Christmas in Jerusalem

I had forgotten it was Christmas, thank God. It was only on the bus that I remembered — I was riding on the number 18, coincidentally the same line on which Matt Eisenfeld was killed about ten years ago, when … Read More

By / January 15, 2006

I had forgotten it was Christmas, thank God. It was only on the bus that I remembered — I was riding on the number 18, coincidentally the same line on which Matt Eisenfeld was killed about ten years ago, when he was doing then what I was doing now: heading to the central station to catch the express to Eilat. Nothing fancy; just a nice vacation in the sun. I made it ok.

Paradise is forgetting it’s Christmas. In America, I can’t stand the Santa Claus myth, the C-major music, and of course all the advertising. The holiday itself is fine, with its pagan roots and religious myth, but Christmas is indelibly linked, for me, with exclusion — with not having the tree, not owning the symbols of green and red, tinsel and reindeer. Today the zeitgeist of political correctness has reduced Christ’s birth to “Holiday” (indeed, the supposed “war on Christmas” is the latest bugaboo of Bill O’Reilly and his ilk). But for me, the “mas” was always the problem, not the “Christ.” At least the story of Jesus was something real, something that mattered. Take it away, and all that’s left is the alienation.

At its core, secular Zionism was about the belief that there should be a place in the world where Jews are normal. This is what many on the Left miss when they talk about a “bi-national state” — that without the specifically Jewish character of Israel, Jewishness ceases to be normal. It becomes what it is in every other country in the world, the dozen Arab ones included: an aberration, a difference. Maybe a productive one — but not a chosen one, and therefore not entirely just. We can’t be normal until being Jewish is normal, the Zionists said, and the only way for that to be is for there to be a place where Christmas is extra, but Chanukah is taken for granted.

Christmas in Jerusalem is a fulfillment of that dream. Of course, only a few miles south, it’s Christmas in Bethlehem. Manger Square is an hour’s walk from my apartment, if that, but of course you can’t walk there anymore, at least not without crossing the Separation Wall, somewhere, and moving from Areas A to B to C. There, normalcy is almost impossible, as it has been since Camp David failed and the second intifada began. Of all the predicaments the conflict has brought about, it is this one which depresses me the most. Almost everyone can be reasonable about politics when their lives are reasonable, but when it’s impossible to have a normal life, who remains moderate?

I’ve been feeling politically depressed for other reasons, too.

First, and largely unreported in the Western media, there has been a continual bombardment of southwestern Israel by Islamic Jihad forces in the Gaza strip. My partner, Adam, is on a retreat within Qassam range of Gaza, and I’m petrified. And now, like guests who heard about the fun at the New Years party, come Katyushas from the Syrian-backed Hezbollah militants (or perhaps Al Qaeda) in Lebanon, forcing residents of Kiryat Shmona into bomb shelters. This kind of shelling has been happening, on and off, for years, but is especially depressing now because it shows how impossible a truly airtight peace really is, and how the “Disengagement,” which I and most Israelis supported, may yet blow up in our faces, as the Israeli Far Right claimed it would. Those Qassam rockets — now being aimed at Ashkelon’s power plant, where they could cause massive damage — are being fired from the ruins of three evacuated settlements, Elei Sinai, Dugit and Nisanit. True, there were Qassams before the Disengagement too, but they couldn’t reach as far. Those settlements really were a security barrier, and now they’re gone.

Suppose there’s a real Disengagement from the West Bank, as of course there has to be for any real peace to take hold. Qassams fired from Qalqilya, a hotbed of Islamist sentiment that abuts the narrowest part of Israel, could hit almost all the Tel Aviv suburbs. They could blanket the whole of Israel, since the country’s only 9 kilometers wide there. Nine kilometers — you can walk that in a couple of hours, tops. I used to walk half that far to high school, when I stayed late and couldn’t get a ride home. No matter how high the Security Barrier/Separation Fence/Apartheid Wall/Call-it-what-you-will-but-it-keeps-me-safe-at-Cafes is, it can’t stop the missiles.

