A Line of Who — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Dani turned his transistor on even though a gale from the north was banging on the Perspex windows of the guard post like the ghost of Keith Moon on storm-cloud percussion. The rays of the sun setting over an unseen Mediterranean occasionally broke through, outlining in deep orange the umbras of clouds lying just below and just above the nearby peak of Jebel Baruk. A ray caught the wind-ragged, frost-crusted Israeli flag as if to say that the outpost and its soldiers, so far from home, were trapped between the empyrean above and the hell of the war below. Setting the radio down on the metal ledge on which the MAG was mounted, he glanced over at Adam. Somehow, between the drumming of the sky and the drumming of the Lebanese progressive rock station, he heard that his companion for the coming six-hour shift was crying.

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
Considering his response, he unbuckled his vest so that he could settle comfortably into the high chair from which he was to survey the inscrutable landscape for alpine attackers.

Adam spoke.

“What was that?” Dani shouted over the pandemonium.

“It’s against the rules. Taking off your vest.” A shrieking squall filtered out whatever emotion there might have been in Adam’s voice.

“So’s the radio,” Adam went on. “Turn it off.” And then Dani thought he heard a choking sound, although he couldn’t be sure.

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At Hormah

Haim Watzman
Thoughts on Devarim, this week’s Torah portion, in memory of my father and teacher Sanford “Whitey” Watzman, who left us two years ago on 2 Av. This is an English version of the original Hebrew essay, published in Shabbat Shalom, the weekly Torah portion sheet published by Oz VeShalom/Netivot Shalom. The original Hebrew version can be read here .


Hama'apilThere once was a city, somewhere in the Negev, whose name went down in biblical history as the site of a painful defeat for the children of Israel. The rout at Hormah took place in a war against the Canaanite nations, which followed the sin of the spies. For that sin, the Children of Israel were punished—their entry into the Promised Land was delayed by a generation. Their crime was the lack of faith displayed by the generation that left Egypt, their reluctance to fight the war that awaited them when they crossed from the wilderness into Canaan. The failure of conviction began at the leadership level, among ten of the twelve spies sent to scout the land, and quickly spread to the entire nation.

But the war fought at Hormah did not come in retribution for the sin of the spies. It was imposed subsequent to that sin and its punishment. After comprehending how grave and error they had made, a vanguard of the people to take the initiative to correct it. The Ma’apilim, meaning “the scalers [of the heights],” now understood that it was God’s will that the Israelites fight bravely against the Canaanite nations. They organized to take determined action, as Moses relates in this week’s Torah portion (Deut. 1:41): “We stand guilty before the LORD. We will go up now and fight, just as the LORD our God commanded us.” The call to arms grew out of profound remorse for the sin and a real desire to atone for it. But instead of accepting the heroism and good intentions of the Ma’apilim, God condemned them and meted out another heavy punishment, in addition to that of the sin of the spies: “Then the Amorites who lived in those hills came out against you like so many bees and chased you, and they crushed you at Hormah in Seir.” It is easy to imagine the shattered and bloodied survivors asking themselves: “What does God want with us? When we said we were scared of conquering the land, we were sentenced to die in the desert, and when we fervently set out to conquer the land, we died at Hormah.”

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The Outpost on Oliphant Street — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Illustration by Avi Katz
Illustration by Avi Katz
The outpost on Oliphant Street? I remember everything. Yes, I do, don’t give me that look. I’m not senile yet. I may be far gone but I have not yet left this world. That was 1948. I was eighteen. The outpost on Oliphant Street. It was with Udi. We were under fire. He was my lover. In Jerusalem. What? Yes, before Saba. Several before. Your grandfather came by after I’d had my adventures and was ready to settle down. It was cold, it was February, you know, it was very cold. I think it was raining, maybe just very cloudy, and all I had was a sweater. I was stationed in Rehavia, we had a communications post there and I did shifts by the radio. Udi was almost as tall as you, but slender and flexible, like a gymnast. He could jump over the table we spread the maps on, like a cat on a spring. This is the story of how I lost him. And about the outpost on Oliphant Street.

