To Be or Not to Be

It has always struck me as bizarre, mysterious, and absurd that Israel’s essential right to exist is ever a question in the eyes of the world. That which for other nations is normally a given, is for us something we have to justify again and again, in each successive generation. No matter that the place we claim is smaller than New Jersey. No matter that our presence here goes back three millennia. For Israel, it always becomes — as it has for Jews throughout history — a matter of “to be or not to be.”

Absurdities, though, aren’t necessarily absurd. Bizarre and mysterious, yes, but not accidental, or random. It’s not without benefit that we’re compelled repeatedly to explain what we’re doing here. It might not be to our detriment to be constantly in peril of losing what we love, thrown back onto the basic fact of our being present, and Jewish.

Our existence does pose a question.

Small events in our own small lives are as significant in the grand scheme of things as that which occurs on a larger scale. In a universe created according to a single blueprint, surely our personal histories are similarly designed: the less we can take life for granted, the more we come alive. After two knee transplants, the mother of a friend of mine said, “Now, just look at me. I don’t have my own knees anymore. My heart’s on a pacemaker. My hearing’s gone – I hear with my hearing aids. My sight’s going. My teeth are false. Who am I, anyway?”

From the Gulf War in 1990, to Oslo’s collapse in 2001, to America’s recent presentation of its “Deal of the Century,” the peace process has staggered forth, through the decades, like a bloodied beast leaving grief in its wake. Yet amidst the deep and widespread suffering of individuals, threats to us as a nation have been repeatedly diverted. To the same extent that each incipient catastrophe had seemed impossible to escape, the unforeseen rescue was beyond anyone’s ability to predict.

* * *

It is written that truth comes out of the ground. One morning back in the mid-1990s (when the Oslo Peace Process was going nicely and the Israeli government was promoting our future in “The New Middle East”) I was leafing through The Jerusalem Post in a dentist’s waiting room, looking forward to a root canal, when I came across the following news item:

A speech given in Arabic by Yasser Arafat, before a closed gathering of Arab ambassadors in Stockholm, had been secretly recorded and subsequently published by the Norwegian daily Dagen. According to The Jerusalem Post, which had delayed publication of our peace partner’s remarks until the report could be verified, Arafat told his audience that Israel “would collapse in the foreseeable future. We Palestinians will take over everything, including all of Jerusalem. Within five years we will have six to seven million Arabs living in the West Bank and Jerusalem…. If the Jews can import all kinds of Ethiopians, Russians, Uzbekians, and Ukranians as Jews, we can import all kinds of Arabs….We plan to eliminate the State of Israel and establish a Palestinian State. We will make life unbearable for Jews by psychological warfare and population explosion. Jews will not want to live among Arabs.”

To which he then added: “I have no use for Jews. They are and will remain Jews.”

Arafat, as usual, later denied having said it, in spite of the recording. The Israeli government, as usual, said his remarks were “just words.” And I, as usual, imploded in a crazed inner frenzy. If not for the excellent dentistry that kept my mouth shut for the next few hours, who knows what words–just words–could have come forth from my lips.

Ultimately, an event took place which in its abruptness and implausibility was reminiscent of the sudden end of the Gulf War on Purim Day. An outgoing Prime Minister Barak, hoping that the Peace Process would yield fruit during his tenure, suddenly offered the Palestinian Authority 97% of the territories it had always demanded. The Palestinian State along our border was about to be born! It would embrace the area Arafat had sought most urgently to possess, the Temple Mount, which includes the Western Wall.

The unthinkable was about to take place.

Losing control over the Kosel had somehow become inevitable. It became excruciatingly obvious that all these years, we’d been taking free access to the Wall for granted.

My daughter’s father-in-law in the Old City said wryly that they’d need visas now to go from their kitchen to the front door; the new borderline ran through their living room.

A Jewish Quarter posek said that the proposed transfer to Palestinian control would constitute danger to life, and that under such circumstances, Jews might be obligated by hallacha to abandon their homes.

One rainy winter morning not long thereafter, I was seated on our living room couch with my first cup of coffee, reading in the paper about a Jewish woman in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo who’d been fatally shot while strolling along a sidewalk, by a sniper in the adjacent Arab village of Beit Jala.

I looked up from the page.

My gaze drifted through our newly dry-cleaned white curtains…drifted out the window, through the bare outstretched branches of the trees…wandered across the street…over to the familiar rooftops of the adjacent Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

And something occurred to me.

When the upcoming transfer of military control took effect–my eyes roamed here and there among the houses–then someone standing at one of those windows, if he so chose, could shoot with impunity into our living room.

A few days went by.

Then what happened? Absurdly, mysteriously…insanely, Arafat said Israel’s offer was insufficient. Instead of taking his wife out for dinner that night and lining up the Palestinian Police Force for a victory celebration, he gave the nod to another intifada.

And that was the end of the Oslo Peace Process.

* * *

It’s an irony of the computer age that the same technology which has brought about much loneliness and dehumanization has given us the phenomenon of instant international communication.

At a particularly violent juncture in that second intifada, when the future was as veiled in ambiguity as ever and the murder of Jews–lynchings, drive-by shootings, car bombs, suicide bombings on buses–had become utterly commonplace, I got an email one day from a friend in Flatbush. She was forwarding something she’d received from someone else online–it could have circled the globe three times that morning–a quote from Rabbi Moshe Cordover, renowned kabbalist of the Middle Ages and author of Tomer Devorah.

His words spoke to me from across the centuries:

“At that time, in the future, the descendants of Yishmael (the Arab nations) will awaken together with all the inhabitants of the world to come to Jerusalem and start talking peace amongst themselves. This talk of peace will have one underlying goal, though: to destroy Israel. And their rationale shall be: because they [the Jews] established for themselves their own government. And though the Jews will be in tremendous danger at that time, nevertheless they will not be destroyed. In fact, from that very situation they will be saved.”

About the Author
Sarah Shapiro is an author and editor whose books include "Growing With My Children: A Jewish Mother's Diary," "Wish I Were Here: Finding My Way in the Promised Land," and "All of Our Lives: An Anthology of Contemporary Jewish Writing."
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