Thursday, November 29, 2007

What it Means to be a Jewish State

I thought this article important enough to post in its entirety. Israel's fundamental Jewishness and existence as a State for the Jewish people is not up for debate. Amnon Rubinstein eloquently states why.
david brumer

On dreams and nightmares
Amnon Rubinstein , THE JERUSALEM POST
Nov. 27, 2007
If Israel is not a Jewish state, it can't be called Israel, because Israel is a synonym for the Jewish people. If Israel is not Jewish, its Declaration of Independence should be annulled, because it talks about the establishment of a Jewish state named Israel.
If Israel is not Jewish, the United Nations resolution of November 29, 1947 regarding the partition of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and the other Arab, should be revoked.
If Israel is not Jewish, the Law of Return should of course be abrogated, along with Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom, which determines that Israel's values are based on it being a Jewish and democratic state.
If Israel is not Jewish, a new national anthem will have to be found instead of Hatikva. If Israel is not Jewish, it won't be Catholic. Or Buddhist. It will be Arab-Muslim - even if the path toward this outcome has to go via a bi-national state.
If Israel is not Jewish, there will not be two states for two peoples. If Israel is Arab-Muslim, it is not likely to be democratic.

If Israel becomes all of these things, all its anti-Zionist journalists and intellectuals will be the first to flee. However, the Jews from Middle Eastern countries will be left behind. Although they once fled from an Arab regime in order to live in a Jewish country, that same regime, which humiliated and oppressed them, will catch up with them.
SUCH a scenario would be a nightmare - one that will never come to pass, but it is essential we understand just how important the demand to define Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is. Yet we are being told that the existence of a large Arab minority in Israel means that Israel cannot be defined in this way, because defining a country without taking the minority into consideration is not democratic.
But when the UN declared the establishment of a Jewish state, the Arabs constituted more than 40 percent of the population, and despite this, the UN General Assembly saw no contradiction between this reality and defining Israel as a Jewish democratic state.
The anti-Zionists say that this reality has changed, that the world has entered the age of post-nationalism. But even in this age, most of the countries of Europe, even those with very large national minorities, remain nation-states.
The truth is of course that there is no justification whatsoever not to recognize Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Our Supreme Court has repeatedly defined what the principal Jewish characteristics of the state are and has included in them the following: that the Hebrew language is its principal official language, its rest days will be held in accordance with Jewish tradition and that the state has a Jewish majority. We are told that defining Israel as a Jewish state awakens suspicions of it becoming a theocracy, and that at most, Israel is no more than the state of the Jews - like the name of Herzl's book. But Herzl himself saw no difference between the idea of a Jewish state and that of a state of the Jews, and allowed the name of his book to be translated into other languages as "The Jewish State." When the UN General Assembly decided that Israel would be a Jewish democratic state, it certainly did not have a theocracy in mind; and neither did David Ben-Gurion, who drafted the Declaration of Independence; nor did the former president of the Supreme Court Aharon Barak, who defined the essence of the state as Jewish.
And what good will it do to change Israel's name? Will the Palestinian Arabs ever agree to the existence of a state of the Jews under any name?
If Israel as a Jewish state does not have to be Jewish in the religious-halachic sense, what then does it mean to be Jewish? That meaning has not changed since Herzl's time: The Jews, at least since the Emancipation, are a people, a single people that has a very important religious element to it, and which, like other peoples, is strongly connected to its religious past. That past is the launch-pad from which its modern national identity takes-off.
Israel is the state of the Jewish people and all its parts, and it must also be the state of all its non-Jewish citizens, as well as of its large Muslim minority, whose leaders deny that they belong to the state.
The state cannot be identical to just a part of the Jewish people. It is the shared home of all - both non-Jews and Jews, Orthodox, traditional and secular - and it must not discriminate between any of the elements that constitute it.
Yes, there are still shortcomings in Israel's governmental system, with the absence of civil marriage being one of the most serious of them. The subjugation of Israelis to the Orthodox rabbinical courts and judges is at odds with Israel's essence as a democracy.
But that is not the reason the Arab leadership and the Palestinian president are opposed to defining Israel as a Jewish state. On the contrary, they themselves seek to establish a fanatical, anti-democratic theocracy of their own here, in place of Israel.
Their opposition is to the existence of a democratic Jewish state anywhere in the region. Their dream is our nightmare.

