Part I «Layers of Changing Space in Jerusalem – View from a Hilltop»

Von Michal Govrin


The space around me is Jerusalem – my city for over twenty years, since I moved here from my hometown, Tel Aviv, returning from my studies in Paris. All these years, still a pilgrim in Jerusalem, I have been exploring its unique space. Breathtakingly beautiful, always surprising, uncontainable, and constantly changing: the changing light of the four winds of its slopes between desert and lush vegetation, the changing seasons, the changing years of rain or drought, and the changing history – imprinted on its landscape.


During the last ten years, Jerusalem’s space has become the focus of my writing Snapshots(*), a novel – whose narrator, the woman architect Ilana Tzuriel, is planning a Monument, or rather an „Anti-Monument“ for Peace in Jerusalem. Ilana’s fictional project is located in a real place: on the highest hilltop of Jerusalem, The Mount of the Evil Counsel. It is seven minutes drive from my apartment, just outside downtown; yet, it stays as a foreign „enclave,“ belonging to another space and time. A bare hilltop, covered with rocks, thistles, wild herbs, broken glass. From time to time a herd of sheep, led by an Arab Shepard, crosses it. On its slope, next to the remains of a Jordanian outpost, stands the ritual bath of the nearby Jewish neighborhood, and on the very top of the hill erupts the communication antenna of the U.N. forces, stationed at the„Governor’s House,“ a relic from the British Mandate.

A desolate Hilltop that dominates an incomparable panoramic view of three hundred and sixty degrees. A space intensely layered – topographically, ethnically, politically and textually (**). The Hilltop’s name, The Mount of Evil Counsel, is a quote from the New Testament, and looking northwards it faces the Saint Sepulcher with Jesus‘ grave. To this hilltop Abraham and Isaac, with the young men and the donkey who accompanied them, arrived after three days walk, and watched „from afar“ Mount Moriah. And from here Celestial Jerusalem was shown to Ezekiel by the Angel. Beyond the Old City walls, constructed by Suleiman the Magnificent, stands the golden dome of The Mosque of Omar, where Mohammed leaped on horseback to heaven.


The famous view to the north crosses the deep valley of Hinnom, also known as Gehennom or „Hell.“ At its bottom, springs the Gihon source, the only natural source of water for the city – next to the three thousand year old site of David’s City. A few steps farther are Gethsemane and the old Jewish cemetery on The Mount of Olives, by the Arab village of Sillouan. To the South, the hilltop faces Bethlehem and the truncated Mount of Herodion, with the remains of Herod’s winter palace. From the fountains near Hebron, the first century ce. aqueduct carried water to the Temple. Today Arab villages and Jewish settlements cover the hilltops, up to the Arab village of Zur Bah’r and the Jewish neighborhood of Talpiot. To the West, lay the dense rooftops and greenery of the new city. And to the East gapes the abyss of the Dead Sea, an enduring deep tone. The deepest place on earth, at the bottom of the Afro-Syrian rift, shows like a long crack less then twenty miles away; and beyond it, on the other side of the river Jordan and the Jordanian border, the Moab Mountains hover. A hallucinating décor that gives a sort of supernatural – if not divine – dimension to the place. (***)

For years I have been attracted to this hilltop – climbing to observe from its heights how the city’s space is changing. During the 80s, a wooden café in a 60s style, „The Shepherds‘Hut,“ stood there, just above the last houses of the Arab village of Jabl Muchabr. I used to come here late in the afternoon to have a coffee and write in front of the view. During the first Intifada (1987-1991), it was burned down. In its place a Frontier Patrol shack was built. In the years that followed the Oslo agreement (1993), a delicate balance was maintained among the Jewish neighborhoods, the U.N. base and the surrounding Arab villages, leaving the hilltop for children’s games or shepherds. Tension was in the air, like a transparent frontier of fear mixed with exquisite beauty, always palpable, whenever I parked my car and climbed up the hill with my drafts of Snapshots.


My character, Ilana Tzuriel, planned the Peace Monument for the hilltop as a changing Installation of huts, or Succas – inspired by the intentionally temporary hut that becomes, during the Holiday of Succoth, the dwelling place for Jews – in memory of Exodus and the nation’s wandering in the desert. In Ilana’s project, the visitors-dwellers would study at a „Release Center,“constructed of water and glass, a contemporary interpretation of the laws of „Release“ or „Sabbatical Year.“ According to these biblical laws (never fully applied), all land, property or debts are liberated every seventh year, during which the land stays fallow, the crops are given freely to all, and fences are knocked down, in a reminder of Man’s inability to own the land, „for the wholeearth is Mine“ – a notion still poignantly radical in a global market world, or in Jerusalem.


