Sunday, April 5, 2009

Of Deserts, Darfur, and Dragons (Jerusalem and the Galilee)

After the heat, claustrophobia and intensity of Jerusalem, I decided to take a day out of town, traveling north to the Galilee.  I've always loved that country, with its mountains and greenery and more relaxed pace of life.  The drive was long and difficult, but it was well-worth the effort. I loved walking down the slightly decaying but still graceful main street of Nahariya, then strolling along the beach.  Tanya and Rosa both played in the sand, much as they did when they were small children here eight years ago.  

The ocean makes me feel happy.  I love many landscapes: the majesty of mountains, the clarity of deserts, the big sky of the plains.  But there is something about the beach that induces a state of relaxation.

This seems to be pretty universal.  Almost all religious fanaticism comes out of the desert--Jewish, Christian, Islamic alike.  A lot of good things emerge from the desert, too, of course: prophetic words, simplicity, stillness and silent contemplation.  Yet there is  something about the starkness of that environment that empowers fundamentalist fanatics.  It is no accident that the Jewish zealots made their last stand at Masada, in the Judean desert, that Christian monks went to the desert to don hairshirts and afflict themselves, or that today's Islamic jihadists are so pre-dominantly Saudi Arabian.  

Coastal cultures are, for the most part, tolerant--because they also tend to be a bit decadent and hedonistic.  People on the beach are generally too busy having a good, relaxing time to bother with persecuting others.  This is, of course, a vast oversimplification.   Plenty of coastal cultures have tolerated slavery and other evils.  But religious zealotry is not usually among their sins.   Jerusalem is, above all, a holy place, and holiness is both wonderful and, at times, a bit oppressive, too.  It was nice to have a day away from it.

And I also enjoyed a respite from Jerusalem within Jerusalem itself.  I went with Laura and Rosa to see Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary fame, at Cinematheque, Jerusalem's art film theater.  He performed a short concert for an audience of mostly Americans and Brits and some younger Israelis, too.  I've never been a huge fan of PP&M; I tend to prefer my folk music with a more biting edge, epitomized by my musical hero, Bob Dylan.  But living in a city where there is so much edge, every moment, Peter Yarrow's almost child-like naivete and optimism came as a very welcome relief.  In a city that is cynical and hardened and war-weary, his hope--undimmed, really, since the '60s--is profoundly counter-cultural and refreshing.  He invited all the kids in the audience to come up and sing "Puff the Magic Dragon" with him--and, amazingly enough, these Israeli children knew all the words by heart (see film clip below.)  He ended the show with "I Ain't Gonna Study War No More," which is, of course, taken from the book of Isaiah, and thus echoes with eternity in this city.

And I want to end this entry on a similar note of promise and hope.  One of my teachers once told me that it is no virtue to be righteous when you have no power.  Over the course of Jewish history, we have often been martyrs and victims--but this is not a mark of greatness.  The true test of morality lies with having power--and using it justly.  That is why Israel is such a critical experiment in Jewish history.  For the first time in two thousand years, we have political power. And while we have not been perfect, God knows, I believe that for the most part, under difficult circumstances, we have acquitted ourselves rather well.

I see this every morning, as the cook at the bed and breakfast where I am staying is a Muslim refugee from Darfur.  While much of the world--including the Islamic world--has taken note of the situation in the Sudan, Israel has taken concrete action, absorbing hundreds of Sudanese refugees, who flee through Egypt and are making new lives for themselves here.   As a Jewish nation still full of Holocaust survivors and their families, Israel is accutely aware of the problem of genocide and dedicated to doing its part to make "never again" a reality for gentiles as well as Jews.  

This nation is, like every nation, flawed, but it still strives much harder than just about any other to be a light to the rest of the world--even a world that so frequently and unfairly scorns its efforts.

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