BOOKS

Troubled journey

A Canadian Jew travels to the heart of Israel

GEOFFREY JAMES November 14 1988
BOOKS

Troubled journey

A Canadian Jew travels to the heart of Israel

GEOFFREY JAMES November 14 1988

Troubled journey

BOOKS

A Canadian Jew travels to the heart of Israel

THE GARDEN AND THE GUN: A JOURNEY INSIDE ISRAEL By Erna Paris

(Lester & Orpen Dennys, 292 pages, $15.95)

Although she speaks neither Hebrew nor Arabic, 50-year-old Toronto-born writer Erna Paris is well equipped to write a book about Israel. She has chronicled the experience of the Jews in Canada and, more recently, she exam-

ined the problems of French Jewry in Unhealed Wounds: France and the Klaus Barbie Affair. As a Jew herself, Paris was raised in the Reform tradition and describes herself as “a humanist with a deeply felt commitment to Jewish history and an equally deeply felt commitment to human rights.” In her new book, The Garden and the Gun, Paris explains that her January, 1987, trip to Israel was an attempt to “glimpse the reality” of a land that for her had always been “a country of the mind.” No sooner had the author landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport than an incident occurred that illustrated the country’s difficult and disputatious nature. Paris describes how she got into a sherut—a shared taxi—headed for Jerusalem and then watched as an argument in Hebrew broke out on the sidewalk near

the car. A fellow passenger translated for her: an Orthodox Jew was refusing to get into the car with a woman. Within five minutes, her neighbor had told her that he was bom in Vienna and had survived the Holocaust—and then asked her why she herself was not planning to settle in Israel. “His question,” she writes, “hovered demandingly between us.” Paris was already experiencing the emotional tug and pull that afflicts many Jewish visitors to Israel. Throughout her 10-week sojourn, Paris’s secular Judaism was under attack by Orthodox Jews. Wanting to gain a better understanding of the fundamentalist strain of Jewish tradition, she spent time in a yeshiva—or college—for the indoctrination of secular Westernized women wishing to return to the fold of orthodoxy. “Men deal in abstract thoughts, and women express those thoughts in the world,” a rabbi told the students. “Therefore it is obvious that women should learn less than men.”

Paris interviewed a young American woman, a former Catholic, for whom that lesson was not an obstacle and she attended the woman’s ritual bath marking her conversion to Orthodox Jewry. Paris also went to a traditional wedding ceremony, which she says she found moving but as “foreign to me as a Zulu rite.” But it was at a sabbath meal in the now-zealously Orthodox home of a onetime dope-smoking American travelling salesman that she felt most alien. “For the first time in my life,” she recalled, “I had been perceived as essentially worthless. Only one attribute would have made me a worthwhile human being—to live according to the precepts of the Torah.”

Paris also explores Israel’s best-known secular institution: the kibbutz. She examines how the utopian experiment in rural communal living has evolved over four decades. At Kibbutz Yiftah, on the Lebanese border, a pioneering settlement had turned into what Paris calls a “modern, agro-technical, collective enterprise whose members lived a comfortable, middle-class life.” The kibbutz grew field crops and ran a computer-controlled factory for the manufacture of drip-irrigation equipment—an Israeli innovation that delivers water to plants drop by drop to minimize evaporation.

The social changes were equally great: the idea of raising children separately from their parents had been dropped by the second gener-

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ation. Paris even found a kibbutz couple whose biggest problem was how to find babysitters in the evening since the exchange of money and services was still forbidden. In fact, the most contentious question for the members revolved around the hiring of outside labor.

Beneath the daily troubles, Paris was quick to sense the undertow of fear and insecurity that haunts Israel. As the Israeli pollster Hanoch Smith told her, both generations in Israel believe that the Western powers did nothing to save the Jews during the Second World War. As well, he said, Israel has a siege mentality, based on the widespread fear that the 150 million Arabs who surround them are waiting for an opportunity to wipe the country out.

At the heart of Paris’s troubled journey is the 21-year-old military occupation of the West Bank of the Jordan. She made only the briefest of forays into that unpredictable region but came back with a vivid impression of the humiliation and the deep-seated hatred of its Palestinian inhabitants. She ventured among some of the 65,000 Jewish settlers who have moved to the West Bank, finding attitudes that ranged from old-fashioned colonialism to messianic self-righteousness.

In her discussion of the West Bank situation, Paris offers nothing new about the plight of Palestinian Arabs. She is more effective at conveying the despair of thoughtful Israelis and Palestinians who have tried to confront the problem. Danny Rubenstein, a veteran reporter for Davar, the official organ of the Labour Party, said to her: “When I tell my friends that I’m going to a town like Ramallah (in the West Bank), they look at me as though I’ve said I’m going to take a walk in Central Park at midnight. There’s almost no contact any more. And that is truly dangerous.” Radwan Abu Ayyash, head of the Arab Journalists’ Association in the Occupied Territories, spoke to Paris about his desire to write about his own life, which had begun 35 years earlier in a refugee camp. Suddenly, writes Paris, “something strange happened.” Ayyash flushed, stopped speaking and stared at the floor. “We sat in silence, wordless and embarrassed because despair had broken through the frail skin of professionalism.”

There is a similar moment in the last and most memorable interview in the book—with Meron Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem. Since 1982, Benvenisti has been compiling—with the help of the Ford Foundation—a scrupulously detailed study on all aspects of life in the territory. Asked if things could deteriorate further on the West Bank, he said: “They can’t. This is it. The two-tier system is already in place. It is civil war between Jews and Arabs in Palestine—that’s how I define it. The conflict is endemic. It cannot be resolved, only managed.” That bleak judgment was made before the uprising in the occupied territories that began last December. It is a tribute to Paris’s sharp insight and directness that The Garden and the Gun is still painfully relevant.

GEOFFREY JAMES