The armed conflict of the Second Intifada broke out in the fall of 2000. For long months Jerusalem has been under siege, with dozens of terrorists‘ attacks and suicide bombers leaving hundreds of dead and wounded. The Frontier Patrol shack was turned into an armored post, and on the road coming up from Jabl Muchabr a checkpoint was installed. From Bethlehem the sound of Palestinian Militias firing could be heard – as well as the retaliation of Israeli tanks. My growing pain and rage were mixed with despair. In my last draft of Snapshots, Ilana’s plan was expanded to include a „prophetic“ project of rebuilding the ancient water aqueduct that crosses the present zone of fighting from Hebron to Jerusalem. As the war intensified, so did the imaginary flow between The Square of The Mosques to the Saint Sepulcher, in a continuing cascade next to the Western Wall, cutting across borders of holiness and hatred in a gush of life.

I kept sneaking to the hill top. One day I was amazed to discover bulldozers on its slope. A few months later the stunningly beautiful new Promenade, designed by Laurence Halpern, was ready, as if an echo to Snapshots. The Promenade has not been officially inaugurated, because of the danger. Yet, in summer afternoons its paths are visited by Arab children and mothers from Jabl Muchabr, some courageous joggers, and a few strollers.

Once again, these very days, Jerusalem’s space is radically changing. Facing the Hilltop, on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, the construction of the Separation Barrier, known as„The Wall,“ advances like a snail, crossing Abu-Dis, reaching southwards. It painfully changes lives. It radically changes the city, the region’s space. It cuts Jerusalem from Bethlehem, from Hebron and from the natural space of the Judean Mountains. It creates a barrier between Arab villages. It condemns to isolation or dismantling Jewish settlements. It separates de facto Israel from Palestine.

A security barrier, replacing the frozen Peace Talks turned into violence. Originally vehemently advocated by the Israeli Left, being built by a right-wing government. Its route, designed to protect as many Jewish neighborhoods as possible, harms the Palestinians. It becomes for a period the galvanizing symbol of the Palestinian Fight for Freedom, and of Anti-barrier demonstrations. It provokes from the International Court of Justice a declaration of its illegality. While a recent ruling of the Israeli Supreme Court judges it legal, but has demanded some changes in its route to make it less onerous for Palestinians.

Is this barrier going to be „The Wall of The Ghetto?“ And for whom: for Palestinians or for Israelis? Will it discourage terrorism, and put a border on hatred, or only instigate more frustration and hatred? Does it establish the grounds for a future recognizable border at the end of occupation? Is this barrier the unavoidable stage of separation needed to delineate property, identity, nationhood? Is it a fatal mistake, or is it a means to one day enable the tearing down of barriers and of fences, as in the year of „Release“?

I climb the Hill, watching this complex space changing, year after year, raising the most challenging question about space: What is the space that will make a place for the complexity of otherness; multilayered enough to enable the co-existence of fully distinct „others?“ Facing this question will require not less then a global revolution – in the Muslim Jihad’s claims to ownership of the land, in the Christian Western aspirations of dominion over Celestial Jerusalem and terrestrial oil wells, and in the Zionist dream. And maybe there also must be a Jewish dimension of „Release.“

I stand on the Hilltop in the midst of an oppressive present moment. I watch this intense space imprinted with history like an Archive of the layered story of Western civilization, with its heights of belief, love and poetry and its abysses of stupidity, fanaticism, jealousy and cruelty. I stand on the Hilltop, in the midst of this amazingly beautiful arena of nature and mankind, and I cannot resist naming it „outrageous hope.“ Another synonym for „Jerusalem.“


(August 2004)


Published in: Temps Moderns, Paris 2004

Pataphysics, Australia 2005




*Michal Govrin, Snapshots (Hevzekim, Am Oved, 2002), English translation by Barbara Harshav, published by: Riverhead, Penguin, USA 2007; French translation by Valerie Zenatti, published by Sabine Wespieser Editeur, Paris, 2008

**For a historical-political analysis see: Michal Govrin: ‚Martyrs or Survivors, the Mythical Dimension of the Story War‘, Partisan Review, 2003/2,

*** For a reading of Jerusalem as a feminine place of desire see: Michal Govrin, The Name, translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav, Riverhead Books of Penguin-Putnam, 1998; And, Michal Govrin, ‚Chant d’outre tombe‘, in: Passage des frontières; autour du travail de Jacques Derrida, colloque de Cerisy, Galilée, 1994.

Translated from the Hebrew by the author and Judith Graves Miller.



Part II

«Israel at 60 – Reality, Utopia, or Provocation?»


Israel at 60 – is it a reality, a utopia, or a provocation? How should we speak of it? From within, from afar? How should one live in it? And how should we take responsibility for it, for its past, its present, and the future that is taking shape within its confines?


