Archive for April, 2012

A front-row seat on history

April 30, 2012

Workers pull the cover over the framework of the mourners' tent in Yoni Square.

Whatever you think of Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu as prime minister, you have to give him credit for one thing: his devotion as a son. He would come at least once a week to visit his aged father, and over the past two weeks or so, as his father’s health declined, Bibi visited every single day.

This morning, historian Ben-Zion Netanyahu died at home at the age of 102. Until recently he could still be seen walking down the steps in front of his house to a waiting taxi. It’s hard to believe that this neighbor is no longer with us. He outlived his wife, Tzila, and his son Yoni, who was killed in 1976 while leading the rescue of hostages held in Entebbe by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Ben-Zion Netanyahu was the editor-in-chief of the Hebrew Encyclopedia for more than a decade and the founding editor of the Encyclopaedia Judaica. His magnum opus, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain, was completed after Yoni was killed.

As I write these words, Ben-Zion Netanyahu is being interred. Soon the shiva, the seven-day mourning period, will begin. It is customary to hold the shiva in the home of the deceased. And so, since early morning, preparations have been under way outside the window of my study.

The large garden surrounding his house has been trimmed and the debris carted away. Street cleaners have scrubbed the intersection in front of it. Truck after truck has disgorged equipment: bright yellow barriers, the metal supports and plastic cover of an enormous white tent, hundreds of stacked plastic chairs. The street leading to the house has been closed; the huge tent fills much of the intersection named, fittingly, after Yoni Netanyahu. Everything has moved with the precision of a well-oiled machine.

It’s not every day that a prime minister sits shiva. Shiva is, by its very nature, both a private and a public event. But the shiva of a prime minister is unlike that of any other person. Nevertheless, the prime minister, always dressed to the nines, will have to wear a garment that has been torn, as part of the ritual of mourning.

All this is happening on the same day that the newspapers announced early elections, perhaps as soon as August. But for the next seven days, some things will just have to wait.

Text and photograph copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photograph may be used without written permission of the author.

A month of orgies, but no sex

April 26, 2012

April is the cruelest month, but not for the reasons T.S. Eliot may have had in mind. It is cruel because it is a month of orgies, and not one of them has anything to do with sex.

It begins with the orgy of spring cleaning, inspired by the ritual cleaning required before Passover but now dissociated from it. This is followed by an orgy of shopping, cooking, and eating. Passover is gift-giving time, as well as a festival of feasts with vast numbers of guests. It is a celebration of freedom, except for the women enslaved in the kitchen.

No sooner has Passover passed than we begin the orgy of mourning. In the background is the nearly month-long period of mourning, commemorating persecutions almost two millennia ago, during which Orthodox men do not shave. Holocaust-related programs on TV and articles in the newspapers begin the day after Passover and continue for the entire week leading up to Holocaust Day. Don’t get me wrong. It is only by the grace of God, the help of British Quakers, and the assistance of an American cousin who provided an affidavit for my parents and older brother that I am alive today. My father lost his entire family, with the exception of three nephews who came to Palestine as young Zionists in the early 1930s. But our leaders feed on the Holocaust, using it for political ends that turn this period of national mourning into a perverted orgy.

And no sooner has Holocaust Day passed in Israel than we continue the orgy of mourning, this time for our fallen soldiers. My family did its patriotic duty: My first cousin Shlomo Avni was a fighter pilot who was shot down in 1967. My first cousin Nuel Bar-Ziv’s son Levi was a pilot who was shot down in 1973 and whose body was not recovered until long after. My first cousin Naomi Miller’s son Avi was a paratrooper who was killed in Lebanon in 1982. And my second cousin Naftali Kraus’s son Ziv died while on active duty. We are no different from many families in Israel. But what meaning do we as a nation derive from these deaths? Shall we just go on increasing the military budget at the expense of health, education, and welfare, or shall we strive harder for peace?

