The Other Israel

Yesterday, our table celebrated with Ada Yonath.

This “table” just had its 50th anniversary. It started by accident in “California”, the Café established at the time by Abie Nathan, who later became famous as the Peace Pilot. Afterwards, we met for many years at the legendary Artists’ Café Cassith. Since that place was closed down –” like many other Tel Aviv landmarks –” the table wandered to several other places and became known as the “Cassith exiles’ table”. The “House of Lords” one newspaper nicknamed it..

The habitués of the table come from very different walks of life. There is a former director of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, several senior journalists, a linguist and Bible expert, a film producer, a professor of medicine, a psychiatrist, a town planner, an industrialist, a translator of literature, a radio program producer. And a scientist.

The table is not political. But all its habitués tend, as it so happens, to lean towards the left.

For years, Ada Yonath has been our candidate for the Nobel Prize. Nine years ago, she invited us to look at her historic discovery. As far as chemistry –” or any other science, for that matter –” is concerned, I am a total idiot. So I did not really understand what it is all about: the structure and function of the ribosome, one of the building blocks of life. Not by accident was this discovery made in Israel –” Ada had a stroke of genius when she chose for her experiments a microbe found in the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth, unique in the world.

Throughout the years she has entertained us with amusing stories about the frequent scientific conferences she has attended all over the world, and also about the hair-raising intrigues at the very top of the scientific world. Some very senior scientists tried to expropriate her discovery for themselves. I learned that Ada’s discoveries are immensely significant, far more than many that have been crowned with the prize throughout the years. They concern the fundamentals of life and its creation and are as momentous as the unraveling of the human genome. They may open the door to completely new ways of healing diseases.

I RECOUNT all this not only in order to boast about the fact that Ada “belongs to us”, and not only in order to take part in Ada’s joy, but in order to point to a fact that is often forgotten in the debates about our wars and the occupation: that there is another Israel.

This year there were three Israelis among the acknowledged contenders for the Nobel Prizes who made it to the finals: besides Ada Yonath there were also the physicist Yakir Aharonov and the writer Amos Oz.

For a small country like Israel, that is an impressive feat

Ada Yonath is as Israeli as can be: a Sabra (native of the country), born in Jerusalem, who received all her education in Israeli schools. Her character traits are those considered typical for Israelis: a direct approach, simple manners, a hatred of formality, a readiness to laugh at oneself. There is not an ounce of arrogance or vanity, but an incredible power of persistence.

A stranger who follows the daily news about Israel could not even guess at the existence of this Israel, the Israel Ada belongs to. This week, too, the news was dominated by the occupation, the brutality, the coarseness of the official Israel.

The news about Ada’s prize was like an oasis in the desert. Almost all the other news on TV and radio and in the newspapers dealt with blood and riots. The battle for the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif), the clashes between the police and protesters in the Arab quarters of Jerusalem, side by side with ordinary criminal news about murders, drunken youngsters stabbing each other to death, an old man killing his sleeping wife with a hammer, a group of boys robbing and raping a middle-aged women in broad daylight.

And over everything there still hovers the Goldstone report about crimes committed during the Gaza War, which the Israeli government almost succeeded in squashing, with the generous assistance of Mahmoud Abbas.

THE SUBJECT dominating this week’s news was Jerusalem.

Everything happened “suddenly”. Suddenly the flames broke out on the Temple Mount, after the month of Ramadan had passed relatively quietly. Suddenly the Islamic Movement in Israel called upon the Arab citizens to rush and save the al-Aqsa mosque. Suddenly, senior Islamic preachers all over the Muslim world urged the one and a half billion Muslims to rise to the defense of the holy shrines. (Nothing happened.)

The police chief in Jerusalem has a ready explanation: the Muslims are “ungrateful”. To wit: we have “allowed them” to pray safely all through Ramadan, and that is how they repay us. This colonial arrogance infuriated the Arabs even more.

According to the Israeli authorities, nothing has happened that could justify this “sudden” upheaval. Meaning: it is an Arab provocation, a vile effort to create a conflict out of nothing.

But in Arab – and not only Arab – eyes it looks very different. For years now, the Arab community in Jerusalem has been under siege. Since Binyamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister, and since Nir Barkat became mayor of Jerusalem, the sense of siege increased many fold. Both men belong to the radical Right, and both are leading towards ethnic cleansing.

This finds its foremost expression in the systematic building of Jewish neighborhoods in the heart of the Arab quarters in the annexed Eastern part of the city, which is supposed to become the capital of the Palestinian state and whose final status is still to be decided by negotiation. The execution is entrusted to a group of extreme Rightists called Ateret Cohanim (“the crown of priests”), financed by the American Bingo king Irwin Moskowitz. After winning a resounding victory in shaving Jebel Abu-Ghneim (“Har Homa”) and building a fortress-like settlement there, they are now establishing Jewish neighborhoods in the heart of Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan, Ras al-Amud and Abu Dis, not to mention the Muslim Quarter of the Old City itself. At the same time, they are trying to fill up the E1 area between Jerusalem and the giant settlement Ma’aleh Adumim.

