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Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Living What You Believe and Believing What You Live By

With blessings from David Wilder in Hebron
Shalom. Yesterday afternoon I was guiding two journalists around Hebron, showing them the sites, so to speak. One of them is the bureau chief of the New York Times, James Bennett, together with a columnist for the International Herald Tribune, Roger Cohen. A few interesting things happened during the couple of hours we spent talking and touring that I’d like to relate to you.

Perhaps the most impressive part of our wandering had nothing to do with any of us. Rather, it was a young, 23-year old we met, guarding at the entrance to Tel Rumeida. Hearing us talking, he asked in very fluent English where we were from. His accent was definitely not Israeli, but distinctly American. This fellow, I’ll call him P.K. for the sake of this article, is a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He’s been in Israel for little over 18 months, is not yet a citizen, rather is here on a student visa, and here he is, serving in the IDF in Hebron. I told him that I don’t thing I’ve ever met a Jew from Milwaukee in Hebron before.

Every once in a while I bump into people like P.K.. He’s serving in through a program called Machal, which is a volunteer plan for ‘not yet’ Israeli citizens who want to serve their people. In his words, “I was studying philosophy and Jewish history in a United States university, watching buses blow up here. Kind of a bummer.”

So P.K., rather than continuing to watch buses blow up from afar, took action. He came to serve in the Israeli army. A real, honest-to-goodness soldier, just like everyone else. I won’t specify his job, but it carries real responsibility, and not a little danger.

Fortunately P.K. isn’t alone is his Zionistic idealism. A few years ago I wrote an article about a similar soldier named Ari, who too, hadn’t yet made official Aliyah. A couple of weeks ago I met Ari again, for the first time is several years. Today, a full-fledged Israeli, he is studying for a Masters at Bar-Ilan University. And he hasn’t lost his idealism either. When the army refused to take him into the reserves, he signed a form volunteering for IDF reserve duty for twenty years.

Just so that you understand, many Israelis will do anything they can to get out of reserve service. And here, Ari is doing exactly the opposite. Believe me, it’s people like P.K. and Ari that keep me going.

That brings me to my second point. I’m not sure exactly how to classify this – sad, unfortunate, I really don’t know.

Towards the end of my conversations with Mr. Roger Cohen, he remarked, ‘it’s difficult to find something good to write about people like you.’ This remark, not made nastily, was a reflection of much of our dialogue. Cohen obviously had great difficulty digesting the fact that Jews live in a city like Hebron. I was emotionally struck by his remarks while visiting the memorial room for the 1929 massacre victims at Beit Hadassah. He had a problem relating to the significance of the event itself, on several planes. First of all, he attempted to compare it to conflicts between other countries, or ethnic groups in Europe, saying that while once they were bitter enemies, today they belong to a common political and economic unit, and live together in harmony. The Hebron massacre was ‘small’ in scope, compared to other atrocities.

In addition, Mr. Cohen could not grasp the seemingly constant memories of such an event. He asked me why we must continue to look back as opposed to looking forward.

In truth, I had trouble comprehending Cohen’s statements, which seemed to question the necessity of memories. When dealing with correspondents I really try and keep my cool; in this case I almost lost it. Roger Cohen, obviously a very intelligent person, didn’t seem to make any sense.

I, of course, explained that without a past, there is no future, that we must learn from the past, acting upon that knowledge in the future. That way, we can continue to look forward. In addition, I tried to clarify the fact that our adversary had not changed in the slightest, that he is today just as primitive and barbaric as he was seventy five years ago. Perhaps the difference is that then, they could only kill one Jew at a time. Today, with one bomb, they kill and maim dozens in an instant.

(Only after Cohen left did I discover the real question behind his question, his own struggle with comprehending memories, in a fascinating lecture he delivered in 2001 – [www.nieman.harvard.edu/events/honors/morris/cohen-JAM-2001.html]).

However, the most disturbing element of our conversation was his remark that it’s difficult to find anything good to say about us. Again, he wasn’t being antagonistic, just truthful, from his perspective. He really doesn’t understand why a Jew should live in Hebron. This troubled me, having visited Tel Rumeida, seeing the excavations, thousands of years old, the tomb of Jessie and Ruth, the Avraham Avinu synagogue and its ancient Torah Scrolls, and, of course, Ma’arat HaMachpela – the Caves of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. What would it take to convince him?

By this time I had to keep my explanations short, time was running out. So I asked him, “why not?” “What is the problem with being a Jew in Hebron, living an ideal, living in my home, trying to living a normal life, in the first Jewish city in Israel? Why is that bad?” I don’t recall that he responded.

It is difficult for me to fathom correspondent Roger Cohen, or the other Roger Cohens of the world, probably as much as it is for them to fathom me. In my eyes they have lost touch with reality – genuine reality, as opposed to their perception of the way the world should be. For some reason they live an illusion, professing a concept of perfection which negates actuality, perhaps demanding a breakdown of humanity, humanity which is composed of different cultures and traditions, for a humanism which would delete us as individuals and nations.

My prayer is that the future lies not with them, but with the P.K.s and Aris of the world, the real idealists, who live what they believe and believe what they live.

With blessings from Hebron.