i. stand with israel
I listen to a lot of conservative talk radio. Confident masculine voices telling me the enemy is everywhere and victory is near — I often find it affirming: there’s a reason I don’t think that way. Last spring, many right-wing commentators made much of a Bloomberg poll that asked Americans, “Are you more sympathetic to Netanyahu or Obama?” Republicans picked the Israeli prime minister over their own president, 67 to 16 percent. There was a lot of affected shock that things had come to this. Rush Limbaugh said of Netanyahu that he wished “we had this kind of forceful moral, ethical clarity leading our own country”; Mark Levin described him as “the leader of the free world.” For a few days there I yelled quite a bit in my car.
The one conservative radio show I do find myself enjoying is hosted by Dennis Prager. At the Thanksgiving dinner of American radio personalities (Limbaugh is your jittery brother-in-law, Michael Savage is your racist uncle, Hugh Hewitt is Hugh Hewitt) Dennis Prager is the turkey-carving patriarch trying to keep the conversation moderately high-minded. While Prager obviously doesn’t like liberals — “The gaps between the left and right on almost every issue that matters are in fact unbridgeable,” he has said — he often invites them onto his show for debate, which is rare among right-wing hosts. Yet his gently exasperated take on the Obama–Netanyahu matchup was among the least charitable: “Those who do not confront evil resent those who do.”
Prager’s audience is largely Christian; Prager is a Jew. Over the years I’ve heard numerous friendly callers tell him, often in thick Southern accents, that he’s the first Jew they’ve ever spoken to. One day last summer, Prager mentioned that he would be heading up something called the Stand with Israel Tour. For a little under $5,000, you could join Prager, and his most devoted listeners, on an all-inclusive guided jaunt across the world’s holiest, most contested land. The goal, he said, was to remind Israel of its devoted friends in the United States.
America’s religious right hasn’t always been enamored of Israel, much less of Jews. Quite a few of the originators of the American Christian fundamentalist movement were unabashed anti-Semites. In 1933, the radio preacher Charles Fuller told his listeners that Jews represented “a wicked and willful rebellion against God”; other early fundamentalist leaders eagerly circulated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Israel had no friendly harbor in American conservatism for decades; its first real champion in the Oval Office was John F. Kennedy, a Democrat.
In 1981, the Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, publicly embraced evangelical Christians, whose stated determination to convert Jews to Christianity had long spooked Israelis. While evangelical religious tourism, and the millions of dollars it injected into Israel’s economy, had always been welcome, evangelicals were kept at arm’s length politically. Begin was the first to recognize that the Israeli right and American evangelicals shared many common beliefs, from forbidding abortion to maintaining a general suspicion toward the Muslim world. The Christian Coalition, founded in 1989 by the broadcast Baptist Pat Robertson, became invested in the Zionist cause, and by 2002, Tom DeLay, former majority leader of the House of Representatives, commended the group for “standing up for Jews and Jesus.” Robertson dwelled darkly on the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and his “gang of thugs” as the political emergence of Christian Zionism fused with right-wing Israeli goals. In the early fifth century, St. Jerome resisted the acceptance of Jews with faith in Christ, warning Augustine that “they will not become Christians, but they will make us Jews.” Sixteen hundred years later, American evangelicals have become de facto Israelis.
I wanted to more fully understand why conservative politics had become synonymous with no-questions-asked support of Israel, so I asked my beloved partner, Trisha, if she would accompany me on Prager’s tour. This would necessitate leaving our sixteen-month-old daughter with her grandparents for ten days. Trisha was okay with a vacation from parental obligations, but she had some questions: “Will people care I’m not a Republican?” I told her I wasn’t sure. “Do I have to pretend to be religious?” Not if you don’t want to, I said. “Will I have to get baptized?” I doubted it.
Trisha was in.
ii. the israel test
Months later, in November, we step out of the elevator and into the lobby of the Leonardo Plaza Hotel in Ashdod, Israel, to catch Prager’s tour-opening lecture. We want good seats. But when we arrive, forty-five minutes before go time, we find none. Everybody is already here. The majority of our fellow Stand with Israelites are sixty years of age and older. There are somehow around 450 of us, from a dozen American cities. There are too many Stand with Israelites for one hotel, so our cohort has been spread throughout Ashdod, a coastal city twenty miles north of Gaza and a frequent target of Hamas’s rockets in the 2014 Gaza war. I watch our tour group’s few latecomers step off their buses, all of them marveling, as I had, at the huge banner draped across the front of the hotel: welcome to the land of the bible.
Around me a lot of “Hey you!” reunions are happening, with people remembering faces but not necessarily names from previous Prager tours. (He’s done them for more than a decade, leading his listeners everywhere from Israel to Albania to Nova Scotia.) Platters of cookies are attacked. Jugs of mint-flavored water are drained. Everyone wears a lanyard with a laminated name tag attached to it, all branded genesis tours, the faith-based travel company that’s been squiring Christians around Israel since 1990.
We finally find two seats. Trisha starts chatting with the older woman sitting next to her, one of the seventy-eight conservatives from southern California. I hear Trisha tell the woman what she does for a living (actor) and where she lives (the Hollywood Hills), which triggers some intrigued follow-up questions.
Trisha has just violated the cover story we agreed to use while standing with Israel: Trisha would say that she is a stay-at-home mom, which is true, and I would say that I work in the video-game industry, which is also true. We wouldn’t disclose our politics or other jobs unless asked — we agreed not to lie — and we would never argue with anyone. We’d listen and observe and try to understand. I’m open to making friends here, and hope I do. A good way not to do that, however, is to be identified as a crypto-liberal during our first interaction on our first night in Israel. Trisha blames her slip on jet lag.
The presentation begins. Prager is introduced by a bald, fit, velvet-voiced Israeli named Reuven Doron, the man on the ground for Genesis Tours. “We are here for one purpose,” Doron tells us. “We came to stand with Israel.” This extracts a few vaguely amenish sounds from the audience. Doron goes on: “You are our strength, and our encouragement, and a joy to our hearts.”
Eventually Prager himself ambles over to the mic. He is a big man, around six foot four, with fine white corn-silk hair. In his khaki slacks and open-collar blue-striped shirt, he could be the provost of a university. (He is, kind of. Prager University — “Free courses for free minds” — offers a catalogue of five-minute online videos covering a variety of subjects, from anger management to electric cars.) There’s a collective titter from the ladies as Prager gets ready to speak. He has a lot of female admirers here, including his third wife, a six-foot blond amazon standing in the back. Trisha will later tell me that she gets why women like Prager, pointing out that when he smiles his dimpled face adorably resembles that of “a really wise Muppet.”
