I am back home, ladies and gentlemen, back from my supposed vacation in Jerusalem, dusting myself off and reflecting on what I saw, and it occurs to me I never reported that Jerusalem is for the most part a pleasant city.
I don’t know about living there, but it’s certainly a pleasant place to visit. Besides the ancient cobblestone charm of the old walled city, you’ve got the modern comfort and even beauty of the new city, all of it built of the pale beige rock, or an imitation thereof, that is the surrounding earth itself.
The place resembles a tastefully decorated house and is thus a comfort to the eye. Plus the streets are clean, public transportation is smooth, the outdoor cafes are agreeable, and the food is excellent. There is a restaurant on King George Street near the Great Synagogue that my wife and I will miss until we manage to get back there, if we ever do.
That is the public face of modern Jerusalem, and I am full of admiration for it. My problem was I kept getting distracted. First by the religious lunacy so extravagantly on display in the old walled city, where most of the holy places are located, and then at the end by the political realities of the occupied West Bank, also known as Palestine.
That’s the one that really got me, innocent traveler that I am. It came as a shock to me that the modern, prosperous, supposedly democratic country I was in operates a police state in its backyard. And I don’t mean a metaphorical police state, or a hyperbolic police state, but a real, literal one, in which inhabitants do not have such basic rights as the right to the security of their own homes, or the right to be free of arbitrary searches and seizures, or the right to be informed of the charges against them if they are arrested, or the right to a trial in order to resolve the nonexistent charges, or the right to be compensated if their land is seized from them. A state in which soldiers can kick down your door and ransack your house without so much as a by-your-leave.
You can actually learn about all this without going there. Much of it is reported in the lively Israeli press, sometimes just as minor items, sometimes as bigger stories. It’s just that it’s more compelling if you’re there and talk to the people who experience it, those people being not stereotypical bomb-throwing radicals but just villagers trying to cultivate their olive trees. Also if you see with your own eyes the fortified occupations benignly called settlements.
That Israel refuses permission for a United Nations delegation to visit this occupied territory and look into the human rights situation I think is very well advised. It wouldn’t do at all.
Not that the human rights situation is a secret. I just hadn’t paid much attention.
As a connoisseur of irony, I was of course impressed that an undisguised police state was being operated by a people who themselves were so recently the victims of that sort of thing, and victims on an unprecedented scale. You wonder how they could possibly do it. Don’t they see the irony themselves?
Here is a telling incident I didn’t witness but that was reported in the press while I was there: a mob of youthful soccer fans, after a game, storming into a shopping mall shouting “Death to the Arabs” and spitting on a few Arab women. Arab men, maintenance workers in the mall, coming to the women’s aid and being beaten by the mob. Police eventually arriving and dispersing the mob but without making any arrests.
No big deal — no investigation, no national soul-searching. It’s just the backside of Israel, you might say.
One of the things I learned on this journey of mine is there is actually a great diversity of opinion in Israel and among Jews in this country about the treatment of Palestinian Arabs, which you wouldn’t necessarily know from American news reports. You could easily get the impression that all Israelis and all American Jews are solidly behind whatever bellicose Israeli government is in power at the moment, but it’s not so.
I was facilitated in getting into the West Bank by peace-minded Jews in the Capital Region, who were eager that I see the very things I’m now writing about.
I learned about the power wielded by religious zealots in Israel from the director of the Israel Religious Action Committee at Hebrew Union College, where I had a most enjoyable and most enlightening visit.
American politicians from the president on down apparently feel obliged to take the hardest line possible in support of Israel’s belligerence, but Israelis themselves don’t feel so obliged, nor do American Jews, I’m happy to say.
If you want scathing criticism of Israel’s brutality in the West Bank don’t bother with this column, read the Israeli online magaine +972.
I got my first inkling of the Israeli army’s arbitrary treatment of Palestinians not from any Palestinians but from three disillusioned former soldiers who spoke at the Golub Center in Guilderland shortly before my trip.
It was one of them who recommended to me +972 Magazine, a publication that is rather strident and one-sided for my tastes, but I cite it as an example of the breadth of Israeli opinion.
So please don’t go calling me anti-Semitic or saying I’m anti-Israel unless you’re willing to say the same about disillusioned Israeli soldiers and many good-hearted residents of the Capital Region who consider themselves Zionists.
I am just a poor reporter, stumbling through a foreign country, observing what I can on the fly and trying to keep from getting shot.
I will tell you the one thing I observed on the fly that struck me as truly disgusting, and that was the holding cage for Palestinian workers waiting to be examined before crossing over into Israeli-controlled Jerusalem that I mentioned the other day. They were not under arrest or otherwise being detained. They were lining up voluntarily, with permits, to cross the border.
To maintain an orderly line all that was required was a railing or a rope, like in an airport. But Israel provided a narrow barred cage, sort of a chute, suitable for animals going to slaughter — no room to turn around or back out — and the waiting time in that cage when I was there was estimated at an hour and a half. It struck me because it had no possible purpose but to degrade and humiliate.
Yes, modern Jerusalem has an agreeable face. Yes, ancient Jerusalem is loads of fun. But the backside of Jerusalem, and the backside of Israel, is that cage.
I enjoyed the first two, but the third one sickened me, and I am ashamed that my own country supports it. Not only supports it but takes such support as a measure of political virtue. There is something wrong with that in my humble opinion.