In My Own Write: Israel the enigma

This is a place where paradoxes rise up and biff you on the nose.

A view of Temple Mount (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A view of Temple Mount
At a journalists’ study break in Ein Bokek last week, one of our lecturers apologized for digressing from his advertised topic, saying he wanted first to tell us something about the past and present of his great love: the Dead Sea. He ended with a paradox: “The continuing life of the Dead Sea,” he said, “is contingent on its death.”
Later, another image that felt paradoxical presented itself as we relaxed in the hotel lobby before dinner. I was sharing a couch with two friendly Druze women, guests at the hotel, clad in their traditional flowing white head-coverings. They were sisters-in-law from Daliat el-Carmel, vacationing with their husbands, and I guessed them to be around my age. We got talking.
“The food here is marvelous,” isn’t it? I remarked conversationally to the woman nearest me.
“My husband,” said the woman with a smile, “doesn’t eat anything in the dining room. He won’t set foot in there. I’ve brought everything he likes from home – even parsley to chop up – and I heat it on a portable stove. The three of us have our meals in the dining room, but he eats upstairs in our room.”
The paradox of this man turning his back on the cornucopia of tastes offered by the hotel thrice daily in favor of a plate of warmed up food from home eaten alone in his room struck me as absurd – but then perhaps not. As I saw later in the spa, he was virtually the only older man who didn’t sport a protruding belly.
WE’VE HEARD about the French Paradox, according to which France has traditionally enjoyed a relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease in spite of a high per-capita consumption of saturated fat. But did you know that there is an Israeli Paradox, a sort of mirror image of the French one? The catchphrase was first used to summarize the observation that Israeli Jews have a relatively high incidence of CHD despite a diet that is relatively low in saturated fats. The existence of this paradox implies either that the link between saturated fats and coronary heart disease is not wholly valid (or is perhaps even invalid), or that some additional factor present in the Israeli diet or lifestyle creates another CHD risk.
ISRAEL AND Jews could be described as poster children for paradox.
To begin with, the Jews as a people are still around when the Phoenicians, Babylonians, Etruscans and other ancient peoples have long disappeared into history. For me, the paradox of our continuing survival against the odds resonates with significance, possibly indicating a divine plan whose contours we can only surmise.
Then there is the paradox of Jew-hatred among the nations trumping even a basic human trait like selfinterest, to the detriment of the haters. In Europe, this paradox culminated in the Holocaust, one result of which is that countries – such as Hungary, which I visited last year – that rid themselves of their Jews are now far poorer, economically and otherwise, as a result.
Not for nothing did French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declare in January of this year that the thought of Jews leaving France because they no longer felt it was their home was “an unbearable idea,” and that France without its Jewish community was “not France.”
“It’s almost impossible to understand,” a friend remarked. “We Jews as a people have, over the centuries, contributed so much to the societies we have lived in – culturally, financially, scientifically, you name it – and yet rather than being valued, even cherished, for this contribution, we have been derided and killed.”
Harper Lee, famed author of the 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, who died recently, has teacher Miss Gates expressing her disgust for Hitler – and her admiration for Jews – in front of her third-grade class.
“Persecution comes from people who are prejudiced... There are no better people in the world than the Jews, and why Hitler doesn’t think so is a mystery to me.”
IN ISRAEL, you don’t have to search for paradoxes.
They rise up and biff you on the nose.
Like the case of the country’s Catholic clerics, who last week accused Israel of responsibility for the recent wave of Palestinian violence. “It is a great shame,” our Foreign Ministry responded, “that senior church clergy are accusing the victim instead of the aggressor.”
In a further paradox, the declaration from the Latin Patriarchate also said that the “Judaization” of Jerusalem, where Jews have lived for thousands of years, was helping to spur Palestinian violence. How can a city in which Jews have formed the majority since the mid-19th century be “Judaized”? Among the most painful paradoxes in Jerusalem is the current situation on the Temple Mount, where the First and Second Temples were located, rendering the area the holiest site for Jews, but where Jews today are not permitted to pray.
Hard-won in the 1967 Six Day War, in which the Temple Mount came under Jewish control for the first time in 2,000 years, the site was essentially surrendered to the Arabs in an act of – as it turned out – misguided generosity by minister of defense Moshe Dayan, who gave authority over it to the Muslim Wakf, then headed by Jordan. Dayan’s intention was not to give the Wakf control of the entire Temple Mount plaza, only to enable them to hold their prayer services in the Dome of the Rock and al-Aksa mosques, which comprise just some 15 percent of the plaza area.
In a statement at the Western Wall, Dayan indicated Israel’s peaceful intent and pledged to preserve religious freedom for all faiths in Jerusalem.
“We have returned to all that is holy in our land. We have returned never to be parted from it again,” Dayan said – hardly visualizing today’s paradoxical “status quo” in which the Palestinian Wakf, having bullied its way to noisy appropriation of the entire Temple Mount area, has created a reality where the government imposes entry limits on Jews (and Christians) “for political and security reasons.”
Is there a parallel anywhere in the world to the paradox whereby people wishing to ascend to their holiest site, located in their capital city, are strictly limited as to when they can do so and are, moreover, forbidden to make any kind of “religious display,” including moving their lips in silent prayer?
THERE ARE happier paradoxes. Israel, a small country with no natural resources and in a constant state of war since its founding – it spends some 20 percent of its budget on defense – has transformed itself into a hightech wonder, with more start-up companies than Japan, China, India, Korea, Canada and Britain, and more companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange than any other country except the United States and China.
THE MOST surprising paradox in our small and beleaguered country is perhaps found in the annual happiness indexes published by international organizations, in which Israelis practically always end up near the top, way ahead of places like the United States. It seems that the average Israeli is happy, optimistic and likes having children despite existential security threats from near and far. Indeed, a recent family life index ranked Israel fourth among the best countries in which to have children.
As someone who raised a daughter in Jerusalem, I could never quite explain this particular paradox: that here, where the fear of terrorist attack is ever-real and present, young people can still go out safely, day or night, in a way that would be unthinkable in the London neighborhood where I grew up, and where my extended family still lives.