Saturday, August 20, 2011

Impressions from a day in Israel

I am staying at the house of Motti Lerner, a playwright and the author of Pangs of the Messiah, which I am directing in October/November.  Staying here is very different than being a tourist.  I haven’t seen any sites, I haven’t done anything I would usually do while traveling.  I have been working on the play.  I have been meeting Israelis.  And my experience so far has made me feel like I have a different understanding of what it is to be a country involved so deeply in war.

Of course, I am investigating political issues and working on a very political play.  Which heightens my awareness of that aspect of the Israeli experience.  When I was last in Israel, that was far from my mind.  I was 13, celebrating my bar mitzvah, and excited to be out of the country for the first time in my life.  I felt like I was on the set of a movie, I could hardly believe that Jerusalem was an actual place.

It was also a different time, perhaps.  So I have been told, and true, the issues facing Israel were different at the time.  Though looking at the overall history of Israel, I wonder how different.

Motti is a peace activist, but to understand what that means here requires also to understand context.

My room (in Motti’s house) is a safety room.  It is legally required here that every house has one.  So in essence, I am living in a bomb shelter.

Yesterday, while in London, I heard the news about the terrorism attack in Eilat (in southen Israel).  It registered, but very abstractly.  After all, terrorism is an occasional fact nowadays, even outside of Israel.  I also heard about the bombing reprisals in Gaza, and the Egyptians killed.  Still, that didn’t seem like a major escalation.  When I look at cnn or msnbc online, I get that same impression.  An event, but not a major event.

Yet the response at Motti’s dinner table was to the news was: well, the war is starting at last.  I had the feeling that sentence had been said before.  But it didn’t mean that in some ways, it wasn’t believed, each time.  For one of these days, it’s sure to be true.  Perhaps this time.

Motti’s son and daughter are soon entering the army, as required.  Motti’s other son is just finishing his service.  And even though Motti considers himself a peace activist, he too served in the army.  He chose the artillery, as he would have been required to spend more years in the non-combat divisions.

As it happens, the end of service was set for a week before the Yom Kippur War.  He was recalled, and because of his experience, given a position of authority.  For many days, he thought they had lost, that there would be no state of Israel anymore.  He was in charge of setting up headquarters in the Sinai for phase two of the war, should Israel survive that long.

The war ended before the headquarters in the Sinai was necessary.  Israel survived.

Today, work with Motti consisted partly of revising the script, partly in taking a crash course in the history of the settlements.  We talked the messianic ideals that led Hanan Porat to become a settler.  We talked about how the local government there worked, interior politics, and I got to marvel (and envy a little) that even vets are socialized in Israel.

Then we had dinner with former settlers, a married couple and friends of Motti.  The wife had been the Secretary of the Community Council, basically the mayor of the settlement town.  The husband came from a very far right family; his parents had a poster of  Yigal Amir on their war—the man who murdered Yitzchak Rabin. The settlement leaders eventually forced them to take the poster down, it was too much even for them.  His brother had been a member of the Jewish Underground, the group who, under the leadership of Yehuda Etzion, had planned to bomb the Dome of the Rock.

He himself had left the settlement years ago.  He was a writer with radical, or at least secular, ideas.  He wrote an article once, blaming God for the Holocaust.  To Yehuda Etzion, that was too much.  He wrote a letter in code, using a quotation that referenced a passage in the Torah, in which a heretical man was killed. Motti’s friend’s parents contacted Yehuda Etzion, and asked him to remove the hit, for essentially that’s what the letter was.  Etzion agreed to withdraw it.

The couple left the settlement soon after.  The husband said, it was uncomfortable for people to overlook their secularism.  He wasn’t exactly left wing, still.  He considered himself independent, but found it hard to connect to the settlers anymore.

His ambivalent feelings were clear.  When the settlements were dismantled in Gaza, he went for a vacation in Vienna, because he couldn’t bear to watch.  Then he went to Switzerland, which was experiencing some student protests.  He was warned it might be dangerous to travel, which made him want to laugh.  When I asked him if he would trade the settlement he lived in for peace, he said yes, of course.  If the peace were the same sort of peace as between the United States and Canada.  If the Arabs could be trusted, which they probably could not.

He talked about joining the settlement.  I wanted my life to mean something, he said.  I wanted to change the war, so that Israel was no longer being attacked, so that all the animosity would be directed against the settlements.  And we did that, he said, a bit proudly.

Tonight, when I arrived back at Motti’s we heard that 60 rockets had been sent from  Gaza.  Someone had been killed.  Motti shook his head.  It will just escalate from here, he said.  Netanyahu has to negotiate.  But no one trusts anyone.

Tonight, back in the safety room for some sleep.  Tomorrow Tel Aviv.  Between meetings, I'm hoping to be able to drop by the beach...