Nor can the Palestinian Authority. Weakened, corrupt, and seemingly perpetually bankrupt, it lacks either the manpower or the credibility to really “crack down on terrorists,” as Israel constantly demands. There are achievements: last week, the PA and the Israeli army jointly stopped a massive car bomb from detonating in a tunnel a few miles south of where I write these words — another major incident scarcely reported in the Western press. But Gaza, for those who haven’t checked up on the place since last August, is — in the words of one P.A. official — the new Somalia: lawless, anarchic, and riddled with constant gun battles, as gangs fight it out for supremacy. Kidnappings are routine (in a perverse twist, one of the primary demands that kidnappers make is a job with the Palestinian security forces), bribery is widespread, and the idea of the PA cracking down on Islamic Jihad — let alone Hamas, which is about to score huge wins if the Palestinian election takes place in an open and fair way — is about as likely as George Bush cracking down on the Christian Coalition.

Presumably, increased support from the international community, coupled with tangible results in the peace process, will bolster Abu Mazen and his fellow moderates. Right now, though, he can’t even protect his own house (which got shot up this week), and power is really in the hands of local political bosses, mobsters, and Islamist kingpins. Surely it’s reasonable for Israel to demand some action against the Islamic Jihad murderers and their ilk. But from whom?

The second reason to be depressed about the prospects for peace is that even if these practical problems did not exist, the “peace process” seems to mean totally different things to Palestinians and Israelis. Recently, I was part of a trip to Bethlehem, meeting with Palestinian peace activists and ordinary (though hand-picked) children and adults. What became immediately clear was that, while we all said we wanted peace, the word had almost no shared meaning. For every Palestinian who spoke about it — and these were the peaceniks — “peace” meant a full withdrawal from all Palestinian land, which for now at least means the West Bank. For Israelis, “peace” generally means some kind of negotiated agreement, and an end to violence on both sides. These are different things, and no amount of singing songs can change that.

Moreover, I found, among the Palestinians I spoke with, an astonishing “responsibility gap.” For example, no one believed that the Fence/Wall was really about security; they all said it was a transparent attempt to steal Palestinian land. Often, this claim was backed up by lies — we were told, over and over again, that the wall has not stopped terrorism, but there are documented cases every week of it doing just that: of armed infiltrators caught trying to cross over, and of terrorists stopped at checkpoints. We were told that “flying checkpoints,” which appear at random places at random times, were merely tools for harassment and disruption of economic life. But today, a suicide bomber was caught at a “flying checkpoint” near Tulkarm, and blew himself up, killing a 21-year-old Israeli soldier. The bomber was bound for Tel Aviv — apparently for a children’s Chanukah party.

Other times, the general claim — that the wall, the checkpoints, and the rest of the odious, intrusive Israeli security apparatus are all really tactics of ethnic cleansing — rested not on untruths, per se, but on omitted facts. In the photo at left, for example, is the portion of the Wall that runs alongside Bethlehem. Here, the route obviously diverges not only from the 1967 line, but even from the borders of southern Jerusalem. It cuts away from the city, includes on the Israeli side an olive grove (visible in the photo, and said to be owned by one of the Bethlehem churches), and then backs right up against homes in Bethlehem proper. It’s a hideous, awful beast, and so it’s easy to impress left-leaning Americans like us that it’s a nasty attempt to ethnically cleanse the West Bank, by slowly cutting Palestinians off from their livelihood.