Prager begins by talking about something he calls the Israel Test. What is the Israel Test? The Israel Test involves seeing “how people react to Israel,” which is, he says, “about as quick a way you have to understand their judgment.” Meaning, essentially, that if you ever find fault with Israel, you’re horrible. President Obama fails the Israel Test, even though, in 2012, he sent the single largest military-aid package America has provided the country to date. John Kerry is an even worse Israel Test failure, Prager tells us, because he often takes a “middle position” on the Israel–Palestine contretemps, “as if there really wasn’t a dark and a light.”
Prager continues, “You can’t imagine how proud I am of you. I’m very serious. It means the world to me. To be honest, when there were these attacks that started a month ago” — more than a dozen Israelis had been stabbed in the street by Palestinian assailants — “we really didn’t know how many people would cancel. And the answer is almost nobody.” I’d written an email to Genesis Tours when the stabbing frequency got bad, wanting to know if the threat of violence had at all altered our itinerary. The “Dear friend” form letter I received in return assured me, “These incidents of Islamic-driven violence are isolated, and thanks to our alert security forces and citizens, they are contained within seconds.”
Prager emphasizes that he’s not getting paid to be here with us. He also believes that American parents — Christians and Jews alike — should send their children to Israel between high school and college. Why? “The moral compass of the world,” he says, “is upside down. If your child can spend time in Israel, and then become clear as to how upside down the world is, they will return to the university already immunized against the most morally upside down of all Western institutions, the university.”
I listen to Prager’s speech with these preconceived views: Israel has a right to exist and to defend itself. Palestinians have been collectively wronged — by Israel, by their leaders, and often by their own actions. The growing religious fundamentalism within Palestinian society, which was once more secular than most of the Arab world, scares the hell out of me. At the same time, I’m sympathetic to the plight of average Palestinians — most of whom are not violently “Islamic-driven” en masse, like those referred to by Genesis Tours. I’m equally sympathetic to the plight of average Israelis — who, contra other accounts, are not mindless bigots. And I realize that, in the past twenty years, there have been at least seventeen full-fledged failures of the peace process, for which there is a surfeit of blame to go around.
Too often, the subject of Israel becomes just another way for Americans to refract their own views of America. Liberals tend to assume that right-wing evangelicals support Israel because of how it fits into their imagined apocalypse: only when God’s Chosen People reoccupy the entirety of their biblical territory will the Final Dispensation, the rise of the Antichrist, the Tribulation, the eventual return of Jesus Christ, and his Last Judgment commence. In many ways, the founding of Israel in 1948 was the Woodstock of fundamentalist Christianity. A recent Pew study of Christian fundamentalism found that 63 percent of white evangelicals believe that the creation of a Jewish state in modern times fulfills the supposed biblical prophecy of Jesus’ Second Coming. Yet not one evangelical Christian I will meet on tour seems interested in any of that. Rather, the conservative Christian love of Israel that I will encounter, over and over again, seems bound up in a notion of God the Father, who has two children: Israel and the United States. This Israel — not a nation but a wayward brother — lies beyond history, beyond the deaths and wars that made it, beyond the United Nations, beyond the Oslo Accords, beyond any conventional morality. Understand that and you have passed the Israel Test.
iii. black arrow
The following morning I eat six different kinds of cheese at the buffet breakfast. Later there will be a buffet lunch and a buffet dinner. (Wherever we go in Israel, no matter how remote the place, several tons of warm food will be waiting.) Outside our hotel ten tour buses are lined up; Trisha and I have been assigned Bus Five.
Around fifty percent of Bus Five’s occupants wear cross pendants. A few older women have on velvet tracksuits. The men, for the most part, wear boonie hats, T-shirts advertising corporate cruise lines, and red-state suntans. Trisha and I have already made friends with a quiet Quakerish couple who recently finished their Peace Corps tour of duty in Azerbaijan, and with Marty Schoenleber, an evangelical pastor from Illinois who can read the Hebrew Bible and New Testament in their original languages, and who will later lament to me the core problem with overtly Christian fiction, which is that it’s usually written by hacks.
As we get rolling, our guide, David Westlund, a bearded and curly-haired man who is in his late fifties but looks a decade younger, introduces himself over the bus PA system. Originally from Minnesota, David has lived in Israel for thirty-five years. Neither he nor his wife is Jewish; eventually, I will learn that he’s a devoted Christian. He’s as Israeli as an American Christian can get, in that he speaks Hebrew and all his children served in the Israel Defense Forces. When not guiding tours, he works in construction, which has kept him fit. He asks how many of us have been to Israel before. Most of us haven’t. “I like first-timers,” he says. “They don’t know much, and if I make mistakes, they don’t catch it.” David tells us that he once got a scathing review from a British couple irritated by his “endless prattle.” He will keep using that phrase — “Time for more endless prattle” — throughout the tour. Trisha and I agree: David is the tour guide to have while standing with Israel.
We drive south through the gray, lunar landscape of the Negev Desert, out of which erupts an occasional green blob of habitation. David explains that the flowering and settlement of the Negev has been one of Israel’s major environmental accomplishments, much of it traceable to Levi Eshkol, a farmer and water engineer who served as Israel’s prime minister in the 1960s. Eshkol likened the national irrigation system to the “veins of a human body.” Much of the water that the Negev receives is diverted from the Sea of Galilee, 150 miles north. The events that led to the Six-Day War, in June 1967, began two and a half years earlier, when guerrilla fighters under the command of a thirty-five-year-old Yasir Arafat raided a water pump on the Lebanese border that fed the Negev. Israel’s Arab neighbors had long worried that an irrigated Negev would be able to support millions of additional Israelis — an entirely prescient fear.
We pass by a few tidy Jewish settlements, along with others that look like tidy Jewish settlements after five weeks of riots. These are Bedouin villages. Unlike most Arabs in Israel proper, Bedouins serve in the IDF, often as trackers. Thus, David tells us, Israel “bends the law and rules” for Bedouins. Polygamy, for instance, is officially illegal, but Bedouin men are allowed to take multiple wives. (As it happens, Bedouin men sire a spectacular twelve to twenty-five children per male — off the demographic charts — meaning, at this rate, Bedouins will make up a quarter of Israel’s Muslim population by 2030.) These and other accommodations by the Israeli government have led to anti-Bedouin sentiment among many Arabs; Hamas, especially, despises Bedouins as rootless traitors.
Someone asks whether Bedouins and Jews could ever live in a village together. David replies by explaining that who lives in what settlement is determined by “the nature of the town,” by which he means its existing ethnic makeup. “It’s an unwritten rule,” he says. “You just stay with your people. Why would you want to go somewhere you know you don’t belong?”
