Even the cynical, even the fallenaway, even the cold-stone realists with their complicated maps and legal arguments and lists of historical crimes must feel something in the joyful sunlight of Jerusalem.
I could not identify the feeling precisely until I stumbled on this item in a guidebook. It seems that in recent excavations outside the walls of the Old City, Israeli archeologists digging for the true temple stones of Herod and Solomon came upon an ancient tablet with a Hebrew inscription. The words were from Isaiah:
"And when you see this, your heart shall rejoice. And your bones shall flourish like young grass."
Uncanny, but that is how you do feel, for many reasons, when you wander among the sacred stones of three religions.
The sunlight on the roof stones and the gray hills, the cypress of Gethsemane, seem exactly like the Bible scene in my old Sunday school books.It is a nice feeling to have childhood lore confirmed by reality.
A casual tourist may also participate in the warmth at Kotel Hama'aravi , the Wailing Wall, where Jewish boys are bar-mitzvahed into manhood. The rabbi sings, the boy carries the Torah into the sunlight, accompanies by his father and uncles. The women at the fence chant a kind of wild verbal applause and throw coins and candy at the procession.
Beyond the Hebrew wall lies the serence splendor of Islam, the incredibly beautiful Temple of the Golden Dome, built over the holy rock where Mohammed ascended to heaven to bring back God's laws.
But Jerusalem is more than the three religions -- it is an awesome collection of rise and ruin, folly and poverty. Every Turkish wall, every Crusader tower, every narrow alley in the old walled city -- together these sights make one gasp, literally, at the craziness of human history, yet also at the endurance of our aspirations.
Still there is something more powerful, beyond the staggering layers of history. Any representative American, even a lapsed Presbyterian, is compelled to identify with the joy of Israel and its new history. I certainly did not anticipate this, but the passions of its citizens, the innocent audacity of everything you see, connects immediately with my American soul.
After all, this is the story most Americans grew up on -- a chosen people fulfilling their destiny. Israel enacts the same moral drama that inspires America, and Israel's fulfillment of it, with its hard sacrifices, seems irresistible to me.
So I supposed, in my ignorance, that there would be dancing in the streets last week. I expected an ultimate celebration when the news came that, finally, a peace treaty would be signed with Egypt. People were glad, of course, and moderately hopeful, but not joyous.
This treaty is an important first step, but it is not a true exchange of Shalom/Salaam . The hard crisis still lies ahead for Israel, and the citizens seem to know this, regardless of their political positions.
The hard crisis will be this: Can the Jews of Israel, people who love justice as they love their new nation, reach for a just peace with the Arabs all around them, with the displaced Palestinians, the stoop labor of the Holy City, the pre-industrial peasants of the countryside, the homeless intellectuals who agitate from foreign capitals? Citizens of Jerusalem shake their heads at that question because they know how hard it will be. Many would say impossible.
This, too, you cannot evade in Jerusalem -- the stench of human hatred in the streets. I will not belabor it or try to weigh the indignities on both sides, but, believe me, the hatred is palpable. It reminds me of southern towns in the years when civil rights conflicts repened, when whites and blacks developed discreet signals for displaying their hostility, small gestures that danced on the edge of real violence.
The young Israeli soldiers stopping bedraggled Arab workmen at the city gates, demanding papers. The Arab boys, without uniforms, running from the Damascus Gate to throw rocks at cars, then disappearing into the ghetto of the Arab quarter where mounted police cannot pursue.
You see small items tucked inside the newspaper, where they seem routine. Rioting again in Ramallah, reprisal raids by jewish settlers. Four Arabs shot in a clash at Bethleherm.An Arab family complains that the Israeli army has confiscated its land, destroyed the vegetable crop. An official spokesman replies that the Arabs are "well-know troublemakers." In Jerusalem, the law requires that all cars be locked because unlicked cars are favorite targets for Arab bombs.
So Jerusalem evokes this terrible contradiction -- the joyfulness and the hatred together -- a contradiction that this peace treaty does not resolve.
The hardest struggle lies ahead, the most dangerous for Israel, not simply for security's sake but for the safety of its soul. I heard this thought expressed several times, in different ways, but did not grashp the full weight until the other night as an opening ceremony for the nation's centennial symposium honoring the genius of Albert Einsteis. Many heavy ideas were expressed that evening, but the most compelling were words selected from Einstein's own thoughts on peace, humanity, nationalism, Zionism. Einstein tole the Jews of Israel:
"Unless we find the way to honest cooperation and honest dealings with the Arabs, we have not learned anything on our way of 2,000 years' suffering and deserve the fate that is in store for us."
