Thursday, August 21, 2008


Mark Twain concludes the remarkable account of his “pleasure excursion” to Europe and Palestine this way: “At last, one pleasant morning, we steamed up the harbor of New York, all on deck, all dressed in Christian garb – by special order, for there was a latent disposition in some quarters to come out as Turks – and amid a waving of handkerchiefs from welcoming friends, the glad pilgrims noted the shiver of the decks that told that ship and pier had joined hands again and the long, strange cruise was over. Amen.”

I arrived in Chicago by airplane without welcoming friends (that would come later), waving of handkerchiefs, or other fanfare, and instead of the shiver of the decks, it was the jolt of the wheels touching down on the runway that signaled the end of my own nearly seven-month visit abroad. I had no Turkish garb to show off, but I did return with a few gifts, packages of food, and articles of clothing I had bought in Israel, all duly declared for customs inspection.

To pass the time on the long flight back to the States, broken up by an overnight stay in London, I read one of the last remaining things on my spring reading list: Bernard-Henri Lévy’s American Vertigo, cleverly subtitled Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville. It seemed appropriate. After all, I began this travelogue with a discussion of Tocqueville, and my return to the exceptional country he visited for nine months in 1831-32 was imminent. Would it look different to me, I wondered, after half a year in Israel?

Lévy’s book is a fascinating, often insightful, and sometimes amusing account of his own journey through America in 2005. Some of the things he describes – the driving habits of Americans, for instance, or the “calm, discipline, a mixture of docility and courtesy, gregarious submission and civilization” of American crowds (“Here … when people bump into each other, there’s a flurry of ‘It’s okay,’ ‘You’re welcome,’ ‘Enjoy your trip’”) – reminded me of all the little things that make America distinctive, while other observations, like the profusion of American flags he witnessed in Newport, Rhode Island (so much like the profusion of Israeli flags I saw everywhere, but so different from Lévy’s native France, “where the flag has, so to speak, disappeared”), suggested some possible affinities between Israel and the United States.

But perhaps the most interesting part of Lévy’s book, for me, was his speculations about why Europeans have for so long been fascinated with traveling to America and writing about it. This got me to thinking about my own fascination with traveling to and writing about Israel, particularly this past semester. Partly, of course, it has to do with my ethnic background, but reading American Vertigo convinced me that my fascination springs as much from being American as it does from being of Jewish descent.

There are, Lévy suggests, at least three reasons for the European’s fascination with America. First, America is “not the exotic but the nearby; not the other but the same.” (Compare Claus Offe in Reflections on America: “‘America’ … has for Europeans always been not an exotic growth but a branch on the same tree.”) America, Lévy remarks, is “a way of changing places whereby you travel a very long route to meet not the other but yourself, once again and afresh.” For this reason, the European’s journey to America has “the structure of a phenomenological odyssey,” like Hegel’s Geist (consciousness) coming to realize that the Other it confronts is in fact an expression of itself.

For an American traveling to Israel, the latter country also often feels the same. In part, perhaps, this is because of the creeping Americanization that I wrote about in my inaugural post, which so troubled Moshe in Tzfat. But I think this feeling of familiarity has a deeper foundation and that the cultural influences run the other way, too. Lévy writes about the aspiration of America’s Pilgrim fathers to create a City upon a Hill; the way that Americans of George Washington’s generation turned him, just after his death, “into the ‘Aaron,’ the ‘Moses,’ of this new exodus from Egypt that was to produce the country”; the “odd,” deeply rooted, messianic conviction that “the American people is a chosen people,” a “new Jerusalem,” a “Canaan of modern times,” “the reincarnation of the ancient Hebrews crossing that avatar of the Red Sea that is the Atlantic,” “born under the sign of the Universal and elected by God to build here, on this land promised to it, a new kind of nation, freed from the corruption, rottenness, and aberrations of old Europe.” These spiritual motifs, to which I alluded in an early post on liberty, which are so constitutive of American culture and identity, are altogether different from the crass commercialism, materialism, and egoism that Moshe associated with America, though perhaps no less troubling in their own way (Lévy found them “problematic”). More to the point, they are constitutive ideals and myths that America shares with Israel. Is it any wonder that a traveler from a country that fancies itself to be a new Jerusalem would feel so at home in the old one? “Israel,” Lévy points out, “along with France and America, is one of the rare countries founded on … a ‘creed.’” What he neglects to mention is that, at least as far as Israel and America are concerned, their creeds have common roots.

Lévy suggests a second reason why Europeans are so fascinated with America: because America represents to them the future, an advance guard, which, “according to your taste, according to each person’s temperament, threatens us or is promised to us.” Again, Israel holds a similar fascination for the American visitor. At 232 years of age, America is still a new country, but Israel is newer still. (I remember wondering, during Israel’s sixtieth birthday, what Independence Day in America must have been like in 1836, just after Tocqueville visited.) Israel’s very establishment, I noted in previous posts, was premised on the perceived absence or active negation of a constraining past and the astonishing creation of new social facts, and it is today an ultra-modern country replete with gay pride parades and a booming high-tech industry (the very combination that civic groups were paying Richard Florida to promote in cities across the United States a few years ago).

Finally, Lévy suggests that Europeans are fascinated with America because it represents not only the future and the “ultramodern” but also, paradoxically, the past, “landscapes of the dawn of the world” (Death Valley, the Grand Canyon), “the extremely archaic.”