This call to take responsibility for Israel has always been at the heart of my conversations with William Phillips and Edith Kurzweil, in private or on the pages of Partisan Review; in exchanges bridging the distances between New York and Jerusalem, and by striving to formulate questions and to articulate a reality from multiple perspectives. These were unique, formative conversations, for which I am grateful.   I also thank Edith Kurzweil for the opportunity to continue it here, with you, as a living memory of William Phillips.

As if William were still asking me, with his customary concentration and concern,  „Michal, what do you think of what is happening in Israel,“ I will attempt to clear a path through past and present towards the necessary conceptual breakthrough that is demanded of Israel – which goes beyond any political or territorial solution, towards the sort of thinking that may enable„the day after“ for Israel and the Middle East, while contributing as well to everyone in this globalized world.


When in the autumn of 1969 Paul Celan visited Israel, he addressed “the poles”. It was his first and only visit. Following his stay he wrote the cycle of poems we now know as his„Jerusalem Poems“.  Beyond the profound realism at the core of Celan’s elliptical poetics, I will  begin this talk about Israel in its sixtieth year with a poem, as a reminder that Israel’s existence cannot be separated from the poetic, prophetic dimension that envisions the place and continues to shape it as a reality, a provocation, or a utopia.

At the center of Celan’s „JerusalemPoems“ is „The Poles:“


The poles

are inside us,


when we’re awake,

we sleep across, up to the Gate

of Mercy


I lose you to you, that

is my snowy comfort,


say that Jerusalem is


say it, as though I were this

your whiteness,

as though you

were mine,


as though without us we could be we,


I open your leaves for ever,


you pray, you bed

us free.


My first encounter with „The Poles“ was in an article by George Steiner published in a review of Michael Hamburger’s English translation of a selection of Celan’s poems—including the above—in The New Yorker.  Steiner placed its speaker at the Mandelbaum Gate – the checkpoint between the Jordanian and Israeli parts of Jerusalem  from 1948 to 1967, thereby giving the„poles“ a political interpretation.

Reading the geographical clues in the poem, it was clear to me that Steiner’s pinpoint was mistaken, and so was his interpretation. The speaker is not standing at the Mandelbaum Gate, but rather at the top of the Mount of Olives, in the heart of the ancient Jewish cemetery, facing the Old City. His gaze is directed not at a political boundary, but at the Temple Mount, on which he sees the Haram a-Sharif, with the Mosque of Omar and the al-Aqsa Mosque rising above the walls of the old city in which the Gate of Mercy is set. It is the gate through which, according to Jewish tradition, the Messiah is destined to enter, leading in the living as well as the dead. This gate has remained locked by order of the Muslim authorities for hundreds of years, and for these very reasons: to physically stall the mythic arrival of the Messiah.


In the published memoirs of Ilana Shmueli, who accompanied Celan on his visit to Jerusalem, my intuition was confirmed. The course of the „Jerusalem Poems“ traces Celan’s and Shmueli’s path through the landscape, echoing Celan’s emotional swings between spiritual elevation and anxiety. The correspondence between them during the last months of his life reveals the personal erotic elements implicit in the poems, but no less so, the erotic intimacy that charged Celan’s attitude to the place itself – Israel and Jerusalem.


Yet, beyond the factual error, Steiner’s misinterpretation reveals the blindness of aspiring to see the place – Israel, Jerusalem – as merely an overt, and thus controlled political reality, ignoring the echoes it harbors. This blindness cannot prevent, but only postpone and fuel their eventual violent eruption. For Israel, Jerusalem is the place of poles that are „insurmountable / when we’re awake.“ These echoes  must be acknowledged and articulated, so that we can say: “Jerusalem is.”  This is why I would rather speak of these poles in the first person, and through the complexity of living testimonies.


I was born a few years after the state of Israel. Thus my life, and the life of my family, is just one of the many stories that retell the state’s sixty years of existence. And as in other Israeli families, it is a multi-generational story, always including a chapter titled „Exodus“ – the desertion, freely or by force, of one reality in favor of a place that besides being an immigrant country is also the realization of a hope for a different identity, a different future.

The Mount of Olives, from which Celan writes „The Poles,“carries special significance for me. My great-grandfather, Rabbi Itzik Chayut Globman, is buried there. He followed his son – my grandfather – and his grandchildren, my father and uncles, who made aliya in the 1920s, from Shpikov, a village in the Ukraine. My great-grandfather, an adherent of the Skver Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty, believed with all his heart, the coming of the Messiah.  Upon arriving in Jerusalem on Passover Eve of 1924 he danced through the entire night to celebrate the dawn of Redemption. When he died, in 1937, his funeral procession climbed the Mount of Olives. Upon arriving at the burial spot, his son, my grandfather, Rabbi Mordechai Globman, himself an observant Jew (though already embracing the values of the Haskalah), got into a lengthy discussion with the members of the Chevra Kadisha—the Jewish burial society. Only when finally reaching agreement on the means of burial, did they begin to dig the grave. After the funeral, my uncle and father approached their father and asked him, „What did you argue about?“ My grandfather replied, „Well, you know your grandfather, he was a gentle, soft-spoken Jew, he won’t push, won’t elbow his way in, and so he asked for his grave to be turned around, to be dug precisely across from the Gate of Mercy.  Because, when the Messiah arrives, with all the bustle of the risen dead all around him, the ones who will be resurrected on the spot and those coming from far away, with all the noise and the pushing and jostling, he wouldn’t want to have to ask for directions, who, what, and where. He just wants to get up and go straight to the Gate of Mercy.“


