Saturday, 27 September 2008
Book Review: To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account by Saul Bellow
I have been desisting from reading Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow’s account of his odyssey to Jerusalem for many years until I completed my own, since I didn’t want my vision to be coloured by anyone else’s, even those of a writer I admire so much. A week after I got back from Israel, I managed to get hold of this book and started reading it immediately.
Bellow goes to Israel in 1975, two years after the Yom Kippur war. The BA flight is full of Hasidic Jews. Bellow himself comes from a Russian Hasidic family which migrated to Canada and understands them very well, unlike the BA stewards who are exasperated with the Hasids. Most of them don’t seem to speak English. The young Hasid sitting next to Bellow starts talking to him in Yiddish. He is shocked when Bellow eats a non-Kosher chicken and offers to send him $15 a week if only Bellow would promise to never again eat non-Kosher food. Bellow refuses. The offer is hiked to $25 a week. ‘Not worth the amount of effort involved in hunting for non-Kosher food,’ Bellow explains apologetically. I don’t want to reproduce the entire conversation here and spoil your fun, but suffice to say that the Hasid didn’t know who mathematicians were (Bellow’s non-Jewish Rumanian wife is one) and had never heard of Einstein.
Bellow’s account mainly consists of the various people he met and the opinions he heard while in Israel. His point of view, expressed rarely, is more towards the end, though it does filter through indirectly once in a while.
Bellow’s contacts and acquaintances are wide ranging. He meets with a friend John Auerbach who escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto, his cousin Noto who had fought in the Soviet army during the Second World War, a bishop from the Armenian Orthodox Church, authors, poets and politicians. He talks to Jews, Christians and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. There are extensive quotes from Satre and Bellow’s comments on Satre’s opinions. Towards the end of the book, there is a meeting with Henry Kissinger after Bellow returns to the US from Israel. Since many of the people Bellow meets are ones who move in the higher echelons of society, Bellow gets to hear many an ‘inside story’, some of which are reproduced in the book. I’ll leave it to you to read them for yourselves.
Some of the (true) stories Bellow tells us are heart rending. His friend John Auerbach, a Kibbutznik seaman, has recently lost a son. John’s son served in an electronic warfare unit and was returning from action when he was killed in a helicopter crash. John himself has a tragic story. At sixteen John had escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto leaving behind parents and a sister who were killed soon after. Somehow John managed to obtain a Polish seaman's papers and worked for German freighters for the duration of the war. Bellow tells us how once, when John was working on a German freighter, he had to wait in a line of nude men, to be examined by a female doctor for venereal disease. John was the only circumcised man. The female doctor looked into his face and… let him live. After the war, John went to Israel and joined Kibbutz Sdot Yam.
Bellow tells us that guns are a common sight in Jerusalem at any time. At the time when Bellow was in Jerusalem, bombings were very common (as they still are). Residents used to carry out patrols. When Israeli Arabs were asked to participate in the civilian patrols, they refused. Bellow explains that in refusing, the Arabs were only trying to avoid a charge of collaboration. Bellow is told that the PLO would like to provoke riots in the Old City since it would cause the UN General Assembly (which Arab nations control) to pass resolutions against Israel.
Bellow meets with Amos Oz, the Novelist. Oz tells Bellow that Israel contains more different versions of heaven than an outsider can imagine. Everyone who came to Israel has brought his own version of heaven with him. I found this very interesting. Everyone has a vision of heaven. A heaven filled with champagne, a heaven consisting of a long stretch of beach where you sunbathe or surf or swim, a heaven with 72 virgins, or maybe 72 tall, bronzed and handsome men, a heaven filled with dogs or cats or other pets, a heaven where you just sit around and play a harp with angels hovering around and so on. However, none of the visionaries expect to find their heaven on this earth. In Israel, you have 6 million odd people trying to find their heaven within a small parcel of parched land on this earth!
Mahmud Abu Zuluf, editor of Al Kuds, the largest Arab newspaper in Jerusalem, is a moderate. He is hated by the leftists and his life is threatened. Once his automobile was blown up, but he escaped. Zuluf tells Bellow that he believes Jews must give ground in East Jerusalem (which is where the Old City is). They must divide authority with the Arabs. He feels that Jews are too reluctant and too slow to accept reality. According to Zuluf, and Bellow seems to agree, Arabs are continually gaining strength while Israel becomes weaker. Israel is more and more dependent on the US while the Arab nations become more powerful and modern.