Israel also represents the archaic past to the American visitor, but a human and not merely natural past. “Here in Israel,” I wrote at the beginning of my journey, “even in the new and modern city of Tel Aviv, I find that remnants of the past have a way of sticking around and lingering in the present.” The past is present everywhere, from the countless ruins that A. and I inspected (Jerusalem, Joppa, Caesarea, Masada, Baram, En Gedi, and so on) to the holidays in which the historical tragedies and triumphs of the Jewish people are continually recounted (Purim, Passover, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day). Like Mark Twain, I found that “no single foot of ground … seems to be without a stirring and important history of its own,” and that it was impossible to “steal a walk of a hundred yards without a guide along to talk unceasingly about every stone you step upon and drag you back ages and ages to the day when it achieved celebrity.”

Perhaps, then, as Lévy remarks about his journey to America, my own journey to Israel had the peculiarity of giving me a taste of both past and future at the same time. That should hardly be surprising. After all, Theodor Herzl’s 1902 novel imagining what a future Jewish society in Palestine would look like was entitled Altneuland (Old New Land).

Whatever the reasons, I remain as fascinated as ever with Israel and its people.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Hebrew Troubles

A recent and interesting article in The New York Times noted that Hebrew had ceased to be widely spoken for 1,700 years before its revival in the twentieth century. That revival, The New York Times added, “is often hailed as one of the greatest feats of the Zionist enterprise; today Hebrew is the first language of millions of Israelis, a loquacious and literary nation that is said to publish an average of 5,500 books a year.”

The revival of Hebrew was, to a great extent, the accomplishment of a single man: Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew. We read a short text about him in my Hebrew class. (Click on the image below to enlarge it.)

Here is my rough translation from the Hebrew. (If you catch any mistakes, please leave a comment to correct them.)
Today, as in the time of the Bible, Hebrew is a living language, and people of all ages and in every place in Israel speak Hebrew, but this was not always so.

For a long time the Jews were in different places in the world and didn’t speak Hebrew. Hebrew was a book language, and in everyday life it was a dead language. All over the earth the Jews spoke in another language. For example, in Germany they spoke German, in Morocco they spoke Arabic and French, and there were also special Jewish languages, like Yiddish in Europe and Ladino in Spain. The majority of researchers think that already in the second century before the counting [B.C.E. – W.Y.] they didn’t speak Hebrew. They continued to read the Bible and the Mishnah in Hebrew, they prayed in Hebrew, and they even wrote in Hebrew, but not many Jews spoke Hebrew outside the synagogue.

At the end of the nineteenth century, a Zionist Jew named Eliezer Ben-Yehuda came from Russia to Israel. He thought that all the Jews need to return to the Land of Israel and to speak Hebrew. He said: “The land and the language – without these two things the People of Israel cannot be a people.”

Very religious people did not want to speak Hebrew. They said it is forbidden to speak Hebrew everyday because it is a holy language. They thought that Ben-Yehuda was crazy, and it was forbidden to speak with him. Other people wanted to speak Hebrew, but they said that they could not because they didn’t have enough words. They also thought that Ben-Yehuda was crazy and it was not possible to speak with him. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda did not agree – not with the former nor with the latter.

It was not only Ben-Yehuda who was “crazy” about Hebrew. There were in the Land of Israel more idealistic “crazy people” – professors, teachers, writers, journalists, doctors, and others – all of them were “soldiers” in a Hebrew army, and they looked for new words to revive everyday in the modern world. They said: We need to open Hebrew schools. In the Hebrew schools, the teachers need to speak always only Hebrew and to teach Hebrew in Hebrew.

Ben-Yehuda was also a journalist. He wrote several newspapers in Hebrew. In these newspapers he used new words; in the morning he thought of a new word [often derived from Biblical roots - W.Y.] and in the evening he wrote it in the newspaper. In this way people in the Land of Israel learned the new words, knew them, and began to use these words in the street and at home.

Ben-Yehuda wrote an important, great, and historic dictionary. In this dictionary there are words from the time of the Bible to the twentieth century. In the dictionary there are also all the new words of Ben-Yehuda and his friends. For example: soldier, ice cream, dictionary, clock, newspaper.

Most people say that the great miracle of Zionism is the revival of the Hebrew language.
From a sociological perspective, the revival of Hebrew as a language of everyday life is one of the most remarkable things about Israeli society. In 1895, at the very time that Ben-Yehuda was engaged in his seemingly quixotic pursuits in Palestine, the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim defined the subject matter of sociology as social facts. A social fact, he explained, was any way of acting, thinking, and feeling that constrained the individual from the outside: “Not only are these types of behavior and thinking external to the individual, but they are endued with a compelling and coercive power by virtue of which, whether he wishes it or not, they impose themselves upon him.” And one of Durkheim’s chief examples was language: “I am not forced to speak French with my compatriots … but it is impossible for me to do otherwise. If I tried to escape the necessity, my attempt would fail miserably.” (Just try going to Paris and speaking English, and you’ll see what he means.) What is so fascinating about Ben-Yehuda and the revival of Hebrew is that he and his followers, rather than being constrained by pre-existing social patterns, instead created new social facts. The revival of Hebrew, to use a bit of sociological jargon, was an astonishing imposition of agency upon structure.

Once a new social fact is created, of course, it creates the possibility of unintended and sometimes humorous deviations. Arthur Ruppin, the sociologist for whom the street on which I lived in Tel Aviv was named, tells the following story in his diary: “Jerusalem, 29 November 1936. Yesterday and the day before, Hanna and I were in Tel Aviv for the Schocken-Persitz wedding. Tremendous gathering of people. In my Hebrew speech, I committed the howler of the evening by saying of Mrs Schocken ‘ha-geveret ha-shokhevet al yadee’ instead of ‘yoshevet’ [the lady lying beside me, instead of sitting]. Much amusement. Nevertheless, I decided to make no more Hebrew after-dinner speeches.” After reading this, I felt better about my own frequent mistakes in Hebrew.

