Israel oversold Mickey Marcus. Leon Uris oversold Israel. Israel oversold Israel. America’s Zionists oversold everything. But the image was too heroic, too moral, too pretty to last. As 67’s lightning conquest gave way to decades of occupation, as Israel’s imperfections and ambiguities became known, the world noticed.
And lest we forget: When we proclaim high standards and aspirations, the world judges us by our own proclamations. And few care to mourn when “holier than thou” gets taken down a notch or three.
So I got to wondering. How to address the world, especially America, now? The world grows weary of being lectured, hectored, screamed at, berated and insulted by Israel. America, especially. But that seems to be all we know how to do, and if it doesn’t work . . . do more of it.
Time for a change.
A novel, perhaps.
Belay the present. Go back to the beginning. Create characters and situations that Americans can relate to. Forget the formulaic hokum, the cliché-ridden inner conflicts. Give the readers to understand that Israelis and Americans are no longer all that different, and the similarities go far beyond smart phones and reality TV.
And so was born The Former. 1947-1948, 1988. Rich young American Jew, restless World War II hero, comes to Israel to fight. Discovers that not everything is as advertised. Returns forty years later.
We start with, “The Execution of Mickey Marcus.” After all, before you can talk to people, you have to get their attention.
This and the next two posts offer a somewhat abbreviated telling of that fictional event, leading into the real issues. The book is set in the past. But it’s actually about today. And tomorrow.
THE EXECUTION OF MICKEY MARCUS
CENTRAL FRONT HEADQUARTERS
ARMY OF ISRAEL
MONASTÈRE NOTRE DAME DE LA NOUVELLE ALLIANCE
VILLAGE OF ABU GHOSH
11 JUNE 1948
“Yiftach! Eyfo Ha’Aluf?”
The sentry, a gaunt thirty-year-old Russian immigrant with used-up eyes and a back bent slightly forward, fixture of four wartime years in the Soviet infantry, gestured with his old Nagant rifle. He pointed outward, across the low stone wall that ringed the monastery complex that was now Central Front Headquarters. He pointed outward, toward a small dark mass fifty yards distant.
“The Aluf,” he answered with hard disgust in a correct but heavily accented English, “General Marcus, went out there an hour ago.”
On an ordinary night, Adam Grafton would have cheerfully exchanged a few words with the man. But not this night. He looked outward and cringed as an adolescent might, catching a parent in something incredibly stupid. Again.
“Was the General alone?”
“No, Comrade Captain. He had a bottle of brandy with him. He said he was going for a walk.”
“Jesus H. Shapiro.”
“Who, Comrade Captain?”
“No one. And stop calling me Comrade,” he admonished, as he always did. “We’re not comrades.”
“But we will be, when you take me back to America with you. Have you changed your mind about it yet? You know how close I am to attaining linguistic perfection in English. What other barriers might there be?”
“I’m not taking you anywhere. Americans don’t have comrades. I keep telling you that. Anyway, what kind of American name is Yiftach?”
“You want me I should change it? To what, maybe? George? Abraham? Pedro? Franklin Delano Sinatra? Anything you say, Comrade Captain.”
“Don’t call me . . . look, the day I sponsor you for citizenship is the day I marry you.”
“Why am I not surprised? Yiftach, I’m sorry. You’ve done nothing to deserve being stuck here.”
“Except speak such good English that the General keeps me around to translate for when he wants to charm the troops with his sickening presence.”
“You can do better than this.”
“Better than communing with my favorite Comrade Captain, his sole source of comfort and solacitude?”
“Solace. Not solacitude.”
“I thank you for the needed correction. You really think I am capable of more than this?”
“I know you are. I’ve seen what you can do.”
“And how I do it.”
Adam smiled. “We’ll overlook that. The point is, you can do far better than this.”
“But can you do better than me?”
“I am wounded.”
“I see no blood.”
“I am wounded within.”
“Become an officer. It’ll be your ticket out of here.”
Yiftach smiled in gentle self-mockery. “Comrade Captain, if there’s anything I hate more than taking orders, it’s giving them. When this is over . . .”