David Shahar, a Jew, tells Bellow that Arabs cannot tolerate a Jewish state, even a miniscule one which was why they did not accept the UN partition plan. If they just wanted a state, they would have had it many years ago.
Bellow tells us that the CIA has estimated that the next war (after the 1973 one) could cost Israel 9,000 dead and 36,000 wounded. Such a victory would be a defeat if one took into account the Israeli population. In the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Israeli losses exceeded British losses during World War I, if one took into account British and Israeli populations.
Bellow tells us that in less than thirty years after its creation, Israel has produced a modern country. It produces door knobs and hinges, plumbing fixtures, electrical supplies, chamber music, airplanes and teacups. It is both a garrison state and a cultivated society, both Spartan and Athenian. It tries to do everything, to understand everything, to make provision for everything. It is stretched to the limit.
At a dinner table, Chaim Gouri, an Israeli poet and journalist tells Bellow the story of Israeli soldiers who stole a Peugeot from a wealthy Arab family during the six-day war (in 1967). Chaim Gouri managed to get them return the car. Soon after, some of the soldiers went back to that Israeli family and took from them some family jewels. A Dutch woman who hears the tale starts grinning. She explains how when the 1967 war broke out, Dutch Jews stored food for the expected Jewish refugees since Israel was expected to lose the war. Instead of Israel losing, they now had to deal with a complaint about looted bangles!
Bellow never runs short of stories of how irritating Hasidic Jews can be. Justice Haim Cohn who represented Israel in the UN Human Rights Commission, wanted to marry a divorced woman. He applied to the rabbinical authorities for permission which was denied because he was a Cohen, a hereditary High Priest. Therefore Cohn decided to de-High Priest himself. A High Priest must be unblemished and Cohn proposed to get himself surgically mutilated by removing the joint of his little finger. He was told that it would not work. So, he got married in a civil ceremony in New York. He was then told that it was disrespectful to the rabbis. So, he got married again by a conservative rabbi. The rabbi who married him was rebuked by colleagues and had a hard time.
Professor Tzvi Lamm of the Hebrew University charges that Israel has lost touch with reality. Zionism, in its initial stages, may have appeared to be an unrealistic dream, but the first leaders were intensely practical. They knew what they could achieve. But the victory of 1967 led to an 'autism' or a break with reality. Israelis started to speak of Jordan’s West Bank as 'liberated' territory. This autism keeps Israelis from understanding that taking possession of Arab territories would unite the Arab world, threaten Israeli existence as a state and aggravate Israel’s insecure situation. Zionism's initial goal was only to rescue Jews and save them from annihilation. After 1967 victory, Israelis started to talk of demography and getting the Arabs to migrate. Settlers go to 'liberated territories' like the West Bank and the Golan Heights and take land from the 'natives' with army support. Israel’s policy of expansion and territorial conquest is not much different from Nazi Germany's attempt to expand, which led to World War II. Lamm says that Israel was only meant to mean life to Hitler's survivors. It was not meant to be a political power. He condemns the 'overbearing self righteousness' of Jews' historical rights to the land. He has few illusions. He says that the enemies of Israel are terrible and want to destroy Israel. The moderate enemies will destroy Israel politically and the fundamentalists will do so physically. Even the most realistic policies cannot guarantee survival. One can almost feel Bellow nod in agreement with Lamm.
Harold Fisch, an orthodox professor from England, takes the opposite view. He claims that the liberated territories must be reclaimed by the Jews. The West Bank and even the East Bank are promised lands. Even if Jews may be annihilated by the Arabs as they seek to reclaim their land, they have no choice but to go ahead. Jews must be prepared to accept their fate, he tells Bellows.