A colleague of mine at the Hebrew University told me a similarly funny story about the great German-Jewish émigré historian George Mosse, who came to Israel many times and even lectured at the Hebrew University but never learned more than a few Hebrew words – and even those he didn’t always get quite right. When he wanted to get the attention of his waiter at restaurants, Professor Mosse would call “Adonai!” (Lord) instead of “Adon!” (sir). One night at dinner he turned to my colleague and declared, “I always get the best service in Israel!”

In the end, parole always has its revenge against langue. The gist of the story in The New York Times was that modern Hebrew, like any living language, changes and develops over time; that, as a consequence of these changes, it has begun to diverge more and more from Biblical Hebrew; and that this divergence is causing a lot of anxiety among some Israelis, who view it as a corruption of the language. That, I’m afraid, is the price of Hebrew’s revival: no living language can remain static for long. In short, Ben-Yehuda may have created a new social fact, but millions of ordinary Israelis in small, gradual ways are continually recreating it everyday.

News Round-Up

During the several months that I lived and worked in Israel, I flagged a variety of interesting, unusual, or simply amusing news articles that I intended to comment upon in this blog. Unfortunately, I never had time to write about most of them. With my semester in Israel now at a close, I thought I would take note of them here, all in a single post, in rapid-fire, abbreviated fashion. So, without further ado:

1. At the end of 2007, shortly before my arrival in Israel, Haaretz reported that the Israeli military had become much better at minimizing civilian casualties during aerial attacks on Palestinian terrorists in Gaza. "The rate of civilians hurt in these attacks in 2007 was 2-3 percent. The IDF has come a long way since the dark days of 2002-2003, when half the casualties in air assaults on the Gaza Strip were innocent bystanders.... The data improved commensurately. From a 1:1 ratio between killed terrorists and civilians in 2003 to a 1:28 ratio in late 2005. Several IAF mishaps in 2006 lowered the ratio to 1:10, but the current ratio is at its lowest ever: more than 1:30." This is very welcome news, generally under-reported outside of Israel, which belies the frequently made suggestion that Palestinian terrorism and Israeli counter-terrorism are somehow morally equivalent. Better yet, it appears that Israel is minimizing civilian casualties without compromising the effectiveness of its struggle against terrorism, which suggests that the goals are not mutually exclusive. In May, The New York Times reported that Israeli tactics (including the much maligned West Bank separation barrier) have drastically reduced the number of suicide bombings in Israel, "from a high of 59 in 2002 to only one in 2007, and one so far this year." The article worries that these tactics may have a downside: they may make it harder to achieve peace with the Palestinians. Perhaps, but the high rate of bombings in the dark days of 2002-2003 was not exactly conducive to peace either.

2. In May,
Israel's Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog and its National Insurance Institute unveiled a plan to open government-funded savings accounts for Israeli children. "According to one method, the government would open an account for each child at birth and place the funds in that account, to which the family could also contribute. NIS 50 a month at a 5 percent interest rate would give each child NIS 17,600 [about $4,900 - W.Y.] by the age of 21. According to the second method, the government would give each infant a grant of NIS 3,500 at a preferred interest rate, yielding NIS 11,000 (at 2008 prices) [about $3,000 - W.Y.] after 21 years." Interestingly, this is a variation on an idea outlined by American law professor Bruce Ackerman in his 1999 book The Stakeholder Society, which also formed the basis for the United Kingdom's Child Trust Fund. When are we getting these in the United States?

3. The Israel Baseball League struck out! That was the unwelcome news at the end of May. "
The much-hyped Israel Baseball League," The Jerusalem Post reported, "which was slated to begin its second season June 22, has been cancelled for 2008 and its future is in jeopardy." A. and I, who were looking forward to rooting for the Tel Aviv Lightning during our stay in Israel, were bitterly disappointed.

4. In May, Haaretz reported that
Israel, having already withdrawn from Gaza in 2005, was now proposing to withdraw from most of the West Bank, leaving only about 8.5 percent of the territory in Israeli hands. "Israel wants to keep West Bank land with its main settlement blocs, offering land inside Israel in exchange. The land would be between Hebron in the southern West Bank and Gaza - at least part of a route through Israel to link the two territories." What Israel offered, in other words, was contiguous territories, and the 8.5 percent it proposed to keep is close to the 5 percent proposed by Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and U.S. President Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000. (Barak also offered to dismantle most of the settlements and to swap land in return for the remaining settlements, near Israel's 1967 border, which he didn't want to remove.) The Palestinian reply? Not interested, in part because they only want to swap 1.8 percent of the West Bank for Israeli land, and in part because the Israeli proposal postpones the difficult negotiations about Jerusalem till a later date.

5. To be fair, the leadership of the Palestinian Authority aren't the only ones who have shown themselves capable of acting in a foolish and shortsighted manner. In July an Israeli defense committee approved the construction of 22 homes for the families of a former Gaza settlement in the sparsely populated West Bank settlement of Maskiot. As I suggested above, any future peace agreement with the Palestinians will likely allow Israel to keep a few major settlement blocs near its 1967 border in exchange for land inside Israel. However, Maskiot is far from that border. Israel should be dismantling it, not expanding it. (That said, I do think the government should approve the construction of new homes for the former Gaza settlers inside Israel.)