Conservatives often point out that Palestinian citizens of Israel enjoy more rights than Palestinian refugees do in neighboring Arab countries, which does not address the negligible rights Jews and other religious minorities enjoy in most Arab nations. But most Arab nations don’t claim to be democracies. Israel is a democracy in which interfaith marriage is illegal. (A couple of weeks after our tour, Israel’s Ministry of Education would ban a novel from being taught in Israeli schools because it depicted a romance between a Jewish woman and a Palestinian man. One ministry official explained to the press that young people who read the book might lose track of the “significance of miscegenation.”) Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up more than 20 percent of the population, face entrenched legal obstacles in everything from buying property to receiving equitable funding for their schools and hospitals. “The worlds separate when you go home,” David tells us, without much relish, “but they come together when you go to work. Christian, Arab, Jew, Muslim — we all work together.” No one stirs or says a word against this stick-to-your-own logic. Is anyone uncomfortable? I am, but I also live in the single whitest neighborhood in Los Angeles.
At long last, in the middle of nowhere, Bus Five stops at a palm-tree-encircled cluster of Gilligan’s Island–style thatch huts. I overhear one guide tell another that the idea for this fake oasis was ripped off from a similar tourist trap near Jericho: hire fifty Bedouin, lease a herd of camels, make believe it’s an ancient desert settlement, and count the money as the tourist-crammed buses start rolling in.
When you’re part of such a large tour group, everything seems designed to make you feel like a child. One of our guides blows his trumpet whenever he wants his group to form up. Another has stuck a large plastic flower into his backpack so people can pick him out of a crowd. David, admirably, has forsworn such theater. As he walks into the fake oasis, he holds up an oversize ping-pong paddle marked 5, and we obediently follow him to a large tent. Inside, two long-haired Israeli hippies wearing T. E. Lawrence robes over blue jeans retell the story of Abraham, who passed this very way all those years ago, or so we are told.
Off to another tent, thick with the sweet, resinous smell of a wood fire. Body-size pillows have been scattered around; we recline while a Bedouin boy pours us fire-warmed coffee and tea. Soon a Bedouin elder named Muhammad enters through the tent flaps, wearing a robe and keffiyeh, both a bright boiled white, with a curved dagger tucked into his cloth belt. Muhammad has apparently been prepped on his audience’s political sympathies. “We have to welcome everyone into our tent,” he says. “Even Obama.”
Before we leave the fake oasis, we’re supposed to ride the camels. Twenty-five camels are here, a gastrointestinal symphony of snorting and farting and groaning. I consider Muhammad’s parting words to us — “Don’t touch the head or the neck. They don’t like it” — as a Bedouin guy helps Trisha and me atop a camel. Me: “Do they bite?” Him: “Okay.” Me: “Wait. Is this safe?” Him: “Okay.” Our camel walks fifty feet and stops. As Bus Five drives away I look back at the fake oasis and see another Bedouin guy with a rake solemnly erasing our footprints from the dust.
We’re scheduled to end our day with a visit to an IDF camp on the northern edge of the Gaza Strip. As we pass through the northernmost Israel–Gaza border crossing, I see a massive wall, observation towers, and endless spirals of barbed wire. It could be a piece of dystopian concept art.
We arrive at Camp Iftach, where we’re told many of the soldiers stationed here were among the first into Gaza during the 2014 war. When they’re not fighting Hamas, the officers of Camp Iftach are a combat-engineer unit. This explains the earthmoving heavy machinery we see all around, including the massive snub-nosed military bulldozer known as the Caterpillar D9. These behemoths, which can withstand multiple mine hits, are used to destroy Hamas’s arms-smuggling tunnel network into and out of Gaza. Within Camp Iftach proper, several baby-faced soldiers wave and smile as our bus slides into its parking space.
Most Israelis serve in the IDF. In the 1970s, Saul Bellow marveled at how Israel had become a society both Spartan and Athenian, by which he meant that you saw teenagers in baggy green fatigues with automatic weapons slung casually over their shoulders everywhere you went. Israel is tiny; in Bellow’s day its wars happened an hour’s drive from where many soldiers grew up. But after two horrifying insurgencies — the Intifadas, with enemies not at the border but clawing from within — Israel’s Athenian face has withdrawn. Here, instead, is Sparta — a garrison state, securely walled and tensely patrolled.
We visitors are herded into a dilapidated concrete hangar while a Merkava Mark IV tank — pale green, with loose-paneled armor intended to lessen rocket-propelled-grenade impacts — rolls out in demonstration, churning up dirt and sand while the tourists clap and cheer. A teenager pops out and explains some of its features. It’s got a 1,500 horsepower engine (that’s five Hondas), a 120mm smoothbore main gun, three additional machine guns, and a 60mm mortar. The Mark IV’s big barrel swings around, hitting the antenna on the stern with a small twap, and stops once it’s pointing directly at us. Many of us throw up our hands and beg, in jest, “Don’t shoot!” A Namer (“leopard”) troop carrier rolls out next. It’s built low and flat, with a sloped hull and a machine gun on top, which is controlled from inside the vehicle with two joysticks. “Like a video game,” someone says. We are adults watching children play in the mud. Another soldier walks out cradling a shiny yellow artillery shell. Big cheers when we’re informed that this shell was made in America. Trisha turns to me and asks an eminently reasonable question: “What the fuck are we doing here?”
At dusk, we travel to a nearby site called the Black Arrow Memorial, which honors eight IDF soldiers who lost their lives during a retaliatory incursion into the Gaza Strip in the mid-1950s. Off in the distance are the twinkling yellow-orange lights of Gaza City. In 2005, Israel ended its direct military occupation of Gaza, around the time when the Palestinian Authority, the mouthpiece of the Palestinian people since its founding in 1994, formally renounced violence. In the next year’s parliamentary elections, Hamas was voted into power, triggering a Palestinian civil war. A succession of brief but horrendous wars since then have all played out in similar ways: Hamas fires rockets. Israel responds with air strikes. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of Gazans are killed. The international community chides Israel for its tactics. Israel withdraws. The smoke clears. Hamas claims victory. The Gazan people climb atop their rubble piles and applaud.
Israel now enables foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority, to fight Hamas terrorists. Hamas and Fatah, the largest Palestinian political party, might hate each other more than they hate Israel. (Fatah fears that Hamas will trigger another intifada in the West Bank; Hamas fears that Fatah will forcibly end its rule of Gaza.) In recent years, Gaza has given rise to a violent group of Salafis who think that Hamas cares more about Palestinian rights than it does about forging the perfect Islamist society; these Salafis believe that Hamas is not extreme enough.
