Tel Aviv Diary June 19, 2003 - Karen Alkalay-Gut

Tel Aviv Diary - from June 19, 2003 Karen Alkalay-Gut

June 19, 2003

I spent part of yesterday evening in the Nachum Gutman Museum in Neve Tsedek at a meeting. Opposite the table there were posters of Gutman's painting and posters. One was about Brenner, the great writer who was murdered in 1921 in nearby Yaffo. His poster had a quote from him about everything that promotes life is good. I was staring at that poster, and thinking of Arlozorov who was also murdered in that area (my father-in-law took him to the hospital, remember?) and how long terrorism has been going on here - and there was a sudden noise from a loudspeaker. I thought it was a police sapper emptying the street because of a suspicious object, but no one else (except the curator) paid attention, so i didn't react. It turned out to be a neighbor incensed against the tourists who stop in front of his house to discuss architecture. Apparently he bought a loudspeaker just to discourage lectures in front of his house. Nice fellow.

But the historical significance of Neve Tzedek, the numerous posters and paintings opposite me of Nahum Gutman, the memories of fedayeen liquidations, all made me think about the nostalgic past. Gutman has great color in his work, and because so much is watercolor, and his lines appear so simple, it is easy to believe that the old days were rosy - the prostitutes of Yaffo lounging in their bath, the workers resting in the field, all appear idyllic. And yet if you look for the reality it is there - the danger, the crime, the exhaustion.

I dragged Efraim to Mishmish afterward and we talked about the good old days. He just finished an article about how the street names of Tel Aviv have changed in nature from political and religious to neutral flowers and plants. And I thought afterward that this change is a sign not of the reality but of the anticipation - the need for neutrality. I wrote somewhere in these pages of the outrage of visiting Yaffo and seeing the streets in Arab neighborhoods named for Jewish leaders - a local resident told me that no one in the neighborhood reads the signs- they just keep the names of streets as they were before there was an Israel. So street names have great power. And the anticipation of neutrality also means a great deal.

I wanted to include a discussion with an old corespondent of mine about yesterday's entry - i don't read over what i write but he said i had assumed a high moral position in stating that israel doesn't target children. he used the example of the soccer field a few months ago in which many youths in gaza were apparently targetted. and i remember the big stink then that was made here about that - the fact that there would be an inquiry (and yes i didn't see any results of that inquiry). anyway - i apologize - there is an expression in hebrew for it "yefe nefesh" - that state of moral superiority that is fake and remote. sometimes my son calls it 'ashkenazi agression' - a very complex system which can party be illustrated by a poem of Robert Frost. In "The Pauper Witch of Grafton," the woman who is considered a witch says: "Right's right, and the temptation to do right, especially when i can hurt someone by doing it, has always been too much for me..." My friends say I am very attuned to that danger / possibility of moral superiority in myself as well as others. This, they say, is my weakness. But I do think the constant evaluation and re-evaluation of moral position is part of Israeli society - certainly it is part of the press (if not the government) - and it is a vital element of humanity.

A guy walks into a grocery store today and blows himself up. The grocer, 58 years old, is already buried, and i happened to hear the description of eye witnesses before the censor and it was pretty awful. Usually these descriptions are carefully manicured so people will not get too angry and upset, but sometimes someone gets through on live media. Just hearing about them described create memories never to be forgotten - traumas in themselves. Not only the victim, but the bomber too. Always the head seems to remain partially intact - always separated from the body. Sorry - i forgot someone might be reading this.

I suppose I feel compelled to say something about these descriptions because last night Ronen was telling me about a flashback he had when he was in the U.S. last month, where the bombing he witnessed in Naharia suddenly replayed itself before his eyes.

The other big item in the news is the attempt to dismantle settlements. The resistance among all the settlers is a great photo-opportunity, so that Sharon can show what a big effort it is to move them, and what great sacrifices we are making. But it is also very very genuine. There are a lot of people who really really believe this land was given to us by God and that's that. Ishmael doesn't get a share.

I'm still interested in a border.

