It risks the charge of banality to assert that Israel is a place with a multitude of historical layers, many of which intrude into its politics and international relations.The year 5775 (תשע"ה) is almost upon us. שנה טובה לכלכם. May it be a good one for you all.
The people who migrated, fought, conquered, suffered defeat, left, or stayed have made their mark on the names of places, changes in the landscape, ruins from ancient times and only decades past, monuments old and new, as well as yesterday's graffiti.
Jerusalem offers a greater density of this stuff than other parts of the country. Current competition to build here or there, to expand one's neighborhood or to keep out the interlopers (Jews, Arabs or Haredim, depending on place and perspective) are only the latest chapters in something that has been occurring since David.
The Politics of the Trail: Reflexive Mountain Biking along the Frontier of Jerusalem (University of Michigan Press, 2014), by my friend and colleague Oded Löwenheim, derives from several years of impressions while bicycling in the area between his home in a Jerusalem suburb and the Hebrew University, with detours and side trips to what has remained from more than two millennia of occupation and settlement by Romans, several varieties of Christians and Muslims, and the history of modern Israel, including what was built in the last decade or is currently under construction.
Oded is a member of the Hebrew University's Department of International Relations, which is a close cousin or a hived-off step child of Political Science. He does not ride his bicycle through that interesting bit of Israeli history. He writes mainly about his encounters with people, stones, and place names reflecting the conflict between Jews and Arabs.
I used to see Oded regularly in the university pool. Then after years of wondering what happened to him, we met in the corridors of the university. He explained that he was bicycling instead of swimming, and that he had written a book about bicycling. This intrigued me. I spent much of my youth and some of my adulthood on a bicycle, until coming to Jerusalem and deciding that the narrow streets and hills were not for my kind of riding. As I was reading Oded's book, my younger son, Mattan, and his fiance, Channa, were riding from London to Paris. Years ago, my older son, Stefan, set the family standard pedaling from Palo Alto to North Carolina, then up to Nova Scotia and down to Fall River.
Oded said that his book was not really about bicycling, but about the various sides of history and politics he encountered on his rides. This, too attracted me. My own walks between home and the university bring me to sites and personal encounters that force one's thoughts to migrations, conflicts, feelings of threat and friendships that--to me--are more fascinating than troubling.
Oded's rides have been far richer than my walks from French Hill to Mt Scopus, but he writes as someone more troubled than fascinated. He firmly plants himself as an academic leftist, who sees the state (Israel, and perhaps states in general) as oppressive to their own citizens and aggressive to others. He writes that the choices made by Palestinians and other Arabs have forced Israel into a strong defense posture, and that Palestinians no less than Israelis have distorted history in order to justify their claims and ugly actions.
His book is as good a collection as I have seen about the interplay of history, legends, myths, distortions, justifications, ethnic, religious, and national politics that permeates the area around Jerusalem.
He interacts with Arabs who remember their homes in villages overrun by the Israelis in 1948, including those built upon by Oded's suburban town, and meets with a retired Jordanian colonel who fought against the Israelis close to that town in 1967. Oded curses the barrier which cuts off the town from a nearby Palestinian village, whose residents used to sneak into Israel for day labor. He recognizes, but does not quite accept the rational for building the barrier, and is proud to have been part of the protest that resulted in shifting its route to provide more access for the Palestinians to their fields.
Oded ridicules the establishment and the design of the American-Israel memorial to 9-11, whose construction he links to the money and political weight of American Jews, who saw the memorial as somehow adding to the legitimacy of their bi-national loyalties. He chides the designers for putting the memorial on what had been a choice bit of land, but which will be overshadowed by a high bridge being built as part of the high speed rail link between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
This brought to mind what an earlier generation of rich American Jews had built on another choice spot in the Judean Mountains, to commemorate John F. Kennedy. Initially that was a popular stop for tour buses, then went through a long period of abandonment and broken windows, more recently with repaired windows but locked doors to the memorial floor, with a lower level used for offices of the Jewish National Fund.
Liberty Bell Park scores far higher than either the Kennedy or the 9-11 memorials. The bell itself and its inscription do not take much space, or mar what is a useful urban park close to the center of Jerusalem and used by Arabs as well as Jews.
Intellectual balance is a concept impossible to measure with precision. If the question is one of balance between analysis and affirmation of a political position, Oded's book tilts, at times heavily, toward the side of affirming his leftist animosity to much of what Israel has done and continues to do. Yet the book is not entirely lopsided. There is much to admire here by way of analysis, and illustrations of the conundrums encountered and reinforced by Israelis and Palestinians.
Oded's conception of the 1948 war illustrates his perspective
" . . . following the initial stage of the war, which was indeed a defensive one, Israel fought a war of occupation and committed many acts of ethnic cleansing . . . the invading Arab armies were inferior in military method, lacked motivation, and, eventually, were low in numbers and the quality and quantity of their armaments. It was not exactly the heroic story of “the few against the many” that is taught in Israeli schools and repeated in the media.“ (p. 151)
Oded relates this as part of a conversation with old friends at a family picnic, during which insertion of his politics into a social gathering caused the friends to bristle, and then announce that they had to go home.
At various points Oded laments his posturing, but cannot extract himself from what he sees, and thinks, and what shapes his nightmares.
There are several vignettes about Oded entering Arab homes or accepting a ride with an Arab when his bicycle breaks down, and facing the encounters with a mixture of fear and excitement."Forgetting and erasing the memory of the Nakba as a moment of founding violence, means not recognizing the disaster that made us, Israelis, into a people of conquerors that still live on their swords and who came to cherish this way of living. . . .I hope I am not an “ambassador of harassing hypocrisy” now, I think as I mount the bike and pedal away from the ruined (Arab) estate . . . I feel the unresolved tension between my desire for authenticity and native like connection and knowledge of the land, on the one hand, and my being a product of the politics of occupation, exclusion, and dispossession, on the other hand. I feel the tension between my wish for an apolitical human and personal mutual contact, recognition, and understanding and the all-encompassing conflictual political context, in time and space, from which this wish stems from the outset. I feel my fear of the “sea of hatred and revenge,” as well as my fear of living in a society that fetishizes the “steel helmet." (pp. 137-38).
These reminded me of being led by a GPS not to the hotel in East Jerusalem where I was scheduled to speak, but to a dead end where two young Arab men were either fixing or dismantling a car. "This may be my last chapter" I thought as I left my car and asked directions. Their response was as polite as I was trying to be. One of them left his work, led me to the top of the road and did a better job than my GPS of guiding me to my destination.
Oded drafted the book while on sabbatical at the University of Victoria, and close to the end ponders another national history, perhaps no less unpleasant than what he experienced at home.
There is much in Oded's book that will infuriate Israelis and our friends, just as a careful reading may lead those who hate Israel to be uncertain about cheering or cursing."The months passed, and I became aware of the colonial and postcolonial situation of the Canadian state and of the crimes committed against the First Nations there. I learned about the residential schools that shattered the family structure and aboriginal culture, and about the devouring of the ancient rain forests by the logging companies." (pp 205-06)
My guess is that the book will advance Löwenheim's academic career at the Hebrew University, perhaps not without some argument in the committees that decide about his next promotion. It is not outside of the range of dispute that ought to be considered fair, given Jews' admirable tolerance of argument. It is a decent portrayal of what many of us may sense about Israel and its neighbors, the things we have experienced and the people we have known.