Friday, September 02, 2011

Nowhere to run


There is a simple and inexplicable power to being home. It makes you no safer, and it may, in fact, make you a target. But choosing a home like that promotes clarity.

There’s nothing quite like staying in a lakeside cabin in Ontario for a few days to get the Middle East entirely out of your system.

Surrounded by nothing but trees, birds, water and a couple of wonderful friends, it all begins to melt away. The doctors’ strike, the omnipresent stinking piles of garbage on Jerusalem’s streets, the histrionic politics and the looming UN vote – it all fades with time. As there’s little to do there but hike, kayak and read, I brought Yair Lapid’s recent – and truly wonderful – autobiography of his father (no, that’s not a typo) for the vacation. The book opens with Tommy Lapid’s childhood in Nazioccupied Budapest. It’s a harrowing account, as most of them are, particularly when he notes following a narrow escape in a latrine that though he was alive, the danger had not passed. The Nazis and their collaborators were everywhere; there was simply no place to run.

Sobering, to put it mildly; but even Lapid’s exquisite writing couldn’t undo the placidity of the lake. The water was too calm, the forest too thick with the sounds of beavers and loons (real birds, not MKs) for those harrowing memories to undermine the calm. There’s no Internet in the cabin and hardly any 3G.

The world as we know it might as well have been a different planet. I felt I could have stayed there forever.

THERE WAS, though, one windowsill where you could leave your BlackBerry, where every now and then, a signal came through. So if you left the BB there overnight, chances were that in the morning, you could at least check your e-mail and not fall too far behind. A big mistake.

One morning I woke up and checked my e-mail. There wasn’t much, thankfully, but one from my brother caught my attention. “Is everyone OK?” was the subject line, with no text. But there didn’t need to be. An e-mail like that can mean only one thing. I got in the car, raced to town, bought a coffee I didn’t want so I could sit in the Wi-Fiequipped diner and read about what was unfolding on the southern border.

So much for calm that comes with falling asleep to the sound of crickets.

I spent most of the day by that windowsill, trying to coax my BlackBerry into getting the news. Details slowly emerged. Terrorists had infiltrated the Negev. Among others, two sisters, with their husbands on vacation, had been heading south when the border highway was blocked by gunmen who shot them each at point-blank range, an eyewitness said. The other stories were no less gruesome.

I spoke to someone reasonably high up in Intelligence, usually a bit too trusting of our “peace partners” for my taste, but very smart and always worth hearing out. Was this somehow connected to the upcoming September UN vote, I wondered? Not at all, he said. These attacks take months to plan. They launch them when they can.

“Then what’s the point?” I asked.

“What does this do for them?” He laughed. “What do you mean, ‘What’s the point’? They wanted to kill Jews.”

Tommy Lapid came to mind. Seventy years later, there’s really still no place to run. You can be on vacation near Eilat with your husband, your sister and your brother-in-law, not in the “territories,” not near any contested border. And they block the highway and shoot you pointblank anyway – because “they wanted to kill Jews.” A different century. A different continent. A different enemy. Plus ça change.

ON THE way home, I stopped in New York for two days of meetings, including one with one of America’s leading Jewish journalists. She, too, is extraordinarily smart, cares about Israel and is worried.

She’s worried about the building in the settlements and what it does to the peace process. She’s horrified that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu insulted US President Barack Obama during the grand exchange of speeches a few months ago, and in so doing, embarrassed many American Jews. She’s perplexed by Israel’s not taking the necessary steps towards peace.

But she did see one cause for optimism – the tent city on Rothschild Boulevard.

A pity that Israel didn’t make more of that in the international press, she said.

Even her daughter was finally ecstatic about Israel. “Mom,” she’d called home from Tel Aviv and said, “this is totally awesome.” What did I think would come of the protests, my interlocutor wanted to know.

“Nothing,” I told her. Bibi had been in a bit of domestic trouble, but he got a new lease on life with the recent attacks. The protests would dwindle and the country would be forced to think about what it’s always forced to think about – keeping Jews alive.

She looked a bit puzzled, and the room grew quiet. We were both struck, I think, by the radically different ways in which we see the world. She was saddened by the attacks, but they seemed to her to be incidents. To me, though, they weren’t incidents. They are a way of life – for us and for them – and bespeak an insatiable hatred that follows us wherever we go. She believes, honestly and wholeheartedly, that if we just make peace, the violence will stop.

I used to believe that, and wish I still could. She’s desperate for us to make peace so we can turn our attention to social justice. And I think we’re going to need to learn to focus on social justice even while at war, because I see no chance that either she or I will live to see this conflict settled.

I LEFT her office struck by how similar were our values and how different our worldviews. And I had a sudden awareness – I’d had enough vacation. It was time to go home.

On the subway, I opened Lapid’s book. A couple of pages later (page 89 of the Hebrew edition), I read this: “For 60 years, I lived in the State of Israel, and my identification with it was absolute.... [I knew] that I was in the only place in which a Jew can live, the only place that I could live.... The ghetto taught me that I needed a place I could go, but nothing prepared me for the power of having found that place.”

Not surprisingly, Lapid got it right again. There is a simple and inexplicable power to being home. It makes you no safer, and it may, in fact, make you a target. But choosing a home like that promotes clarity; it forces you to decide what you believe in that is more important than your own survival. You know that even when you’re home, there’s nowhere to run. And still, despite it all – or rather, because of it all – you know there’s no place you’d rather be.

The writer is president of the Shalem Foundation and senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His latest book, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War that May Never End (Wiley), won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award. He is now writing a book on the defense of Israel and the nation-state.

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