Jerusalem Still Burning

The sheer possibilities of the Global South attracted me - as Israel's had eighteen years ago. In Kathmandu last summer, those two loves collided


The recent war between Israel and Hezbollah caught up with me in Kathmandu, in Nepal. I was in Nepal because of the Israelis. Some 50,000 post-army Israeli backpackers traipse through South Asia every year, by far the largest group of travelers per capita of any nationality. They come to escape to the enormity of the Himalayas, to trade the claustrophobic intimacy of a place where everyone acts as if they know you for the kaleidoscopic anonymity of a place with a billion people and a thousand cultures. They come to rest from the wars of the Jews in a place neither Christian nor Muslim, a place untouched by the Holocaust, the intifadas or the Crusades. They come because of the music and the yoga and the babas (wandering, stoned-out Hindu monks). They come to smoke charas — cheap and potent Indian hashish — and because everyone else they know has been there or is going, because the South Asia route, with its “Israeli” outposts like Parvati Valley, Goa, Rishikesh, and Dharamsala, has become a movable feast of friendships and romances, a peregrinating eternal summer camp of love, the perfect fusion of lust and wanderlust.

My assignment, self-imposed, was to try to figure out how to add another dimension to the trip for young Israelis. Over the five years I had been traveling to the Indian subcontinent, I had come to realize that alongside those who wanted to indulge themselves after three years of scary and tedious army service by getting wasted against the backdrop of the Himalayas, there was another kind of young Israeli traveler: sensitive, curious, and idealistic, yet still rugged and proficient. Perhaps this sort of traveler had grown up in the Shomer Hatzair, the leftist youth group associated with the kibbutz movement. Or maybe he or she had been raised as part of the religious-Zionist community, whose dream of the “Whole Land of Israel” had been shattered by Oslo and its aftermath. These young travelers were seeking something more than just a good time in an exotic setting. They were on a quest for meaning, purpose, and spirituality.


That quest, I thought, could prove useful to their home country. Zionism was once dominated by idealists in search of a state whose socially just policies would make the Jews a “light unto the nations,” but the idealistic underpinnings of the state are all but invisible now. American-style capitalism has replaced socialism as the official economic policy, and greed as much as sacrifice is the prevailing public ethos. And yet, in my experience, potent pockets of idealism lurk not far from the surface, especially — though not only — among the young. What if, I asked myself, the Israeli youth jaunt through the Third World could be harnessed to transform the thinking of the new generation? Could it spark an Israel that was not only a high tech power, but also a place where original and important ideas and deeds emerged that addressed the great ethical dilemmas raised by globalization or by the continued suffering and powerlessness of the world’s poor? What if, inspired by the struggle of the slum dwellers of Delhi or the solidarity of peasants fighting agribusiness, young Israelis came back from “the trip” awakened to their own power to transform reality for the better?


I was musing on these notions as I entered the Thamel, a warren of narrow, brightly lit streets packed with Internet cafés, bookstores, clothing boutiques, European-style bakeries, and guide agencies offering white-water rafting and bungee jumps into wild gorges. Utterly devoted to tourism, the Thamel is Kathmandu’s living emblem of globalization, a simulacrum of comforts and desires revolving around Western travelers, their tastes and needs. I had stood in the street barely a few moments when, without warning, a young Australian man, blond and burly, accosted me, judging correctly by my yarmulke that I was an Israeli Jew. “Why aren’t you in Lebanon, killing children?” he asked. It was a day after an Israeli strike in a Hezbollah-controlled town that had reportedly killed more than fifty civilians; I had seen the headlines in the paper that morning. I felt immediately injured by the young man’s question, although not completely surprised. Traveling the world, I’ve become used to such attacks, and I’ve come up with my own way of handling them. Almost on autopilot, I replied with a question of my own. “Interesting,” I queried. “Do you walk up to every Chinese man you see and say something to him about Tibet? Or is it just us?”