6. The problems plaguing Israel's universities, which I blogged about in an early post, continued to fester during my semester in the country. In June, Haaretz reported:
"The past two years were among the hardest experienced by Israel's higher education system.... Leaders of the higher education network claim that the current crisis has only just begun, and that the finance ministry dried out the higher education system over recent years, bringing academic instruction and research to the brink of collapse. University heads say that without additional resources, it will not be possible to open the next academic year." As if the universities didn't have enough tsuris, six Israeli Arabs -- including two students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem -- were arrested in July for allegedly plotting to shoot down President Bush's helicopter earlier this year. I was at least relieved to discover that none of these would-be terrorists were sociology students. The only good news for Israeli universities that I read before returning to the States was about the launching of a new academic exchange program with Britain -- a pointed response to the misguided efforts of some British trade unionists to "boycott" (more accurately, blacklist) Israeli academics and universities.

7. People sometimes ask me whether I felt safe living in Israel. The answer is yes, and apparently I am not alone. A recent poll found that
76 percent of Israeli Jews believe it is safer to live as a Jew in Israel than in the Diaspora.

In June, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) published an official document on “Vigilance Against Anti-Jewish Ideas and Bias.” Sounds like a good thing, right? In principle, yes, but last-minute changes in the document's language pertaining to Zionism and Israel strained Jewish-Presbyterian relations. The Forward published an excellent editorial about the controversy here.

9. One of the interesting features of Israeli society is that it is, in civic republican fashion, a nation of citizen-soldiers in which nearly all Israelis serve in the armed forces. At least it used to be that way. The Jerusalem Post reported in early July that military service is becoming less and less universal, which will undoubtedly have interesting and important sociological consequences for the country.

10. In July, Saudi Arabia hosted an international conference to promote religious tolerance and reconciliation. Public worship and display by non-Muslim faiths is prohibited in Saudi Arabia. Does anyone else see the irony here? (Apparently not al-Qaida: they called on Muslims to kill Saudi Arabia's king for hosting the conference. Tolerance is in short supply in Gaza, too. At the end of July, Haaretz published an interesting story about a former Hamas member who had converted to Christianity and thereby put his life in danger.)

11. In case you missed it, here's how to seize the day in Tel Aviv. Haaretz called it a "love letter" from The New York Times.

12. There was no love lost between me and Tel Aviv's jellyfish. In August, The New York Times reported: "From Spain to New York, to Australia, Japan and Hawaii, jellyfish are becoming more numerous and more widespread.... The faceless marauders are stinging children blithely bathing on summer vacations, forcing beaches to close and clogging fishing nets." Couldn't they have told me this before I got stung at the beach in Tel Aviv?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Farewell to Jerusalem

It’s the end of July, and my seven-month odyssey in Israel has nearly come to a close. The semester is rapidly winding down, the class I am teaching is wrapping up, and pressing matters require us to return to the States at the end of the month. But there are still a few things left to do in Jerusalem: an excursion to Mount Herzl, Israel’s military cemetery and the burial site of many of the country’s greatest leaders; a meeting with Professor E., the doyen of Israeli sociology; a trip to the hotel where Mark Twain stayed when he was in Jerusalem; and a final visit to the Western Wall.

I went to Mount Herzl, above all, to visit Theodor Herzl’s tomb and to pay my respects to the great visionary who, by his own admission, laid the foundations for the Jewish state in 1897. “If you will it,” he taught Jews around the world, “it is no dream.” By chance, our visit coincided with the yahrzeit (anniversary) of Herzl’s death, and we found his tomb temporarily closed to visitors in preparation for some official state ceremonies.

But I was not entirely disappointed; I was at least able to pay my respects to former Israeli prime minister and fellow Wisconsinite Golda Meir. (Golda was born in the Russian Empire in 1898 but lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from 1906 to 1921, when she emigrated to British Mandate Palestine.)

During my time in Israel, I met many brilliant and interesting colleagues from universities all over the country; I even met a visiting German colleague whose mother’s maiden name, it turned out, was the same as my last name, making her perhaps a distant relative; but I was most excited about meeting Professor E. He is an extraordinary scholar, so prominent that I can’t bring myself to call him by his first name despite our formally equal status as colleagues. He was born in Warsaw in 1923, came to Palestine at a young age (eleven or twelve, I think he said), earned his doctoral degree in sociology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1947, began teaching there in 1959, and became professor emeritus in 1990. He has held guest professorships in Europe and in America and has received numerous and distinguished prizes. He is a comparative-historical sociologist who has written scores of books on topics as varied as immigration, empires, patrimonialism, modernity, revolutions, the public sphere, and democracy. At age 85, he remains as sharp as ever, and the breadth and depth of his erudition is readily apparent within the first five minutes of our conversation.

As if this wasn’t impressive enough – dayenu! – he turned out to be a real mensch. Without ever having met him or even spoken to him before, I sent him a brief e-mail message explaining who I was and asking to meet him on campus for coffee or lunch. I was expecting a polite no or, worse yet, the kind of terse response I received from another prominent Israeli social scientist whom I contacted: “I AM CURRENTLY ABROAD AND WILL RESPOND WHEN I RETURN LATER THIS WEEK.” Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a prompt and courteous reply from Professor E. explaining that a campus meeting was not possible but that I was welcome to meet him at his home in Jerusalem for coffee. I eagerly took him up on this offer, and A. and I ended up spending two fascinating and very enjoyable hours with the professor and his wife. We peppered him with one question after another about his work, about Israeli society, about his and his wife’s biographies. Others of his stature (or even a lesser stature) might have been content to talk only about themselves – it wouldn’t have been the first time I had a meeting with a colleague like that – but he and his wife were curious about us, too; they were interested in a genuine dialogue; and they, in turn, asked us about ourselves and our work. Since Professor E. expressed some interest, I even left him with a copy of my book (so far my only book) before leaving. I thought perhaps that he only asked about it to be polite, but less than a week later he surprised me again with a telephone call to say that he had read it and liked it! Coming from him, I felt this was quite an honor.

