In Limbo in the Promised Land

Henry Gonshak
Montana Tech-UM

This essay didn't exactly turn out the way I'd planned. When I began, I intended to follow the instructions I'd received from the editors at The Montana Professor: compose a relatively objective account of my experience this past summer participating in a conference on "20th Century European Narratives: Tradition & Innovation," sponsored by the International Society for the Study of European Ideas, at Haifa University in Israel. However, as I wrote, I realized that the real story was less my time at the conference (though I have touched on that in passing) than the complex, conflicting emotions I found myself experiencing as an American Jew visiting Israel for the first time. For the Spring issue of this journal, I plan to contribute an article focused exclusively on the conference, which certainly was interesting in itself. What I offer here is a blend of travelogue, sociopolitical analysis, and, most of all, hopefully candid personal confession--all inspired by my adventures in limbo in the promised land.


One especially memorable moment during my trip occurred as I was returning home. My wife, Nancy, and I were in the airport in Tel Aviv, waiting to board a flight scheduled for 12:05 AM, Sunday morning. (This bizarre departure time was because our airline, El Al, doesn't fly on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.) While Israeli airport security is always understandably hyper-vigilant, it may have been on even higher alert than usual: a few days earlier, in retaliation for the terrorist bombing of two American embassies in Africa, the United States had bombed Sudan and Afghanistan-an action which had inspired angry protests in the Palestinian territories and threats of reprisals from around the Arab world.

In order to receive our boarding passes, we had to undergo questioning by a polite but no-nonsense El Al agent, who asked to see my name in the conference program as proof I wasn't lying about why I'd visited Israel. (At the New York airport, I'd had to show another El Al representative my conference paper, on anti-Semitism in the American Neo-Nazi novel The Turner Diaries.) Afterward, carrying a briefcase I planned to take on the plane, I accompanied Nancy to the airport cafeteria for dinner. We were just starting to eat when we noticed the cafeteria cashier racing up to all the diners, repeating in Hebrew a clearly agitated query, which she translated for our benefit: "Whose briefcase is that?" Hurrying back, I found everyone near the counter eyeing my briefcase, which I'd left on the floor, while three young men warily encircled it. Pointing at my chest, I rushed over, snatched the briefcase and shuffled off, parroting to all present one of the few Hebrew words I'd learned during my stay, "Toda" ("thank you"). As a rule, the Israelis are not a particularly warm people, but, on this occasion, I was bathed in a sea of relieved smiles.

In retrospect, the story is comic but also instructive. I came to Israel a dovish Zionist, and, save for one ideological detour (which I'll discuss), I returned to America still a dovish Zionist, if a rather more informed one. My first visit to Israel didn't change my long-held belief that Palestinian national aspirations are valid and that the best solution, both morally and politically, to the region's endemic conflict is the gradual creation of two fully sovereign nations, one Palestinian and the other Jewish. However, that parting episode dramatically reminded me that if Israel embraces peace and a newly formed Palestinian state becomes a haven for terrorism (as it certainly might), bomb-laden briefcases stashed in Ben-Gurion Airport won't be blowing up in my face. In other words, if the peace-process goes horribly awry, I won't die, but large numbers of Israeli civilians will.

This simple, irrefutable fact must be faced by all foreigners who condemn Israel for not moving more rapidly toward peace, particularly those who dismiss Israeli opposition to Palestinian statehood as motivated solely by anti-Arab racism and a desire to control Arab land. Of course, some Israelis are racist, and some, racist or not, are seeking to take over Arab territory. However, by and large, Israeli security concerns are genuine and reasonable. Shortly before my Israel trip, I got into a fairly good-natured argument with a liberal Montana Tech colleague and friend who, shocked by my insistence on Israeli vulnerability, retorted that in its fight with the Arabs, Israel "holds all the cards." It's true that, unless the geopolitical balance shifts drastically, Israel isn't going to conquered by the Arabs; its military is too strong, and, in any event, America would never allow one of its closest allies to be vanquished. Nonetheless, no one should ignore (as my colleague had) the profound physical and psychic toll wrought on the nation by the relentless terrorist war waged by Israel's enemies, both within and without its borders.