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Monday, November 26, 2007

Annapolis: All Window Dressing or More Going on than Meets the Eye?

With the much vaunted, much maligned Annapolis Conference only days away, there is no shortage of commentaries and perspectives. Is the whole enterprise a farce, organized by a desperate American administration hungry for something to show for itself in the Middle East? Or is there perhaps more going on behind the scenes, not least of which is backroom discussions on how to stop the Iranian Shia behemoth from going nuclear? Or, as Ron Ben-Yishai puts it, perhaps the main purpose of the conference is "to produce a diplomatic show of force in Annapolis that would make it clear how robust Washington's status is in the Mideast region and in global politics. America currently needs a show of force that will reunite the pro-Western camp around it and encourage its allies to continue the struggle against radical Islam's belligerent intention to take over the region."
Aluf Benn echoes this sentiment;
"The main message of this week's summit at Annapolis will be that the U.S. is back as a leader in the Middle East. When the U.S. calls, the world sides with it. Only a year ago, a pessimistic theory of America's decline as a leading power in the Middle East dominated Washington. The photo-op at Annapolis will reflect the power of the "axis of moderates." The U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE will stand holding hands against the "axis of evil" who were not invited: Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah."
At the same time, we should be under no illusions about the likelihood of movement on the Israeli-Palestinian track. Efraim Inbar, below points to five major fallacies that underpin the American initiative. They should not be taken lightly. His sober conclusion is that for the moment, "for Israel, containing terrorism and waiting patiently for better times is probably the best course of action." He may well be right, and Israel's current focus on deterrence may be the best that can be hoped for until there is a major sea change in the Palestinian psyche. If past is prologue, actions on the part of Israel in less than ripe circumstances can prove disastrous.
--And finally, Moshe Ya'alon offers up an important reminder on why a pullout from East Jerusalem is not a healthy idea.
david brumer

Unpopular Child
The once much-vaunted Annapolis conference has been reduced, a few days before its convening, to the dimensions of a birthday party for an unpopular child at school.
Everyone now agrees that the parents were foolish to think they could improve their child's social standing by staging an event in its honor with lots of food, fun, games, and a special magic show, but the invitations have already gone out and it's too late to call the party off.
All that can be hoped for now is that enough children will turn up to prevent a fiasco and that the party will be gotten through quickly without fights, broken dishes, or other embarrassments.
Like many conflicts in history, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not come to an end by means of a negotiated settlement. A viable Jewish state and a viable Palestinian state west of the Jordan River are not both possible.
The conflict will come to an end because the case for a viable Jewish state is the stronger of the two, the Jewish people having no other country and the Palestinians having Jordan, which will sooner or later re-unite with the 90% of the West Bank that Israel will withdraw from. How and when this will happen is impossible to predict. That it will happen is a near certainty. Annapolis will be quickly forgotten, even quicker than the Madrid Conference was. The dire prophecies of what will happen if it fails ("A catastrophe!" Israel's president Shimon Peres, the chief engineer of the catastrophic Oslo Agreement, has predicted) will not come true.
The Palestinian people is not in the mood for a new intifada and Hamas is not on the verge of taking over the West Bank. The broken dishes, if there are any, will be cleaned up and the real processes in the Middle East, which are not the diplomatic ones, will continue to take place.

