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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