It's nearly impossible for foreigners--especially those of us who hail from the vast, vacant spaces of the American West--to envision how small Israel is or how intimately it is forced to coexist with its most implacable foes. The distance between Tel Aviv and Beirut (once ground-zero of a bloody civil war, now capital of a puppet state controlled by Israel's nemesis, Syria) is about as far as the span between Butte and Helena. Nowhere is this smallness--and its attendant claustrophobic jumbling of peoples with profound racial, religious, and political differences--more evident than in Old Jerusalem, which Nancy and I visited as part of a three-day tour preceding the conference. Here, three of the holiest sites of the three major Western religions--Judaism's Wailing Wall (the only remnant of Solomon's temple), Christianity's Church of the Holy Sepulcher (site of Christ's crucifixion), and Islam's Dome of the Rock (from which Mohammed ascended to heaven)--are jammed nearly side by side in an area scarcely larger than Montana Tech's campus. Treading the ancient, narrow, winding streets of Old Jerusalem, you see, all crowded together: Arab men in caftans and veiled Arab women; secular Israelis in blue jeans and mini-skirts; Greek Orthodox monks in hooded, ankle-length black robes; Chassids with bushy beards and bulky black coats and hats; Israeli soldiers (women as well as men) in crisp khaki fatigues, with automatic rifles slung over their shoulders; dazed, sweaty, camera-clutching tourists from every spot on earth. Perhaps it's surprising that there isn't more bloodshed in Israel--that this swarming, heterogeneous, divided throng usually remains as civil as it does.

Nor, as my allusion to Chassids and secular Israelis suggests, are the major fault lines in Israeli society only between Arabs and Jews. Indeed, intra-Jewish rifts pose as great, if not a greater, threat to the present and future of the nation. Take the deep divisions between Israeli Jews of Ashkenazic (i.e., European) and Sephardic (i.e., Arab and Mediterranean) origins. Traditionally, the Sephardim have allied themselves with the conservative Likud Party, primarily, it seems, because they are persuaded, not without reason, that the Ashkenazic elite running the Labor Party view them with thinly veiled contempt. At the Wailing Wall, our Ashkenazic guide pointed out a bar mitzvah being celebrated by Israeli Jews of Moroccan descent. Grinning broadly, the bar-mitzvah boy carried the tasseled, gold-plated scrolls of the Torah along the ancient wall, surrounded by a swarm of men pelting him with candy, while, in a fenced-off section, the women serenaded the boy with a swelling, haunting chorus of trilling ululations. "This is all traditional at bar mitzvahs of Arab Jews," our guide explained, adding, "I couldn't possibly imitate the sounds those women make, so I won't even try." Even while noting the distinct condescension in the guide's remark, I had to admit that I found these Moroccan Jews as alien as she did.

I'd discovered the depth of Sephardic animosity toward the Ashkenazim at an earlier conference I'd attended on the Holocaust, held at the University of South Florida, where I'd met an Israeli scholar named Yitzchak, who has spent his career documenting the Nazi genocide against Greek, Turkish, Albanian, and other Mediterranean Jews. Yitzchak is convinced that the massacre of the Sephardim was on a scale comparable to the slaughter of Eastern European Jews. However, he maintains, a cabal of leading Holocaust scholars of Ashkenazic descent has conspired to suppress this part of the tragedy. To put it mildly, Yitzchak holds this view quite strongly. At a reception at the Florida conference, he and I shared a table with an a elderly Auschwitz survivor, now an American citizen, who was involved with Steven Spielberg's "Shoah Project," which is videotaping the testimony of hundreds of Holocaust survivors. Upon learning of the man's work with this project, Yitzchak launched into a long diatribe about how Spielberg (in Yitzchak's view, yet another Ashkenazi bent on silencing the Sephardim) had ignored Yitzchak's request that the filmmaker also interview Sephardic survivors. In response, the older man amiably insisted that Spielberg was eager to record the testimony of all Holocaust survivors, Sephardic as well as Ashkenazic. Enraged, Yitzchak began shouting, "You're naive! You're naive!" He emphasized this point by repeatedly poking his listener in the chest. I sat there, sweating profusely, clueless as to who was right in the dispute, but certain about one thing: no one should ever poke an Auschwitz survivor in the chest.