Udi took a squad into Talbiyeh. A lot of the rich Arabs who lived there had already packed up and gone. The National Guard, what did they call it, no, it’ll come to me, the Hars Watani that the mufti sent into action, had moved into the neighborhood. The British, who had security zones on either side, let them in. It was going to turn into a staging ground for an invasion of Rehavia, so we had to act.

The squad went in to show the flag, establish a presence. The thinking was that the Arab guards would get scared and turn tail the minute they saw we were coming in. There were two Arabs, little more than kids, who looked suspicious, that’s what Udi told me afterward. Udi called them over, demanded that they identify themselves. Instead they pulled out pistols and began shooting. Two of Udi’s men were wounded and he beat a retreat.

Of course, we weren’t going to take that lying down.

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Lerner in the Mirror — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
I am just starting to shave when Lerner’s reflection appears behind mine in the big mirror in the locker room at the Jerusalem Pool. Lerner, somewhere upwards of eighty, preens like an eighteen-year-old. Not without cause—as men who were in their prime in the early fifties go, he looks pretty good. His figure is lean and he stands tall; while his white hair is thin, it fully covers his head. I don’t talk to him much because he’s usually deep in banter with his friend Bashan as they change in and out of their swimsuits each afternoon. I assume his remark is directed at me.

“America is lucky,” he says as he smooths his hair and slaps his cheeks lightly. “To have Trump, I mean.”

But maybe I’m wrong. Bashan’s reverse image moves into my field of view just as I offer a weak smile and start on the stubble on the left side of my face.

“Right.” Bashan grimaces at his reflection. Where Lerner is steely, he is malleable; where Lerner has angles, he has arcs. A lot less hair, too, on his head, that is. Still, he must have been a looker back in the 1948 war, when they conquered the Negev together. Bashan had been a platoon commander in the Palmach’s Yiftah Brigade and Lerner one of his soldiers. I’d heard about it time and again in the shower.

“In our day,” Lerner’s reflection says as it adjusts the shoulders of its backward t-shirt, “the world had strong leaders who stood up for their countries. Churchill. De Gaulle. Roosevelt. Ben-Gurion.”

Bashan’s reflection leans forward at me and wiped a grain from its eye. “The Old Man.”

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The Plowman Meets the Reaper — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
Behold, days are coming, says the Lord, when the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him who sows seed … And I will bring back the captivity of my people of Israel, and they shall build the waste cities, and inhabit them; they shall also make gardens, and eat their fruit. (Amos 9:13–14)

He knew her, she lived past the sands, in the part of Rassco where you heard German and the Philharmonic when the windows were open. He sometimes went to play soccer on the street there when he needed to get away from home. Her house, one of the tiny two-room cubicles that made up the neighborhood, had a small garden that looked as if she went out every morning to straighten and polish each leaf and petal. He’d often see her sitting on her front stoop with one or another lady friend, both in high heels, in long sleeves even on the hottest days of the summer. Sometimes she would have brushes in hand and an easel in front of her, painting scenes of a city that looked nothing like Holon.

Once he passed by and she wasn’t outside and he felt so disappointed that he threw a stone at her window and then hid to see if she would come out. When she did, a frown on her face, he felt so ashamed of himself that he avoided passing her house for the next month.

She had been on the early train to Jerusalem and here she was again, a straw hat with a flower over her bobbed blonde hair. The train was crowded and hot but he’d manage to squeeze through to get a window seat. She was already on the aisle. In the morning she had sat down right next to him, fanning herself with a twice-folded copy of Ha’aretz. When she looked at him he was afraid she knew that he had thrown the stone, but she just smiled and asked his name and age in a throaty Ashkenazi kind of voice and then said that her name was Alma and that it was very brave for a boy of eleven to take the train to Jerusalem by himself and was someone meeting him at the station in Jerusalem. He told her that his name was Amos and that his father had sent him to bring his mother home before the war began.