The Great American Delusion
Nov. 24, 2007
The US planned Annapolis conference whose goals are to facilitate the creation of a democratic Palestinian state - free of corruption and militias - that will live peacefully alongside Israel is doomed to fail. The American initiative rests on several unfounded premises.
The first is that Palestinian society can be reformed by outsiders. Middle Eastern societies have already proven their resistance to attempts by Western powers to change their old ways of doing business. It is naïve to believe that political and social dynamics rooted in centuries-old traditions can be easily manipulated by well-intentioned, but presumptuous Westerners. President George W. Bush should have learned this lesson from his experience in Iraq.
Change among Palestinian and other Middle Eastern societies can only originate from within. And if such a positive evolution were to take place, it would more likely be brought about from within by an autocratic ruler than from the outside by well-meaning Westerners.
The second fallacy is that economic assistance to the Palestinians can alleviate political problems. Since the Oslo Accords in September 1993, the Palestinian Authority has received the most economic aid per capita in the world. Yet billions of euros transferred to the PA have been squandered or misused. Moreover, economic aid is only as good as the ability of a recipient's economy and government to use it productively. The third fallacy is that Mahmoud Abbas can become the agent for change and therefore he deserves the support of the West. Abbas's record as a leader is dismal. He failed to unite the security services under one organ as he pledged and has not followed through with his anti-corruption election campaign promises. If anything, the chaos within the PA increased under his presidency. The Hamas takeover of Gaza is an obvious indication of his weakness.
The fourth fallacy is that Palestinian society can be quickly transformed into a good neighbor of Israel and that a stable settlement is within reach. Since the Oslo Accords, the PA's education system, media, and dramatic militarization process has done great damage to the collective Palestinian psyche. A society mesmerized by the use of force and embracing of the shahid (martyr) ready explode among the hated Israelis will not change overnight. Numerous facets of Palestinian society have been radicalized and the widespread influence and popularity of Hamas is a clear indication of such a process. (this factor is often overlooked or greatly underestimated--db)
IN CONTRAST to Egypt and Jordan, where pragmatic politics led to agreements with Israel, Palestinian politics is not pragmatic and is ever more radicalized by Hamas and a young militaristic generation. What they expect to get from Israel is totally unrealistic. The differences between Israel and the Palestinians are unbridgeable. After being subjected to a terrorist campaign beginning in 2000, Israelis are unlikely to take blind risks for an uncertain settlement. Palestinian demands for bringing refugees from 60 years ago and their descendents into Israel and for control over parts of old Jerusalem are simply not acceptable in today's Israel.
Moreover, Israel has already received American acquiescence for holding on to the large settlement blocs near the 1949 Armistice Lines, nor is Israel about to give up the strategic Jordan Valley.
The fifth fallacy is that Hamas control of Gaza can be uprooted by intra-Palestinian politics. While Hamas's takeover of Gaza is correctly identified by the US as a victory for the Islamist forces in the Middle East and inimical to Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement, a Fatah led by Abbas cannot bring Hamas back under the PA umbrella. The West Bank Palestinians are too weak to impose their will on Gaza and without territorial contiguity they have little leverage on Gazan politics.
And in point of fact, it is Israel's counter-terrorist activities that prevent the West Bank falling into the hands of Hamas - not Abbas.
The Americans are not likely to attain their noble objectives and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue to simmer because the Palestinians cannot get their act together.
I can see Egypt or Jordan deciding to increase their involvement among the Palestinians in order to limit the repercussions of the Palestinian failed state. For Israel, containing terrorism and waiting patiently for better times is probably the best course of action.
The author is professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and the director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.