Among Israeli Jews, there are deep conflicts not only between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, but also between the secular and the religious. This fissure is particularly destabilizing because almost all Israeli Jews are either Orthodox or non-practicing; unlike in America, there are no substantial Reform or Conservative movements to provide a middle ground between the two extremes. No event so catastrophically demonstrated the depth of this rift than the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish extremist, who killed Rabin in an attempt to stop the prime minister from complying with the provisions of the Oslo Peace Treaty by relinquishing what the assassin deemed Jewish "holy land." So far, the murder has served its purpose, since Rabin's successor, Benjamin Nentanyahu, has been steadfastly undermining Oslo since the day he took office.

En route to Haifa, our tour bus paused before the square in downtown Tel Aviv where Rabin had participated in a peace rally before being gunned down as he climbed into his car. In a corner of the square, beside a wreath of fresh flowers, stands a modest memorial: a simple abstract sculpture composed of a myriad of jumbled, jutting black and grey stones. The sculptor meant it to symbolize, our guide explained, the way Rabin's assassination had triggered an earthquake-like rending of the very foundation of Israeli society.


On the flight to Israel, I'd sat beside a middle-aged Chassid. After stashing his black coat in the overhead bin, he dropped into his seat, opened a dogeared, leather-bound book inscribed with minuscule Hebrew script, and began davening (the swaying motion Jews traditionally enact while praying) while reciting his prayers in a monotonous, scarcely discernable mumble. His bewigged wife (married Chassidic women aren't allowed to display their hair in public) and large brood of young children, seated elsewhere, seemed hardly to occupy a moment of his attention. After he'd finished praying, he popped a sleeping pill, downed it with a swig of bottled water, and almost instantly fell asleep. He never so much as nodded in my direction, nor, to be fair, did I exactly greet him with open arms. Here we were, both Jews, both Zionists, perhaps even both Americans (he might well have been, like me, just visiting Israel), and yet between us there yawned a seemingly unbridgeable abyss.

During the Haifa conference, I received a more intimate portrait of the Chassidim from a fascinating presentation given by Pearl Gluck, a twenty-something scholar from New York University, who'd been born Chassidic but had left the faith as an adolescent. Gluck showed a clip from her documentary film entitled "The Couch," relating the journey to Hungary she'd undertaken to locate, of all things, a couch. Much-discussed during her youth by her family and others in her Brooklyn Chassidic community, this couch had been the official seat, as it were, of the head rebbe of the largest Chassidic community in Hungary--a community which had been annihilated by the Germans in World War II. Gluck's film depicts how, after considerable travails, she tracks down the couch, along with the only surviving member of that extinct community, who initially agrees to sell it to her, saying that he plans to use the money to buy a sports car.

Seated together on the couch, Gluck and the old man begin discussing the Chassidic community of which this man and this piece of furniture are the sole survivors. A grizzled, soft-spoken peasant, the man tells how, on the Sabbath, the rebbe would sit on the couch holding court, addressing the queries and complaints and requests of his awed congregation. He explains that this ritual had continued to the very day the whole community was deported to the gas chambers. "I think that's really admirable," Gluck says, "that the community kept practicing its religion to the very end." "No," the man replies, "when men, women and children are all killed--everyone--there's nothing admirable about that." "You don't want to sell the couch, do you?" Gluck asks. Wiping away a tear, the man shakes his head.

