May 9, 2002 Update

Letters from Israel

Thursday, May 9, 2002

Dear family and friends,

This is a week of celebrations in Jerusalem. Friday is Jerusalem Day, commemorating thirty-five years (according to the Hebrew calendar) since the city's reunification during the Six Day War. In honour of the anniversary there is a week long programme of special events in the Israeli capital, with concerts, exhibitions and the like.

Last night we attended a festive evening in the Jerusalem Theatre. The highlight was the world premiere of a new symphony by renowned Israeli composer Gil Shohat. It was flanked by two lighter events in the lobby: a performance by the Jerusalem School of Flamenco and a trio singing French chanson. The music of Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf make many an Israeli go dewy eyed.

We were pleased to see such a full house, like the "old days", before the war, with not a seat to spare in either the lobby cafe or the auditorium. At the entrances guards with machine guns kept watch. Everyone entering the building had to pass through a metal detector.

We had good seats, a few rows back from the stage. Amongst the VIPs in the audience was Gil Shohat himself, the 28-year-old composer, dapper and most un-Israeli looking in his suit and silk evening scarf.

Jerusalem was the repeated theme of the event. The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in the Jerusalem Theatre performing two works based on texts by Jerusalem poets in honour of Jerusalem Day.

The first, shorter, piece was excerpted from a symphony whose texts were commissioned from poet Hayim Guri, also present in the audience. The centrepiece followed: the premiere of a symphonic arrangement for a poem by the late Uri Tzvi Greenberg.

Greenberg was one of the leading Hebrew poets of the twentieth century, and one of the most controversial. His work is often called prophetic, having foreseen the destruction of European Jewry many years before the Holocaust. Unlike many of his contemporaries, while a staunch Zionist, he did not see Jewish statehood as the panacea for his nation's suffering. For him sovereignty was necessary in part as a means of enabling Jews to defend themselves, a need which would not vanish anytime soon.

Last night's symphony was based on a 1930s Greenberg poem entitled "Kodesh Kodashim", "Holy of Holies". It tells the metaphorical story of a Jewish mother, representing the helpless pogrom-ravaged Jews of Europe, and her son, representing the new generation taking shape in the Land of Israel, committed to sovereignty and self-reliance.

As the mother lies dying in her son's arms, they dream of being carried together to Jerusalem. The mother advises her son to remain always on alert:

"Even when the Redeemer comes and the nations beat their swords
To plowshares and throw their guns into the fire,
You - No, son, not you!"

"No, mother."

"Lest the nations arise again and collect iron
And once again set upon us when we are unprepared
As we have been unprepared until now... Woe!"

This, for Greenberg, was the central lesson of modern Jewish history: That Jews unable to defend themselves would always be potential targets. No amount of self-abasement and gestures of goodwill would bring any lasting security for the persecuted nation. No one but the Jews would look out for their survival.

Classically, Jewish poets have turned to Jerusalem as a symbol for the eternal peace at the time of the redemption. In Greenberg's poem, though, that Jerusalem is elusive. The City of David, for him, is the city of David the warrior, who fought all his life to defend his kingdom from the surrounding nations. It was only his son, Solomon, who enjoyed the fruits of his father's success and ruled in a time of peace. In this poem, Jerusalem is the Jerusalem of David, not of Solomon, of vigilance, not tranquillity.

Perhaps we, too, must accept that we are, metaphorically, the generation of David, not of Solomon. God willing, our children will enjoy the peace that we can only dream of. For now though, we have no choice but to fight the vicious enemies who seek our destruction. The only peace we can foresee is the peace of deterrence.

Greenberg was no stranger to the horrors of war, having fought in the trenches of the First World War. As he wrote in another poem, he understood the yearning for the day when "night creeps softly on tiptoe and nightingales gather at my window - instead of death." Yet he was ever aware that longing for peace does not bring it about.

Today, his pragmatic, Hobbesian view of the world seems particularly relevant. Those who saw peace just around the corner have had their hopes violently dashed. The expectation of peace led to far worse tragedies than the suffering it had been purported to end. Maybe this is why interest in Greenberg's poetry has undergone something of a revival recently.

On our way home we were just in time to catch the 11 o'clock radio news. The headline was about a family in an Israeli village in Gaza who had miraculously escaped physical injury when a Palestinian mortar shell slammed into their house, plunging through the roof, spraying their living room with shrapnel.

A few minutes later regular programming was interrupted. An explosion in the Rishon Letzion industrial zone, preliminary reports say many injured. In my mind's eye I could see the area; last year we were at a wedding in a hall right nearby.

Dear God, not again, not again.

Once again the radio was repeating those dreaded numbers, the phone numbers for the hospitals, and for the national morgue. How many dead, how many dying, how many wounded. By morning the toll was sixteen Israelis murdered, over fifty wounded.

Three weeks had passed without a suicide bomber succeeding. It felt like a glimmer of hope. A hope we knew would not last. We knew that the Israeli army was forced to end Operation Defensive Shield early. Every Israeli knew that sooner or later we would have to pay for leaving the job half done, for leaving part of the terror network intact in the face of international threats.

Every day for the last few weeks the Israeli army has prevented a suicide bomber from reaching an Israeli population centre. Thanks to intelligence gathered from the raids on Palestinian terror bases and from interrogating the terrorists apprehended there. But there was so much more to be done.

Was it only yesterday that we were enjoying the stupidity of a football referee scandal, the mundane headline about the budget?

And now there is nothing left for us to do but to stand in front of the TV, watching the terrible pictures from Rishon, while we recite Psalms. May our tears and prayers open the gates of Heaven.

Uri Tzvi Greenberg has rarely seemed more prophetic.


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Copyright 2002 by Leiah Elbaum.