Grumpy Old Men: Bitter souvenirs

An empty bottle and an old scar should remain signposts toward a dream rather than bookends to a dreadful saga.

Old city view 521 (photo credit: A view of the Old City from Tower of David)
Old city view 521
(photo credit: A view of the Old City from Tower of David)
Thirty years later it’s just a footnote in Israeli history. Even Wikipedia, that great almanac and cheat sheet for digital-age fact-finders, mentions only that Emil Grunzweig was “killed during a 1983 Peace Now rally when right-wing activist Yona Avrushmi lobbed a grenade into the crowd.” There’s no mention as to why, or even what the rally was about.
For me, though, it was the second act of a major turning point in my journey to being an Israeli. The first had come five months before, on the night of September 14, 1982, when, barely out of uniform after a long stay in Lebanon starting in the June war, I was already back with my reserve unit for another tour of duty.
We were brought down, tired and filthy, from the forward lines we had been manning in the craggy highlands of the eastern front, facing the Syrians.
After being given hot showers and clean uniforms, we chowed down on grilled steaks and began the first of a very long series of toasts from bottles of arak that came from the Beka’a Valley town of Zahle, considered by many connoisseurs to be the arak capital of the world.
We had been given the night off, so we were celebrating. We were clean. We were eating real food. We’d be sleeping on real beds. And, having been listening to transistor radios, it seemed as if the government back in Jerusalem actually had a strategy for its adventure in Lebanon: There was talk that defense minister Ariel Sharon had reached some kind of understanding with 34-year-old Bashir Gemayel, chief honcho of the Christian Phalangists and now Lebanese president-elect. Three years after making peace with Egypt, we thought, there might be a second treaty in the offing. We were giddy.
A few hours and more than many arak toasts into the evening, there was a news flash. Gemayel and dozens of others had been killed by a bomb. It was like a balloon had burst – you could literally feel the celebratory atmosphere rushing out of the room. It also set in motion the wheels of Phalangist revenge, culminating in the Sabra and Shatilla massacre of Palestinian refugees starting two nights later.
By the time I dragged myself through the front door at the end of an exceedingly difficult reserve stint, I had received my first real lesson in Zionist education.
Unlike what Sharon himself liked to say to critics – that what you see from here is not necessarily what you see from there – I learned that in our neck of the woods, anything you see, no matter where you are, isn’t necessarily what it seems. It was so big a lesson that as a souvenir I schlepped home one of the empty bottles of arak, which, with its label proclaiming “Zahle, Liban,” sits on a shelf above me as I write.
FAST-FORWARD five months. The Kahan Commission, set up by the Israeli government chiefly to determine who had been responsible for Sabra and Shatilla, delivered its findings on February 8, 1983. The massacre had been carried out by the Phalangists, the commission found, although Israelis in the defense establishment could have moved to either prevent it or mitigate its outcome. The IDF, after all, had been in control of the area. Among these Israelis was Sharon, and the commission concluded that he was unfit to be defense minister.
Although these were the findings of a full commission of inquiry, which carries much more weight than lesser government- appointed investigatory panels, Sharon refused to resign, and prime minister Menachem Begin did not fire him.
Two nights later, on the 10th, Peace Now held a march to the Prime Minister’s Office, where hundreds of demonstrators sought to force Begin’s hand.
As a reporter at Israel Radio I covered the march and the demonstration. From its start at downtown Jerusalem’s Zion Square all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office on Givat Ram, it was truly ugly, with right-wingers having gathered to harass the protesters with some of the most loathsome oaths imaginable, as well as quite a few fists and shoves. (Don’t forget, these were the days when the cry “Arik, king of Israel!” drowned out the sounds of many a political gathering.) The press, never anyone’s favorite, took a few on the chin, too.
The police did their best to separate the two sides and, realizing the extent of the emotions, took guff from no one. They had brought in the horses, and the mounted cops knew how to use them for crowd control, walking them sideways to force people back. Occasionally, the animals themselves protested, and I distinctly remember seeing one rear back on its hind legs, reaching toward the night sky with its front hooves, as beautiful and powerful as any steed in a Hollywood western.
Soon, with the demonstrators having delivered their message, the police decided that the rally was over and began lining up the horses in earnest to force people away from the area between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Bank of Israel building across the street. The animals seemed to like this even less and began jerking to and fro.
Stuck between the neighing, snorting, bug-eyed beasts and a large group of people who couldn’t move back fast enough, I held my tape recorder like a fullback with a football and dived for the only place that offered a way out – beneath one of the frightened, clomping, shimmying horses.
I rolled out on the other side and was almost immediately grabbed and helped to my feet by one of the sound technicians from Israel Radio, my pants leg beginning to soak through with blood from a badly banged knee. Seeing that this was the end of the demonstration, I dashed to the main road as quickly as I could, grabbed a taxi and headed back to the studios, hoping to make the next broadcast.
When I limped through the gate at Israel Radio on Heleni Hamalka Street in the capital’s Russian Compound, one of the employees looked at my leg. “Were you hit by the grenade?” she asked. What grenade? “The one that was thrown at the demonstration.” By the time I reached the newsroom I realized that because of my haste to reach the studios I had missed the real story – an act that can be placed somewhere between disease and death in a journalist’s litany of nightmares.
Crushed, I nevertheless processed the sounds and interviews I had brought back on my Sony and prepared a report. I also remained there into the night as more information about the attack filtered in, and beyond my professional embarrassment and shame I began feeling a welling anger. It was almost the complete opposite of the air of celebration that had rushed out of the room in eastern Lebanon that night back in September. Instead, it was like a compressor pumping into my soul a foul, fetid gas of dread and loathing – not about anything my country had done, but about something one of my countrymen had done to another of my countrymen.
I NEVER met Emil Grunzweig and never got closer to Yona Avrushmi than the other side of a courtroom, but somehow they came together inside me that night to show that, yes indeed, what you see, no matter where you are, isn’t necessarily what it seems, and that my Zionist dream was going to be far more complicated to attain than I previously had thought.
And yes, I have a souvenir from that night, too, for 30 years later, if you look closely at my knee you’ll see a scar.
While from something far more mundane than Avrushmi’s grenade, it goes miles beyond being merely skin-deep.
Like that arak bottle it’s a signpost in my journey to being an Israeli. My only hope is that, as the tectonic plates of Israeli society continue to rub up against one another in the face of any number of national dilemmas, they will remain signposts on the way to a better future rather than bookends holding together the volumes of a dreadful saga.