Until one remembers (and I was the only one in our group who mentioned it aloud) that that selfsame olive grove used to hide snipers who shot at windows in residential Gilo, which can be seen in the background of the photo. Gilo is a neighborhood of Jerusalem, but it was built over the 1967 line, so most Palestinians call it settlement; still, it houses families, not soldiers. If one believes that targeting of such civilians is wrong no matter the cause, then one must ask what can be done to stop it. Personally, I starting thinking: if this wall really is to be the border, then the extra mile or so that the olive grove provides… hey, wouldn’t that be just the buffer zone needed to shield the nice, left-leaning German Colony where I live from jihadist Qassams launched from Bethlehem central? We privileged Americans sit in our pleasant cafes, surfing the internet and eating muffins while debating the merits of Israeli policy which other people die for. But all the while, we’re well within range of those rockets, which, if what’s happening in Gaza is any indication, will find their way into the West Bank the moment Israel withdraws. So, I’ll take the extra half mile, thanks, until it can be shown that the rejectionists in the Palestinian community can really be stopped by the moderates. And in the meantime, the wall blocking the olive grove shields sleeping children from gunfire.

Of course, the people who lose the most are those ordinary men and women on the Palestinian side who would like to harvest olives without a military escort, or would like a view from their window of something other than a concrete wall. But it’s their leadership that rejected Camp David, refused to crack down on rejectionists, and has caused the present situation to come to pass. Blame Israel and its settlements all you like, but shooting at sleeping children is still shooting at sleeping children. Right?


This is the third reason I get depressed about the Situation: that what seems is not what is.

Unquestionably, the ordinary people of Palestine have it worse than the ordinary people of Israel. We face the threat of terror, which looms in imagination but is very unlikely in reality. But they face being shot at by mistake, or hit in the crossfire, in violence that is almost daily. We have to let go of cherished national and religious dreams; they have to find work, without a real economy, and without the stability needed to build one. And while I don’t enjoy being frisked at the movie theater, it’s nothing compared to the checkpoints, where Jews fly through and Arabs get searched and searched and searched. The territories aren’t quite separate yet, but they are unequal.

But the surface of what seems to be the case ought to be the beginning, not the end, of the inquiry — and a beginning of a long chain of Whys. Why are the checkpoints there? To harass Palestinians? No, because terrorism is real, and the checkpoints stop it, as they did today. On my trip to the Sinai, I saw as many checkpoints there as I did in the West Bank, and all with the same pattern of racial profiling, checking IDs, and long lines; surely the Egyptians are not racist, or copying the Israeli model simply to harass their own citizens. And the next “why”: why is terrorism real? Because the Palestinians are vicious animals? No, because the conditions create it: daily frustration, continued settlement expansion, and the rest. And why are those conditions present? Because Israel is just evil? No, because in 2000, the Palestinian leadership made a calculated decision to reject a peace offer comprising over 90% of the West Bank, and to instead force Israel to capitulate through violence. Had a deal been negotiated, we wouldn’t be in this mess — and to suppose that Israel should simply maintain the status quo, when doing so strengthens the hand of rejectionists, is simply naive.

Even the growth of settlements, which is surely Israel’s worst offense and the single largest obstacle to peace, can be understood in the context of setting the parameters for negotiation. Har Homa, pictured here, is an outrageous “neighborhood” of Jerusalem that lies on a former nature preserve, and directly between Bethlehem and Abu Dis, where the Palestinian parliament building was once under construction. It is hideous to behold, and is a transparent attempt to outflank Palestinian territorial contiguity. So why is it there? In part, because of Israeli rejectionists. But in part, too, because of the game theory of these negotiations. Without the settlements and the wall, every delay benefits the Palestinian side: they have more people, and more pressure from the international community. Thus the Palestinians have every incentive to delay, especially where fulfilling obligations would be difficult (e.g. facing down Islamic Jihad). With the “natural” growth of settlements, and especially with the Wall, the alternative to a negotiated solution now favors the Israeli side. Do nothing, the Israelis say, and this is what will happen.

Of course, none of that is visible when one looks out at Har Homa. Instead, what greets all those Christmas pilgrims is an ugly face of Israeli expansionism. Now, personally, I don’t think Har Homa should ever have been built, but it’s at least possible to understand it for what it is, rather than for what it seems to be. Possible — but not likely, if one’s guide has either scanty knowledge of the history, geography, and demographics of the region, or if the guide simply wants to make a political point.

