washington cut down the cherry tree and could not tell a lie, so maybe...maybe these words meant what they claimed to mean? Could it be? Could Arafat have been forced by circumstance to undergo a change -- not of heart, of course -- but of policy? For the first time in 3,000 years, was the natural order of things being miraculously altered? Was the promised event taking place, with us as its witnesses?

Peace. The word seemed too good to be true, but who was I to call it impossible?

I yearned to believe. There in the languid sunlight, time itself seemed to pause.

* * *

Thus did the Oslo Peace Process set out on its course, staggering forth through the next seven years like a bloodied beast leaving death and grief in its wake. Death and grief are nothing unusual in Jewish history, but what characterized them during this period was a particular motif: they were called by other names.

The infuriating perversion of words, which had served as the Oslo era's distinctive hallmark, would finally come to an end.

When the "peace process" finally breathed its last -- which occurred upon Arafat's remarkable refusal to accept Ehud Barak's extravagant offer of a Palestinian State -- our immediate future was no clearer then it had ever been, but my personal sense of liberation was grand. Suddenly we were free! Not of our enemies -- we knew perfectly well they were here to stay, and realized that suicide bombings and drive-by shootings could even, God forbid, increase. We knew peace would be a gift given only at its appointed time. What would come to an end was the humiliating insult to our intelligence and dignity, the infuriating perversion of words, which had served as the Oslo era's distinctive hallmark.

Never again would Jews injured or murdered in terrorist attacks be referred to by the country's elected leaders as sacrifices for peace. Never would somebody intone that suicide bombers were trying to kill the peace process, and that protesters were crybabies, or enemies of peace. Never would a Jewish leader dare repeat the line that if you didn't support "the peace process" you were giving the enemies of peace what they wanted, or try to convince us that national suicide was the peace of the brave. Never again would anyone make excuses for the Palestinian National Covenant's declared goal of destroying "the Zionist entity." The pledge to delete that clause had been one of the basic conditions of the Oslo treaty. Now that they hadn't kept their promise, we were assured that the clause was insignificant anyway.

"It's just words," said our Prime Minister.

* * *

It is written that truth comes out of the ground. One morning back in the 1990s (when the Peace Process was going nicely and the Israeli government was promoting our future in "The New Middle East") I was leafing through The Jerusalem Post in a dentist's waiting room, looking forward to a root canal, when I came across the following news item: A speech given by Yasser Arafat in Arabic, before a closed gathering of Arab ambassadors in Stockholm, had been secretly recorded and published by the Norwegian daily Dagen. According to The Jerusalem Post, which delayed publication of his remarks until the report could be verified, Arafat told his audience that Israel would "collapse in the foreseeable future. We Palestinians will take over everything, including all of Jerusalem. Within five years we will have six to seven million Arabs living in the West Bank and Jerusalem.... If the Jews can import all kinds of Ethiopians, Russians, Uzbekians, and Ukranians as Jews, we can import all kinds of Arabs....We plan to eliminate the State of Israel and establish a Palestinian State. We will make life unbearable for Jews by psychological warfare and population explosion. Jews will not want to live among Arabs." Then he added: "I have no use for Jews. They are and will remain Jews."

The Arab leader was speaking truly of his true intentions, and it was precisely on such occasions that Israel's leaders sincerely doubted his sincerity.

Arafat, as usual, later denied that those were his comments. The Israeli government, as usual, said his remarks were "just words." And I, as usual, went out of my mind, imploding in a kind of crazed inner frenzy. If not for the dentist whose excellent work kept me quiet for the next few hours, who knows what words I myself would have come out with? What in the world was happening to us? What dangerous insanity! The Arab leader was speaking truly of his true intentions, and it was precisely on such occasions that Israel's leaders sincerely doubted his sincerity.

Ultimately, an event took place which in its abruptness and implausibility was reminiscent of the sudden end of the Gulf War on Purim Day. An outgoing Prime Minister, eager for the Peace Process to finally yield fruit during his tenure, hurriedly offered the Palestinian Authority 97% of the territories it had always demanded. The Palestinian State along our border was about to be born, embracing the area Arafat had sought most urgently to possess, the Temple Mount, which includes the Western Wall.

The unthinkable -- we were going to lose the Kotel -- had somehow become the inevitable, and it suddenly became excruciatingly obvious that all these years we'd been taking free access to the Western Wall for granted.

My daughter's in-laws in the Old City told us wryly that the proposed borderline ran through their living room. To get from their kitchen to the front door, they would have to get visas.

One rainy winter morning, I was seated on our living room couch having my first cup of coffee, reading on page two of the paper about the latest shooting incidents. A Jewish woman in Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood had been shot while walking along a sidewalk, by a sniper in the adjacent Arab village of Beit Jala.

I looked up from the page. My gaze drifted through our newly dry-cleaned white curtains, drifted out the window, through the bare outstretched branches of the trees, wandered across the street, over to the familiar rooftops of the adjacent Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

And something occurred to me.

If and when the upcoming transfer of military control would take effect -- my eyes roamed here and there among the houses -- then somebody standing at any one of those windows, if he so chose, could, with impunity...shoot right into this living room.

A few days went by.

Then what happened? Get up and dance, get up and shout for joy! Illogically, wonderfully, absurdly, Arafat said Israel's offer was insufficient. Instead of taking his wife out for dinner that night and lining up the Palestinian Police Force for a victory celebration, he gave the nod to another intifada, thereby publicly lifting the veil on his true intentions. And that was the end -- until recently -- of the Peace Process.

After Israel's disengagement from Gaza in 2005, Arafat's successor said that this was "not enough." Israel must withdraw, as well, declared Mahmoud Abbas, from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Nonetheless, he elaborated, disengagement from Gaza was a good first step to the liberation of Palestine.

* * *

It is an irony of the computer age that the same technology which has brought about much loneliness and dehumanization has also given us the phenomenon of e-mail. Letter-writing -- which thanks to the telephone had been largely abandoned -- is now a resurrected art.

At a particularly violent juncture in one of the intifadas, when the fear was overwhelming and there seemed no realistic possibility of escape at all, I received an email from my friend Bayla Sheva Jacobs, in Flatbush.

She was forwarding something she had received from someone else online -- it could have circled the globe three times before getting to me -- a quote from one of the masters of Kabbalah during the Middle Ages, the author of Tomer Devorah, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero.

His words... just words, spoke to me across the centuries that separate us.

At that time, in the future, the descendants of Yishmael (the Arab nations) will awaken together with all the inhabitants of the world to come to Jerusalem and start talking peace amongst themselves. This talk of peace will have one underlying goal, though: to destroy Israel. And their rationale shall be: because they [the Jews] established for themselves their own government. And though the Jews will be in tremendous danger at that time, nevertheless they will not be destroyed. In fact, from that very situation they will be saved.

Adapted from Sarah Shapiro's book, "Wish I Were Here" [Artscroll]

Published: May 11, 2008


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