Postcards from the Edge
After a long, weirdly warm Jerusalem winter spent in the presence of heavily armed soldiers and suspicious security guards — many Fridays a large white surveillance zeppelin hovered over town, staring down on noontime prayers at the al-Aqsa mosque and making a macabre mockery of the festive atmosphere that usually attends the launch of a hot-air balloon — I was eager to get away. So I jumped when I saw an ad for tickets to Old-New Land, the place dreamed up in 1902 by Theodor Herzl, who fantasised about a New Society in Palestine, a haven for all the world’s oppressed Jews and a place where people of every culture and faith could live together in perfect peace. Since 2010 marks the 150th anniversary of Herzl’s birth, and since his famous formulation ‘If you will it, it is no dream’ has been named the official slogan of this year’s Israeli Independence Day celebrations, Old-New Land seemed the ideal setting for my willfully dreamy spring break.
It took no more than a few minutes after clearing customs for me to realize the distance I’d travelled: in fact, I laughed out loud when I saw how pristine Old-New Land is. Just as Herzl had written, ‘The brilliant blue of sky and sea was reminiscent of the Riviera, but the buildings were much cleaner and more modern.’ Here indeed was that swanky Semitic Côte d’Azure he’d envisioned, whose ‘vivid pageant’ suggested ‘the Riviera between Cannes and Nice at the height of the season…’ I shudder to imagine what Herzl would think if he knew that for several months in early twenty-first-century Tel Aviv, over 750 million gallons of raw sewage flooded straight into the sea when the city’s poorly maintained central pipe collapsed, fouling the water, contaminating the fish, and rendering the beaches no more than public cesspools lined with striped umbrellas. And how would he respond to the mounds of refuse, charcoal, and broken glass left behind by the 200,000 picnicking Israelis who invaded once-pastoral Lake Kinneret this Passover and rendered the shore of that national treasure, according to one shocked eyewitness, ‘a catastrophe … like being inside a garbage can’?
But superior modes of trash collection are the least of what distinguishes this Edenic spot from the place where I really live. Old-New Land neither has nor needs an army to protect it, and there are no professional politicians. In Old-New Land, public servants are esteemed for their reserve, their honesty and modesty — a far and pained cry from Israel, where bribery and graft are now almost the norm. (Not for nothing did one of Herzl’s forward-thinking Old-New-landers boast that ‘Our courts have repeatedly ruled in slander suits that the terms ‘professional politician’ is an insult.’) As I write this postcard, it has just been announced that one of Israel’s former prime ministers — who once was Jerusalem’s mayor — is now the prime suspect in what today’s newspaper calls ‘the biggest corruption scandal in the state’s history.’ Meanwhile, he is already standing trial in three other corruption cases, each of which features props so crude they’d make a Vaudevillian blush: envelopes stuffed full of cash, heaps of trumped-up receipts … Only a paste-on moustache and phony nose are missing.
Vaudeville acts tend to feature sidekicks: as it happens, this same week also brought the arrest of another former mayor of Jerusalem, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, suspected of pocketing hundreds of thousands of shekels in bribes, many of which he’s alleged to have channeled to a school for Torah study. Of course this is something that would never happen in Old-New Land, where religion is completely excluded from public life. In the new old land, by contrast, rabbinical dictates are sewn into the legal fabric of our private lives, from birth to marriage to death. Do you remember that when a move was finally made to fix the damaged Tel Aviv pipe and so staunch the flow of muck into the Mediterranean, the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry refused to grant the sewage union a license to work on the Sabbath?
Mind you, I wouldn’t wish everything here on the actual Israel. The Yiddish and German they speak in Old-New Land make me miss the Hebrew of home, and I got a rather severe case of the willies from my tour of the rebuilt and peculiarly Teutonic Temple in Old-New Land’s Jerusalem. Ahad Ha-Am was right when he criticised the spiritual essence of Herzl’s vision: the Jews have done very little to create and develop their own living culture in Old-New Land, and instead seem oddly content to have imposed on the marvelously motley Mediterranean landscape a certain perfumed-and-powdered brand of fin-de-last-siècle Western European literature and art. Believe it or not, in Old-New Land — despite the climate — they wear white gloves to the opera! And the local manner borders on the overly formal and humourless. Hot peppers and heated conversation were, it seems, not in Herzl’s prim Viennese vocabulary, but they are certainly part of the complicated pleasure of living in the genuine Middle East.
There is, though, one aspect of Old-New Land that I’d like to bottle and bring back with me. In my neighbourhood back home, someone has taken black spray paint to the Arabic words on the trilingual street signs, and across a nearby hill, the looming so-called security fence snakes poisonously, cutting thousands of Palestinians off from their crops and isolating them in unlivable ghettos, so, it seems, only securing more bitterness. In Old-New Land, Arabs and Jews live calmly side by side and in complete equality, without any walls, and everyone is strengthened by this fact. As he conjured the Old-New Land I write you from now, Herzl issued a charge that I have a feeling will continue to haunt me, long after I’ve returned home and unpacked my bags. ‘I say to you,’ he wrote, ‘that you must hold fast to the things that have made us great: to liberality, tolerance, love of mankind. Only then is Zion truly Zion!’
Wish you were here, or here were there,
Adina Hoffman is the author of House of Windows: Portraits from a Jerusalem Neighbourhood and My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century. She lives in Jerusalem.