We learned one other thing about Professor E.: he has a wonderful sense of humor. During our meeting, the conversation turned briefly to a colleague who recently wrote a new book about the seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Another book about Spinoza? That reminds me of a joke, the professor said. An unemployed Jew learns about a watchman job in a neighboring shtetl. He travels to the shtetl and inquires about the job. The job, he is told, is to climb everyday to the top of a tall tower at the edge of the shtetl and, if he sees the Messiah coming, to alert the shtetl’s residents. He asks, does the job pay well? No, they reply, but it’s a permanent job. Just like writing about Spinoza.

My third bit of unfinished business took me from Professor E.’s home in Kiryat Shmuel, a neighborhood in West Jerusalem that is also the location of the Israeli president’s residence, to the Old City in East Jerusalem. It was an article in Haaretz that brought me there again. “A group of researchers and archaeologists,” it explained, “has recently located the Jerusalem building that housed the famed Mediterranean Hotel, which served in the late 19th century as the intelligentsia’s cultural, social and tourist hub in the Holy Land.”
Based on photos, blueprints, maps and observations, the research team was able to pinpoint the institution to the Wittenberg House in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. Today, the building houses the religious seminary of the Ateret Cohanim non-profit organization.

In 1867, however, the structure saw a very different guest: The American humorist, satirist, lecturer and writer Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by the pen name Mark Twain. Twain, who stayed in the Mediterranean during a trip to the Land of Israel and Europe, wrote in the hotel at least one of the 50 letters that served as the basis for a book on his travels, entitled “The Innocents Abroad or The New Pilgrims’ Progress.” To this day, the book is considered the most widely-read travel guide in the history of American literature.
The article, humorously entitled “Mark Twain and Ariel Sharon shared the same roof in Jerusalem,” went on to explain that “former prime minister Ariel Sharon also has a connection to the building – he purchased one of the apartments in it 20 years ago. Sharon eventually sold the apartment to the religious seminary.”

(By a strange coincidence, around the same time that Haaretz reported the discovery of Mark Twain’s hotel in Jerusalem, The New York Times reported that the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, “may be forced to close because it is running out of money.”)

If I was going to retrace Mark Twain’s footsteps in the Holy Land, then a visit to his old hotel was clearly in order. Given how poorly it was marked, A. and I had a difficult time finding the building, but we think this is it.

The last thing I did on my last night in Jerusalem, after having dinner with some friends, was to pray at the Western Wall.

I took one last look at the moon rising over the Mount of Olives, seen here from the Jewish Quarter of the Old City ...

... and a final gaze at the Temple Mount in the Old City, seen here from Mount Scopus,

... and I was on my way.

I did not leave Jerusalem with the sense of finality that Mark Twain expressed upon his departure. He knew that he would in all likelihood never see it again, that his visit was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Even that was more than most people in his time – Jews especially – could hope for. Generations of my ancestors read, dreamed, and prayed about this place, but few could ever make the journey and see it with their own eyes. In contrast, I have not only seen it, but I know that I will return. And that is an extraordinary privilege for which I am deeply grateful.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

En Gedi

On July 24, A. and I embarked on our final road trip in Israel: an excursion to En Gedi, an oasis located on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert and the western shore of the Dead Sea.

Jews have lived at En Gedi for a very long time. In fact, the history of En Gedi is inextricably intertwined with the history of the Jewish nation. In the Bible, En Gedi is one of the cities that Joshua assigned to the tribe of Judah (Josh. 15:62), and David sought refuge there from Saul (I Sam. 24:1–2). When Jeroboam’s rebellion split the kingdom of David and Solomon into two, En Gedi became part of the southern kingdom of Judah: “The report was brought to [the Judean king] Jehoshaphat: ‘A great multitude is coming against you from beyond the sea, from Aram, and is now in Hazazon-tamar’ – that is, En Gedi” (II Chron. 20:2). When the Babylonians conquered Judah and destroyed the Temple of Solomon, they also destroyed En Gedi. And when the Persian conqueror Cyrus the Great defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild their Temple, the Jews rebuilt En Gedi, too. En Gedi flourished under the Hasmonean (Maccabean) kingdom, established after the Jewish revolt against the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes that is commemorated by the holiday of Hanukah. The Romans brought the Hasmonean kingdom to an end when they occupied Judea, and they destroyed the settlement at En Gedi -- and the Second Temple -- during the First Jewish Revolt (66 - 70 C.E.). The Romans later rebuilt En Gedi and used it to garrison their troops, but it again fell under Jewish control during the Second (Bar Kokhba) Jewish Revolt (132 - 135 C.E.). (Interestingly, the Christian sect refused to join the Bar Kokhba revolt, perhaps because some Jews believed Bar Kokhba, the leader of the revolt, to be the Messiah.) The Romans bloodily suppressed the revolt – Jewish war casualties numbered 580,000, not including those who died of hunger and disease – and destroyed En Gedi once again, but the Jews established a new settlement there in the third century C.E. Eusebius, one of the Church Fathers, described En Gedi during the Roman-Byzantine period as a very large Jewish village. A fire destroyed it in the sixth century C.E., and – with the exception of a Mameluke village in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries – En Gedi remained in ruins until the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, when Jews once again returned to rebuild this ancient settlement.