June 20, 2003

Why does every one get upset with me when I say I want a border - Even with all his hesitation Frost's "Good fences make good neighbors" makes sense. If we can lower the level of violence we can start relating to people as people. If we fear the other will kill us it is difficult to imagine them as human beings. The borders can be changed later if they are still disputed. But the extremists on both sides don't want borders because they want all.

Book week is beginning around here and even though i have no new book out, and my old books have been sold out, i'm excited. Today I went to "Book Worm," (Tolaat Sfarim) and doubled my overdraft. There are so many exciting books - so many whimsical books, profound books, old books... Here's a sample: Shulamit Lapid has a new book out that looks amazing; there is a Yiddish translation of "Little Prince," a great collection of Agi Mishol's poems, Ferdinand the Bull that is even better in Hebrew than it is in English, and I even found a copy of Corinna Hasofferet's book of interviews about women's childhoods (Called "Once She Was a Child") with a chapter that's an interview with me. Corinna has a website here that has english too.

When you realize that the government budget for literary activities has been cut by 40% in the past 2 years, after having suffered numerous cuts in previous year, it's surprising there are books at all.

At nearby Nona we had a rather loud discussion about the occupation - it occurred to me after that we had not discussed it for a very long time - because we all think we know wht the other thinks. And as usual I was surprised that other people are more right than I am.

Ezi repeated what I have quoted him in these pages as saying before - that he hates the occupation because of what it is doing to our own society. Who is he trying to fool? We haven't crossed the 'green line" since I've known him. His political view on this was set years ago, and not only on the basis of the erosion of values in our people. But I believe in both arguments.

Just now, someone was killed and two people seriously injured in a terrorist shooting near Ofra. i think the couple injured are senior citizen americans here on a visit.

how many have we had this week?

June 21, 2003

On this the longest day of the year we had innumerable discussions about ways of finding common denominators for people and ideas and sciences. This morning it was with Ronen Shapira whose musical compositions and theories are close to amazing... Later we continued discussing the ideas en famille Here Peres and co are meeting about international free trade areas in the middle east, and powell is still trying to push abbas and sharon closer together and Jordan's kind Abdallah is talking about the overwhelming majority of people all all sides wanting peace - and the idea of common denominators is in the air. Despite the terrorist attacks.

Oh, someone else wrote me yesterday about my use of that word - and how it is freedom fighters to others, and gunmen to CNN and I use that incredibly negatively loaded word. Sorry. they terrorize me so to me they are terrorists. But then, you may remember that even when i told the story of the remaining Jews of Lida who blew up the German train to avenge the murder of the thousands of jews in the marketplace on may 8, 1942, I had problems with not using the word terror. And I lost 33 relatives at least on that day.

Appropos - the other day Amal talked about her family, and noted that they must number about 1500, i realized that my family would too number almost in the thousands if the members of the previous generation had not all been slaughtered. My father's family - many of them - made it through - but then they only had a few childbearing years and managed to get about 2 kids a piece. And those kids were too traumatized from living with holocaust victims to have good relationships, many kids, etc. Actually, most of the women in my family never married...

Usually when i think of the small families of ashkenazi jews in my generation i feel guilty first that we have such strange and remote relationships - but then i realize why. Had I been born in Lida, for example, and the holocaust had never happened, i would have had 36 aunts and uncles, and each pair of them would have had an average of 8 kids which would have given me 128 first cousins. Who would have married and had fewer than the past generation - say we're talking about 5 each... That's without even counting my second cousins... What I have is my brother, Joe, my cousins Susan, Phyllis, Dveira, Dvora, Noah, Maurie, and one more. I know the first 4 cousins and don't even know how to get hold of the other 3. That's it.

There is a story that my mother's brother's son, Alexander Kaganovich, escaped and married a woman in Dneiperpotrovsk - he had 4 sons. I've actually tried to find him - contacted one or two Alexander Kaganoviches - but no luck.

So I'm jealous of the great Hamulot so many of my Arab students talk about with joy. And Ezi too - his family on his mother's side had 500 people at the family reunion - But that's because they were all born here - in Israel - not there.

Why do i persist in tell about my own life and limitations? Because by showing my own limitations of vision I hope to be able to get at the truth, and hope you will be able to see more objectively then I can. I can only tell how I feel - and even that is a problem sometimes. Even what we feel is filtered through what we think we feel sometimes.