The film vividly recalled the vanished Chassidic communities of Eastern Europe, as well as depicted the fledgling attempts of the remaining Hungarian Jews to resurrect their faith following the collapse of Communism. But it was perhaps most revealing about Gluck herself. In her talk, Gluck explained that she'd left Chassidism because she'd been unable to endure the only life available to her as a woman--as a wife and mother, with all her intellectual and other aspirations completely suppressed. Yet, in truth, she hadn't entirely left the fold. Her quixotic quest to locate this couch, to schlep it back to Brooklyn and set it before her family and the rest of the Chassidic community of her birth, all seemed an attempt, conscious or not, to fathom and forge some connection with her Chassidic roots. It appeared a desperate effort, moving in its very hopelessness, to carve out a space in which Gluck could retain, on her own terms, some attenuated yet tangible tie to her origins. I sensed that Gluck could neither live wholly within or wholly apart from the world of the Chassidim.

Gluck's story moved me so deeply, I imagine, because it reminded me of my own very different but equally vexing conflict with Judaism--a conflict that my trip to Israel forced me to confront more directly than ever before. I'm the product of a mixed marriage. My father is Jewish; my mother, born into a nominally Christian but unreligious family, never converted. Instead, she signed some papers with the rabbi presiding at my parents' wedding, agreeing to raise her children as Jews (mostly, I suspect, to please my dad's parents, who, though not terribly religious themselves, were apoplectic over their son's decision to marry a shiksa). When I came of age, my parents dutifully sent me twice a week to prepare for my bar mitzvah at a Reform Hebrew school. The experience made little impression on me, though, ham that I am, I did enjoy leading my bar mitzvah service. As with so many American Jews of my generation, the ceremony had exactly the opposite effect on me from what was intended; i.e., instead of inaugurating my entry into the adult Jewish community, it signaled my passage out. Since then, save for a few brief lapses into faith, I've never been a practicing Jew. And yet my Judaism has remained inchoately significant for me, a relevance reflected, for example, in the fact that I've devoted a good part of my academic career to teaching and writing about the Holocaust.

However, what I never discovered definitively until just days before I left for Israel was that Reform Judaism was the only branch of the religion that would have me. I'd long known that the traditional criteria for determining if one is a Jew is whether one's mother is Jewish. But I never found out the full story until, during the few days Nancy and I spent in New York before flying to Israel, I visited my boyhood friend, Mike, who lives in Brooklyn and is now a practicing Conservative Jew. Mike and I took a walk to a nearby park with his two-year-old son, and, while the boy played, we plunged, as we often do, into good-natured theological disputation. It was during this discussion that I learned from Mike that the issue of matrilineal descent is the primary disagreement dividing Orthodox and Conservative Jews, on the one hand, and Reform Jews, on the other. Unlike the Orthodox and Conservative Jewish denominations, Reform Judaism officially holds that patrilineal descent is a valid criteria for determining Jewishness. To Reform Jews and Reform Jews alone, if your dad is Jewish, then so are you. Although to Christians this may seem an arcane and even absurd dispute, among Jews it's a heated controversy. Judaism defines itself as not just a religion but also a people, the descendants of the biblical Israelites; thus, matters of lineage are crucially important. Mike himself, devout in his faith but ecumenical by nature, personally believes that anyone who calls himself a Jew should be welcome into the fold. "It's not as if they're beating down the doors to get in," he told me with a smile.

Still, our conversation shook me up. What did it mean, I wondered, that two-thirds of the world's Jews didn't consider me one of them? Would I qualify for "alliyah" (Israel's "Law of Return," granting immediate Israeli citizenship to any Diaspora Jew)? What if I was, in reality, not, as I'd always believed, a secular Jew, or a lapsed Jew, or a confused, searching Jew, or even a self-hating Jew, but simply no Jew at all? And, in that case, who was I, exactly? With these questions churning in my mind, I boarded the plane for Israel.