The most recent Gaza war, in 2014, displaced close to half a million Gazans and killed more than 500 children. After 5,200 Israeli bombardments, the damage was so extensive that the estimated time it will take to rebuild Gaza is two decades. Of course, little construction material is arriving, today or any day soon, thanks to an Israeli and Egyptian blockade that has made Gaza into a twenty-five-mile-long, five-mile-wide penal colony.
At the Black Arrow Memorial, we’re told to gather around another young Israeli soldier, who recently finished his third year of service in the IDF. He’s dark-haired and bearded, with a long face. “I don’t know what percent of the people,” he says of the Palestinians he’s encountered, “but most of them really want to live in peace.” He spent two years in the West Bank, and whenever he encountered young Palestinians throwing rocks at cars, he knew they were young and aimless, “not focused about anything. They’re immature.” The young soldier pauses, searching for a better English word to describe these Palestinians.
Someone in the crowd suggests, “Thugs!”
The young soldier either ignores or does not hear this. He goes on to say that many Palestinian teenagers have nothing to do but throw rocks. He adds, “We don’t need to think about all Arabs when they do something wrong, because I know a lot of people from their side want to live in peace.”
A collective unease falls over the crowd. You can almost hear the cognitive whir while everyone’s brains rewind and replay. The soldier goes on to say that religion factors in, too. “The radicals from both sides are taking part, very good part, very big part, and this becomes very, very, very complicated.”
A woman — not a Bus Fiver, I’m relieved to report — pushes through the crowd. She’s in her forties, and is wearing oversize sunglasses, a puffy winter jacket, yoga pants, and colorful sneakers. “When you refer to radicals from both sides,” she says, “you’re talking about radicals who teach their children at a very young age to hate the Jews, versus the radicals of the Jewish faith?”
Yes, the young soldier answers.
“But Jews do not do any of that.” She begins to gesture in an am-I-going-crazy way. “Somehow you’re saying that both have a role to play? Am I understanding that correctly? When the mentality is completely opposite.”
The number of Israeli settlers in occupied Arab territory has grown from 230,000 in 1992 to 570,000 in 2015; many of these people are religious fanatics who regard the Palestinians as murid intruders on land promised to them by God. According to one 2015 poll, half of all Jewish Israelis would like to see Palestinian citizens expelled from Israel. Another study found that nearly half of all Jewish Israelis wouldn’t want to live in a building with Arabs and wouldn’t want their children to attend school with Arabs. The Palestinians are no better; almost half want to continue to use violence against Israel, and 60 percent believe that their goal should be to reclaim the whole of Israel from the Jews. Since 1987, at least 1,600 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians. During the same period, at least 10,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israelis.
The young soldier looks gape-mouthed at his interlocutor. He tries to inform her that many Jews who live in the “complicated areas” of the West Bank raise their children with the same kind of hate.
At this, she throws up her hands. “Respectfully, no,” she says. “Respectfully, no.”
A man near Trisha mutters, “If Dennis Prager were here he’d rip that guy a new asshole.” With the crowd now against him, the young soldier stands silently, gripping his microphone. Another soldier steps in, takes the mic, and says, “Maybe there’s a small language issue here and let’s move on, yes?”
I walk back to the lookout point. In the distance I see a sputtering red dot, out of which twirls a corkscrew of smoke. In Gaza City something is on fire.
iv. “mercy is kind of punched out of me”
A century ago, Caesarea, the first-century Roman capital of Judaea, was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, the last caliphate. Important archaeological sites — relics of Palestine’s non-Islamic history — were left entombed beneath sand dunes. Sitting in Caesarea’s restored theater, Trisha and I sit in pinprick rain and wait for another Dennis Prager lecture to begin. Not terribly far away, the caliphate reenactors of the Islamic State are busy destroying every pre- and non-Islamic artifact they can find.
We have a good view of the remaining bits of Caesarea from our seats: the foundation of the seaside Herodian palace, the track of an old hippodrome, the outline of a royal pool, rings of worn sandstone and pitted marble. I’m reading aloud to Trisha passages about ancient Caesarea from Josephus’ Jewish War — how King Herod built its harbor in a spot “as awkward as could be”; how the statue of Herod’s benefactor, Caesar, was “no whit inferior to the Olympian Zeus which it was intended to resemble.” A couple rows ahead of us, someone is reading Ben Carson’s autobiography, Gifted Hands; a dozen others have copies of Dennis Prager’s book, The Ten Commandments: Still the Best Moral Code.
Prager himself appears, wearing a sport coat, his shoulders gray with damp. The guy reading Ben Carson looks up. “The emperor has arrived,” he says. Meanwhile, two dozen people from another Christian tour group are singing in the theater’s wings, their voices dreamlike, as rainfall patters on the marble around them. Once again, Reuven Doron from Genesis Tours introduces Prager. By now, the drizzle has almost stopped, and Doron says that this is proof that “God loves Dennis Prager.”
Prager tells us about his university days as a twenty-one-year-old student of Russian, buying copies of Pravda from a 42nd Street newsstand. One day, someone from the Israeli government contacted him and asked him to travel to the Soviet Union to smuggle in Hebrew Bibles and prayer shawls. “It was somewhat dangerous,” he says. “I was sent because I knew Hebrew and Russian.” He emerged with names of Jews who wanted to leave the U.S.S.R., and then began to deliver lectures on Soviet Jewry. He describes this as “the beginning of my public life.”
He would speak around four times a week. “Almost every synagogue in the United States — for that matter, Australia, France, anywhere in the free world — had a sign: save soviet jewry. To my shock, no church had a sign, save soviet christians. . . . More Christians were being killed by the Soviet government than Jews were. So why weren’t there save soviet christians signs but there were save soviet jewry signs? Because Jews are a people, whereas Christians are a religion.”
According to Prager, this helps explain why, even today, there is little collective outcry for the Christians being murdered by the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. “I don’t know why Christians aren’t going crazy over the decimation of Christians in the Middle East,” Prager says. “I’m going crazy over the decimation of Christians in the Middle East.” I have another explanation: Those being targeted are all Middle Eastern Christians who belong to sects — Syrian Orthodox, Maronite, Chaldean — so conceptually unfamiliar to Western Christians that they may as well be Muslims.
The rest of Prager’s speech concerns Judaism’s convergences with its sister faith Christianity. He affirms that Jews are the Chosen People, while “Christians are doing God’s work.” He doesn’t understand the Christian ideation of Jesus, he confesses, but, he says, “I am closer to a Christian who shares my faith and God and the Bible and my values than to a Jew who doesn’t. We’re doing God’s work together. Who is right? We’ll find out.”
