Chapter One: On Being Here
It was a Russian immigrant who asked me, after I had been living here for about eleven years, Why? He was a thin, high-cheekboned young soldier named Alexander who had the misfortune to be serving with the Israel Defense Forces in Khan Yunis, an overcrowded, impoverished refugee-camp town in the Gaza Strip. As part of my army reservist's service, I had given a lecture at his base, and he approached me at the end. Why? he wondered, genuinely puzzled. Why was I living in Israel?
Because I'm Jewish, I said, and because Israel is the home of the Jews.
Was it difficult being Jewish in England, Alexander wondered, like in the old Soviet Union? Was I denied a place at university, as he had been? Kept out of certain jobs? Forbidden to travel overseas?
No, none of that, I had to admit. There was an undercurrent of anti-Semitism, the odd snide remark in the streets, a fight here and there. But no, there was nothing life-threatening.
So, he persisted, why uproot yourself from such a haven of Western culture and civilization for a conflict-bedeviled strip of desert in the Middle East?
I talked about the rare opportunity to live in a Jewish state, about building a liberal, democratic society, and about spreading the notion of equality through the benighted dictatorships and theocracies of the Middle East.
Alexander had no reaction.
I started speaking faster, about how the Holocaust could never have happened if we'd had a land to call our own, that only an independent, strong Israel could guarantee Jewish safety, and that I wanted to help shape that Israel. I talked about how the remnants of my father-in-law Leo's wider family -- his father, mother, and all seven brothers and sisters died in the Holocaust -- had been able to build new lives here and to connect with their history. I mentioned that Lisa, my wife, was able to visit the grave of her great-great-grandfather on Jerusalem's Mount of Olives. I described how Leo, having spent more than three and a half decades after the war convinced he was the only member of his father's family to have come out alive, suddenly found, after a distant relative spotted a letter he had written to an Israeli newspaper, that three of his first cousins and their families were living here. I explained that here, Leo had been reunited with his heritage, with the living and the dead, spending lovely summer afternoons reminiscing with his cousins, tending to the grave of his aunt who passed away before he ever learned that she had come to Israel.
Alexander stared back blankly.
Desperate by now, I talked about my children growing up as native-born sabras, suntanned, healthy, speaking Hebrew with a proper, rolling "r-r-r-r-resh." They were certain, unlike in the Diaspora, to marry into the faith, to keep their Judaism alive.
Nothing. Alexander clearly thought I was insane.
Okay then. Last chance. "The weather," I blurted out. "The weather. I really came because of the weather."
For the first time, he looked interested.
Ten, eleven months of the year, in England, I told him, it rains. Not let's-get-this-downpour-over-with-and-then-the-sun-can-come-back-out rain, but wheezy, whiny, apologetic rain, struggling to reach the ground, leaking in rivulets down the back of your neck and into the tops of your Wellington boots. The day starts off sunny. But you shouldn't be fooled. In ten minutes, it can cloud over and start spitting on you. And, I said, it will do that every day except the one when you remember your extra sweater, your boots, your raincoat, and your umbrella. That day, it will stay sunny right through. The next day, you'll forget your umbrella, and it will piddle on you again.
Aaah, said Alexander, fully comprehending now. The weather. Sure. Makes sense. And off he went, a pale Russian kid in his oversized green Israeli uniform -- whistling, puzzle solved -- to peel his potatoes, patrol the jails, or do whatever it was he spent his miserable new-immigrant army days doing.
Sometimes, especially when Netanyahu was in power, the weather really was one of the few reasons I could find for staying here. And, truly magnificent though Jerusalem's climate is, the spring-to-fall near-certainty of daily blue skies with fluffy white clouds sailing serenely across them does not quite justify the lifestyle choice. Not when you're bringing up your three children in a country where you bite your lip with fear when they go on a school trip (even though they have armed parents accompanying them) and where people push to get to the front of the lines for buses, and then spend the journey praying they won't get blown up.
I can cite a long list of day-to-day behaviors, both trivial and significant, that drive me crazy in Israel. The attendants at gas stations smoke as they lean over the pump filling up your tank. Clerks in government offices will tell you that you can't possibly spell your name the way your family has been spelling it for generations. When you breathlessly enter the offices of the rabbinate with your beloved to embark on a new life together, the official at the door will inquire, sourly, "Marriage or divorce?" Leo, asked to prove his Jewishness by an officious government bureaucrat, was almost reduced to rolling up his left sleeve and showing his concentration camp number. Nobody ever yields at a road junction, because only a freier, a sap, gives way, and there's nothing worse than being a freier, not even killing yourself in your car to avoid being one.