Today En Gedi is the site of a kibbutz (collective farm) and a nature reserve. A. and I hiked through the nature reserve and swam in the streams and pools fed by the natural springs.

Now, as in the past, human beings share the oasis with desert wildlife.

En Gedi has long been famous for its excellent dates; the Roman scholar Pliny, for example, wrote about them in his Natural History. We picked a few dates and ate them at home, but we decided that either they were not ripe yet or else we preferred them dried.

The Dead Sea apple (also known as the Apple of Sodom) is also common in En Gedi. Mark Twain described it this way: “Nothing grows in the flat, burning desert around [the Dead Sea] but weeds and the Dead Sea apple the poets say is beautiful to the eye, but crumbles to ashes and dust when you break it. Such as we found were not handsome, but they were bitter to the taste. They yielded no dust. It was because they were not ripe perhaps.”

We also saw the remains of an ancient synagogue from the Byzantine period, discovered during the plowing of a field in the 1960s.

The synagogue’s beautiful mosaic floor depicts peacocks eating grapes.

Hebrew and Aramaic inscriptions on the mosaic floor include a genealogy from Adam to Japheth, a list of the months, the signs of the zodiac, and dedications to donors who contributed to the erection of the synagogue. Another inscription threatens to curse “anyone causing a controversy between a man and his fellows or who slanders his friends before the gentiles or steals the property of his friends, or anyone revealing the secret of the town [probably the method used to cultivate and process persimmon, the source of the town’s wealth – W.Y.] to the gentiles.”

The nineteenth-century philosopher Nachman Krochmal believed that the eternity of the Jewish people was assured by the continual renewal of its national life. All nations, he argued, experienced the same three stages of development: growth, vigor, and decline. But unlike other nations, whose development culminated in their eventual disappearance, the Jews have repeatedly risen from the ashes, Phoenix-like, to commence the process all over again. Seeing En Gedi rebuilt amidst the ruins of this ancient synagogue, it’s hard not to be convinced by Nachman Krochmal. Perhaps, for the Jews, the twentieth century was not the End of History, but another renewal out of the ashes of annihilation.

Friday, July 25, 2008

A New Consignment of History

On the third and last day of our northern Israel excursion, we parted ways with Mark Twain to visit some sites he skipped. We left Kibbutz Menara in the morning, drove west along the Lebanese border to an ancient synagogue in Kfar Baram, continued to Rosh HaNikra in the northwestern corner of Israel, and then turned south and drove down along the Mediterranean coast back to Tel Aviv.

The Baram synagogue, about three kilometers from Israel’s present-day border with Lebanon, was built during the Talmudic period (in the third century C.E.) by the Jewish community that survived in the Galilee after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and Judea. The synagogue has been partly restored by the Israel Department of Antiquities. A., ever the astute sociological observer, noticed right away that the three doorways of its front entrance symbolically face Jerusalem.

A Maronite Christian Arab village was built in the nineteenth century on the ruins of the Jewish village of Baram, but the Arab residents deserted it during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Most of them relocated to the nearby village of Jish (in present-day Israel), but their church is still standing, not far from the ruins of the synagogue.

I’m struck by how often we have seen this in Israel: successive settlements, all built in a jumble on top of one another, each on the ruins of the one before it. “From time to time a new consignment of history arrives,” as the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote, “and the houses and towers themselves are its packaging which is then thrown away and piled in heaps.” It brings to mind the “urban ecology” view developed by the Chicago School of sociologists in the early twentieth century, according to which urban neighborhoods are continually transformed by the invasion and succession of different groups. Here one sees urban ecology writ large – regional ecology, perhaps. And when you see enough of this, you realize how inadequate the notions of “colonialism” and “settler society” are for understanding the creation of the State of Israel. According to this view, axiomatic in certain left-wing academic circles, the Jews are European colonizers who displaced the indigenous Arab population. This view is only possible, of course, on the basis of a kind of historical amnesia that filters out what Max Weber called “inconvenient facts,” that forgets the long history of Jewish settlement in Palestine, the conquest and dispersion of the area’s Jewish population by the Roman Empire, and the Arab conquest of Palestine in the seventh century C.E. (not to mention the fact that half of Israel’s Jewish population is not “European” at all but refugees or descendants of refugees from Arab countries). I am not suggesting that the colonial paradigm should be inverted, that we should recast the Arabs in the role of the bad colonizers and see the Jews as the virtuous indigenous population. My point, rather, is the absurdity of this distinction in the context of a long history of succession in which, if you scratch deep enough, today’s indigenous population turns out to be yesterday’s invaders, and yesterday’s invaders only remain so until the next invasion. Baram is a case in point. At first glance, it seems to be Exhibit A for the notion that Israel is a European colonial outpost built on the displacement of Arabs, but dig a little deeper (literally) and the story turns out to be more complicated. But then, historical truth is always more complicated than the Manichean parables crafted by those with an ideological axe to grind.