The U.S. Is Back - Aluf Benn
The main message of this week's summit at Annapolis will be that the U.S. is back as a leader in the Middle East. When the U.S. calls, the world sides with it. Only a year ago, a pessimistic theory of America's decline as a leading power in the Middle East dominated Washington. Now Bush is launching a counterstrike. Encouraged by the improved security situation in Baghdad and the drop in the number of casualties, and the successful Israeli strike against a Syrian nuclear installation, Bush is embarking on a diplomatic adventure in the Middle East. The photo-op at Annapolis will reflect the power of the "axis of moderates." The U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE will stand holding hands against the "axis of evil" who were not invited: Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah. (Ha'aretz)
A Diplomatic Show of Force - Ron Ben-Yishai
Underestimating the Annapolis summit is not a good idea. It is completely clear that the event will only slightly advance the Israeli-Palestinian conflict's resolution, if at all. Yet this is not the reason why Condoleezza Rice initiated this meeting. The genuine and major objective of the U.S. is to produce a diplomatic show of force in Annapolis that would make it clear how robust Washington's status is in the Mideast region and in global politics. America currently needs a show of force that will reunite the pro-Western camp around it and encourage its allies to continue the struggle against radical Islam's belligerent intention to take over the region. (Ynet News)
To Annapolis - Without Illusions - Shlomo Avineri
Annapolis is nothing more than an attempt to institutionalize the change that has taken place in the atmosphere between Israel and the Palestinians and to try to find a way out - as modest as it may be - of the freeze that resulted from the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit and the second intifada. Anyone who expects Annapolis to lead to an agreement is ignoring the situation on the ground. The gaps between the relatively moderate Israeli stance, which is represented by the Olmert-Barak government, and the relatively moderate stance represented by Mahmoud Abbas, are still too profound. After almost six years in which Israeli and Palestinian leaders have not spoken to each other, in recent weeks they have been meeting regularly. Perhaps they have not yet reached agreements, but, after the collapse of the Oslo Accords, the fact they are talking is in itself an achievement that should not be made light of. The writer is a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. (Ha'aretz)

Ya'alon Warns Against East Jerusalem Pullout
An Israeli withdrawal from Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem as part of a peace treaty with the Palestinians would put the whole city within range of Palestinian rocket fire, former chief of staff Lt.-Gen. (Res.) Moshe Ya'alon said Sunday. "One must be blind not to see that dividing the capital will bring the neighborhoods of Jerusalem, government ministries and schools into the range of Kassam rockets," Ya'alon said at a Jerusalem rally against the division of Jerusalem organized by the One Jerusalem organization. (Jerusalem Post)

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Friday, November 16, 2007

At the Heart of the Matter: The Existential Jewishness of the State of Israel

We have been here before. Our very own Amos Oz posed the question some years ago; Can a state be Jewish? No more so than a chair, he declared. Well, even great writers can sometimes be wrong. Of course a state can be Jewish, and of course The State of Israel is a uniquely Jewish State, established in its modern incarnation as a safe haven for the Jewish people.
No doubt, part of the confusion for many is their insistence on seeing only the religious component of Jewishness. They leave out the notion of Jewishness as a peoplehood; our peoplehood. Am Yisrael Chai (the People of Israel Live). And who are those people? The Jewish People, of course.
Okay, with that as a starting point, we now arrive at the unequivocal refusal of the current Palestinian leadership (and I'm not even talking about Hamas, for whom this isn't even an issue, since they refuse to even recognize 'the Zionist entity') to recognize the Jewishness of the State of Israel. Here's what Saab Erekat, chief negotiator for the PA, Yaser Abed Rabbo and even Prime Minister Salaam Fayad had to say:
On Monday, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said, "The problem of the content of the document [setting out joint principles for peacemaking post-Annapolis] has not been resolved... One of the more pressing problems is the Zionist regime's insistence on being recognized as a Jewish state.
"We will not agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state," Erekat said. "There is no country in the world where religious and national identities are intertwined."
On Tuesday, another prominent Palestinian negotiator, Yasser Abed Rabbo, said, "It is only a Zionist party that deals with Israel as a Jewish state, and we did not request to be a member of the international Zionism movement."

Yesterday, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad joined in these statements. And Erekat chimed in again on Al-Arabiya TV: "Israel can define itself however it sees fit; and if it wishes to call itself a Jewish state, so be it. But the Palestinians will never acknowledge Israel's Jewish identity."
Why is this adamant and unequivocal refusal so significant and startling? Because, as Yossi Klein Halevi has said, this cuts to the core existential, identity issue between the Palestinians and the Israelis. While peace talks with, for example, Jordan, Syria and Egypt required no such prior recognition on the part of those states' interlocutors, this was because those negotiations were largely territorial in nature. What is so stunning about this position put forth by the Palestinian leadership ready to embark for Annapolis, is that at this late date in the supposed good faith negotiations over a two-state solution, one for the Palestinian people and one for the Jewish people, we appear to be back at square one. Our very right to exist is again being questioned. And needless to say, this is something that will never again be up for discussion.
For fuller explorations of the speciousness and disingenuousness of the arguments against recognizing the Jewishness of the State of Israel, see the three excellent pieces below.
david brumer

