The Hebrew word niftar, meaning "relieved from duty," is used by scholarly Jews as a euphemism for reporting someone's death (much as the nurse in the Virginia hospital told me that my grandma had "expired"). Less knowledgeable Jews often don't recognize the term. This gives rise to an old joke where Sam asks the Rabbi how Abe is doing and the Rabbi answers that Abe was niftar. "Niftar piftar," Sam responds. "Abi gezunt" -- as long as he's healthy.
This story came back to me when I read that President Bush had admonished Prime Minister Sharon for a plan to add homes to Israel's largest West Bank settlement. The first AP article did not name the place, so I Googled around until I found a news outlet with that detail: it was Ma'ale Adumim, which might be rendered in English as Redmount. My eyes bugged out so far that my wingtips looked like incoming missiles. MA'ALE ADUMIM? Settlement shmettlement, as long as the rain doesn't come into the tents at night.
Ma'ale Adumim a settlement? Well, it was. Before it became a village. And it was a village. Before it became a town. And it was a town. Before it became a city. Ma'ale is a thriving city of 30,000 people, and not a brand-new one either. The 1997 demographic guide already lists its population at 23,000. I can recall back in 1992 driving around in circles there, getting lost in gigantic, complex neighborhoods of luxurious houses.
Calling Ma'ale a settlement is like calling Lauren Bacall an ingenue. I use her name advisedly, since her pre-Hollywood name is Persky, same as the pre-Zionist name of her cousin, Shimon Peres. Even Peres, who has been a snake-in-the-grass so long that new illustrated Bibles can use his features in the Garden-of-Eden frontispiece, would never consider dismantling Ma'ale Adumim and giving it away. If there is actually some geek in the State Department with a pocket protector who thinks that Ma'ale Adumim is in play in a future negotiated deal, it makes me nostalgic for the day when we at least wasted our tax dollars on such utilitarian items as toilet seats. He may be working in Foggy Bottom but he's living in Foggy Top.
Ma'ale has more than just bigness on its side. It is critically positioned as a buffer between Jerusalem and the West Bank; it is absurd to imagine that there could be peace with that flank of Jerusalem exposed to predation and depredation. Additionally, it is a beautifully maintained municipality with Modern Orthodox, traditional and secular Jews (but no Hasidim) living in tranquil harmony, very cordial to Arab villagers of neighboring areas. There is a local Yeshiva of the hesder variety, which means that its students divide their time between studies and the Army.
Prime Minister Sharon was none too happy to hear President Bush make this reference; he managed to look sourer than usual. He danced around the slap by saying that Israel would fully comply with removal of "unauthorized outposts." That's kind of funny, of course, the equivalent of "It depends what the meaning of Israel is." But I'm with him. May he equivocate with equilibrium. If we are trying to show Egypt that we can put Sharon on the spot, too, there are plenty of sensible matters that can be placed on the agenda. Buying into the language that Ma'ale Adumim is a settlement that needs to be reined in inspires a dangerous fantasy in Arabs and a no less dangerous paranoia in Israelis.
Let us be clear. America needs a safe Israel. That can happen only if Jerusalem is protected. Without Ma'ale Adumim (and Ramot and Neve Yaakov, also technically in the West Bank but now incorporated as neighborhoods of Jerusalem), that is simply not feasible. Bush needs Ma'ale just as much as Sharon does, and he should not be persuaded otherwise by bureaucrats. If he travels to Israel again, look for the Israelis to try desperately to get him to visit or fly over that spot.
When Menachem Begin stood up in the Knesset to announce the Camp David treaty with Egypt, he had a prepared speech which included a promise that Jerusalem would never be the subject of negotiations. The text had been submitted to the White House and at the last moment an urgent call arrived in Begin's office to convey Jimmy Carter's demand that this wording be excised. An aide raced to the Knesset and handed Begin a note just as he was about to speak. He looked down, read the President's message, then murmured in Yiddish: "Hutt her gezaagt..." (So what if he said so.)