The latter was my experience — not in reference to Har Homa, but, again, in connection with Camp David. Everyone understands that Camp David was the pivot: the end of the Oslo process, and the beginning of the second intifada/ road map/ unilateralism miasma we’re in now. PLO representatives told us that Palestinians were only offered 78% of the West Bank’s territory — when in fact that was merely the opening offer from the Israelis, not the 93% final offer from Clinton and Barak. (Everyone who’s ever been to the shuk knows you don’t open with what you’re really willing to pay.) We were told the PLO had presented a clear position, when they did not, and when, on the contrary, Yasser Arafat brought new myths (e.g., there never was a Temple on the Temple Mount) and new demands to every session, including the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their former hometowns, which everyone knows is a deal-killer. (Presumably the Jewish refugees from the Arab world, which number about the same as Palestinian ones, would have to be offered the same right. Then again, one never hears much about the Jews from Arab countries at all; perhaps the three million of them spoil the myth that Zionism is a European, colonialist phenomenon.) The fact is, the checkpoints, the Wall, the whole damn mess — all of it is a result of Arafat’s decision to fight instead of negotiate. This could have been wrapped up five years ago.

There’s a persistent theme one hears on the Palestinian side, that no matter what their side does, they still deserve the same “justice” that they deserved before they did it. Of course the Wall’s borders are worse than the Camp David lines — did the Palestinians really think that they’d be able to get back the deal they rejected? And of course the 1967 lines are worse than 1948’s — but does anyone think that five nations launching a massive attack to “liberate Palestine” ought to have no legal consequence? International Law regards the settlements as illegal because it regards the Six Day War as a war of aggression, started by Israel. But anyone with a shred of memory or scholarship about 1967 knows that it was the exact opposite: it was a pre-emptive strike designed to stave off annihilation by an alliance of countries promising to finish Hitler’s business for him. Their rhetoric, their war, their consequences.

But not their responsibility. Palestinian victimhood does not allow for shared responsibility, just as Jewish victimhood does not allow for the clear seeing of present-day Jewish power. (“Judenrein!” reads graffiti on the wall dividing Hebron, as if the Israeli army’s refusal to let Jews forcibly settle in Hebron’s old city is equivalent to the Nazis’ genocide.) So all that one sees, on the left, are the surface features of this conflict, which are truly awful and which cause immense suffering on the Palestinian side. Home demolitions, the wall, settlement growth — it’s awful. But homes are demolished because they are built illegally, the wall stops terrorist incursions, and settlements grow because otherwise, time is on Palestine’s side, which serves the tactics of delay, denial, and violence. Seems is not what is.

If what we see is depressing, what we don’t see is even worse. Every day brings new Israeli settler violence against innocent Palestinians: destruction of olive groves, throwing stones, even armed attacks. In ways scarcely understood or reported by the Western media, Israel’s far Right is divorced from reality. Some of them are millenarians, convinced they are doing the messiah’s work, and that the messiah himself is soon to appear. A few are ordinary religious zealots. But many more are simply so blinded by ideology that they fail to see humanity. This is not true of all settlers, to be sure; many may have right-wing views, but, if polls are any indicator, would accept a reasonable compromise. But it’s true for enough to matter.

And on the other side: the constant barrage of foiled attacks, each one of which represents an attempt to kill civilians. I suppose foiled attacks aren’t very good news footage; what fun is a car bomb if it doesn’t explode? But from the perspective of the enemy, they are no different from successful ones. Not to mention the countless small acts of violence (stabbings, stonings, shootings) or the cascade of lies taken for granted on the Palestinian street, such as the widespread Holocaust denial, and the near-universal belief that Arafat was poisoned by Israel. (Even to whisper the well-substantiated rumors about his true cause of death, and the long history of behavior that led to it, invites death threats, according to one well-known Palestinian journalist.)

