Middle Israel: Is Gaza cursed?

There is no arguing the expression on Gaza's face - desperate, fuming and unimpeachable.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Places - like people, tribes and institutions - can have character. Rome is happy, Vegas is infantile, Oxford is curious, Amsterdam is frivolous, Jerusalem is pretentious, Moscow is greedy, Berlin is decadent, Budapest is pompous, Tokyo is noble, Beijing is industrious and New York's laughter is infectious. Gaza also has character. Flat as a table, dusty as a zoo cage and fraying like an archeological dig, it may have little to laugh about or pretend to be, yet there is no arguing that it, too, has an expression on its face, one that seems perennially as desperate, fuming and unimpeachable as a chained bulldog facing a cat parade. It wasn't always such. Back when Samson frequented it, Gaza was to Canaan what Beirut is now to Syria: a sinful opening to the outer world, a nexus of all the commerce, cosmopolitanism and promiscuity that are so antithetical to this sprawling shantytown's current insistence to abuse, menace, bite and spew fire at whatever surrounds, touches or approaches it, from Israeli kids, European diplomats and UN officials to Saudi princes, Egyptian generals and BBC reporters. GAZA WAS mercantile and outgoing well after the Philistines had vanished. In the times of the Maccabees, it was the exit port for the Nabataeans' spices; under Roman rule, it sported eight pagan temples; and under the Byzantines, it became a regional center for higher education that included a theater, stadium, and school for oratory. Yet while being central, Gaza was also anecdotal, and the less it understood its position, the more it got into trouble. For the ancient Pharaohs, it was but a milestone on the coastal highway to Mesopotamia - what the Romans later called Via Maris. Viewed from the Nile, Gaza was the nearest foreign town, barely a two-day camel ride beyond the eastern desert. Viewed from within, Gaza was a hopelessly vulnerable place - small, weak and tempting prey for empires and nomads, close and distant. When the Egyptians were on the decline, it was overrun by Assyrians and Babylonians, and when those had yet to arrive it was a bone of contention between the Philistines, who invaded from the sea to its west, and the Israelites, who emerged from the desert beyond its east. There is no counting the number of geopolitical showdowns that took place around Gaza over the centuries. The Hasmoneans razed it, thus marking their kingdom's southern extent; Pompeii the Great conquered it for Rome; the Crusaders were dealt here blows from which they never recovered; the Ottomans took Gaza en route to their conquest of Egypt; Napoleon captured here 2,000 Turkish soldiers; General Allenby broke here a major German-commanded defense line in World War I; and the IDF saw here some of the Six Day War's most pitched battles. While such skirmishes reduced Gaza to a mere backdrop, there were battles it joined, unwisely. When Alexander the Great arrived in the Promised Land, the Jews welcomed him, as did the entire region. Gaza, however, resisted the great conqueror - the only obstacle he encountered en route to Egypt - and was summarily crushed. In short, Gaza has long been in the habit of hosting conflict, denying reality, and getting caught in history's crossfire - so much so that one must wonder why it deserves to be consigned to a backwardness that squanders its centrality, fertility and nice beaches. Is it cursed? THERE ARE several types of curses. Some are hurled by people, others by God; some are well deserved, others arbitrary. One famous curse was the biblical Shim'i Ben-Gera's, who barked at King David as he fled Jerusalem from his rebellious son: "Get out, get out, you criminal, you villain, the Lord is paying you back for all your crimes against the family of Saul whose throne you seized. The Lord is handing over the throne to your son Absalom; you are in trouble because you are a criminal." Another is God's to Adam, and all of us: "Because you did as your wife said … cursed be the ground because of you; by toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life." Then, of course, there is the kind that is systematically haunting but also arbitrary, like a well-run business going under once because of war then because of an earthquake, or an innocent family losing one child to plague and another to tempest. We Jews of course know a thing or two about curses, having been blamed, demonized, discriminated against and murdered in ways designed to shape our condition as a monument to a horrible sin. Our ancestors, reading God's warnings in the Pentateuch, actually agreed they had been punished by God; they only disagreed with their detractors on the nature of their forebears' sin. The bottom line of all this is that a curse, whether uttered by man or God and whether arbitrary or deserved, shapes one's destiny in a way he cannot help. Now, faced with a Gaza well-established as our most implacable enemy, it is tempting to look there and say, "The Lord is paying you back for all your crimes" - that a divine line runs between the original choice to obstruct the Jews' restoration here and Gaza's languishing in squalor, that what began with brainwashing Palestinian kids to take their own lives has now culminated in Palestinians throwing Palestinians from rooftops. Well, such an interpretation of history, besides assuming knowledge of the future, is just what good Zionists should avoid. The main difference between our founding fathers and their rabbinical adversaries was that the rabbis insisted that the Jews' crisis was divine punishment, while Zionists insisted the Jews' crisis was the Jews' own doing, and that emerging from it entailed less fatalism and more self-help. In its current shape, Gaza is prisoner to such a mind-set, one that insists on blaming its malaise on everyone else while refusing to build itself up even when enjoying the entire world's goodwill, in such contrast to the Zionist enterprise that always sought, and found, something new to build, even while enjoying no one's help. Gaza, therefore, is not cursed; it is where it is - in the doldrums - neither because of God nor because of the Jews, the Americans, the Europeans, the Egyptians or the media, but because of its own choices. A day will come, and it will change them. www.MiddleIsrael.com