I did not know my great-grandfather or my grandfather – they died before I was born. But their dream reached me, though in different terms, through the lives of my father and his brothers, who were among the founders of the state. It was a transmission of values based on a transformation, rather than a severing of connections, as in the Zionist slogan.  From them I learned how inseparable the reality of the state of Israel is from its own roots in Jewish history. Indeed, a profound change in Israeli society’s self-image has been taking place in recent years, as is shown by massively renewed interest in the Jewish heritage—led primarily by secular Israelis.


My intuition was confirmed.  Yet another intimate dream of redemption was passed down to me by my mother. Its sources are echoes form Krakow, her hometown.  She had studied in the Hebrew gymnasium between the two world wars, and there had sung the Zionists’ songs. She survived the death camps with a group of ten women.  Nine of them were Orthodox, and my mother was its only secular member. Despite their ideological differences, she remained loyal to this group of women. „They had values,“ she explained briefly. Their mutual support sustained all of them through Auschwitz and Birkenau, through the death march and Bergen-Belsen, until the end of the war and liberation. In their stories they describe how they would gather in their barrack at the end of a day of slave labor. Some of them would pray or sing; my mother would tell them of the Land of Israel, that she had already visited—of the beautiful Sea of Galilee, and the panoramic landscape. In my conversations with them I found out that they all had hoped that one day they would reach the Promised Land.  This hope had lifted up the ones who had fallen in the snow during the death march through freezing Europe in the winter of 1945.  After liberation, upon recovering from hunger and typhus, my mother immediately volunteered for the „Berichah,” the illegal immigration.  For the following three years she coordinated the movement’s activities in the British part of Germany.  She directed how refugees arriving from the east were to be smuggled across the border—about a million survivors who had only one wish: to leave Europe. As Yehuda Bauer has shown, in describing the historical-ideological controversy, most of these refugees chose to sail to the shores of Palestine, although its gates were still locked by the British mandate. Their decisive role in raising the international community’s consciousness of the need to establish a Jewish State has yet to be properly recognized.


My mother herself embarked on that journey after  Israel’s declaration of independence.  Accompanying a children’s transport on a ship that belonged to the newly created Israeli navy, she reached the country during a ceasefire in the War of Independence, in August 1948. She remembered her arrival throughout her entire life as a moment of personal and national redemption. She did not sing the Hasidic melody to the strains of which my great-grandfather had danced in Jerusalem.  But when she talked of those days she would burst into song—into the new Israeli melodies, which the Hebrew sailors had taught the refugees crowded on the decks.


I imbibed my parents‘ hopes. Yet for years I tried to evade the weight of the Zionist dream, the burden of history. I mocked their dreams.  Faced with the harsh Israeli reality I asked, along with many others, whether the state of Israel was a dashed dream.  (This question has led many to embrace post-Zionism, with its parricidal passion, which, unsurprisingly, replicates the very same violent stance of the early Zionists towards their own parents and the Jewish shtetl.)


Israel at 60 is indeed an intense, polarized reality, teeming with energy and tension. Not a reality but a hyper-reality. Torn between the economic prosperity of shopping malls and high-tech companies, restaurants and cafés, and scenes of poverty and crime; spectacular landscapes and real-estate sharks eyeing them hungrily; with experts and scholars of world renown in medicine and science; with luminaries of literature and dance; with Tel Aviv, the city that never stops and that is riddled with social divisions and an alienated, discriminated-against Arab population; and with the stain of corruption leading an endless line of politicians into the courts. No wonder many seek solace in the ashrams of India or at spas in the Negev or the Galilee.

The Zionist dream has been transformed into a seven-million strong state. A sixty-year war has claimed thousands of casualties—young men and women. Their deaths are the open wound that does not spare a single Israeli family.

In fact, Israel at 60 is a synonym for the „epicenter“ of the world political conflict, a synonym for occupation and oppression of another people, and for the ongoing suffering of its own inhabitants, living in the shadow of daily threats, on the bus, at the café, on the street—since at any moment a terrorist may lunge and begin shooting, brandish a knife, or turn a bulldozer into a raging monster.