And yet, all the while, most people on both sides are just ordinary people trying desperately to be ordinary. For all the violence, most Palestinians just want to get on with their lives, raise families, and have a voice in deciding their future. In a way, even the ascendancy of Hamas is a positive sign, since what it represents is a Palestinian public focused more on domestic problems than on relations with Israel. Maybe this, too, is part of the responsibility gap — the inability to see what electing Hamas would mean for the peace process, or to care at all about Hamas’ holocaust denial, or to disapprove of Hamas’ recent decision to end the “truce” which has brought relative (hardly absolute, but relative) calm to both sides over the past nine months. Certainly, I sleep less easy knowing that democracy and Islamism go hand in hand in Palestine. But, on the other hand, Hamas’ ascendancy may mean that people are voting for clean hands, more than for ideology.

Likewise in the Israeli election. We now know that the endless orange ribbons festooning every street-corner in Jerusalem last summer represented the views of a small, noisy minority — ten to twenty percent of Jewish Israelis, at most. Surely real Israelis harbor at least as many doubts about the real chances for real peace as do visiting American like me. Yet, if polls are correct, the vast majority of them still don’t want to rule over two million people, and are not willing to subsidize, with their children’s blood, the messianic aspirations of a noisy minority. More generally, politics is of interest to some, but not all; most people would rather watch a movie, or learn Torah, or go to the mall, or play with their kids.

If secular Zionism is to fulfill its dream of ordinariness, it must do so on both sides of the literal fence. We go to soccer games; they go to soccer games. We keep our extremists under control; so do they. We get to forget it’s Christmas; and they get to celebrate Christmas without the cloud of occupation. That’s the whole point, surely: to be able to have one’s cultural and religious life without it being so heavy, so burdensome, so serious. Not Christmas — but normal.

Normalcy is the opposite of what religious Zionism has aspired to create. It never wanted to be ordinary; it wanted to be special. Israel would be not a country like any other, but rather a light unto the nations, a nation that dwells alone, the beginning of the dawn of redemption. The soil itself is holy; the promise that God makes is exclusive to the Jews; and to speak of ‘normalcy’ is to shrug off the unique, Divine mission of the Jewish people. These ideas may once have given consolation to a scattered nation, and they can be inspiring aspirations. But coupled with guns, the reactionary and irrational delusions of an anti-modern ideology leads to a dangerous denial of reality. Jewish priorities get turned upside-down. Grabbing sacred territory becomes more important than preserving human life; bringing the messiah more important than bringing peace. Nothing is normal; everything is either holy or evil.

Normalcy is also the opposite of Islamism, and of the extreme Palestinian nationalism that has somehow transmuted the arbitrary dividing lines of former colonial powers into markers of essential ethnic identity. As with the Israeli Far Right, this Palestinian ideology requires its delusions, from the enormous (there never was a holocaust, or a Temple) to the petty (checkpoints don’t protect anyone). And as with the Israeli Far Right, this ideology negates the real world — not, as the messianists do, by preferring a set of ideas to facts, but by actually fleeing the world itself, promoting a cult of suicide and martyrdom that reifies in lethal detail the world-negation of religion’s worst distortions.

In short, Jewish and Arab ideologues deserve each other, and have more in common with each other than with the majorities of the people they claim to represent. If only they could just fight it out somewhere, like on some remote island, and not drag the rest of us down with them. But as that can’t happen, it’s up to the sane people of the world to somehow find a way to resist ideology, resist delusions (and that goes for those of the Left as well, of course), and embrace the irreducible complexity of this situation, which, while it ought not prevent decisive and even bold action, nonetheless should give pause to anyone with simple answers. Ideologues left and right love to say that it’s the Zionists’ fault, it’s the Arabs’ fault, that this is truth, or this is justice. The Israeli Right can’t see, or admit, how much more the Palestinians are suffering than are the Israelis. And the Palestinian Right can’t see, or admit, how much more responsible its leadership is for the whole mess. So we begin a double-election season, with sloganeering and chanting by the ideologues of all sides, while the sane people on both sides raise their eyebrows, and pray that the crazies don’t win.

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