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Since conjugating French verbs doesn’t push people to join ISIS, what’s really happening?

My new column is up at Haaretz:

What possible connection could there be between a country speaking French and producing an unusually high number of people who go off to fight in Syria? That’s the question that a pair of American researchers faced after crunching a great deal of data and then staring, surprised, at the results.

The answer they suggest makes sense. That said, it will be more easily accepted in London than in Paris. It also emphasizes the sheer destructiveness of Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim incitement. It even sheds light on what creates Jewish religious extremism in Israel.

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Yes, Sometimes It Is Anti-Semitism

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

Ken Livingstone, formerly mayor of London, presently a member in very bad standing of the British Labour Party, can be thanked for this much: He has provided a painful moment of clarity in the debate over whether anti-Zionism is, at least sometimes, anti-Semitism.

The answer is yes. For instance, when one says that when Hitler came to power “in 1932 [sic], he was supporting Zionism,” as Livingston recently did, or when one says that not hating all Jews, just Jews in Israel, is not an anti-Semite, as he subsequently did.

This bears explanation. But first comes some context, and dispensing with certain reflexive objections. So let’s start here: Last week, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn suspended MP Naz Shah, a rising political star, from the party under heavy pressure from party colleagues after a series of her Facebook posts reached the public eye. In one, Shah suggested transferring Israel—by which she presumably meant the Jewish majority, not the Arab minority—to the United States. In another, she implied similarity between Israel and Nazi Germany. The list quickly grew.

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Grasping the Void — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The field school guide leads us along a path that skirts ripening stalks and ascends a low hill. The air is still, heated from above by a sun unseen through a dusty haze. At the top I count my family. Ilana is right behind me; my youngest, Misgav, stands next to the guide, looking out on the plain. I hold out my hand to take Niot’s, closing my fingers around a void. He is gone. I turn and see him running, running through the wheat.

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
The two older children went to visit my parents in the States that summer. Ilana and I took the opportunity to take a vacation with the two younger ones. Misgav was still in preschool; Niot was ascending to first grade. We signed up for a four-day package at the Mt. Tabor field school, in the company of other families. It included meals and an itinerary of easy nature hikes and visits to fun spots, led by young and enthusiastic guides.

Niot had a habit of running off, not in exuberance, like a dog released from a leash, but in fear. Once, when our dentist took out the set of pointy and shiny tools with which he used to probe mouths, Niot leapt from the chair, whizzed out of the clinic and the building. It took twenty minutes for me, the dentist, the hygienist, and his older brother to ambush him and bring him back. His teeth were not examined.

This time, however, there is no reason for fear. We are having a good time and he is getting along with the other kids. Just a few minutes before he had been singing at the top of his lungs. When I call out to him, he does not turn. I lope down the hill, at a canter, so as not to incite him to go any faster. But as I descend, the wheat stalks, taller than he, hide him. Now it is I who am frightened. Who knows what he will do—find his way to the road on the other side of the field, fall into a pit, encounter a scorpion or dangerous stranger.

In the years since Niot left us forever, I also pursue him, but not so fast as to incite him to run faster. I live in fear that I will lose sight of him, that he will disappear beyond my mind’s horizon. How can that be? Five years after his death, I think of him constantly. But the wheat conceals him.

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The Missing Center — Thoughts on the Seder in Memory of My Son Niot

niot pictures 226Haim Watzman
My annual meditation on Pesach and the Seder, in memory of my son Niot on the fifth anniversary of his death, written for Shabbat Shalom, the weekly Torah sheet published by the religious peace group Oz VeShalom–Netivot Shalom.
לגרסת המקור בעברית

A void yawns at the heart of the Haggadah, at the very center of the Seder. All we speak of on this long night leads to the central ritual precept—the eating of the Pesach sacrifice. We tell the story of the Exodus, sing “Dayenu” and, in obedience to Rabban Gamiliel, cite the three items that, if unmentioned, prevent us from having fulfilled the obligations of the Seder. Then we move from speech into action—we eat matzah, we eat maror. But there is no Pesach sacrifice to for them to be eaten with.