Things heated up fast. I spoke about our right to defend ourselves; he told me we had nothing to defend “because you stole all of Palestine from the Palestinians.” I mentioned Iran and its proxy the Hezbollah’s self-proclaimed genocidal intentions toward the Jews. I told him we had learned from bitter experience to take that kind of rhetoric seriously. He went straight for the jugular: “The Holocaust is bullshit, and you know it.” I felt an old, familiar fury well up within me. “You white men,” I said. “You murdered the Aborigines, enslaved the Africans, colonized Asia and South America, and now you want to blame the Jews.”


We had turned into a side street, and the Nepalese shopkeepers were by now standing at the entrance to their stores, staring at us silently. Rage whipped through my body like a hamsin wind. My Australian friend could feel it. He slipped into an Internet café, motioning with his hands that he was retreating; our duel was over. I stood by the doorway for a long moment, burning with anger and hurt, before finally stepping away, traumatized as much by my own fury as by the Australian’s words.


That evening, in another Internet café, a squat Nigerian man with the taut, bulky body of a weight lifter overheard the owner of the café ask me about the about the Lebanon war. “Are you Israeli?” the Nigerian fellow asked unsmilingly. I nodded warily, afraid of what might come next. “I love your country!” he exclaimed, reaching out and grabbing my hand in both of his. His love of Israel, I learned, was a combination of religious belief (he was a Christian) and admiration for Israel’s valor and spirit as an embattled minority in the Middle East. Raymond — that was his name — took my cell phone number, and over the next several days he called me a number of times. The last phone call I had from him, after an Israeli helicopter had crashed and several soldiers had been killed, Raymond’s voice was urgent. “What can I do for your government?” he asked.

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My attraction to non-Western societies, or what I imagined them to be, began in childhood and was connected both to fantasies of mystical wisdom and the unease with European culture I felt as a post-Holocaust Jew. In the sixth grade, the Orthodox day school I attended in Los Angeles, where I grew up, gave us a U.S. government census form to fill out. Under the category Race, we had four choices: Caucasian, African American, Asian, and Native American. I couldn’t find a category to fit into. But I knew one thing: I certainly wasn’t going to check the box that said Caucasian. White people, real white people, were the ultimate non-me. I doubt I thought this consciously, but my emotional logic at the time went something like this: the Nazis would have killed me twenty-five years ago because, in their eyes, I was a bastard product of Negroid and Mongolian miscegenation. Nobody was going to force me to be white now. I crumpled the census form and threw it away.


I began my travels as a journalist soon after moving to Israel, eighteen years ago. My first trip was to Ethiopia, where, in 1990, the 25,000 Jews left in the country had descended from their rural villages and were living as internal refugees in an urban slum waiting for the government, a communist dictatorship led by the notorious Mengistu Haile Mariam, to allow them to immigrate to Israel. Families of eight or ten were often crammed into a small, dirt-floored room lit by a single bare electric bulb. Children were dying of measles, dysentery, and malnutrition, and Jewish organizations were scrambling to provide them with food and medical care. At night, Addis Ababa was under curfew, imposed by scary-looking plainclothes policemen. Yet while the Ethiopian Jews were dreaming of Zion, I found myself falling in love with Ethiopia, its sights and smells and the alternative human possibilities it represented.


It was in Addis Ababa that I first encountered types like the Australian: Westerners, usually journalists or employees of the UN, the Red Cross or the European Union, who felt compelled to introduce themselves by baiting me about Israel. A Reuters reporter in Addis told me he had heard from reliable sources that the Ethiopian Jews who had just been airlifted to Israel were to be settled in “the South Lebanon security strip” and used as human shields. Another time, in Haiti, a photographer saw me with my yarmulke in the lobby of our shared hotel and raced back to his room to put on his “Free Palestine” T-shirt, on which the map of Israel in its entirety was marked “Palestine.” On my way into Somalia, a state that had collapsed into anarchy and in which Islamic fundamentalism was making inroads, I discovered that the UN officer who arranged my entry had marked my nationality as “Jew” on the plane’s flight manifest, although I had a U.S. passport and was working for an American news agency.


