Jerusalem is now Israel’s largest city, larger than Tel Aviv and Haifa combined, but it’s decrepit, with a high poverty level, population growth mainly in the Arab and ultra-Orthodox Jewish sectors, and young professionals steadily leaving it. It is, after years of suicide bombings, a still-dazed, recovering city, tourists starting to fill its streets again, its downtown sector regaining its liveliness but, as it were, cautiously, security guards still perched in doorways. Having lived in or near it for 20 years, I find the stone of its buildings, its weather and moods, so much a part of me that I can no longer feel at home anywhere else — certainly not in my native upstate New York, where I feel like a tourist who, by some quirk, knows the language and can fake getting around.
Jerusalem is also where I now try to rebuild a life, going on blind dates to look for a door back into wholeness. The city offers wonderful places for dates, shady patios under pine trees where the mood is so idyllic you’d think you were in an eternal Sabbath instead of a flashpoint of politics and war. I’ve had too many of these meetings, but aside from reserve duty they’ve offered the most scope for talking with people and finding out what they think.
My dates are mostly in the secular, college-educated category, and much of what they say I’ve learned to endure stoically while rarely offering much of a challenge. The Oslo mentality persists, as if the terror war had not been. The Palestinians are pathetic victims, simply seeking a fair shake under the sun; the terror attacks, albeit horrifying, are an expression of frustration, and it’s boorish not to realize this and to think one would act any differently in the Palestinians’ place. Objections that Israel did, after all, make a political attempt to solve the problem, at considerable sacrifice and risk to itself, evoke a litany of counterclaims: but Israel kept building settlements; but Rabin was assassinated and no other Israeli leader had the right chemistry with Arafat; but “both sides” couldn’t get over the respective wounds and traumas of their pasts. What can’t be adopted is the view — prevalent in Israel’s first two decades, now taboo for most of the world and part of Israel — that we are just under siege by people who don’t accept our presence here, and there’s not much we can do about it.
Indeed, for most of my dates it’s axiomatic that any sort of claim for one’s own side is just nationalistic boorishness, beneath one’s station in life as an educated person. As the Israeli novelist Aharon Megged wrote: “…we have witnessed a phenomenon which probably has no parallel in history: an emotional and moral identification by the majority of Israel’s intelligentsia with people openly committed to our annihilation.” Whereas talk about attachments to land and Jewish rights makes me suspect as an American who, while not wearing a skullcap, may actually be Orthodox in sympathies if not in practice, the notion that Palestinian nationalism, and attachment to places like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, is noble and estimable is so ingrained as to be unconscious.
The attitudes vary in degree; Israelis are complex, and reflexive self-negation can coexist in the same person with themes of pride and affirmation. Some of my dates have spent time abroad and found that it was not the wonderland they dreamed of, and that Israel was the only place they could feel at home. One, though firmly in the secular camp, told me she found it depressing that the Jewish holidays aren’t “felt” in America. Another who had been in many countries said that, with the exception of Spain, she found no place where human empathy was as strong as in Israel.
Still, the Israeli secular elite is in a problematic condition, as most dramatically evidenced by the fact of how little the terror war has changed their mindset. A reality of external hatred cannot be coped with if love of one’s own identity is not instilled or is stigmatized. We know now that a secular school system that teaches Bible and Jewish history largely mechanically, as requirements for credit, will not by itself fill what is lacking. Jerusalem, too, is a casualty; many of my dates, though Jerusalemites themselves, see the city as a heavy, stifling place of religion and conflict and say either that they plan to move to easygoing Tel Aviv or would if they could. What disturbs me is how lightly they say it, as if Jerusalem is something to be shrugged off and left to denizens one regards as retrograde and grim.
The geographic trend reflects the attitudinal trend; while it was once thought that the terror war was producing a “rallying around the flag” phenomenon of greater unity and common recognition of the Arab side’s cruelty and extremism, instead the polarization continues. I would hate it if, 20 years from now, secular Israelis were rare in Jerusalem and Israel’s two main cities represented disjointed worlds of mentality and culture. What is needed is an identity that is not necessarily religious but respectful of both our past and our present, and not afraid of self-assertion — a description that applies to most of the Israeli population, but not to its troubled elite, which now resembles its antireligious, antinationalist counterparts in North America and Europe. All of which is too much to say on a blind date.