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Mean Streets

Washington Diarist

Recently I was rummaging through the living mess of papers in my office--my nachlass, however hard-driven, will not be a hard drive--when I discovered a fading sheet I had not seen in decades. It was a copy of a letter that was given to me by a little man in the municipal hall in Hebron in 1980. I had traveled to Hebron to look into an incident that occurred a few days earlier on Purim, a triumphalist holiday on which Jews are enjoined to revel in inversions and to drink themselves out of their capacity to distinguish between good and evil. In the course of their bacchanal, some of the settlers at Beit Hadassah, the formerly Jewish house in the center of town that they were claiming for themselves, had opened their windows and urinated on Palestinians in the street below. The mayor of Hebron convened a public meeting for the victims of the abuse to tell their stories. It was there that the little man rose to express his grievance. To demonstrate the ugliness of what was done to him, he read from an old letter written in Hebrew on the stationery of a metalworking company in Jerusalem. It stated (this is my translation): “To Whom It May Concern: I the undersigned, Moses Joseph ben Jacob Ezra, born in Hebron, hereby declare that the family of Rajib Hassan Al Badr, with whom we lived in the same quarter in Hebron, protected my family in [the riots of] 1929 and again in [the riots of] 1936, and until 1947, while we were still in Hebron, we enjoyed good neighborly relations and constant protection by the Al Badr family generally. I would be deeply grateful for any human assistance that might be extended to them.” So it was the scion of that good and brave family whom the yarmulked hooligans had soiled. I remembered this wrenching document a few weeks ago when Yedioth Ahronoth posted a video on its website of a Purim party in Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, at which religious militants boorishly sang a song of praise to the memory of Baruch Goldstein, who slaughtered twenty-nine Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron: “Dr. Goldstein. Dr. Goldstein, there is no one like you in the whole world.” The stone house in which the punks dishonored their tradition with an anthem to murder had recently belonged to the El Ghawis, a Palestinian family that was expelled from it last August.

Sheikh Jarrah is a place with a run-down but real magic, rather like Naples. You can still see the glory beneath the grime, the fine imperial picturesque--the porticos and the gardens of old Palestine, the material elegance of the Muslim gentry in the calm between the storms. There is a mosque at the tomb of a medieval Muslim saint named Hussein ibn Isa Al Jarrah, and nearby it is the tomb of Simon the Just, the high priest in Jerusalem around 200 B.C.E. and according to legend the founder of the Jewish liturgy, whose sacerdotal splendor was described swooningly by Ben Sira; and there is the Shepherd Hotel, a grand villa built by the mufti of Jerusalem, once inhabited by George Antonius, and in the 1980s acquired by a rich Jewish bingo-king in Florida for the purpose of expelling Palestinians from the area and installing Jews; and there is the American Colony Hotel, whose bougainvillea has often given me asylum from the respective fervors of my brothers and sisters in the western part of the city. In 1948, Arab forces in Sheikh Jarrah ambushed a convoy of Jewish doctors and nurses on their way to the hospital on Mount Scopus and committed a massacre. Sheikh Jarrah came under Israeli control in 1967, and a few years later Jewish groups went to court with old Jewish deeds to various properties, even though no Jews had lived there since 1948. The court upheld their ownership, but ruled that the Palestinians who resided there could remain as long as they paid rent. The Palestinian families disputed the authenticity of the Jewish documents, and refused to pay. They were finally evicted this past year, and the drunken disciples of Dr. Goldstein moved in.

The dream of reversing history has been a cause of both greatness and depravity. It is right for people not to acquiesce in their own wretchedness, to reject all the quietisms and the fatalisms that teach them to do nothing for themselves. Zionism owed its moral and historical force in large measure to its refusal to accept the irreversibility of Jewish exile, and its attendant misery; and the national self-reliance now exemplified for the Palestinians by Salam Fayyad--in a culture of jusqu’au-boutisme, the technocrat is the revolutionary--represents a similar refusal of historical passivity. But not everything can, or should, be reversed. Sometimes there is wisdom also in acceptance, and in the power that it confers to move on. In the name of justice, one may destroy peace, and forget that peace, too, is an element of justice. The idea of beginning again is often a savage idea. Since the Palestinian right of return, and its premise that restoration is preferable to reconciliation, would undo the Jewish state, Israel is right to deny it. But if, in the name of moral realism, and so that they do not delude themselves with catastrophic fantasies of starting over, Palestinians are not to be granted a right to return to what was theirs before 1948, then neither should such a right be granted to Jews. When Jews fled Sheikh Jarrah, they fled to a Jewish state, which should have been worth the loss of their property; and the same would have been true of the Palestinians, if their Arab brethren had allowed the state of Palestine to come into being. But the lunatic Jews who insist that a Jew must live anywhere a Jew ever lived do not see that they, too, are re-opening 1948 and the legitimacy of what it established. Why does the Israeli government allow the argument for a unified Jerusalem to be mistaken for the heartless revanchism of these settlers? Whatever arrangements about Jerusalem are eventually made in a peace agreement, and I no longer expect to see one in my lifetime, Jerusalem will remain both the capital of Israel and a demographically mottled city. It makes no sense to show contempt for the people with whom you are destined to live. It is not only cruel, it is stupid. So the dispossession of the El Ghawis is a disgrace. And a Jewish disgrace, because it was Simon the Just, the legendary leader buried in an ancient cave not far from the El Ghawis’ house, who famously taught that one of the things which supports the world in existence is the practice of kindness.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.