Monday, September 7, 2009

To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account, by Saul Bellow

I had hoped for a more personal travelogue from Bellow in To Jerusalem and Back, with its subtitle “A Personal Account,” but found it (as thoughts on Israel so often are) bogged down by dissenting voices arguing piddling details over who was where first, and when “first” was, who killed how many when and where, whether this border should be here or there, and, because of its Cold War context (Bellow published the memoir in 1976), what roles Russia and the US are to have in the country’s future.

There are scattered gems in which the author describes a meal on the airplane next to a young Hassidic Jew, a friend’s relationship with his dog, which even goes with him when he ships out to sea as an engineer, and imagines a secret tape recorder hidden underneath the dinner table at which he sits across from Kissinger. But the bulk of words are given over to statistics, and he-said-she-said, and who is entitled to what.

Bellow is a graceful intellectual, and visits the country as an interlocutor rather than a polemicist. That said, he never commits to any proposed solution to this problem, which has as its very simple root a refusal by two groups to share—land, government, culture, and their god, who is quite obviously the same god. Since seeing the country myself ten years ago, my only response has been pure bewilderment that the religious icon hasn’t been removed from the nation’s flag, that it hasn’t been rechristened with a non-partisan name, that the students haven’t been fully integrated, by force if necessary, and taught to love and respect each other, and speak each other’s languages, along with English or French or some other objective third, shared tongue that would become the national language.

Bellow writes at a time when Israel’s first generation of leaders is passing on, but the country is still quite populated by Jews who lived through the Holocaust. In spite of history’s horrors (and I write as a person whose maternal grandfather lost his entire family to the camps before he grew into a man), the insistence on a Jewish “homeland” is preposterous to me; I suppose I am an American first—I hold the separation of church and state more sacred than any spiritual tenet.

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