Yet the reception I’ve received as an Israeli has never been entirely predictable. Ethiopian Christians, for example, embraced me eagerly upon learning that I was an Israeli. “You are our brother,” they would declare, “our family.” In Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, I’ve often had the eerie and pleasurable experience of feeling recognized, of having a Jewish internal narrative — of ourselves as an ancient people touched by a sacred charge — confirmed by the generous eye of the other. I’ve discovered that, despite the images of violence that are all most people see of the country on their TV screen, the story of Israel resonates with a wide range of peoples whose ancient traditions are corroding under the pressure exerted upon them to fit their history and cultural identity into the limits of a modern nation state. Correctly or incorrectly, Israelis are perceived as having succeeded in upholding their ancient, tribal identity, even while creating a modern, democratic nation state. I have seen people, knowing that I am a Jew from Israel, fix their gaze on me as if quenching their own thirst for a moment, their own search for origins in a rootless world — people like Mother Sarah, a diminutive, white-haired woman in rural Utah, whose theology was an amalgam of Christianity and American Indian lore, who embraced me upon learning that I was a Jew. “Oh,” she said. “Israelites!”


Once, I was lucky enough to see my Western tormentors receive comeuppance from my Third World hosts. In 1991 I traveled to Haiti after hearing that Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically elected president of the country, had learned Hebrew while on a two-year, church-imposed exile in Israel. Aristide, a firebrand liberation theology priest whose constituency was the poorest of the poor — 90 percent of the country — and who had survived numerous assassination attempts, was a heroic figure for the Western left, including many with a burning animosity toward Israel.


The Haitian consulate had promised that Aristide would be available to the press, but when I arrived in the country I was told that he was not giving interviews at all. Instead, along with the other Western journalists, I was invited to a reception that the leader was attending, marking the fifth anniversary of an orphanage he had founded.


At the event, I caught sight of Aristide, a slight man whose intense eyes bulged from their sockets, walking by with his entourage. “Shalom,” I said to him in Hebrew. “I’ve come from Israel to see you.” While the other journalists (including the photographer who had had the fashion crisis upon seeing my yarmulke) watched in shocked surprise, the hero Aristide embraced the Israeli pariah and then held my hands in his. “I am so happy to see you,” he answered in Hebrew. And then he ordered his aides to arrange a meeting between us at the presidential palace.


This episode was satisfying, but far more important for me was another moment, several days later. It was the fast of Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of both of the holy temples and the sacking of Jerusalem, a desolate, black hole of a day. A searing cloud of heat had descended on Port-au-Prince soon after daybreak, making the fast close to unbearable. In the distance I could see Cité-Soleil, a giant slum that stretched out by the ocean on the edge of the city. Cité-Soleil, which I had visited earlier in my trip, was a postapocalyptic nightmare. Its tin shacks were so densely packed together that it was hard to see a piece of sky; people slept in shifts because it was so crowded. Children waded in the rivers of sewage that divided the slum into neighborhoods, oblivious to the danger of parasitic worms, which could enter their bodies by piercing their bare feet.


That day I realized that Cité-Soleil was a Jerusalem still burning. For the Jewish people, the destruction of ancient Jerusalem is the symbol of a world out of kilter, where human suffering caused by the rule of the ruthless takes on a theological significance: not only the Jews, but God’s presence itself is being sent into exile by the licking flames. In Cité-Soleil and neighborhoods like it across the globe, poverty and despair were more than a dull ache; they were an all-consuming, fiery fever. And in that conflagration, it was humankind’s hope for redemption that was being devoured.

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Some Jews I’ve encountered have resisted the kind of analogy in which the memory of our own tragedies becomes a lens through which to view the pain of others. Too often during the past 200 years since the European Enlightenment allowed Jews — at least on paper — to become citizens with political rights, they argue, we have been ready to trade in the specificity of our historical, ethnic, and religious consciousness for the false coin of universalism. Other Jews experience Jewish ethnocentricity as a barbaric rejection of the deepest gain of the Enlightenment: the notion of humankind. The Enlightenment, then, split us in two. It has driven a wedge through our people and through our consciousness that shouldn’t be there, separating the hope for universal redemption at Judaism’s core from the equally vital commitment to historical memory and our tribal community that has kept us alive through dark times.