Back on the bus to Nazareth, a largely Arab area, where we’re having lunch in an old immigrant-detention center that’s been converted into a hotel. We ascend a twisty-turny road to see hillsides awash in trash. Someone asks David, “Why is every Arab town we see filled with garbage?” Another person wants to know: “How’d the Arabs get Nazareth?” David explains that Jews never lived in great numbers in Nazareth; it was always an Arab town, built up by Arabs for Christian tourists. “It’s not like Arabs took it from the Jews,” David says. No one appears satisfied by this.
The hotel conference room is filled with silver platters of food. Trisha and I sit with some Bus Fivers, all of whom are discussing Matt Bevin’s recent election as the governor of Kentucky — thanks in part to his campaign promise of gutting Obamacare. We have a Kentuckian at the table with us, a self-avowed Tea Partyer, his voice so deep and resonant it could split wood. Despite his strong anti-moocher convictions, he returns from his dessert run with enough pastries for everybody, which is more than I thought to do.
My fellow Stand with Israelites say things like, “These people need the Prince of Peace.” They say, “I’ll have to pray on that one.” They are warm and funny. They talk about the foster children they’ve raised, the people they’ve helped lift out of meth-induced darkness. A man describes a young friend who lost his wife to cancer as a “trophy of grace.” Another describes his regrets about homeschooling his children, which, he worries aloud, may have damaged their ability to socialize. In that unguarded moment, as he stares at his plate, I find myself wanting to share my own anxieties about parenting.
After lunch, we head for a kibbutz on the Lebanese border. We ride through the changeful topography of the Galilean high country. One minute it’s gorgeous valleys, then extinct volcanoes, then parched hills, then Crusader castles, then papyrus groves, then half-hidden dirt roads, then aqueducts with hundred-inch pipes, then Druze villages. It’s the first century, it’s the twelfth century, it’s November 2015. The questions my fellow Bus Fivers ask of David are getting more wide-ranging. At one point David is fielding inquiries about Mexican immigration in America and his personal feelings on the European Union. Finally, he admits that guides are discouraged from discussing politics and religion. At this he laughs, as that’s pretty much all he talks about.
We’re now moving along the Naphtali Ridge, a world of sky and evergreens and maize-colored stones aglow in sunlight. The valley directly beneath us is Lebanese territory: here are the cedars of Lebanon. Syria is just to the east. David points out Syria. We all look toward Syria. David redirects our attention back toward Lebanon. We all look toward Lebanon. It’s like we’re on safari: “To your right, the beastly hordes of the Islamic State. On your left, Hezbollah.” Between Israeli and Lebanese territory is a big, mean double fence; shots have been fired across the patrol road that runs through it as recently as 2010. The village we’re approaching, Adaisseh, along with much of southern Lebanon, used to be predominantly Christian. Israel occupied the area until 2000, and in the past decade, it has become Hezbollah’s turf. David points to a tiny outpost on a distant hill on the Israeli side of the border and tells us that his son was stationed there while serving in the IDF. He describes how he used to stop there, along his tour route, to drop off cookies.
We arrive at Misgav Am: the kibbutz at the end of the world, according to its welcome sign. It is famous as kibbutzim go, founded in 1945, two years before the state of Israel itself, by members of the Haganah, an underground militia. Three military-intelligence units are found within its walls. The people who live here aren’t freewheeling kibbutzniks making artisanal soap, like you’d find down near the Dead Sea, but rough-edged farmers living within tossing distance of a Hezbollah grenade.
We’re greeted by a Misgav Am old-timer whose huge gray beard, as thick as it is wide, suggests Yosemite Sam in his senescence. He tells us, “Those of us who live up here, I tell everybody — and you’ll forgive me if I insult anyone, it’s not on purpose — we’re Israeli rednecks.” This particular Israeli Redneck was born in Cleveland and moved to Israel in 1961, “after I decided I was wasting my life.” He’s fought for Israel “in four and a half wars. I was with the paratroopers in the liberation of Jerusalem in 1967. We had fifty percent casualties.” As a result, he says, “Mercy is kind of punched out of me. I have no love for my enemies, and I have no problem shooting them. I take a little white pill in the morning. It keeps me level, and I sleep real good every night.” This gets a big laugh from the audience.
He is unapologetic about the fact that territory was taken from Palestinians. To say outright that Jewish fighters ethnically cleansed historically Palestinian land remains taboo in Israeli society, even though a number of historians — Benny Morris, Tom Segev, Ari Shavit — have found documents in the state archives that admit as much. (The diary of Zionist leader Theodor Herzl, which dates before the founding of Israel, contains plans to expel Arabs from Arab land and the belief that “we are not obliged to state the limits of our state.”) Netanyahu tightened access to the national archives before any more embarrassing documents could be discovered. According to the Israeli Redneck, though, “Possession is ten tenths of the law around here. If you can hold it, it’s yours.”
He continues his speech. “The people in the Hezbollah are committed,” he tells us. “The Palestinians are committed. Some may want peace. Some may not. It doesn’t matter, but they’re committed to the destruction of Israel one way or another.” He adds, “In this part of the world there’s no such thing as innocent civilians. There’s combatants and non?combatants. Nobody’s innocent except children. Children are always innocent.”
During the question-and-answer period, the Israeli Redneck is asked if he would consider running for president. (Yes, we’re now deeply within a peculiar American epoch: those who claim they want liberty search only for Cincinnatus.) He smiles. “I’d be willing to be king,” he says. Someone then asks about the extermination of Israel’s enemies. “Believe me,” he replies, “if we were China or Russia or the United States or somebody, there wouldn’t be a Palestinian problem and there wouldn’t be a Hezbollah problem. They’d just turn their army loose and that’s it.”
I excuse myself and stroll outside. I notice that someone else has also walked out early: Pastor Marty. He tells me that he was troubled by the violence of the Israeli Redneck’s speech. I tell Pastor Marty that I don’t fault a man who’s fought in four wars for sounding like a lunatic. What bothers me is the way people were applauding him.
Pastor Marty tells me that he blames increasing partisan belligerence on talk radio and Facebook — the way they allow us to “vent sideways,” as he calls it, in our little simpatico cocoons. The tiniest disagreements get amplified — from sharing and liking and retweeting — until they’re all anyone hears. When was the last time, he asks, that anyone was forced to have a civil discussion with someone who thought differently?