Bellows has devoted a decent chunk of his book to Satre whom he quotes extensively, Satre is left wing, but is sympathetic to Israel. He wants a socialist revolution in the Arab world. Satre feels that a socialist Arab world will find it easier to accept Israel. Bellow doesn’t agree. He tells us that Marxist-Leninist leaders of the Arab world have opposed Israel more than the feudal princes of the oil kingdoms. In 1949, Satre had refused to sign a petition condemning the death of millions of prisoners in Soviet prisoner of war camps on the ground that it would strengthen American imperialism. Satre says that anti-Semitism in the Soviet bloc is a result of the dual affiliation Jews have. Thanks to the Law of Return in Israel, Jews may choose to migrate to Israel. This right to move is not available to other citizens and encourages anti-Semitism.
Nadezhda Mandelstam a Russian writer (and wife of Osip Mandelstam, a very famous Russian poet who perished in Stalin’s Gulag) tells Bellow that anti-Semitism in Russia is propagated from above. Bellow also quotes Andrei Sinyavsky, a (non-Jewish) Russian writer and dissident, who takes a different view. He says that in Russian popular consciousness, the Jew is an evil spirit who has got into the body of Russia and made everything go wrong.
Bellow wonders why Satre and other Western intellectuals don't make as many demands of the Arabs as they make of the Jews. Why don't they demand that the Arabs, especially the Marxists among them, make peace with the Jews who have suffered monstrously in Christian Europe and under Islam? Bellow tells us that the land occupied by Israel is only one sixth of one percent of the land occupied by the Arabs. 800,000 Jews were driven out from Arab lands to Israel after it was formed. They were robbed of their properties. They are also refugees, but why don’t they get any sympathy, Bellow wonders.
Bellow takes a leaf from Professor Tzvi Lamm’s book. He repeatedly says that Zionist pioneers only wanted a sanctuary and they did not plan or try to recover the Promised Land. Bellow looks around for Arab intellectuals who he says can be found only in Israel.
Bellow wonders what would happen if Israel were to give up the West Bank. Would Jordan want it? Bellow turns to Professor Kerr's account of the 1970 fight between Jordanian forces and Palestinian militias after the Palestinian militias threatened King Hussein’s authority beyond a point. The Jordanians killed 37,000 Palestinians, more than were killed by Moshe Dayan’s soldiers in 1967 during the Six Days War. As the Jordanians vanquished the Palestinians, an Iraqi force of 20,000 stood by and watched. A Syrian armoured brigade tried to interfere, but was forced to retreat. What prospects would the Palestinians have under Jordanian sovereignty, Bellow wonders? If this was how Arabs treated each other, how would they treat Israelis if they won? Bellow would like Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, but Israel is stuck with it. When it was with Jordan, the Palestinians gave nothing but trouble to Jordan. Jordan does not particularly want the West Bank back. It would rather let Israel keep the West Bank and give trouble to Israel for holding on to it.
Bellow makes one argument in the book which I did not find to be particularly tenable. Bellow says that though no one enjoys losing property, Arab losses as a result of displacement are not significant. When Aswan dam was built in Egypt, a greater number of people where displaced. Why can’t the Arabs be generous and accept the loss of the Israeli chunk of Palestine? Why can’t they get on with their lives? Bellow wonders.
Israelis seem to admire Henry Kissinger, a Jew, for what he has achieved for himself, though they don’t really like or trust him. After Bellow returns to the US, he has a meeting with Kissinger. Kissinger speaks piously about his Jewish feelings. Apparently he had family members who died in concentration camps. Kissinger claims to be emotionally involved and to have defended Israel, though Israel might not realise it. He has stood between Israel and its enemies in the US government, he tells Bellow.
An interesting explanation is advanced in this book for the Arab inability to accept the State of Israel. The Arabs had ruled over the Jews for over 1,000 years. Even before that, the Arabs had controlled Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine for long stretches of time. How then could the Arabs accept the idea that the Jews, who were subject to Islamic rule for so long, should have a state of their own? I found this very interesting. If applied to the Indian context, this could explain why many Muslims in British India wanted partition. Before the British and other Europeans arrived, India was ruled by the Mughals, Arabs and Turks. For around six hundred odd years, Hindus, and other Indians had been subservient to the Muslims. How then could Indian Muslims, after independence, live on equal terms with Hindus in an undivided India where the Hindus would outnumber them 2:1?