Unsurprisingly, the problematic issue of my Jewish identity wasn't resolved by setting foot in the Holy Land. On my second night in Israel, though, I did undergo a related, brief, and, admittedly, rather ridiculous transformation. Looking back, I can see that I was ripe for some either revelatory or quasi-crazed experience (depending on your perspective). I was still jet-lagged; Nancy and I had spent the day visiting the overwhelming sites of both Old Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The latter is in Palestinian territory, and I'd been aghast at the dire poverty I'd witnessed there: the lines of junky cars massed at the military checkpoint into Israel proper, left by Palestinians entering to work generally at the lowest-paying jobs available; the dusty, empty streets; the aggressive beggars; the young Arab men standing around, looking bored and angry and unemployed. By American standards, Israel is hardly luxurious, but compared to Bethlehem it resembles Shangri-la. If this was all that Palestinian autonomy amounted to, I concluded, then real peace was hopeless.

Which brings me to the ridiculous part of my story. For the days of our tour, we'd been assigned to stay at the Shalom Hotel, a distinctly second-rate establishment (you could, for instance, have memorized the Talmud waiting for the elevator to arrive) perched on an otherwise desolate hillside on the outskirts of Jerusalem. After the first day's tour, my wife and I were so exhausted we decided to stay in the hotel and order room service. I dialed the number listed in the hotel directory and in my clearest English-teacher voice ordered a pizza and two ice cream sundaes. Eventually, our meals were brought to us by two Israeli teens, a girl and boy, who looked so vibrantly healthy they could've been young kibbutzniks making the desert bloom in a Leon Uris novel. Vibrant or not, though, they'd gotten our order horribly wrong, despite the Neanderthal simplicity with which I'd explained our wishes. Instead, they arrived laden with two pizzas and four ice cream sundaes--all priced, of course, at the hotel's scandalously exorbitant charges for room service. Generally reeling as I was, the botch only registered as a vague, half-conscious twinge of cognitive dissonance, but even had I spotted it in time, explaining the mix-up to the two teenage kibbutzniks would surely have been a laborious and almost certainly fruitless task. So Nancy and I picked at the towering piles of pizza and ice cream, all of which tasted predictably awful, and the next morning (which was the Sabbath, no less) we awoke to the sight of cold pizza and melted sundaes.

That night, I was absolutely enraged. The experience had the inadvertent effect of releasing all the complex, conflicting feelings I'd been wrestling with regarding Israel and Zionism and the Palestinian conflict and, most of all, my own ambiguous Judaism. In short, I confess that a consequence of the Shalom Hotel screwing up our room service order was that for one full evening (and to a steadily lesser extent for the next several days), I thunderously renounced my allegiance to Zionism. While my fellow Jews celebrated the Sabbath, I elaborated my reasons to poor Nancy in an extended, hysterical rant. If, I explained, I wasn't a Jew to two-thirds of the Jewish world, then why should I feel any special, personal allegiance to a Jewish homeland? But if I wasn't a Jew, then what the hell was my bar mitzvah all about? Was it just a farce, a cruel joke played on an innocent thirteen-year old boy? To Orthodox and Conservative Jews, was my presence on that temple dais, in my yalmuka and prayer shawl, belting out my Torah passage (the part about "an eye for an eye," aptly enough) nothing short of blasphemy? On and on my jeremiad continued, a torrid hodgepodge of condemnations of Jewish exclusivity (face it, that "chosen people" stuff does mean we think we're better than everyone else) and compassion for the plight of the Palestinians and fury over our tasteless, overpriced, multi-course dinner, and outrage at being in a country that insisted on speaking a language other than English (and with its own damn alphabet to boot), all churned together in a bubbling, seething stew. After an hour or so, I was declaring that Vanessa Redgrave was right: Zionism is racism.

As I said, my anti-Israel phase gradually waned over the next few days, and by the time I arrived in Haifa for the conference I was more or less back to my old self: a dovish Zionist, pro-Labor, supportive of the peace process, in favor of a Palestinian state, but cognizant of the legitimacy of Israeli security concerns. However, that wild night in the Shalom Hotel in Jerusalem still haunts me. Looking back, I suspect what my experience revealed was that, like Pearl Gluck with her vexed ties to her Chassidic roots, I can never quite either be a normal Jew or give up on Judaism entirely. It's a limbo in which, I'm afraid, I will probably hover for the rest of my life.

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