The Israeli Redneck has finished speaking. Stand with Israelites are streaming out, laughing and raving about what they just heard. Two of our tour guides walk past us. One says to the other, “That’s totally how I wanna talk, but I’d lose my license.”
v. the occupation of bus five
Our daily itinerary is now established. Get a barbarically early wake-up call, overeat at the buffet breakfast, ride a bus, meet Israeli soldiers, ride a bus, overeat at the buffet lunch, hear a lecture, use the phrase “I need a vacation from my vacation” ironically, ride a bus, see some sights, meet more Israeli soldiers, ride a bus, use the phrase “I need a vacation from my vacation” unironically, check into a new hotel, overeat at the buffet dinner, hit the mattress like a lumberjacked tree.
We’re in Tiberias now, it’s just after sunrise, and Trisha and I trade yawns on the lakeside dock of our hotel. The Sea of Galilee sloshes unseen beneath a layer of fog. As a couple are telling us about how, in the middle of the night, they sneaked down here and went swimming, the sky suddenly clears and what cinematographers call God rays blast erumpent through parting clouds.
The plan, once we’re picked up by a boat, is to sail into the middle of the Sea of Galilee, participate in what has been ominously described as a “ceremony,” and cross over to the northern bank, where we’ll visit famous New Testament sites. I’d been looking forward to hanging out with Pastor Marty while touring Galilee, but he and half our contingent set off for the day with Dennis Prager to visit Safed, the birthplace of Jewish mysticism. “I have two advanced degrees in ancient history,” Marty said. “I’ll live without seeing Capernaum.”
The awaited boats finally pull up to the hotel dock. Hulking and wooden, they’re designed to resemble first-century Galilean fishing vessels, intact remains of which have been excavated from the sea’s muck. Most of our boats have apostolic names; the boat Trisha and I board is called Matthew. Rows of white plastic chairs line the deck. Every member of our boat’s crew is wearing a white T-shirt that reads i’ve sailed on the sea of galilee. These sailors (their website is jesusboats.com) have an apparent lock on trans-Galilee travel: from where we float I count more than a dozen in-transit Jesus boats, all filled to the gunwales with members of at least three different tours.
While we drift away from the western shore, “How Great Thou Art” is blasting over our boat’s loudspeakers. It’s as catchy as Rodgers and Hammerstein. Dozens of people are singing along as Tiberias disappears behind us. Others are doing the mellow rocking-out thing sometimes seen in evangelical megachurches: eyes shut, swaying to the music, a single hand raised as though to wash some celestial window. One person is crying, then two, then ten. Some of these people saved for years to afford this trip, for the chance to sail over Christianity’s ground zero.
All the Genesis Tours–booked Jesus boats meet in the middle of the sea, whereupon they’re lashed together by men of unsmiling industriousness and dexterous knot-making skills. The people on one boat are taking pictures of the people who are taking pictures of them on the other boat. The mood of peaceful singing and swaying from five minutes ago is gone. Laughter, callouts, selfies — it feels like a booze cruise without the booze. We relax in our seats. Reuven Doron gets on the Matthew boat’s microphone and tells us how special this morning is, how special this lake is. He’s proud of us, he says. Then all the Matthew boat guys begin to raise the American flag.
We’re asked to stand and face the back of the boat. A loudspeaker is right next to us, so I hear static first, followed by a drumroll. “The Star-Spangled Banner” begins to play. When it’s over, up goes the Israeli flag, followed by Israel’s national anthem. Hearing the two songs side by side is instructive. One anthem, militaristic and silly, emerged from a single battle in a war whose origins only a professional historian could explain. The other, harrowing and heartbroken, emerged from exile. It might be the least triumphalist national anthem on earth. Almost everyone is crying by the end.
Doron tells us, “Thank God we can fly the American and Israeli flags together this morning. May this bond endure forever.” He talks about Ezekiel 38 and its “northern nations” prophecy. According to the common evangelical interpretation, fighters from a five-nation confederacy (including one army on horseback) will attack Israel, ushering in the End Times. “It’s a difficult passage,” Doron says, understating things quite a bit. “A difficult prophecy. But let them come. They’ve come before. It never works.” He holds up his Bible and gives it an affirmative shake. “It will never work, because God wrote this book.” Throughout our tour we’ve been told, over and over, how dearly Israel needs our support, how endangered it is by monstrous forces. Yet at the same time, we’ve been told, just as frequently, that Israel cannot lose, because it is protected by God.
We disembark on the other side of the sea. David leads us to the Mount of Beatitudes. Beside a small, dark-stoned Byzantine-style church, he reads to us from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel According to Matthew. People I’ve watched applaud the suggestion of gunning down Palestinian teenage rock-throwers are now nodding in agreement to the blessedness of the meek, the merciful, and the peacemakers. When David finishes, he holds up his Bible and says, “Jesus calls us to attain something we can never really attain.” He looks around. “This is all temporary. All of this. Everything we can’t see is permanent.”
An hour later, we’re standing on the Sea of Galilee’s gravel beach, behind the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter. In the last chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus, Peter, and other disciples eat breakfast together shortly after Jesus’ resurrection. According to local lore, this is the spot where that meal took place. Unfortunately, the shoreline remains thick with haze. Several people, needing no prompting, remove their shoes and socks, roll up their pants to reveal knobbly old-person knees, and wade into the foggy water. In the sea, everyone looks big and childlike. Fellow travelers I have not yet seen smile are smiling, including the man who so perfectly resembles Rupert Murdoch that I’ve begun to suspect he is Rupert Murdoch.
We end our day at the Jordan River, which is frankly not much of a river. Trisha and I find our way to a large observation deck that looks down onto a popular baptismal site. The shoreline — all wild viny drapery — more closely resembles the sculpted scenery of a Disneyland log-flume ride than indigenous vegetation. Nearby is a bulletin-board hall of fame, on which we see photos of various post-baptism celebrities in drenched white T-shirts: Oliver North, Whitney Houston, Mike Huckabee. There’s also a photo of the actor James Van Der Beek not getting baptized, but rather chilling on the viewing platform, which seems like a very James Van Der Beek thing to do at the Jordan River.
As we walk along the deck, a group baptism is getting under way below us. The baptizees, all in white gowns, silently descend a stairway. One after another, each person is dunked. The proceedings are quick; it’s an assembly line. Standing by me on the viewing platform is an older man from my tour, shaking his head. He’s one of the few among us to consistently step back from group prayer, and can always be relied on to say, “Oh, come on” when someone complains about having to walk uphill. He seems to me less a conservative than someone who’s sick to death of everyone’s whiny bullshit. This is the type of conservative I could very much see myself becoming one day, if I ever became a conservative.