This was written to a Zionist leader in 1929. In today's context, it sounds like a biblical warning.
I WAS NOT being frivolous or sentimental when I talked about the chosen people, Israel and America. I know this idea of God's people sounds quaint and ethnocentric to modern rationalists and cynical geopliticians. I realize it is regarded as arrogant and dangerous because, demonstrably, the banner of God's destiny has become the flag of bloody conquest so often in history, including America's.
I know all that history, but I insist that this Old Testament idea is still crucial to both countries, the Hebrew idea that America dedioated as its own. The idea still lies deep in America's civil religion, the shared beliefs that shape our public attitudes as citizens. I would guess that most Americans, myself included, still feel "chosen," in the sense that we think America is unique in history, uniquely inspired, more bound by moral principle than othe nations, more free to resist the cynical reflexes that govern others.
Without being mystical about it, I think that belief explains American history as well as any rival principle. It is the wellspring of a creative nation, of democratic invention and audacious adventure. To the extent that Americans no longer believe this, the nation will become gross and ordinary and, ultimately, degenerate.
I discovered this connection a few years ago, in the pages of a brilliant book, "The Broken Covenant," by Robert N. Bellah. There was a moment in the 19th century, I learned, when these two versions of "chosenness" converged in the thinking of Rabbi Isaac M. Wise, a founder of reform Judaism in America. He envisioned a natural confluence of religious values and national aspirations in which reform Judaism would become, in effect, a civil religion of America. This would still be a worthy destiny for our polyglot nation -- a diverse citizenry which pursues tolerance with the devotion of Jews.
But Rabbi Wise did not describe this "chosen" people of America with the same arrogance that others have exuded. Shortly after the Civil War, he wrote: "Nothing can arrest our progress, nothing drag our country down from her high place in history, except our own wickedness working a willful desertion of our destiny, the desertion from the ideal of liberty."
The Jews understand the fullness of this idea (after all, it was their idea). Jews know the tension in it, the pain and obligations, in a way that others in prosperous modern America have never had to face. God chose the Israelites and promised that they would flourish as a nation, that all the ancient prophecies would be fulfilled. Yes, but they made a promise, too. They promised to love God and to love justice. Their prophets warned them of awful consequences if they broke that covenant.
The Jews did suffer, again and again, from the glory of King David to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, incredible suffering which stuns the imagination. At a distance, I cannot perceive why they did not all go crazy, crazy with vengeance or suicidal despair.
Except they didn't. I think Isaiah kept them sane. They kept their faith in scattered places, their almost fanatical love of justice, and, in our own time, they restored their nation of Israel.Nothing in the American experience, not even the Civil War and certainly not the contemporary malaise, has tested our faith so severely. As one Israeli told me, Jews can imagine the worst happening as well as the best.
I WOULD SAY that postwar America, swelled by prosperity and new power in the world, broke its own covenant. Its foreign policy embraced a cynicism that was un-American, that employed criminal tactics and embraced shabby dictators, believing that power alone could dictate. We are now in a long, painful period of restoration -- I hope -- in which the United States straightens out its values in the world and accepts the fall of dictators as wrong commitments, unworthy of the nation that Rabbi Wise described.
The heart of this old Hebrew idea is the covenant, the contract with God. In modern times, if it still has meaning, it means a "chosen" nation cannot merely be strong. The hills of Jerusalem are covered with the rubble of nations that were merely strong. The covenant asks: Can a nation strive to be both powerful and good? Can it love justice while it loves itself? A cynical historian would say the history of nations proves this impossible; a "chosen" people would reply that they are not bound by the history of nations. They have a different contract.
I think this is what Einstein meant in that warning 50 years ago. I think this is the nature of Israel's coming crisis. It is committed spiritually to seek justice, despite the violent and hateful reasons history provides in opposition. I am trying to suggest that America has a deep spiritual stake in the outcome, one that has nothing to do with global security or domestic politics. If Israel fulfills its covenant, after all the pain and danger, then surely Americans can believe in their own. If Israel fails, that will diminish the American dream, too.
People will say, probably, that I am overcome by the joyful sunlight of Jerusalem, but I believe the Israelis will do it. Not next month or next year, not without wrenching aruments and anguish, but I think they will reach for a just peace in time. I know all the bloody reasons why that sounds ridiculous today, the Arab treachery and the memories of the Holocaust, the hatred in the streets. But if peace wounds ridiculous, consider modern Israel itself: another impossible idea that these chosen people believed in, that they accomplished.