The Crime of Being a Jewish State - Bradley Burston (Ha'aretz)
Chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat declared Monday that "No state in the world connects its national identity to a religious identity." This ignores the fact that the Saudis are a theocracy of such sectarian dimension that tourists are forbidden from entering the country with Bibles, crucifixes, or items bearing the Star of David.
The bottom line is that if Palestinians want an actual state and not just the trappings, they are going to have to reconcile themselves to the idea of an overtly Jewish neighbor.
The world has shown its willingness to let Palestinians suffer indefinitely. The world has shown its impatience with the glorious victories of Palestine, whether that means Kassam rockets butchering six cows about to give birth in a dairy barn on a Negev kibbutz, or raising an army which spends much of its firepower on fellow Palestinians, as in the memorial rally which left as many as eight dead in Gaza.
What matters, in the end, is not whether the Palestinians choose to formally recognize Israel as a Jewish state. What matters is whether the Palestinians can live alongside a state which happens to be Jewish in character. Can they share the Holy Land with a state in which the dominant religion is not Islam?
Most Jewish Israelis, meanwhile, have come to accept the idea of an independent Palestinian state, in which the dominant religion will certainly be Islam.
If Palestinians cannot bring themselves to accept a Jewish Israel, there is always the default option. For Palestinians to choose not to accept a Jewish state is to choose statelessness.

Is Israel a Jewish State? - Jeff Jacoby
Israeli Prime Minister Olmert announced that he expects the Palestinian Authority to finally acknowledge Israel's existence as a Jewish state. If the more than 55 countries that make up the Organization of the Islamic Conference are entitled to recognition as Muslim states, and if the 22 members of the Arab League are universally accepted as Arab states, why should anyone balk at acknowledging Israel as the world's lone Jewish state? There are many countries in which national identity and religion are linked. Argentinian law mandates government support for the Roman Catholic faith. Queen Elizabeth II is the supreme governor of the Church of England. In the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, the constitution proclaims Buddhism the nation's "spiritual heritage." "The prevailing religion in Greece," declares Section II of the Greek Constitution, "is that of the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ."
In no region of the world do countries so routinely link their national character to a specific religion as in the Muslim Middle East. The flag of Saudi Arabia features the Islamic declaration of faith; on the Iranian flag, the Islamic phrase "Allahu Akbar" (God is great") appears 22 times. In the Palestinian Authority's Basic Law, Article 4 provides that "Islam is the official religion in Palestine." The refusal of the Palestinian Authority to acknowledge Israel as a legitimate Jewish state isn't a denial of reality; it is a sign of their determination to change that reality. Like Arab leaders going back a century, they seek not to live in peace with the Jewish state, but in place of the Jewish state. (Boston Globe)

The Recognition Sham - Editorial
The Palestinian refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish state suggests that all their solemn and myriad expressions of Israel's right to exist did not mean anything. They did not mean that the Palestinians accepted the Jews as a people (as Palestinians expect to be accepted), or that Israel is the legitimate expression of the Jewish people's right to self-determination. If Israel is not a Jewish state, it is Palestine, which is exactly the point.
There is no way for Israelis to understand the refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish state other than as a rejection of the two-state solution and the embrace of the "strategy of stages," whereby a Palestinian state is not an end of claims against Israel, but a down-payment toward Israel's destruction. As Olmert says, there is no point in entering a "peace process" on this basis. Without mutual recognition, there is no basis for negotiation. (Jerusalem Post)

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Palestinian Reactions to Monday's Deadly Rally in Gaza

Monday's rally to mark the third anniversary of Arafat's death in Gaza City turned deadly, as Hamas militiamen violently dispersed a massive crowd there to commemerate their former leader. Seven people were killed and 75 wounded, according to Palestinian officials.