“Getting baptized?” I ask him.
He chuckles. “Nah,” he says as the baptizees below us hug and weep. “Had it done. Think it worked.”
That night we have dinner in our new hotel in Jerusalem. Afterward, on the way to our room, Trisha and I run into our guide, David. “Goodbye, guys,” he says. We keep walking and tell him we’ll see him tomorrow. “No,” he says. “Goodbye.”
We stop. It turns out that, only ten minutes ago, a Genesis Tours representative took David aside and told him that everyone on Bus Five got together, voted, and cast him out as our guide. I assure David that there’s been no such vote as far as I’m aware, which seems to cheer him up a bit. After David announces that he’s going to his room to call his wife, Trisha and I gather together all the Bus Fivers we can find. Not one of them has heard of any secret vote to ditch David.
Together we confront the nearest Genesis Tours lackey, who is sitting behind the official Genesis Tours information station in the hotel lobby. The kid’s job (he looks twenty-one) appears to be to ensure that our most elderly Stand with Israelites don’t get lost between the dining hall and the elevator. We pour recrimination on the poor guy for a while; the phrase “travesty of justice” is used. The representative remains irritatingly poised: “Thank you for bringing this to our attention, but there were several complaints.” Our group breaks away, huddles up, and assembles a short list of the likeliest anti-David complainers.
Another Genesis Tours representative is spotted trying to tiptoe past us in the lobby; we fall upon her like locusts. As leader pro tempore of the insurrection, I try to appear calm and steadfast, knowing full well that I’m backed up by a dozen peppery American conservatives. I am in the middle of patiently explaining why we, as a group, believe David’s firing was unjust, when someone bellows, “You’re ruining my vacation!”
We all turn to find Roger, a large, courtly Southerner. All I know of Roger is that he believes he can prove that the Gospels were originally written in Aramaic rather than Greek. He always sits up front on Bus Five, near David, and asks by far the most questions of anyone in our cohort. The face of this hitherto kind, gentle man is now trembling with anger.
I try to de-escalate the situation, but the Genesis Tours representative talks right past me, telling Roger that he’s being rude and aggressive. Roger demands a full and immediate refund. The Genesis Tours woman has heard enough, tells us there’s nothing she can do, and storms away. We haunt the lobby for another hour or so, pestering all who will listen, but eventually the word comes down: David’s removal from Bus Five is final.
The next morning, at breakfast, a bunch of us decide that more conspiring will only hurt David and his chances of future employment. The guide community in Israel is small; the more we complain, the more likely it is that news of this incident will spread, potentially tarring David as a problematic tour leader. As we eat scrambled eggs and sip apple juice, we laugh in recollection of our anger the night before and congratulate ourselves on our newfound emotional maturity. Supply-side logic is trotted out: It’s not our place to tell Genesis Tours who they can’t fire. They have a right, as business owners, to do what’s best for their business. We’re living again in a reasonable, if depressing, adult world. “The best thing we can do for David,” I find myself saying, “is give him a generous tip and let him know we support him.”
Then Roger sidles up to our table. He’s wearing a neon-green polo shirt, his hair is still wet from his shower, and he’s breathing like a bear that just tore apart an animal carcass. I invite Roger to sit. He declines, so I stand and take him aside to explain the group’s thinking. Roger — head atilt, eyes focused — listens carefully.
“So,” he says when I’m done, “your suggestion is surrender. To give up. Am I correct in that understanding? You wanna wimp out and enjoy your vacation — no offense — instead of doing the right thing. That’s what you all have decided to do. Let me know if I’m mischaracterizing this. Again, no offense. It’s okay if that’s what you all want.” And here Roger’s voice begins to rise: “Because my opinion is revolt.” He throws his arms out — the classic demagogue pantomime of the world’s last reasonable man. “Why are we here again? To stand with Israel. If we don’t stand for David, we’re just like those Americans who don’t stand with Israel.”
Is this why conservatives so often win and liberals so often lose? Roger is a man who still believes the world can and must be bent to his will.
“Okay,” I say to Roger. “So what’s your plan?”
Roger, who obviously spent the night thinking through a plan, answers quickly: “We occupy the bus. Take over.”
We all head out to Bus Five, with Roger leading the way. Walking right behind him, I say, “You realize you’re basically a Bolshevik right now, right?”
“Works for me,” Roger says, not breaking stride.
Bus Five has two doors; we quickly set up a loyalty checkpoint at both. “I refuse to share a bus with someone who complained about David,” Roger says. As the remaining Bus Fivers board, they will be interrogated. If they admit that they objected to David, they will be encouraged either to renounce their disapproval or to find a seat on another bus. Checkpoints, loyalty tests, Maoist self-criticism — I point out that these are overtly left-wing tactics. “Hey,” someone says, “it works for liberals! Let’s make it work for us!”
Unfortunately, our plan quickly breaks down in its particulars. No one passing through Roger’s (objectively terrifying) loyalty checkpoints is willing to admit that they complained about David. The couple that always kvetches about walking, for instance, who’ve been identified by multiple sources as members of the anti-David faction, lie to Roger’s face. No, they say. They never complained. Roger allows them onto the bus, only to be informed of their real views once they’re aboard. “I’ll deal with them later,” he says, flustered. Soon gossip begins to move through our group with sinister fluidity; people are silently thumbing toward others whose backs are to them and mouthing “Complained!” One elderly woman says to Roger, “I heard we have a liberal in the group.” Trisha and I share a glance. “I don’t know anything about that!” Roger cries.
A snooty rich woman upon whom fancy scarves and sunglasses are exhibited daily approaches the bus with her rigorously silent husband. We all know for a fact (don’t we?) that they complained about David, multiple times. To her credit, the woman confesses, but she assures Roger that she didn’t want David to get fired. Roger thanks her for her honesty and asks if she will now stand with the group, Roger, and Israel to ensure David’s return. She and her husband stare at Roger while sweat drips down his face. “Yes,” she says quietly.
By now most of the other Genesis Tours buses have left the hotel and begun the day’s itinerary; several members of the anti-David faction have joined those buses. Our revolution began with amity and optimism, but now it feels misshapen with anger and resentment. I realize that if someone tries to push past Roger to get on Bus Five, I am prepared to restrain that person, using force if I have to. Pastor Marty is now beside me, saying that while he’s typically inclined to play peacemaker, in this case an injustice has been done.
A petition is drawn up and signed by twenty of us, thirty of us, and soon forty of us, despite there being only forty-six passengers on Bus Five. One guy taps me on the shoulder and reveals with a snicker that he signed Bill Clinton’s name to our petition. I smack my forehead and point out that if our petition is going to be taken seriously, we need it to be legitimate. The man, grasping the enormity of his blunder, bites his lip, chases down the petition holder, and violently scratches Bill Clinton’s name from the document.