And I can cite as many, probably more, redeeming features. An initial, adamant "no" from the person whose assistance you need will almost always give way to a helpful, even extravagant "yes" if you'll only ask nicely and take a bit of personal interest. The pedestrian you've asked for directions, because he or she hasn't actually heard of the road you're looking for, will make something up about straight on, then take the second left -- just so as not to disappoint you. The neighbor you hardly know will pay all your bills and keep an eye on the house if you have to go abroad without warning for three months. Thousands of people will turn out at a moment's notice to give blood samples -- including a bus driver who, en route, parks outside the testing station -- because a mother in your son's kindergarten urgently needs a bone-marrow transplant. When a cast was taken off Leo's same left arm after some medical treatment, the doctor who had hitherto been particularly abrupt with him suddenly went all mellow. When one macho Israeli driver gets carried away and punches another in the fight over who had to yield at that junction, puncher will take punchee to the hospital, begging for forgiveness all the way; and they'll end up best buddies, and it'll turn out that their first cousins grew up together in Czechoslovakia. When two helicopters crash and seventy-three people die, the prime minister doesn't need to announce a national day of mourning, because the whole nation is mourning as one.
But normal people, in normal countries, don't add up on a daily basis the pros and cons of living where they do. When setting out to visit friends, they don't generally have to debate whether it's worth taking the route through hostile territory to save fifteen minutes. That's what Lisa and I do when we go to see my mother and stepfather in Beit Shemesh -- fifty minutes from Jerusalem via the safe Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, thirty-five minutes if you take the shortcut via two little tunnels into the West Bank and on past the Palestinian village of Husan, from which local youths intermittently lob stones at yellow-registration-plated Israeli vehicles. Normal people in normal countries don't attempt to gauge whether the small risk of their sons' getting hurt on army duty is outweighed by the likelihood that the boys will maintain their family's religious connection. But that is an equation I am effectively contemplating.
But then again, as I told Alexander, normal Jewish people in normal countries like Britain do have their problems too. While Britain is hardly a hotbed of radical anti-Semitism, there is that undertone that, just sometimes, becomes an overtone of dislike for the Jews. Be it the casual anti-Semitic on-field invective you endure when your Jewish day school plays a secular school at soccer; the unpleasantness of the occasional cemetery desecration or swastika-daubing spree; the inevitability that, when a Jew rises to high political office, his or her faith will be highlighted in every newspaper; the fact that there are still "establishment" schools that maintain quotas for Jews.
Many English Jews insist that the spitting is nothing but rain. I once attended a debate at a Jewish educational center where the question being earnestly discussed was whether Britain was an anti-Semitic society, and one speaker was roundly applauded for demonstrating that it was not by citing the fact that St. Paul's public school had just increased its quota for Jews. A well-known London Jewish leader who that night ridiculed the notion of English anti-Semitism was heard just a few days later in his synagogue warning his congregants to keep their wits about them on their journey to and from services, because there had been police warnings about local gangs beating up Jews.
It's spitting all right, not rain. And, if you're honest with yourself and aware of your Jewishness, you grow up in England with a faint sensation of not quite belonging. That is a sensation I have never felt in Israel, not even in the early days when I couldn't speak the language or find my way around town. My generation of Israelis was born in this country and may take it for granted. Hundreds of thousands of ex-Soviet immigrants and other exiles ingathered from "distressed" countries see this as a refuge. Orthodox immigrants come to a land in which the faith that guides their every thought and action is rooted. I share some of that last group's sense of return, but I came here also out of Jewish nationalism. When Robin Cook, the self-important British foreign secretary, or any other puffed-up would-be international statesperson, flies in and tries to tell us what we ought to be doing, spells out "the steps that need to be taken" to resolve our disputes with the neighbors, what a joy it is to be able to laugh that off, to know that, sorry, you may not have noticed, but you don't run this country anymore. I might be treated rudely at the post office or in the bank, my kids might get beaten up at a school soccer game, but it won't be because we're Jewish -- after all, the offenders (generally) are too. Our government may be useless, but it is our government. If we have to go to war, well, we Jews are all in it together.
I came here when I was twenty, enthusiastic, optimistic, and naive. I thought I was coming to the heroic land of wars won within a week, of Nazi mass-murderers seized overseas and brought to justice, of daring distant rescue operations like that at Entebbe -- not Lebanese invasions, Intifada, and political violence. I believed, pretty much, that the Israelis were the good guys and the Arabs the bad guys; that if only the Arabs wanted peace, we would do everything to make it happen; that Jews couldn't possibly hate other Jews. I knew nothing about the Sephardi-Ashkenazi divide. I knew little about the left-wing-right-wing political hatreds. I didn't quite grasp the fact that, in establishing our nation, the United Nations was taking a large chunk out of land other people had claims to, and that they were understandably angry about it. There was a lot I didn't know then that I know now. Even had I known it, I would have come here. But now that I do know it, I realize that the challenge of making Israel work, shaping a country that Jews here and elsewhere can be drawn to and proud of, is far greater than I'd ever dreamed. I came to live here because I imagined that, from our diverse backgrounds, with our conflicting views and differing expectations, the people of Israel were nevertheless one bickering but solid family, dysfunctional in some ways but fundamentally happy, taking a stand in a bad, bad neighborhood and somehow, most of the time, managing to hold our own. That, and the weather. At least I was right about the weather.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Little Too Close to God by David Horovitz. Copyright © 2000 by David Horovitz. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Group E-Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.