While Hamas Interior Ministry spokesman Ehab Ghussein charged that "armed men from the Fatah movement initially opened fire," a Washington Post reporter on the scene stated that he saw no Fatah gunmen at the rally or in its vicinity. And Palestine TV reported that Hamas militiamen fired into the crowd from the roof of Al-Azhar University. In addition Hamas militiamen moved in to arrest and beat people in the crowd, and ordered journalists not to film the event. Here's what Amira Hass and the Palestinians themselves had to say about Monday's violence.
david brumer

The Fatah Rally in Gaza
- Amira Hass

"Hamas remains strong among the public. What happened on Monday does not testify to the strength or the weakness of the movement. It testifies to a lack of leadership." For quite some time he has been saying how dangerous it is that Hamas clings to rule over the Gaza enclave, while it is unable to satisfy basic social and economic needs (let alone its promises of independence). An Islamic leadership has redoubled responsibility if it wants to rule, he says. It must be committed not only to the people, but also to Islam. Therefore, in his assessment, the international Muslim Brotherhood movement will reconsider its position regarding the Hamas regime in Gaza. It will not allow that regime to sully so badly the reputation of either its mother movement, or worse, of Islam itself.

"It was women whose votes had led to the defeat of Fatah in 2006, so it was significant now that many women came to the rally. I saw one woman go up to an armed policeman and dare him: Kill me, you Shi'ite." This was related by a devout Muslim, a Hamas adherent who left the movement. "The masses who came to the rally did not come for Arafat or for Mohammad Dahlan, or because they were promised NIS 200 or a phone card. They came out of hatred for Hamas," says the former movement activist.
A friend of his, who has remained a Hamas activist, agrees: "There has been a consolidation among some of the Fatah activists, because of anger and hatred for Hamas, after mistakes of ours that are impossible to ignore....We knew that there was a large public in Gaza that supports Fatah, which hasn't disappeared. But this is a public without a leadership. The leaders have fled." (Ha'aretz)

See also Anger in the Palestinian Press at Gaza Deaths
(BBC News)

Excessive and Lethal Use of Force Against Civilians in Gaza
Pictures showed members of the police firing indiscriminately at the rally participants. The police also chased rally participants and beat them with batons and sticks. Our staff did not find any member of the police who was injured by
gunfire. (Palestinian Center for Human Rights)

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Book Review: Haim Watzman's "A Crack in the Earth..." in latest edition of Congress Monthly

David Brumer
A Crack in the Earth: A Journey up
Israel's Rift Valley
. By Haim Watzman.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
208 pages. $23.00.

Exploring Israel’s Rift Valley

I confess to being congenitally predisposed to the basin in the rift at the Dead Sea—a unique and magnificent stretch of the globe, especially at its lowest point; in fact, the lowest point on Earth.As described by Haim Watzman’s chronicle of his travels along the northern part of the valley, "A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel’s Rift Valley":

“The rift valley is a natural object, created byphysical forces. But when we look at it, we don’t see stories and ideas and our own histories. People see the same landscape differently depending on who they are, when they live, what they've done, andwhat stories they heard when they were children.”

Watzman has crafted a majestic tale, recounting his modern journey up the Jordan rift valley, “a crack in the earth’s crust that begins where the Indian Ocean’s waters mix with those of the Gulf of Aden.” This chasm was carved into the earth’s surface millions of years ago. The author focuses on the stretch of the
rift from the northern shore of the Red Sea at Eilat to the Golan Heights bordering Syria. Blending science and faith, Watzman tells a story about geological phenomena, scientific analysis, archeological examinations, and philosophical musings through the distinct perspectives of biologists, zoologists, kibbutzniks, and other ordinary, modern-day inhabitants of the rift. A religious Jew himself, Watzman points out that he is also a journalist and a man of science, making him naturally skeptical. He challenges accepted biblical verities with the same investigative rigor that he uses when scrutinizing geological and biological ones. He notes that modern archaeology and textual scholarship have cast doubt on the historical accuracy of biblical accounts, and offers that, in many ways, modern Orthodox Judaism is less a religion of the Bible than “a religion built by the sages upon the foundation of the Bible, after the destruction of the Temple and the rise of Christianity.” In the same way that the Rift Valley is the physical foundation upon which people have superimposed their “stories, ideas and histories,” the Bible is the textual foundation which Judaism in its modern application builds upon, through human constructionists in the form of the sages of the rabbinic period, Watzman suggests.

