Jerusalem, my hometown: Viewing the Art of Politics

I walked out the door this morning into the worst winter weather that my new hometown had seen in years. But, I didn’t know that, not until very late in the day when I watched a weather report on TV. To me, a new oleh, I thought, hmm, so this is a Jerusalem winter. I brought my new, second-for-this-season umbrella with me but I didn’t dare open it this time; I had learned my lesson the last gusty, rainy day. Today, you could see “dead” umbrellas littered among all the downed tree branches and scattered tin barriers that until this morning, protected pedestrians as they passed construction zones but now laid crumpled like so much used aluminum foil.

What a day for my first visit to the Knesset, huh? Did these near-gale force winds and the rainstorm portend more trouble than just my wet shoes and damp lower trouser legs?

I mentioned in my last post that I was graciously invited to attend a foreign press briefing at my new country’s parliament. As a director of a university applied linguistics department, it was going to be interesting to observe both journalistic and political speech,up close and personal. I knew I’d be in for a real treat just as soon as I could dry off a little and warm up.

But, my experiential lesson up on the hill of Israel’s government began first with a very thorough security check, then a brisk walk again outside across the large square (in the rain) between the entrance and the plenary building, and then finally, thank goodness, by sitting down to an excellent egg sandwich and hot coffee for breakfast in the Knesset Cafeteria. The foreign journalists started gathering at the other tables too; I even recognized Calev Ben David from the IBA News where he sometimes appears as a political analyst.

As it turned out, many different news organizations from all over the globe were represented by those forty or so reporters as we assembled in the Negev room, complete with a mini security council-shaped seating arrangement and one continuous circular desk with microphones. I sat right across from the rostrum and assumed an important person’s posture as I imagined important people might assume…just kidding!

Okay, back to being serious…

First, we heard from the chairman of the elections committee, Supreme Court Judge Elyakim Rubinstein who gave us all an excellent briefing on how the mechanics of the election process worked. By law, the elections committee chairman is always a supreme court judge.

Next, Speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin..,.well,….spoke. He was not only the eighteenth Knesset Speaker but also previously the sixteenth. A thought grabbed me while he was…you know, speaking…

…after only seven months in Jerusalem, I’m already only one degree of separation from everyone else. I came out of my momentary trance and back into focus just in time to hear the Speaker say that Israel doesn’t have a ratified constitution. No wonder we have so many big problems.

But, it’s cool to be part of the “we” who have those big problems. And, it was cool to be among the big problem solvers like Speaker Rivlin. So I asked him, “Is there a plan for peace?” I really did, my mouth to his ear, I promise. Just ask him; he doesn’t seem like the kind of man that would lie which, I realize, seems like a very strange thing for a politician. Anyway, you know what he said? Now, I’m not quoting him because I didn’t bring a tape recorder (even though I had a special Hebrew letter ב on my security pass that would have allowed it and a camera too since I was grouped in with all those foreign journalists), but basically he told me that he’d been searching for that peace plan for about fifty years and when he found it, he’d let me know. I thought that was mighty good of him.

I especially appreciated learning that carving up Jerusalem would be nearly impossible because there are Arab neighborhoods in West Jerusalem and Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem…oh yeah, I knew the last half of that because I live in East Talpiot and across the big ravine are my Arab neighbors in Umm Lison.

The professional foreign journalists were, of course, a bit more hard-hitting than me as you might imagine. But, Speaker Rivlin showed everyone that this was definitely not his first rodeo, so to speak. He never got ruffled and had a well-spoken answer for everyone.

Of course, I brought my own expertise to bear but nobody would have noticed. I was busy doing what any director of an applied linguistics department would do: observing how people use language in pursuit of their agendas. This is what the politicians and the journalists in the Negev room had in common today. Both had their own agendas and each used language to pursue them. I’d have to say that I’d give everyone an “A” for an outstanding effort!

But, effort isn’t enough sometimes, I know. There’s more to reporting the news than just giving people what you think they want to hear. And, there’s more to the art of politics than just trying to get what you want.

I suppose Speaker Rivlin spoke of something significant when he said (and now I do quote him), “The name of the game is patience and passion.” Here’s a riddle for you, Mr.Speaker: How many politicians does it take to have patience and passion before we have peace? No journalist asked him that question today. I didn’t even think of it until now. But, I will think about it and hope that Speaker Rivlin patiently plies his art and passionately speaks with many more politicians so that he finds that peace plan that he’s been looking for these past fifty years. Please, Mr. Speaker, don’t ever give up and try to teach more politicians to have that patience and a passion to find real peace for all of us, Jews and Arabs alike.

In the main reception hall where MKs and judges are sworn in, hangs three giant tapestries that in 1966, the young State of Israel commissioned Marc Chagall to create for the new Knesset building (I lived on the same block as the old building on King George Street just after arriving in Jerusalem last June). In this same room, tiled into both the wall and the floor are his mosaics that depict a rich spectrum of Jewish symbols, history, and aspirations. Yishai, the courteous guide who gave us a brief presentation said that Chagall never made aliyah. I feel bad for him because I get a real sense that he loved Israel and might have truly liked living here, even with all the big problems we have. As I sat there viewing his political art and reflecting on my morning, I couldn’t help thinking, Will Israel survive? Then it hit me as if one of those tree branches I saw fallen down from the storm had instead landed on my head. That storm outside? It was just outside. But, I was having a lovely day inside. And, as a nobody, I got to sit where all the somebodies sit. And, if someone like me who just got to Jerusalem seven months ago can get invited to sit with the elite of the foreign press and be called on to directly question The Speaker of the Knesset about the most important life and death issue facing the nation and not get laughed out of the room, then I guess Israel really is a democracy and we’re going to be okay. I know it’s all an unsubstantiated leap but there’s something inside me, call it a passionate love for Israel and the patience born of that love that makes me truly believe now that we’re going to find that elusive peace some day. Yes, I can see that peace actually coming now.

In 1867, ninety-nine years prior to the dedication of this new Knesset building, Otto Von Bismarck said that politics is the art of the possible. Today I learned that anything…yes, anything is possible in Jerusalem, my hometown.

About the Author
David Lasoff is an American Jew from Southern California. He made aliyah in May 2012 and is now the director of the department of Applied English Linguistics for the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem. He teaches academic writing and supervises the school's English language learning programs.