“... for we be brethren”
By Yoram Meltzer | 03/12/2009
“... for we be brethren” - this is how I feel. Without the stickiness of togetherness, without any outpouring of abundant love, but in an attempt to understand, as I always carry with me the sadness of an enforced silence and a huge quantity of resentment and rage; there is not a trace of romanticism here and I find it impossible to shut my eyes even for a moment as I lie in a bedroom that I share with all my other brothers
I was six or seven when I asked my mother one day: “Mom, why is it that we hear about the Jews in ancient times and in the Roman era, and that, from there, we immediately skip to the modern period?” My mother responded with an answer that transported me rapidly from the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem to the Holocaust by way of the Jews' Great Revolt against Rome in 66 C.E., the Jewish communities throughout the world, the Middle Ages, the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, the towns of Eastern Europe, and the period of the Enlightenment. The swift journey ended with the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.
“That is why we need our own Jewish state,” she summed up, as I looked at her with a child's wide-open eyes. “If you utter the phrase Shma Yisrael, Hear O Israel,” she taught me, “you will instantly be recognized by any Jew, no matter where you are, if you need to prove that you are a Jew. This is a secret code, which only Jews know.” She also taught me the principle that “All Jews are responsible for one another,” which means that all Jews are part of one big family.
Once we could use the word “we” when talking about ourselves and other Jews. Once we were a warm body of people that was recognized, eternal and which existed from the time of my childhood in Haifa until the years of my adolescence. We – all of us – had been part of the Exodus from Egypt, we had all settled in Canaan in accordance with the promise God had given to Abraham our Patriarch, and we were all descendants of the Tribes of Jacob – or rather, the tribes of the Kingdom of Judah. After all, we are Jews and the members of the Ten Lost Tribes became our lost brethren, after they had slipped into oblivion during our first exile from our ancestral homeland. We came back to that homeland during the period of Ezra and Nehemiah, we conquered the Greeks, we rebelled against the Romans, we witnessed the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and we were once more exiled from our ancestral homeland. However, we managed to survive for two thousand years in exile and, after many unsuccessful attempts over the centuries, we finally returned to our land. We. Very simply, “we,” “the Jews.” Synonyms that described the passengers on the ship that was called “the Strength of Israel” (1 Samuel 15:29) and which plowed the waves in the Sea of History. The question as to who these passengers were was never the subject of any debate.
This ship was essentially an abstraction, although, at either end of the tunnel of history – in ancient times and in the modern period – it cast anchor alongside the coast of our historical homeland. In historical atlases you could see the constantly changing shape of the territory known as the Jewish entity: It was a sort of white spot that sometimes expanded and sometimes contracted, whose sides were eaten away or swelled in a dark shade that crept in this or that direction. The map in my mind was a dynamic series of forms, from the split triangles of the borders in the plan for the Partition of Palestine to the boundaries of a Greater Israel, with a bulge on the right side of its head and a large weight to the south.
Although I was born in 1963, the map that I experienced, the map of my ancestral homeland was always that same young, slim-hipped woman with a straight narrow back, with a pelvis that expanded until the point where her silhouette narrowed, covered by a long, tight skirt that continued until her ankles. In my mind, the contours of her body were like those of a Hollywood actress from the period of the 1940s.
In 1967, we added “occupied territories” or “administered territories,” which were not really places and not just because of the term used to describe them. When I was a child, they were primarily a grayish-brown haze on the horizon beyond Hadera, the city that was closest to the home of my grandfather and my grandmother. These were regions that did not belong to us; we did not visit them but were only holding on to them temporarily.
However, in the latter half of the mid-1970s, a change took place. The changes that occurred in the State of Israel began to surface as my friends and I entered the period of adolescence. Today, after so many years, I think of the popular “Hasamba” books that describe the adventures of a group of youngsters. One of them is Menashe the Yemenite, who has the same status as the token Sephardi Jewish member of Knesset in each of the major political parties. When Likud leader Menachem Begin became prime minister, we were confronted, as we were about to enter high school, with the dimensions of the non-Ashkenazi segment of Israeli society and with the existence of religious Jews who were different from those we had encountered previously.
What did my peers and I, children who had grown up in Haifa, think of when we used the term “religious Jews” prior to 1977? There were the haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews), of course. We felt no empathy toward them nor did we even understand them. We categorized them as Jews who were stuck in a earlier stage of the Jewish nation's history, who refused to accept both Zionism and the modern world. They were bizarre, even ridiculous, in our eyes. They spoke another language; they were repelled and disgusted by us just as much as we were repelled and disgusted by them. In Haifa, one hardly saw them. We knew that they lived in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, they “welcomed” us with looks that expressed repulsion or hostility, although often they just acted as if we were invisible. We were familiar with the other kind of religious Jew, although we had no label for that category. Today, they are referred to as the “knitted kipot” (skullcaps). Back then, they were simply called “religious Jews.” They attended separate schools, they were hardly ever seen after school was out, and they belonged to a different youth movement. Here and there they served as targets of scorn: They were less athletic than we were, were pallid, could be provoked easily and were certainly more closed than we were to the big, modern world with which we were becoming more and more fascinated and which we sought to emulate and become a part of. Today, I understand that these religious Jews were members of a different ethnic group. When our paths crossed with theirs, we felt as if a mixed cloud was hovering over them, we sensed that they looked upon us with a mixture of disdain and envy. Their environment limited them, strangled them with its dress code, with a long school day, with all sorts of obligations and prohibitions – from the restrictions that were applied on the Sabbath to the textbooks they had to read. We enjoyed our superior status and we did not even give these Others a second thought. We grew up in a Zionist, secular state, and we were naïve. We were encouraged to be free and proud, to identify ourselves as passengers on the ship that had set out from Ur of the Chaldeans, where Abraham was born, or from the Egypt of the Pharaohs. The ship was still plowing the waves of an eternal ocean. We knew who we were.