Israel at 60 is still threatened.  Even over half a century later, its existence is not taken for granted; it is seen as a provocation, an object of loathing and of explicit destructive intents voiced at international gatherings, in city squares, on campuses, and in the media and the internet. Israel’s very existence is still a matter of controversy; it is an anomaly arousing reactions that oscillate between admiration and repulsion, seen alternatively as a source of hope and as a contemptible instance of oppression and injustice.


In its sixtieth year, Israel has not solved the Jewish question, as the Zionist movement had hoped it would. And despite the ideology of „normalcy,“ to quote A.B. Yehoshua, Israel has remained an object of surging hatred, attracting waves of a „new anti-Semitism“ now aimed not at Jews in the diaspora, but at the state of Israel. Celan’s apprehensions in the late 1960s, regarding the return of anti-Semitism, thirty years later have turned into a reality.


For us Israelis, these developments were difficult to accept. We were sure that millennia of Jewish Exile, and with them the painful fate of the Jews, had been left behind; that if we only were to relinquish the territories we occupied in 1967, and to recognize the rights of the Palestinian people, we would stop being ostracized and the conflict would be resolved. The fact that it was precisely the peace process and the Oslo Accords that led to the Intifada, and with it to Israel’s increased isolation, was hard to stomach. The waves of hatred Israelis absorbed turned into self-loathing and served to deepen Israeli society’s internal polarization.


Is the state of Israel in its sixtieth year a betrayed dream, a dream that has turned into a nightmare?

A poignant reminder of this question struck me in an unexpected setting. Twenty years after my mother died, I started to write a story that she had kept to herself.  It was about the trial of one of the SS commanders of the Krakow ghetto in which she had testified.  It had taken place in Hanover, at the end of the 1970s, and my father and I had escorted her.  That was the only time I had heard her speak of her son, my half-brother, Marek, and of the Aktion at Plaszow that had sent him to Auschwitz, together with the rest of the children of the Kinderheim—to the sadistic sound of lullabies.  I had tried for many months to obtain a transcript of her testimony from the German archives.  I now hoped that by personally going to Hanover I would hasten its retrieval. The prosecutor had been a young lawyer.  I recalled the delicate manner in which he had questioned my mother during the trial, and their short exchange in the hall of the courthouse, sealing a bond of cooperation.


My mother had studied law and ardently pursued justice.  She expressed her respect for that young courageous German prosecutor. Her encounter with him was a source of hope, proof that faith in mankind, which had sustained her in the camps, had not failed. That was why I spent nearly six months searching far and wide for him. I did not even know his name, until I found out that he had become chief prosecutor. After sifting through masses of contradictory reports, and unsure whether he was alive or dead, I finally located him in a suburb of Hanover. We met at the Hanover train station and he drove me to his modest, elegant home in a green suburb.  Over dinner with his wife, we had a long conversation while, in the large casement window the evening turned into night. He promised to do all he could to locate my mother’s testimony.


On the following day I was to meet with the director of a museum then under construction in Bergen-Belsen. Reaching the former death camp required a complicated train-to-bus switch,  Without my having said anything, on the way back to my hotel, the prosecutor turned to me and offered to drive me to Bergen-Belsen.


Thus I found myself riding through the forests of Lower Saxony with a German prosecutor, and then walking beside him through fields strewn with the mass graves  the Allies’ bulldozers had dug for the piles of bodies they had discovered in the camp after its liberation. We walked in silence, immersed in thought. On the way back we stopped for coffee. A moment of relaxation. At the table, the prosecutor spoke thoughtfully of his encounters with survivors, of his visits to Israel to collect testimonies, of the links between past and present—against the background of the American invasion of Iraq and the Intifada in Israel.

„I deeply admire the survivors,“ he said, „their ability to go on with life, to build a country, to go on as human beings after all that. I learned so much from my encounters with them.“ Again he seemed sunk in thought, and then went on, in a somber tone:“What a tragedy,“ he said, and his words pierced me, „that history has prevented them from teaching their lesson to the world. That the state of Israel has become a Palestinian problem, and that the real lesson of the Holocaust has never been taught.“

In a flash, the German prosecutor brought back my parents‘ hopes, their sense of national and universal mission. I now recalled my mother’s excitement in anticipation of Anwar Sadat’s arrival in Israel. And how, returning from Cairo, she spoke excitedly not of the pyramids and the museums, but of how she placed flowers on his memorial. She dreamt of peace, of an Israel accepted by its neighbors, living peacefully among them, teaching them and the world its unique message.

I did not find my mother’s testimony. The municipal archive in Hanover had only a page with a notation of the session with her name, the hour at which the session began and the hour at which it ended. Nothing else. This time, German efficiency did not suffice to document my mother’s words.

Were the dreams of those standing on the ship’s decks, approaching the shores of Israel, silenced? Did history turn them into tragedy? Or, perhaps, into an apocalypse?