ULTIMATELY, it is the people who have inhabited the sacred lands of the rift that have kept it so fertile in our imaginations. From the Israelites crossing into the Promised Land from Egypt, to Jesus being baptized by John in the waters of the Jordan, all the way up to modern Zionists like Rachel the Poetess—these are the stories of the people that fascinate Watzman, and his infectious love of the land and its people enraptures us as well. Watzman, a religiously-observant Jew with Leftist leanings, largely refrains from politics in this book. Occasionally though, he does weave some political context into his narrative, explaining why, for example Jericho became off limits to Israelis after the outbreak of the second Intifada. Watzman draws parallels to the turbulent landscape (Tiberias has experienced severe earthquakes almost once a century since the beginning of the Common Era) with the incessant political and social turmoil. He ruefully observes that “to an Israeli living in the first years of the 21st century, turmoil seems to be the rule. Periods of equilibrium seem few, far off, and short-lived”; though, in terms of geology, the ebbs and flows are much slower and deliberate. Some of the rocks on both sides of the rift are between 570 million and one billion years old. In that context, humankinds’ effect on the region is insignificant. God, who is unchanging, watches bemusedly over it all.


PERHAPS not surprisingly, some have criticized Watzman for not incorporating more of a Palestinian Arab voice. in his book. John Leonard, in the June 2007 edition of Harper’s Magazinesomehow manages, through a tortured interpretation, to read into Watzman “his homeland’s hateful modern indulgence of Bronze Age identity politics.” Leonard continues with his knee-jerk critique. “He has a hard time even talking to a Palestinian, as if Palestinians were remnants of some antediluvian proto-species prior to language.” Publishers Weekly noted that Watzman “fails almost utterly to bring in non-Jewish voices,the one Arab we meet is an Israeli Bedouin.” Both critiques conveniently leave out the poignant encounter Watzman has with a Palestinian at a West Bank gas station at the end of the book, where he risks his own
physical safety to preserve his moral bearings and psychic equilibrium. For those who know Watzman and what he stands for, the irony would be hilarious if it weren't so deadly. Even in a book that is decidedly apolitical, by an Israeli Jew who has been so vocal in his criticisms of his country’s actions and policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians, critics of Israel can't help but find racism and xenophobia under any and every rock. Watzman comments on the controversy in a passage where he gazes upon an inaccessible Jericho, observing that the fact that he barely encountered any Palestinians on his journey speaks volumes about how the political situation has currently affected the landscape.

But Watzman, if anything, is the ultimate mensch. The last section of his book, in which he has a very real encounter with a very real Palestinian, attests to his own very real humanity and bravery for his beliefs (unlike some Western intellectuals who ‘shoot first’ from the safety of their ivory towers and do their homework later; if ever).
Just before he turns back to “meet the Palestinian halfway,” he muses that “since humans first began to call the names of gods, they have created their own valley of prayers, desires, deeds, and choices, which overlay the landscape just as the rain clouds do. As hard as we try to comprehend the landscape itself,it is humanity that we find.”
This is a beautiful book that radiates a personal warmth and love of the land and its people. It is as uplifting as it is inspired.

DAVID BRUMER is a media analyst, writer, and
consultant on Middle Eastern Affairs. His blog,
BRUMSPEAK: Advancing the Prospects for Peace
and Security for Israel & the Middle East, includes
film and book reviews pertaining to Israel and the
Middle East. He is also a geriatric social worker
and a psychotherapist.

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