An inexplicable enthusiasm
However, a major crisis erupted in the latter half of the 1970s. Just when my peers and I were starting to develop our political awareness and our powers of critical thinking, Israel found itself in a whirlpool following the Yom Kippur War. We were conducting stormy, hormone-rich debates on whether Israel should withdraw “from territories” occupied in the Six Day War or from “all the territories,” and only one of our classmates regularly screamed out daily, with the hysteria of swollen veins, “These are not occupied territories! They are liberated territories!” During this period we discovered that those religious Jews with the knitted kipot who lived beside us but whom we never met were beginning to cling, with an inexplicable enthusiasm, to the lumps of earth surrounding the old Turkish railroad station in the northern part of the West Bank (this was the name that was used at the time). These religious Jews climbed atop abandoned Turkish stones and waved the flag of Israel above these stones. And here is the most bizarre part: Not only did no one dare to challenge them, no one bothered to explain to us what the central issues were here. It soon became clear that they considered these places, as well as the lumps of earth and the rocks, holy. In our eyes, holiness was an abstract concept, a matter of historical and cultural consensus, a religious context in a broad sense that was shared by everyone; we thought of contexts such as the Western Wall, a Torah scroll, the Jewish people's existence. I am sure that none of my peers at the high school we attended ever opened a map in order to discover where a place named Sebastia was located. It simply was not on the map and could not be considered holy. In our view, the occupied territories were trump cards to be used in some future and very distant peace agreement that would be signed once the necessary conditions were in place. By definition, the territories were temporary in nature. Would any of us have considered moving there? None of us could even imagine such a possibility. Our homes were here. Not there.
I was never taught that being Jewish had anything to do with ideology. I never had any problems with the issue of “Who is a Jew?” Nor was I ever taught that the Jews constituted a homogeneous entity, just as I was never taught to categorize Jews in accordance with the quality of their affiliation to the Jewish nation or to Judaism. As far as I was concerned, and as far as the members of my age group who had grown up around me were concerned, you were Jewish, no matter what the quality of that affiliation was. Thus, the label “Jewish” applied equally to ultra-Orthodox Member of Knesset Shlomo Lorincz, who always wore a black suit and always wore a tight-lipped expression on his face, and to Hanan Porat who always had a strange look in his eyes and whose shock of hair, reminiscent of the War of Independence period, was ruffled by the highly charged winds of Sebastia. However, we could not understand why Jews were clinging with such passion to occupied lands and their rocks, which were so different from Israel's landscape. When we saw old photographs of Jewish immigrants kissing the tarmac of the Lod airport on their arrival here, on their having “made aliyah” (literally, on their having ascended) to the Holy Land, we did not consider the actions as an expression of any particular attachment to lumps of earth. One idea began to seep down into our consciousness: What we were witnessing was a totally different kind of feeling, a totally different kind of phenomenon that had no connection to anything we had previously known.
The use of the image of brothers strongly tempts me to speak about a family. However, if I do so, I will have to utilize sociological and psychological terms. Instead, I will speak about a problematic brother, about a brother whom I consider bizarre, about a brother whom I have to understand or whom I have to learn to tolerate, about a brother who despite everything is still my brother, about blood that is thicker than water, and so forth.
I want to say here right now: I am not interested in using such terminology. A terrible disaster has befallen our battered family. A disaster that began to form in the mid-1970s and which reached its climax on November 25, 1995. If I must continue to use the terminology of the family, I would say that there are certain expressions that you cannot say to your brother because it is almost impossible to imagine the idea of your brother ever talking to you again after that. What can I say to a brother whom I find it almost possible to live with? “You have implicated all of us”? “You have exploited the fact that we are brothers in order to impose an impossible situation on the family”? “The murderer came from your own backyard. You mean to tell me that you had no idea what was growing there?”? Can I content myself with uttering a statement like “You and I see the world differently, and it is doubtful whether our two outlooks can coexist under the same roof”?
I will say all this, although I admit that I do so with a heavy heart. And I will say one more thing: “... for we be brethren” (Genesis 13:8). This is how I feel. Without the stickiness of togetherness, without any outpouring of abundant love, but in an attempt to understand, as I always carry with me the sadness of an enforced silence and a huge quantity of resentment and rage; there is not a trace of romanticism here and I find it impossible to shut my eyes even for a moment as I lie in a bedroom that I share with all my other brothers.
For the rest of my life, I will continue to learn the Jewish text in all its varieties. I will spend the rest of my life pondering it, as I apply it to every Jewish situation that I know, from the days of the text and its content to the present day. All of its various heroes will always be part of my “us.” Nothing can change that. It cannot even be changed by those brothers whom I am not prepared to even be seen with because they are the crab grass that grows here sometimes. I know that, in their eyes, I am not a brother. I have known this from the day when one of them, an individual who was considered moderate, cried out in the Knesset “You are turning us into a nation of Hellenizers!” a few months before the Chief Rabbis expressed surprise that “a Jew could possibly murder another Jew.” Yes, I know that, from this standpoint, my situation is less comfortable than theirs, one of the reasons being that my situation as a Jew is infinitely better: I have doubts, I try to incorporate them in my consciousness, to make them a part of me, although the process is awkward and although I may even feel horrified. Nonetheless, I have hope for the future, even though I have serious doubts whether that hope will ever really materialize. Because we all Jews and we have nowhere that we can escape to. We are “we”; that is what my mother taught me. Although we know who we are and although we continue to engage in constant soul-searching.
Yoram Meltzer is a literary critic and an author