And yet—the same question can be asked about being Jewish—can one live in Israel without some kind of a dream?  Can it be avoided?  Despaired of? And can the state of Israel exist without a utopian dimension, without a „role“? Without them, is its existence justified?


This question tormented Gershom Scholem as well. In 1926, three years after his arrival in Palestine, in a letter written for Franz Rosenzweig’s jubilee volume, Scholem spoke of the threat posed to Zionism. But surprisingly, he located the danger not in the violent struggle against the Arabs, but rather in the revival of the Hebrew language and the secularization of the names of God contained within it. This historic development, he warned, could turn the Zionist dream into an apocalypse of destruction. Jacques Derrida, hardly an enthusiastic Zionist, in his reading of Scholem’s text emphasized the apocalyptic tone of the author’s own rhetoric—leading Derrida to contemplate, in turn, whether an apocalyptic dimension could ever be separated from the state of Israel’s very existence.


In fact, Scholem himself went from despair to a renewed demand for paradoxical hope, in a poem written in that same year. In the opening verse, he places the utopian light of „Zion“ in opposition to the harsh reality of daylight:

The light of Zion is seen no more,

the real now has won the day.

Will its still untarnished ray,

attain the world’s inmost core?


Still, in the last verse Scholem proclaims the hope that bursts forth precisely from despair:

Wrong! God never comes more close

than when despair bursts into shards:

in Zion’s self-engulfing light.


But how can one continue dreaming while knowing that the other is also dreaming of the exact same place, a dream that is opposed to yours? How can you dream of a place from which the dream of the other has obliterated you?

How can you dream while knowing that your dream denies the dream of the other, that your dream, by definition, leads to violence—your violence towards the other, his violence towards you?

How can you dream while feeling guilty towards your children, who forfeit their lives serving in the army so that you can go on dreaming, as if this reality were normal, as if the danger were not ever-present?

And how can you dream beyond the guilt and shame of knowing that your daily routine is itself begotten at the price of oppression, of withheld rights, of the restricted freedom and welfare of the other living by your side?

The very recognition of the existence of the Palestinian dream, and of its legitimacy—despite the threat—required no less than a revolution in the Israeli mind. In my conversations with William Phillips, the demand to recognize the dream of the other was always an open question.


The dream of mutual coexistence of Israel and its Arab neighbours is usually expressed in territorial terms. As opposed to a bi-national state that would demographically threaten the existence of a Jewish state, a plan of two states for two nations has been strenuously negotiated: the states‘ respective territories, the contour of the barrier between them, the allocation of water, the status of Jerusalem—all these by now have been under discussion for nearly two decades.  So in an ironic echo of the title of this talk, Israel at 60 is all u-topia – literally, „no place.“An undefined place whose borders, citizens and residents have yet to be determined.  Still, everyone can tell more or less who the enemy is, and where the „twilight zone“ of threat begins.

We sensed that last summer, when, as part of a family visit, we accepted an invitation for a weekend at the home of a relative living in Talmon, a settlement near Ramallah—a kind of transgression of boundaries, into „Judea and Samaria,“ or „the Occupied Territories.“ We entered a place that is considered illegitimate in many quarters of the international consciousness, as well as in the Israeli one. We fearfully drove through Arab villages scattered among pastoral landscapes, and finally reached the new home of my relative, a clinical psychologist. He had invited me to deliver a speech to the settlement’s residents, who were worried about the processes of radicalization in their own community. Indeed, after my talk, one of the listeners published an article in the local paper, a courageous piece of self-criticism, warning of fascist tendencies in their midst.

While sitting on the porch of his house on that Sabbath morning, my young relative and I discussed the situation:

„How do you see your future and that of your four children?“ I asked him.  He answered, quite soberly, „either the situation will remain as it is, or a direct highway will span the twenty kilometers separating us from the major Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway. Then the value of our real estate will soar, or the territory will be handed to the Palestinians and we will be evacuated.  In that case, I don’t intend to lie in front of the bulldozers.“ (Interestingly, staying on under foreign rule, just like Arab villages and towns in Israel was not even an option.)

That summer morning was especially clear, and visibility to the west of the Samarian hills was sharp. „You can see the coastline!“ I marveled, as, etched in the distance, against the backdrop of the sea, I could spot the towers of Herzliya and Tel Aviv, the profile of Ashdod and beyond it Ashkelon, and, further down the coast, the hazy skyline of Gaza. All in one gaze. The entire country. The official one and the one mired in controversy, the Jewish one and the Arab one. Two states for two peoples. All in one gaze. This spectacle brought home to me the difficulty of dividing such a small strip of land, one geographical mass, into two states.