Grafton shuddered a bit as the word pierced in. In his former war, in the Pacific, it had meant the imminence of action, deadly and irreversible. Afterwards, it became the trigger of a knotting deep within, unbearable yet hardly even there. At unexpected moments, sometimes occasioned by something external, sometimes not, he would hear it clearly, within.
This. In all the world, there is now only this.
He was hearing it again.
“When this is over,” Yiftach ran on, “I go back to university and complete my doctorate. Not Russia. Somewhere America. I read books for the rest of my life. Such I promised myself to do in Russia. Then there was change of plans. This time . . .”
“. . . I read only good books. Only good books written before 1881. None of paperback quality. Books with cloth or leather covers only.”
“Your standards are high.”
“Fanatic. Do they have such books in America?”
“They did at Yale when I was there.”
“What is this Yale?”
“A university I attended. Obviously.”
“Then I go there, too. Obviously.”
“Frankly, you’re more of a Harvard type. Was General Marcus armed?”
Yiftach grimaced. “I do not know what he carried under his white blanket.”
“He was wearing a white blanket. Or maybe it was just a sheet. Do not ask me why. Does Comrade Captain intend to go out after him?”
Adam exhaled as Yiftach named the issue he’d been glad to avoid during their moment of word-play.
“I suppose I have to,” he answered quietly, touching the holstered .45 automatic pistol he’d carried with him through the Pacific war but had never used, then on the other side of his blood-stained and tattered canvas web belt, the Marine Corps Ka-Bar fighting knife that he had. “Any sniping?”
“None. The Arabs are as tired as we are.”
“There’s always someone who isn’t, especially so close to the cease-fire.”
“Eight hours or so. Any sign of anything unusual in the out-buildings?”
“No, Comrade Captain. But if the Aluf went there . . . we may hope.”
“Yiftach,” said Adam sharply, “that’s enough.”
“I say nothing that the men are not saying. Not after three slaughters at Latrun and we hear that we may have to go back again. Not after that swinish Kumsitz. I am pleased that Comrade Captain did not attend.”
“I was not invited.”
“You would not have gone. Such hideous banquets are expected among the officers of the Soviet Army. But here? To sit outside at a campfire in the open and have a . . . what do you call it in English?”
“A picnic,” Yiftach spat in disgust. “A picnic with caviar and roast lamb when Jerusalem is still starving and none of us have eaten decently in months. To get him drunk, drunk again, drunk again, in front of everyone.”
“What are they saying, Yiftach, that’s important?”
“They are saying, Comrade Captain, that if somebody does not . . . somebody will.”
“Thank you for being honest. I’m going out there. What’s the password?”
Adam smiled. “The Road Is Ours. General Marcus had a lot to do with that, you know.”
“And with the success we had down in Gaza. Kept the Egyptians from just driving straight into Tel Aviv. He may have saved Jerusalem with that bypass road. Isn’t that enough to earn him some consideration?”
“Tomorrow is another war. We acknowledge his accomplishments. But we do not believe in him too much anymore. Soon we will believe even less.”
“As the Comrade Captain wishes.”
“Don’t call me . . .”
The sentry smiled, a distillate of pain. “Take me to America and then we won’t have to be comrades anymore. Remember. Ha’Derekh Shelanu. If you come back and my relief is on duty, be careful. Your American accent makes your Hebrew, such as it is, impossible to understand. Just tell the sentry that Yiftach sent you.”
Adam Grafton nodded, then took out his pistol, drew back the slide, chambered a round. Two sounds of this. “Yiftach. . .”
“I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t go off-duty until I come back. I won’t be out there long.”
“If I hear shooting?”
“Do you read minds?”
“No, Comrade Captain. I only see what is there. I saw Colonel Nordau arrive half an hour ago. What if there’s shooting?”
“If you hear my pistol, fire two rounds in some other direction. Then go directly to Colonel Nordau. He’s in my room. Tell him I’ve gone to his car. He’ll know what it’s about.”
“Will he also know what to do with me?”
“I hope so. Yes. He will. I’m sure he’ll know what to do. Good night, my friend.”
“Good morning, my Comrade Captain.”
Next: Captain Adam, Colonel Mickey.