And finally, we come to the ultimate orgy on Independence Day, the festival of the mangal (barbecue in Turkish). We celebrate our independence by bending slavishly over grills, flapping bits of cardboard to fan the flames until our arms are weary, and eating ourselves to oblivion.

These are thy festivals, O Israel.

Last night, on the eve of Independence Day, while torches were being lit on Mt. Herzl, I attended the annual alternative torch-lighting ceremony, held in front of the Prime Minister’s Office.

True, the speeches were too long and the crowd, no more than 300 people, was restless, but each of the speakers represented a group of brave, dedicated people who strive for social justice.

Some are struggling to keep individuals, both Jews and Arabs, from being evicted from their homes. Some are teachers who oppose the education minister’s new initiative of bringing youngsters to Hebron to find their “Jewish roots.” The teachers have no objection to their students’ visiting places like the Machpela Cave, where tradition says our revered Matriarchs and Patriarchs are buried. But they want their students to see the Palestinian parts of Hebron too, to understand what life is like under occupation and curfew.

These groups, each one a David struggling against a Goliath of obtuseness and inhumanity, are the still-living soul of Israel.

Text copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Two for Israel’s Independence Day

April 24, 2012

Four silver birds flew over our house this afternoon. They flew in a diamond formation, swooping and soaring and glistening in the sun. They were so graceful and fascinating I could forget for a moment that they are fighter planes and that they were just taking time off from their normal pursuits to practice for the Independence Day air show.

My younger son, too, was fascinated by planes. Our house is still filled with the massive picture books of planes I brought back for him from my travels abroad. He knew all the planes, their engine size and maximum speed and everything else there was to know. And he dreamed of becoming a pilot.

He almost succeeded, too; he was chosen to participate in the highly selective Air Force pilot-training course and was considered a model cadet. But then he understood that Air Force pilots don’t just swoop and soar inside silver birds to entertain the crowds on Independence Day and to feel the freedom of the open skies. And that realization made it impossible for him to continue.

This is the terrible paradox we live with. We like to think that we are ethical, peace-seeking human beings who would not knowingly harm another. And yet, in the absence of peace, we force our children, in the name of defense, to train to be fighters…and to fight.

That is part of what Independence Day means.

I fly the flag on Independence Day. I put it up on the eve of the holiday and take it down 24 hours later. I believe that there must be a homeland for the Jews (not a “Jewish state”) and I celebrate the fact of its existence.

But at the same time, I want this state I live in to be fully democratic. And that means not requiring loyalty oaths and not persecuting non-Jewish citizens who do not sing the national anthem because it expresses the hopes and yearnings of a “Jewish soul.”

Yes, after Supreme Court Justice Salim Jubran stood but did not join in the singing of the national anthem at the ceremony marking the appointment of the Supreme Court’s new president, some overzealous MKs proposed that he be removed from his position. They also proposed that a law be passed to the effect that only individuals who serve in the IDF or do nonmilitary national service be allowed to sit on that bench.

Perhaps one had to have grown up in the United States in the McCarthy era to understand how horrible and sick-minded such proposals are, and they are made all too frequently here.

Merav Michaeli reported in yesterday’s Ha’aretz that in 2004 MK Mohammad Barakeh, deputy speaker of the Knesset, proposed a substitute for the anthem, Shaul Tchernichovsky’s poem whose translated title is “Creed.” The following translation, whose author’s name I have not been able to find, is not literal, but it conveys the sense of what might be an acceptable anthem for both Jews and non-Jews.

Laugh, laugh at all my dreams!
What I dream shall yet come true!
Laugh at my belief in man,
At my belief in you.

Freedom still my soul demands,
Unbartered for a calf of gold.
For still I do believe in man,
And in his spirit, strong and bold.

And in the future I still believe
Though it be distant, come it will
When nations shall each other bless,
And peace at last the earth shall fill.

Text, with the exception of the translation of the poem titled “Creed,” copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.