Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.
I’m not of the Christian faith, but I do have a Christmas story to tell. It takes place in the Holy Land. But like too many stories there these days, it does not have a happy ending – not yet. And the recollection gives me a reason to write about one of the saddest stories I’ve covered.
In December of 1971, what was then Knight Newspapers sent me on my first overseas assignment –which I asked for – covering the splendid little war between India and Pakistan that ended with the birth and independence of a new nation – Bangladesh.
I had interviewed the victorious Indian leader, Indira Gandhi after which, my editors sent me to Israel to interview then-Prime Minister Golda Meir who, before she assumed that office, had played a significant role in the government during the Israeli’s smashing victory in the Six-Day War of June, 1967. These two powerful women, who personified their countries, made quite a story.
I landed in Israel just before Christmas and ran into snow when I took a taxi to Jerusalem to make arrangements to see Mrs. Meir. Because of the holidays, the American embassy could find no space for me at any of the hotels. I settled for a room in a former Scotch Presbyterian mission which had been converted (no joke intended) into a motel called “The Scotch House” near Joppa, just south of Tel Aviv.
My room was sparse, more like a monk’s cell, with a cot, a dresser, one dim lamp and no telephone.
I had lost track of time, but among the guests was a group of a dozen nuns from Guinea, a former French colony that became independent only in 1958. They were on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem for it was Christmas Eve, and the bells in the town where Christ is said to have been born would toll at midnight in Manger Square.
They invited me to share the bus ride across Israel through Judaea and what was the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River, part of the lands conquered by the Israelis four years earlier.
It was cold but dry and Bethlehem was crowded with pilgrims and tourists and armed Israeli soldiers. I spent some time browsing in the Arab curio shops in the narrow streets off Manger Square.
Sometime after midnight, I boarded the bus with the nuns for the return ride to Joppa through the desert-like country that had been trod by the ancients. Everyone was tired, but the bus was not one of these modern behemoths and the nuns had to stop for nature’s call.
The Palestinian driver and I smoked as the women disappeared into the brush. Suddenly, on that very clear and starry night, one of them began to sing, and they all joined, in French with a lilting West African accent, for Silent Night which Google reminds me, is “Sainte nuit, Belle nuit, Nuit de Paix...”
It was an unforgettable a moment, a night of perfect peace in that place.
As it is with so many things in that part of the world, the peace was as illusory as a desert mirage. Israel had won a great victory over the combined forces of the most powerful Arab nations, Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Israel had conquered 42,000 square miles and now controlled an area three-and-a-half times its size, including all of Jerusalem and the holiest of places for Jews, Christians and Muslims.
As former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami writes in Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, “A new empire was born in the Middle East with flag of the Star of David being hoisted” from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean to the Suez Canal and the new border with Syria and Lebanon.
Thus, in my travels in Israel during those few days talking with politicians and academics, I found the Israelis insufferable, full of themselves, celebrating what they believed was their country’s final victory, confirmation of their national existence and an end to the Arab threat.
The Israelis were drunk on hubris, Ben-Ami wrote,
“...for which Israel was to pay dearly. Her orgy of political drunkenness and military triumphalism blinded the eyes of their leaders from seeing the real, not the messianic opportunities that her lightning military exploits opened for her.”
But, he added, the Israelis ignored the people they had conquered and the possibilities of dealing with the defeated Arab nations and making a real peace out of the war.
As Ben-Ami wrote,
“The opportunity was missed to turn the tactical victory in war into a major strategic victory for Zionism that could have made the Six Day War into the last major war of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and an avenue for settlement with at least part of the Arab world.”
But what Ben-Ami called Israel’s understandable “siege mentality,” and her dreams of using and acquiring land for “total security” prevented her from seeing what a few people warned me about. For years the Palestinians had been relatively quiet. Now they were an occupied people in lands they lived on for generations. And they would not remain quiet much longer.