From Baram, we traveled to the stunning white cliffs of Rosh HaNikra, from which one can see Haifa Bay, the Galilee, and the Mediterranean. This cape has been a gateway in and out of Palestine for centuries,

and here too, even more so than in Baram, the continual transformation of this region by the invasion and succession of different groups is well evidenced. The ancient Ladder of Tyre, a steep road that connected the territory of Akko (Acre) with that of Tyre, once passed here; the Talmud mentions it as the northern limit of the Holy Land. Alexander the Great entered the Land of Israel through Rosh HaNikra, and he is said to have led his army through a tunnel his troops dug in the cliffs. Later, the Muslim conquerors renamed the area A-Nawakir (the grottoes), from which the present Hebrew name (Rosh HaNikra) is derived. In the twentieth century, the British army invaded Lebanon from Rosh HaNikra and dug a railroad tunnel here. When the British withdrew from Palestine in 1948, the Palmach blew up the railway bridges to prevent the Lebanese army from invading Israel. Three decades later, the movement of troops flowed in the other direction as Israeli forces invaded Lebanon from Rosh HaNikra. Most recently, just a few days before our arrival, Hezbollah returned the bodies of two Israeli reservists here – the same ones whose kidnapping started the Second Lebanon War two years ago – in exchange for five Lebanese prisoners, including the notorious child-killer Samir Kuntar, convicted thirty years ago of smashing the head of a four-year-old Israeli girl after murdering her father, and the bodies of 199 Lebanese combatants and infiltrators.

But it is not just the continual invasion and succession of human beings that has transformed and reshaped Rosh HaNikra; it is also the unending war of attrition waged by the sea. As its name suggests, the main attraction of this cape is the natural grottos, accessible only by cable car, formed by the sea in the white seaside cliffs over thousands of years. No less than the social ecology of this region, natural ecology has also made it what it is today.

From Nimrod Fortress to the Hula Valley

On the second day of our Golan Heights excursion, we left Kibbutz Menara, passed Dan (the ancient city that marks the northern border of Biblical Israel), and continued to Nimrod Fortress, just south of the Hermon Mountain; then to the nearby Banias Nature Reserve; and finally down through the Hula Valley to the Hula Nature Reserve.

Mark Twain visited Nimrod Fortress in 1867 on his way from Damascus to the Holy Land, and it seems to have been one of the few places here that impressed him. It was his description that made me want to visit the fortress and see it for myself.
We reached the foot of a tall isolated mountain, which is crowned by the crumbling castle of Baniyas, the stateliest ruin of that kind on earth, no doubt. It is a thousand feet long and two hundred wide, all of the most symmetrical and at the same time the most ponderous masonry. The massive towers and bastions are more than thirty feet high, and have been sixty. From the mountain’s peak its broken turrets rise above the groves of ancient oaks and olives and look wonderfully picturesque. It is of such high antiquity that no man knows who built it or when it was built. It is utterly inaccessible except in one place, where a bridle path winds upward among the solid rocks to the old portcullis. The horses’ hoofs have bored holes in these rocks to the depth of six inches during the hundreds and hundreds of years that the castle was garrisoned. We wandered for three hours among the chambers and crypts and dungeons of the fortress, and trod where the mailed heels of many a knightly Crusader had rang and where Phoenician heroes had walked ages before them.
Either Mark Twain didn’t have a very good tour guide or archaeologists have since learned more about who built the fortress. He imagined it to be a Crusader castle, but in fact it was the Muslim governor of Damascus who built the fortress in 1227 to defend the road to Damascus and prevent the Christian Crusaders from attacking and conquering the city. The Crusaders tried but failed to conquer the fortress in 1253. With the expulsion of the Crusaders from the Holy Land at the end of the thirteenth century, the fortress became less important; it became a prison in the fifteenth century, and eventually it was abandoned altogether. It is now a national park, and thanks to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, we were able to drive up to the castle on a paved road instead of taking the ancient bridle path that Mark Twain had to ascend.

Here's the view from the foot of the mountain.

We spent about two hours (an hour less than Mark Twain) wandering among the chambers and crypts and dungeons. In the first picture below, A. is entering through the front gate; the stones of the arch shifted in an earthquake in 1759.

The picture below shows an Arabic inscription from 1275 eulogizing and praising the Sultan Baybars. (You would think that an inscription in Arabic might have tipped off M. T. that the fortress was not built by the Crusaders.)

You can see the castle's donjon or keep in the background of the first picture below.

The first picture below shows the castle's cistern, which once collected rain water.

Mark Twain wrote:
We wondered how such a solid mass of masonry could be affected even by an earthquake, and could not understand what agency had made Baniyas a ruin; but we found the destroyer after a while, and then our wonder was increased tenfold. Seeds had fallen in crevices in the vast walls; the seeds had sprouted; the tender, insignificant sprouts had hardened; they grew larger and larger, and by a steady, imperceptible pressure forced the great stones apart, and now are bringing sure destruction upon a giant work that has even mocked the earthquakes to scorn! Gnarled and twisted trees spring from the old walls everywhere, and beautify and overshadow the gray battlements with a wild luxuriance of foliage.
The trees are still there, working their slow destruction upon the fortress.

From Nimrod's Fortress, we drove about a dozen kilometers (a little over seven miles) to the Banias Nature Reserve. Here again, it was Mark Twain's intriguing description -- his own disinterest notwithstanding -- that made me want to visit the place.
The ruins here [in the village of Baniyas] are not very interesting. There are the massive walls of a great square building that was once the citadel; there are many ponderous old arches that are so smothered with debris that they barely project above the ground; there are heavy-walled sewers through which the crystal brook of which Jordan is born still runs; in the hillside are the substructions of a costly marble temple that Herod the Great built here – patches of its handsome mosaic floors still remain; there is a quaint old stone bridge that was here before Herod’s time maybe; scattered everywhere, in the paths and in the woods, are Corinthian capitals, broken porphyry pillars, and little fragments of sculpture; and up yonder, in the precipice where the fountain gushes out, are well-worn Greek inscriptions over niches in the rock where in ancient times the Greeks and, after them, the Romans worshipped the sylvan god Pan.
The “Corinthian capitals, broken porphyry pillars, and little fragments of sculpture” that Mark Twain mentions are now on display in a small archaeological garden.