And how will a territorial two-state solution defuse the provocation inherent in the very existence of the other, crowded in with you on the very same piece of land?  Will it be able to contain the inverse dreams relating to the very same places? – The dreams of Hebron, Jerusalem, Haifa, Jaffa, Bethlehem? Will a territorial solution succeed in containing these contradictory dreams? The „poles“ that „are inside us“? Will it really provide an answer for „the day after“?




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While standing on the porch at Talmon, I could not pretend that I, residing in Jerusalem, am less blind, less in denial regarding the existence of the city’s Arab neighborhoods, including those within what is called the „Wall of Separation.“ Only while writing my novel, Snapshots, did I come to think of the issues that exist in the „unconscious“ of the typical Jerusalemite. This was when I encountered Ata. „We’ll send a photographer,“ I was told by the „country’s largest newspaper,“ becauseSnapshots was to be mentioned in an article on „literature and war from a different perspective,“ The photographer called the night before he was to arrive, asking for directions to my house.  He was a man with an Arabic accent and name, Ata.

As I usually do, I began with a question, „Where are you coming from?“

„From East Talpiot.“ 

„Aha,“ I answered when he mentioned a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem surrounded by Arab villages—probably his true point of departure. I also relished the coincidence, for a central part of the novel is set in that very area.

The following morning, a tall, slim, camera-laden man stood at the door, visibly agitated. I connected his agitation to the appearance of the yard of our apartment building in Rehavia only later on.  For an elderly American couple had recently settled in the ground-floor apartment. He, a modern Orthodox rabbi; she, a retired kindergarten teacher who channeled her decorating talents into the tiny yard, which, on weekdays, was turned into a garden of plastic flowers and teddy bears on chairs, and on Jewish holidays was transformed into a stage with changing scenery – candelabras and crocks on Hanukkah, a doll (life-size) of Haman hanging from a tree on Purim, and forIndependence Day, then just around the corner, the yard was filled with flags, signs, slogans, as a perfect national outpost. Who knows what thoughts about the building’s inhabitants passed through Ata’s mind while crossing this yard.


Home-made espresso and Shchorit, the cat, who provided a subject for neutral small-talk about the love of cats, softened the atmosphere. And when Ata asked me to hold up the book for the photograph, I couldn’t restrain myself, and told him of the plan of the architect, the book’s heroine, to build an anti-monument for peace on the Hill of Evil Counsel, right in his area.

„Yes, I know it,“ Ata exclaimed, „I’m from Jabel Mukaber,“ the Arab village beneath the summit.

„Jabel Mukaber!“ I said, „I write of it in the book.“ I then showed him the sketch of the site: „Here, this is the plan to rebuild the ancient aqueduct between Hebron and Jerusalem.“

„True, there is such an aqueduct…“ The idea appealed to him, as he leaned over the drawing.

„Look, it will pass through here, over the hill, with a new waterfall and a pool that will be built near Jabel Mukaber, will go on along the Herodian aqueduct just as it did in the days of old, and will reach the Temple Mount.“

Ata stiffened, stood back and said sharply: „If you say ‚the Temple Mount,‘ then I’m leaving! It’s Haram a-Sharif!,“ citing the Muslim name for the courtyard of mosques situated today atop Mount Moriah.

„I know, I know,“ I answered, not surprised by his outburst, „I even wrote that on the sketch, look, here, the water will pass through the Western Wall to Haram a-Sharif and from there to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.“

I then turned and looked at him directly: „People need their own names, don’t they?“

„Yes, everyone needs his own name,“ answered Ata in a placated tone, then added alertly, „If anything comes from your plan, you can always call on me. I’ll help! Just so something changes around here…“


Will we be able to accept without fear that „everyone has his own name“? We as well as the others?

The return of the Jews to history and the establishment of the state of Israel are an anomaly. An unprecedented reality that requires a conceptual evolution. Will we dare to admit the anomalous status of Israel’s existence? Have we succeeded in demanding such a status for it, conceptually? Have we found for Israel as such a universal role? The role of recognition of the poles that are, insurmountably, inside us? Will we be able to recognize the plurality of voices, names and dreams?  The plurality of contradictory, multiple Jewish voices, and the voices of the others, voices that pose a threat to our very existence?Will we be able to contain them without assimilating and losing our uniqueness, contain them while still ensuring a secure existence?


Perhaps this is the utopia required of the sixty-year-old state of Israel in the twenty-first century and on the day after the„territorial solution“—an ancient Jewish claim of particular, unique identity, amidst a contemporary global world; an aspiration concerning not less, nowadays, the search for identity while sharing our shrinking new world.


When I could no longer deny reality, I wrote a novel with u-topian dimensions. Elsewhere, I have called it a feminine vision.  This was also my way of saying that in the space of a novel or a poem, conceptual shifts may occur.