For many Zionists, the state of Israel was a means of healing that split between universalism and communal solidarity. Anchored in a place, a language, a nation that we could call our own, we could begin to act in the world without fear of losing our identity. Israel in the 1950s and 1960s, committed to democratic socialism, poised in its own development somewhere between the First World and the Third, spent a hefty 30 percent of its foreign ministry budget on agricultural, medical, and other aid programs in Africa and elsewhere. Thousands of Third World nurses, doctors, and social workers came to Israel for training.


It didn’t last. The Yom Kippur War, during which many Third World nations, threatened by an oil embargo, cut off relations with Israel, marked the end of much of this activity. Then, through the 1990s — the Oslo years — as peace seemed inevitable, the idea of a renewed integration of Jewish specificity and Jewish universalism grew compelling. But the breakdown of Oslo, the almost daily suicide bombings during the second intifada, and more recently, the war with Hezbollah and the widespread embrace of classic anti-Semitic belief in fundamentalist Iran (not to mention the threat of nuclear weapons) have reawakened Jewish existential fear of annihilation and that sense of Jewish foreboding.

During the latest events, the eerie feeling crept over me that the State for the Jews — which for the first fifty years of its existence had represented, for most of us, the antithesis of Jewish powerlessness — had become the Jew of States, the persecuted scapegoat of nations.

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In Kathmandu, on a very personal scale, I had the almost palpable sense that something had changed. Before arriving in that city I had stopped in New Delhi, where I met with Dr. Vashanthi Raman, a senior fellow at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, about my idea of engaging young Israeli travelers with the Third World. Raman is a striking woman in her mid-fifties with large, luminous black eyes — a passionate, engaged intellectual from the left. She had met few Israelis before me, but was warm and welcoming; before long, we were fantasizing about traveling with a group of Israeli young people (she had been surprised to learn how many were here) and studying the impact of globalization on India’s poor. We would start in a rural area and talk to peasants about the economic forces that were driving people off their land and into urban slums. We would meet fishermen desperate to eke out a living in seas that had been plentiful with fish before the arrival of giant industrial fishing trawlers from Europe and Japan. We would end up in a megalopolis, listening to the voices of the new urban poor. At each stop, the Israeli group would contribute something — organize a music festival, help document a situation or a cause. It got late; ideas kept coming; we agreed to meet again when I returned in a few weeks.


By then, we were two weeks into the war in Lebanon. When I returned, Raman was as welcoming and as present as before, but I was traumatized. The war, along with Ahmadinejad’s threats, had struck deeper at my sense of our collective security than anything in my adult memory. I found myself compelled to explain my feelings. “You see, we don’t take this rhetoric about annihilation very lightly,” I told her, alluding to the Holocaust. “We actually have experience with this kind of thing.” I didn’t like the way I sounded. We’re capable of drowning in feelings of self-pity, losing sight of the world as we sink, I thought to myself.


Now, back in Israel, on the taxi ride home to Jerusalem, I think of the Jewish joke that is my current favorite. Two shtetl Jews, Shloime and Avramel, are walking in a Ukrainian forest when they catch sight of two Ukrainian gentiles walking toward them. Shloime turns towards his friend. “Avramel, what are we going to do?” he says in alarm. “There’s two of them — and we’re alone.”


As the road leaves the flatlands of Tel Aviv and starts climbing toward Jerusalem, I think about India and Nepal and the majestic Himalayas, the highest places on earth. Israel’s only geographical distinction, I think, is that its holiest spot is a hill that rises up from the plains of the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth. Our charge is not to climb upward to God, but to draw God down into the world. Not to give up on the world. Not to give up on ourselves. To hell with Ahmadinejad. It’s time, I think, to stop feeling alone. &