Israel: the love, the fear, the frustration, the hope

Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day, was brought forward to yesterday. But the official date is tomorrow, 5th Iyar, and seeing today is still only the 4th, I’m sticking with the subject. For, despite the wrongs committed against it, and sometimes by it, despite the ugly politics, with four inconclusive elections, Israel holds a place in my soul which even beautiful Scotland, nursing among its lochs my earliest childhood memories, cannot parallel.

Like many Jewish people, I’ve no single answer to why. It’s about ancient history; here Isaiah foresaw the day when nations would unite in righteousness. Here Rabbi Akiva taught that nothing matters more than concern for one’s neighbour. Here the rabbis dreamed and argued through every word of Torah. It’s about humility before the country’s achievements. It’s about frustration over the angers, the unhealed wounds of rejection and injustice, which hurt every sector of the population, each in different ways. It’s about fear; it’s about hope.

Scenes, beautiful, frightening, painful, pursue me. I’m focussing on the former.

It’s an unprepossessing entrance in South Tel Aviv. So the colour upstairs is like an embrace: baskets, small as nut-bowls, big enough to hide in, red and orange, blue and brilliant green. Here, Eritrean women weave and work, talk, cook, listen to music and earn just enough to feed their children. Refugees, robbed, raped in the deserts they fled across, find sanctuary here at Kuchinate.

I recall a not always edifying film about attitudes to refugees in Tel Aviv: a middle-aged man stands before an enormous vat of soup. He holds up his ladle: ‘This is Judaism,’ he says, ‘my parents fled too,’ then fills another bowl and hands it out.

It’s Jerusalem Marathon day, the year I hurt my back and couldn’t run. So Nicky and I watch a different race: the 100 metres for young people with mobility challenges. The children progress slowly, sometimes just one step a minute. A bevvy surrounds each one: family, nurses, maybe a physio. All faiths are here, all focussed on one matter: tender, practical love. This stamina is far deeper than out there on the 42k course.

It’s a path in the Jezreel valley. Yitzhak, over eighty, has silver hair and the wizened face of a truly kind man. Trained as a rabbi in Germany, he came here in the 1930’s. ‘Of course it gives satisfaction when the trees you planted in the bare hills give shade and the wild flowers grow.’

It’s East Jerusalem, and I’m looking at a street I know well, but until now from a very different angle. I’d rarely been in a Palestinian home before. This house was demolished, then rebuilt, and rebuilt again, by a joint Israeli – Palestinian team. It can be done. I’m reminded of sitting with the Imam in a village off the Jerusalem highway, with my close friend whom all the children run to greet: ‘Hey, Simon; Simon.’ I’ve been with the Imam many times; he died this Corona year. I don’t recall exactly, so I’m paraphrasing: ‘I’m often left feeling less than equal in this country. But the thirst for righteousness is here.’

It’s kilometre 34 in a year when I am marathon fit. Noach, who established Israel’s guide dog training school, shouts ‘Take the lead in your left,’ and, passing me golden retriever Harry, we run a hundred metres together.

If only the whole country, the entire region, had a faithful guide dog to see a safe way ahead!

Both times when I crossed that marathon finishing line I wept. I can’t explain why.

Symbol of resilience and hope

‘Do you often take trees for a walk?’

‘Yes,’ replied the man who was wheeling our community’s recently acquired ancient olive tree on a fork-lift trolley from the lorry. ‘Very popular, olive trees.’

Olive TreeThe tree, between 100 and 150 years old and raised as a semi-bonsai so that it grows gnarled and small, now sits in our synagogue gardens. It will be our testament, our living memorial to this plague year, these lockdown months. No wording has been agreed, but I think we’ll commission a plaque with an inscription something like:

For our losses and our sorrows,
our resilience and new growth.

For, according to rabbinic legend, when the olive tree was challenged as to why it wasn’t weeping over the destruction of Jerusalem long ago, it replied: ‘Can’t you see? I’m silently eating my heart out.’ Indeed, ‘our’ tree has such a gnarled and wizened trunk, with just such a hole in it.

Yet olives are extraordinarily resilient. ‘Cut down a tree and it can regrow,’ says Job in his distress, wishing human life was as capable of restoration. Maybe he was thinking of olive trees; they have extraordinary powers of regeneration.

Furthermore, when the thunder clouds come and the olive’s grey-green leaves are blasted by the wind, their undersides are revealed, shining like silver in the storm light.

