A man in a distant field, no hearthfires near,
will hide a fresh brand in his bed of embers
to keep a spark alive for the next day
- Homer, The Odyssey
The local residents said that monuments had frequently been set over their graves, but they were all destroyed at night; however, I do not know whether this is true.
- Anonymous Disciple of the Rabbi Obadiah, 14951
There is something about the land that possesses. We are reminded of this constantly in Scripture—we think of lands claimed on divine promise. There is exile too; that soon-taboo word, “Diaspora,” an entire history of not-possessing.
There are the spiritual exiles, the sudden ascensions into the other realm—Mohammed rising from the ruin of the Temple Mount. Words are tied to this land. To go to Israel to live is to make “Aliyah,” to “rise up.” A word for “east” in Hebrew also alludes to “past,” (kedma/yamei kedem) an allusion to the direction of origin and the home of Abraham. We face east when praying, facing towards Jerusalem, towards return, towards the past. There is the recent past: 1948 Independence, wars: ’56, ’67, ’73—the occupancy of Lebanon, the recent Intafada, the Gaza pull-out. The land is overwhelmed with boundaries—with border fences, ancient and modern walls, check-points, mountains, canyons, deserts.
It is hard to ignore the boundaries, the sense of here and there, of us and them. Wherever our Birthright Israel group seemed to go, we were always navigating borders. Lines were in sight, other lands loomed over ours. I was made conscious of my otherness too, of my Americanness; I did not speak the language so I was susceptible to presentation, vulnerable to the way the Israelis turned English against me. The first greeting to Israel was in a literal sense confusing. The way they said, “Welcome home,” was unsettling. It made me feel twice displaced.
Sometimes the land stank of the boundaries. How in the Jordanian city of Al Aqqaba, rubbing up against the border with Eliat on the Red Sea, the authorities flew the largest flag in the world. I could see it from where I reclined on my white beach chair. It flapped slowly in the warm wind. I was told that it is so big that when it flaps, it wakes up the entire neighborhood. How they brought us within a few feet of East Jerusalem just to show us the border.
How they pointed out the wall they were constructing. How in our bus Arik, our tour guide, would always say, pointing 500, 300, 100 yards away, “There is the border.” How when the sun came up it had to first pass over the mountains in Jordan. How on the last day we visited Yad Vashem, the National Holocaust museum, and I realized the scars and how they cut deep into the valleys as if ploughed with barbed wire.
But borders are also frames. They define what is on the inside. West Jerusalem would not be without East Jerusalem. Standing before us in Tel Aviv’s Independence Hall, the place where Ben Gurion officially announced the formation of Israel, an Arab-Israeli told us that you cannot be safe without an address. He paced back and forth excitedly on the stage, a portrait of Theodor Herzl hanging behind him. “I am an Arab,” he said, grinning suddenly, “but I am also an Israeli. You wonder who the Indians are. I am an Apache. I am not a stranger here.”
Addressing a room full of American college kids, all exhausted from the twelve hour flight, gave him the energy to confront us. “I am arrogant, yes, but do we not have a reason to be arrogant?” he said, grinning again, showing us his straight white teeth. “God gave us the land of milk and honey, but forgot to tell us about the neighbors.”