Today, for example, I asked Ronen to describe to me for the 4th time I think what he saw on the 9th of September when the train station in Nahariya blew up before his eyes. He no longer remembers some of the horrors he told me about the first time, but now discusses remembering the certainty that there was a reason he was spared.

which description was more genuine? Is there such a thing? and does it matter?

On a more practical note - i now have most of the manuscript of the trilingual anthology and am now trying to get it into grpahic shape to present to a publisher. I was thinking of taking it with me to London next week and peddling it there. And Walid called me just as I was fiddling with the page numbers (how can we get Arabic, Hebrew amd Roman numbers on one trilingual page) and when I told him about publishers he said - of course it must be regional - and i realized he's right because it is here that it can be understood and have an effect. But i know as little about peddling here as i do in london.

June 22,2003

Some things should not become accustomed. You should just never get used to them, make them comfortable. Some things should. It would be a great idea to get slowly accustomed to the possibility of living in peace - gradually accepting that enemies can be partners and even eventually friends. It would not be a good idea to deceive oneself - and get used to a fake situation. The specific situation i'm thinking of is the false sense of victory the US has in iraq, when it is clear the leader only went underground and took with him his weapons of mass destruction.

I actually had a few dreams about this - that Saddam sneaks some scuds out and sends them to isral, but along the way they change their chemical nature and the result is somewhat akin to hashisch and everybody sits down and makes peace.

June 23, 2003

The difference between the pessimist and the optimist is that in the optimist hope triumphs over experience. Every day we wake up to hear of another round of rockets fired at Sderot, another foiled terrorist attempt, and of Palestinians wounded or killed. From these news it is hard to believe that peace can some day exist here - but then again we have to hope, right?

And look what we're fighting against here - every time some terrorist incident occurs i lose a bit of my humanity, a bit of my ability to see others as human beings. i have to win it back and try to gain some more - every day - i have to learn more about people as people in order to keep from losing ground. this is a war that goes on within me all the time. and when people disagree with me, as they often do, i have to do the same thing - to remember that, say, one of those people refusing to leave a settlement, has an ideology that is essential to him/her, and that that ideology has also to be incorporated and understood. That's almost as hard for me as understanding bombers. And demands as much work. Not that i equate the two in any way except in the fact that they make it difficult for me to be a human being and like myself and them at the same time.

What is book week like? Everywhere i went today, and i went everywhere, people were buying books. Me, I waited for doctors, friends, etc. with Shulamit Lapid's "Bear Hug" - so far so good.

But will i go to jerusalem to see the book fair - i don't think so...

Even though the library I have longed for is being opened tomorrow at Hebrew University - the one for literatures in Israel in other languages set up by Irwin HOltzman - I doubt whether i can make myself navigate that city in this heat. I think i'll just sit here and finish my drink.

As soon as i finished writing that i left my computer and went to talk with ezi. while we were conversing there was a loud noise, very much like a high powered rifle. Ezi kept talking. there was another and another - i counted 6 at least. probably a suspicious object being shot at and exploded. there was nothing on the news. we went about our lives.

Actually we went to meet Rafi and Liz who are here for a few weeks. Liz's comments and questions often help me to clarify my own position - which always changes. For example we were talking about being able to understand other people - and i suddenly said that until i started to read the poetry of people who have gone through the intifada - from both sides - i didn't understand the necessity and the difficulty of maintaining the understanding of the humanity of both sides. The difficulty and the necessity struck me at the moment as the most important lesson i have been learning in the past 2 years.

It also struck me that most of the people I know - on all sides - right and left, jew and arab, muslim, christian - who are sure of themselves - do not have an inkling of what i am talking about. In part it is because i am a little slow and unformed about what i am trying to say, but people usually finish my sentences for me - "I know what you mean - the occupation is terrible - or - it is a terrible necessity - their sentence depends on what they believe i should be thinking. and even when i make that extra effort and try to explain, they hear what they want to hear - that i am using 'the vocabulary of the enemy' or that i don't know how to use a word. but the problem is that i want the idea to be something that we work out together - not that i teach you or you foist on me.

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