It wasn’t by design that the tree arrived this week, which finds us now between commemoration of the Holocaust on Yom Hashoah and the struggle for and attainment of Israel’s independence on Yom Hazikaron and Yom ha’Atzma’ut. But the timing is apposite.

In these months in 1947 and 1948, tens of thousands out of the quarter of a million Jews who had somehow managed to survive across Europe, were quietly smuggled out of Displaced Persons’ Camps by the agents of Berichah and Aliyah Bet, escape and secret immigration. They were guided along harrowing routes across the Alps into Italy, where, from ports like Trieste, they were embarked on refitted ships to run the British blockade into Mandate Palestine and help establish the embryo state.

My father, whose Yahrzeit falls on Israel’s Independence Day, remembered how his youngest sister’s passport was taken every weekend to give to some such immigration as she struggled ashore in secret to provide a camouflage identity in case she was intercepted by the British authorities. A couple of days later it would mysteriously come back.

There can be few greater examples of resilience than this. The birth rate among Jewish survivors in the DP camps was among the highest in the world. The longing for life and future among those who had spent long years not in the valley of the shadow of death, but amidst the sight and smell of it every day, proved irrepressible.

Despite all sorrows, the ancient roots of the Jewish People fostered new growth. We mourn, and determine not just to continue, but to flourish.

Even more than an emblem of resilience, the olive tree has been a symbol of hope and peace for humankind ever since the dove laid a twig in Noah’s outstretched hand as he waited to leave the ark. God and the earth were reconciled

 

 

Beauty – a human need?

‘A well of living waters,’ ‘A fountain [feeding] gardens:’ these are just two of the images from the Song of Songs, which we read tomorrow. The Songs draw us into worlds of wonder, sensual and spiritual at once: ‘I am dark and beautiful;’ ‘Rise up, my beloved, for the winter has ended, the rains have passed and gone;’ ‘Come out into the fields.’

We need beauty in our lives.

Or is that a wrong thing to say?

We need food, shelter and health care. I’ve only to think of yesterday. My phone went mid-afternoon: ‘I got your number from the synagogue. Help me with food vouchers.’ I went out late to buy vegetables; near the shop is another refugee I know who’s sleeping in a tent and the cold days have returned. On the way back I listened to a report from Kenya: Vaccines aren’t yet part of our solution; we’ve only just got them and our roll out has scarcely begun.

When the world is like that, is beauty really a need?

Yes, I believe so. It’s not just the body which must live, but also the soul. Perhaps that’s why, of all the alluring images in the Song of Songs, – the fleeting deer, the small foxes eating the unripe grapes, the wild lilies, the bodies of lover and beloved, – it is those of flowing water which haunt me most: ‘A locked garden is my sister, my bride; a wave enclosed; a fountain sealed.’

It is as if we are taken to the very edge of life’s source, the secret elixir which flows through all things, pure, holy, beautiful, alluring, longed for, unpossessable, yet known in wonder.

It could be that this is the spirit which brings the composer the first apprehension of melody, the poet the magic sound of the opening words. Then, transported to a different realm of apprehension, they transpose this ‘airy nothing’ into music and rhythm and give it ‘a local habitation and a name.’ The Jewish mystics called this meeting space binah, intuition, deep wellspring, fountain on high; the zone of encounter where the unknowable holy spirit and human consciousness meet.

What would life be if we had no music, no poetry, no awe; if we could never watch the dawn, listen to a running stream, or note how a bird twitches this way and that before alighting on the grass? These are sacred matters; God is in these things.

I had always thought the link between Pesach, the festival of our freedom, and the Song of Songs was seasonal because both rejoice in the spring. The textual connections are tenuous.

But now I sense a deeper kinship. Humanity certainly needs physical freedom; freedom from tyranny, slavery, hunger, abuse and degradation. But we need the spirit’s liberty too, the transformation of tired, earthbound, task-bound, daily-round-bound body into the exaltation of wonder and joy, the excitement of beauty; beauty which is in this world and beyond this world at once.

Yes, I believe beauty is a human need. I doubt if it’s inscribed in the Universal Charter of Human Rights. But perhaps it should be, because cruelty and misery can still strive to deny it to us. Access to it should not be expensive: park, poem, sunlight, wild space, music, dew.

For the quest for beauty is not just a human right or need; it’s intrinsic to what makes us human.

 

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