The pools of the Banias Springs may be what M. T. meant by the “heavy-walled sewers through which the crystal brook of which Jordan is born still runs.”

The cult of Pan was practiced here as early as the third century B.C.E., but, as Mark Twain noted, it was none other than Herod the Great who erected a pagan temple on the site around 20 B.C.E. Quite the equal opportunist, Herod; he also rebuilt the Second Temple in Jerusalem for the Jews.

Pan's Cave, visible in the upper left-hand corner of the picture below, was part of the temple. Ritual sacrifices were cast into a natural abyss reaching the underground waters at the back of the cave. If the victims disappeared in the water, this was a sign that the god had accepted the offering. But if signs of blood appeared in the nearby springs, the sacrifice had been rejected. (As a sociologist, I found this fascinating, but I’ll restrain my natural tendency to go into a long digression here about Mauss and Hubert’s classic study Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function.)

It was the worship of Pan that gave this place its name: Paniyas, pronounced Baniyas in Arabic. But after Herod’s death, his son Philip made Baniyas the capital of his kingdom in 2 B.C.E. and renamed it Caesarea Philippi. As Mark Twain notes, it was in Caesarea Philippi that Jesus said to Peter, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my church,” etc. (Matt. 16:17-18).

Below are the ruins of the Palace of Agrippa II, the seventh and last king of the family of Herod the Great (and thus the last of the Herodians). This is probably the citadel that Mark Twain mentions.

These aqueducts, through which water still flows, could also be the “heavy-walled sewers” that M. T. mentions.

This structure among the ruins of Caesarea Philippi has been identified as the remains of a synagogue from the eleventh century C.E.

Here are the remains of Caesarea Philippi's cardo (or cardus maximus), the city's main north-south thoroughfare. As I mentioned in a previous post, there is also a cardo in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Here is A. standing under Mark Twain’s “quaint old stone bridge,” constructed by the Romans near the junction of the Guveta and Hermon Streams.

Mark Twain's account of Baniyas was intriguing, but he failed to mention some of the best parts: the cool streams and the magnificent waterfall.

From Baniyas/Caesarea Philippi, A. and I drove through the Hula Valley to the Hula Nature Reserve. Mark Twain rode through the valley and saw Lake Hula, the Biblical Waters of Merom, on his way south from Damascus to the Sea of Galilee. Unlike us, however, he didn't have to worry about land mines along the way -- a legacy of the wars that have been fought in the region since his time.

Mark Twain described the Hula Valley in 1867 as a region with very limited agricultural potential:
We were now in a green valley five or six miles wide and fifteen long. The streams which are called the sources of the Jordan flow through it to Lake Hule, a shallow pond three miles in diameter, and from the southern extremity of the lake the concentrated Jordan flows out. The lake is surrounded by a broad marsh grown with reeds. Between the marsh and the mountains which wall the valley is a respectable strip of fertile land; at the end of the valley, toward Dan, as much as half the land is solid and fertile, and watered by Jordan’s sources. There is enough of it to make a farm. It almost warrants the enthusiasm of the spies of that rabble of adventurers who captured Dan. They said: ‘We have seen the land, and behold it is very good…. A place where there is no want of anything that is in the earth.’

Their enthusiasm was at least warranted by the fact that they had never seen a country as good as this. There was enough of it for the ample support of their six hundred men and their families, too.
Mark Twain went on to contrast the Biblical history of the Hula Valley – it was, he reminded his readers, “the scene of one of Joshua’s exterminating battles” (Joshua 11:1-9) and “another bloody battle a hundred years later” in which Sisera was defeated by Barak and slain by Jael (Judges 4:1-22) – with the desolation of the valley in his own time.
Stirring scenes like these occur in this valley no more. There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extent – not thirty miles in either direction. There are two or three small clusters of [nomadic] Bedouin tents, but not a single permanent habitation. One may ride ten miles hereabouts and not see ten human beings.

To this region one of the prophecies is applied: ‘I will bring the land into desolation; and your enemies which dwell therein shall be astonished at it. And I will scatter you among the heathen, and I will draw out a sword after you; and your land shall be desolate and your cities waste.’ [Leviticus 26:32-33 –W.Y.] No man can stand here … and say the prophecy has not been fulfilled.
As I noted in a previous post in May, the Hula Valley now looks quite different than it did in Mark Twain's time because Israel drained Lake Hula and its surrounding malaria-ridden swamps in the 1950s for agricultural purposes. (The drainage added 60,000 dunams of farm land for cultivation.) In the 1990s, to address ecological problems caused by the drainage, Israel re-flooded a portion of the original lake and swamp region, creating the present-day Lake Agmon.

Today's visitor finds a carefully balanced mixture of nature ...

... wildlife ...

... and farming.

I think Mark Twain would have been astonished by the degree to which Israel has transformed the region. Standing in the same valley one hundred and forty-one years later, I would reply to Mark Twain's invocation of Leviticus with a very different verse from the prophet Amos (9:13-15): “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him that soweth seed; and the mountains shall drop sweet wine, and all the hills shall melt. And I will turn the captivity of My people Israel, and they shall build the waste cities, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and drink the wine thereof; they shall also make gardens, and eat the fruit of them. And I will plant them upon their land, and they shall no more be plucked up out of their land which I have given them, saith the Lord thy G-d.”