Seemingly, these are all sporadic actions, initiated by respect-hungry billionaires and power-drunk settlers. But that is an illusion: behind all this feverish activity there lurks a government plan with a well defined strategic goal. It is enough to look at a map in order to understand its purpose: to encircle the Arab quarters and cut them off from the West Bank. And beyond: to enlarge Jerusalem to the East up to the approaches of Jericho, thus cutting the West Bank into two, with the Northern part (Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarm) cut off from the Southern part (Hebron, Bethlehem).

And, of course: to make the life of the Arab inhabitants of Jerusalem impossible, until they “voluntarily” leave the “United City, Israel’s Capital in all Eternity”.

IN THIS strategy, a central role is played by the thing called “archeology”.

For a hundred years, Jewish archeology has sought, in vain, to prove the existence of David’s kingdom, in order to establish once and for all our historic right to the city. Not a shred of evidence has been found to prove that King David ever existed, not to mention his huge empire stretching from Egypt to Hamath in Syria. There is no evidence for the Exodus from Egypt, the Conquest of Canaan, David and his son Solomon. On the contrary, there is no little evidence, especially in ancient Egyptian records, that seem to show that all this never happened.

For this desperate search, archeological diggings took off the strata pertaining to the last 2000 years in the country’s life –” the periods of the Byzantine empire, the Islamic conquest, the Mamelukes and the Ottomans. The search has a manifest political purpose, and most Israeli archeologists consider themselves soldiers in the service of the national struggle.

The scandal that is taking place now at the foot of al-Aqsa is a part of this story. Something unprecedented is happening there: the digging in “David’s Town” (clearly a propaganda appellation) has been turned over to the same ultra-nationalist religious association, Ateret Cohanim, that is building the provocative Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem and around it. The Israeli government, quite officially, has entrusted this scientific task to a political group. Not just any political group, but an ultra-radical one. The digging itself is being conducted by archeologists who accept their authority.

Israeli archeologists who care for the integrity of their profession (there still are some) protested this week that the digging is proceeding in a thoroughly unprofessional way: the work is done in an unscientific hurry, artifacts found are not examined properly and systematically, the sole aim is to uncover evidence as quickly as possible to support the Jewish claim to the Temple Mount.

Many Arabs believe that the aim is even more sinister: to dig under the al-Aqsa mosque in order to bring about its collapse. These fears were reinforced by the disclosure in Haaretz this week, that the digging is undermining Arab houses and threatens to bring them down.

Israeli spokesmen are upset. What vile slanders! Who can even imagine such things?! But it is no secret that in the eyes of many nationalist-religious fanatics, the very existence of the two mosques there –” al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock – is an abomination. Years ago, members of a Jewish underground organization planned to blow up the Dome of the Rock, but were caught in time and sent to prison. Recently, a religious website wrote: “Today there stands there an evil thing, a great witch that must be taken off. The Temple will stand in place of this pustule topped with yellow pus, and everybody knows what to do about a pustule, one has to empty it of the pus. That is our aim, and with God’s help we shall do it.” Already, sheep are being raised for sacrificial purposes in the Temple.

One can ridicule these outpourings and assert, as always, that they come from the lunatic fringe. That is what they said about the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. But for Arabs, who see with their own eyes the daily effort to “Judaize” the Eastern city and to push them out, this is no joke. Their fear is genuine.

Since the millions of inhabitants of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have no access to the Temple Mount – contrary to all the talk about “religious freedom” –” the Islamic Movement in Israel proper has assumed the role of guardian of the two shrines. This week, the call went up to outlaw the movement and to put its leader, Sheikh Ra’ed Salah, in prison.

Sheikh Ra’ed is a charismatic leader. I met him 16 years ago, when we both lived for 45 days and nights in a protest tent opposite the prime minister’s office, after Rabin had deported 415 Islamic activists to the Lebanese border. The sheikh was, at the time, a friendly person, pleasant to be with, full of humor, who treated Rachel, too, with utmost friendliness (but without taking her hand, much like our own Orthodox rabbis). I learned from him a lot about Islam, and answered as well as I could his questions about Judaism. Nowadays he is much more tough and uncompromising.

THERE IS something symbolic about the proximity in time of the awarding of the Nobel Prize and the Temple Mount happenings. The two events represent the two options facing Israel.

We have to decide what we are: the Israel of Ada Yonath or the Israel of Ateret Cohanim. An Israel that cherishes its culture, science, high-tech, literature, medicine and agriculture, which marches in the first row of progressive human society towards a better future, or an Israel of wars, occupation and settlements, a fundamentalist state that looks to the past.

Contrary to the prophets of doom, I believe that this battle is not yet decided. Israel is far from being the monolithic body that appears in the caricatures. It is a varied, multifaceted society with many possibilities, one of which leads to war and the other towards peace and reconciliation.

The winner of the Nobel peace prize, Barack Obama, can have a lot of influence on the choice. After all, wasn’t the prize awarded to him as a down payment for deeds to come?