We’ve occupied Bus Five for more than an hour, by which point we’ve won our Palestinian bus driver to the cause: he has promised that he will not go anywhere without David. But no one from Genesis Tours has come out to speak with us. I take Roger aside, praising his leadership. However, I tell him, we’ll need to instigate a showdown with Genesis Tours if we want to bring this to an end. Roger shakes my hand and gives me his blessing. I rush off to the hotel lobby and find several Genesis Tours representatives speaking excitedly into their cell phones.
A company emissary returns with me to Bus Five and listens as Roger enumerates our demands. They are (a) the expulsion from Bus Five of all who complained about David, followed by (b) David’s reinstatement as Bus Five’s rightful guide. Any failure to meet these demands will necessitate a complete and total refund of our package tour’s costs. The emissary runs a hand across his bald head, makes a few agitated calls, and promptly disappears.
It’s hard to be certain what happens next. Several of us have begun to argue about strategy. Others are upset that we will probably not get to see all the scheduled sites today. Roger, for some reason, heads off to the hotel. With Roger gone, I feel lost and dispirited. I wonder if I ever really believed in the movement so much as I did in the man. Ten minutes later, he reappears, his hands stuffed glumly in his pockets. When he’s within twenty feet of us, though, Roger smiles beneath watery, exhausted eyes. “David’s coming back!” he says. We cheer. We applaud. Roger falls into the arms of another Bus Fiver and says through tears that he can barely talk. “I’m just glad it didn’t end in violence,” I hear someone say.
Fifteen minutes later, a red-eyed David boards Bus Five wearing his official tour-guide headset. He is greeted with a series of ovations. In a lull between rounds of applause, David tells us he slept only two hours the night before. I realize, and I can’t be the only one, that we’ve perhaps made David’s life significantly more complicated. Maybe he just wanted to go home?
A few days later, the end of our tour approaching, we board Bus Five to be warned that the coming day will be “emotional.” This is code for our imminent visit to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust memorial.
I’ve visited half a dozen Holocaust museums around the world. I weep every time, never knowing whom I pity more: those who died, or those who did not. I weep, too, pondering the apathy that allowed a regime and its quislings to murder 6 million Jews. Clearly a great number of Europeans did not much care whether the Jews were exterminated; Theodor Herzl recognized as much in France four decades before the Holocaust began, and there modern Zionism begins. What most upsets me, though, is thinking about those who did care that Jews were being exterminated — and did nothing. I picture myself in Germany, in 1939, with Trisha, sitting in our kitchen while we feed our daughter. We hear scuffling next door in the apartment of our Jewish neighbors. We know what’s happening and why. I know if I say anything I’ll be killed, possibly before my daughter’s eyes. So what do I do? I cover my daughter’s ears.
Wandering the concrete pyramidal hallways of Yad Vashem, you can quickly understand why Israel’s security fears are so overriding, even with the most dominant military force in the region protecting it and the world’s last remaining superpower supporting it. Thousands of its citizens can recall an entire continent colluding to rid itself of even the most assimilated and accomplished Jews. This gnawing, passed-down, tribal fear is what holds together an increasingly fractious Israeli society, just as Palestinian society — comprising Muslim and Christian, Israeli citizen and occupied subject — is held together by its tribally shared anger and humiliation at Jewish hands.
Looking at more displays within the Hall of Remembrance, however, you can also begin to see how this commonality breaks down. Israel has violated international law, sure, but not like this. Israel has committed wartime atrocities, yes, but not like this. The Palestinians have suffered, undeniably, but not like this.
Critics of the Jewish state often allege that Israel uses the Holocaust as both sword and shield; they view talk of avoiding another Holocaust as preposterous fearmongering. But at Yad Vashem, you’ll find room after room filled with photos of thousands of Jewish families who could not have imagined the first Holocaust. Whether the assailed, protectionist mentality inculcated by that experience is a reasonable reaction or a delusion is beside the point. Whatever else it is, this mentality is probably ineradicable in our lifetimes.
It occurs to me, while Trisha drifts away to watch an old Nazi propaganda film, that this sense of potential extinguishment is the link between Israelis and American conservatives. Israelis respond to what has happened; American conservatives respond to what they fear will happen. Both are losing. Israel’s democracy crumbles under the pressure of occupation without end, and white conservatives’ cultural supremacy breaks apart under the pressure of rapidly changing demographics. In the face of these challenges, both attempted a short-term fix: harnessing the political power of a fanatically religious base of support. The demotic anger political elites believed they could wield in pursuit of their goals came to control the agenda, and now there’s no way out. I think of something I’d heard a fellow Bus Fiver say: “I bought a couple Israeli flags — so people’ll know where my heart’s at.”
Inside the Hall of Remembrance, I stop at a display devoted to the principal of a Hebrew school in Warsaw, who wrote avidly in his diary right up to the beginning of the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto. “Anyone who could see the expulsion from Warsaw with his own eyes would have his heart broken,” reads an entry from that final night. “The children, in particular, rend the heavens with their cries.” His last line is: “If my life ends, what will become of my diary?” On the museum card it says he went to Treblinka the next day.
I walk into Yad Vashem’s Children’s Memorial. It’s so dark you can barely see the person standing in front of you. Flickering within the oceanic black are tiny lights — flames, seemingly millions of them, reflected doubly and triply in the mirrors that line the way through. A voice reads the names and ages — “Akiva Broner, twelve. Eva Gruenwald, four” — of the 1.5 million children killed during the Holocaust. The memorial, by design, simulates how the Holocaust felt from a child’s point of view: lost, confused, instinctively reaching out to strangers, and following a distant point of light. This experience feels a certain way to me, as a parent. Having a child causes one seismic internal shift: you feel less like someone else’s culmination and more like a single, modest link in a chain of continuance. The lights all around me are a million and a half broken links, and I try to imagine that — to imagine dying, separated from Trisha and my daughter, not knowing where they are or how badly they’re suffering. A worse fate there cannot be, and yet every name that’s read aloud is one more instance of it.
In the darkness, my hand comes to rest on solid wood. I push open the familiar gate and a gush of light breaks across me. I’m standing on our stone patio in Los Angeles. My daughter is sitting on the flagstones, looking up into the tree outside her bedroom window, where the owl that keeps her awake at night lives. Trisha and I go to her and become the thing that we are — a tribe, in miniature.
Here are the people, I sometimes fear, for whom I would do or justify anything.