The occupiers, whatever their intentions, became the oppressors, for that’s the nature of occupation. It leads to increasing measures of repression, reaction and repression. And the world, including the U.N. and the U.S., have until now refused to recognize any of the territories as part of Israel.
In 1970, the Palestinians exploded into the Black September movement which was expelled from Jordan by King Hussein. That made the Palestinians in exile Israel’s major problem. And the new Palestine Liberation Organization’s guerrilla violence culminated in the massacre of the Israeli Olympians in Munich in 1972.
I came to Israel next in 1973, for as Ben-Ami points out, it was only a matter of time that the Arab nations sought to avenge the humiliation of 1967. I was vacationing in Britain when the inevitable happened: Israel was attacked on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year among Jews – by Egypt to the south, and Syria in the north.
And when I landed in Israel (I caught a ride on an El-Al plane bringing Israelis home from Europe and the U.S. to fight in the war), all that insufferable confidence was gone. Egyptian forces had crossed the Suez Canal and, for the first time, Israel had lost some territory. And Syria threatened to sweep down from the Golan Heights to Galilee.
As it turned out, Israeli forces flanked and virtually trapped the Egyptian army on their side of the canal before a truce was arranged by the U.S. And the Syrian threat on the Golan Heights was turned back; Israel even gained ground. But, as Ben-Ami pointed out, the limited Arab success, Israel’s days of panic and pressure from the U.S., led eventually to an Israeli acceptance of the need to give up land for peace.
Anwar Sadat’s magnanimous visit to Israel produced the Camp David accords and the return to Egypt of the Sinai. I witnessed that peace treaty, negotiated with President Carter and signed at the White House. And I watched another one signed between Israel and King Hussein of Jordan in a gulley between the two countries, with President Clinton presiding.
These treaties are still in force. But there was no peace with the Palestinians whose stones of the Intifada, like those tossed by the biblical David, gave the Goliath played by Israel great pain. It was the only way the weaponless Palestinians could protest the Israeli settlements that were taking away their lands, homes and olive trees.
I spent time in Israel during the years leading to the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, at the end of the first Gulf War. Events, in my mind even now, fall over each other – it was the first time that Israel sat at a table with virtually all her Arab enemies. And under great pressure from the U.S., Israel signed an agreement on the White House lawn to make peace with Yassir Arafat, whose P.L.O. had ended its terrorism.
Alas, the peacemakers, Sadat and Yitsak Rabin, were murdered. Arafat is dead and the Palestinian leaders who have followed seem to have lost their way. Hamas, whose organization had been encouraged by Israel as a religious counterweight to the secular P.L.O., is now Israel’s mortal enemy.
Israel continues to expand its settlements, while seeking its version of peace. Hamas and the Palestinian authority don’t really know the kind of peace they want. This is the story of the Middle East and the seemingly endless and mindless Arab-Israeli conflict: Today’s adversary is tomorrow’s ally. There is no end in sight.
There is a famous story of the frog and the scorpion who make a deal to cross the Jordon River safely. The scorpion will ride on the frog’s back and promises not to sting. But halfway across, the scorpion’s tail stings the frog. And as they both sink, the frog asks, “Why did you do that?.”
“Because it’s my nature,” says the scorpion. “And this is the Middle East.”
But if everything about the conflict is predictably unpredictable, the Holy Land of that Christmas Eve is essentially changeless. Rachel’s tomb is still there, outside Bethlehem. The Cave of the Patriarchs (including Abraham and Isaac) in Hebron is intact, seen after by Muslims.
Bethlehem, a good size city, is a capital of the Palestinian National Authority, such as it is. But Israeli Jews rarely go to there, for they are unwelcome and it could be dangerous. And most of the Palestinian lands are walled off from Israel. The Israelis call it what it is, apartheid.
When my wife Evelyn and I were there last, we could crawl into the place in Bethlehem where it is thought the manger had been. We could visit the Church of the Nativity. And we could browse in the shop I had visited years before. But the peace I had felt there once was nowhere to be found. Not then. Not now.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Dani Ferguson: Santa's Helper