I’m still on book tour but taking a break long enough to post Part III of these articles on Israel.
What I Saw in the Land—Some Snapshots
In 1984 and again in 1991 I traveled to Israel to do research for my novels about the ancient Middle East and to visit my ex, Ruth, and the three children I’d helped her raise.
Everyone I met in Israel (except possibly one Bedouin group) was unfailingly kind and hospitable. People welcomed me into their homes, shared their food, and expressed their opinions—at least those opinions they thought I would find acceptable.
Ruth was born in Poland. Her family survived the Holocaust and brought her to Haifa when she was four. Like all Israeli women except the ultra-Orthodox, she had been required to serve in the military, where she taught female recruits how to use their Uzis. I met her in 1979 in Berkeley and she returned to Israel in 1982.
When I visited her in Israel, besides escorting me to archaeological sites for my research project, she took me to the Sea of Galilee, at the base of the Golan Heights, to show me why Israel had annexed the Heights in 1981. The Syrian military used to roll tanks up to the edge of the cliff and shoot at the Jewish settlements below, or kill fishermen and farmers with sniper fire.
One afternoon I took a walk with Ruth’s daughter Anat, who was nine at the time. During the course of conversation, she explained that Islam was a fake religion while Judaism is a real one. Astonished, I wondered who taught her that, since her family is secular. She would have been attending one of the state-secular schools for Jewish kids.
On another occasion I joined a group of Israeli lesbians for a picnic at the beach. “You must be so happy to be here, just among Jews,” they told me.
“I dunno,” I replied. “Where’s everybody else?” At the time I lived in Oakland, which was one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the United States (over 125 languages are spoken there). The women looked at me blankly.
“What about him?” I asked, pointing to an Arab pedaling a fat-tired bicycle with a cooler full of popsicles for sale. Again, they didn’t respond. It was as though the guy was just part of the furniture and didn’t count.
In Tel Aviv I had dinner in the apartment of a young couple. The man told me that they were liberals. However, he added with what I interpreted as a shamefaced smile, they were hoping to move into one of the new settlements in the occupied territories, where the cost of housing was much cheaper.
Most of the time I traveled by bus. Soldiers rode the buses as well, usually sitting in aisle seats with their Uzi submachine guns propped next to them. I had to step carefully, to avoid tripping over the weaponry, and it was unnerving.
Then I visited I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. Much of what I saw is lost to memory except for one enlarged photo of a German woman, a concentration camp guard, smiling sadistically as she sits looking down at a dying Jewish man, naked, skin and bones. That image is forever burned in my soul.
When I walked out into the sunshine again I understood all those Uzis on the public buses. At that moment I wanted one too.
While walking around Jerusalem, I stopped to look at a painting in a store window. It depicted a large temple with a few priests and worshippers strolling in front. I entered the store. The woman behind the counter explained that the Third Jewish Temple would be built on the site of the First and Second Temples. The Dome of the Rock, the third holiest shrine in Islam, would be demolished.
“But there are over a billion Muslims in the world,” I replied, “and only a few million Jews.” (As I recently learned, about 13 million in 1991.
“God will give us the victory,” the woman said serenely. There was no arguing with that far-away, fanatic look in her eyes.
I visited the Dome of the Rock that year. To do so I had to pass by a group of Orthodox Jewish men, one of whom told me that as a Jew I was forbidden to go there. I ignored him. It was the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen.
In the Negev I joined a group of Americans visiting a Bedouin village. We gathered in a large tent for a welcoming ceremony where our hosts made fresh coffee for us, and the tour guide made a little speech about local customs. The coffee was gritty, full of grounds—nothing I’d serve to guests. I thought this was the Bedouin way of expressing their disdain, but was recently corrected by Revital, an Israeli friend. This is the way Turkish coffee is served. People wait for the grounds to settle before drinking.
On the way south to Eilat I encountered a couple of Arab laborers having lunch by the side of the road. They invited me to join them. We dipped chunks of pita in a bowl of stew. “The Jews do whatever they want with us,” they complained bitterly. I just listened. About two days later I developed traveler’s diarrhea and I went to a clinic. When I mentioned the shared bowl as a possible cause, the doctor scowled and made disparaging remarks about the Arabs. I don’t remember his exact words, but was taken aback by the hatred in his voice.
At the end of my first stay Ruth drove me to the airport. We were running late. While waiting on the security line, I saw an Israeli soldier going over the luggage of a well-dressed Palestinian couple. He opened the woman’s suitcase, inserted the barrel of his rifle into her underpants, lifted the garment, and slid it back and forth, as though to say, “I can rape your wife and there’s nothing you can do about it.” I can still see his sadistic sneer and the humiliation on the faces of the Palestinians. I didn’t have the courage to protest, thinking I was a foreigner there, and I was afraid to miss my plane.
* * *
In 1985, a year after my first trip to Israel, one of the lesbians who’d been at that picnic on Haifa’s beach visited the U.S. I took her to Berkeley Bowl Market, owned by a Japanese family and frequented by members of all the various nationalities who live in the East Bay. That day the people behind us in the checkout line were speaking Somali. This was what I meant, I explained, when I asked, “Where’s everybody else?” Here no ethnic group is in the majority, I told her, so none can transform their customs or religious rules into laws that the rest must obey. At that time I had in mind the Israeli law that places marital status under the control of the rabbinate if you’re Jewish, under the mullahs if you’re Muslim, and so on. Jewish law says a man can divorce his wife for any reason or none, while a woman needs her husband’s permission in order to end the marriage. Islamic law is similarly restrictive.
But 35 years later, in 2022, the Supreme Court issued the Dobbs decision curtailing women’s reproductive rights, and the GOP has allied with the fundamentalist fanatics in their quest to turn this country into a theocracy. At the same time–and this is certainly no coincidence–the Netanyahu government, in alliance with the ultra-Orthodox, is trying to impose a theocracy on the secular half of the population.
Then there’s the matter of the red cow. The woman in the Jerusalem storefront would have been a member of a group called the Temple Institute. According to ancient tradition, the priests had to sacrifice a red heifer without blemish or even two hairs of another color. The Institute has been trying to breed such an animal and recently announced that they’ve succeeded. They are planning to slaughter the poor creature during Passover 2024, as part of preparations for razing the Muslim Dome of the Rock and rebuilding that Third Temple. Evangelical Christians are supporting them in this project, believing it will usher in the End Times, when Jesus will return to rule the Earth and nonbelievers (including Jews who don’t convert to Christianity) will be thrown into Hell. Thanks a lot, guys!