At the time of the twentieth-century return to Zion, there were calls to resume the Pesach sacrifice. A halakhic polemic ensued. Rabbis and scholars traded fine distinctions regarding the laws of sacrifices, of the Temple, of the priests, but very few of them spoke explicitly about what it would mean to turn the great nullity of the Seder night into a manifest presence.

Sefer HaAggadah offers a surprising midrash about Pharaoh on the night of the smiting of the first-born. The source is Midrash Tanhuma, but Bialik’s and Ravnitzky’s version offers a more potent vision: “Pharaoh went among his servants, from door to door, placing each one in his retinue, and walked with them that night down every street and called out ‘Where is Moses? Where does he live?’”

I want to focus on that picture, not on the story as a whole. The picture has two elements: first, just prior to the Exodus from Egypt—that is, on the first Seder night—Pharaoh leaves his home. He goes from door to door like a beggar seeking bread and the warmth of a home and a family.

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Summer of ’88 — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

I didn’t understand why the woman with the wispy hair looked so worried or why she kept glancing behind her, in the direction of the corridor of her apartment on Carlebach Street. I stood on her threshold, holding out a Labor party pamphlet and launching into my spiel about why Israel needed change that only a Labor government could bring. With the right leadership we could achieve peace with our neighbors and form a more just society, I promised. Suddenly a rhinoceros bellowed from the hallway. A man with a huge belly distending a threadbare undershirt charged in and then halted, readying to pounce, his mouth frothing. He stared first at me and then at the woman.

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
“Labor party,” she whispered in his direction, as if against her will. He lunged at me shouting “They’re paying you to come here! Paying you!” The woman slapped the door shut just before he tackled me. As I ran down the stairs I heard him beating on the door and his wife trying to calm him. When I got out to the street, he was shouting at me from the balcony and holding a flower pot over his head, ready to cast it at me like a cyclops repelling lost Greek sailors. From another window his wife called out, “Please go away!”

In the summer of 1988 I had been married three years, had two small children, and a mortgage on a housing-project apartment. Israel was in crisis—what else was new? And I was sinking into the obligations and routine of family life. Even though I’d just returned from a long month of reserve duty battling Palestinian teenagers in the villages around Jenin, I felt I was betraying my country.

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On Lupine Hill — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Pepe Fainberg
illustration by Pepe Fainberg

Was it the sound of sage leaves parting that first alerted Hanoch? Or a disturbance in the penumbra reflected off a daisy? Whatever it was, his reaction was automatic, a swift movement followed only half a second later by a slower thought and Sitvanit’s scream. He drew his pistol and fired a single shot in the direction of the glint of scales. The snake, now visible, contorted and rolled and stained the ground red. Astounded that he had actually hit the animal and reading its dappled brown markings, he shoved Sitvanit away with his arm, took careful aim at the head, and fired another shot. The now headless snake shivered and writhed and fell still.

He took a step toward the dead animal, taking care not to step on the deep purple lupines that blossomed thickly by the path. Sitvanit stood frozen a few paces behind.

“Viper,” he announced. He looked around. The only others on the hill at this sunset hour were on the next peak over, across the shallow saddle from where he and Sitvanit stood, two pre-teen girls in long skirts and sleeves, accompanied by a mother and grandmother with white scarves over their heads. They were staring and he heard a faint murmur of voices, but a minute later they began descending the path down to the parking area, no doubt in a hurry to get out before dark.

He ran his left hand over the barrel of his pistol and found pleasure in its warmth.

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