Ilana Tsuriel, the heroine of Snapshots, a leftist architect, mother of two sons and a woman with numerous lovers, attempts to contain the contradictory stories of her pioneer father, of her husband, Alain, an anti-Zionist Holocaust survivor, of Claude, the Belgian architect who is her loyal lover, and of Sayyid, the cosmopolitan Palestinian lover and theater director.

„I’m now just of one step beyond the symmetry of hatred, of mutual victimization, or of guilt feelings“, says Ilana to Yaron her friend since schooldays: „I’m at the verge of opening a new reality that reaches far beyond this blood soaked place.  I want to show that the place par excellence of envy ownership can exist beyond the hold of human beings—as the Bible says ‚then shall the land keep Sabbath‘ .“

What Ilana says to her Israeli friend, she also tells her Palestinian lover: „I tried to explain to Sayyid that it is not us or you.  It is beyond ownership, robbery, argument about who was there first, who expelled whom, and so on.  If there is any meaning at all to the return of the Jews to their land—that aberration in history—it is to make a new revolution in the concept of nationalism, reformulate the connection between nation and land, give up the passion to conquer, to own“.

In her plans for an anti-monument in Jerusalem, Ilana Tsuriel borrows the concepts for its construction from ancient Jewish ideas—the Sabbatical Year and the Sukka—by modernizing them in a utopian, revolutionary reading.  She argues that the conceptual revolution involved in renewing the idea of the Sabbatical Year, is in the heart of the conflict in the Middle East, by quoting her conversation with Claude in the summer of 1990 on the eve of the Gulf War.  This conversation’s echoes may never have been more relevant than today.  She says:

“All right, all right.”  I jump out of bed, pull out the papers, and continue with the explanation, wrapped only in the smoke of the Gauloise, waving sketches and hands, as if the room above Broadway were a lecture platform of a revolutionary forum.  “Look at the talmudic discussion of Sabbatical Year or the laws of Sukka.  Here you can find the most radical definition of the relationship between nation and land, an unnatural relationship!  As it says in the wonderful chapter of Leviticus, ‘for the land is mine.’  Mine, God’s, not man’s.  The land doesn’t belong to anybody!  It was given ‘on condition.’  And how do you stay conscious of that condition?  By the laws of the Sabbatical Year!  Every seven years, in the year of Sabbatical, the fences around the property have to be destroyed, everybody has to be given food from its produce…the poor, the neighbor, the foreigner, even the beasts of the land…to let go of ownership… Impossible to be in the Land without letting go of it, without opening your hand.”  I stretched out my hand in that movement of opening the fingers, while letting go of the hand, a gesture I had recently become used to while sketching.  Claude grabbed my hand and his lips hovered over it.

“That’s only on condition, Claude, remember…”

“I’ve already let go.”

We laughed.

“And think of letting go of money!  What a revolution in that idea,  especially in today’s global village, with the triumph of capitalism!  As for the female aspect…”  I reached around Claude, took a cigarette from the pack on the other side of the bed, lit it from the match he held for me while running his other hand all along my back, as if re-examining the topographical data.

“Think about a place that can’t be owned!  Especially the Land of Israel, Jerusalem, the city everybody wants to conquer, to own!  Jerusalem, the longed-for city, the woman, the place of yearning…to let go of her…”


With Ilana, I’ll ask: in the same way that Judaism introduced the idea of the Sabbath to civilization, whether the existence of the state of Israel might introduce the idea of a Sabbatical Year in our attitude towards the financial markets and towards the world’s earth and property?


Until then, in the interim in which we live, we can sip coffee on the veranda of the Jerusalem Cinematheque—in the midst of Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, facing the Valley of Hinnom, the gate of hell or Gehenom, but also a dale of flowers whose blossoming will soon begin, as it does every winter, with anemones and daffodils and crocuses.  On a clear winter day, when the transparent air allows you to see all the way to theDead Sea and the Hills of Moav, you can feel your heart leap with choked emotion. That sudden joy. This, perhaps, is that exceptional reality of Israel, that vital hyper-reality, ever poised between provocation and utopia. In perpetual tension between the poles.


Now, just as I began, I will close by invoking a poem – or a prophecy – of Celan’s, in which he addresses Jerusalem and accepts her as she is. The place of paradox, of reality, of anomalies and Messianic hope, all in one. A poem that already contains, in its very language, the names in all languages, from Meister Eckhart’s Middle High German to Hebrew, in a quotation from Isaiah. This poem—here translated by John Felstiner—contains the poles, and beyond the poles, and calls out: Kumi, Ori. Rise and Shine.




Ryse up Ierosalem and

owse thyselfe


The very one who slashed the bond unto you,


and becum



knotted it new, in myndignesse, spills of mire I swilled,             inside the tower, speech, dark-selvefg




Text of the annual „William Philips Lecture Series“, The New School for Social Research, New York, November 11, 2008, named after, Willian Philips, the founder and the many years editor of The Partisan Review.

Snapshots (PDF)